In honor of the paperback release of the Nebula Award-nominated by Charlie Jane Anders, we’re releasing a special extended excerpt.
Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during middle school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one’s peers and families.
But now they’re both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who’s working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world’s magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world’s every-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together—to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.
Charlie Jane Anders’ is a deeply magical, darkly funny examination of life, love, and the apocalypse.
WHEN PATRICIA WAS six years old, she found a wounded bird. The sparrow thrashed on top of a pile of wet red leaves in the crook of two roots, waving its crushed wing. Crying, in a pitch almost too high for Patricia to hear. She looked into the sparrow’s eye, enveloped by a dark stripe, and she saw its fear. Not just fear, but also misery—as if this bird knew it would die soon. Patricia still didn’t understand how the life could just go out of someone’s body forever, but she could tell this bird was fighting against death with everything it had.
Patricia vowed with all her heart to do everything in her power to save this bird. This was what led to Patricia being asked a question with no good answer, which marked her for life.
She scooped up the sparrow with a dry leaf, very gently, and laid it in her red bucket. Rays of the afternoon sun came at the bucket horizontally, bathing the bird in red light so it looked radioactive. The bird was still whipping around, trying to fly with one wing.
“It’s okay,” Patricia told the bird. “I’ve got you. It’s okay.”
Patricia had seen creatures in distress before. Her big sister, Roberta, liked to collect wild animals and play with them. Roberta put frogs into a rusty Cuisinart that their mom had tossed out, and stuck mice into her homemade rocket launcher, to see how far she could shoot them. But this was the first time Patricia looked at a living creature in pain and really saw it, and every time she looked into the bird’s eye she swore harder that this bird was under her protection.
“What’s going on?” asked Roberta, smashing through the branches nearby.
Both girls were pale, with dark brown hair that grew super-straight no matter what you did and nearly button noses. But Patricia was a wild, grubby girl, with a round face, green eyes, and perpetual grass stains on her torn overalls. She was already turning into the girl the other girls wouldn’t sit with, because she was too hyper, made nonsense jokes, and wept when anybody’s balloon (not just her own) got popped. Roberta, meanwhile, had brown eyes, a pointy chin, and absolutely perfect posture when she sat without fidgeting in a grown-up chair and a clean white dress. With both girls, their parents had hoped for a boy and picked out a name in advance. Upon each daughter’s arrival, they’d just stuck an a on the end of the name they already had.
“I found a wounded bird,” Patricia said. “It can’t fly, its wing is ruined.”
“I bet I can make it fly,” Roberta said, and Patricia knew she was talking about her rocket launcher. “Bring it here. I’ll make it fly real good.”
“No!” Patricia’s eyes flooded and she felt short of breath. “You can’t! You can’t!” And then she was running, careening, with the red bucket in one hand. She could hear her sister behind her, smashing branches. She ran faster, back to the house.
Their house had been a spice shop a hundred years ago, and it still smelled of cinnamon and turmeric and saffron and garlic and a little sweat. The perfect hardwood floors had been walked on by visitors from India and China and everywhere, bringing everything spicy in the world. If Patricia closed her eyes and breathed deeply, she could imagine the people unloading wooden foil-lined crates stamped with names of cities like Marrakesh and Bombay. Her parents had read a magazine article about renovating Colonial trade houses and had snapped up this building, and now they were constantly yelling at Patricia not to run indoors or scratch any of the perfect oak furnishings, until their foreheads showed veins. Patricia’s parents were the sort of people who could be in a good mood and angry at almost the same time.
Patricia paused in a small clearing of maples near the back door. “It’s okay,” she told the bird. “I’ll take you home. There’s an old birdcage in the attic. I know where to find it. It’s a nice cage, it has a perch and a swing. I’ll put you in there, I’ll tell my parents. If anything happens to you, I will hold my breath until I faint. I’ll keep you safe. I promise.”
“No,” the bird said. “Please! Don’t lock me up. I would prefer you just kill me now.”
“But,” Patricia said, more startled that the bird was refusing her protection than that he was speaking to her. “I can keep you safe. I can bring you bugs or seeds or whatever.”
“Captivity is worse than death for a bird like me,” the sparrow said. “Listen. You can hear me talking. Right? That means you’re special. Like a witch! Or something. And that means you have a duty to do the right thing. Please.”
“Oh.” This was all a lot for Patricia to take in. She sat down on a particularly large and grumpy tree root, with thick bark that felt a little damp and sort of like sawtooth rocks. She could hear Roberta beating the bushes and the ground with a big Y-shaped stick, over in the next clearing, and she worried about what would happen if Roberta heard them talking. “But,” Patricia said, quieter so that Roberta would not hear. “But your wing is hurt, right, and I need to take care of you. You’re stuck.”
“Well.” The bird seemed to think about this for a moment. “You don’t know how to heal a broken wing, do you?” He flapped his bad wing. He’d looked just sort of gray-brown at first, but up close she could see brilliant red and yellow streaks along his wings, with a milk-white belly and a dark, slightly barbed beak.
“No. I don’t know anything. I’m sorry!”
“Okay. So you could just put me up in a tree and hope for the best, but I’ll probably get eaten or starve to death.” His head bobbed. “Or … I mean. There is one thing.”
“What?” Patricia looked at her knees, through the thready holes in her denim overalls, and thought her kneecaps looked like weird eggs. “What?” She looked over at the sparrow in the bucket, who was in turn studying her with one eye, as if trying to decide whether to trust her.
“Well,” the bird chirped. “I mean, you could take me to the Parliament of Birds. They can fix a wing, no problem. And if you’re going to be a witch, then you should meet them anyway. They’re the smartest birds around. They always meet at the most majestic tree in the forest. Most of them are over five years old.”
“I’m older than that,” Patricia said. “I’m almost seven, in four months. Or five.” She heard Roberta getting closer, so she snatched up the bucket and took off running, deeper into the woods.
The sparrow, whose name was Dirrpidirrpiwheepalong, or Dirrp for short, tried to give Patricia directions to the Parliament of Birds as best he could, but he couldn’t see where he was going from inside the bucket. And his descriptions of the landmarks to watch for made no sense to Patricia. The whole thing reminded her of one of the Cooperation exercises at school, which she was hopeless at ever since her only friend, Kathy, moved away. At last, Patricia perched Dirrp on her finger, like Snow White, and he bounced onto her shoulder.
The sun went down. The forest was so thick, Patricia could barely see the stars or the moon, and she tumbled a few times, scraping her hands and her knees and getting dirt all over her new overalls. Dirrp clung to the shoulder strap of her overalls so hard, his talons pinched her and almost broke her skin. He was less and less sure where they were going, although he was pretty sure the majestic Tree was near some kind of stream or maybe a field. He definitely thought it was a very thick tree, set apart from other trees, and if you looked the right way the two big branches of the Parliamentary Tree fanned like wings. Also, he could tell the direction pretty easily by the position of the sun. If the sun had still been out.
“We’re lost in the woods,” Patricia said with a shiver. “I’m probably going to be eaten by a bear.”
“I don’t think there are bears in this forest,” Dirrp said. “And if one attacks us, you could try talking to it.”
“So I can talk to all animals now?” Patricia could see this coming in useful, like if she could convince Mary Fenchurch’s poodle to bite her the next time Mary was mean to Patricia. Or if the next nanny her parents hired owned a pet.
“I don’t know,” Dirrp said. “Nobody ever explains anything to me.”
Patricia decided there was nothing to do but climb the nearest tree and see if she could see anything from it. Like a road. Or a house. Or some landmark that Dirrp might recognize.
It was much colder on top of the big old oak that Patricia managed to jungle-gym her way up. The wind soaked into her as if it were water instead of just air. Dirrp covered his face with his one good wing and had to be coaxed to look around. “Oh, okay,” he quavered, “let me see if I can make sense of this landscape. This is not really what you call a bird’s-eye view. A real bird’s-eye view would be much, much higher than this. This is a squirrel’s-eye view, at best.”
Dirrp jumped off and scampered around the treetop until he spotted what he thought might be one of the signpost trees leading to the Parliamentary Tree. “We’re not too far.” He sounded perkier already. “But we should hurry. They don’t always meet all night, unless they’re debating a tricky measure. Or having Question Time. But you’d better hope it’s not Question Time.”
“What’s Question Time?”
“You don’t want to know,” Dirrp said.
Patricia was finding it much harder to get down from the treetop than it was to get up, which seemed unfair. She kept almost losing her grip, and the drop was nearly a dozen feet.
“Hey, it’s a bird!” a voice said from the darkness just as Patricia reached the ground. “Come here, bird. I only want to bite you.”
