I had the worst headache. That was the first thing I noticed. The second was my position. Somehow, I was in an old, decrepit building and was lying spread-eagled on the hard, concrete floor. I was oriented weirdly, too-my head was pointing diagonally to the right corner…but it also felt like I was pointed to the left. Weird.
I opened my eyes, wincing slightly in the daylight. Something was wrong with my vision, too-I was seeing about five different sides of the same thing. I tried to blink and realized I couldn’t. I wiggled my toes and fingers, and although I felt movement, it was scattered, as if I had a million different toes and fingers.
I tried to sit up…and nothing happened. I felt movement, but there was no change my scattered eyes could see. I lifted up my hand and held it in front of my face, or at least where my face should be. One part of my eye managed to glimpse it…and that was all I needed to see to freak out. My hand was made of dirt!
The dirt hand crashed back into the ground as I freaked, falling into tiny particles. I felt parts of myself falling even further from the central “me,” slipping away like I couldn’t control them.
I wasn’t even in control of myself. But at least I was alive.
I remembered the fall and winced. I probably shouldn’t have startled Nick like that…I had really brought this upon myself. But I had finally discovered my power…I just couldn’t control it. Or move, even.
“Oh, yay, I’m a bunch of sand,” I muttered. Even my voice was different-coming from all the directions it was coming from, it sounded like a really weird, buzzing choir.
I felt more in control of myself now-I was calmer, and less groggy than I’d been. I tried to sit up, but when I saw my sand-body, I crashed back to the floor. Whenever I saw myself moving, I freaked on some subliminal level and lost control. And I couldn’t close my eyes.
Or could I?
I remembered how it had felt to be blind when I was sleeping, and slowly, slowly, my vision began to dim until I couldn’t see anything. I moved an arm, feeling it gain more weight and sustenance as it did so. And then I lost control again, and it flopped to the floor.
This was going to take some time.
I gathered my scattered particles, thinking, I’m just sitting here, not doing anything strange. It worked, until I realized that I was gathering my particles. Kind of ruined the whole “normal” thing.
It was like this game kids I knew used to play, where you couldn’t think about something. If you did, you had to shout, “I lost The Game!”
My body crumbled again, but this time, I just waited, thinking of anything but being sand, using The Game to help me. I lost more than once as I felt myself growing more solid and realized what I was feeling. Then, suddenly, without ever consciously thinking of it, I was human again. I leapt to my feet and started brushing away dirt spasmodically, shaking myself like a dog to get away the last of it. I looked at the dust still on the floor and ran outside. I really couldn’t deal with anything sandlike right now.
Wouldn’t it be great if I ended up with dirtapobia or something?
There was no sign of the others, but given what I had seen last night (or whenever I had been dropped; I had no clue how long I’d been out), it was likely they were in jail. There was no way I was going to break them out on my own, even with my useless new powers. I needed backup.
Razo was an obvious choice; I knew where he was (although that ‘where’ was very far away), but two were barely better than one. Who else…who else…
Nevermore! It was a bit risky, but I could find him easily enough (I bet he was even listed in the phone book), and he had seemed eager to help me the last time I’d met him. He’d also not taken a part in the last fight, which certainly marked him as an ally.
Now all I had to do was get all the way back to Virginia.
Great. Why couldn’t they all just take a vacation in Florida? That’d make it much easier on me. I didn’t even know how to hot-wire a car. Maybe I could find a free bus ride somewhere. I was done with hitching rides, though, after what had happened last time.
What had that driver been, anyways? He had had some kind of metal plate in the back of his head. Was he a robot? But a robot wouldn’t have been able to speak the way he did. His voice was human. He had used a radio, and he hadn’t just said something that sounded preprogrammed.
Was he a cyborg? Was the ISA advanced enough to create them?
Had the grey men been cyborgs as well?
Did I really need another question? Things were confusing enough without cyborgs. If an alien appeared in front of me right now, I think I’d kill it and forget it had ever happened. I needed something to stay in science fiction.
I was going to end up as paranoid as Mr. Ray and his dog.
My feet had found their way to a bus stop without me consciously telling them to go, and so I was mildly surprised when I looked up. There were five other people waiting there besides me, two little kids and a hassled mom, an old lady, and a young man in a business suit. Of course, by “young man” I mean a grown person who’s still young-looking (as in twenties) and not a twelve-year-old boy.
