The story starts like something out of a fairy tale: I hated my stepfather.
It’s usually stepmothers in fairy tales. Well, equal time for stepfathers.
I almost don’t know why I hated Val so much. He was short and hairy and didn’t know how to wear Newworld clothes and spoke with a funny accent and used a lot of really dreeping words that nobody in Newworld had used in two hundred years. Have you ever heard anyone say “ablutions”? I didn’t think so. He looked like the kind of creepazoid you’d cross the street to avoid walking past too close to. And this guy who looks like a homeless crazydumb who’s about to start shouting about the evil magician who planted electrodes in his brain stands there smiling gently at my mother . . . and she laughs and puts her arm through his because she loves him. Uggh.
Maybe I hated him because she loved him, although I was pretty old for that kind of doolally. I’d turned seventeen by the time they got together, and my brother, Ran (short for Randal not Randolph), who wasn’t quite thirteen yet, thought he was wonderful. I don’t know what went wrong with me. It was like an evil magician had put electrodes in my brain.
Margaret Alastrina (everyone calls me Maggie, but the full lineup is way more effective if you want to shout), there’s no point in telling this story if you’re not going to be honest. Okay, okay, I do know why I couldn’t deal with Val. It was the shadows. But in Newworld, where we’re all about science and you stop reading fairy tales about the time you learn to read (which always seemed really unfair), being afraid of shadows was silly and pathetic. Even if there were a lot of them and they didn’t seem to be the shadow of anything. (And if they were, whatever it was had way too many legs.) So I hated him for making me silly and pathetic. That’s scientifically logical, isn’t it?
For a while Mom made a fuss about it and tried to get us—Val and me—to do things together, I guess because she couldn’t believe I wouldn’t like him if I got to know him better. You know the kind of thing. We did the grocery shopping—with him being as useless as it’s humanly possible to be and me having to explain everything; why he hadn’t starved to death before he met Mom I have no idea—and when I got my learner’s permit Mom was always “Oh, take Val, I haven’t got time right now,” which was probably true but it was also Mom trying to make us friends. (And honestly, he was a pretty good learner driver’s passenger. He never blew about dumb stuff—and he didn’t even get upset when I put the tiniest—the tiniest—dent in Mom’s fender because there was this really unnecessary knob on the side of one of those big metal anti-cobey boxes and I couldn’t see it because the front of the car was in the way. We got out and looked at it and I thought, my life is over, but all Val said was, “I can bend that out again. Back into the driveway tonight so it’s on the other side and she’ll never know.”)
Mom probably couldn’t believe what had happened to her daughter. I’d been this disgustingly sweet, cooperative kid, always worried about everyone else (this got worse after Ran was born. I am never having kids. Moms with new babies have no life), which is to say this dreary little dreep. What started giving me my own personality finally was when I got old enough to volunteer at the Orchard Animal Shelter. I was thrilled at being allowed to shovel critter crap and scrub bowls. The self-confidence issues of a nine-year-old can be pretty weird.
I’d wanted a dog since forever, but about six months after Dad died, and Mom was still trying to be extra-nice to Ran and me, especially because she was working about twenty-six hours a day and exhausted and miserable and cranky when we saw her at all, I told her I’d found my dog. So while she gave me the old “a dog is a big responsibility” lecture and reminded me with lots of Mom gestures and eye contact that she was working twenty-six hours a day and backup from her was a nonstarter, her heart wasn’t really in it. I had wanted almost every dog that came into the shelter because whatever it was it was a dog, but this time it was one of those your-eyes-meet-and-you-know-you’re-made-for-each-other things. (My friend Laura has them about every six months with a new boy.) Clare was saving him for me while I dealt with Mom (and Ran, although Ran is fine about most things including dogs as long as they’re not his problem). So we brought Mongo home. Mongo is short for mongrel—we don’t know anything about him; one of the Watchguard guys brought him to Clare—but he’s totally a border collie.
He was maybe five months old and already crazy, and you could guess that some ordinary family hadn’t been able to cope with a hairy attack squad caroming off the walls and trying to fetch pieces of furniture so somebody would throw them for him. Mom, even having folded on the subject of my dog, was a little worried about Mongo but Clare said I’d cope, which made me feel better than anything ever had in my life before, certainly anything since Dad died. Mongo is also really, really happy and cheerful and loving (as well as crazy) and he was totally a good idea and just what we needed.
