A Second Generation Whateley Academy Adventure
Turkey Day Tragedy
Wasamon, based on conversations with NeoMagus
Part 2: The Little Girl Who Wasn't There
----Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016
"Thanks for noticing me."; It was the least she could say and the most she could hope for. The girl once known as Becca, now Sterling to match the color of her hair, didn't have much chance to say it since her life'd gone all twiggy and nuts. The trip to the tray return after dinner that evening was a perfect example of her life as it was now. All she had to do was walk straight through the crowd with her stuff, and she just sorta made it through. People passed around her, never bumping what they couldn't see, even if they were looking straight at her.
Tanya had asked her what it was like, but she didn't really know what to say. In a big crowd like this, it was like everyone saw her as that one face in the mass of folk being there. If somebody could see ten people but only pay attention to six, then Sterling was always one of the other four: present, but taken for granted and then forgotten. So she wasn't much there at all, it felt like.
Her tray got delivered without so much as a bump. No one noticed her enough to care.
When she got back to the table, her roommate was on her way out, which didn't leave Sterling with much to say to anyone. No one sitting down right then could see her. That was a lesson that learned her hard, that not all folks were equally able to see stuff or remember stuff. The new girl from Iceland was so oblivious that Sterling could've walked right up to her and pinched her or punched her or kissed her, and Sera wouldn't've noticed why her face felt odd.
Not that she would. Nossiree, she wasn't that desperate for attention anymore. She had friends who didn't always forget who she was, usually, and more chances to say "Thanks for noticing me."; Tanya still heard it the most.
"Ugh, what a day."; Sera was in her normal, grumbly-mumbly mood. "I swear, that Mr. Duchesne is a... a... some sort of supervillain, I swear!; So much homework, and on this holiday of yours."
"Yeah, a real monster," agreed Faollass with a doggy grin. "Got a study buddy?"
"A what... ah, yes. I mean, no, because Tanya is going to wherever it is this weekend and leaving me here. And she still does not think I should move into 229 with her, even if it would be so much more convenient for us."
"She's got a roommate, right?" said the silky-haired canine girl after she'd chewed on a bit of fat from her evening Carnivore Special.
"So she says, but I have never seen her."
Next to Sera, Sterling squirmed in her seat. It was never a comfortable thing to hear people talking about her like she wasn't there.
"I mean, what kind of roommate can she be, never in and ever out doing God knows what; and... and..."; A familiar glaze was upon the Nordic girl's eyes, only to be blinked away a moment later. "Um, what was I talking about?"
"Mr. Duchesne's Turkey Day assignments," said Faollass.
"Oh, yes. What a waste of time and energy..."
Sterling left them to their complaining. It didn't have anything to do with her anymore. Neither did any of the other conversations in the Whitman area of the first floor, but she did have a listen to Shisa and Pastel's ongoing insult competition. "Ambulatory home deco swatch collection" was a mouthful coming from the feline mutant, but it was pronounced with so much sass that Shisa had the whole table laughing. One fuzzy ear even flicked her direction when she giggled.;
Maybe Shisa heard it. Maybe she didn't. Sterling didn't hang around any.
Outside the Crystal Hall, she thought about catching up to her roommate, but Tanya was on the phone. It wouldn't be polite to bother her. The lavender girl heard about her problems every day already.
But she did need to be social, even when she didn't wanna. Especially when she didn't wanna. She needed it more exactly because she didn't wanna. It was what her big brother used to call a "Blink 182, cuz it sucks."; Sterling was sure that couldn't've been right, but Cal always insisted.
His number was still on her phone. Lots of numbers were, some from home and some from here at school. She had a pretty big collection of digits and nobody to talk to, even when she tried. A Blink-182, for real. She had to try, though, even if she didn't wanna. With a tippy-tap-tap, Sterling selected all the numbers together, then excluded her roommate's. Didn't wanna be a bother. Everyone else, a hundred random kids, all got a simple "Hi" from out of the blue. Sterling didn't expect anybody to answer. No one ever did.
----Thursday, May 19th, 2016
Her name was Rebecca Sawyer, Becca to friends and family. She was fourteen years old. For two months now, she'd looked sixteen, then seventeen, then eighteen, then whatever age she looked now cuz Momma stopped using numbers and only went with awful words to describe her.
Daddy said Momma was just jealous that Becca had to stop borrowing her bras cuz they were too small now. They wouldn't take her shopping for new ones, either, so she was making do with tied-up tee-shirts like something from the old Dukes of Hazzard TV show, with the knot hanging over her belly button. All the boys in town loved it, and she hated it cuz Momma only called her worse names when those boys whistled at her.
They'd pulled her outta school after the second bathroom incident. A distraction, a bad influence, according to her teachers. What'd she expect, dressing that way--like she had some other way to dress when all her clothes were three sizes too small, and her bras at least four sizes, and Momma yelled at her for making them waste money every time she had another growth spurt. So her clothes kept getting tighter and the boys' whistles kept getting louder and Momma kept getting angrier and Becca didn't think it could ever get any worse.
And then she woke up that morning to find out she was green. Like, really green, all over, even down there where her shorts still sorta hid the view. Every inch of skin was pale like a frog's underbelly, but definitely green. Not her hair, though. That'd started out brown, months ago, turning more blonde as everything else grew up and out, and now it was silver--not that granny gray they called silver, but really metal, shiny silver.
She didn't wanna go down to breakfast that morning, but Daddy yelled and Momma swore and they both shouted through the door that she better get her ass down there or else, so she did. Even though she was a freak. And her mother freaked.
An hour later, and things weren't any calmer, except that Momma had popped a couple or four of her little helper pills and was now sitting at the dining room table with a serene scowl aimed somewhere in her daughter's general direction. Becca was the only other one sitting down, hands on her lap and tears down her cheeks and praying that the salty water would wash away the green, cuz gawd...
