The Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years. In Carrie Vaughn’s “The Thing about Growing Up in Jokertown,” a group of teenage jokers yearn to explore outside the confines of their strange little neighborhood and get a real taste of the Big Apple.
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About the Author
Carrie Vaughn is the New York Times bestselling author of the Kitty Norville books, including Kitty's Big Trouble, Kitty Goes to War, and Kitty and the Midnight Hour. She is also the author of the standalone novels After the Golden Age and Discord's Apple, and the young adult books Voice of Dragons and Steel.
Vaughn had the nomadic childhood of the typical Air Force brat, with stops across the country from California to Florida. She earned her B.A. from Occidental College in Los Angeles, and a master's in English from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has worked as a Renaissance Festival counter wench, a theater usher, an editor, a buyer at an independent bookstore, and an administrative assistant. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.
Carrie Vaughn is best known for her New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty who hosts a talk radio show for the supernaturally disadvantaged. Her novels include a near-Earth space opera, Martians Abroad, from Tor Books, and the post-apocalyptic murder mysteries Bannerless and The Wild Dead. She's written several other contemporary fantasy and young adult novels, as well as upwards of 80 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. She's a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado.
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The Thing About Growing Up in Jokertown
By Carrie Vaughn, John Picacio
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Carrie Vaughn
All rights reserved.
The thing about growing up in Jokertown is it gives you some weird ideas about what's normal.
Ma got me a job that summer at Antoine's Corner Store, just a couple of hours a day. She's been working there for I don't know how long. Like twenty years. Forever. She wants me working because she says I need to do something, maybe to keep me out of trouble. She and Dad are apparently worried I'm going to join a gang, like the Werewolves or the Killer Geeks, because those are the ones they read about in the papers. They read all these stories about kids running with gangs, and since I can really, you know, run, I think they're worried I'll get recruited by drug dealers wanting me to make deliveries across town. I'm all, "Ma, I look like a human whippet, no one's going to hire me to run drugs, I stand out way too much." One eyewitness and every cop on the Lower East Side would know exactly who they were talking about.
But when Ma looks at me she doesn't see a human whippet — five-three me with scruffy dark hair and a chest as big as a keg, with a wasp waist and the legs like an Olympic sprinter. And the fangs, don't forget the fangs. Mongoose fangs, which was what got me my nickname — Rikki. My real name is Miranda. Nobody calls me that except the teachers at school. Rikki or Miranda, Ma just sees me as her little princess, her miracle joker baby.
It could also be that Ma got me the job because she started working at Antoine's when she was sixteen, my age. Most parents who want their kids to follow in their footsteps are doctors or senators, stuff like that. But Ma wants me to work in a convenience store. Stay in the neighborhood. Support my community, because that's another thing about growing up in Jokertown — it's the only home some of us will ever have.
Jokertown gives you some weird ideas of what's normal, but if you never leave, you never need everybody else's normal. Normal normal.
That day, I'm restocking sodas in the cooler while Ma works behind the counter, ringing up frozen burritos and cough syrup and stuff. The bell on the door rings when someone comes in, and I can usually tell without looking if the customer is a local or not.
"Hey, June! How are things?" This is a male voice, gruff and friendly.
Ma answers, "Oh, can't complain. It's been hot, but you know that. What'll it be?"
"Gimme a pack of the Camels."
I peek over the magazine rack and see a middle-aged guy in a tank top, porkpie hat, and elephant ears the size of dinner plates, flapping just a little like he's trying to stir up a breeze to keep cool. Ma hands him his cigarettes, he gives her a wadded up bill, and they talk some more about the weather. Then he waves, and she waves back with one of her tentacles.
Above the waist, Ma, June Michaelson, who's lived in Jokertown since her wild card turned when she was fifteen, is a forty-year-old woman with curly, shoulder-length hair dyed auburn, a round face and wide smile. She wears nice button-up shirts in bright colors and dangly earrings. She's the kind of person who asks if you've had enough to eat and if you'd like to come over for some coffee and a cinnamon roll.
