I landed in my own backyard.
It was night in Pomegranate Grove, and I wondered how many days had passed, if time went by the same way here as it did on the Nex, and fantasized that maybe only a few hours had gone by here… but the apple tree, in bloom when I left, had lost all its blossoms, and the moon was fatter than before, so I knew at least a few days had gone by. The windows in my house were dark, and I decided it was worth the risk to get some clean clothes and some food from the kitchen before returning to the Nex to do… whatever I could do.
I was really happy to see home, and surprised at myself for being happy. Being away is fun – at least until everything starts to fail and fall apart – but part of the fun of being away is having a home to come back to, maybe.
Tempting as it was just to go sleep in my own bed and accept the inevitable grounding – or worse – that I’d get in the morning when Mom found me, I knew I couldn’t stay. For one thing, there was Dad, maybe still alive out there. For another, there was Howlaa and Wisp, who were now both captured, because of me. And then there was the Regent. I didn’t like him, and didn’t want him to win.
Besides, he could reach me with his snatch-engines here, and I didn’t think I’d done nearly enough damage to disable those things, even temporarily. The Regent would drag me back to the Nex if I tried to stay, because I had something he wanted. I was something he wanted. Wisp and Howlaa’s revolution wasn’t the great good thing I’d originally imagined – not even really a revolution at all – but now that I had the jump-engine, I had as much reason as they did to want the Regent kicked out of power.
I jumped to the dark of the pantry, surrounded by shelves packed with canned food and dry goods in plastic pest-proof tubs. Mom bought massive quantities of stuff from the warehouse store every month. She’d gotten into hoarding after Dad died, trying to make us feel more secure I guess, even though she hardly cooked. I listened at the door and heard only silence in the kitchen, so I eased the pantry door open and slipped out. There was a light on over the stove, but the rest of the house was dark, Mom and her dumb boyfriend and Cal all asleep upstairs. I went to the fridge and opened it up, wondering what I could eat that wouldn’t be missed. It was full of take-out containers – no shock – and I found a box of mu shu pork, which I’m always happy to eat cold. I opened a drawer as quietly as I could and pulled out a couple of chopsticks. The thought of sitting in my own kitchen and having a meal, even a cold greasy take-out meal, was amazing.
After I sat down, I heard a tap-ratt-tat-tap.
I knew the sound. Drumsticks rattling on walls or tables or whatever. My brother Cal is a drummer, and he carries drumsticks with him everywhere, rapping on everything he passes – he says he’s practicing, but I think he’s just equal parts obsessive and annoying. He’s in a crappy garage band called Feral Sex Herd. The sound of his tap-tapping made me think of Dad, which was kind of weird, but not really – he’s the one who got Cal his first drum kit, and he said drummers can always get gigs, because every teenage kid in the world plays guitar, but there aren’t that many decent drummers.
The tap-tapping got louder, and I almost jumped away… but I was so tired of jumping, of running, and maybe I even kind of missed my stupid brother, so I just waited to see what would happen.
Cal came into the kitchen, dressed in boxer shorts and nothing else – he’s so gross – and stared at me. “Randy.” His bushy eyebrows, just like Dad’s, went up and down. “You’re eating my breakfast.”
“Sorry.” I ate another mouthful.
“What the hell happened to your hair?”
I ran my hand through the purple stubble and winced. “The dye’s only temporary.”
“Uh huh. And why are you dressed like you’re in a third-grade dance recital?”
I looked down at my unitard and shrugged. “Didn’t have a ton of options. I was going to change.”
Cal leaned against the counter, drumsticks tapping on his thighs. “Mom’s sleeping in your bed. If you go in there she’ll jump on you and never let go.”
I winced. “She’s pissed.”
Cal snorted. “She thinks you’re on drugs living under a freeway in Atlanta having sex with strangers for crack. But when she sees you here, yeah, she’ll go from being scared to being pissed off.”
“Didn’t she get my note?”
“Yep. Not your best idea, sis. Leaving a note that doesn’t make sense on the kitchen table. Mom just flipped out even more knowing you’d been in the house and she’d missed you. That’s when she started sleeping in your bed every night. She keeps saying she should’ve gotten one of those GPS tracker things for your cell phone, which she’s been calling every hour on the hour. She can’t even get your voicemail.”
“Yeah, the phone’s been… not working.” Way out of range, I thought. Seriously roaming.
“So where have you been? And how much did you get for the necklace?”
I frowned. “What?”
“The necklace you stole from me, I figured you must’ve pawned it or something, gone on a shopping spree with Jenny Kay. Except she swears she hasn’t seen you, and she’s worried too. So’s that boy, Ryan — or is it Joshua? I can’t tell them apart. Whichever, he came by asking after you. I was almost worried about you myself. Anyway, however much money you got, you owe it to me now.”
“The necklace wasn’t yours either, Cal.”
He stopped drumming and crossed his arms. “I bought it. For Clarissa.”
Cal’s skanky on-again-off-again girlfriend, who everyone knew was really in love with Brandon, the singer in his band, and just hung out with Cal to get close to him. I shook my head. “Right. If you had that kind of money you’d spend it on cymbals or something. Where’d you really find it?”