Daddy and Uncle Jimmy'd been arguing about what to do with her, and neither of them were nice about it. The only questions seemed to be where and how, but not what. Oh, and a different how, like how to hide it all afterwards. They'd figgered she weren't strong enough to do more than sit and squirm as they talked, and they were right.
Hands in her lap, head bowed, never looking up, never reacting, hoping not to get on their bad side, worse side, whatever side was cruddier than where she was now.
"We should call the sheriff's department," said Uncle Jimmy. "Heard that McDonough's boy Harrison over near Birmingham got away with a shit-load of trouble when he found out his girl was a freak last summer."
"Need to keep it quiet," her daddy warned. "Don't need no bleeding hearts getting a wad up their asses over some house-cleaning."; There was a tsking noise and a cough. "Damnit, Becca. Why'd'ja have to turn green?; Look at me!; For fuck's... If you'd just kept it all normal, everyone'd think you're just a fast bloomer, maybe we could make some money off yer looks. But this... ugh. We gotta clean house before someone decides to clean it for us, and we get nothing for our troubles."
"Mebbe not."; That was her brother Cal speaking. Becca dared to look up then, hoping to see a friendly face. She was disappointed. The leer on Cal's lips and the gleam in his eye were too familiar. Lots of guys'd had the same look when they spotted her on the street. "I mean, I've been beating all the boys 'round here with a baseball bat so's they stop sniffing," he said, and she wasn't sure he was exaggerating. "But if she's a freak, and she's a fucking hot freak, why not make some cash off that?"
Over in her corner, Momma was mumbling all the nasty names from the past few weeks, and the men-folk were nodding along this time. "Yeah," said Uncle Jimmy. "Why don't we try that. Won't be long before someone comes for her head, but we can still charge 'em for some head, first."; The laugh was too ugly for this world.
She'd never felt so empty, so hollow inside. Their words, her brother's above all, were killing her from the heart on out, and all that was left was fear sloshing around like old mouthwash in the bottle. She wanted to run, but her legs weren't working; to cry, but her eyes were pasted with old tears; to throw up, but they hadn't let her have breakfast yet. But most of all, she just wanted them to leave her the hell alone...
There was a thing, a something gone crack in her brain, so hard that she winced and cried out. Then she cringed, expecting a fist to punish her for daring to make a noise.
No fist came. No foot, either. Not even a casual slap, like if she brought the wrong drink over during a football game.
"So, what're you gonna do?" asked Uncle Jimmy to Cal. "Got, like, three months of freedom?"
"Figgered I'd take Sally up to the mountains for some camping," said her brother. "Have some fun before I dump her and start at the academy in Huntsville."
"Hah, don't let your ma hear that when she's sober," said Daddy. "She actually likes Sally for some reason. You should get yourself a job, though, help pay for stuff while they're training you to shoot the bad guys."
"There's other stuff to learn 'bout being a cop, yanno."
"Yeah, but that's the fun part!"; The three men-folk of the family shared a laugh, and Momma echoed it a moment later. None of them were looking at Becca. When their eyes turned her way, they didn't even see her. She sat there for the next half-hour as they joked about her brother's future career in law enforcement and what he could help them get away with, and Momma had the shakes from her little helpers all wearing off.
Then they all just walked away, to sleep off the drugs or go to work or whatever. Daddy turned the lights out in the kitchen, and she heard the door lock behind him as he left the house for the day, with her still inside.
It was like she wasn't even there. By the time any of them came back home to find Momma choked on her own vomit as the old lady slept, Becca was not there for real. And as far as they could tell, she never had been.
---Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016
Sterling did not sigh as she put her phone back in the pocket of her coat. That would've implied she expected something, and not the nothing-burger of a response she'd gotten from her group-text. Most days she'd be back in her room, flat on her back and staring at the ceiling cracks until Tanya asked if she'd done her homework yet.
She always did, even if her teachers didn't always remember her being in class to hand it in, or to give it back to her later, or to grade it. Only Mr. Duchesne never seemed to forget her, or at least he always checked her name on the roll call. History was the one subject she would not skip, no matter how the rest of the day was going.
But today, this Tuesday right before the start of the most depressing time of the year, Sterling needed more. She needed a sense of belonging that even Tanya had trouble providing at times. And when it all crashed in like this, the gloom and the loneliness, Sterling knew a place where, if no one knew her name, they were still more-or-less glad she came.
It was kind of a stretch to call the Twain duo of Kinesio and Feedback her friends, only the bar was set so low that they floated over it. Ernesto and Sam had their own little corner of the woods out back that they'd fitted up with a pre-fab hut from the school's crazy-ass store selection. It was far enough out that the administration could officially ignore what went on there, with the tacit understanding that the two Twainees had medically approved reasons for it, and anyone else who happened by was just being sociable.
Kinesio'd got his prescription first, she'd gathered. They'd never told her straight-up how, but she'd never asked, either. One look at the dysfunctional energizer's movements said more than enough. Powers Theory class taught how some energizers had their powers work inward, boosting or amplifying what was already there, but poor Ernesto suffered regular short circuits that kept his muscles a-twisting and his body in regular agony. Occasionally he'd made a reference to other drugs he'd tried for pain management, including her momma's own little helpers, but the best balance of usefulness versus side effects turned out to be plain old wacky-tabacky, as her Uncle Jimmy used to call it.
Feedback's problem, on the other hand, she'd heard plenty about. Sam loved to bitch about it, about the little spirit called the Echo that was stuck in his head and brought him snippets of other people's conversations anytime, anywhere, whether he liked it or not. He'd started smoking from his roommate Ernesto's stash to, as he put it, "Shut the little fucker up," and it worked so well that he'd gotten the psych ward doctor in Doyle to get him an official prescription, too.
