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The Grave of Your Deserving

The Wonderful House boards were crazy with the news.

Somehow, it didn't surprise me, though. We'd never heard about Brandon's family on the show. They'd talked about Professor Canis, we had the memorable visit from Lizzie's father, Tom's aunt and uncle had come up from time to time, and Jeshri's family was always in her conversation. But not Brandon's. It seemed somehow fitting, karmically, that even his family abandoned him in the end.

Of course, it didn't seem fair that the people who had the most reason to dislike him were forced into the position of taking care of him. And of course they had to, especially after their closing video laying claim to him as "their jerk." They would have been ripped to shreds if it had come out that Brandon's body had been surrendered to the government for dissection.

I popped to a different screen and signed a half dozen petitions to do away with the Gold Stars research law. I knew that Ruth -- or someone -- would take care of me when I died, because god knows no one wants the government to dissect a Class 10 telepath. But didn't all the other paras, all the regular paras, all the homeless paras, anyone at all who wasn't quite the ideal human being, have a right to be buried with their secrets? Patriotic duty, my left asscheek.

It also didn't surprise me that the show's producers had abandoned any responsibility for Brandon along with their responsibility for payout or, you know, the safety of their "contestants". I did notice, however, that the producers tried to jump on the funeral bandwagon once it got rolling. In an interview with Simon:

WonderBlog: So will the funeral be televised?

Simon: We'll be livestreaming it for the fans.

WonderBlog: But no TV?

Simon: We couldn't reach an amicable compromise with the show's producers, who are in the best position to produce a televised version. They were interested in the funeral, but not interested in meeting any conditions, and we weren't interested in being screwed over again.

WonderBlog: Speaking of screwed over, who's paying for the funeral?

Simon: Fortunately, not us. There's a fund established by the Guardians and Gold Stars for the funerals of paras without families who die in a supervillain action.

Oh, good, I thought, at least the kids weren't going to have to cough up for the ridiculous costs of a funeral.

The livestreamed funeral was fascinating. I tuned in late (after taking practically every drug in my pharmacopeia that suppressed my powers without just knocking me out), just in time to see hundreds of fans packing into the largest room of the Weinstein Funeral Home. The camera view switched to Simon, in a tailored black suit, and Jeshri, in a somber brown skirt suit, walking out to meet Tom, who was pulling on a tweed sportcoat over a black polo shirt and khakis as he crossed the parking lot.

"You made it!" Simon said, shaking his hand.

"I couldn't let you guys face this without me," Tom said, next hugging Jeshri. "No luck with his dad though."

"What happened?" Jeshri said, and they all turned and started walking toward the funeral home.

"I stopped at the address you gave me, just outside Pittsburg," Tom said. "Parking the rig was a bitch and the neighbors all came out to stare. Upscale but older neighborhood, almost all white."

"Surprise," Simon muttered.

"Anyway," Tom said with a shrug, "I rang the doorbell. The lights were on and the TV was going, so I kept at it till he opened the door. And guys, the fumes just about knocked me the fuck over."

"Drunk?" Jeshri said.

"As a skunk," Tom said. "He was in his wifebeater and a pair of sweatpants and had about a week's worth of stubble. Looked just like Brandon would have after twenty years of partying and smoking."

"Yugh," Jeshri said.

"I'll spare you more gory details," Tom said as they neared the door. "Let's leave it at him telling me he wouldn't attend anything associated with his wife's filthy para crotch-dropping, in those words, even if it was the funeral for every backstabbing bastard para in the world at the same time. And then he mock-apologized that his wife was on the other side of the world, probably screwing someone who looked like me, when she could have been here, comforting me for the loss of my buddy, if only all paras weren't also great big homos."

"I think I'm going to be sick," Jeshri said, looking the part.

"Guess we know more about why Brandon was such a jackass now," Simon said.

"It's no excuse," Lizzie said, emerging from the doorway. "I mean, look at my dad."

"Must I?" Simon said.

"He's at least as big a jerk as Brandon's dad," Lizzie said, "and I, at least, try to be decent to other people." She was wearing a white blouse and pair of dark blue slacks.

Tom nodded. "You've got a point."

They hesitated outside the door, and then group-hugged.

"Time to butch up," Simon said, breathing deeply.

"Let's get this over with," Lizzie said, breaking away from the others and opening the door.

The camera switched back to the interior of the packed room. My computer system was blurring out faces except those I knew personally, so I noticed Ira and Suzanne Feldstein sitting in the front row, Ira in a crisp, bright Mister Metropolitan uniform and Suzanne in a dark burgundy suit. I saw Ruth, Olivia, and Larentia sitting together a couple of rows back, noticeably not in their more recognizable Ultimate, Fat Lady, and Professor Canis personas. The Steel Guardian was there with Sekhmet, representing for their particular teams. Brainchild, looking pale and wan, all nose and glasses, in a shirt, vest, and many-pocketed trousers, sat next to Wire, whose weirdly floaty blue forelock only briefly distracted me from the shining metal hand she flexed idly in her lap. And just as people were settling in and a man was stepping to the podium, the Equestrian and her horse (in his human form) strode up the aisle to sit with Ira and Suzanne.

The camera view then shifted to the plain black coffin with chrome trim and rails, against which leaned a small easel holding a photograph of a slightly younger, pleasantly-smiling Brandon -- probably a school photo of some sort. I could see any number of floral offerings around the coffin, including an ostentatious bunch of white lilies from the "It's a Wonderful House" producers.

The man at the podium was pastor of a local church who knew Tom (we were not vouchsafed an explanation for that). He was an uninspiring speaker -- I wished for the preacher from Mama's church, whose eloquence she always spoke of in glowing tones -- but white preachers have never particularly impressed me. I tuned out everything he said and concentrated on the images: the camera pans over the crowd (mostly young white people, I noticed), the expressions on the faces of the Wonderful House cast and crew (my system recognized Eartha the camerawoman in that group, and from her face I guessed she shared my assessment of the speaker), and the repeated switches back to the coffin.

He spoke for only about five minutes, which was a blessing, and no one else apparently cared to speak, so Olivia got up and sang "Ave Maria" in her most restrained voice, accompanied by a pianist I didn't know (and so couldn't see). When she was done, the pianist swung into something slow and somber, and Simon, Lizzie, Jeshri, Tom, Eartha, and another crew member I didn't know went forward, lifted the coffin, and carried it out on their shoulders. The crowd began to pour out the doors after them.

I walked away from the livestream while they drove to the cemetery. My computer system was excellent, but with the speed the cars were moving, it would inevitably miss blocking some people, and I just didn't need the headache. My family phone rang while I was pouring myself a glass of tea.

"Hey, Mama," I said.

"Are you watching the funeral?" she said.

"Of course," I said.

"You made yourself so sick over all that," she said, sucking her teeth in annoyance. "I can't imagine why you want to watch that horrible boy's funeral now."

"Because he's the end of the story," I said, adding three teaspoons of sugar to my iced tea. "It's about closure, Mama. He was that man's last victim."

"Well," she said, somewhat mollified. "When you put it that way. I suppose. Is that woman there?"

"Suzanne Feldstein? Yes, she was in the front row with her father-in-law," I said, sipping the tea and going through a door into one of my little parks, where I kept promising myself to start an aviary so I could have birdsong, another one of those things I miss.

"She wrote a very nice memorial to Yenaye and the other women, I thought," Mama said.

"Yes, I thought it was good too," I said, sitting on one of the wooden benches. The tone of her voice was detached, and I could tell there was a pressure of something she wanted to tell me. I waited.

"Rennie, I called you to tell you something," Mama said finally.

"What's up?" I said.

"Well, first thing, your cousin Benjamin asked me to ask you if you were serious about wanting a puppy, because he knows one that needs a home," she said. Mama doesn't like dogs, and that dislike dripped off her voice.

"Tell Ben that I absolutely want a new puppy, and he should send me photos," I said, feeling really excited for the first time in a while.

"You know him and his foolery with dogs," Mama said. "Of course he'd find you a dog. It'll have fleas, you know."

"There's medicine for that, Mama," I said, tamping down the excitement. "What else did you want to tell me?"

She fell silent. "I had one of my seeing dreams, Rennie," she said, her tone uncharacteristically hesitant.

"And?" I knew better than to say anything else at all, because she'd take it as disbelief and never tell me.

She cleared her throat uncomfortably. "I saw you alone with your dog. All alone, mind you, and not in your house." She always called the bunker my "house". I guess it made it sound less like I was locked away. "Looking out a great big window over the city." Throat-clearing again. "That's all. But I knew it was a seeing."

"Thank you, Mama," I said, feeling chilled. "I don't know what it means, but I'll remember it."

"You do that," she said, but I could tell she was gratified. I was the only one of her children who believed in her seeing dreams. I had reason to. "All right, I'd best be getting on. You take care now, Rennie."

"I will. You too, Mama," I said. "I love you."

"And I love you, girl," she said, and hung up.

When I got back to the screen with my half-glass of tea, they'd gotten to the cemetery and were lowering the coffin into the raw hole in the green earth. As I watched fans and acquaintances pass by the grave to throw flowers into it, I raised my glass. May it be sweeter for him next time around.


Note from the Author:

Renata's not the only one grateful for closure here!

Please remember to vote for WCS!

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Habeas Corpus

Suzanne woke from her warm, comfortable doze with Simon reaching over her for his phone, which was vibrating on the nightstand. "Do you have to answer it?" she said drowsily.

"I just want to see who it is," he said, fumbling the phone around in his hands. "The hospital? What the hell?"

Suzanne blinked herself more awake as he flipped open the phone. She smiled vaguely, admiring the beauty of his hands.