But the point is, he was my dog. We had him because I wanted a dog. I had to walk him twice a day and feed him and brush him (way too much fur. If I’d realized, I might have tried to fall in love with something short-haired) and make sure his water bowl was clean and full and all that. Which in Mongo’s case included a lot of remedial training, starting with SIT. Sitting to have his lead put on, sitting before he was allowed out the door, sitting before he could jump in the car, sitting before his food bowl was put down—and the accidental swallowing of the hand holding the bowl is not allowed either. Sitting got him used to paying attention to me as something more than the hand that throws the stick and puts the food bowl on the floor. (And pets him. Mongo will lie still for as long as someone is petting him.) Then there was convincing him that eating sofa cushions wasn’t allowed, or baseboards or shoes or origami figures that happen to fall on the floor—he ate the best dragon I ever made and the fact that Takahiro made me a better one doesn’t change anything—and finding a more or less chew-proof dog bed before I spent my entire college fund replacing the ones that weren’t chew-proof enough. I thought teaching him the long down was going to kill us both, although possibly my attention span wasn’t up to it either.
But I did it. I did it all. He barely even ate newspapers or gloves or (empty) cereal boxes after the first six months with us. I was the kind of kid who did walk the dog every day. Twice. Just getting enough exercise was a big thing with Mongo.
Although having to walk the dog became my excuse for not doing stuff with my friends. I kind of stopped having friends after Dad died. Everybody but Jill. Jill hung on like . . . like a really good friend who’d had her parents split up two years before and was not going to lose anybody else. She used to come home with me after school and walk Mongo too. I am really lucky to have Jill, although I didn’t know it for a while. I didn’t feel lucky.
Dad died when I was ten and Ran was six, because this guy who got drunk the first night they let him out of jail for drunk driving came over the median strip on the highway in his double-muscle-macho car and killed him. The guy didn’t kill himself until the next time they let him out of jail and he ran into a tree, but that was too late for Dad. I think I was sweet for the next several years, after almost everyone else had turned into a teenager, because I was afraid that if I wasn’t really good maybe Mom would die too. I was young enough to believe that kind of thing, although when Ran kept asking me—especially when he hadn’t been good—I always said no, it was a stupid accident and Mom was really careful. She was really careful, but Dad had been really careful too; there just wasn’t a lot he could do about something the size of an army anti-cobey truck coming over the median strip at eighty miles per hour.
Mom dated a few other guys over the years, but not very many. “I don’t have time,” she said. She worked five and a half days a week as the office manager for an accounting firm, which meant that she should have met lots of interesting men, because every grown-up has to do their taxes, but Tennel & Zeet didn’t have the right kind of clients. I know they didn’t have the right kind of clients because Val was one of them. Tennel & Zeet had a specialty in immigrants from the Slav Commonwealth so that’s probably why Val went to them. Mom always had pictures of us on her desk. This would be cute except that even after she had pictures of us well past the rug-rat stage she kept the really loser baby ones.
Ran and I didn’t think a lot about it at first when she said she was bringing this new guy home. She did occasionally bring guys home—or, better, we’d all go to a restaurant: neutral ground, and somebody else cleaned up after—although she hadn’t in nearly a year, so whoever he was would be a little interesting for the novelty. But by the day he came I wanted to hide the salad or lay the tablecloth (yes, a real tablecloth and in the real dining room) facedown or something, just to break the circuit, as she went zinging around the kitchen like she was the most organized person in the world, which she isn’t. We had a joke, Ran and Mom and me, that she used up all her organization at work. But the way Mom was behaving was the first clue that Val might be more important than the other (few) guys we’d met, so I was probably already on the wrong channel with him when the doorbell rang.
Also I’d been thinking why were we having him over for dinner for this first meeting? I like having someone else doing the cooking—someone other than Mom (or me. Although quite sane people will come to dinner when I make my spaghetti sauce). Val didn’t have much money—Mom didn’t quite say this, but I figured it out. And she wanted to show him what a happy little family we were. Well, he could have cooked us dinner, couldn’t he? At his place.
So I was feeling kind of unplugged about Mom pretending we were supposed to believe it was no big deal about this Val person coming over. And when she sang out—and I mean sang, it was disgusting—for me to answer the door when the bell went, I think I was going to dislike him even if he was a billionaire with a private island big enough for a wild animal sanctuary and a really cute son who was just my type.
But when I opened the door . . .
It was like there was more than just Val there. As if he was twice the size of a human person, or there were two of him, or something. It was really dark out, in spite of the porch light, and at first I couldn’t see his face. I was frightened. I didn’t like being frightened. I’d been frightened about almost everything since Dad died.
And there was something wrong with Val being too big. In that first shock I don’t think I noticed there was something wrong with the darkness—it was February, it still got dark early, it was nearly seven p.m.—that it was shadows. If I’d noticed they wiggled I might have just slammed the door on him.