“Oh no,” Dirrp said.
“I promise I won’t play with you too much,” the voice said. “It’ll be fun. You’ll see!”
“Who is that?” Patricia asked.
“Tommington,” Dirrp said. “He’s a cat. He lives in a house with people, but he comes into the forest and kills a lot of my friends. The Parliament is always debating what to do about him.”
“Oh,” Patricia said. “I’m not scared of a little kitty.”
Tommington jumped, pushing off a big log, and landed on Patricia’s back, like a missile with fur. And sharp claws. Patricia screeched and nearly fell on her face. “Get off me!” she said.
“Give me the bird!” Tommington said.
The white-bellied black cat weighed almost as much as Patricia. He bared his teeth and hissed in Patricia’s ear as he scratched at her.
Patricia did the only thing that came to mind: She clamped one hand over poor Dirrp, who was hanging on for dear life, and threw her head forward and down until she was bent double and her free hand was almost touching her toes. The cat went flying off her back, haranguing as he fell.
“Shut up and leave us alone,” Patricia said.
“You can talk. I never met a human who could talk before. Give me that bird!”
“No,” Patricia said. “I know where you live. I know your owner. If you are naughty, I will tell. I will tell on you.” She was kind of fibbing. She didn’t know who owned Tommington, but her mother might. And if Patricia came home covered with bites and scratches her mother would be mad. At her but also at Tommington’s owner. You did not want Patricia’s mom mad at you, because she got mad for a living and was really good at it.
Tommington had landed on his toes, his fur all spiked and his ears like arrowheads. “Give me that bird!” he shrieked.
“No!” Patricia said. “Bad cat!” She threw a rock at Tommington. He yowled. She threw another rock. He ran away.
“Come on,” Patricia said to Dirrp, who didn’t have much choice in the matter. “Let’s get out of here.”
“We can’t let that cat know where the Parliament is,” Dirrp whispered. “If he follows us, he could find the Tree. That would be a disaster. We should wander in circles, as though we are lost.”
“We are lost,” Patricia said.
“I have a pretty reasonably shrewd idea of where we go from here,” said Dirrp. “At least, a sort of a notion.”
Something rustled in the low bushes just beyond the biggest tree, and for a second the moonlight glinted off a pair of eyes, framed by white fur, and a collar tag.
“We are finished!” Dirrp whispered in a pitiful warble. “That cat can stalk us forever. You might as well give me to your sister. There is nothing to be done.”
“Wait a minute.” Patricia was remembering something about cats and trees. She had seen it in a picture book. “Hang on tight, bird. You hang on tight, okay?” Dirrp’s only response was to cling harder than ever to Patricia’s overalls. Patricia looked at a few trees until she found one with sturdy enough branches, and climbed. She was more tired than the first time, and her feet slipped a couple of times. One time, she pulled herself up to the next branch with both hands and then looked at her shoulder and didn’t see Dirrp. She lost her breath until she saw his head poke up nervously to look over her shoulder, and she realized he’d just been clinging to the strap farther down on her back.
At last they were on top of the tree, which swayed a little in the wind. Tommington was not following them. Patricia looked around twice in all directions before she saw a round fur shape scampering on the ground nearby.
“Stupid cat!” she shouted. “Stupid cat! You can’t get us!”
“The first person I ever met who could talk,” Tommington yowled. “And you think I’m stupid? Grraah! Taste my claws!”
The cat, who’d probably had lots of practice climbing one of those carpeted perches at home, ran up the side of the tree, pounced on one branch and then a higher branch. Before Patricia and Dirrp even knew what was going on, the cat was halfway up.
“We’re trapped! What were you thinking?” Dirrp sang out.
Patricia waited until Tommington had reached the top, then swung down the other side of the tree, dropping from branch to branch so fast she almost pulled her arm out, and then landed on the ground on her butt with an oof.
“Hey,” Tommington said from the top of the tree, where his big eyes caught the moonlight. “Where did you go? Come back here!”
“You are a mean cat,” Patricia said. “You are a bully, and I’m going to leave you up there. You should think about what you’ve been doing. It’s not nice to be mean. I will make sure someone comes and gets you tomorrow. But you can stay up there for now. I have to go do something. Goodbye.”
“Wait!” Tommington said. “I can’t stay up here. It’s too high! I’m scared! Come back!”
Patricia didn’t look back. She heard Tommington yelling for a long time, until they crossed a big line of trees. They got lost twice more, and at one point Dirrp began weeping into his good wing, before they stumbled across the track that led to the secret Tree. And from there, it was just a steep backbreaking climb, up a slope studded with hidden roots.
Patricia saw the top of the Parliamentary Tree first, and then it seemed to grow out of the landscape, becoming taller and more overwhelming as she approached. The Tree was sort of bird shaped, as Dirrp had said, but instead of feathers it had dark spiky branches with fronds that hung to the ground. It loomed like the biggest church in the world. Or a castle. Patricia had never seen a castle, but she guessed they would rise over you like that.
A hundred pairs of wings fluttered at their arrival and then stopped. A huge collection of shapes shrank into the Tree.
“It’s okay,” Dirrp called out. “She’s with me. I hurt my wing. She brought me here to get help.”
The only response, for a long time, was silence. Then an eagle raised itself up, from near the top of the Tree, a white-headed bird with a hooked beak and pale, probing eyes. “You should not have brought her here,” the eagle said.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Dirrp said. “But it’s okay. She can talk. She can actually talk.” Dirrp pivoted, to speak into Patricia’s ear. “Show them. Show them!”
“Uh, hi,” Patricia said. “I’m sorry if we bothered you. But we need your help!”
At the sound of a human talking, all of the birds went into a huge frenzy of squawking and shouting until a big owl near the eagle banged a rock against the branch and shouted, “Order, order.”
The eagle leaned her white fluffy head forward and studied Patricia. “So you’re to be the new witch in our forest, are you?”
“I’m not a witch.” Patricia chewed her thumb. “I’m a princess.”
“You had better be a witch.” The eagle’s great dark body shifted on the branch. “Because if you’re not, then Dirrp has broken the law by bringing you to us. And he’ll need to be punished. We certainly won’t help fix his wing, in that case.”
“Oh,” Patricia said. “Then I’m a witch. I guess.”
“Ah.” The eagle’s hooked beak clicked. “But you will have to prove it. Or both you and Dirrp will be punished.”
Patricia did not like the sound of that. Various other birds piped up, saying, “Point of order!” and a fidgety crow was listing important areas of Parliamentary procedure. One of them was so insistent that the eagle was forced to yield the branch to the Honorable Gentleman from Wide Oak—who then forgot what he was going to say.
“So how do I prove that I’m a witch?” Patricia wondered if she could run away. Birds flew pretty fast, right? She probably couldn’t get away from a whole lot of birds, if they were mad at her. Especially magical birds.
“Well.” A giant turkey in one of the lower branches, with wattles that looked a bit like a judge’s collar, pulled himself upright and appeared to consult some markings scratched into the side of the Tree before turning and giving a loud, learned “glrp” sound. “Well,” he said again, “there are several methods that are recognized in the literature. Some of them are trials of death, but we might skip those for the moment perhaps. There are also some rituals, but you need to be of a certain age to do those. Oh yes, here’s a good one. We could ask her the Endless Question.”
“Ooh, the Endless Question,” a grouse said. “That’s exciting.”
“I haven’t heard anyone answer the Endless Question before,” said a goshawk. “This is more fun than Question Time.”
“Umm,” said Patricia. “Is the Endless Question going to take a long time? Because I bet my mom and dad are worried about me.” It was hitting her all over again that she was up way past her bedtime and she hadn’t had dinner and she was out in the middle of the freezing woods, not to mention she was still lost.
“Too late,” the grouse said.
“We’re asking it,” said the eagle.
“Here is the question,” said the turkey. “Is a tree red?”
“Uh,” Patricia said. “Can you give me a hint? Umm. Is that ‘red’ like the color?” The birds didn’t answer. “Can you give me more time? I promise I’ll answer, I just need more time to think. Please. I need more time. Please?”
The next thing Patricia knew, her father scooped her up in his arms. He was wearing his sandpaper shirt and his red beard was in her face and he kept half-dropping her, because he was trying to draw complicated valuation formulas with his hands while carrying her. But it was still so warm and perfect to be carried home by her daddy that Patricia didn’t care.
“I found her right on the outskirts of the woods near the house,” her father told her mother. “She must have gotten lost and found her own way out. It’s a miracle she’s okay.”
“You nearly scared us to death. We’ve been searching, along with all of the neighbors. I swear you must think my time is worthless. You’ve made me blow a deadline for a management productivity analysis.” Patricia’s mother had her dark hair pulled back, which made her chin and nose look pointier. Her bony shoulders hunched, almost up to her antique earrings.