She could hear the buzz of the person's voice on the other end, but couldn't hear the words. Of course his volume would be turned wayyy down.

"Speaking," he said, frowning.

Suzanne twisted around to see his face more clearly.

"You have got to be shitting me," he said to the person on the phone.

Simon was silent for a long moment, then he sat up and swung his legs out of bed. He started to fumble one-handed for the buckles of the harness at his hips, and Suzanne leaned over to help. She caught the assembly, as well as the Great Blue Willy, as he stood up and shook it loose. "All right, all right, I see," he said, reaching down to the floor to grab a shirt, a pair of underwear, and his jeans. "All right, I said, we'll be there as soon as we can." He flipped the phone shut against his hip.

Suzanne was sitting up in bed now, fastidiously cleaning the toys and watching him start to pull his clothes on. "What's up?" she said.

"You will not fucking believe this," Simon said, jumping up and down to fit into his tight jeans. "I don't think I fucking believe this."

"I can't tell you one way or the other unless you tell me," she said, tucking the toys into the cabinet at the head of the futon.

Simon looked at her, a little wild-eyed. "They want me to come claim Brandon's body."

She blinked. "What?"

"Yeah, they want me to claim his white boy ass and all the rest of him," Simon said, pulling a muscle-hugging t-shirt on over his head. "Because they can't reach either of his parents, and there's some law -- have you ever heard of it? -- called the Gold Stars Act."

"Oh, yes," Suzanne said, rolling out of bed and going in search of her own clothes. There was a trail leading back to the couch in the front part of the apartment. "If a para's body isn't claimed within two weeks, it reverts to government property and goes to the National Institute of Paranormal Research for... whatever research they want to do with it."

"The morgue crew at Wonder City General apparently don't like to see that happen," Simon said, stepping into his blue hightops. "Which does make me feel better about them, I guess. But since no one can reach the deJongs and no one knows of any other relatives, someone has to claim his body and 'make arrangments' within the next 12 hours or it goes to the NIPR."

"I'm appalled that no one has repealed the Gold Stars Act," Suzanne said, sliding into her underwear and slacks. "I always thought it had been. Repealed, I mean."

"Ask Ira about it." Simon came up behind her to fasten her bra. "You don't have to come with me, you know," he said. "I'm going to call the others. I figure if I've gotta suffer, so do they."

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Suzanne said, turning to kiss him hard. "I'm a journalist, and you, my fine, fine object of lust, are news."

"I love it when you talk dirty pool," Simon purred against her shoulder.

While Suzanne drove them to the hospital, Simon called or texted the others from the Wonderful House.

They met Jeshri and Lizzie in the main lobby. Tom was on a truck run in Illinois, but told Simon to keep him in the loop.

"I can't believe they called you," Jeshri said, hugging Simon.

"Oh, hi!" Lizzie said, staring at Suzanne. "Mrs. Feldstein, right?"

"Please call me Suzanne," she said, shaking first Lizzie's hand, then Jeshri's. Both the young women shot Simon looks with raised eyebrows.

"She's, um, my, uh..." Simon said, a blush creeping up his neck to his ears, then forward into his face.

"Girlfriend," Suzanne supplied cheerfully. "Also, I'm a professional noseyparker. Win-win for me."

"That's right, you were there that night because of the blog thing," Jeshri said. "I... we didn't know Simon was involved with you." She gave Simon a knowing smirk that only made him blush more deeply.

"All right!" he said, rubbing his face, "we're here on the world's stupidest mission."

"Yeah," Lizzie said. "Doesn't he have parents somewhere?"

"I called the producers," Jeshri said. "Betty, the admin, told me his mom is in... Cambodia or someplace. Shedding white on the people, I suppose."

"Oh, right," Simon said, memory dawning. "He mentioned that she was a missionary once."

"No wonder he was such an asshole," Lizzie said. "What about his dad?"

Jeshri shrugged. "She said she'd given all the home info to the police. Maybe his dad is anti-para or something."

Lizzie sighed. "We shouldn't even be here. We hated him, remember? Let his corpse go off for research."

"I've been thinking about that too," Simon said.

Jeshri looked at the floor. "You guys don't have to stay, but i'm going to go claim his body."

Lizzie gave her a look that clearly said she thought Jeshri was unhinged. "Why?"

Jeshri shrugged again and didn't look up. "I guess because I hope that someone would show up for me if I... you know."

Simon and Lizzie traded shamefaced glances.

"Well," Simon said after an awkward silence, "Let's go. This will be festive."

It was very festive, Suzanne thought, for meanings of festive equating to "depressing as hell."

There was paperwork, and Simon, Jeshri, and Lizzie had to produce identification. Then they had to identify the body.

Brandon's blue eyes were closed and his blond hair was limp and dark against his clay-pale brow. He looked much younger than he ever had on television. His bare shoulders were bonier than Suzanne thought they would be, his muscles lax on his frame, his skin bloodless and gray. There were a few dark marks on his chest, contusions and punctures on his arms, and there was something not quite right about his ribcage, something unusually flat but lumpy.

Simon's hand trembled in Suzanne's. He reached out and took Jeshri's hand. The three of them stood together. Suzanne glanced at Lizzie, who stood a little apart, her face composed and emotionless.

"Yes," Lizzie said after a long moment, her voice flat and unlovely and practical. "That's him."

Simon and Jeshri both nodded, and the morgue staffer let the sheet fall back over the body's face. "We need the name of a funeral home to send him to," the staffer said.

The three young people exchanged baffled looks. Suzanne raised a questioning eyebrow at Simon, and he nodded. "Weinstein Funeral Home," she told the staffer, who dutifully wrote it down on her clipboard while walking away toward the office. In response to Lizzie and Jeshri's blank looks, Suzanne said, "They did my husband's funeral."

"Funeral," Lizzie said, staring at Suzanne, then cocking her head at Jeshri. "Funeral? What the hell are we going to do about that?"


Note from the Author:

Poor ol' dependable Simon.

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Full of Evil Clowns

I'd finally conquered my headache after drugging myself unconscious for about twenty hours, and I'd rescheduled all my clients for the next two weeks.  I felt better -- sore all around the edges, but better -- and I'd been swimming a lot.

Ruth called and I managed to keep the call short.  "Have you talked to Nereid and Wire?" I said after the initial greetings and stream of gratitude.

"Yes," Ruth said.  "Well, I've talked to Wire.  She said the whole thing was Nereid's idea, so I've been trying to get in touch with Pacifica.  She hasn't returned my calls yet."

"She's shy," I said, but I frowned and made a mental note to talk to the Equestrian.  "And probably exhausted."

"That's what Wire suggested," Ruth said.  "Anyway, thank you, Rennie, for everything.  I know what you did with those kids wasn't easy at all for you."

"They needed me," I said.  "And I wanted to be part of bringing that bastard down.  He killed a friend of my family."

"Damn, girl, you didn't tell me that," Ruth said.  

"Sorry," I said.  "I just... well, you were busy."

She sighed.  "All right.  Well, I'm glad you could be part of the resolution, at least."

"Me too," I said.  "Hey, Ruth, you know I love talking to you but..."

"You're still fried, I know.  Take care of yourself, boo," Ruth said.  "You're still coming to the party, right?"

Until that moment, I'd completely forgotten about Ruth's upcoming 50th birthday party.  "Oh, hell, yes," I said.  "I wouldn't miss it."

"I'll tell Sophie," she said.  "Love you."

"Love you too," I said, and we hung up.

I was grateful that I'd managed things so well, because I had a chance for a swim before the last episode of Wonderful House.

The speculation on what this final episode would be like had run wild on the Internet.  A memorial to Brandon?  The other housemates talking in detail about that night, since very little of the real story had come out?  Lizzie reconciling with her father?  (I vehemently hoped not.)  Simon and any of the other housemates confessing their undying love for each other?  (The biggest part of the fandom I frequented was pro-Simon/Lizzie, but a not-insubstantial proportion was pro-Simon/Jeshri.  There were lesser contingents for all the other combinations, including triads and even all four together, and even smaller groups that 'shipped non-Simon pairings.)  (I don't go to the parts of fandom that like Brandon.)

I think that no one, not even me, expected what we got: an hour of retrospective, talking heads analyzing the interactions and relationships, and a lot of voiceover on the scenes of the housemates packing their rooms.  Not a single line of current dialog from the housemates.  The only time any anger at all was allowed to show was when all of them were sitting in the producer's office, glowering at the PARABI executive who was, reportedly, letting them know that Brandon's death violated the agreement and there would be no payout.

I could almost hear the "OH HELL NO" in all their minds as I watched that scene, even though the voiceover was attempting to spin their glares as anger about Brandon.  I wondered what the fan response would be, so when the episode ended, off I went to the forums.

Many people were baffled.  "Wait, why isn't anyone being allowed to talk?"  More were angry: "The deal was no damage to the house! How does getting killed in a freak accident off the property count as violating the deal?"  Others were paranoid: "Brandon was killed by one of his housemates, probably Lizzie!  The lawyers have a gag order on everyone!"

The forums exploded for about half an hour, and then the link appeared.

A few of us were half-waiting for it, and pounced on it.

SuperTube's dynamic hit counter started running up while I was waiting for the video clip to load.  And then the video started to run.

The usual Wonderful House logo appeared, then "It's" was crossed out and replaced by "It Was Never", and the theme music slowed and morphed into something more sinister.

Simon was sitting in a leather chair by a roaring fireplace, dressed in an impeccably tailored black suit with a red silk pocket square and matching tie.  He looked squarely into the camera and said, in a voice more mellow and trained than he'd previously demonstrated (why, yes, he had attended acting classes in college after all, thanks, Parapedia), "After learning what the final episode of 'It's a Wonderful House' was to show, the cast and crew met in secret to discuss what to do.  All of us felt that the episode was a copout, cheating the fans who stuck with us all this time.  Today, we would like to present you, our fans, with our best gift, the only gift we can give you: the truth."