They weren't the sort of friends that anyone would've approved of. Sterling knew her roommate sure didn't, but Tanya still 'got it.'; When she sat down in their little hut, neither boy really acknowledged her. They didn't really look at her, or at each other, or anything at all. Sterling was never too sure how aware they were of her presence, but when the joint was passed around for a puff, the young men always handed it to her without pause. The three of them just chilled in silence for half an hour before they'd start talking to the air, about home or school or whatever, and nobody had to listen or respond, cuz they were all just being there.;
None of them were going home for Thanksgiving, though the boys did have places to go home to. Having a home didn't mean you were really welcome in it, after all. Being right there, right then was a choice, as deliberate as Feedback passing her the joint for her turn to puff.
She didn't cough like she used to, inhaling the tiniest bit of smoke for the best effect. With a sigh, she settled back against the beanbag cushion--her cushion. There were three of the comfortably lumpy things in the hut, even though any other visitor but her got a short-legged stool instead. On some level, Kinesio and Feedback remembered her, despite never seeming to react to her. Sterling thanked them for that, every time.
"Aw, man..." mumbled Kinesio. "Why short weeks gotta feel so long?; Not good for my nerves."; The boy hitched a shoulder with a crackling noise. "Ouch, still feeling it a little. We got anything to snack on?"
His roommate lifted a to-go bag and dangled it in front. "I asked Daniel to whip us up some nosh earlier. One for each of us. Chocolate or chocolate?" came the question as the bag was ripped along a seam to become an improvised napkin for the donuts within it. The boys giggled as they grabbed identical brown rings with chocolate icing and sprinkles.
There was one donut left: strawberry with white chocolate sprinkles. Feedback had gotten it for her.
The boy didn't see her take the donut. He didn't hear her say "Thanks for noticing me"--couldn't, because he was busy blocking out his resident Echo with the wacky tabacky. When she kissed him on the cheek, it prompted him to rub the spot absent-mindedly with his fingers, which left a dab of chocolate just right of his nose.
Did she like strawberry and white chocolate?; It didn't matter either way, because it really was the thought that counted here. A thought, any thought, was more than most folks showed nowadays. It could've been some monster of a flavor from the Barnes's mad science ice-cream machine and Sterling would've learned to love it.
As it happened, she loved strawberry and white chocolate donuts. The treat disappeared slowly, nibble by nibble, as the joint was passed around a few more times. Outside may've been cold like a late New Hampshire autumn, but inside it was all chill.
And then they were interrupted. The person outside could've knocked, but instead they chose to bang on the door of the pre-fab hut until Kinesio was forced to either open it or let the entire thing collapse. "Yes?; What is it?" he demanded. "We're having officially condoned medical therapy time here, and you're harshing the vibe."
"Are you alone?" came the counter-demand from outside.
"Nobody here but us chickens!"; Feedback clucked a few times, and Sterling as well. "Buk-buk-bukawk!"
The intruder grumbled. "I guess it counts if there's only one working brain between you. Villegasse!"; A head stuck in, showing their visitor to be a freshman girl with devisor goggles over her eyes and blonde hair that was a week past due for a good shampooing. "You're not answering my texts!"
"Cuz I don't wanna."; Kinesio started the giggle, but his fellow chillers kept it going. "I don't gotta work with you, Jamie. So buzz off so we can get buzzed in peace."
"But I've got it this time!"
"That's what you said last time."; The boy took a short drag and then blew a smoke ring at the devisor. "Hurt like hell and nothing happened. Power's still fucked up."
"But we got some awesome data from the readings!"
"Go away, Jamie."
"Fine. Be that way. See if I care. I'm gonna crack this issue with or without your help, so feel free to sit here and keep vegitating with your friends. The three of you deserve each other. I'll text you the preliminary results, and you'd better text back!"
While the girl fumed, they smoked. "See ya," said the first boy.
"Wouldn't wanna be ya!" said the second boy.
"...thanks for noticing me."
Jamie actually turned to look at her, in a funny and unfocused way. "Yeah, uh, no problem," the girl muttered as she left the three of them to their therapy session.
"Man, what a bummer," said Feedback. "Why's she always gotta come when I'm not listening?; Ernesto, dude, can't you get her to stop?"
Kinesio's sigh left a plume of smoke lingering towards the ceiling of the pre-fab. "You don't get it, Sam. That Jamie?; You're seeing her on her good days. Bad days, she dricks out like nothing you've ever seen, and ain't no one wants to hang around that sorta bullshit regularly. She thinks she can 'fix me'..."; Fingers made the air quotes more definitive. "And I ain't gonna say I'm not broken somewhere in there, but when she gets going... well, soon enough she can't stop to see that her idea's a bad one. And that's when I... when people get hurt."
His hand was twitching with crossed signals and short circuits, but the muscles calmed as Sterling took it in her own fingers and squeezed it in solidarity. Even if he didn't look at her, his return squeeze of acknowledgement was the best thing in the world.
After so long going without, she'd sometimes forget what it was like to sit with someone and simply be there. The joint got passed around once more, and she took the opportunity to practice her smoke rings and be there with her unlikely friends.
---Monday, June 6th, 2016
It'd been two and a half weeks since Becca'd had any meaningful interaction with another human being. Whatever the heck was wrong with her, it didn't affect everybody the same way, but even the folks who saw her soon forgot she ever existed. Kittens and puppies still loved her, so she spent the morning down at the pet shop in the Mountain Brook Mall just so she could play with them. The first three days had been just to get to the big shopping center, hitching rides on buses and getting lost a few times along the way, but she'd realized early on that the single-story sprawl of shops had everything she really needed. Clothes from the Good Sense or Chill Thesis stores, stuff that actually fit. Food from the supermarket down the road, or even off the plates of unsuspecting shoppers in the food court areas. The security center in the back had a working shower, though she'd gone most of a week before she'd gotten up the courage to use it. And for the evenings, the big department store had a bed and mattress section that was plenty comfortable.;
There'd been a few times when she'd figgered she was about caught, like the first time she grabbed clothes and didn't think to remove the anti-theft tags. People didn't see her, but they still noticed it when the alarms went off. Occasionally she'd hear the security guards grumbling about the mystery shoplifter who kept taking things from stores, and it made her feel kinda bad, but she would've paid for everything if anyone ever noticed her enough to ask. That's what she told herself, even though she didn't have one red cent on her.
