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PART ONE: THE NEW GIRL IN TOWN
Hi there, whoever might be seeing this.
My name’s Carrie Hauser, and as I record this on my trusty laptop, it’s New Year’s Eve and, coincidentally, the end of the weirdest, wildest, and worst year of my young life—and, somehow, also the greatest. Over the past few months, I’ve met incredible people, had an amazing adventure, and learned that the world is so much larger, crazier, and more fantastic than I could have ever dreamed.
Oh, yeah, and I’ve nearly been killed several times, but I try not to think about that part too much.
If you’re watching this…well, if you’re watching this, I hope you’re a historian from the far future and that I’ve been dead for a long time because if you’re not and I’m not? That’s probably bad news for me.
Maybe I shouldn’t be recording this.
Okay, maybe I’ll record it and erase it. I need to get everything that’s happened out of my head. Maybe hearing myself say it out loud will help me make sense of it. Or I’ll just sound like a total crazy person.
All the more reason to erase it, I guess. I don’t want people in the future thinking I was nuts.
Except I’m not nuts. I just have a really weird life. I didn’t always. Life was extremely normal for a long time — right up until I found the dying alien. Until I found the others like me.
I’m not making any sense, am I?
I’m going to start over.
It’s not the best way to start my first day of school.
I’d set the alarm clock for the right time and I’d remembered to turn the alarm on; it’s going off. The problem is I’ve gotten a little too used to sleeping in, so big dummy me, I keep hitting the snooze bar.
EENT EENT EENT (whack) back to sleep.
EENT EENT EENT (whack) back to sleep.
EENT EENT EENT (whack) back to sleep.
It occurs to me, hey, maybe I should see what time it is — 6:57 AM— but it still doesn’t hit me right away that I need to get my lazy butt up and get ready to wow my new classmates at Kingsport High School. When it finally clicks? Good morning, panic.
My morning rituals are pretty standard for a fifteen and a half- (practically sixteen-) year-old girl: I shower using fruity-smelling body washes and facial scrubs; I shampoo and condition; I blow-dry upside down so I can get lift without using any product (which can weigh your hair down. Today’s beauty tip). I’m not big on makeup — not anymore, not like I used to be. If you’d seen me a few months ago? You’d think I was turning tricks on a street corner somewhere. Nowadays, I keep it simple: light eye makeup, a little color on the lips, good to go. Clean and natural — that’s my new motto. No more slapping the cosmetics on by the pound.
(Did you know heavy makeup on oily skin leads to crazy zits? And that the worst way to hide the zits is to slap on more makeup? Hard lesson learned there.)
Today, however, I have no time for all that primping and preening. I barely have time for a quick scrub at the sink for my face and stubbly pits. The hair goes into a ponytail, and sorry face, you’re going in au naturel. No time to waste on agonizing over an ensemble either; it’s a jeans and T-shirt day.
Maybe my grand first impression won’t totally suck.
On my way down the stairs, I wonder why the maternal unit didn’t kick my tushy out of bed when my attempt at self-sufficiency met with epic failure and then I remember: it’s her first day, too. She has a new job to go with the new town and the new home. New-ish, I should say. Mom grew up in Kingsport, lived in this house with Granddad (mine, not hers), so after the divorce, she moved back home so she could have some sense of familiarity and stability.
Me, however? No such luck. No stability for Carrie. I got dragged along for this ride kicking and screaming. No lie, it kind of sucks.
No, not kind of. It just plain sucks. I hate it.
(Whoops. Drifting into sullen, self-pitying teenager mode. Have to watch that.)
Deep breath, Carrie. You can do this.
Looks like Mom was thinking of me, though: there’s a package of strawberry Pop-Tarts on the kitchen counter and enough of her paint-peeler coffee left in the pot for one cup. I’m halfway through chugging it down when I hear the school bus roar past the house. It never even slows down. Did the driver not know he had a new stop? Or did he see a blank patch of sidewalk and decide I was a no-show?