The usual opening, sans music, played, and Simon's voiceover said, "We thought we were participating in a perfectly normal, every day reality show.  What we didn't know was that the deck had been stacked -- both knowingly and unknowingly -- against us by the powers that be for the show."

"Knowingly," he went on, and the view zoomed in on one of the all-too-common images of Brandon, leerly vaguely and drunkenly at Lizzie and Jeshri in the living room, "because there is now documented evidence--" the view switched to a file folder in Brandon's disaster of a room, opened to a contract clearly branded with the IaWH logo "--that the producers paid Brandon a considerable sum to appear on the show to act as a prod to induce conflict."  The key clause of the contract was circled in red, and a clickable link to the document appeared.  I let the video continue to play.

We were then treated to a montage of images of Brandon getting shoved aside by one or another housemate, of Tom only just stopping himself from throwing a punch at Brandon's grinning face, of Jeshri electrocuting Brandon (leaving him rolling on the floor, his shorts showing a wet patch in front -- I note that this had never appeared on the show, of course), of Simon going semi-lupine in the face and snapping at Brandon with his flashing teeth, and finally of Lizzie throwing the boiling water on him, hitting him up the backside of the head with a sizzling frying pan, nailing him in the balls with his own baseball bat, and throwing the dishes at him so that he fell backwards down the stairs.

"Unknowingly," Simon said, "because they failed to carry out background checks on any of the crew, though they checked the cast out very thoroughly, even down to checking our credit ratings."

Watson appeared onscreen, with an identifying caption ("Watson Holmes, Consulting Detective").  She was dressed up only slightly, having added a tweed blazer to her usual buttondown shirt.  "It took me all of fifteen minutes to run superficial background checks on the entire camera, sound, and light crew, as it would for any professional.  I found that there is a member of the sound crew who likes to drive very fast, a member of the light crew who had recently divorced with allegations of abuse on both sides, a member of the production staff with a history of stalking, and a member of the camera crew with a history of domestic violence, sexual assault, and even a rape arrest that did not end in a conviction, due to technicalities rather than a failure to prove guilt."

"We got our first indication that something might be amiss," Simon said, returning to the screen, "when a member of the cast received a tip from a para fan that she had picked up a detail during a live broadcast that suggested we had a murderer in our midst.  That cast member shared this information with the rest of the cast, other than Brandon, because we had some indication that Brandon might be violent himself."

We then saw the clip of Brandon bragging about raping the drunk woman from the frat party, and the clip of Brandon talking to his cameraman about Simon and making vague threats. Then there was a scene in the dark of him coming in drunk late one night and wandering into random bedrooms until there was a wild scuffle that ended with Simon walking him up to the third floor, twisting Brandon's arm up behind his back and holding onto a handful of his hair.

"Then someone tried to blackmail Jeshri," Simon said, "by threatening to release personal photos of her to the Internet at large. The condition for not releasing them was meeting the blackmailer at a nearby park in Staybird in the middle of the night."

The camerawork was uninspired, but showed the housemates walking through the park. "Of course, we weren't about to let her go alone," he said in voiceover. They came around a curve and there was Brandon, clearly visible in the streetlight.

They played a bit of film that showed Brandon confessing to being involved in the blackmail, and then events dissolved into the chaos of the fight. The picture froze on Brandon's confused face. "Yes, Brandon was party to the blackmail, and was part of setting up the meeting, but we believe he didn't know about the murderous aspect of his partner in crime. Our best evidence is the casual manner in which the true criminal cast him aside." The video played forward, and even played through the killer hitting his scrambler device, so the bug cams were certainly hardened. We got a slo-mo image of the killer slamming Brandon in the chest, played from several angles.

"This blow, unbeknownst to us, ruptured Brandon's aorta," Simon said, and the picture returned to his cozy parlor. "Several of us went after the killer, while others called the ambulance. Tom rode to the hospital with Brandon, who was declared dead shortly after reaching the emergency room."

The view switched to Tom, who appeared to be sitting in a cafe. "He never woke up," Tom said in an uncharacteristically rough voice. "He said, 'I thought he was my bro,' and passed out and never fucking woke up again. I mean, what kind of fucking epitaph is that? He thought everyone was his bro, even people he insulted. He was like some kind of malevolent golden retriever. But goddammit, he might've gotten better some day."

Then Simon was sitting at that table, wearing casual clothing and looking angry. "I'm told I shouldn't feel bad about not staying to check on him," he said in a subdued voice. "I'm told he was a dead man, sitting there, and there was nothing I could have done. I'm told it was better that I went after the killer to try to keep him from hurting anyone else. But, you know, it's hard to believe that."

Jeshri was looking up at the ceiling and saying, "It pisses me off that every time I think about him, sitting there on the ground trying to breathe, I start tearing up. I don't want to cry for him. I thought he was an asshole and worse. But I can't get it out of my head: that look on his face when he couldn't understand why he couldn't stand up, why he couldn't breathe, why the one person who he thought was his friend had just hurt him so badly, and..." She wiped her face savagely with her sleeve. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."

Lizzie was sitting there now, being filmed from the same angle, and she was slowly tearing a cardboard cup sleeve into thin strips as she spoke. "When I started giving him mouth-to-mouth there in the park," she said, not looking at the camera, "all I could think was that when he woke up, he was never going to let me live that down. There would be all the stupid comments about missing out on kissing me and everything, and I would kick myself every time he said anything. I hated every second of taking that stupid moral high ground of trying to save his life. And then the shit died. And I felt so goddamn guilty about thinking bad stuff about him I could barely breathe. I still feel guilty. I feel guilty for being relieved that I never have to face him again." She crumpled the mass of cardboard in her hands and gritted her teeth, saying, "When someone you love dies, you cry and scream about it. What the hell do you do when someone you hate dies?"

Back in the parlor, Simon stood up gracefully and posed with an elbow on the mantelpiece. "Was this tragedy avoidable? The cast and crew of 'It's a Wonderful House' thinks so. Was this tragedy the fault of the producers? Certainly in part, since the killer was one of their camera crew -- one that a simple background check would have revealed." A clickable link to a file appeared on the screen. "Does a tragedy in which the producers were partly complicit, even by omission, void the contract of the cast? Our lawyer doesn't think so."

A black woman a bit older than me appeared on the screen; her caption said she was Marilyn Henderson, Wonder City attorney. "I have reviewed the contracts of all surviving cast members and I find nothing in it that would suggest that the manner or fact of Mr. deJong's death would void the agreement, as the producers of the show have claimed."

Back to Simon. "The cast and crew have discussed the matter, and, given our own limited resources and the comparatively limitless resources of PARABI and the producers of 'It's a Wonderful House', we feel a lawsuit would be worth less than the energy we would have to put into it. Our fans are the only good thing to come out of this experience, and so we decided that it would be most productive to give this information to you. If we manage to instill a little shame in the producers while we're at it, good." He shrugged and smiled, and Jeshri, Tom, and Lizzie came in from the wings (Tom in a suit, Jeshri in a little black dress, and Lizzie in a white blouse and black slacks). "Thanks for sticking with us. I, for one, will be glad to get back to the coffee shop."

"Me too," Lizzie said.

"I'm looking forward to my own apartment and my own truck," Tom said. "And about a month's worth of sleep."

"I love you guys, but I want my own roommates and my life back," Jeshri said, and they all nodded.

"And maybe some of us will go on to do stuff in the spotlight," Simon said. "Or maybe not."

"I'll still be on Twitter," Lizzie said.

"Me too," Jeshri said. "I've met some awesome people that way."

"I was thinking about writing a book about all this," Tom said thoughtfully.

"You better change my name," Lizzie said, punching him playfully in the arm.

"Mine too," Jeshri said. "And no wild imaginings about our 'alone time'."

The camera pulled back and back, the audio fading into an instrumental song that was nothing like the theme song, the former housemates moving into a group hug as they faded from view.

Credits rolled. At the end of the credits, on a black screen, the words, "In memory of Brandon deJong," appeared, and after a second, under that line, in fake typewriter script, "He was a jerk, but he was our jerk."

I sat back from the screen. "Hoooooo," I exhaled. "I hope they've got Ms. Henderson on retainer."


Note from the Author:

Sorry, y'all. I spent all day yesterday in a car, and just didn't have the brain juice left to post anything. I keep hoping things will get back to "normal" again after Thanksgiving, but I just know I'm kidding myself. :)

We've been falling down the list, so please remember to vote for WCS!

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L’appel du vide

"Now you," Sator said, glancing over his shoulder. "Megan Amazon, shatter yourself." I had to drop filters in place as Megan took a magical blast that went straight through her invulnerability, ran up every nerve ending, and back down, spasming all the muscles in her arms and legs. Meteor got an accidental punch to the nose from Megan, one that knocked her backward to sprawl on the floor.

On another "channel," I apologized quickly to the Wonderful House kids and dropped them out of the link entirely: Tom was in the ambulance with Brandon on the way to the hospital, Jeshri and Lizzie and Eartha were talking to the police and the Gold Stars.

Block her motor nerves, Watson said tightly. Do it now!

She was right, the spell wasn't stopping, and Megan was apparently strong enough to overcome her own invulnerability, judging from some of the pain I was reading. I stopped everything anomalous that was happening in her motor cortex and knocked her out. She dropped limply to the floor.