“I just want to understand what this is about,” Patricia’s father said. “What did we do that made you want to act out in this way?” Roderick Delfine was a real-estate genius who often worked from home and looked after the girls when they were between nannies, sitting in a high chair at the breakfast bar with his wide face buried in equations. Patricia herself was pretty good at math, except when she thought too much about the wrong things, like the fact that the number 3 looked like an 8 cut in half, so two 3s really ought to be 8.
“She’s testing us,” Patricia’s mother said. “She’s testing our authority, because we’ve gone too easy on her.” Belinda Delfine had been a gymnast, and her own parents had put several oceans’ worth of pressure on her to excel at that—but she’d never understood why gymnastics needed to have judges, instead of measuring everything using cameras and maybe lasers. She’d met Roderick after he started coming to all her meets, and they’d invented a totally objective gymnastics measuring system that nobody had ever adopted.
“Look at her. She’s just laughing at us,” Patricia’s mother said, as if Patricia herself weren’t standing right there. “We need to show her we mean business.”
Patricia hadn’t thought she was laughing, at all, but now she was terrified she looked that way. She tried extra hard to fix a serious expression on her face.
“I would never run away like that,” said Roberta, who was supposed to be leaving the three of them alone in the kitchen but had come in to get a glass of water, and gloat.
They locked Patricia in her room for a week, sliding food under her door. The bottom of the door tended to scrape off the top layer of whatever type of food it was. Like if it was a sandwich, the topmost piece of bread was taken away by the door. You don’t really want to eat a sandwich after your door has had the first bite, but if you get hungry enough you will. “Think about what you’ve done,” the parents said.
“I get all her desserts for the next seven years,” Roberta said.
“No you don’t!” said Patricia.
The whole experience with the Parliament of Birds became a sort of blur to Patricia. She remembered it mostly in dreams and fragments. Once or twice, in school, she had a flashback of a bird asking her something. But she couldn’t quite remember what the question had been, or whether she’d answered it. She had lost the ability to understand the speech of animals while she was locked in her bedroom.
HE HATED TO be called Larry. Couldn’t stand it. And so, of course, everybody called him Larry, even his parents sometimes. “My name is Laurence,” he would insist, looking at the floor. “With a U, not a W.” Laurence knew who he was and what he was about, but the world refused to recognize.
At school, the other kids called him Larry Barry or Larry Fairy. Or, when he got mad, Scary Larry, except that this was a rare display of irony among his troglodyte classmates, since, in fact, Larry was not scary at all. Usually, this was preceded by an “Ooh,” just to drive the joke home. Not that Laurence wanted to be scary. He just wanted to be left alone and maybe have people get his name right if they had to talk to him.
Laurence was a small kid for his age, with hair the color of late-autumn leaves, a long chin, and arms like snail necks. His parents bought him clothes one and a half sizes too big, because they kept thinking he would hit a growth spurt any day, and they were trying to save money. So he was forever tripping over his too-long, too-baggy jeans legs, his hands vanishing inside his jersey sleeves. Even if Laurence had wanted to present an intimidating figure, his lack of visible hands and feet would have made it difficult.
The only bright spots in Laurence’s life were ultraviolent PlayStation games, in which he vaporized thousands of imaginary opponents. But then Laurence found other games on the internet—puzzles that took him hours to figure out and MMOs, where Laurence waged intricate campaigns. Before long, Laurence was writing his own code.
Laurence’s dad had been pretty great with computers, once. But then he’d grown up and gotten a job in the insurance industry, where he still needed a head for numbers, but it wasn’t anything you’d want to hear about. Now he was always freaking out that he was going to lose his job and then they would all starve. Laurence’s mom had been working on a PhD in biology, before she’d gotten pregnant and her thesis advisor had quit, and then she’d taken some time off and never quite gone back to school.
Both parents worried endlessly about Laurence spending every waking minute in front of a computer and turning out socially dysfunctional, like his Uncle Davis. So they forced Laurence to take an endless succession of classes designed to make him Get Out of the House: judo, modern dance, fencing, water polo for beginners, swimming, improv comedy, boxing, skydiving, and, worst of all, Wilderness Survival Weekends. Each class only forced Laurence to wear another baggy uniform while the kids shouted, “Larry, Larry, Quite Contrary!” and held him underwater, and threw him out of the airplane early, and forced him to do improv while holding him upside down by his ankles.
Laurence wondered if there was some other kid, named Larry, who would have a “let’s go” attitude about being dropped on a mountainside somewhere. Larry might be the alternate-universe version of Laurence, and maybe all Laurence needed to do was harness all the solar energy that hit the Earth during a period of five minutes or so and he could generate a localized space-time fissure in his bathtub and go kidnap Larry from the other universe. So Larry could go out and get tormented instead, while Laurence stayed home. The hard part would be figuring out a way to poke a hole in the universe before the judo tournament in two weeks’ time.
“Hey, Larry Fairy,” Brad Chomner said at school, “think fast.” Which was one of those phrases that never made sense to Laurence: People who told you to “think fast” were always those who thought much more slowly than you did. And they only said it when they were about to do something to contribute to the collective mental inertia. And yet Laurence had never come up with the perfect comeback to “Think fast,” and he wouldn’t have time to say whatever it was, since something unpleasant usually hit him a second later. Laurence had to go clean himself up.
One day, Laurence found some schematics on the internet, which he printed out and reread a hundred times before he started figuring out what they meant. And once he combined them with a solar-battery design that he found buried in an old message-board post, he started to have something. He stole his dad’s old waterproof wristwatch and combined it with some parts he scavenged from a bunch of microwave ovens and cell phones. And a few odds and ends from the electronics store. At the end of all this, he had a working time machine that fit on his wrist.
The device was simple: There was just one small button. Any time you pressed the button, you would jump forward in time two seconds. That was all it could do. There was no way to extend the range or go backwards. Laurence tried filming himself with his webcam and found that when he pressed the button, he did sort of disappear for an eyeblink or two. But you could only use it once in a while, or you got the worst head rush of your life.
A few days later, Brad Chomner said, “Think fast,” and Laurence did think fast. He hit the button on his wrist. The white blob that had been hurtling in his direction landed in front of him with a splat. Everybody looked at Laurence, and at the soggy toilet paper roll melting into the floor tiles, and then back at Laurence. Laurence put his “watch” into sleep mode, meaning it wouldn’t work for anybody else who tinkered with it. But he needn’t have worried—everybody just thought Laurence had ducked, with superhuman reflexes. Mr. Grandison came huffing out of his classroom and asked who threw this toilet paper, and everybody said it was Laurence.
Being able to skip two seconds could be quite useful—if you picked the right two seconds. Like when you’re at the dinner table with your parents and your mom has just said something sarcastic about your dad being passed over for another promotion, and you just know your father is about to let out a brief but lethal burst of resentment. You need godlike timing to pick the exact instant when the barb is being launched. There are a hundred leading indicators: the scent of overcooked casserole, the sensation of the room’s temperature dropping slightly. The ticking of the stove, powering down. You can leave reality behind and reappear for the aftermath.
But there were plenty of other occasions. Like when Al Danes flung him off the jungle gym onto the playground sand. He dematerialized just as he landed. Or when some popular girl was about to come up and pretend to be nice to him, just so she could laugh about it to her friends as they walked away. Or just when a teacher started an especially dull rant. Even shaving off two seconds made a difference. Nobody seemed to notice that he flickered out of being, maybe because you had to be looking right at him and nobody ever was. If only Laurence could have used the device more than a few times a day without the headaches.
Besides, jumping forward in time just underscored the basic problem: Laurence had nothing to look forward to.
At least, that’s how Laurence felt, until he saw the picture of the sleek shape, glinting in the sunlight. He stared at the tapering curves, the beautiful nose cone, and the powerful engines, and something awoke inside him. A feeling he hadn’t experienced in ages: excitement. This privately funded, DIY spaceship was going up into orbit, thanks to maverick tech investor Milton Dirth and a few dozen of his maker friends and MIT students. The launch would happen in a few days, near the MIT campus, and Laurence had to be there. He hadn’t ever wanted anything the way he wanted to see this for himself.
“Dad,” Laurence said. He had already gotten off to a bad start: His father was staring at his laptop, cupping his hands as though trying to protect his mustache, the ends of which seeped into the heavy lines around his mouth. Laurence had picked a bad time to do this. Too late. He was committed. “Dad,” Laurence said again. “There’s a rocket test, sort of, on Tuesday. Here’s the article about it.”