“I am Val,” he said in his funny voice, and stepped forward and I got my first eyeful of his clothes sense, which was pretty frightening all by itself. I stepped back like he was a big ugly cobey-unit goon with a zapper and I was a homeless loophead, and now in the light of the hall I could see him plainly, see that he was short and hairy as well as having a funny voice, and I’ve seen orangutans that wore clothes better. I didn’t recognize Val’s accent but that wasn’t surprising. The Slav Commonwealth is like ninety countries, some of them no bigger than your front yard, and every one of them has its own language.
He was smiling at me. It was a hopeful smile and I didn’t like it, because it meant this dinner was important to him too, and I’d already decided I didn’t like him. Or his big (wiggly) shadows.
The darkness, or whatever it was, seemed to retreat a little, or maybe press itself down nearer the floor where it wasn’t so obvious, as he stepped forward. I actually peered over his shoulder as if I was looking for someone, or maybe something, but I couldn’t see anything, although the nearest streetlight seemed farther away than usual. I looked back at him and I thought his smile had changed. He was looking at me too hard behind the smile. I thought of all those fairy tales where once you invite the evil magician over your threshold you’d had it. But I hadn’t invited him. He’d just come in, and I’d given way. Did that count?
Hey. This is Newworld. We don’t have magicians in Newworld, evil or otherwise.
“Mom’s in the kitchen,” I said ungraciously, but he didn’t seem to notice the ungracious. His face lit up at the mention of Mom. As he took another step forward he made a tiny bow and waved me to go ahead of him, which I should have thought was cute but I didn’t maybe partly because there was something freaky about the shadow of his arm against the wall—a sudden sharp ragged line along the line of his forearm, and then just as suddenly it collapsed into the proper arm shadow like it had realized I could see it. I tried not to stare but by now I was totally creeped out and couldn’t wait to get away from him—but getting away meant leading him farther into my house, farther away from the door. My great-grandmom’s quilt hangs on the other, long wall by the front door, and I put my hand on it, either like I was dizzy or like it was going to protect me. Protect us. I had a moment when I thought, I’m not going to let this shadow man near my family: I’m going to tell him to go away.
Too late. The evil magician was already over the threshold. And the quilt was just a quilt.
I don’t guess all of this took more than a minute. It was a long minute. It was long enough for Mom to call, “Vaaaaaal?” Yuck. When we went into the kitchen Mom’s face was so bright I could hardly stand to look at it. Even Mongo liked him, although Mongo likes everybody. (Also Mongo was so thrilled with himself for staying in the dog bed till I’d released him that nothing was going to blow his mood.) Then Ran found out that Val would listen to him about cars—cars were Ran’s biggest thing—and that was pretty much it for the rest of the evening. Ran talked and Val and Mom made shiny electric eyes at each other.
Once we were all sitting down and eating (Mom had made her chicken, apples, and cream, which usually only came out on birthdays) I was watching the shadows on the wall behind Val’s chair. They were too lively and there were way too many of them. One or another of them always seemed about to turn into something I could recognize—a Komodo dragon or an alligator or a ninety-tentacled space alien. No, I was imagining it (especially the space alien. Sixty tentacles, tops). I hoped I was imagining it.
I looked at Mongo, who was fast asleep against the manic wall, paws twitching faintly and looking utterly relaxed. That made one of us.
After Val left Mom came and put her arm around me. “Are you okay, honey? You were awfully quiet at dinner.” I didn’t say anything and she laughed a little and said, “Well, you can’t get a word in when Ran’s on full current, can you?”
I could hear her not asking what I’d thought of Val. Before I blurted out something I’d be sorry for later I said, “Where is he from again? Ors—Orsk—”
“Orzaskan,” Mom said carefully. “I have to keep looking it up.”
“And why’d he leave?” I said as neutrally as possible.
I felt her shrug. “The latest bunch of government gizmoheads don’t like academics, and he’s a professor of philosophy.”
Physwiz—the physics of the worlds—is sometimes called philosophy. I hoped not in this case. “And it doesn’t get much more academic than philosophy,” I said into Mom’s silence. Or as loopheaded as physwiz. But I’d never heard of even the most out-there creepo collecting shadows.
She turned me around to face her. “Maggie . . . I’m sorry he made a bad first impression on you. I don’t suppose you want to tell me what went wrong?”
That his shadow is too big for him and there was something out of a bad science-fiction movie on the wall behind his chair at dinner? Not to mention that shirt. I shook my head.