Meanwhile, Simon's shape swarmed up to human form (naked) and lunged for Brainchild. His hands couldn't touch her, but he managed to catch the glass fragment -- presumably magical -- that her spirit was standing on. There was a stab of pain as the razor edges of the glass sliced into his hands. Brainchild was stable for just a second, then her spirit turned and tried to grab onto the glass, as if she was being sucked into the funnel by some secret wind.

"Oh, let her fall, child," Sator laughed. "Let her fall and see my century-old plan come to fruition at last!"

Nereid hit him with a firehose blast... of blood. While he sputtered at the mouthful he'd got, she stared at her hands, and I could feel the hysteria welling up amidst her panic.

It's not permanent! the Equestrian snapped at her. It's just this place doing it to you. Do it again!

I can't help her! Simon exclaimed, gripping the glass that was slippery with his own blood and trying to pull it away from the machine without losing Brainchild. She's going to fall!

Meteor! Ira snapped. You're a spirit when you're not in that girl's body. Do something.

The Equestrian and Maelstrom were attacking Sator again to distract him. Nereid, to give the girl credit, pulled her shit together and added her geysers of blood.

Meteor hesitated. I'm not sure I can, she said. Can't Renata help her?

I can't reach her mind, I said. I've tried. And I'm not spiritually telekinetic anyway.

Meteor, you have to save her! Suzanne nigh-shouted. You're her only hope!

Feeling Meteor peel out of the body she was possessing was like nothing I'd ever felt: like someone burning their skin off, and then being totally without pain because there were no nerves any more. Her spirit leapt out of the woman -- G, Watson told me -- and threw herself across the mouth of the black abyss just as Brainchild slipped off the glass. Brainchild hit the "surface" that was Meteor and bounced off her onto the floor.

Meteor said to me, I only ever wanted to be a hero, before her grip slipped and she was sucked into the void, her mind sliding too far away for me to reach.

G staggered backward and fell over Megan. I apologetically seized control of her motor functions, got her ass up, and walked her out the door.

One less potential victim in that room. Go me.


Note from the Author:

Because I'm mean, here's a new challenge for Team Commentariat: 15 commenters get you a third new episode on Saturday!

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At Present Low, But Will Soon Be Better

Ira's attention was snatched away from the chase by Jeshri's sudden lurch of dismay. He looked through her eyes and saw Brandon shored up against the river wall.

Brandon smiled briefly, wiping at the corner of his mouth. He tried to rise (a second time, apparently, according to Jeshri), but fell back against the wall. Tried again and failed again. He frowned and focused on the remaining group. "Hurts," he said, not very loudly.

Tom walked over quickly. "Did you hit your head?" he asked, crouching down next to his housemate.

"Uh," Brandon said, licking his lips. "I don't know?" He tried to reach up to touch the back of his head, but winced and dropped his hand to his side. "Hurts."

"What hurts?" Eartha said, standing a few feet from him.

"Um," Brandon said, trying a deep breath and making a pained noise. "Chest."

"He hit him in the chest," Jeshri said, reaching into her pocket and producing a cell phone.

"That won't work," Lizzie said to her, pointing at the phone.

Jeshri gave her a brief smile as the screen lit up under her fingertips. "Hardened. I work with electricity, remember?" She dialed and put the phone to her ear.

Brandon was frowning again, looking perplexed. "Can't... breathe right," he said between short breaths.

"He probably broke your ribs, dude," Tom said. "It's gonna hurt."

Brandon touched his chest vaguely, and his fingers caught in the strings of his hoodie. He wrenched them free impatiently. "Hurts," he said again. "A lot."

Jeshri was talking to the 911 operator. "Yes, supervillain combat at Staybird Park. No, he's run away toward town. We have an injured person here, though."

Ira looked at Brandon through Tom's eyes. He didn't like the ghastly grey color of Brandon's face, even allowing for the sodium vapor lamplight. Or the way Brandon's eyes were rolling. He's passing out, he said through the link. Try laying him back flat, son.

Tom needed Lizzie's help to stretch Brandon out on the chilly concrete. They bore with gritted teeth Brandon's pathetic hisses and whimpers, and Lizzie pulled off her own hoodie to drape over Brandon.

"Shock?" Tom said.

"Looks like it to me," Eartha said, peering. "I'll go to the front of the park to meet the ambulance." She zipped off, cautiously, in the direction the battle had gone. Meteor's head was not visible in the distance.

Oh, yes, Ira thought. He's in shock. Ira replayed what he'd seen of the blow through his memory. Oh, yes. Just like McMullin.

Can either of you take a pulse? he said into the link.

Lizzie said, Yes, I just finished my CPR cert at the Y. She knelt next to Brandon and fumbled for the pulse in his wrist.

Brandon was gasping for breath, short shallow inhalations through his teeth. His eyes were open, but slitted. "Thought he was my bro," he mumbled.

"He wasn't," Tom said, more than a little bitterly.

Jeshri knelt down and actually took Brandon's hand. "The ambulance is on its way."

I can barely feel his pulse, Lizzie said into the link.

The harsh panting suddenly stopped. "The fuck?" Tom said, only just barely stopped by Ira from unadvisedly shaking the man on the ground. "Brandon? Brandon?"

"He's not breathing," Jeshri said, eyes wide. "What can we do? We've got to do something!"

Mouth to mouth, Ira said, keeping the subsequent thought of for all the good it will do to himself. When none of the kids moved, he said, more urgently, Mouth to mouth, Lizzie. No compressions, I think.

Lizzie shoved Tom out of the way peremptorily and lurched forward. She carefully cleared Brandon's airway and started breathing for him.

In the distance, there was a faint wail of a siren.

"Just like McMullin," Ira said out loud at the table, rubbing his face. Watson looked at him, and he said, "Seen it before, in Korea. Corporal McMullin was hit by a boulder thrown by one of the bulletproofs on the other side. When they opened up his chest, he was full of blood."

Watson looked down at her phone. "Ambulance is 2 minutes away."

Ira looked back through the link, at the woman breathing for the man on the ground, another woman standing by worried, the man on his knees watching, all so very young. He hadn't felt this helpless since the Platinum Protector had died in his arms of a gut punch that not only pasted her insides but severed her spine. He drank his coffee and wished for something stronger. To toast McMullin, perhaps.


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I Have a Bad Feeling About This

The energy flare receded quicker, Suzanne thought, than it would have had she seen it in the flesh rather than through the telepathic link.

The cameraman -- the killer -- was standing there, his costume tattered around the edges and smoking lightly. He laughed, a short, ugly sound, and stepped toward Lizzie, who was still dazzled by her own attack.

MOVE, LIZZIE! Simon and Megan both screamed through the link. Lizzie threw herself backward as he lunged forward.

From one side came a swoop of wind and something hit Camerabro hard in a tinkling crash of machinery. He flew backward a good ten feet, landing in a bed of tulips.

The camerawoman, Eartha, dropped the remains of her useless camera. "I always KNEW you were an asshole!" she screamed, skidding to a halt six inches above the ground.

(Renata picked her up into the link, and Suzanne could hear the edges of Renata's high-speed explanation to Eartha. The camerawoman circled rapidly behind the House crew.)

Jeshri noticed Brandon bending down and retrieving something that had bounced to his feet: it looked like a tiny gramophone, with a large black horn and a box made of moving gears.

Camerabro made an incoherent noise of rage and bounded to his feet, then to Brandon.

Brandon looked up at him, still with that silly little smile on his face. "Bro?" he said, and held the thing out to him.

The cameraman snatched it out of his hand and slammed Brandon out of the way with a backswing of his forearm, starting for Jeshri again.

There was a moment's stab of panic through the link -- from Jeshri, who was too far from the light post to grab any electricity, from Lizzie, who had depleted her stored energy, from Simon, who wasn't sure he could get there in time, and from Megan, who was leaping for him.

Then Meteor's giant hand swatted the killer away as casually has he'd just swatted Brandon. He flew in a neat parabolic arc back toward the entrance to the park.

Simon was running as fast as his four legs would carry him, which was blindingly fast to Suzanne, and snapping through the link, Goddammit, Meteor, you DON'T fucking throw the supervillain so he's CLOSER to civilians. Megan, c'mon. The rest of you, stay here and call the cops!

What was I supposed to do? Meteor snarled. Invite him to dance?

Knock him into the river. Squash him flat. I don't care. Simon bounded over a bush. But move your giant ass. Let's try to stop him from killing anyone else.

Oh, Simon, Suzanne thought, Simon, be careful. She remembered him telling her about going to classes at the Gold Star Academy when he was a teenager, learning how to be a better team leader and all that. She thought, You may not be in spandex, but spandex keeps chasing you.

The boy's all right, Renata said. He knows what he's doing.

Yes, Suzanne said, and didn't add, But so did Mitch. She wrenched her attention away long enough for a gulp of coffee and a glance at Watson's intent but calm face before diving back in.


Note from the Author:
Yes, I am cruel. The next new episode will be next Tuesday!

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Secret Identities Hide Many Things

"Move!" Megan hissed, springing to her feet and starting to run.

She felt more than saw Meteor catch up with her and whisk her into the air by catching her under the arms. She managed not to flail her suddenly relativley tiny size-32 feet in the air while this happened.

It was a matter of three giant strides across the park (she'd have to beg Ladybird to come out to fix the crushed bushes and snapped-off trees) and Megan was back on the ground.

Simon's empty trouser legs barely protruded from a fist-sized hole punched in the ground. The shredded sweater was nearby. A giant golden wolf crouched, snarling, between the housemates and the newcomer who was rising to his feet, a white man in midnight blue spandex and a billowing, hooded black cape.

A horrified shock of recognition rocked Megan back on her heels. Fuck! I know him!

Really? came Watson's interested query, over the flurry of other inquiries.