Laurence’s dad started to brush him off, but then some half-forgotten resolution to make time for parenting kicked in. “Oh.” He kept looking back at his laptop, which had a spreadsheet on it, until he slammed it shut and gave Laurence as much attention as he could call undivided. “Yeah. I heard about that. It’s that Dirth guy. Huh. Some kind of lightweight prototype, right? That could be used to land on the dark side of the Moon eventually. I heard about that.” Then Laurence’s dad was joking about an old band called Floyd and marijuana and ultraviolet light.
“Yeah.” Laurence cut into his dad’s flow before the conversation got away from him. “That’s right. Milton Dirth. And I really want to go see it. This is like a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I thought maybe we could make it a father-son thing.” His dad couldn’t turn down a father-son thing, or it would be like admitting to being a bad father.
“Oh.” His dad had an embarrassed look in his deep-set eyes, behind his square glasses. “You want to go? This coming Tuesday?”
“But … I mean, I have work. There’s a project, and I have to ace this one, or it’s going to look bad. And I know your mother would be upset if we just took you out of school like that. Plus, I mean, you can watch it on the computer. There’ll be a webcam feed or something. You know that these things are boring in person. It’s a lot of standing around, and they end up delaying it half the time. You won’t even see anything if you’re there. You’ll get a way better view via the web.” Laurence’s dad sounded as though he was trying to convince himself as much as his son.
Laurence nodded. There was no point in arguing, once his father had started piling on reasons. So Laurence said nothing, until he could safely back away. Then he went up to his room and looked at bus schedules.
A few days later, while his parents were still asleep, Laurence tiptoed downstairs and found his mom’s purse on the little side table near the front door. He opened the clasp as if a live animal could jump out. Every noise in the house sounded too loud: the coffeemaker heating up, and the refrigerator buzzing. Laurence found a leather wallet inside the purse and pulled out fifty bucks. He had never stolen before. He kept expecting police officers to burst in the front door and cuff him.
The second phase of Laurence’s plan involved going face-to-face with his mom right after he’d robbed her. He caught up with her when she’d just woken up, still bleary in her marigold robe, and told her there was a school field trip and he needed her to write a note saying it was okay for him to go. (He had already figured out a great universal truth, that people never asked for documentation of anything, as long as you asked them for documentation first.) Laurence’s mom pulled out a stubby ergonomic pen and scrawled a permission slip. Her manicure was peeling. Laurence said it might be an overnight trip, in which case he would call. She nodded, bright red curls bouncing.
Walking to the bus stop, Laurence had a nervous moment. He was going on a big trip on his own, nobody knew where he was, and he only had fifty dollars in his pocket, plus a fake Roman coin. What if someone jumped out from behind the Dumpsters by the strip mall and attacked Laurence? What if someone dragged him into their truck and drove him hundreds of miles before changing his name to Darryl and forcing him to live as their homeschooled son? Laurence had seen a TV movie about this.
But then Laurence remembered the wilderness weekends, and the fact that he’d found fresh water and edible roots, and even scared off this one chipmunk that had seemed intent on fighting him for the trail mix. He’d hated every second, but if he could survive that, then he could handle taking a bus into Cambridge and figuring out how to get to the launch site. He was Laurence of Ellenburg, and he was unflappable. Laurence had just figured out that “unflappable” did not have anything to do with whether people could mess up your clothing, and now he used that word as much as he could.
“I am unflappable,” Laurence told the bus driver. Who shrugged, as if he’d thought so too, once upon a time, until someone had flapped him.
Laurence had packed a bunch of supplies, but he’d only brought one book, a slender paperback about the last great interplanetary war. Laurence finished that book in an hour, and then he had nothing to do but stare out the window. The trees along the highway seemed to slow down as the bus passed alongside them, then sped up again. A kind of time dilation.
The bus arrived in Boston, and then Laurence had to find the T station. He walked into Chinatown, where there were people selling stuff on the street and restaurants with enormous fish tanks in their windows, as though the fish wanted to inspect potential customers before they would be allowed in. And then Laurence was crossing the water and the Museum of Science was gleaming in the morning sun, opening its steel-and-glass arms to him and brandishing its Planetarium.
It wasn’t until Laurence reached the MIT campus and he was standing in front of the Legal Sea Foods, trying to make sense of the map of coded buildings, that he realized he had no idea how to find where this rocket launch was happening.
Laurence had imagined he would arrive at MIT and it would look like a bigger version of Murchison Elementary School, with front steps and a bulletin board where people posted upcoming activities. Laurence couldn’t even get into the first couple buildings he tried. He did find a board where people had posted notices for lectures, and dating advice, and the Ig Nobel Awards. But no mention of how to watch the big launch.
Laurence ended up in Au Bon Pain, eating a corn muffin and feeling like a dope. If he could get on the internet, maybe he could figure out what to do next, but his parents wouldn’t let him have a phone yet, much less a laptop. The café was playing mournful oldies: Janet Jackson saying she got so lonely, Britney Spears confessing she did it again. He cooled each sip of hot chocolate with a long breath, while he tried to strategize.
Laurence’s book was gone. The one he’d been reading on the bus. He had put it on the table near his muffin, and now it was gone. No, wait—it was in the hands of a woman in her twenties, with long brown braids, a wide face, and a red sweater that was so fuzzy it practically had hair. She had callused hands and work boots. She was turning Laurence’s book over and over in her hands. “Sorry,” she said. “I remember this book. I read it like three times in high school. This is the one with the binary star system that goes to war with the AIs who live in the asteroid belt. Right?”
“Um, yeah,” Laurence said.
“Good choice.” Now she was checking out Laurence’s wrist. “Hey. That’s a two-second time machine, isn’t it?”
“Um, yeah,” Laurence said.
“Cool. I have one too.” She showed him. It looked about the same as Laurence’s, except it was a little smaller and it had a calculator. “It took me ages to figure out those diagrams online. It’s like a little test of engineering skill and moxie and stuff, and in the end you get a little device with a thousand uses. Mind if I sit down? I’m standing over you and it makes me feel like an authority figure.”
Laurence said that was okay. He was having a hard time contributing to this conversation. The woman sat in front of him and the remains of his muffin. Now that he was at eye level with her, she was sort of pretty. She had a cute nose and round chin. She reminded him of a Social Studies teacher he’d had a crush on last year.
“I’m Isobel,” said the woman. “I’m a rocket scientist.” It turned out she’d shown up for the big rocket launch, but it was delayed because of some last-minute problems and weather and stuff. “It’ll probably be in a few days. You know how these things go.”
“Oh.” Laurence looked into his hot-chocolate foam. So that was it. He wasn’t going to get to see anything. Somehow he’d let himself believe that if he saw a rocket blast off, something that had been right in front of him and was now free of our planet’s gravity, he would be set free, too. He could go back to school and it wouldn’t matter because he’d been connected to something that was in outer space.
Now he was just going to be the freak who ditched school for nothing. He looked at the cover of the paperback, which had a painting of a lumpy spaceship and a naked woman with eyes for breasts. He didn’t start to cry or anything, but he kind of wanted to. The paperback cover said: “THEY WENT TO THE ENDS OF THE UNIVERSE—TO STOP A GALACTIC DISASTER!”
“Drat,” Laurence said. “Thanks for letting me know.”
“No problem,” Isobel said. She told him more about the rocket launch and just how revolutionary this new design was, stuff he already knew, and then she noticed he was looking miserable. “Hey, don’t worry. It’s just delayed a few days.”
“Yeah, but,” Laurence said, “I won’t be able to be here then.”
“I will be otherwise occupied. I have a prior engagement.” Laurence stammered a little. He kneaded the edge of the table, so the skin on his hot chocolate grew ridges.
“You must be a busy man,” Isobel said. “It sounds as though you have a packed schedule.”
“Actually,” Laurence said. “Every day is the same as every other day. Except for today.” And now he did start to cry. Goddamn it.
“Hey.” Isobel abandoned her chair opposite him and came to sit next to him. “Hey. Hey. It’s okay. Listen, do your parents know where you are?”
“Not…” Laurence sniffled. “Not as such.” He wound up telling her the whole deal, how he’d stolen fifty bucks from his mom, how he’d ditched school and taken the bus and the T. As he told Isobel, he started to feel bad for making his parents worry, but also he knew with increasing certainty that this stunt would not be repeatable. Not a few days from now, at any rate.
“Okay,” Isobel said. “Wow. Well, I guess I oughta call your parents. It’ll take them a while to get here, though. Especially with the confusing directions I’m going to give them for getting to the launch site.”