When Becca wasn't playing with the puppies in the pet store, she passed the time in the big bookstore in the mall. With its sit-in area and cafe, the place was ready-made for loitering, and her mystery power made sure that no one cared if she sat down and read for hours at a time.
Her outfit that day was one of the items she'd borrowed from Chill Thesis, a cropped top and short-shorts combo that should've made anyone with a pulse notice her, even if it weren't the loudest, ugliest clash of color combinations she could manage.
Nada, zilch, zero, nuh-uh... She was spared the embarrassment of being seen in that outfit cuz no one could see her in it. With nothing better to do, she just munched on some sour cream and onion potato chips and read her comic book.
"Careful, you'll get grease on the pages."
No one noticed her shriek of surprise--no one except the lady who'd caused it. When had the woman even come by?; Becca hadn't been paying attention, since no one was paying attention to her. So this new person in a pink business suit and... a tiara-headband-thingy?... well, it took her heart a few beats to remember how to work right.
"W-w-w-what's it to you?"; Gawd, her tongue'd forgotten what words were.
"Well, I was called in to investigate reports of a phantom shoplifter, or maybe exorcise a poltergeist," said the woman in a light southern voice. "Not that I can actually do that, really, but I do know a guy. Oh, sugar, I forgot to introduce myself."; A badge flashed in her hands, pulling the eye even as the details refused to stay put. "Agent Serendipity, state department of heroism and odd-jobs that no one else knows what to do with."
"Is that really what it's called?"
"Nah. But it's accurate. How are you doing it, by the way?"
"The no-see-um thing. It's taking a lot of focus just to stay focused on you, and it doesn't quite feel like the usual psi."
She had no idea what the woman was talking about, and so she just huddled mutely in her chair as the world pressed in around her.
"Yeah, that. Exactly. Oh, sugar."; Pink-painted nails massaged similarly tinged temples. "If you could maybe relax a little?; This is giving me such a headache...; So, what's your name?"
Her mouth remained shut.
"Ah, c'mon, hon. I don't know what you think you're doing here, but it's no way to live, stealing scraps and wearing... whatever that is you've got on. Come with me and we can see about teaching you how to use that trick of yours, let you meet new people, and just live a better life than this mall. Have you seen the things they fry at the food court?"
She had. She'd even tasted it, once. Never again. A mumble vibrated on her lips.
"What was that?"
"My name's B-becca," she said. "Rebecca Sawyer. But I don't think I can..."
"Bless your heart, but someone's treated you wrong, haven't they. Yanno what?; You're gonna need a code name for the MID later on, so how's about... Sterling. I don't know anyone who's using that one, and it matches your hair."
Her fingers tugged at one silver lock. "Um, okay. Yeah. Sterling."
If Miz Serendipity owned a single thing that could be pink, but wasn't, then Becca'd chew her own laces. Aside from the hair, the tiara, the nails, the spectacle frames that never seemed to be on her face, the entire business suit ensemble, and the car the lady drove from the mall outside of Birmingham to her department headquarters in Mobile, the only thing not in that color was the newly christened Sterling herself--in fact, she totally clashed with everything. Miz Serendipity didn't seem to mind. The woman was like a water fountain that shot out happy thoughts. As soon as they were on the highway, the car's auto-driver engaged, and after that it was one long and largely one-sided conversation all the way south to Mobile. Most of it was what they'd call girl-talk in high school, only nicer.
She didn't wanna talk much at first, so the chatter flowed around her until one thing or another carried her along: admitting to liking a particular band, or having a favorite color, or the fact that green peppers gave her gas. Details of her mutation were few, mainly because she didn't know much about it beyond growing up, growing out, and growing green. Sometimes she caught a glimpse of her own reflection in the mirror and wondered who that was. Who she was. Whether she would eventually fade from her own memory. The thought made her shiver.
"Whoops, you're cranking it up again," said Miz Serendipity. "Whatever 'it' is. Good thing I'm not on manual driver, because if I had to shift focus then I'd probably lose track of where you were. You sure you don't know what you're doing?"
She shook her head, no.
"Oh well, that's not uncommon with new mutants. Why, when my esper abilities first kicked in--I must've been about your age, hon--it was just a mess. Like, I'm walking down the hall at school and know--like, really know--that I have to bring two extra erasers, but I don't know till I get there that it's because both my friends in math class forgot theirs. Little things like that, but coincidences kept piling up. I had a bad dye job, the kind we used to do with powdered drink mix, that left my hair stained pink for weeks, and when we finally realized that, oh sugar, it actually is pink now, nobody's paying attention because they know about that mess-up and that buys me an extra month to get my stuff together before anyone tries to call the MCO on me."; The woman babbled on, telling more stories of her high school mutant experience. Sterling was jealous, deep down inside. It wasn't something she'd have the chance to live.
"Don't give up!" said the woman when Sterling said as much, without the jealousy part. "Look, there are places that specialize in teaching kids with extraordinary special needs, and you certainly count there. Just stick with me, don't drop off my radar, and I'll do my best to help."
"Why?"; A simple question, a complicated emotion.
"Someone's gotta. Gotta help the kids like you before, well, before someone else gets to you first."; Miz Serendipity lost some of her positive charge as she said that. "Like, not everyone can hide it long enough to get to safety. Being different, one way or another. We, well... oh sugar, this was a tragedy, but we lost some good people last year, fighting the good fight for the next generation. So every little-bitty victory counts."
Miz Serendipity's home base was an office building in downtown Mobile, or at least the basement of one. The woman in pink drove her car down the ramp and into a parking space next to a sign that read ALABAMA STATE DEPARTMENT OF POWERS MANAGEMENT. "Well, here we are," said she, unlocking the doors. Neither of them moved to get out just yet. "It's not much, I'm afraid. The legislature keeps our budget to a bare minimum, just enough to meet the requirements of the Gulf Coast Accord. We're affiliated with the Cajun Counter-Force for anything big, on our own for anything small. Often too late to the party as well," the woman grumbled. ""More often than not, someone else 'takes care of' the 'problem' before we can show up."
