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“Getting Better” by N.E. Chenier

“You better stay away from Meow Mix, Rita, she’ll lethally shed on you.”

That was Warren, buzz-cut, square jaw, athletic build, and the bane of my existence. He called me Meow-Mix because my name was Cat and that was his idea of humor.

The two students trailing him sized me up as if I were a three-headed hamster. The girl with Ferrari-red hair matching her jumpsuit feigned a gasp of horror and shifted her gaze to Warren. He rewarded her with a Colgate grin, emboldening the other one to curl his hands into claws and swipe the air at me. Someone at the next table hissed and meows chorused around our lunch table.

My gadget-junkie buddy Grinx squirmed next to me, making his utility belts jingle. Every day he came up with a new device for his belts, which covered his entire torso (not that there was much to cover).

Satisfied with the antagonism he’d raised against me, Warren led the newbies off on the rest of their orientation tour, perfect diplomat that he was.

“At least I don’t have the power of deadly area-effect boredom,” I muttered, but softly, softly. The last thing I needed was my snark getting back to him. His preliminary pseudo was Overload, and my cellphone was still wonky from our last confrontation. Unlike me, he gets to use his powers at school.

“He’s still sore you creamed him in climbing,” Grinx said, also softly. If Warren-Overload is the bane of my existence, he’s Grinx’s pure nemesis. Wrinkling his brow, Grinx triggered his goggle lenses. They snapped from smoky grey to plum, the lenses that made everyone appear as drunk manatees. Grinx claimed he’d crafted the purple lenses just to humiliate the bullies (yeah, that’ll show them), but he regularly used them whenever his parents went into disapproval mode over his gizmo-centric vocation.

Grinx had a point: Warren’s antagonism had little to do with him being Overload. He used to torment me in elementary school, before any of our powers manifested, because I got a blue ribbon for the climbing event on Athletics Day. He got the red ribbon. Then I got a sprained ankle when he kicked me off the jungle gym.

My afternoon class was Morality of Power, and the universe thought it would be a hoot to have that be the class I shared with Warren. At least Mr. Siegel had the sense to have us seated on opposite sides of the room. Not that it mattered when most of the school was on his side. As the silly-string splayed all over my desk in a vaguely feline shape could attest to.

Seth Silkworm’s doing. Loops of sticky rainbow threads writhed, lifted a vaguely feline-shaped head and barfed a tangle of the viscous string at my chest. I got my pack up to block it, but a lump of it adhered to my hand. Ew. That junk came out of Seth’s navel and it wasn’t the least bit silky.

Hisses and mews echoed behind me.

I swatted the mess off my desk with my already goo-enwebbed hand and took my seat. I called up the assignment on my tablet to avoid having to confront the smirks of my classmates.

It was absolutely unfair that my parents wouldn’t let me use my powers, not even the tiniest flex. Nothing before adolescence, they insisted. They’d read somewhere that practice during puberty might villain-ize you (granted, Warren was a decent argument for that) or stunt your full potential. I had to wait until at least fourteen to even discover what I had.

Others in my class got to flex. Nisha Nova had power over gravity, so she was the head cheerleader even though her cheers sounded like a donkey drowning in a pool of rusty car parts. Hermiette had ultra-fast hands and a brain to match her dexterity, which meant she finished exams in seconds and kicked brainy butt at chess tournaments. Warren regularly screwed up electronics, but no one made him wait.

I picked at the noodly gum on my hand. From experience I knew that until I iced and windexed it, I’d have tacky dye staining my fingers.

You’ll have heard about my parents. Solar Flare? That’s Mom, plasma blasts out her wrists. She’d flick burning droplets at us when we were naughty. Hawk Mask, that’s Dad. They met while averting the Grease Gobbinator Disaster. As a team, they stomped out three criminal rings, two sinister leagues, and defeated countless SSMs (super-sized monsters – their specialty). Dad still flew for his commute. My older brother was already making a name for himself as the shape-shifting guitarist for the uber-rock band Beta Death.