“Launch site? But…”
“Since that’s where you’re going to be, by the time they arrive.” She patted Laurence’s shoulder. He had stopped crying, thank god, and was pulling himself back into shape. “Come on, I’m going to show you the rocket. I’ll give you the tour, and introduce you to some of the people.”
She stood up and offered Laurence her hand. He took it.
And that was how Laurence got to meet a dozen or so of the coolest rocket nerds on Earth. Isobel drove him there in her tobacco-scented red Mustang, and Laurence’s feet were buried under Frito bags. Laurence heard MC Frontalot for the first time on her car stereo. “Have you ever read Heinlein? Maybe a little grown-up, but I bet you could handle his juveniles. Here.” She dug around in the backseat and handed him a battered paperback called Have Space Suit—Will Travel, which had a pleasingly lurid cover. She said he could keep it, she had another copy.
They drove along Memorial Drive and then through an endless series of identical highways and switchbacks and tunnels, and Laurence realized Isobel was right: His parents would get lost several times trying to come pick him up, even if she gave them perfect, nonconfusing directions. They always complained that driving in Boston was asking for it. The afternoon grew duller as clouds set in, but Laurence didn’t care.
“Behold,” Isobel said, “a single-stage Earth-to-orbit rocket. I drove all the way from Virginia just to help with this. My boyfriend is crazy jealous.”
It was two or three times Laurence’s size, housed in a barn near the water. It glimmered, its pale metal shell catching the streaks of light through the barn windows. Isobel walked Laurence around it, showing him all the cool features, including the carbon nanofiber insulation around the fuel systems and the lightweight silicate/organic polymer casing on the actual engines.
Laurence reached out and touched the rocket, feeling the dimpled skin with his fingertips. People started wandering up, demanding to know who this kid was and why he was touching their precious rocket.
“That’s delicate equipment.” A tight-lipped man in a turtleneck sweater folded his arms.
“We can’t have just random kids running around our rocket barn,” a small woman in overalls said.
“Laurence,” Isobel said. “Show them.” He knew what she meant.
He reached down to his right wrist with his left hand and pressed the little button. He felt the familiar sensation, like a skipped heartbeat or a double breath, that lasted no time at all. And then it was two seconds later, and he was still standing next to a beautiful rocket in a ring of people, who were all staring at him. Everybody clapped. Laurence noticed they were all wearing things on their wrists too, like this was a trend. Or a badge.
After that, they treated him like one of them. He had conquered a small piece of time, and they were conquering a small piece of space. They understood, as he did, that this was a down payment. One day, they would own a much bigger share of the cosmos, or their descendants would. You celebrated the small victories, and you dreamed of the big ones to come.
“Hey kid,” one hairy guy in jeans and sandals said. “Check out what I did with this thruster design. It’s pretty sweet.”
“What we did,” Isobel corrected him.
Turtleneck Guy was older, in his thirties or forties, maybe even fifties, with thinning salt-and-pepper hair and big eyebrows. He kept asking Laurence questions and making notes on his phone. He asked Laurence to spell his name, twice. “Remind me to look you up on your eighteenth birthday, kid,” he said. Someone brought Laurence a soda and pizza.
By the time Laurence’s parents arrived, boiling in their own skins after having to figure out the Turnpike and Storrow Drive and the tunnels and everything, Laurence had become the mascot of the Single-Stage Orbital Rocket Gang. On the long drive home, Laurence tuned out his parents explaining to him that life isn’t an adventure, for chrissake, life is a long slog and a series of responsibilities and demands. When Laurence was old enough to do what he liked, he would be old enough to understand he couldn’t do what he liked.
The sun went down. The family stopped for burgers and more lecturing. Laurence kept sneaking looks under the table at his propped-open copy of Have Space Suit—Will Travel. He was already halfway through the book.
THE CLASSROOMS ON the western side of Canterbury Academy’s pale cement mausoleum had windows facing the parking lot, the sports fields, and the two-lane highway. But the east windows looked down a muddy slope to a stream, beyond which an uneven fringe of trees shivered in the September wind. In the school’s stale-marshmallow-scented air, Patricia could look east and imagine running wild.
The first week of school, Patricia smuggled an oak leaf in her skirt pocket—the nearest thing she had to a talisman, which she touched until it broke into crumbs. All through Math and English, her two classes with views of the east, she watched the stub of forest. And wished she could escape there and go fulfill her destiny as a witch, instead of sitting and memorizing old speeches by Rutherford B. Hayes. Her skin crawled under her brand-new training bra, stiff sweater, and school jumper, while around her kids texted and chattered: Is Casey Hamilton going to ask Traci Burt out? Who tried what over the summer? Patricia rocked her chair up and down, up and down, until it struck the floor with a clang that startled everyone at her group table.
Seven years had passed since some birds had told Patricia she was special. Since then, she’d tried every spellbook and every mystical practice on the internet. She’d misplaced herself in the woods over and over until she knew by heart every way to get lost. She carried a first-aid kit, in case she met any more injured creatures. But no wild things ever spoke, and nothing magical ever happened. As if the whole thing had been some kind of prank, or she’d failed a test without knowing.
Patricia walked through the playground after lunch with her face upcast, trying to keep pace with an unkindness of ravens passing over the school. The ravens gossiped among themselves, without letting Patricia in on their conversation—just like the kids at this school, not that Patricia cared.
She’d tried to make friends, because she’d promised her mom (and witches kept their promises, she guessed)—but she was joining this school in the eighth grade, after everyone else had been here a couple years. Just yesterday, she’d stood at the girls’ room sink next to Macy Firestone and her friends as Macy obsessed about Brent Harper blowing her off at lunch. Macy’s bright lip gloss perfectly set off her Creamsicle hair dye. Patricia, coating her hands with oily-green fake soap, had been seized by a conviction that she, too, ought to say something funny and supportive about the appeal, and yet the tragic insufficiency, of Brent Harper, who had twinkly eyes and moussed-up hair. So she’d stammered that Brent Harper was The Worst—and at once she had girls on both sides of her, demanding to know exactly what her problem was with Brent Harper. What had Brent ever done to her? Carrie Danning spat so hard, her perfect blond hair almost lost a barrette.
The ravens flew in no formation Patricia could discern, even though most of the school’s lessons, this first week, had been about finding patterns in everything. Patterns were how you answered standardized-test questions, how you committed large blocks of text to memory, and ultimately how you created structure in your life. (This was the famous Saarinian Program.) But Patricia looked at the ravens, loquacious in their hurry to go nowhere, and could find no sense to any of it. They retraced their path, as if they were going to notice Patricia after all, then looped back toward the road.
What was the point of telling Patricia she was a witch, and then leaving her alone? For years?
Chasing the ravens, Patricia forgot to look down, until she collided with someone. She felt the impact and heard the yelp of distress before she saw whom she’d run over: a gangly boy with sandy hair and an oversized chin, who’d fallen against the chicken-wire fence at the playground’s edge and rebounded onto the grass. He pulled himself upright. “Why the hell don’t you look where you’re—” He glanced at something on his left wrist that wasn’t a watch, and cursed way too loud.
“What is it?” Patricia said.
“You broke my time machine.” He yanked it off his wrist and showed her.
“You’re Larry, right?” Patricia looked at the device, which was definitely broken. There was a jagged crack in its casing and a sour odor coming from inside it. “I’m really sorry about your thing. Can you get another? I can totally pay for it. Or my parents can, I guess.” She was thinking that her mom would love that, another disaster to make up for.
“Buy another time machine.” Larry snorted. “You’re going to, what, just walk down to Best Buy and get a time machine off the rack?” He had a faint scent of cranberries, maybe from some body spray or something.
“Don’t be sarcastic,” Patricia said. “Sarcasm is for feeble people.” She hadn’t meant that to rhyme, plus it had sounded more profound in her head.
“Sorry.” He squinted at the wreckage, then carefully unpeeled the strap from his bony wrist. “It can be repaired, I guess. I’m Laurence, by the way. Nobody calls me Larry.”
“Patricia.” Laurence held out his hand and she hoisted it three times. “So was that actually a time machine?” she asked. “You’re not joking or whatever?”
“Yeah. Sort of. It wasn’t that great. I was going to toss it out soon in any case. It was supposed to help me escape from all this. But instead, all it did was turn me into a one-trick pony.”
“Better than being a no-trick pony.” Patricia looked up again at the sky. The ravens were long gone, and all she saw was a single slowly disintegrating cloud.
* * *
AFTER THAT, PATRICIA saw Laurence around. He was in some of Patricia’s classes. She noticed that Laurence had fresh poison-ivy scars on both skinny arms and a red bite on his ankle that he kept raising his pant leg to inspect during English class. His knapsack had a compass and map spilling out of the front pouches, and grass and dirt stains along its underside.