“What’s your ticket look like?” one of the little girls asked innocently. I reached into my pocket as if I had a ticket, a plan forming in my head.
When a ticket didn’t materialize in my pocket, I started to pat myself franticly, as though I were looking for one. “Oh no! I lost my ticket!” I turned to the girl’s mother. “Have you seen my ticket?” She shook her head, looking on the ground for it. I turned to the businessman and the old lady. “Have either of you?”
“Have we what, dear?” wheezed the old lady.
“Seen my ticket!” I exclaimed.
The businessman crouched down, afraid to stain his pants but wishing to help. The old lady looked at me. “What do you need to go to Maryland for?”
Maryland? Well, it was much closer to Virginia than Florida. Or Georgia, or South Carolina…I’d lost track of where I was.
“My parents were killed in a car wreck,” I said honestly. “There’s a distant uncle of mine in Maryland.” Once again true…the uncle was just dead. I sniffled a little and rubbed my eyes, as though I was trying not to cry. “And now I’ve lost the ticket. I don’t know what to do.”
“Oh, you poor thing,” she crooned. “You can have my husband’s ticket. He passed away last month, and I never had the time to cancel it.”
“Thank you,” I said, feeling slightly ashamed as I took the ticket and blushing a little, but I hid it with another swipe at my face to wipe away imaginary tears. After all, she’d given it to me. It wasn’t even scavenging.
The bus pulled up. It was a cheap-looking one, already half-full with other people. I turned my ticket in and sat in one of the back seats, trying to hide from the others so I wouldn’t have to remember my story. After a while, though, the monotonous drive got to me, and I fell asleep. When I woke up, it was nighttime, and I was starving. The bus had stopped to get refueled. I snuck down the aisle, moving carefully past the sleeping people. I looked out the front door. There was a sign outside that read, Welcome to Virginia!
That was fast.
“Hello, dear. We thought you were never going to wake up.”
I spun around. The old lady who’d given me my ticket had woken up. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“You slept all through yesterday and today. We couldn’t even wake you to get you food. Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, “Just starving.”
“You can ask the driver if they’ll let you off to get something to eat.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
The old lady nodded and closed her eyes. I waited until she started to snore and continued off the bus. I didn’t have any money or experience shoplifting. If I was going to get anything, I’d have to beg for it or borrow money. It was weird that I’d slept through two days, but not unexpected. From what I’d heard, most post-humans were exhausted after their powers manifested themselves.
Was that the solution? Could I turn into sand and somehow steal the stuff in the store? Or would I be able to even make the transformation? I certainly didn’t want to.
“Hey! You there! Get back on the bus!” called one of the drivers.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said, not really lying.
“Hurry up, then. It’s around back, on the left.”
I walked around to the back of the building. There were two doors, each labeled with a plastic board that showed either a boy or a girl. I went into the one on the left, the girl’s bathroom. It was a tiny single-person stall, with a dirty sink, a stained mirror, and no soap. I used it quickly, then turned off the light, leaving the door locked. I didn’t want anyone to walk in on me, but also didn’t want to be able to see myself in the mirror.
I still could, though-enough light seeped under the door that I was able to see a shadowy version of myself. I looked scared and dirty, like a refugee. I scowled at myself and turned away from the mirror. It was hard to believe that I could turn into dirt, and even more difficult to believe that I was trying to do it. There was no guarantee that I would be able to turn back, after the difficulty I’d had the first time. Changing hadn’t come close to being routine yet.
“I want to be dirt,” I said, as if saying it could help. It didn’t. I had no idea how to trigger the change.
Well, so much for that idea. I shook my head and sighed, opening the door.
There was no bus.
I looked around desperately, running around to the front of the shop, but the bus had left. I had no money or transportation. I was stuck here, stranded in the middle of nowhere.
I was still starving.
The shop. As far as I could tell, there was no one inside. There’d be security cameras, but I could hide my face. The whole entire front seemed to be made of glass. All I needed was a stone.