I met him my first day in town! Megan said, blank with horror as the man turned his sparkling, if somewhat sinister, large-chinned smile on the crowd. He was chasing the Merlin. Oh my god. Oh my god. I handed the Merlin to him. He said he'd been after him, and I just handed him over. I as good as killed him!

FOCUS! Renata's mental command poked Megan straight in the adrenal glands. Angst later, girlfriend, she added, a little more kindly.

The man had spun to face Megan and Meteor, and just seized Meteor's ankle and tossed her partly into the air, off balance. Meteor shrank rapidly as she fell, and she dropped with a crash into a copse of trees and boxwood hedges. He turned to Megan.

He had been trained to fight, somewhat. He knew how to throw a punch, for instance. Megan's arm registered a significant impact as she blocked -- she guessed that Watson's Class 5 estimate might be a little low.

Unfortunately for him, she'd been trained better.

When he skidded to a stop, shoring up against the lamp post recently vacated by Brandon, Simon pounced on him. The man twisted away, rolling to his feet. Simon's flashing teeth caught and tore off the hood and cape, leaving his face exposed. His eminently recognizable tiny eyes and birthmark shared space with a bleeding scrape across his cheek where one fang had scored him.

"Bro?" Brandon said hesitantly. Events had apparently confused him.

The cameraman's eyes narrowed and he slapped something on his belt. The camerawoman, Eartha, yelped and dropped her rig as it sparked vigorously.

The streetlight flickered briefly, but the hardened Wonder City infrastructure held.

"No more film," he said, sneering. "Just you all, dying."

"God, I've wanted to do this forever," Lizzie said, and, raising her arms toward him, dumped a vast red explosion of energy into the killer.


Note from the Author:
And I've been SO eager to post this, so THANK YOU ALL for commenting!

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Snark or Boojum?

Ira sipped his coffee carefully. It was fresh and hot, and he didn't want to distract himself one fraction of a second from the things that were happening out there. He'd managed to get himself calmed down so he wouldn't be too much trouble for Ms. Scott, but he hadn't slept well the night before. He was here and involved, and he'd been invited.

He couldn't really remember the last time that had happened.

He focused his attention on the kids from the House. They were understandably nervous. The only one with experience was Simon, and the information coming in from his senses was amazingly detailed. Ira hadn't even known that daffodils had a scent before. Also, being able to see so clearly, and to be able to switch "cameras", as it were, was quite a thrill.

Simon noticed the man first, and Ira could feel hackles rising on his neck, despite a distinct lack of hackles.

Brandon, Simon said in the link, and there was a bitter, angry taste to the name.

And there was their housemate Brandon, tall and blond and smirking lazily. He reminded Ira a bit of Damned Yankee in his war bond advertisements, sleek with careless arrogance, certain that Americans would do anything he asked of them because he was their golden boy.

The House crew stopped about fifteen feet from where Brandon posed casually against a light post. They considered him with open hostility.

"Hey, guys," Brandon said after a few moments of silence. He gestured at the camerawoman. "Guess they'll find out that I'm not really at my grandmother's funeral, huh?"

"I doubt that will surprise anyone," Lizzie said with a curl to her lip.

"What the hell do you want?" Jeshri snapped, anger snapping off her mentally like those Pop Rocks things kids loved in the 80s. "I don't like wasting my night off to meet up with you."

"Aw, Jeshri, baby, don't be like that," Brandon said, sounding like he was trying a really bad impression of a particularly smarmy Tony Curtis character. "I know you've got better things to do with your Friday night -- I've seen all the photos, after all."

Jeshri's jaw and fists clenched. Tom said, with an exaggeratedly tired sigh, "What do you want, asshole?"

"I'd really rather talk to Jeshri alone, thanks, Tim," Brandon said without even looking away from Jeshri.

Tom didn't rise to the bait. He folded his arms across his chest, and said, "Like hell."

"I guess I'll just have to post the next photo then," Brandon said, plucking what looked like a photo from his shirt pocket and waving it in the air.

Jeshri, Lizzie, and Tom all took a step forward, speaking all at once, but Simon's mental voice cut across everything.



Note from the Author:
I gotta give Ira some more air time. I like the old guy.

The comment incentive: if y'all post 10 or more comments on today's post -- and they can be ANY comment, from "Hi" to "+1" or whatever, anything to tell me you're out there! -- I will post the next episode on Thursday.

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A Man Can Tell a Thousand Lies

Suzanne Feldstein and I had been having an extended exchange of emails. I think she was about to ask me if she could write an article about me when Watson Holmes told her about my localization of the killer and totally distracted her. She was obsessed with the story suddenly, grilling me about every detail I could recall from those frantic few seconds of telepathic contact. I don't think she realized that I figured out fairly early on why she was so fixated on solving the murders (she made a couple of slips in our one phone conversation).

I had to admire her. I don't think I could keep up with a young thing like Simon now, much less at her age (only a few years older than I am, actually).

Not that I've ever had an opportunity to explore that particular side of human interaction.

But anyway.

I answered with what I could, reminding her the whole time that she couldn't publish her information. She was good, though, managing to suggest a potential locale (the murder of the Jellyfish in Staybird, where the Wonderful House is located, certainly was a nice touch) without blowing the gaffe.

I was getting caught up on her latest posting after a particularly rough day of client parent conferences. If I ever have to answer the idiotic question of, "Why don't you just fix her/him already?" again in my lifetime, it will be far too soon, but I know I will; practically every parent asks it. The simple answer is, of course, that the nature of telepathy and the human mind means that there are no easy fixes. The complex answer that they very rarely understand is that to do such a thing would alter the fundamental fabric of their child's mind, personality, and being, and if they really want something like that, I'm sure there are a few supervillains who don't blanch at murder and would be happy to help them.

In any case, I was reading Suzanne's latest post when I suddenly realized that I was missing It's a Wonderful House.

I've gotten less and less on-the-spot with tuning into my show (yes, my show) since the livestream glitch. Pearl says it's natural to avoid the site of a trauma, even a minor one. I just think I'm dreading the inevitable: we will unmask the killer, and they'll televise the whole atrocity. Because death and insanity and evil are valuable commodities, dontcha know.

So I tuned in almost half an hour late. My tardiness was rewarded, though, by Simon's abs.

There they were, displayed for all the world to see on my screen, six feet of high definition wonder. The camera lingered lovingly on his well-defined six-pack, his rounded pecs, a line of sweat trailing over his muscular shoulder... and, of course, the pale surgical scars that stood out on his dark-skinned chest. As the view pulled back, I was treated to Tom's barechested glory as well, as he and Simon were lifting weights together in the House's workout room. I expect they only took their shirts off for the camera, though. Tom had a grim sort of resignation on his face as he worked his intensely sculpted muscles. Simon was less ripped, but still admirable, and had, besides, a very cute little scruff of black hair over his breastbone. Both of them were wearing baggy athletic shorts and sneakers, and had towels nearby.

I fanned myself with the nearest patient folder to hand.

The shot shifted to Lizzie, back in the kitchen that she seemed to be making her own domain. She was making a roast beef and cheese panini in one of those chic electric panini grills. "No," she was saying to someone, "I don't work out. Jeshri does -- she runs and stuff -- and of course Simon and Tom do. But I hate working hard for nothing. You don't get anything out of pumping iron, no tomatoes or chicken eggs or corn or whatever. Just a lot of sweat and trouble." She looked at the camera with a pronounced curl to her lip. "I suppose you think that makes me like Brandon."

And so, of course, we got to see Brandon lounging in his patterned boxer shorts and a long-sleeved t-shirt in the living room, playing some sort of sports videogame on the television. There was an open beer bottle at his elbow. "Watch this, man, this is awesome!" he exclaimed, mashing some buttons on his controller.

Back to Lizzie. "At least I don't pretend to work out while playing some videogame, or think I can learn to dance from one." She opened the grill and took out her panini with her bare hands. I could see a small glow around them after she set the sandwich on a plate, and she shook them like they tingled. "I'm plain and simple and boring, and the producers are probably sorry they brought me on."

"I think," Jeshri said, a little breathlessly as she jogged along through a park, "that everyone is grateful for Lizzie being so exciting. It took the heat off the rest of us in a bunch of ways. I mean, I'm so dull: working girl with a functional family." As she jogged along, I could see the river behind her, trees and bushes and careful plantings of spring bulbs erupting. "I bet the producers are kicking themselves for bringing me on. Did you know that one of them asked me if I was going to have an arranged marriage and if so, could they film my first meeting with the groom-to-be?" There was a noise of disbelief from her camerawoman (the camerawoman must have been on rollerblades or... maybe flying? are all the crew para too? after all, if your para power is to fly six inches off the ground, you'd make a crappy superhero but a kickass camerawoman). "Yeah. I had to disappoint them, though. And then he asked me if my parents would be willing to arrange one -- you know --" she made airquotes "-- 'a big Indian one with all those flowers and stuff' if the production company paid them. I very nearly walked out on the whole thing right then."

One of the editors was probably going to get a pink slip, I thought, for televising that. The forums were probably on it already.

Simon was emerging from the shower with a small white towel wrapped around his waist, Old Spice Guy style. He had nice legs too. Oh, Suzanne, you cradlesnatching object of envy. If only the world knew, you'd get all sorts of hate mail. "Oh, the producers hate my lawyers. I'm so much less scandalous and interesting than they'd hoped. After the early rounds of transbashing, ol' Brandon gave it up as no fun and even his camerabro has mostly stopped giving me the stinkeye. But at least I'm on the periphery of the drama. I think Tom's a great guy, but he flatly refuses to have drama for the camera. Makes me think they're saving up some big reveal for him."