I grab my backpack and run outside, hoping to catch the driver’s eye in the rearview, but there he goes, down the street, and here I am, chasing after him like a total moron.
The school’s within walking distance, but I won’t get there in time — not on foot. I bang a right and duck into the woods separating my street with the next closest neighborhood. They’re not so thick they slow me down but thick enough that no one can see me when I take off.
I mean that literally.
I feel it in my hands first, an electric tingling sensation, like pins and needles after your foot falls asleep but a million times more intense, just short of painful. It spreads up my arms and engulfs the rest of my body, takes me over in a heartbeat. Living light — that’s the only way I can describe what I become. I’m still solid; I can touch and be touched, but I’m weightless. I’m like a sunbeam pretending to be a person. I don’t understand what happens or how it works, but let me tell you, when I leave the ground and soar into the air like a rocket, it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters but me and the sky.
Flight was the first power I discovered, but it’s by no means the only thing I can do. I glow by default, and over the course of several weeks of on-and-off experimentation, I learned that I can crank up the brightness if I want to or turn it down to a dim shine. I don’t know if you can accurately call them lasers, but I can shoot energy from my hands, a trick I learned accidentally (my parents blamed the melted trash can on vandals). I’ve tried doing other things like making shapes with the energy, but so far? Fail—unless you count a wall as a shape.
But the best part, by far, is the flying. The first time I went airborne? Holy crap, I nearly wet myself. One minute, I was on the ground. The next, the ground was thousands of feet below me. I screamed and waited for whatever was keeping me in the air to quit and drop me back to earth, but that didn’t happen. I didn’t fall, and my scream of terror turned into a nervous, exhilarated laugh like you’d let out after a roller coaster comes to a stop and you realize you aren’t dead. I felt more alive than I’d ever felt before (pardon my cliché, but it’s true), and all the crap that had been heaped on me a few days earlier disappeared. I was free.
I love the feeling, so much that I totally forget to be afraid of falling. Sometimes I turn off my power and go into free fall. It’s not a rush like you’d think it would be. I find it very serene, actually, almost meditative.
(For obvious reasons, I haven’t said a word to my parents. I don’t think they’d respond well.)
But there’s no time for that now. I have places to be. No, correction: a place to be.
I stop in midair when I realize I have no clue where the school is and take in the Google Earth view of Kingsport. It’s a fairly big town about a half-hour south of Boston, right near the ocean, which is very cool. It reminds me of some of the bigger towns on Cape Cod, where I’m from: it’s heavily developed in some spots and nothing but green in others. The high school is on the edge of the town center, where all the action is, so Main Street is easy to spot. Then I pick out the large, rambling building with parking lots slapped around it with no sense of logic and a cluster of what are most definitely assorted athletic fields: football, baseball, track, tennis — a little something for everyone.
There are some woods bordering one side of the building. That’s where I go. I drop slowly to avoid getting caught up on any branches, touch down in a thick carpet of dead brown leaves laid down by previous autumns, and power off. Now I’m doubly glad I went with the ponytail; flying means instant bad hair day.
A bell goes off, and I break into a sprint, praying that that was an early warning bell and not the You’re late, Hauser, sucks to be you bell.
It doesn’t suck to be me.
I report in at the main office, and a middle-aged woman who looks like she’d rather be anywhere but here tells me to hold on a minute — an order, not a request (I hope she’s not the norm around here). She picks up the phone, says something, hangs up, and tells me “He’ll be right out” but doesn’t tell me who he is.
He turns out to be the assistant principal. “Hi there, Caroline, I’m Mr. Dent,” he says, shaking my hand. He’s kind of young to be in charge of anything except maybe the night shift at Burger King. He’s also good-looking, and I bet a lot of the girls here entertain inappropriate fantasies about the guy.