Beneath me was only gravel, but over by the edge of the parking lot was a larger rock. I picked it up, trying not to bend my back and to lift with my knees instead-it was pretty heavy. I walked back over in front of the shop and picked a spot. Still cradling it in both hands, I spun in a circle to pick up speed and heaved it through a window. The whole panel shattered, leaving only shards in the frame. When I was certain the last of the glass had fallen, I covered my face with one hand and walked in. There was an insistent beeping from one corner, where an alarm was going off, but I ignored it and walked calmly down one of the aisles. With one hand, I grabbed everything within reach that looked edible. I ripped one of the packages open and started to eat as I grabbed other things from the walls, keeping my head bowed. Once I had a good armful, I ran back outside. Or tried to.
“Put your hands up and come out slowly,” someone said. I saw the police car beside him and ran back inside, dropping the food I’d almost stolen. He fired once, but I wasn’t hit.
I’d just gotten unlucky, I told myself. He’d probably just been driving by…this store was too far out in nowhere for the police to get here so quickly by design.
If only Rek were here.
I ran towards the back wall, searching for another exit, and tripped. I held out my hands to catch myself, but they crumbled on the tiled floor like dried mud, followed quickly by my arms, head, and body.
Once again, I was a pile of dirt. It was a well-timed change, but I had no idea what I could do in this form…whether I could move or not, or if I could even change back a second time. I had a good feeling about the change-back part, but if it took as long as it had the first time, I was in trouble.
Not from the policeman, though. Just trouble in general.
I decided to stay still, for the moment. A pile of dirt was less likely to attract attention than a moving pile of dirt. From what I could hear, the policeman didn’t seem willing to come inside, but instead called for reinforcements. Of course, as I seemed to have about a thousand ears, it was a little scrambled.
My vision was also fractured, just like the first time, but it was getting a little easier to comprehend what I was seeing. It also helped that my eyes were spread across a smaller area, so I didn’t have to worry about having a million different vantage points. I had a 360o view of what was happening, and as far as I could tell, the policeman couldn’t see me. I tried to move my feet a little closer, sliding them across the floor. They didn’t move the way I’d expected them to-my knees didn’t feel like they were bending-but they were moving, albeit slowly. And then I remembered that I didn’t have knees to bend, or feet to move. My feet stopped moving.
I growled, angry at myself for realizing limitations I didn’t really have, and pushed myself forward, not thinking at all. I was moving like a set of ball-bearings being rolled across the floor, each particle moving individually but staying in a general “me” form. It was an odd sensation, but I did my best to convince myself that it was normal and thus keep moving.
Across the tile, I made a weird rustling noise, like a tree in a high wind. I slipped easily under the door and came out onto the asphalt, pitted with cracks and tiny pits which made it much more difficult to navigate. I tried to stay out of them, but then the wind would gust and try to blow me off the top of the asphalt.
The wind gusted again, lifting different parts of me into the air, and an idea began to form. What if I could ride the wind back to RfR? I’d be able to sneak right into Action Safety’s headquarters and they’d never know. Well, until I decided to show myself, that is.
I pushed off the ground as the wind blew again, and this time it lifted all of me. I climbed higher into the wind gust, and when it stopped, I fell into another one, one that billowed me upward. The policeman burst around the corner of the building, right into my path, and I swirled over and around him. He watched as I lifted higher into the air, his brow wrinkled, trying to figure out how so much sand had gotten here.
I quickly left him behind as the higher air streams pushed me through the night.
It didn’t take too much concentration to stay in the air, having spread myself out sufficiently to float naturally, and I started to doze off before long. Some part of me must have remained awake, though, because as soon as I was near enough to see RfR, I jolted back to full consciousness. If I thought through my few memories of the travel, I could vaguely remember a day and a night passing by, but I hadn’t truly woken up since escaping the policeman.
Even with the city in sight I could feel myself trying to go back to sleep. I pulled myself together and was able to keep my ‘eyes’ open, but started falling from the sky. I drifted apart again and started falling asleep, although I was able to keep moving. I…
I smashed into the side of a skyscraper and tumbled down its wall to the ground, landing in an ornamental garden at its foot. I didn’t feel any pain from my fall, but then again, I was sand. Sand doesn’t typically have nerve endings.