A few days after she wrecked his time machine, she saw Laurence sitting after school on the back steps near the big slope, hunched over a brochure for a Great Outdoors Adventure Weekend. She couldn’t even imagine: Two whole days away from people and their garbage. Two days of feeling the sun on her face! Patricia stole into the woods behind the spice house every chance she got, but her parents would never let her spend a whole weekend.
“That looks amazing,” she said, and Laurence twitched as he realized she was looking over his shoulder.
“It’s my worst nightmare,” he said, “except it’s real.”
“You’ve already gone on one of these?”
Laurence didn’t respond, except to point to a blurry photo on the back of the leaflet, in which a group of kids hoisted backpacks next to a waterfall, putting on smiles except for one gloomy presence in the rear: Laurence, wearing a ridiculous round green hat, like a sport fisherman’s. The photographer had captured Laurence in the middle of spitting out something.
“But that’s awesome,” Patricia said.
Laurence got up and walked back into the school, shoes scuffing the floor.
“Please,” Patricia said. “I just … I wish I had someone to talk to, about stuff. Even if nobody can ever understand the things I’ve seen. I would settle for just knowing someone else who is close to nature. Wait. Don’t walk away. Laurence!”
He turned around. “You got my name right.” His eyes narrowed.
“Of course I did. You told it to me.”
“Huh.” He rolled that around in his mouth for a moment. “So what’s so great about nature?”
“It’s real. It’s messy. It’s not like people.” She talked to Laurence about the congregations of wild turkeys in her backyard and the vines that clung to the walls of the graveyard down the road, Concord grapes all the sweeter for their proximity to the dead. “The woods near here are full of deer and even a few elk, and the deer have almost no predators left. A fully grown buck can be the size of a horse.” Laurence looked horrified at that idea.
“You’re not really selling it,” Laurence said. “So … you’re outdoorsy, huh?”
“Maybe there’s a way we can help each other. Let’s make a deal: You help me convince my parents I’m already spending plenty of time in nature, so they stop sending me frakking camping all the time. And I’ll give you twenty bucks.”
“You want me to lie to your parents?” Patricia wasn’t sure if that was the sort of thing an honorable witch would do.
“Yes,” he said. “I want you to lie to my parents. Thirty bucks, okay? That’s pretty much my entire supercomputer fund.”
“Let me think about it,” Patricia said.
This was a major ethical dilemma. Not just the lying, but also the part where she would be keeping Laurence from an important experience his parents wanted him to have. She couldn’t know what would happen. Maybe Laurence would invent a new windmill that would power whole cities, after observing the wings of dragonflies. She pictured Laurence years from now, accepting a Nobel Prize and saying he owed it all to the Great Outdoors Adventure Weekends. On the other hand, maybe Laurence would go on one of those weekends, fall into a waterfall, and drown, and it would be partly Patricia’s fault. Plus, she could use thirty bucks.
Meanwhile, Patricia kept trying to make other friends. Dorothy Glass was a gymnast, like Patricia’s mom had been, and the mousy, freckled girl also wrote poetry on her phone when she thought nobody was looking. Patricia sat next to Dorothy at Convocation, when Mr. Dibbs, the vice principal, talked about the school’s “No Scooters” policy and explained why rote memorization was the best way to repair the short attention spans of kids who had been raised on Facebook and video games. The whole time, Patricia and Dorothy whispered about the webtoon everyone was watching, the one with the pipe-smoking horse. Patricia felt a stirring of hope—but then Dorothy sat with Macy Firestone and Carrie Danning at lunch and looked right past Patricia in the hallway afterward.
And so Patricia marched up to Laurence as he waited for the bus. “You’re on,” she said. “I’ll be your alibi.”
* * *
LAURENCE REALLY WAS building a supercomputer in his locked bedroom closet, behind a protective layer of action figures and paperbacks. The computer was cobbled together from tons of parts, including the GPUs from a dozen pQ game consoles, which had sported the most advanced vector graphics and complex narrative branching of any system ever, during the three months they were on the market. He’d also snuck into the offices of a defunct game developer two towns over and “rescued” some hard drives, a few motherboards, and some assorted routers. The result was bursting out of its metal corrugated rack space, LEDs blazing behind piles of junk. Laurence showed all of this to Patricia, while explaining his theories about neural networks, heuristic contextual mapping, and rules of interaction, and reminding her that she had promised to tell nobody about this.
At dinner with Laurence’s parents (super-garlicky pasta), Patricia talked a good game about how she and Laurence had gone rock climbing and they had even seen a fox, up close. She almost said the fox ate out of Laurence’s hand, but she didn’t want to oversell. Laurence’s parents were overjoyed and startled to hear how many trees Laurence had been up—neither of them looked like they’d hiked in years, but they had some hang-up about Laurence spending too much time sitting at his computer instead of filling his lungs. “So glad Laurence has a friend,” said his mom, who wore cat eye glasses and had her curls dyed an obscene shade of red. Laurence’s dad, who was morose and bald except for one brown tuft, nodded and offered Patricia more garlic bread with both hands. Laurence’s family lived in a dingy subdivision in an ugly cul-de-sac, and all the furniture and appliances were old. You could see through the carpet to the cinder floor.
Patricia and Laurence started spending time together, even when she wasn’t vouching for his outdoorsiness. They sat next to each other on the bus, on a field trip to the Cannery Museum, which was a whole facility devoted to cans. And every time they hung out, Laurence showed her another weird device—like, he had built a ray gun that would make you sleepy if he aimed it at you for half an hour. He hid it under the table at school and tested it on Mr. Knight, the Social Studies teacher, who did start yawning right before the bell.
One day in English class, Ms. Dodd asked Patricia to get up and talk about William Saroyan—no, wait, just to recite William Saroyan from memory. She stumbled over the gravel road of words about the insects who live in fruit, until she noticed a light shining in her eye, blinding her, but only on the right side. With her left eye, she saw the wall of bored faces, drawing not enough entertainment at her discomfort, and then she found the source of the dazzling blue-green beam: Laurence had something in his hand. Like a pointer.
“I—I have a headache,” Patricia said. She was excused.
In the hallway during Passing Period, she yanked Laurence away from the drinking fountain and demanded to know what the hell that had been.
“Retinal teleprompter,” Laurence gasped, looking actually scared of her. Nobody had ever been scared of Patricia. “Still not quite perfected. If it had worked, it would have projected the words directly onto your eye.”
Patricia felt actually scandalized at this. “Oh. But isn’t that cheating?”
“Yes, because memorizing the speeches of Rutherford B. Hayes will prepare you for life as an adult.” Laurence rolled his eyes and walked away.
Laurence wasn’t sitting around feeling sorry for himself, he was making things. She had never met anyone like him before. And meanwhile, what could Patricia do with her so-called magic powers? Nothing. She was totally useless.
LAURENCE’S PARENTS DECIDED Patricia was his girlfriend, and they wouldn’t hear reason. They kept offering to chaperone the two kids to school dances, or to drive them to and from “dates.” They wouldn’t shut up about it.
Laurence wanted to shrink to nothing.
“Here’s the thing about dating at your age.” Laurence’s mom sat facing him as he ate breakfast. His dad had already gone to work. “It doesn’t count. It’s just like practice. Training wheels. You know this isn’t going to amount to anything. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important.” She was wearing sweatpants with a blouse.
“Thanks for your input, Mom. I appreciate all of your keen insights.”
“You always make fun of your poor mother.” She swept her hands in opposite waves. “But you ought to listen. Puppy love is when you learn game, or you never do. You’re already a nerd, honey, you just don’t want to be a nerd with no dating skills. So I’m just saying, you shouldn’t let thoughts about the future keep you from making the most of your middle-school fling. Listen to one who knows.” Laurence’s mom had gone to her fifth-choice grad school instead of her first choice, to be closer to his dad, and that had been the first of many compromises that had ended them up here.
“She’s not my girlfriend, Mom. She’s just someone who’s teaching me to appreciate tick bites.”
“Well, maybe you should do something about that. She seemed like a very sweet girl. Very well brought up. She had nice hair. I would make a move if I were you.”
Laurence felt so uncomfortable in this conversation, not just his skin was crawling—his bones, his ligaments, his blood vessels were crawling, too. He felt pinned to his stiff wooden chair. At last he understood what all those old horror stories meant when they talked about an eldritch dread, creeping into your very soul. That was how Laurence felt, listening to his mother attempt to talk to him about girls.