“Hi, Mr. Dent. Everyone calls me Carrie,” I say. I don’t like Caroline. It’s not a bad name, but it sounds so formal: Caroline Hauser. If names were destinies, I’d be doomed to life as a TV news anchor.
(For the record, my middle name is Dakota. Don’t laugh.)
“All right, Carrie. I’d tell you everyone calls me Carson, but the superintendent frowns on the students calling the adults by their first names. Lacks respect, I’m told,” he says, hinting strongly that he does not agree with this policy. I like him.
He tells me my paperwork is all set (I had paperwork?) and offers to escort me to my new homeroom. The final bell goes off as we step into the main hallway, passing through a rapidly thinning sea of students rushing to get where they need to be. Carson-call-me-Mister-Dent doesn’t rush.
“I was reading your file,” he says. “You’re from Cape Cod?”
Small talk. I’m not a fan, but I go with it. “Yeah, from Barnstable, but I was born here. We moved to the Cape when I was little.”
“Ah. What brings you back to Kingsport?”
“Long story short, my parents got divorced. Mom grew up here, my grandfather still lives here, she needed to do the whole reboot-my-life thing, so here we are.”
Mr. Dent gives me a sympathetic grunt. He can tell it’s a sore subject and doesn’t press. Did I mention I like him?
“I think you’ll like it here,” he says. “Kingsport’s a good place to live. It has a nice small-town vibe without being a small town, if you read me, and we have a big mall,” he says as if that’s a point of interest.
“I’m not a mall rat,” I say, trying not to come off as snooty about it, even though I am. I never understood hanging out at the mall as a social experience, even during my Dark Period, when the mall was my second home. More on that later, I promise.
“Well, there’s still a lot to do. If you like movies, there’s a cool old theater in town that’s always showing classic films, there’s a nice park in the center of town, there’s an excellent coffee shop on — no, sorry, that’s closed right now.”
“That would be the one that got trashed by the runaway robot?”
Mr. Dent grinds to a stop and purses his lips. “You’ve heard about the robot problem?”
“Hard not to, it’s all over the news.” I think I surprise him by admitting I watch the news. “Besides, that coffee shop was my granddad’s favorite hangout. All I’ve heard since we moved in is, ‘Damned robot. Where am I supposed to get my latté now?’”
In addition to the many features Mr. Dent listed, Kingsport is a technology town. A bunch of tech companies have their headquarters here, including one outfit I think is called Advanced Robotics and Cybernetics, something like that. They started out making vacuum cleaner robots for your home then branched out to developing robots for the military and, more recently, high-end prosthetic limbs for injured soldiers (I heart them for that). Apparently, they’ve been having some problems with their military products. ARC dabbles in artificial intelligence so their tankbots and bomb disposalbots and minesweeperbots and whatnot can carry out their missions without human controllers, but I guess the AI has been a bit buggy, and a couple of their prototypes have decided to run away from home and raise hell in town. No one’s been killed, but a few people have been hurt, and there’s been no small amount of property damage, so ARC is not well-loved by the good people of Kingsport nowadays—my grandfather and other loyal patrons of the Coffee Experience foremost among them.
“I can sympathize,” Mr. Dent says as he leads me through a crazy intersection, which he calls the Twilight Zone due to its uncanny ability to confuse anyone who is not intimately familiar with the building. The building’s expanded many times over the years to keep up with population growth, he explains, so there are areas that don’t make any sense and will get me lost, a lot.
“I still get turned around myself,” he says before picking a corridor. I catch a soft whew from him when he spots my homeroom, so I suspect that he took a shot in the dark and got lucky.
Everyone in the room looks me over as I enter. Most of them need only a second or two before they make all their initial judgments about me and go back to chatting with their friends, feverishly finishing up neglected homework, et cetera. A few take a little longer. They either don’t know what to think of me or they’re ogling me (I know this sounds smug, but I am ogle-worthy — have been since middle school. I try to be a lot more modest about it nowadays, so take this as a statement of fact rather than a boast, please).