"Do I have hidden depths?" Tom said, pulling a t-shirt down over his head and adjusting it as it clung to his torso. "BLEEP no. The most I've got going on is a deep-seated desire to beat the BLEEP out of Brandon. But I think everyone's got that. Even his camerabro rolls his eyes behind his back. The guy's unredeemable. That said, I'd probably break my hand on his invulnerable skull, so I'm just not doing it." He gave the camera a surprisingly natural smile, considering that his persona was all about looking grumpy, and said, "If anyone's got to have hidden depths, it's Brandon, don't you think? The frat douchebag thing has to be an act, right? He's an accountant or something; no one would keep him on if he was that much of a douche in real life, right?"

"You'll never guess what I found out," Jeshri said to Simon and Lizzie, coming into the living room on another evening, still dressed from work.

"My breath is bated," Simon said.

"Please tell me it's funny, at least," Lizzie said. She was looking through a stack of paperwork and was kind of drawn and haggard.

"Hilarious," Jeshri assured her. "You know how he's always talking about what a great job he has, what a fabulous accountant he is, that sort of thing?"

This was rarely shown on the show, I note, but I'd seen it quite a bit on Twitter.

"Yeah?" Simon said, eyebrows rising.

"Well, one of the women I know at work has a sister who's an accountant for Bonafide and Faux," Jeshri said, grinning. "She told me her sister said that Brandon's not an accountant at all. He's a mail clerk."

Lizzie whistled. Simon smirked.

The view cut away to a middle-aged white man in a suit, who the screen identified as Mitchell Bonafide, partner in the Bonafide and Faux accounting firm, apparently caught in the entryway of an office building. He looked perplexed as he glanced at the camera and said, "No, I don't know any Brandon DeJong, and he's definitely not one of our accountants. Please talk to our Human Resources department if you need more information."

Cut back to Brandon, whose face was crimson, eyes wide and muscles in his throat straining. "You little BLEEP!" He took a step forward with fists clenched.

The view widened, and we could see Jeshri skip back a step from the foot of the stairs, where Brandon was looming. I noticed her hand going to her pocket and palming something out.

Tom said, without even looking away from the television, "What's the matter? Were you counting on your fame as an accountant to get you laid more?"

"Not like you'll ever tell any woman the truth anyway," Lizzie said, apparently bored but standing near the doorway to the kitchen. "Just think of it as fair warning via network television."

Brandon glowered down at Jeshri for a moment longer, then turned and stormed back upstairs.

They waited to hear the door slam in the attic before the three of them exhaled. Jeshri slid the screwdriver back into her pocket. They all looked at each other, and then jumped when the front door opened and shut.

Simon walked in -- no, he paced in, like a cautious animal, head subtly lowered, and if he had wolf ears in this form, they would've been flat against his head. "What's wrong?" he said, and I saw his nostrils twitching.

"Brandon just found out that Jeshri spilled his beans," Tom said.

"And he overreacted," Lizzie said.

"Just a little," Jeshri said.

Simon cocked his head.

Switch to Brandon's disastrous bathroom. I could see the patches of black mildew on the white shower curtain, and a heap of t-shirts and underwear and wet towels, and just the edges of one of the most disgustingly filthy toilet bowls I have ever seen. Then the scene was blocked out by Brandon, still scarlet-faced, now with bulging veins in his forehead and throat, as he took hold of the front of the camera and shoved his face up to the lens. "I will get her if it is the last thing I do," he hissed. "I will make her wish she'd never opened her ugly little mouth and shamed me. I will make her remember her place, the little BLEEP. I don't lose to BLEEP like her."

Back to the living room. Simon's normally shapely mouth was pressed into a thin line. Everyone else was watching him. "Lizzie, are you still sleeping on Jeshri's floor?" Simon said.

"Yeah," Lizzie said. "I can't live up there with him. I'd kill him in his sleep."

Simon's expression changed ever so slightly, becoming completely unreadable.

"Is he threatening Jesh?" Tom said, leaning over the back of the sofa and watching Simon.

Simon nodded.

"He won't just stop with her, you know, if he's really been set off," Tom said, gazing steadily at Simon. "You want to sleep on my floor, man? Or you want me to sleep on yours?"

Simon shook himself, and then he smiled. "I think I'd better do the floor sleeping. Got a doggie bed?"

When I turned off the show, I thought about that whole scene. I knew, from Suzanne and from a terse email from Watson Holmes (how did that woman get my email address?) that Megan Amazon had passed on my warning to Simon. Simon must have been wondering how to ensure both safety and monitoring for almost everyone, and here Brandon played neatly into his hands. Or had they all orchestrated it to enrage Brandon into saying something foolish? Hard to know.

Meanwhile, watching my show had taken on a whole new layer of meaning that only a small group of fans shared with me.


From Ye Olde Author:
Had to make sure you all got an episode before I headed off to celebrate both my parents turning 80 this year! I did promise some more fan service, this time of the non-plate-smashing-into-Brandon variety.

The comment incentive in July: if I get 50 total comments from readers in July, I will post twice weekly through August. As before, if you all post 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through September too. Get up to 100 comments, the twice-weekly postings continue through October.

And add-on to the incentive: if you post a review of Wonder City (and link it from one of the WCS posts), I'd count that as 5 comments. And if some folks were to create a full-blown TVTropes page for Wonder City, I would count that as 25 comments. *whistles innocently*

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And So the Argument Began All Over Again

I was sorting through my email when I found a message from my friend Veha's assistant, asking if I would have time to contact Veha soon.  There was something about the note (possibly the three instances of "please") that made me think that Veha was feeling particularly lonely with Ruth off-planet.

Oum Veha is the only known living man with Class 10 para powers.  It displeased the various First and Second World nations that prided themselves on being the sole homes of Class 10s that Veha was born in Cambodia, just after the American evacuation in 1975.  Of course, his powers didn't manifest until many years later, but some idiot US politicians still seemed to think there would have been a chance to "rescue" him "if only."  He's still in Cambodia now, despite many offers of "asylum" from other countries, living in a small city on the south coast and powering it with his immense electrical generation powers.  He has amassed a small fortune by selling power to Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, but insists on using his powers gratis for his impoverished homeland.

The problem is, of course, that like me, he has problems controlling his powers.  He can't touch a computer for fear of frying it.  In fact, anything sensitive to electromagnetic impulses is generally better off far away from Veha.  He's better now than he was as a teenager; he knows how to rein in his temper, for instance.  But still, the only person who can safely spend a long time in a room with him without a Faraday cage in the way -- much less touch him -- is Ruth. She visits him weekly.  I understand from Ruth that they play a lot of chess and she spends a lot of time fending off his romantic advances.  I understand from Veha that they play a lot of chess and he spends a lot of time fending off her romantic advances.  They're kind of cute that way.

I'm one of the only people who he can communicate with remotely without a lot of shielding and fuss.  (A few of his assistants are also telepaths so there's an emergency line if he EM-pulses his own location.)  We exchange emails to decide when communication happens; thus this email.

I sent a note back, offering a few times that afternoon or the next, and went on with my email and other work chores.  One of my clients cancelled, another one arrived late; it was a relatively normal day.  By the time I managed to check in again, Veha's assistant had accepted "any of the times that afternoon or evening."  So I took myself off to my greenhouse with a glass of iced tea and a ham-and-cheese sandwich, arranged myself comfortably in my favorite Adirondack chair, and opened up a narrow thread of telepathy across the planet.

Renata! Thank you! Veha said after I'd knocked.  My mama taught me right, you know.

Veha, what's up? I said.

Oh, you know, the usual, he said, and I could see his big desk laid out before him: piles of paper, a manual typewriter, fountain pens.  I was just wondering how you were.

You were lonely, I said. There's no point prevaricating in telepathic communication.

Yes, he said cheerily. Any idea when Ruth will be home?

If she didn't tell you, why should I know better? I said.

You've been helping her with her daughter, he said.

I wouldn't call it 'helping', I said. I think that my input is what sent her off-planet.

She doesn't honestly think Sophie's been blasted out into space, does she? he said.

Stranger things have happened, I said, avoiding the straight answer. Which was, yes, it was possible that Josh Feldstein had done to Sophie what had been done to him. The cases were similar enough. But no, I didn't think Ruth could find her. Space is a big place, no matter what they show in the comic books.

Veha sighed. I wish I could help her somehow, he said.

I could catch glimpses of the extra sentiment behind the statement. Veha, quit that, I said. I know you've got the world's biggest crush on her, but I really don't need to see it.

Sorry, he said, embarrassed.

And you know nothing's ever going to happen, I said. The whole 'woman of iron' mystique goes deeper than her invulnerability. I gave him a quick glimpse of Ruth on video screen a year or two ago, saying, "I hope the man has better sense than settling for the one woman he can touch. I'm old enough to be his mama."

She is nothing like my mother, Veha said, amused.

You know what she means, I said. Hell, I'm old enough to be your mama.

You are both fine-looking women for your ancient, ancient years, he said.

Brat, I said.

Anyway, I'm sorry, he said. I'll try to keep my imagination under control. Anything new in your world?

So I told him about It's a Wonderful House and all it's bizarre appeal. He could understand; the boy had his own obsessions and hobbies. One needs to have them when one's life is as isolated as ours.

I reached the part about accidentally stumbling on the live feed, and he said, Are you sure you didn't end up with a line to him, Renata? I remember that one time a couple of years ago...

When I'd stumbled over something horrible in the mind of one of my client's parents and had had that psychic thread stuck in my teeth, as it were, for months. Ruth had come into that eventually, making sure the right evidence was gathered and the man prosecuted. I didn't like my vicarious taste of prison life, though; it reminded me too much of the institution.