Even worse was when Laurence heard the other kids at school whispering about him and Patricia. When Laurence was in the locker room before PE, kids who normally paid zero attention to him, jocks like Blaze Donovan, started asking him if he’d gotten her shirt off yet. And offering him make-out advice that sounded like it came from the internet. Laurence kept his head down and tuned them out. He couldn’t believe he’d lost his time machine, just when he needed it most.
One day, Laurence and Patricia were sitting adjacent to each other at lunch—not “with” each other, just adjacent to each other, at the same long table where boys mostly sat at one end and girls at the other. Laurence leaned over and asked, “People think we’re … you know … boyfriend-girlfriend. Doesn’t that kind of weird you out?” He tried to sound as though he thought it was no big deal, but he was just expressing concern about Patricia’s feelings.
Patricia just shrugged. “I guess people are always going to have something, right?” She was this weird fidgety girl, with eyes that looked brown sometimes and green sometimes, and dark straight hair that never defrizzed.
Laurence didn’t really need to hang out with Patricia at school, because he only needed her to vouch for his after-school time, and maybe weekends. But he felt awkward sitting by himself when she was also sitting by herself, usually frowning out the nearest window. And he found himself curious to ask her stuff and see how she responded—because he never, ever knew what Patricia would say about anything. He only knew it would be something weird.
* * *
LAURENCE AND PATRICIA sat under the up escalator at the mall. They each had a Double Chocolate Ultra Creamy Super Whip Frostuccino with decaf coffee in it, which made them feel super grown up. They were lulled by the machinery working right over their heads, the wheel of steps going around forever, and they had a view of the big fountain, which made a friendly splashing noise. Soon both their drinks were nothing but throaty snorty noises as they took the last pulls on their straws, and they were both blitzed on sugar.
They could see the feet and ankles of people passing on the down escalator, between them and the fountain. They took turns trying to guess who these people were, based just on their footwear.
“That lady in the white sneakers is an acrobat. And a spy,” Patricia said. “She travels around the world, doing performances and planting cameras in top-secret buildings. She can sneak in anywhere because she’s a contortionist as well as an acrobat.”
A man in cowboy boots and black jeans came past, and Laurence said this was a rodeo champion who had been challenged to a Dance Dance Revolution showdown against the world’s best break-dancer and it was happening at this very mall.
A girl in UGG boots was a supermodel who had stolen the secret formula for hair so shiny it brainwashed anyone who saw it, said Patricia, and she was hiding at the mall, where nobody would ever expect a supermodel to go.
Laurence thought the two women in smart pumps and nylons were life coaches who were coaching each other, creating an endless feedback loop.
The man in black slippers and worn gray socks was an assassin, said Patricia, a member of a secret society of trained killers who stalked their prey, looking for the perfect moment to strike and kill undetected.
“It’s amazing how much you can tell about people from their feet,” said Patricia. “Shoes tell the whole story.”
“Except us,” said Laurence. “Our shoes are totally boring. You can’t tell anything about us.”
“That’s because our parents pick out our shoes,” said Patricia. “Just wait until we’re grown up. Our shoes will be insane.”
* * *
IN FACT, PATRICIA had been correct about the man in the gray socks and black shoes. His name was Theodolphus Rose, and he was a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins. He had learned 873 ways to murder someone without leaving even a whisper of evidence, and he’d had to kill 419 people to reach the number nine spot in the NOA hierarchy. He would have been very annoyed to learn that his shoes had given him away, because he prided himself on blending with his surroundings. His was the gait of a mountain lion stalking the undergrowth, clad in the most nondescript black slippers and mountaineer socks. The rest of his outfit was designed to fade into the background, from the dark jacket to the cargo pants with their bulky pockets stuffed with weapons and supplies. He kept his bony, close-shaved head down, but every one of his senses was primed. His mind ran countless battle scenarios, so that if any of the housewives, mall-walking seniors, or teenagers attacked without warning Theodolphus would be ready.
Theodolphus had come to this mall looking for two special children, because he needed a pro bono hit to keep up his standing in the Nameless Order. To that end, he had made a pilgrimage to the Assassin Shrine in Albania, where he’d fasted, inhaled vapors, and gone nine days without sleep. And then he’d stared into the ornately carved Seeing Hole in the floor of the Shrine, and he’d seen a vision of things to come that still replayed in his nightmares. Death and chaos, engines of destruction, whole cities crumbling, and a plague of madness. And at the last, a war between magic and science that would leave the world in ashes. At the center of all this were a man and a woman, who were still children now. His eyes had bled as he’d crawled away from the Seeing Hole, his palms scraped away and his knees unhinged. The Nameless Order had recently imposed a strict ban on killing minors, but Theodolphus knew this mission to be holy.
Theodolphus had lost his prey. This was the first time he had ever been inside a mall, and he was finding the environment overwhelming with all of the blaring window displays, and the confusing letter-number code on the giant map. For all Theodolphus knew, Laurence and Patricia had spotted him somehow, gotten wind of his plans, and laid an ambush. The housewares store was full of knives that moved on their own. The lingerie store had a cryptic warning about the Miracle Lift. He didn’t even know where to look.
Theodolphus was not going to lose his cool over this. He was a panther—or maybe a cheetah, some type of lethal cat, anyway—and he was just toying with these stupid children. Every assassin has moments when he or she feels the grip slipping, as though the cliff face is spinning away and a sheer drop beckons. They had talked about this very issue at the assassin convention a few months earlier: that thing where even as you pass unseen through the shadows, you fear everybody is secretly watching and laughing at you.
Breathe, panther, Theodolphus told himself. Breathe.
He went into the men’s room at the Cheesecake Factory and meditated, but someone kept pounding on the door asking if he was about done in there.
There was nothing for it but to eat a large chocolate brownie sundae. When it arrived at his table, Theodolphus stared at it—how did he know it was not poisoned? If he really was being watched, someone could have slipped any of a dozen substances into his sundae that would be odorless and flavorless, or even chocolate flavored.
Theodolphus began to sob, without making any sound. He wept like a silent jungle cat. Then at last, he decided that life would not be worth living if he couldn’t eat ice cream from time to time without worrying it was poisoned and he began to eat.
Laurence’s father came and picked up Laurence and Patricia half a mile from the mall, right around the time that Theodolphus was clutching his throat and keeling over—the ice cream had indeed been poisoned—and Patricia did what she mostly did when she talked to Laurence’s parents: make stuff up. “And we went rock climbing the other day, and white-water rafting, although the water was more brown than white. And we went to a goat farm and chased the goats until we tired them out, which let me tell you is hard, goats have energy,” Patricia told Laurence’s father.
Laurence’s father asked several goat questions, which the kids answered with total solemnity.
Theodolphus wound up banned from the Cheesecake Factory for life. That tends to happen when you thrash around and foam at the mouth in a public place while groping in the crotch of your cargo pants for something, which you then swallow in a single gulp. When the antidote kicked in and Theodolphus could breathe again, he saw his napkin had the sigil of the Nameless Order on it, with an ornate mark that more or less said, Hey, remember, we don’t kill kids anymore. Okay?
This was going to require a change of tactic.
WHENEVER SHE COULD, Patricia escaped to the heart of the forest. The birds laughed at her attempts to mimic them. She kicked a tree. Nothing responded. She ran deeper into the forest. “Hello? I’m here. What do you want from me? Hello!” She would have given anything to be able to transform herself, or anything else, so her world wasn’t just boring walls and boring dirt. A real witch ought to be able to do magic by instinct. She ought to be able to make mystical things happen, by sheer will, or with a profound enough belief.
A few weeks after the start of school, the frustration became too much. Patricia grabbed some dried-up spices and twigs from the basement of the spice house, went into the woods, and lit them on fire with kitchen matches. She ran around and around the tiny flame inside a shallow pit, doing nonsense chants and shaking her hands. She pulled her own hair and threw it into the flames. “Please,” she choked through tears. “Hello? Please do something. Please!” Nothing. She crouched on her heels, watching her failed enchantment turn to ash.
When Patricia got home, her sister, Roberta, was showing their parents camera-phone pictures of Patricia lighting a fire and dancing around it. Plus, Roberta had a headless squirrel inside a FoodPile bag, which she claimed was Patricia’s work. “Patricia is doing Satanic rituals in the woods,” said Roberta. “And drugs. I saw her doing drugs, too. There were shrooms. And 420. And Molly.”
“PP, we’re worried about you,” Patricia’s father said, shaking his head until his beard was a blur. “PP” was his nickname for Patricia when she was a little baby, and when they were about to punish her he would start using it again. She thought it was cute when she was little, but when she got older she decided it was a subtle reference to her failure to be a boy. “We keep hoping you’re going to start growing up. We don’t enjoy punishing you, PP, but we have to prepare you for a tough world, where—”
“What Roderick is saying is that we spent a lot of money to send you to a school with uniforms and discipline and a curriculum that creates winners,” Patricia’s mom hissed, her jaw and penciled eyebrows looking sharper than usual. “Are you determined to blow this last chance? If you just want to be garbage, just let us know, and you can go back to the woods. Just never come back to this house. You can go live in the woods forever. We could save a large sum of money.”