Below the waist, she has a half dozen fat green tentacles instead of legs. She's like a mermaid but part octopus instead of fish. She totally walks around on those things, too. They're super strong and flexible. When she really wants to freak someone out, she'll reach over the counter with one of her tentacles to hand the customer their bag.
She always wants to freak out the tourists.
Sometimes, a nat who sees her right away will turn around and walk back out of the store because they can't handle it. Sometimes they'll already be at the counter with a can of soda and it's too late to leave, at least without being rude, and to give most people credit, they don't want to be rude. They try to be cool about it. But you can see in their eyes that Ma breaks their minds.
The guy with the elephant ears doesn't blink because, you know, Jokertown. But the next time the bell on the door rings, the guy who walks in is a nat. Or looks like a nat, maybe in his twenties, wearing a nice shirt and khakis and some kind of hip goatee. More than that, he's a tourist, like he's slumming it in Jokertown, or he thinks he's still too far north to be in Jokertown proper. He looks around nervously, sees my whippet shape, and quickly glances away. His hand taps against his leg like he wants to be anywhere but here.
He goes to grab a pack of batteries and a bag of chips and then heads to the counter, where Ma waits with her big, friendly, cinnamon-roll smile.
"Would you like a bag for that?" she asks, ringing him up on the register with her totally normal hands.
"Yeah, that'd be great."
"There you go, hon." She lifts out the bag with one of her tentacles twisted firmly around it.
"Jesus!" the guy screams, falling back three feet and knocking over half the chips display. Ma, she just smiles.
Heaving breaths like he's been attacked by a lion, the guy struggles to get his feet under him and then rushes out the door, slamming it open hard on its hinges. He remembers to grab his bag first, but holds it by the bottom, where Ma hasn't touched it.
Ma leans over the counter and calls after him, grinning, "Have a nice day!"
I stand and look at her over the magazine rack. "Ma. Really?"
"Oh, honey, it's fine! And now he has a story to take back to his friends in the Village, or Brooklyn, or wherever he's from."
"One of these days somebody's gonna pull a gun on you."
"I've been working here twenty-five years and it hasn't happened yet. Rikki, you worry an awful lot for someone your age."
I'm sixteen, and near as I can figure all my friends and I do is worry. What are we gonna be when we grow up, who's gonna ask us to prom, how the hell do you fit in when you don't look like anybody else in the whole world. We've got a lot to worry about.
I glance at the clock hanging in the back of the store. A half hour more and then I can leave. I'm supposed to hang out with my friends later. That's all I'm doing, when Ma thinks I'm joining a gang.
The bell rings again, and this time Dad comes in. A lot of days he'll stop by on his lunch break "to say hi to my girls." I smile every time.
"Hey, Dad," I say.
"How are my girls today?" He leans over the front counter for a kiss from Ma that lingers. If it weren't for the counter, it wouldn't be just her arms wrapping around him.
Dad's a manager for the sanitation department, and, like Ma, he's been working at the same place for practically his whole life. He also moved to Jokertown when his card turned. He's got lizard eyes and a forked tongue, but unless you look real close he just seems like a regular guy. He fools people. Ma says he's "passing," and that's how he got so high up in management at the sanitation department. But he says no, it's just that no one else wants to be a supervisor in Jokertown. It's the same with the cops, the utilities guys, everything.
"You working hard over there, Rikki?"
"Yeah, Dad," I say, both annoyed with the ritual and happy to have it.
"Rikki's a good worker, Nick," Ma says.
"I know it. You're a good kid."
He reaches out for a big hug, and I lean into it. I can't remember when he started having trouble getting his arms around my whippet chest. I squeeze back harder to try to make up for it, to tell him everything's okay.
Ma and Dad have been worried about me since I started high school last year. It's because I tried out for the track team and didn't make it, even though I can run faster than anyone else at the school. Than anyone in the city. It's because the state athletic board has rules about wild carders competing in sports against nats. Unfair advantage, they say, even though I'm just me. But my friend Beastie can't go out for football because he's like seven feet tall and super strong. He'd kick ass at football, and I guess that's the problem. The coach says there's too big a chance he'd hurt somebody. But I know Beastie. He can control himself, and he'd never hurt anybody. He just wants to go for a letter jacket like anyone else.