I'm sure, I said. I'd gone through every ritual and exercise I could remember to exorcise the touch of the serial killer's mind. I was relatively certain I'd managed to forget what it felt like sufficiently that I wouldn't wander into his mind again.

And no identification either, he said.

Nothing useful, I said. Maybe it limits the suspects, though. We'll find him.

You're not still pursuing this, Renata? Veha said, alarmed.

I have to, Veha, I said. This waste of flesh killed one of my niece's friends. He'll kill more if he's not stopped.

You're not a superhero, he said.

No, I said. I'm just a person.

There was a conscious silence, but I could feel the torrent of things he was trying to decide to say.

It's not like I'm going out in public or anything, I said. There's this journalist who's very hot to find him. She's doing most of the work. I just gave her my tip. I just... want to feel like I helped.

You help so many people, Renata, he said. You help me all the time.

Thank you, Veha, I said. And you help me too, you know. You're one of my best friends.

We had a little rush of emotion then that wasn't very coherent, and I felt obliged to cut things short before we both got more embarrassed. My mother's supposed to call soon, I said. I have to get back to my office.

Thanks for calling, he said. Talk to you soon? Let me know if you hear from Ruth.

After all that, I was barely in a condition to talk to Mama, but I managed. She looks forward to the calls very much... and so do I. I hated to reschedule on her if I didn't really have to.

"Reesy told me your friend came to Yanaye's funeral," Mama said after the usual preliminaries.

"Did she?" I said. "I don't know her that well, but I know she's interested in finding the killer."

"Reesy said she looked like she was a hard kind of white woman," Mama said, and I glimpsed her entirely wrong image of Suzanne Feldstein, somewhere between a Jersey Shore caricature and a New York City marketer.

"She's that man's widow," I said. "That man who flooded downtown at Christmas."

"Oh, him," she said. "No wonder she looked wrung out. Still, it was nice of her to come."

"Yes," I said. "It was." And, I thought, she had probably spent the whole time wondering why she'd come and wishing she were anywhere else. She seemed nice, but hardly the sort to cope well when surrounded by black folks.

And the conversation turned to which grandchild was doing what. Mama hadn't really liked being a mother -- with a problem child like me, who could blame her? -- but she loved being a grandmother.

"You know," Mama said thoughtfully, and I recognized and dreaded the tone, "I bet you would be a fabulous mother."

"Mama," I said, keeping my tone level, "I am 45 years old. I am well beyond the point at which I could have a child."

"You have all those friends," Mama said. "All those scientist friends. And you haven't had your change yet. You've still got time."

"I would make a terrible mother," I said, clenching my fists against the old discussion. "You know that. You know how much you hated the way Grandma got all up in your business. Think of me. Child would run away from me like... like Lady Justice's children did."

"Your grandmother was an evil woman," my mother said flatly. I winced away from the abundance of hatred Mama had for her mother, who had been, in fact, an evil old woman as far as I could tell as a child -- she'd been dead by the time I got out of the institution. "You are not."

"I could be," I said. "I wouldn't trust myself here alone with a child. There's no one could help me down here, and if I lost my temper, I'd be worse than Grandma ever had been with her willow switch."

Mama sighed. "I know there's no convincing you that you'd be fine. I just have to try sometimes."

"Reesy and Lashawna gave you grandchildren," I said. "And Michael will too, soon, I hear."

That got us off on the subject of my little brother and his latest amorous adventures, and spared my sanity for another day.

When I finally got off the phone, I was irritated to discover that I only had ten or so more minutes of It's a Wonderful House to watch. (Of course I could watch it recorded. I've recorded all the episodes. But there's something about watching it immediately and being able to get onto the fan forums and... yes, I am crazy, why do you ask?) I kicked back there in my office to watch what was left.

There was Simon, looking very fine in a grey tweed vest, white buttondown shirt, and black slacks, sitting in the kitchen while Jeshri, who was in her purple yoga pants and matching hoodie, was cooking something in a wok. She happened to glance over her shoulder when Simon made a horrible grimace. "Oh, what did he say now?" Jeshri said.

The view cut away to Brandon, who was in his hideous bathroom, dripping wet and muscular and supposedly -- to the Brandon fans on the forums -- looking very attractive with just the white towel wrapped around his waist, though he doesn't work out nearly as much as Tom. He was shaving, but had paused to let out a bray of laughter. "Man," he said to his cameraman who was, I think, the last person willing to tolerate his company any more, "it was awesome. She was so drunk she didn't know what was going on."

The view cut back to Simon, who said, with a curl to his lip, "He's bragging about 'banging' a drunk girl on his night off."

"Tuesday?" Jeshri said, lifting the big wok effortlessly and scooping the contents into a bowl. "You'd think he'd be more... tolerable or something if he got laid so recently."

Lizzie shuffled into the room. She was looking less perky since her arrest; no doubt she was dealing with a lot of press and other issues. There was a stubbornly insane group of people online who hate her and spend a lot of time spamming her Twitter and other social media with vitriol for disobeying her sainted papa; I'm guessing that was part of what was wearing on her. Simon and Jeshri both paused to greet her, watching her worriedly.

Lizzie said hi to both of them, and walked straight to the kitchen sink, which was stacked high with dishes. She pulled as large a stack of dirty dishes out of the sink as she could carry, and under Simon and Jeshri's astonished gazes, walked out with them, saying, "I'll wipe up the floor in a few minutes."

The next thing we saw was Lizzie stepping between the betoweled Brandon and his room, holding the stack of dishes.

"Hey," he said obliviously. "'Scuse."

She looked up at him with a dreadfully impassive face and said, "Are you going to wash the dishes tonight?"

"Well," he said, backpedaling a step and glancing at the camera with one of his "can you believe this?" expressions. "I've got a date, see..."

Lizzie threw a plate at him, smashing accurately into his bare chest. "Are you going to wash the dishes tonight?"

"Jesus, what the BLEEP?" he said, stepping back.

She smashed another one into his chest. The bowl shattered, spraying him liberally with filthy water. "Are you going to wash the dishes tonight?" she said relentlessly.

"You're so BLEEPing crazy! Get away from me, you BLEEPing trailer trash whore!" he screamed, slipping on the water and sliding a step down the stairs.

She got him in the head with the next one, and he was covered with moldy tomato sauce. "Are you going to wash the dishes tonight?" she said again.

"Jesus BLEEP, yes, BLEEP, yes, just please BLEEPing go AWAY, you crazy BLEEPing BLEEP!" he shrieked.

"Good," she said, adding, "Think fast," before flinging all the rest of the dishes at him.

The view cut to Simon and Jeshri daintily stepping aside as Brandon fell backwards down the stairs, arms full of dishes. He landed, as one would expect, with a crash of china and glassware, and a large black rectangle over the part revealed by the falling-away of his towel.

Simon looked at Jeshri, who was blocking her own view of the offending Brandon-part with an outstretched hand, and said, "Why didn't we think of that?"


From the Author:
A little comeuppance fan service for all you lovely people.

Comment incentive in June: if I get 50 total comments from readers in June, I will post twice weekly through July. As before, if you all post 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through August too. Get up to 100 comments, the twice-weekly postings continue through September.

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wonder_city: (Default)
Spooky Action at a Distance

It had been a long day with more clients than I usually saw: a few small emergencies with an almost entirely nonverbal teenager who was acting out strangely (she had started having menstrual migraines, and couldn't find a way to communicate it to her mother) and a young man with severe cerebral palsy who his grandmother suspected was being abused or bullied at his school (and who was). Heavier stuff than usual, but good and useful.

I was trying to decide whether or not to take my end-of-day meds. I thought I would probably sleep fairly well, and I didn't have any sense of lingering connection to any of the kids. I try to avoid taking my "as needed" medications too often. As I have learned over the years, telepaths medicate -- or self-medicate, or are medicated -- a great deal. If you are unfortunate enough to be a lower-class teenager of color with telepathy, you either end up in an institution, like I did, or you learn to self-medicate with whatever comes to hand. We're very fond of central nervous system depressants, and the easiest to come by is, of course, alcohol. Drink and maybe you won't hear what everyone is thinking of you. Drink and maybe you can't feel everyone else's pain. Drink yourself into a stupor and maybe you won't have someone else's dreams.

I didn't have a chance to take it up before I found myself in a lockdown unit. The doctors spent years trying to find the perfect cocktail of medications to shut me down without admitting they were shutting me down. No one wanted to believe in my telepathy -- paras were still thought of as all being like the World War 2 bulletproofs well into the 1980s, and the less showy powers put a lot of people in denial. The idea that there might be someone who could rifle through your brain as easily as most people rifle through cluttered drawers... well, I can understand the drugs.

Still, they made a lot of mistakes. Costly mistakes. Mistakes that traumatized a lot of staff and patients around me, and one grand mistake that left me wide open, like a phone left off the hook, like a microphone left switched on, and half a city experiencing electroshock therapy without any helpful medications. Ruth has never told me how many people died that day, and I have never looked it up, but it was the key event that put me into her capable hands.

So you might understand when I say that I try to find alternatives to medications. Because all medications interact with your particular state of being at that moment, and one never knows when you'll have a side effect you've never had before. I was far, far under Wonder City, but I could still walk in and out of the minds of just about everyone there, by intent or accident.

One of the very best alternatives I've found is the Internet. I understand this is pretty common.

So there I was, in my fuzzy garnet robe and matching slippers, sipping chamomile-mint tea and spending the early evening looking at cute animal pictures and horrible autocorrect errors. And I was struck by a fancy to pop over and look at the Wonderful House website.

My sisters would give me the side-eye if they knew I was turning into such a junkie for that show. Hell, I give myself the side-eye some days.