And despite the pedigree, I was the only teenager alive who didn’t know what her strength was. My power would be coming from a symbiote, who would remain dormant through adolescence. Test potentials spiked at image projection, enhanced senses, and telepathy. A profile like that suggested my symbiote was a butsunagi (Buddha eel), which meant, ultimately, I’d have the power of Zen or Tranquility or something. Yawn freaking fest.

The source of my powers would have to be the squickiest of the myriad possibilities. I mean, really? A freaking eel living inside me? It didn’t matter that it wasn’t an actual eel, but some eel-y transdimensional critter. Give me an irradiated spider bite any day.

Maybe I could hone Tranquility to repel aggressive idiocy.

I stayed late after class, again, to avoid leaving at the same time as Warren. Besides, I had an extra-credit book report to finish (going for that A-plus—since I didn’t get to flex my powers, might as well flex the brain).

As I was leaving school, I saw Grinx in the park standing his ground before Warren. So much for avoidance. With Warren was Deet, a froggy looking guy and one of Warren’s henchmen. Alone, Deet was a decent enough guy, like if you get partnered with him in lab, but in Warren’s shadow he was a sniggering jerk.

They were both sniggering at Grinx.

Warren was bigger than both of us put together. Whatever Grinx was doing facing off with Warren – rather than running – couldn’t be good.

Cutting a wide circle, I approached behind a clump of bushes and scaled one of the gnarled pines so I could assess the situation.

Warren had been practicing. Grinx’s belt spewed sparks and lifted him off the pine-needled earth. He wriggled like a pinned beetle. Sparks spat out neon pink, fire orange and copper-burn green. That was some precision work. Warren had to overload the individual gadgets while engaging Grinx’s hover jets.

Wait, something was missing: the caterwauling shriek of the hover jets. So how did Warren have Grinx suspended like that? Latent telekinesis? A loser like that getting two offensive abilities – in what universe is that fair?

So Warren sauntered up to Grinx. I saw Grinx’s eyes go wide behind his bronze-framed goggles. He swam his arms, kicked his legs, but he remained fixed at a meter and a half off the ground.

“Since your tools are all broken, I don’t suppose you’ll be wanting them.” Warren traced the polished scroll of brass that reinforced Grinx’s belt. “Let me give you a hand at recycling.”

“No, Warren, it’s mine,” Grinx shouted, but the last word ended on a squeak as Warren jerked at the cross belt.

Grinx spent all his allowance, all his birthday money, all his lawn-mowing money on materials. Then he spent every last second of his free time crafting them.

Warren had shorted him out before, but Grinx had speed in those little legs of his. With Warren’s new ability, Grinx had lost his escape route. Warren wrenched what looked like a cigarette case off the strap near Grinx’s shoulder. It housed a filament stun-net, his summer project. A nest of wire sprung back against his heaving chest.

Grinx thrashed. “Give that back! It’s mine!” he shrieked.

Warren held it just out of reach, white teeth mocking. “If you want it, you can take it.” Grinx reached for it with both hands, still stuck. Warren gave a nod and Grinx got flipped over in air, a new burst of blue sparks spewed from his boots

I couldn’t believe Warren had the focus to exert two powers at once and still have the excess attention for taunting.

Ha!

It was barely a breath, but I heard it. And then I caught a peek of the source: Nisha Nova, hovering above the branches. So that was what was keeping Grinx suspended.

Three versus two. No, three power-kids versus one power-crippled and one power-unmanifest kid, but I had to do something.

I leapt from the tree to tackle Warren – and missed. Well, I clipped his shoulder and tumbled into Deet. I didn’t even take him out. He recovered before I did and retaliated with cold frost all over my face. Not deadly – not at his age – but enough to blur my vision and choke me with the stench of piss. Deet tweaked his frosts with foul smells. It was like being frosted with ice-urine. So very wrong.

“Looky here,” Warren said in his Overload-voice, the one he deliberately deepened. “The furball decided to join our little pow-wow.”