But in Jokertown we end up mainly competing against each other.
So my parents are worried I'm depressed. I don't think I am. I knew I couldn't be on the track team. But I'd like to show people I can run.
There's gotta be something out there for me to do, where I can run and have it be useful and not just some weird joker trick.
Dad picks out a soda; Ma gives it to him on the house. "What're you doing after work, Rikki?"
"Just hanging out," I say, like usual. He and Ma both get that worried look again, and I want to yell, "I'm fine."
Then it's time for him to go back to work, and we both wave him out the door, and finally it's time for my shift to end.
"I'm clocking out, Ma."
"And you're going straight back home, right?"
"No, I told you, I'm seeing Beastie and Kris and them at Seward Park, like usual."
"You'll be home by dinner." She says it like half a question, half a command.
I get exasperated. "Yes!"
She hesitates for a second, and I worry that she's going to say something, tell me no, I have to stay in and study or help with dinner or just bearound, so she won't have to worry about me. She worries about me a lot. Dad says it's normal, but I think it's because the odds have been against me since the day I was born and she knows it.
But finally she says, "Okay. But be careful!"
I'm already out of the store.
* * *
I am a miracle baby because I was a joker before I was born. The genetics of it work like this: The wild card gene is recessive, so you can have one wild card parent and one nat parent and be okay. You'll be born with the gene, but you won't be a wild carder. The only way you can get the virus is by getting infected.
But if both your parents are wild carders? If they both have the virus, and therefore the gene is written into their DNA? You're gonna have the gene, and you get the same odds as anyone who gets the virus: ninety percent chance of death. One percent chance of becoming an ace. Nine percent chance of being a human whippet, or octopus mermaid, or whatever.
I had two older siblings. They died before they were born — they got the ninety percent. "Third time's the charm," Dad used to say whenever he looked at me, until I told him to stop it. I'm the miracle baby, the one who lived, the one who beat the odds. Well, most of the odds, anyway.
I coulda been born an ace, and I wonder what would have happened then. Because the thing about Ma and Dad that no one says out loud is: They wanted a joker baby, like them. I wonder, if I'd been born an ace, with a regular human body and amazing powers, would they have loved me? I asked her that once. "Ma. What would you have done if I'd turned an ace?"
Her lips pressed into a tight line, the way they did when she had to give herself a moment to think. She finally said, "You're always an ace to me, dear."
Yeah, that didn't answer my question.
I run the few blocks to Seward Park just because I can, covering entire blocks in a few seconds, blowing past people who glare at me and shout after me to slow the hell down, but I don't care. I'm careful. I look where I'm going. I can't not run, with my lungs full of air and my legs burning with power.
Beastie's already at the park. He's hard to miss. He doesn't sit on the bench because he would break it, so he sits on the ground like a giant fuzzy boulder, hands draped on his thighs, his shirt hanging over him like a tent. He looks like a giant teddy bear until you notice the curving horns on his head and his long, pale claws. He jokes that he's gonna learn to knit with them someday.
Kris is on the bench next to him, wrapped up in her hoodie. It's a hot summer day but the hood is pulled way over her head so only her chin peeks out. Somehow, she's still able to glare. Her hands and sleeves are shoved deep in her pockets. Kris basically looks like a normal human, except for her skin. Her parents are black, but Kris's skin changes color depending on how she feels. Her mom calls her the walking mood ring, but none of us have ever seen a real mood ring so we take her word for it. Kris can't control it any more than she can control whether she's happy or sad or scared or angry. So she wears the hoodie. Right now her chin is sort of a pinkish swirl, which means she's a little bit sad, but not enough to say anything about it. She gets self-conscious when people ask her what's wrong all the time. Best thing to do with Kris is pretend you don't notice when her face goes from purple to blue to yellow because someone just said something stupid and she's furious. You can ask, but she'll just fold up and not say anything. If she wants to say something, she'll say something.