Those were dangerous quote marks hanging in those words. "Like, um, the thing with... Harrison McDonough?; Near Birmingham?"
Now she had Miz Serendipity's fullest attention. "Where'd you hear about that?"
"My, my daddy and uncle were, um, talking 'bout what to do w-with me and, and they said that the, um, McDonough boy got away with murder?"
"Only because we haven't located that little shit yet."; The cussword stank when the lady said it. "No thanks to him, we lost two good supporters and a kid your age. Almost lost a second, too. He ratted out a safe house to the local H1, but good luck getting the local cops to arrest themselves."
There wasn't much more she could say to that, and Miz Serendipity was all run out of words, herself, except for an 'oh sugar' as the lady bumped her knee on the car door. A moment later they were through the door and into a waiting lounge. No one was waiting, not even a receptionist. A smartpad on a stand was ready to accept input from the reception center, and it was ignored as the woman in pink walked right on by.;
"Joe!" the lady called. "Joe!; I'm back, and I brought a guest!"
There was a rumbling through the wall, and then the speaker on the counter crackled to life. "Hey, Liz. Welcome back. Who's there with you?; I'm only getting fuzzy outlines here. Your supposed ghost with a distortion field?"
"You suppose correctly. C'mon," the woman in pink said to Sterling. "Don't you worry none. Joe's a nice guy-shaped thingamajig."
Sterling didn't know much about superheroes. That'd always been more her brother's thing. He'd get posters and action figures and the newest magazines, and she'd played with it all when they were both younger. But then they grew up more and the collection was dumped through garage sales, or straight into the trashcan, as more and more of Cal's heroes spoke up in favor of mutant rights, or else came out as mutants themselves.
She wasn't sure if the hero in the next room was a mutant--or alive, for that matter, much less human. Miz Serendipity called him Joe, but the seven-foot-tall metallic mannequin in black armor had a different name on its--his?--trading card. "Sterling," said the pink lady. "I'd like you to meet Joe Chopper, the Mobile Infantry."
The helmet head didn't have eyes, just a visor that glowed blue from within. "Liz?; I do not see... hm... lowering frame rate... adjusting spectra... I am registering a blur beside you. Is that the supposed ghost?"
"Alive and kicking," the heroine confirmed. "Also scared and confused."
"In a way, yeah. Say hello, Sterling."
The Mobile Infantry turned his head, even though he didn't seem to have ears. "I registered a noise just now, on internal record, but no trace of it on external. Strange."
"Just let me manage this case, sugar-pot," said Miz Serendipity. "I'll file all the case notes for you to review and then we can see about getting our little Sterling here to someplace safe."
Someplace safe...; She could not imagine. Safe was not something that fit her life anymore. But, she thought on as the government heroes discussed her case, maybe it was all just a little bit safer now.
---Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016
She never meant to spend so much time in Kinesio's little hideout, but time was a slippery thing when they were chilling. After an hour of being there and being with, her phone alert beeped the time at her and she saw herself out. A small spray bottle by the door had the label SKUNK-B-GONE with a Whateley brand mark on it, and it wasn't talking about Pepe le Pew. Sterling gave herself a thorough spritz all over to remove the worst of the pot-smoke smell. The rest was neutralized to a pleasant lemon-spice odor that the label described as "all sativa, no indica."; What it meant, she had no clue, but it worked better than any of her momma's air fresheners.
As long as she didn't smell as stoned as she felt, it was all good. No one noticed the way she wobbled back to the dorms, even as they moved out of her way. A few people actually looked at her and nodded a greeting before they forgot her again. That hyper girl from Dickinson, the one who was too enthusiastic about other people's powers, managed to say "Hello" in the right direction and then made a note on her little pad before forgetting.
"Thanks for noticing me," Sterling told her.
Back at Whitman, past Mrs. Savage at the counter and up the stairs, she was back in her room. Her roommate was not. There was plenty to show that Tanya had come and gone, from the mess of her bed to the wardrobe left ajar, and the girl's suitcase wasn't there.
On the desk by the window, Sterling found a hastily scribbled note: 「Sorry I couldn't say bye, but Dad's in trouble. School's sending me home early. See you after Thanksgiving.」It was signed TANYA in curly letters with a smiley face doodle.
Sterling held the scrap of paper close as she fell back onto her own bed. She was alone. More alone. Aloner. She was a loner who wanted to talk to someone. Okay, truth to tell, she wasn't much of a loner at all, just scared with no one to listen to her except for the teddy bear that Miz Serendipity had got her as a good luck present when they'd sent her up north.
It was tough, though, making friends. It wasn't just that people never remembered, or at least almost never. There was always the worry that she was causing her own problem, cuz she was scared and shy and hiding in the thing that was keeping her away from people in the first place. That was what the pink lady thought was going on, at least. She tried her darnedest not to be scared of new people, but it was such a scary world out there...
-BEEP-; The sound from her phone was not familiar at all. What it told her was even less familiar. The blinking icon on the screen, she'd never seen before. A message, a response from one of those hundred "Hi" that she'd sent over an hour ago. Not Tanya--the lavender girl hadn't gotten one. Looking at the name on the reply, Sterling struggled to recall who...
Oh, yeah. She wasn't the first kid to be sent up here by Miz Serendipity and Joe, the Mobile Infantry. The government heroes had made sure she had the contact info of another of their rescue kids on the phone, even if she wasn't interested in meeting them. Or maybe she was interested, but scared of the inevitable letdown.
But they'd replied. She'd replied, the other girl from down south, with a simple 「What's up?」followed by a 「Who is this?」
「My name is Sterling. Miz Serendipity sent me to Whateley. Do you know her?」
The response came a minute later. 「Yes I do. My name's Jenifer.」After a second, the other girl continued: 「Is everything OK?」
The answer to that was never yes, and they both knew it. The Welcome-to-Whateley orientation had been plenty frank about how they had to stand by their dormsisters in times like this, so Sterling replied honestly.