“Well, give him a chance, won’t you?” she said.
“Sure,” I said.
She stared at me a few seconds longer. I could see the thought bubble forming over her head. It said “teenagers.” I smiled, and she relaxed a little and hugged me again, and moved off toward the stairs. “You’ll lock up after you take Mongo out,” she said, which was Mom-speak for “It’s a school night, go to bed.”
“Mom,” I said. Mongo had appeared at the sound of his name, but I waited till Mom had gone upstairs and I saw the bathroom light go on. Then I put Mongo’s lead on like we were going out as normal. Our dining room used to be a garage. Now it’s a dining room, Mom’s office, and a coat closet. I paused at the dining room door and then flung it open and flicked the light switch on as if I was expecting to catch somebody at something.
There wasn’t anything there except a (mostly cleared-off) table and some chairs and the corner cupboards with Mom’s china and stuff, and a piece of Ran’s parka sticking out through the closed closet door. The space alien(s) had gone home with Val. I guessed that was something.
Mongo and I had a nice little cruise around the block while he examined every inch of the sidewalk, fences, trees, patches of grass, and the Watchguard call box on the corner and chose precisely the right six(teen) spots to pee. I locked the door behind us when we came in again, took his lead off—and went back to check that I had locked the door. I always lock the door. I didn’t need to check. I spent a minute staring at the floor, like I was watching for jagged-edged, wiggly shadows to eel under the locked door. For the minute I was watching they didn’t. Then I shut Mongo in the kitchen, where the official dog bed was (plus 5,214 dog toys so he didn’t have any excuses to eat chair legs), and went to bed myself. And dreamed about alligators and space aliens. But that’s my problem, right?
You already know how chapter one has to end: they got married. I told myself he was not my stepfather, maybe he was married to my mother but that doesn’t make him my anything father. (He even tried to adopt us. Ran said yes and I said no. I managed not to say “you must be dreeping kidding, no bugsucking way.”)
I was Mom’s attendant and I’d like to say I got a great dress out of it but we were broke. Actually it was a pretty good dress because Mom’s sister Gwenda brought their own mom and grandmom’s party dresses from her attic and told me I could pick one. Gwenda lives in their old family house, way upstate from us in Station. I like vintage as well as the next teenage girl with cash flow problems and wearing dead people’s clothes isn’t usually a problem but there was something a bit buggy about these. Maybe because I knew Great-grandmom had been a magician. It was Grandmom’s generation that got gene-chopped, and they’re still checking in case they missed something. You get scanned at birth and then you get another scan and they give you a blood test sometime during adolescence—with girls you’re supposed to go back when you start menstruating. The scan made me pretty sick the second time, which is supposed to mean that I would have had the gene if it hadn’t been chopped. It must have been really, really rough for Great-grandmom and her daughters.
Or maybe I wasn’t hot-wired by the dresses because I was dreading the wedding. By heroic self-control I didn’t choose the black one with the gray lace and sequins although it was seriously electric, and picked out a pink and maroon one instead that looked a little less like the wicked fairy who’s come to curse the princess. Jill was helping me and pulled out a beigey-cream one that would have made me look like I had died (speaking of dead people) but looked terrific against her dark skin.
“Hey, babe, utsukushii,” I said, which is Japanese for “beautiful.” Mostly we insulted each other with the (approximately ten) Japanese words we’d looked up on the webnet to annoy Takahiro with. We only knew a couple of nice ones.
Gwenda laughed. “Okay, you have that one,” she said to Jill. Jill by special perk was invited to the wedding to keep me company; other than her it was just Mom’s family and friends. (Val didn’t seem to have any friends, and if he had any family they were still back in Whatsit-kan.) “And you can keep the black one too,” she said to me. “None of this has been out of the attic in thirty years. Nobody’s going to miss it.”
Gwenda herself was wearing this sharp emerald suit for the wedding, totally looking like the no-nonsense lawyer that she was, even if she was as broke as the rest of the family because she specialized in defending people accused of practicing magic. (I’m not talking about big evil-magician-with-electrodes stuff. Just a charm to cure warts or make hair grow, if it worked, the government would come after you.) She usually got them off (she usually managed to prove it was science really) and almost none of them could afford to pay her.
The problem with the green of her suit was the way the shadows seemed to like it. Bugsuck. Also shimatta. (Japanese for “damn.”) They liked my second aunt, Rhonwyn’s, blue dress too, but not as much as the green. Jill was busy twirling and maybe they didn’t like cream and beige and taupe. The pink and maroon in my dress was in panels, plus this lacy pink shawl Jill loaned me to hide that my dress didn’t quite fit (I’m hopeless with needle and thread) and I was telling myself they liked solid colors, although it was probably just that I couldn’t bear thinking of them crawling on me or my best friend. Although I had the feeling there was one particular shadow that was kind of following me around. It writhed along the ground after me. Uggh. If I’m not imagining you, Go. Away.