The teacher, a woman teetering on the edge of middle age named Mrs. Prescott, welcomes me in and announces to the mostly indifferent class that I’m the new student, Caroline (ugh) Hauser.
“Call me Carrie,” I say before Caroline can sink in, but no one cares either way.
There’s an empty seat near the back. I pass through a gauntlet of critical eyes, appraising me, analyzing me, trying to figure out how smart I am, if I put out, what color my underwear is, what my favorite band is (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, for the record. I’m old-school. Trash the Boss at your peril). In the five seconds it takes me to reach my desk, I’ve been thoroughly dissected, scrutinized, and categorized. Everyone has made up their minds about me. I’ve only said three words to anyone here.
High school would be a great place if it weren’t for all the teenagers.
And yet, this is the only place in my life right now that feels at all familiar or comfortable. What a sad statement that is.
My skin prickles. I glance back to see someone staring at me, a kid in the last row. He’s pretty ordinary looking, another face in the high school crowd. A little too disheveled to be called cute I decide—a borderline slob, in fact, and then I mentally kick myself for falling into the Snap-Judgment Trap myself. I should know better than to condemn on a first impression, but this kid is making it tough. The way he’s looking at me, he’s not passing judgment or trying to figure me out; he looks like he’s planning his next move. It makes me uncomfortable.
He gives me a slight upward tilt of the head, the hey there nod, and I give him one back as a courtesy. I notice a nametag reading HELLO, MY NAME IS on his black T-shirt and I think, Seriously?, and then I see the name written in the blank space: INIGO MONTOYA. Below that, in smaller handwriting: YOU KILLED MY FATHER. PREPARE TO DIE.
Okay, weird kid, you’re a Princess Bride fan. Point in your favor, but you’re still skeeving me out.
The bell rings, signaling that it’s time to hustle to my first class: English, which I can handle, no problem. Native tongue and all that.
The weird kid comes up from behind. “Hi,” he says, keeping pace with me. “I’m Matt.”
“I’m Carrie,” I say, politely but distractedly. My attention is on the placards screwed to the off-white walls listing the room numbers. They’re huge, like the school was designed by people who publish large-print books for old people.
“So I heard. I think we’re going to be good friends, you and me.”
“Oh?” I say. And it’s you and I. See? Good at English.
“Yeah. We have stuff in common.”
“Oh yeah. What lunch do you have?”
Oh God, is he hitting on me? “I’m not sure, I—”
He snatches right out of my hand, right out of my hand as I’m trying to read it, the printout listing my schedule. He skims it, hands it back. “First lunch. That’s the good one. The food is still hot. It’s terrible, but still hot. That’s my lunch too. See? That is surely a sign we’re going to be friends.”
“It could also be coincidence,” I say, a chill creeping into my voice. This kid, Matt, is sliding from weird to jerk in record time.
“Nah. It’s fate. It’s meant to happen.”
“We’ll see,” I say as we reach the Twilight Zone. I wait for him to go first because no matter which way he goes, even if it’s the corridor I need, I want to go a different way and put some distance between us.
“We shall,” he says, and off he goes, and it’s not the direction I’m heading.
Aw, crap. I’m lost.
Thankfully, the teachers understand the idiosyncrasies of their building and are forgiving of new students who get lost in the Twilight Zone. My classmates? Not so much. There’s very deliberate snickering as I enter my English class three minutes late.
I recognize a few faces from my homeroom, but the rest are complete strangers, so I get to go through the grand judgment routine once again. The teacher, Mr. Abell, declares that today will be an in-class discussion about the effect of modern technology on communication. From that debate, he’ll select a few topic sentences, and from those, we’ll choose one and write a one thousand-word essay. He gets the ball rolling and says, with unmasked disdain, that instant messaging and texting are creating a generation that is less capable of clearly communicating ideas. Ah, technophobia, alive and well in my elders.