I pulled myself back together and became human again in somewhere around fifteen minutes, which was way too long for my powers to be of any use in, say, a fight, but still a lot shorter than last time. I climbed out from behind the conveniently placed large rose bush, scratching myself considerably on the inconveniently placed thorns, and joined the crowds on the sidewalk. I found myself a street map and quickly located Action Safety’s HQ. It wasn’t that hard-after all, they had labeled it very clearly. I was going to be coming back from the dead, to them. How odd. Hopefully Nevermore wouldn’t make a big fuss out of it and we’d be able to escape easily.
I tried walking in, but a security guard stopped me before I even got close. He barred my way with a rather large gun and sent me firmly but politely in the opposite direction. I smiled at him and walked around the corner, not stopping or pausing until I was at least a block from the building. Then I closed my eyes, still walking, thinking, dirt! It didn’t work immediately, but then I tripped over an uneven piece of sidewalk and crumbled down to nothing. Falling, it seemed, triggered my change to dirt.
Well, that was one mystery solved.
Now to see if Nevermore was being serious about that “I want to help you” thing.
I slid through the grass, past the security man who’d stopped me earlier, and right under the door. I could see the ceiling, and get a vague impression of the walls, but not much beyond that. I reared up into a tendril of dirt and pointed my eyes at a sign. It took a second for them to get collected and calibrate themselves, but once they were adjusted, I could read that the sign was for the “Men’s Restroom.” I swung the tendril the other way and read “Meeting Room 1.” The next room was labeled “Meeting Room 2” and so on and so forth. It could take me days to find the right room.
I slithered down the hallway, reading each sign just in case one was labeled “Action Safety” or “Headquarters.” No such luck. I collapsed back into a pile and moved quickly down the next hallway, a featureless one without a single door to examine. I took a left and a right, still down the same blank hallways. I was just starting to feel lost when I heard voices. Voices I recognized.
“They say she might have survived, especially since they didn’t find a body, but they’re not sure how. So you might not be a murderer. That’s part of the reason you’re not in court right now. The other reason that I can think of is because they want to keep this quiet. You’re supposed to be a superhero, Peregrine. They can’t have that kind of rumor going around.”
“I still feel like a murderer, though. Until I see her, alive, I won’t be convinced I’m not. And it feels terrible to have killed my best friend.”
I wanted to leap out and show myself, reassure Nick, make him feel better. But there were sure to be security cameras, and I didn’t want the ISA to know I was alive. And I wasn’t sure I could trust Nick anymore. So I sat out in the hallway, contenting myself by rearing up to read the sign outside the door: Men’s Locker Room.
Well, I couldn’t go in there anyways.
“Bye, Nev. And thank you anyways. For telling me,” said Nick, and I heard another door open and close. I waited a few minutes while Nevermore got dressed, hoping he’d go out this door and not the one Nick had used, and before long, I saw the bottom of his sneakers.
I rose up in a tendril of sand and started to speak. “Nevermore, I—”
I never got to finish my sentence. Nevermore attacked, kicking at my tendril with all his might. His foot sailed right through me without connecting to anything, and he fell down, surprised by my insubstantial form. I flowed quickly over him and piled on his chest, preventing him from rising. My eyes rotated to the apex of the pile, and I could see his face-he was terrified. I sighed. Coming from my sand, it sounded more like rustling. “I could say, ‘Don’t you recognize me?’ but I’m certain the answer would be no. Besides, I’m dead.”
Nevermore’s eyes widened. “Jem? But… how…?”
“Yep. How’d you guess?”
“But you’re dead!” he exclaimed.
“As all evidence leads to the contrary, I’d say I’m not. Now can we go? I have an offer to make to you that may be dangerous for you to accept in here.”
His face fell. “You want me to join your team.”
“Great. Now the whole world knows. Come on, let’s go before they kill us.”
“Look, I appreciate the offer, but isn’t it better if you have someone here? To stop the others from going after you or something?”
If I had had eyebrows, they would have been up. “You seriously think I can break in that prison alone, get the others free, and break out again without any backup?”
“Well, no, but…”
“So you’ll come.”
He paused, closed his eyes for a few long moments, and nodded.
“I always knew you would be a traitor, Nevermore…”
I swiveled quickly and Nevermore looked up, his eyes wide. Standing over us was the girl I hadn’t recognized at the last battle.
“Tornado Girl…” breathed Nevermore.