The shadows were particularly bad that day. I’d figured out by then that the shadows were worse when Val was tensed up about something. He was tense about having dinner at our house that first time. He was majorly tense on his wedding day.
Jill cried. Well, somebody should cry at a wedding, and I wasn’t going to. What bothered me the most—besides Val’s shadows—was that I was beginning to forget what having Dad around had been like. I remembered the loneliness, how tiny and broken our world felt when there were suddenly only three of us. Sometimes it was like there was only two of us because at first, before Tennel & Zeet hired her, Mom was working three part-time jobs and got home late every night. Our poky little suburban three-bedroom house felt enormous when I was the oldest person in it. I still remembered feeling tiny and broken. But I was forgetting Dad.
And now my world was full of shadows.
I was having some of these thoughts for about the six-hundredth time that day when Val turned around and caught my eye and smiled. I wasn’t anything like ready at that moment to be nice to my mother’s new husband and it must have showed on my face—and then Val’s shadows went crazy and I stared straight over his shoulder and I probably twitched or something and I may have taken a step back. Val went so still that that was as eye-catching as the stuff on the wall behind him and I looked back at him and he was staring at me and he wasn’t smiling.
And then Jill came up and put her arms around me and her head on my shoulder and bawled, and I could put my arms around her and my cheek against her hair and not look at Val although I didn’t like turning my back on him (and the shadows) either. But what was he going to do with twenty-five other people in the house? Turn me into a space alien or an alligator? Call his creepy minions and have them carry me away to his secret lair?
The woman who said the legal words over them had come to our house and we had the reception there too. It was just food, there wasn’t an official wedding cake, but there were several cakes, and one of Mom’s friends had made a cake in a fancy pan with a hole in the middle and Gwenda put a little vase with some white roses out of Mom’s garden in the hole, so that’s the one they cut like a wedding cake while almost everybody but me took pictures. Mom did look gorgeous in her gold dress, and Rhonwyn had made her a sort of cap of yellow roses that should have looked totally woopy but was fantastic. (There’s a fourth sister—Blanchefleur—but no one’s seen her in like twenty years, and a half brother, Darnel, but he’s in a cobey unit, and on the wedding day was off being deployed somewhere saving Newworld from gaps in reality.) But Val was there all the time too, wearing a suit that fit him about as well as a horse blanket on a goat (his trouser legs were rolled up. He couldn’t have got them shortened for his wedding?) and he was pretty much glued to Mom’s side so that kind of ruined photo ops for me.
Mongo was totally thrilled by all the people (in Mongo’s opinion we didn’t entertain enough) and since these were nearly all friends of his too no one said anything about getting long black and white hairs on their good clothes. But after I stopped the third person trying to give him a piece of cake—sugar is so not a good idea with a dog who’s mental to begin with—I hooked my hand through his collar and dragged him out. He was all stiff-legged and resisting on the way to the kitchen door but as soon as I got him over the sill into the back yard he collapsed and turned into a sad hairy forlorn dog blob. I looked at him and laughed. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laughed. He raised his head and thumped his tail hopefully.
“No,” I said. “You may not go back in there and cruise for handouts.” But I did go back indoors myself long enough to grab a handful of dog biscuits and started running him through all of his tricks. He learned stuff really fast if there was biscuits involved but he forgot really fast too so you had to keep reminding him. I heard the kitchen door open as Mongo was dancing on his hind legs. I looked around warily but it was only Jill.
“Your mom says to stop playing with your dog and come in and talk to people,” she said. Her eyelids were still swollen from crying. I wanted to know why she was crying at my mom’s wedding, but I wasn’t ready to ask her yet.
“In a minute,” I said. “Go stand in the middle of the lawn and be herded.” She rolled her eyes but she went. It would be really useful if I could teach Mongo to fetch critters rather than just balls and sticks and towels with knots in them. Clare’s shelter had been a farm in her dad’s day before the town ate most of it, but she still owned several acres, and when someone wanted to adopt a wether or a goat or a pony you could guarantee they’d all be at the farthest end of their field. So I was trying to teach Mongo to herd. Jill did what I told her while I semaphored at Mongo. Uggh. Well, we’d get it one day. Maybe. I’d better watch the Teach Your Dog Herding vids again.