I’ll say this for me and Cal, there’s never been a lot of bullcrap between us. He shrugged. “It was just glittering in the dirt out by the fairgrounds. Some rich lady must have dropped it. Finder’s keepers, though, Randy.”
“I didn’t pawn it. I traded it. For this ring.” I held out my hand.
“What’s that, gold? Randy, that necklace had diamonds on it.” He frowned. “Or emeralds? I can’t remember.” Because it changed
Because it changed.
“Anyway, you got cheated,” he said. “But we can work out some kind of compensation plan, right? Now that you’re back, you can start doing my chores for me –”
I just laughed. “Or what? You’ll tell Mom I stole the necklace you stole first? You think she’ll believe your ‘I found it in the dirt’ thing?”
“Because you’re the trustworthy one, runaway? Please. You’re at the top of mom’s shitlist. And you don’t want to get any farther onto my bad side. I was gonna let you sleep on the couch and deal with Mom in the morning, but I can go wake her up now, if you want.”
I shook my head. “I’m not staying, Cal. I just stopped by for a little while. I have to go back out again.”
“Are you crazy? Miranda, you’re thirteen. You can’t leave home and, like, seek your fortune. If Mom finds out you were here and I let you go, she’ll kill me.” His eyebrows went up again. “You aren’t on drugs, or mixed up in…. anything like that… are you? I didn’t think you were that dumb. I mean, a little weed, sure, but anything more –”
“No, it’s nothing like that. Just don’t tell Mom I was here. You never saw me.”
“No way, Randy. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but if you’re in some kind of trouble, let Mom help. And if you’re not in some kind of trouble yet, you will be. It’s not like I never cut a class, but you’ve missed days of school – miss too many more, and you’ll be screwed. You like middle school so much you want to stay an extra year?”
“Cal. I think Dad is still alive.”
He came to the table slowly, sat down across from me, and put his drumsticks aside. “Randy. Dad’s dead.”
“They never found his body. What if he… if something whacked him in the head and he got amnesia or something, and just wandered away from the explosion?”
“You’re telling me you’ve been out looking for Dad? What… why?”
“I can’t explain right now. But trust me – I’ll know for sure soon.”
“This is crazy, Randy. I think somebody’s scamming you, trying to use you, I don’t know what, but there’s no way Dad survived. There was nothing left of the restaurant but a hole in the ground.”
I didn’t dare take Cal to the Nex – no reason to bring him to the Regent’s attention, plus he’d waste my time by freaking out – but I wished I could show him something. Any demonstration of my new power would just lead to more questions, though, and there’s no easy way to say, “Well, there’s this other universe, only it’s actually outside the universe, and it’s full of monsters, only they’re mostly just people like us, and oh yeah, I’m the last free member of a revolutionary force…” So I fell back on, “Just trust me. I’ll be back in a couple of days.”
“Cal? Honey, who are you talking to?”
I stiffened at Mom’s voice – she was calling from the living room, and I heard her approaching footsteps. When Cal twisted in his chair to answer her, I took advantage of the moment and jumped to my own bedroom.
I heard distant shouting in the kitchen – I guess it had to do with me being there, then suddenly not – so I hurried past my rumpled bed to the closet. I had a pretty serious privacy-invasion pang at the thought of Mom in my room, going through my stuff, probably trying to read my e-mail (fortunately my friend Jenny Kay set up some sweet encryption so I could keep my secrets, such as they are). But there was nothing I could do about that now. I opened the closet and grabbed my go-bag. That was another of Mom’s post-Dad life changes, forcing us all to put together little overnight bags to grab in case of fire or terrorist attack or natural disaster, with changes of clothes and nasty dry granola bars and other stuff like that. I scooped up the bag, paused to listen to the ongoing yelling, then sighed. I went to my desk, scribbled a quick note with a sharpie on a piece of printer paper, and left it on the pillow. “Mom – sorry – love you – home soon – don’t worry.” I didn’t think it would help, but it probably wouldn’t hurt.
I looked around the room, at the pictures thumbtacked to the walls, my bed, my vanity, my bookshelves, and wished I could stay. Who would’ve thought I’d miss home? A few nights sleeping in birds nests and lengths of pipe made home seem pretty inviting, even with Mom’s dumb boyfriend there half the time.
I jumped back to the Nex, to a corridor deep in the palace, near the big gates that held back the humongous icky thing I’d found before.
Going home had actually given me some ideas about what to do next. Maybe I was relying on the jump-engine too much. Cal banged his drumsticks on everything, because to a drummer, everything looks like a drum. To a teleporter, everything looks like a job for teleportation. The problem was, Wisp and Howlaa and me had been calling this thing of ours a revolution, but it wasn’t – it was just a jailbreak. The jump-engine could help with a jailbreak, maybe, but a revolution took more than three people with some badass powers. A real revolution needed a plan more complicated than punching people until they disappeared.
I’d realized something else at home, or maybe not so much realized as hoped. Hearing Mom’s voice made me think about mothers in general, how mothers would supposedly do anything for their kids – whether their kids wanted them to or not. So I got to wondering….
I went to the big metal gates, stepped through them again, and faced the warty gelatinous mountain of flesh chained up on the other side.
“Hey,” I said. “Your majesty?” >
>Yes<, the Queen of Nexington-on-Axis replied.