“We just want to see you become something, PP,” her dad chimed in.
So they grounded her indefinitely and forbade her to go into the woods ever again. This time instead of sliding food under her door, they kept sending Roberta up with a tray. Roberta put Tabasco and Sriracha chili oil on everything, no matter what.
The first night, Patricia’s mouth was burning and she couldn’t even leave her room for a glass of water. She was lonely and cold, and her parents had taken all of the stuff from her room that might entertain her, including her laptop. In her total boredom, she memorized some extra passages from her history book and she did all of the math problems, even the extra-credit ones.
The next day at school, everybody had seen the pictures of Patricia dancing around the fire, and of the squirrel with no head—because Roberta had sent them to her friends at high school, and some of Roberta’s friends had brothers and sisters who went to Canterbury. More people started giving Patricia weird looks in the hallway, and this one boy whose name Patricia didn’t even know ran up to her during Lunch Recess, yelled “Emo bitch,” and ran away. Carrie Danning and Macy Firestone, the theater kids, made a big show of checking Patricia’s wrists, because she was probably a cutter, too, and they were concerned. “We just want to make sure you’re getting the help you need,” Macy Firestone said, bright orange hair rippling around her heart-shaped face. The actual popular kids, like Traci Burt, just shook their heads and texted each other.
The second night of being grounded, Patricia started to go nuts and she was choking on the red-hot super-spicy turkey and mashed potatoes Roberta had carried up. She was coughing and rasping and wheezing. The sound of the television downstairs—too loud to ignore, too quiet to make out what anyone was saying—peeled her skull.
The weekend was the worst part of being grounded. Patricia’s parents put their own weekend plans on hold so they could keep her locked in her room. Like they had to miss an exhibition of vintage door knockers that they’d read about in one of their design magazines, which they’d been looking forward to.
If Patricia could do magic, then she could fly out her window or communicate with witches in China and Mexico. But no. She was still just boring, and bored.
Sunday came around. Patricia’s mother made a pot roast. Roberta poured Tabasco over Patricia’s portion before bringing it upstairs. Roberta unlocked the door and handed the tray to Patricia, then stood there in the doorway to watch Patricia eat. Waiting to see Patricia freak out and turn bright pink.
Instead, Patricia calmly loaded a big forkful into her mouth, chewed, and swallowed. She shrugged. “It’s too bland,” she said. “I would prefer it to be spicier.” Then she handed it back to Roberta and closed her door.
Roberta took the tray back down and found a bottle of Texas extra-spicy five-alarm BBQ sauce. She splashed it onto Patricia’s pot roast until it gave off a pungent aroma.
She carried the food back up to Patricia and handed it over. Patricia chewed a bit. “Hmmm,” she said. “A little better. But still not spicy enough. I would really like something a lot spicier.”
Roberta went and got a jar of Peruvian hot pepper seeds and dotted them all over the pot roast.
Patricia felt as though her mouth was on fire after just one bite, but she forced a smile onto her face. “Hmm. I would still like it spicier. Thank you,” Patricia said.
Roberta found some chili powder on the top shelf of the downstairs pantry and put a generous scoopful onto Patricia’s dinner. She had to pull her sweater over her nose and mouth to carry it back upstairs.
Patricia considered this screaming piece of beef, which was way spicier than the spiciest thing she’d ever eaten (a five-alarm chili that had been billed as “forbidden by the Geneva cooking convention” by the roadside diner where her family had stopped last summer). She forced herself to take a big bite and chew slowly. “Sure. That’ll do. Thanks.” Roberta watched Patricia eat the whole thing, slowly—but like she was savoring it, not like she was in pain or reluctant. When it was all gone, Patricia thanked Roberta again. The door closed and Patricia was alone. She let out a fiery gasp.
Patricia’s stomach was being eaten from the inside. Her head was boiling away, and she felt faint. Everything was blinding white, and her mouth was a toxic disaster area. She was sweating red-hot oil through every inch of her skin. Most of all, her forehead hurt from pushing against the ceiling.
Wait a second. Why was her forehead up against the ceiling? Patricia could look down and see her own body, flopping around a bit. She was flying! She had left her body! Something about so much chili powder and hot oil all at once must have put her into a state. She was astral-projecting. Or something. She no longer even felt her stomach pain or any tingling in her mouth, that was for her physical body. “I love spicy food!” Patricia said with no mouth and no breath.
She flew to the woods.
She raced over the lawns and driveways, swooping and lifting, amazed at the feeling of the wind pressing through her face. Her hands and feet were pure silver. She rose higher, so the highway was a stream of brightness underneath her. The night felt cold, but not in a painful way, more like she was filling up with air.
Somehow Patricia knew the way to the place where the Parliament had met when she was a little girl. She wondered if she was dreaming all this, but it had too many funny details, like the highway construction closing one lane in the middle of the night—who would dream that up?—and it all seemed totally real.
Soon she was in front of the majestic Tree where the Parliament had met, its great wings of leaves arching over her. But there were no birds this time. The Tree just fanned in the darkness, the wind animating its fronds a little bit. Patricia had wasted a trip out of her body, because nobody was home. Just her luck.
She almost turned and flew back. But maybe the birds were in recess somewhere nearby. “Hello?” Patricia said into the darkness.
“Hell,” a voice said back, “o.”
Patricia had been standing planted in a patch of ground, but at the sound of that voice she jumped, and rose four feet in the air because she still weighed nothing. She remembered at last how to come back down to earth.
“Hello?” Patricia said again. “Who’s there?”
“You called out,” said the voice. “I answered.”
This time, Patricia could tell somehow that the voice was coming from the Tree itself. Like there was a presence there, at the center of its big trunk. There wasn’t a face or anything, just a feeling that something was watching her.
“Thank you,” Patricia said. She was getting cold, after all, in her panda pajamas. She was barefoot outdoors in the autumn night, even though this wasn’t her body.
“I have not spoken to a living person,” the Tree said, forming the words syllable by syllable, “in many seasons. You were distressed. What is wrong?” Its voice sounded like the wind blowing through an old bellows, or the lowest note playing on a big wooden recorder.
Now Patricia felt embarrassed, because suddenly her problems felt tiny and selfish, when she placed them in front of such a huge and ancient presence. “I feel like a fake witch,” she said. “I can’t do anything. At all. My friend Laurence can build supercomputers and time machines and ray guns. He can make cool things happen any time he wants. I can’t make anything cool happen.”
“Something cool,” the Tree said in a gust of vowels and a clatter of consonants, “is happening. Right now.”
“Yes,” Patricia said, ashamed again. “Yes! Definitely! This is great. Really. But this just happened on its own. I can’t make anything happen when I want it to.”
“Your friend would control nature,” said the Tree, rustling through each syllable one by one. “A witch must serve nature.”
“But,” Patricia said, thinking this through. “That’s not fair. If nature serves Laurence, and I serve nature, then it’s like I’m serving Laurence. I like Laurence, I guess, but I don’t want to be his servant.”
“Control,” the Tree said, “is an illusion.”
“Okay,” Patricia said. “So I guess I really am a witch. Right? I mean, you called me a witch just now. Plus I left my body, that counts for something. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I know it must be hard work being a tree. Especially a Parliamentary Tree.”
“I am many trees,” the Tree said. “And many other things besides. Goodbye.”
The journey back to Patricia’s house went much faster than the outward trip, perhaps because she was much sleepier. She passed through the ceiling of her bedroom and into her body—which was twisted with horrible stomach pain, because she had eaten enough hot peppers for a hundred thousand curries.
“Aaaaaaaaa!” Patricia shouted, sitting up and clutching her stomach. “Bathroom break! Bathroom break! I need a bathroom break NOW!!!!”
* * *
ON MONDAY, SHE sat across from Laurence at lunch at the far end of one of the long tables, next to the slop cans, where the kids who had no clique of their own were stuck.
“Can you keep a secret?” she asked him.
“Sure,” Laurence said without hesitating. He was poking holes in his gray, clammy hamburger with a knife. “You already know all of my secrets.”
“Great.” Patricia lowered her voice and covered her mouth. “So listen. You probably won’t even believe any of this. I know it’s going to sound crazy. But I have to tell someone. You’re the only one I can tell.” She told the whole story, as best she could.
Copyright © 2016 by Charlie Jane Anders
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