Jill walked back to me with Mongo at her heels. He was very likely to follow her around anyway, but when he came to me and sat hopefully, I gave him his last dog biscuit. First rule: If your dog doesn’t do what you want, it’s your fault.
I watched Jill look around our back yard. It was a corner lot, so it was pretty big. It was big enough for both Mongo and Mom’s flowers, if nobody was dumb enough to leave Mongo out here by himself for longer than he needed to pee (I’d like once asked Ran to put Mongo out when I was going to be home late from a school thing, Ran forgot to bring him in, and Mongo ate a rosebush. I have no idea why he didn’t cut his mouth to pieces. Special border-collie thorn-proof chromosome). And there was the old shed. It used to be Dad’s workshop. Mom had cleared it out really soon after Dad died—the only thing left was the old hammer that now lived under the kitchen sink. Since then it had filled up again and Mom had cleared it out again (Ran’s space station with the zillions of drone ships and the cheesy wormhole finally went to the charity shop to make some other family’s life miserable) because it was now Val’s office. I saw Jill’s eyes settle on the shed and stay there.
I turned around to look at it myself. Dad had built it out of a kit so it was pretty buggie, but Mom had planted stuff around it, and some of the vines and things had covered most of it up. Val had started moving his stuff in this week and . . .
. . . there were more of those kusatta shadows. Whatever was throwing them out here had just amazing numbers of legs unless it was several of them doing a synchronized team thing uggggh. . . .
I looked down at Mongo. He was whuffling through the grass around my feet, hoping for dog biscuit crumbs. Val’s shadows had never bothered Mongo. Fat lot of good you are, I thought at him. Aren’t dogs supposed to be sensitive to the weird and the icky? In the absence of crumbs, Mongo began licking the grass. I took a deep breath and looked over at Jill. She was scowling at the shed but it wasn’t a holy-electricity-what-is-that scowl, it was a trying-not-to-cry-any-more scowl. “Does the shed look . . . funny to you?” I said carefully.
Jill stopped scowling and looked blank. “No. Uh. What do you mean, funny? It’s a shed.”
“Never mind,” I said, suddenly very tired. I put my arm around her. “Now tell me what you’re crying about.”
She gave a drippy sniff. “Aren’t you supposed to cry at weddings?”
I didn’t say anything and she sighed and said, “I broke up with Eddie.”
“Try not to cheer,” she said.
I had never liked Eddie. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“No you’re not,” she said, but she put her head on my shoulder. “Oh, flastic, I bet your dress is silk. If I leave tear marks on it your aunt will kill me.”
“Gwenda only kills plaintiffs,” I said. “And then only when they’ve had a chance to withdraw and haven’t taken it.”
But Jill had stopped paying attention. “You know . . . there is something weird about—I think it’s the shadows on that shed. Is that what you mean?”
I went cold. Maybe it was better to think you were imagining things.
Jill was still staring at the shed. “Maybe it’s just the wind in the vines and stuff. Your mom sure knows how to make things grow.”
“Yeah,” I said.
My best friend turned her head and stared at me. “Why do you dislike Val so much?”
I shrugged, staring at the shadows snaking over the shed. “He gives me the creeps.”
“Oh, Maggie,” said Jill, worried. “Not like—”
“Oh, gods’ engines,” I said. “No. Nothing like Mr. Roberts.” Mr. Roberts had taught geometry at our high school till his stepdaughter had told her best friend that he was sleeping with her and she wished he wouldn’t. It was about the biggest scandal Station had ever had. Mr. Roberts went to jail and the stepdaughter and her mom left town. I hoped they were okay.
“Like Arnie then,” she said, and all the life went out of her voice, and she leaned against me as if she was cold, although the weather was so warm I was only wearing the shawl because my dress didn’t fit. (Just by the way, Jill and I looked amazing. You’d never know my dress didn’t fit, and I’d bought these fabulous pink shoes on sale, and Jill’s mom had let her wear her grandmother’s gold locket.)
“I thought you liked Arnie,” I said. Arnie was Jill’s mom’s live-in boyfriend. He ran the big hardware store in town: Porter’s: Everything for Your Projects. They had a good arts and crafts section, including lots of origami paper, even though the local origami crowd was mostly Takahiro and me, and Jill when she was trying to buy either of us a present.
“I did,” she said. “But he’s gone all—weird.”
“Weird how?” Arnie has always been weird. He’s the only person I’ve ever met who doesn’t have a pocket phone. But he’d been a tireless piggyback-ride giver when he and Jill’s mom first got together and Jill and I were eight, and he didn’t stop because he got bored with his girlfriend’s kid and her friend, but because we decided our third-grade dignity couldn’t take it. And now he always looked at me like I was me and not a teenager, which is a rare gift in adults.