Mr. Abell waits for someone to respond, and I’m disappointed to see no one is raising a hand. This is an advanced English class; the kids here are supposed to be the ones who want to learn. What gives, people?
Oh, well. I was hoping for an excuse to blow a few preconceived notions out of the water, so here I go.
“Yes…Carrie, was it?”
“If you’d stated that the shorthand younger people use when texting was undermining literacy, I might agree,” I say, “but I think because things like Twitter and texting limit the number of characters you can utilize per entry, it’s forced users to be more efficient. Sure, OMG and LOL and BTW look like gibberish to some people, but they communicate full ideas, and if you know the lingo, you can have complete and coherent conversations.”
Mr. Abell looks at me. The other kids look at me. Their minds, they have been blown.
Yes, I am a brainiac. That, I will boast about. I’m smart, and I own it, though I haven’t always.
All right, enough teasing. I’ll explain. When I was little, I was a “cute kid,” which is the best an unabashed tomboy can hope for. Around middle school, I discovered that genetics saw fit to equip me with what Mom calls the Three Bs: blonde hair, boobs, and a booty. People stopped calling me a cute kid, started calling me a pretty girl, but I didn’t buy into it until the other adolescent pretty girls decided I was one of them, at which point I got swept into the Cult of Blossoming Hotties. By the time I entered freshman year of high school, I was a full-fledged vapid bimbo. A lot of the things I liked to do, I stopped doing. A lot of the people I liked to hang out with, I abandoned. Schoolwork? Neglected. Intelligence? Suppressed. Personality? Replaced. I sloughed off my old life because almost none of it fit in my newly adopted stereotype — and what did I get in return for it all? Not sympathy, that’s for sure. When my parents dropped their bombshell, I was actually chastised for daring to kill the group buzz with all my, quote, “stupid whining” about my broken heart.
My parents’ divorce took up the whole summer. My divorce from my so-called friends was instantaneous.
I truly regret that entire chapter of my life. I used to think my parents’ divorce was God punishing me for so completely turning my back on everything I was and everyone in my old (and, I say with the benefit of hindsight, much better and happier) life. I know now that’s not true, and their divorce was not some kind of karmic payback for my time as a selfish bitch.
Still, if anything good came out of Mom and Dad splitting, it was that I finally got my head screwed on straight again. That, and I found the alien that gave me my powers, and I swear I will tell you about that soon.
(Side note: did you know that out of all the known superhumans in the United States, fourteen of them claim to have received their powers through extraterrestrial intervention or technology? That’s what Wikipedia says, so take it with a grain of salt, but who knew that aliens coming to Earth was such a common occurrence?)
Anyway, I have officially outed myself as a smart girl. I can’t tell who, aside from Mr. Abell, is impressed by this, but I don’t care. I was overly concerned with what people thought of me once, and I’m not letting it happen again. No way.
“Very interesting perspective on the matter, Carrie, thank you,” Mr. Abell says. A guy two rows ahead of me turns around in his seat, long enough to give me the stink-eye and let me know he doesn’t appreciate me raising the bar for the rest of the class like that.
High school lunchrooms take everything bad about high school and concentrate it. Tables become exclusive members-only clubs, and God help you if you try to enter without an invitation.
So here I am, wandering around a lunchroom big enough to hold a football game in, tray of steaming hot meat-based slop and soggy vegetables in hand, searching in vain for a vacant seat and some friendly faces. A guy sitting at a table of jocks and cheerleaders waves me over, and I am filled with guarded hope.
(I’m guessing that it’s a jock/cheerleader table based on the fact a couple of the guys are built like refrigerators. You see, unlike high schools as portrayed on TV, jocks and cheerleaders do not constantly wear their uniforms during the school day. I mean, come on.)
“Need a seat, baby?” says the kid who waved at me, and it’s loathe at first sight. Baby? Really? He slaps his thigh. “Right here. Nice and comfy.”