After several full lines of text from her, Jenifer sent one back: 「How about we talk face to face?; This ain't convenient at all. Whitman, right?; Room 347」
She'd never actually visited someone else's room in the dorm. She could've, and easy-peasy, but it wouldn't've been right. And now here was an honest invitation.
「I'll be right on up」
Her heart was fit to bust out her ribcage, so "right on up" meant "take a moment to calm down first."; She hoped the other girl, Jenifer, would understand that. Probably she did. Sterling hadn't felt this nervous since the day they'd remembered to tell her she was getting a roommate.
---September 7th, 2016
She'd been on campus for over a month, from the middle of the school's special summer term when most of the students were off on vacation and the remaining kids were busy catching up on their subjects. Group A, Group B, and then herself, sitting on benches and at public tables with nothing much to do but watch. There were several kids around who ran laps like they were NASCAR, a boy and a girl in a scarf and another girl who was some sort of cheetah or something. It was hard to see the details when any of them zoomed past, never together.
Other kids were busy with training or book-learning. Miz Serendipity'd told her to take advantage of her time here, use it to read up on stuff, and so Sterling spent a lot of time in the library. What she did not do was socialize. It was hard to know even where she should begin. The few kids who noticed her when she said "Hi" all forgot her as soon as their heads were turned, and then she'd introduce herself again the next time. That sort of thing got old fast.
The dorm mom for this place, for Whitman Cottage, was a tough old lady who took no nonsense and gave none, either. Mrs. Savage had listened to Miz Serendipity's telling of Sterling's story, and the anger the woman had shouted about must've been good for the memory, because the lady never forgot who Sterling was, once she was reminded that Sterling existed. The dorm mom was as prone to forgetting as anyone else, but the pendant around her neck would occasionally shine a reminder for her, and then it was all okay, no new introductions or nothing.
Like that evening when Sterling was walking out the front lobby, past the counter where the RAs and Mrs. Savage were welcoming new arrivals and old friends. There was a glimmer in the dorm mom's pendant, and then a "Sterling, could you come over?"
It wasn't just that it was a polite request; it was that there was anything said to her at all. "Thanks for noticing me," she said as she walked over.;
One of the RAs, the slightly leafy giantess named Sequoiah, was better at noticing than most, and Sterling accepted a welcoming hug before asking, "Um, what is it you need?"
"You, dear," said Mrs. Savage. "I'm sure you've noticed, but all the new girls are arriving today or tomorrow, and they're all getting their room assignments."
Her heart was sitting down in her guts. Up to now, she'd been enjoying the solitude of a room all to herself, and she wasn't looking forward to the slightly different solitude of being alone in a room with someone else. "Right now?"
"You have a while, dear," said Mrs. Savage. "Ms. Wright got herself caught in some mess on the way in, like so many of our new arrivals this year, and she won't be out of the debriefing and orientation for at least an hour. Go get yourself some dinner and be back by seven thirty."
"Yes'm..." she mumbled. It did not take long to reach the Crystal Hall, even at her usual shuffle, and the place was busier and noisier than any time this summer. So many kids, some with now-familiar faces and others brand-new, and none of them with eyes on her. Miz Serendipity had called it a 'crowd enhancement effect.'; Get a big enough group, and nobody could pay attention to more than a fraction of the people around. Her power was working off that, so she was always included in the fraction who got ignored.
The Whitman girls had their tables staked out. Sterling could name all the regulars from this summer: Avsel, Faollass, Ekene, Dawn, the RAs like Sequoia, Bai-Yun, or Telekat, and even some of the older girls like Serval the not-a-cheetah. Miz Serendipity had told her to keep an eye out for someone named Jenifer, who'd started a year before after escaping Birmingham, herself, but Sterling hadn't located her yet. Hadn't really tried, to be fair. She knew how it'd turn out.
Dinner was delicious as always, a small steak with mashed potatoes and a salad, but it was also spent in her own bubble of silence floating in a sea of happy noise.;
They'd had her working on her powers, trying to pull them back or rein them in so she wasn't always a blind spot for everyone around, but that was harder than it sounded. Her therapist encouraged her, talked about baby steps, but she couldn't even manage a friendly conversation over dinner.
At least no one ever sat on her as she ate. Any seat she was in stayed in the blind spot as well. Her mood continued in peace.
Her phone alert reminded her she needed to be back in her room soon. With a word of goodbye to the other girls--some of them waved back without really thinking--Sterling walked back to the cottage, through the door, up the stairs, into her room, and onto her bed with a book in hand. Soon she was lost in a fun little fantasy world where everyone loved the princess-heroine and listened to her and oohed at her magic powers and--
"Alright, here we go!"; It was Telekat's voice coming through the closed door. Then it was the junior RA herself, coming through a now-open door. The cat-girl in overalls was talking to someone behind her. "You've got the room to yourself for now, but we've got all the stuff you sent ahead of you over here on the lefthand side."
From the righthand side, Sterling let the novel fall to the mattress as she stared at the accumulation of stuff that must have arrived in the past hour or so, only she'd been too tied up in her own problems to notice. Telekat didn't mention all of her things, or herself, as the RA continued the tour like the room's resident wasn't there at all.
Tree-tall Sequoia squeezed in after TK, and the wooden lass went straight to Sterling's side for a hug and a shoulder for the tears that suddenly flowed so fast. "Thanks for noticing me," she whispered in the senior RA's ear.
"Well, Tanya?" said TK to the pale purple girl who'd followed her in.
"Huh?"; The girl named Tanya had been staring at Sequoia--no, at her, being on the receiving end of the giantess's hug. "Well, what?"