“That’s clear and helpful.”
She was silent a moment. “You know that selling-you-something face he has? Smiling and smiling and—like Mongo watching the hand with a dog biscuit in it? It’s okay in the store. It’s probably why he sells so much stuff. But he never used to wear it at home. He does now. It’s like—I don’t know what it’s like. It’s buggie.”
Like Val noticing me noticing his shadows? “I’m sorry,” I said uselessly.
“Well, I’m sorry you don’t like Val,” she said. “Doesn’t do either of us much good, does it? Hey, there’s a silverbug outbreak at Longiron. Dena phoned while you were primping. It’s supposed to be pretty epic. Peak forecast is for tomorrow. Want to go take a look?”
“Silverbugs?” I said. “Again? That’s the second flare this summer.”
“Yeah,” she said. “It probably doesn’t mean anything.”
There are always a few silverbugs around. If you see one you’re supposed to report it. If you didn’t mind stepping on them you were supposed to do that and then report it. If you did mind you were supposed to put a bowl or a bucket or your coat over it and then call your local Watchguard base and they’d send someone over to bash it for you. (There were silverbug buckets all over town, of course, like trash cans and mailboxes, but there was never one around when you saw a silverbug.) The auto-report buttons on pocket phones only came in a few years ago and that made it a lot easier, because you could snap the coordinates and run away. When I’d been a little kid you had to phone it in and wait. But if your Watchguard was having a bad day you could be there a while so mostly people like me who did mind stepping on them went and found someone who didn’t mind and let them deal with it.
It’s not that I’m totally squeamish about killing things. I kill things like slugs and aphids in Mom’s garden (she pays me. She says it’s the only way to get me to stay home from the shelter occasionally). But silverbugs aren’t bugs, and they aren’t really alive. Nobody knows exactly what they are, but they may be some kind of tiny cobey—cohesion break. I’ve stepped on a silverbug exactly twice. The first time on a dare when I was seven years old and the second time two years ago when it was suddenly there too late for me not to step on it, although I tried. I only clipped the edge of it but it still went pop and I fainted, like I did the first time, and then I threw up like six times and was sick for two days afterward, which was also pretty much like the first time. But the nightmares were a lot worse the second time, although that may be because I hit my head pretty hard on the sidewalk when I went down. Us bug woopies are in the minority but there are enough of us around it’s not that big a deal, although I’m pretty sure Cobey Central keeps a list of us.
But a cloud of silverbugs is amazing to see and although if it’s a really big cloud the army’ll be along at peak forecast to zap it, they’re usually happy to have some ordinary members of the public around to step on the ones that get away because some always do get away, and there doesn’t seem to be a fancy army gizmo that works any better than people’s feet. But the other thing about silverbugs is that if you step on a lot of them one right after another you get high. It varies from person to person, how many you have to step on. Jill says one is plenty for her, but Takahiro says he’s never noticed any effect at all—and he stepped on eight or ten at the outbreak in June, which should have made him as off his head as a triple-fried. So while the army is happy to have company, they’ll have a few spotters keeping an eye on how everybody’s doing.
(Everyone was really curious about Taks’s invulnerability, but when Steph tried to ask him about it he did the Patented Takahiro Silence so everyone rolled their eyes and gave up. It might have been something about being half Japanese, but none of us had ever heard that Farworlders are any more resistant than anybody else.)
One more thing about silverbugs. Big explosions of them might mean there was a cobey coming. One outbreak, okay, it happens. Two outbreaks . . . But it was like earthquakes. Sometimes you got tremors and sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes the tremors didn’t mean anything. Sometimes they did. But after a second big silverbug mob they’d probably be sending a few cobey troops to the local Watchguards. If there was a third they might even reopen the big old cobey unit camp, Goat Creek, out in the barrens. They’d put a cobey base there at all because a couple of generations ago this area had been kind of a hot spot for medium-sized cobeys—and Newworld mostly doesn’t have cobeys, not like Oldworld, which has them everywhere all the time—but they closed it down after the cobeys stopped. At the moment the only thing that lived at Goat Creek was a lot of feral sheep. So Jill was right, it probably didn’t mean anything. But . . .
“Let’s go indoors,” said Jill. “At least there’s cake. And I think your mom would let us have a little champagne if we asked really politely.”