I can’t help myself. “No thanks. Looks a little too small for my tastes.”
That earns me a round of “Burn!” from the rest of the table and a wounded look from my would-be suitor. What’s it going to be? Try to turn it around and win me over or call me a lesbian and be done with it? I’ll never know because an arm wraps around my shoulder and guides me away. It’s that Matt character, and right now, I don’t know whether to thank him or knee him in the groin. Maybe one and then the other.
“Good for you. Angus Parr and his cronies are so far beneath you,” Matt declares. “You know the old saying ‘high school is the best four years of your life?’ Yeah, that was invented for people like them. They’re all going to peak in senior year and spend the rest of their lives wishing they could travel back in time so they could pretend they mattered again.”
I try to shrug off his hand without spilling my tray full of chum, which is congealing fast. “Do you also know the old saying ‘personal space’?”
To his credit, he takes his hand away, but he doesn’t follow up with an apology. “Now, if you want to go where the elite meet to eat, walk this way,” he says, and he drops into an exaggerated limp, like his right leg has gone completely dead. He looks back at me expectantly. “Don’t tell me you don’t know that one?”
I have no idea what he’s talking about. “I’m going to find my own seat, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Your call, but if you change your mind?” He gestures at a corner table that is almost empty, the only one in the cafeteria that is not shoulder-to-shoulder full. Three kids sit there, two girls and a guy, and there’s a distinct air of segregation around them. It’s the Freak Table.
“I’ll keep it in mind,” I lie.
By the time I force myself into a vacant seat at a table of students who do not once speak to me or acknowledge my presence, my lunch is cool to the touch — and yet, as I choke it down, I cannot imagine how heat would have improved it.
The rest of the day is neither uphill nor down. I drift half-aware through French and US history before I catch a second wind heading into my web design class. Figure it can’t hurt to know that stuff. I’ve heard a lot of jobs like their people to be web-savvy, but I’m not interested in becoming a web designer. I can’t really say what I’m interested in becoming, but no big whoop. I’m only sixteen (practically); I’m supposed to be aimless.
The less said about math, the better. We are, and shall ever remain, the bitterest of enemies.
The final bell rings, and I’m giddy with a sense of relief at the end of another school day, a reaction that is ingrained in every American teenager. Final analysis: I’ve had better days, but I’ve sure had worse days too.
Although I may have to amend that because guess who slides up next to me as I stand out in front of the school, scanning the main driveway for my bus home?
“Hey,” Matt says. It’s not officially fall yet; the leaves are still a healthy green, and the weather remains on the warm side, but he’s wearing a ratty black trench coat, which does absolutely nothing to make him less creepy. “It’s been brought to my attention that my overtures might have come off as stalkery. Do you think I’m being stalkery?”
“Huh.” He shrugs. “Anyway, I’m going to meet up with my friends at the Carnivore’s Cave for burgers. You should come with. You’ll like them. My friends, not the burgers. No, that’s not true, you’ll like the burgers.”
“If they’re anything like you, I doubt it. Your friends, not the burgers,” I say, the last of my patience slipping away. “You know, at first I thought you were just totally lacking in any social skills, but now I think you’re flat-out obnoxious and I would love it if you’d leave me alone.”
“I prefer to think of myself as direct and refreshingly honest.”
“You’re not. You’re annoying, so please, go away and let me find my bus in peace.”
“You mean that bus?”
I whip around as the last of the big yellow convoy rolls out.
I can’t think straight. I can’t speak. Urge to kill rising. Don’t incinerate him. Don’t incinerate him. Don’t incinerate him.
I finally manage to blurt out, “You ass! Now I have to walk home thanks to you!”
And in the middle of my dramatic storm-off, Matt the grinning idiot says something that stops me dead:
“You could just fly home.”
Buy the Action Figures series now on Amazon in print or for the Kindle, or purchase a signed print edition directly from the author.