"What do you think of the room, obviously."; The cat-girl tsked impatiently. "What's up?; It can't be that much more impressive than home, to leave you this tongue-tied."; There was a momentary pause for a response that would not come, as her new roommate continued to flick her eyes back and forth between the junior RA and the girl she didn't seem to see.
"Hello?; Anyone home?"; Now TK sounded concerned. "You're starting to worry me over here."
Tanya just pointed timidly to the bed, where Sequoia's shoulder pads were sogged with tears. "Um, Telekat?; I think..."
TK took in the scene, and an outside observer would see the literal click behind her feline eyes. "Oh my God!"; The lights were suddenly on. "Sterling!; I'm so sorry!; Oh..."; The junior RA sashed to the bed to join the hug in progress, though Sequoia had to shuffle over a little to make room. "I've been trying to work on the mental defenses..." she was babbling. "To keep, yanno, from being hit to hard by it, but nothing works!; I'm so, so sorry..."
It took some doing, but she squeezed a few words out from between the hugs. "Not your fault. I'm the one who can't help it. Should be me apologizing for making you forget in the first place..."; A little lower, she whispered, "Thanks for noticing me."
Sequoia did her best to reassure the feline girl as well: "Looks like you're remembering better now, Kat. At first you couldn't recall a thing about her, even after you noticed she was there. Maybe whatever you're doing is helping to lock things in place, but you can't access the memory without a nudge?"
"Yanno, I think you might be right."; TK eased up enough to look Sterling in the face. "It all came rushing back to me as soon as I really looked at you again, and I don't think I'm missing any pieces."
All she could do was smile, because otherwise she'd be a sobby mess all over again.
"Hey, don't beat yourself up about it," said Sequoia. "It's getting better, and you're doing an awesome job of toning it down."; They both knew that wasn't true, but Sterling was happy to hear her say it, at least. "Even better-better, we've finally got someone who can be your roommate!"
And that put everyone attention back on the fourth girl in a room made for two. Tanya stood back as the drama was ongoing, and now she blinkd in confusion as she realized she was back at the center of attention. "Um, hi?" she said.
A light cough announced that TK was finally back on track for the conversation. "I guess introductions are in order?; Sterling, this is Tanya Wright, who just arrived on campus today. She's the one we told you about last week..."
They had?; Maybe TK's exercises were working, if the RA remembered stuff that slipped her own mind.
"...and Tanya, this is Rebecca Sawyer, who usually goes by Sterling. She's been here at Whateley for a few weeks now but, as you can probably tell already, she hasn't had the best of experiences so far."
The light purple--lavender?--girl nodded, and her face was a portrait of saddened sympathy. "So that's why Dawn and the others said they'd never heard of you..."
A sniffle and a sob. She could already tell that she was gonna be a mess all evening. "I, I've introduced myself to Dawn three times. And, and the only time she's noticed me first, she asked who I was, and I couldn't tell her a fourth time... I just..."; It was a fib when she said she'd learned to tone it down. The problem was keeping it from cranking up too high. Sterling'd learned to spot the wince that people got when they were sensitive enough to notice her power. She could see it in Sequoia's face, and in Tanya's, too. Telekat showed it for half a second before the cat-girl's expression went blank.;
The junior RA stood and waved a goodbye to the lavender girl. "Well, Tanya, I guess we should leave you to settle in."; There was a pause as TK took in the girl's look of horror. "Oh, come on now, there's no need to freak out like you've seen a ghost. It's not like we're going to be far away. Just down the hall."; Then she turned to Sequoia. "You coming, Rache?"
"I'll be out in a bit, Kat."; The RA's sigh came deep from the heartwood. "I want to cover a few more things with Tanya, first."
"All right, suit yourself then."; There was a brief but toothy smile aimed Tanya's way. "It's good to finally have you here. Let me know if you need anything. Take care."; And then she was gone, out the door without another word to the girl who wasn't there even when she was. There was plenty of evidence she was in the room now, just using the ears. The sobbing shouldn't've been possible to ignore.
Her new roommate was just standing there gobsmacked. "I..."; The syllable went up, and then the conversation fell down the deep pit of nothing to say.
"It's not your fault, Tanya."; Sequoia's arms were still around Sterling and never letting go. "We knew this was going to be tough, no matter how we approached it."; The phone was already in the RA's free hand, and Sterling knew who would be on the other end even before; Sequoia said, "Hey, Dr. Cody. Yessir, it's Sterling. Thanks, I'll bring her right over. Sorry for the trouble."
She pushed the older girl away, or at least tried to. Kittens put up more of a fight than she could. "Don't wanna go..." she said between sobs. "All's he gonna do is sit there and make me talk. Just wanna be alone right now."
Sequoia had another sigh on the way. "Well, being alone's the whole problem."; When the RA stood, her height was impossible to ignore. Like the tree they named her for, Sequoia was taller than life. "Now, come on. the good doctor's heading back to this office already. It'd be rude to keep him waiting."
Maybe if she curled up against the wall and made herself real small...
"Becca, I'll pick you up and carry you out if I have to. You know I can do it."
Glare all she wanted, it didn't change the fact that the RA could and would do just that. Again. No point in arguing. So with a hiccup and a sob, Sterling gave up. Her body crumpled and went all loosey-goosey as she stopped bothering to care. Then, on limp noodle legs, she got up and wobbled her way to the door.;
She couldn't look at Tanya just yet, but she could feel the lavender girl's eyes still on her, and staying on her all the way out the door. Just as her feet hit hallway, Sterling mumbled, "Thanks for noticing me," but she wasn't sure the other girl heard.
The counselor's office in the side wing of Doyle Hall was the nicest place she never wanted to visit. It had comfortable chairs and amusing pictures of kittens hanging from tree branches, and other stuff designed to make a high school teen feel at ease. Sterling had to wonder if it ever worked. In the big chair sat Dr. Cody, and he made the furniture look small. There was just so much of him there, bulky and bearded and bearish, that it felt like he took up half the room.