Ran went home with one of his friends and I went home with Jill that night so Val and Mom could have one night alone with each other, although he’d been sleeping over for a while by then and I could (mostly) not think about it. But they couldn’t afford a honeymoon: this was it. I tried to think of something nice to say to Mom before we left but I couldn’t. The last thing I said was, “Don’t forget to put Mongo out. I’ve walked him already. You can just put him out in the back yard. And bring him back in again.”
She gave me a lopsided smile. Seven and a half years ago she’d been giving the A Dog Is a Big Responsibility lecture and here I was telling her what to do. “I won’t forget,” she said.
“And you have to close the kitchen door really tight or—”
“Or he gets out and sleeps on your bed,” she said. “I know.”
I hugged her. Val was standing behind her. I gave him a stiff little nod. If he tried to touch me I’d scream. He didn’t. He just nodded back. It was so dark in the hall I couldn’t see his shadows.
I watched Arnie that night. I actually looked for any weird shadows on the wall behind him and there weren’t any. Arnie did look like he was carrying a little too much charge, but all of our teachers look worse by the end of the school year. Some of them look worse at the beginning.
Arnie was not a big thing in my life. When I went back to Jill’s we usually went straight to her room. That night neither of us was very interested in supper after all the cake (and a little champagne) although we shared a bowl of broccoli and gravy to make Jill’s mom happy about vitamins. Arnie and Jill’s brothers all wanted to watch football so we had the perfect excuse to flee to her room as soon as possible. She closed the door like she was shutting something out (besides brothers) and sat down on her bed like she was falling. “I keep thinking—it’s almost like he’s under a spell,” she whispered.
I gave a violent shiver. “There is no magic in Newworld, baka, stupid,” I said, louder than I meant.
“Keep your voice down,” said Jill. “I know. There’s no magic in Newworld—which is why your lawyer aunt who defends magic users works seven and a half days a week.”
Jill sounded maybe a little more stressed than just about Arnie. But Jill did something a little freaky herself. We called it the f-word. F for “foresight.” She said I was the only person in the universe she’d ever told about it. And probably anyone could have seen that her mom and dad were going to break up, so that she knew it just meant she had been more plugged in than your average eight-year-old. But not anyone would have been home throwing up the day her best friend’s dad was going to get killed in a stupid road accident. She didn’t know that was why. She just knew it was her foresight, telling her something really bad.
She should probably have reported herself. But who needs trouble, you know? It’s not like she ever tried to use it, like Gwenda’s clients (mostly) had. After my dad died, Jill tried to figure out a way to deactivate it, but it was a little like deactivating breathing. You can hold your breath only so long and then your body makes you breathe. Nothing as horrible as Dad’s death had happened to either of us since and she mostly managed to ignore it, like burying that really dreeping sweater you bought on sale during a brain malfunction in the bottom of the drawer. If you’re careful you never have to see it, let alone get it out and put it on. There mostly wasn’t so much of Jill’s f-word that it was too creepo, but it was still more than waking up in the morning with a sense of doom because you knew you were going to flunk your algebra test (besides, Jill got As in algebra) and every now and then it did bug her. And she’d had the scan and the blood test like everyone else.
I didn’t mention the f-word tonight. But I wondered.
“Keisha said Gazzy’ll even get you spells if you have enough money.” Gazzy sold what the local crazydumbs needed to get fried. Everyone knew about Gazzy. Even the cops knew about Gazzy. But he was still out there across the street from the high school nearly every day.
“Spells?” This was Newworld. Even if maybe the gene-chopping hadn’t been quite as thorough as the big posters all over the walls in your local Watchguard office said, and even if Gwenda had more clients than she could handle. “But who would want to put a spell on a hardware store owner?” I objected, more to make Jill feel better than because that’s what I thought. I didn’t know what I thought. Spells? But since I’d seen Val’s shadows, anything was possible.
“I guess,” said Jill. She got off the bed and knelt on the tiny patch of clear space between it and the door. Since Jill was the only girl in her family she had her own bedroom but it was about the size of most people’s bathrooms. We’d been sharing her single bed when I stayed over since we were little kids and fortunately neither of us had grown up to be a kicker. Jill pulled a box out from under the bed. “Hey, look what Mom brought us. She told me I had to wait till after the wedding though.” Jill’s mom was a beautician, and the shop she worked in was pretty amazing. Jill opened the box. There were about twenty little sample-sized bottles of nail polish, all of them in shades of blue and green and purple. “Oh, big bang,” I said, feeling better than I had all day. Maybe they were just shadows, you know? Maybe Arnie had heartburn.
“Can I do yours?” said Jill. “You know I’ll do it better.”
“Yes please,” I said. “Thanks.”