Then there's Splat. I don't notice him at first because he's under the park bench. He's part of the sidewalk, in fact. Flat. If I hadn't stopped ten feet away to look for him on purpose, I'd be stepping on his leg. Splat — his name is really Franklin Steinberg — can do something to his body that makes all his bones and organs and everything spread out until they are, mostly, flat. So when he presses himself to the wall he really presses himself to the wall. He would be an ace, except he can't actually do anything when he's splatted out. The way he explains it, his muscle tissue loses elasticity and he can't get the leverage to so much as slither under a closed door or lift a carpet to trip someone. He's tried. He's still trying. He practices every day but only ever has enough strength to pull himself back into his normal shape. Still, there isn't a one of us he hasn't scared by hiding behind a telephone pole and jumping out and yelling, "Boo!" He's a hoot at parties.
"I see you," I announce as I approach.
Splat picks himself up, which is weird to watch. It's like film of water spilling rolled backward, the pieces sucking toward some central point which rises from the ground to become a lanky dark-haired kid, arms wrapped around his knees, sitting under the bench and grinning up at us.
Kris screeches, jumping off the bench and launching away like a frightened cat, hood slipping off her head to reveal the skin of her face splotching between blue and red.
"Jesus fuck, Splat! Why didn't you say something?"
Beastie gets to his feet but doesn't jump like Kris. He turns to me and says in his deep voice, "We didn't think he was here yet. Hey, Rikki."
"Hey. So, Splat, learn any juicy gossip?"
He unfolds himself and crawls from under the bench. "Naw, these clowns are boring, just talking about school and stuff."
Kris hits him on the shoulder. Her skin settles back to a neutral brown, and she yanks the hood back over her short dark hair.
I slouch on the park bench. Kris slouches next to me, Splat follows, and Beastie settles back on the grass. "So what's up?" I ask.
"Nothing," Kris says.
"Nothing," Beastie repeats.
Splat shrugs. "My dad didn't come home again. Don't know when he's coming back this time."
"Aw, man, I'm sorry."
"Naw, it's cool."
Of course, if it was really cool, he wouldn't have said anything about it. But what can you say to make something like that better? He's saying it just to let it out, and we listen.
"What do you want to do?" I ask. My feet are itching to do something. They usually are.
"I dunno. Just hang out, I guess," Splat says, and the others echo it. I sigh. Hanging out it is, then. I slump back against the bench and look into the trees.
A bus pulls up to the curb on the park's east side. Its hissing brakes draw my attention. Like, a big coach tour bus, and the door opens and a crowd of people spills out and gathers on the sidewalk. They don't go any farther than that, clinging to the side of the bus like it's a life raft. A bunch of them are taking pictures.
"Tourists," Splat declares with disgust.
Sure enough, the woman in the neat skirt and suit jacket who'd gotten off first is speaking — she's too far away for us to hear exactly what she's saying, but the way she points like she's lecturing, we can pretty much guess. Here's the street where protesters led by the JJS, Jokers for a Just Society, gathered in 1976, sparking the riots that ruined Senator Hartmann's first presidential bid. A couple of blocks that way is the brownstone where Xavier Desmond, the celebrated activist and unofficial mayor of Jokertown, lived. Our Lady of Perpetual Misery is a block in the other direction. This park has always been a gathering place for joker civil rights activists, though in recent years the neighborhood has been peaceful, yadda yadda. I got most of the spiel from Ma and Dad when I was growing up. They came to Jokertown after it all went down in '76, and sometimes I think they were sorry they'd missed it.
Isn't any sign of any of it now, except what the tour guides say.
Some of those cameras are clearly pointed at us, the local color, a group of joker kids hanging out in the park. Splat stands up and points both middle fingers at the tourists, scowling. Some of them look startled, eyes widening. Most just keep taking pictures. And won't that look nice in the family album? The tour guide hustles everyone back on the bus a moment later.
Excerpted from The Thing About Growing Up in Jokertown by Carrie Vaughn, John Picacio. Copyright © 2016 Carrie Vaughn. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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About the Author,