Sterling was the exact opposite, scunched up small in the curves of her chair. They'd been there for ten minutes, with hardly that many words being said. Before they reached the fifteen-minute mark, the counselor added a few more: "What do you think of your new roommate?"
"We were lucky to find her, you know. The hero team in Memphis managed a thorough test for mental screening ability, practically comprehensive. Did she forget you were there?"
"...she didn't."; Not yet, at any rate. Sterling couldn't let her hopes get too uppity. Not many people resisted her effect for too long. In fact, so far it was just three: Miz Serendipity, Sequoia, and Dr. Cody.
And the counselor had that familiar wince on his face just then. "I know this is hard, Sterling. Most everyone at Whateley has been hurt, one way or another, but the pain in your heart feeds back on your power, making it harder to find the help you need to heal. Give Miss Wright a chance, is all I can say. You need friends, and you have to start somewhere. A roommate who won't forget you exist?; That is the best start we can provide. Jelly beans?"; He held out the bowl of randomly assorted sugar blobs.
She took a pink one and bit down on it. "...strawberry milk."
"A good flavor. Now, Sterling. It's been a little delayed due to, ah, various happenings, but the semester is about to start as well. Do we need to go over our goals for the term?"
No, she thought. "...yes," she said, because she knew he expected her to.
"Good. So our first thing is...?"
"...talk to people."
"In order to...?"
She let out a deep, long sigh. "Relax and let go of the anxiety."; Easier said than done, and they both knew it.
"Exactly. A friendly roommate should help with that. Hang out, get used to simply being there, and more should follow," said Dr. Cody. "You don't need to push yourself too hard, but don't give up on yourself, either. Now, how about you start by going back to Whitman and saying hi properly to your new roommate?"
Emergency sessions were often short ones, and Sterling was not going to complain. "...okay."; She stood up. "...thank you."
She never waited for anyone to say goodbye, so Dr. Cody's final words hit her in the small of her back: "Take care, Rebecca. Things will get better."
It was nothing she hadn't heard before, and from people she never wanted to hear from again. Bless his heart, but what did the counselor know about her, really?; Nobody knew anything about her. Most people never knew she existed for more than a few minutes at a time, if they ever noticed her at all. The early September evening was lit well enough for her to see all the new faces, the new kids wandering the campus, and more to come the next day. Not one of them paused to look, paused to see as she pushed past them and onward to Whitman Cottage. The green-skinned girl with the silver hair down to her ass and a deluxe spice rack on the front was at most another face in the crowd. Hard not to take something like that personally, even if she didn't really like the attention she'd gotten before... before...
No one could see her cry, either. That was a plus.
No Sequoia in the foyer. No Mrs. Savage, either. Both busy, and no one to notice her as she bolted up the stairs to the second floor, down a hall teeming with new faces, and through the door to her room, to happy, lonely, sad, quiet, safe solitude.
And her roommate.
"You're back!" cried the lavender girl. Tanya was still unpacking her bags, but she spared a moment to rush over and glomp a hug around a surprised Sterling. "I mean, Sequoia said you would be, but she was worried, I can tell. So yeah, hi again!; I'm Tanya Wright, code name Invictus, from Memphis, Tennesee."
"Rebecca Sawyer," she found herself replying. "Code name Sterling, and, um, I kinda prefer that. Not from anywhere in particular anymore."; Her accent might mark her as southern, but she wasn't about to let that define her. That bridge was burned from the other end. "Um, welcome to Whateley, Tanya."
"You too, Sterling."
---Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016
Almost three months into the school year, four since she'd arrived, and Whateley still wasn't really home. It was closer than most places, but Sterling couldn't feel it. The same small group of people remembered who she was, or at least forgot less often than most, and it helped but they also kept asking her to try harder, to be harder, to open up when that was the last thing she wanted, because that was when they gotcha. Tanya couldn't be with her all the time. Ernesto and Sam couldn't host their chill sessions all the time. Dr. Cody could technically manage a counseling session at any time, but she felt bad for pulling him away from his family when it sounded like they had plenty going on, too.
Sitting on her bed, alone in the world, Sterling looked at her phone screen.
It said, 「How about we meet face to face?; Room 347.」
An invitation. An actual, honest to God invitation from someone she'd never actually met. Probably hadn't met. Likely had seen around but never paid attention to, just as this person had never paid attention to Sterling... but still knew she was there.
They both knew Miz Serendipity. That was the important thing. Sterling told herself that several times as she mounted the stairs to the third floor wing where the juniors had their rooms. Even with her social invisibility, she'd never ventured up there. No reason, no need, no real curiosity, either.
But now she was in front of the door to Room 347. It lacked a name plate, and it didn't have any of the decorations some other doors sported. It didn't even have a whiteboard for messages. Her knuckles rapped on bare wood.
"Coming."; The voice on the other side had a familiar twang, a touch of the old sweet home state that set her heart to racing with nerves.;
The handle turned, the door opened, and the junior named Jenifer stuck her head out. Unnaturally bright red hair flowed around a heart-shaped face like something from a fashion magazine, except for one obvious flaw: a pronounced and ugly scar that drew a line diagonally across the face and between the eyes.
Miz Serendipity'd said they'd lost one girl last year, and almost a second. Jenifer must've been the 'almost' in that story, and the junior acknowledged her stare of surprise with a weary shrug. "Glam's out for the weekend," said she, as if that explained it all. "And I didn't feel like being social, anyhow. Here I am, scars and all, as you can see."
See, see... "You can see me!?" squeaked Sterling.;
"Seen you a buncha times. Didn't know it was all that special. Well, what're you waiting for?; C'mon in."
With a wave, Jenifer Chalmers beckoned, and Sterling could only do as invited, because she was invited, after days and weeks and months and... "Th-thanks for noticing me."
"No big whoop. Now."; Jenifer patted the side of her mattress. "How's about we sit down and you tell me everything."
She sat down. She leaned into the comfort of the other girl's arms. She cried. Eventually, she started talking, and the junior code-named Scarlyt listened with intent.