Someone grabbed my hair and dragged me off the ground. No, not dragged, I was lifted off the ground, like I’d snapped into free fall without moving. Had to be Nisha. Grinx yelled, but I couldn’t tell what he was saying. Every time I swiped my eyes, they frosted over again and I gagged.

Chaos. Was Nisha spinning me around? I felt like I was tumbling. Grinx’s yells, Nisha’s giggling, Warren’s declarations, Deet’s snickering – all whirling around me. Smeared glimpses of trees, grass, pine needles, bark, soil. I couldn’t tell which way was up.

Lunch roiled in my gut. Great, they were making me into a vomit pinwheel. I could see that coming back to haunt me all the way to graduation. I strained to get my muscles to respond. I pulled myself into a ball and waited for a punch, a landing, an electrocution, whatever. It was going to hurt.

And then I noticed a white point in the middle of all the mess, like a moon. I couldn’t tell if it was something I was looking at or some kind of a hallucination. It was the only thing I could focus on, so I did.

It was comfortable. Weird, considering being frosted and pee-smelling and twisting in air. I stayed with it. Thoughts spun around me like fish in a tornado.

Out of the miasma, a fuzzy voice very clearly stated, ‘Blowfish, tadpoles, jellyfish, take the train to town. Ashes, minuet, they all fall down.’

I must have been dying, and this fuzzy voice was the death throes of my brain cells. Swell, freaked-out Dr. Seuss. Just the way I dreamed of clocking out.

Smaller than a pea bike, squishy like a tail pipe. Take the beard and lock her up.’

Was this what a coma was like? At least it wasn’t so cold and stinky.

“Cat, Cat?” Now there was a gingersnap voice. “Snap out of it.” Snap? That was my line. Ginger and dragon. Wait, what—?

It didn’t smell like a port-a-potty.

I blinked my eyes clear. Ah, it was Grinx. “You’re okay,” I said around the stray taste of cherry cough drops coating my tongue. “And down to earth.”

“Very funny.”

“What’s with the facial hair?”

“I thought you could tell me.” He rubbed the honey-colored fuzz on his thirteen-year-old chin. “Nice flex.”

“Say what? I was dying.”

Grinx gestured to the area behind him where Warren was flopping around the pine needles like a halibut. Next to him, Deet crouched and straightened up again, in slow motion: crouched, stood, crouched, stood.

At the base of the tree, Nisha sat rubbing her hands and arms over and over. “Won’t come off,” she whispered.

“I did this?” I couldn’t believe it. What kind of power was that? “Are they okay?”

Glinx lifted his goggles onto his forehead. “I think they’re coming out of it. He’s not flopping near as much. But we can call an ambulance if you want – once we get out of here.”

We headed back to school. Before we made it halfway across the parking lot, Nisha yelled, “Hey!”

We turned and saw her hovering at the edge of the park.

“What was that?”

Glinx pointed at me. I shrugged.

“Don’t mess with us,” I said with a lot more bravado than I felt. I had no idea what that was. I still wasn’t sure that jumping from the tree hadn’t been a huge mistake. But Glinx and I emerged relatively unscathed and with most of his parts.

Relatively. It was going to take us some long nights in his workshop, me acting as semi-clueless but helpful assistant, but we’d get his gizmo-power back to functionality. And then figure out what was up with mine.

***

Mom and Dad let me start training from a guy with a butsunagi, which was the closest thing to the symbiote I had – but not.

He called my power obfuscation. Couldn’t wait till I could control it – or at least not have to be on the edge of death to use it. I hadn’t decided if it was uselessly weird or pretty cool. With Warren leaving us the hell alone ever since then, I was starting to lean towards cool.

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About the Author

N.E. Chenier nearly went back to school this year but decided the return wasn’t promising enough for the investment. (Now, if super-hero graduate school were an option, the doctorate would already be in hand.) Instead, she has turned her energies to spec-fic, the British Columbian outdoors, and raising a squidlet who exhibits the power of cuddly pandaemonium.

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