You see, they post video clips on the site, so you can always get more Wonderful House than just the hour once a week. They say that every week, they film over a thousand hours of footage. They have staff on the video feeds all the time, picking out snippets that were interesting enough to end up on the show. And then they have to sift through all of those and edit them together to make the show. Meanwhile, Terabytes of video end up on the virtual cutting room floor. So they share some of the gems.

The first one I ran into was "Brandon's Bathroom," and he's always a giant train wreck, so of course I clicked.

He was talking to the camera, sitting on the closed toilet in his unspeakably filthy and cluttered bathroom. He was flushed of face, wearing just a pair of shorts, his blond hair even more mussed and cowlicked than usual. He clutched a large Wonder Beer and stared down at it moodily.

"I'm glad I've got you to talk to, man," he slurred. "Everyone here hates me."

"Haters gonna hate, man," a strange man's voice said, and I realized it was the cameraman who he was so friendly with. "You're successful, you have more fans online than they do -- you'll always be better than they are and they know it."

Brandon smiled briefly at the camera and drank from the can. Then he stared at it again, and the smile oozed off his face. His mouth trembled a little, and his eyes were oddly bright -- I think he was on the verge of tears. "But they really hate me," he said, gesturing with the can and sloshing some of it on himself. His voice broke. "I didn't know you could be alone in a house full of people."

"Dude, it doesn't matter," the cameraman said, reaching out and patting Brandon's shoulder. "You just have to get through all three months and you've got a wad of cash to blow on a spring break trip or something. And everyone you meet will love you." He paused. "All the girls you meet will love you, too."

Brandon hiccoughed and smiled again. "Yeah," he said.

"You just have to man up, B," the cameraman said. "Suck it up. You're the only one with balls in this house, and you know it."

"Almost literally," Brandon hooted, scratching his crotch. The video chose that spot to freeze on, and ended. I scrolled it off quickly, before my eyes rolled clear out of my head.

The next clip that caught my eye was, "An Evening Event," so I clicked it. There was a longish buffering time, and then the words, "Welcome to the Wonderful Live Feed," flashed up. The picture came on too fast for me to realize what I'd done and then I was there.

I have tried again and again to describe what it's like to end up in this sort of situation, with no warning and no defenses and no meds. It's never quite enough to convey it, but I'll try again.

Imagine you suddenly have twenty pairs of legs, twenty pairs of eyes, twenty pairs of arms. You have twenty heads and twenty bodies, twenty pairs of ears, twenty noses. You are feeling through twenty skins, every itch and pain and pressure and heat and cold.

Think about how much sensory information you don't pay attention to every moment -- the sounds and rhythms and stinks and scents and lights and colors and shadows, the touch of your clothing, of the chair under you, of your hair on your forehead or the back of your neck. Think about not having those filters, and then think about having all that for twenty people. And you will understand that people's thoughts are not the thing that puts me in a fetal position when I'm surprised.

And I'm caught, like a fly in a spider's web, every kick or struggle done without leverage, every motion away getting me more firmly caught in the web.

I've spent years working out coping mechanisms to get me out of situations like this. I studied with all the most experienced (mostly self-taught) telepaths in the world. I worked with alien telepaths that Ruth took me to visit, who had all sorts of techniques and defenses taught to them in their schools from the first day they're born. I have figured out how to shut down the input, but it takes time and a fucking lot of effort.

I'm wet. I'm freezing. My toes are numb. My sinuses ache with cold wind. I don't have a heavy jacket. The wind cuts right through me. Rain stings my face. My head hurts. My feet hurt. My fingers hurt. My teeth hurt.

Put a blanket on it, mug it, shove it through a door, slam the door. Every inch of my body will throb with pain for a week.

Too many voices. The director shouting, the generators thrumming, Brandon's huh huh huh laugh like nails on chalkboard. Jeshri's voice, light and breathy. Cameramen and women chattering. Shrieking feedback from a microphone. Tom's voice, low and blunt. The truck engine whines. The onlookers muttering. Simon's voice, husky and resonant. The shattering of a police siren. Screams from the onlookers, cheers from the crew. Lizzie's voice, strained and sharp.

I have to be deaf, deaf, deaf. I stick my fingers in my mental ears. I stuff cotton in my mental ears. I swath my mental head in layers of soundproofing. I focus on the sounds of my home: the hums of the computers, the low strains of Billie Holiday telling me that the systems had detected my distress and had set off my focus-assisting programs.

Everything stinks: sweat and diesel fumes and hot metal and menstrual blood and food and cigarettes and nausea and makeup and warm plastic and ozone and cheap beer and fear and desire and sour milk and garbage...

Pinch my nose shut. Duck under the surface of water. Anything to stop that visceral assault on my lizard brain. Sweet jasmine incense was burning not far from where I sat, wreathing me in its comforting smoke.

Too bright. Too many colors. Too much movement.

Close each set of eyes until I can actually see.

Simon is draped over the stone wall behind the house in his Gold Stars jacket and tight black hipster jeans. Jeshri is standing near him, hugging herself in her Wonder City U hoodie and black yoga pants and knee-high black boots. Lizzie, in a bomber jacket and jeans, is speaking to them in a furtive way, glancing around to make sure no cameras are near. Tom, shivering in a t-shirt and jeans, is being harangued by the director. I can't tell what they're supposed to be shooting out here in the back yard, in the horrible March weather. The sound people are huddled together for warmth with the camera crew. Brandon is chatting with them and drinking beer, flirting outrageously with one of the female sound engineers. The director claps his hands and everyone drags tiredly into position, production assistants fluttering around them like startled pigeons.

I close the last set of eyes and open my own. Now I can hear thoughts -- just surface thoughts, fleeting scattered things that come with several layers of meaning, memories, and disordered images. It takes some time, but I start sifting them out into distinct, coherent thought-bytes.

I hate this. I hate this. I'm so cold and tired. Poor kid didn't even give her time to shower or change she smells of sweat and terror and oh she's on the rag too poor kid. She looks like hell how dare they put her up here for the shoot? Everyone thinks she looks terrible... Should short out the generators and give us all a break. I haven't been working out this week I must look like shit why can't I put on a damn jacket? So tired, so tired, just get it over with... Oh christ you asshole just make up your mind how you want to shoot this one and get it over with we're all freezing our balls off. Beer beer beer wow nice how can she have cleavage in winter clothes? This fucking camera is fucking up again the picture's shit oh he's going to rip me a new one if he gets another day of shit footage... Want a cig, want a cig, god, why can't I just light up here? So hungry, but I'm out of points for the day, so I shouldn't go near the catering table, everyone will remind me of that huge lunch I had...

Then, from out of this morass, an icy-sharp-stinging-hate stabbed me behind the eye:
I'd like to feel her throat in my hands. It would feel so good, and I would crush it so slowly, and she would try to hurt me...

This was accompanied by vivid memories of doing exactly this thing. Memories. Plural.

Usually, I don't shut things down fast. It sometimes backlashes on me if I pull out of a big group situation too fast. But I have been in the minds of too many murderers in my life to want to spend any more time in this one's mind.

I came to with one of the maintenance robots -- Eliot -- gently shaking my shoulder and saying, "Renata? Renata? You are safe here, Renata, please wake up." It had very careful programming for situations like this.

I missed my dog Liza anyway, and her big cold worried nose poking under my chin and in my ear with loud snuffles and tiny little fretting whines, and the happy little dance she did with her front paws when I woke up.

My arm was bruised where I caught myself on the floor, and my hip was bruised where the arm of the chair had caught me as I threw myself sideways in unconscious physical mimicry of my psychic reaction. I had the taste of bile in my mouth, but I did not appear to have tossed my supper, for which I was grateful.

It took me a few moments to get myself back into my chair, leaning on Eliot to get there. I sat there, breathing deeply and slowly, for a long several minutes. Finally, I drank the rest of my tea, cold, to get the bad taste out of my mouth.

The browser window had been shut down in the emergency procedures. I stared at the blank computer desktop, trying to think of what to do.

The police were out. Even if I were willing to trust them to do the right thing, my information was vague and, more damning, telepathic. No one can legally act on a telepath's tip.

I was clicking open my telephone menu before remembering that Ruth was off-planet, searching for cures for Sophie.

I flipped down my telephone contacts, and selected one.

The phone rang twice before the deep, comforting tones of my therapist answered. "Pearl Wong, can I help you?"

"Pearl, it's Renata," I said, pleased that my voice wasn't shaking.

"What's happened?" she said, and I could feel her focus in on me keenly.

"I did something stupid, Pearl," I said. "I stumbled into a live feed of a film crew."

"Oh," she said, and there was a touch of relief. "How did getting out go?"

"Badly," I said. I took a deep breath again. "I know where that serial killer is, Pearl."

"I see," Pearl said, and the relief was snuffed out. "How are you feeling?"

"Shaky and sick," I said. "I'm planning to eat something for grounding and go for a swim later to clear things out."

"Sounds like a good plan," she said. "How about your meds?"

"I'm going to see how I feel after food," I said.

"Don't be too conservative," Pearl said in a light, reminding sort of way. One reason I love her is that she doesn't get maternal at me. I have quite enough people trying to be my mama; I don't need to pay someone to do it too.

"I won't," I said. "Pearl, what do I do?"

Pearl said, "Do you want to talk about where he is?"

"He's... someone on the set of It's a Wonderful House," I said. "I can't be more specific. There were a lot of people. It could have, I suppose, even been someone watching the filming, so even one of the neighbors? Or a passerby. Or... this isn't very specific, is it?"

"That's one of your curses, Renata," Pearl said wryly. "Specificity is hard-won with you. But this gives me some ideas of where to go with the information."

"Really?" I said.

"Yes," Pearl said. She paused, then said, slowly, "What I'm thinking about isn't strictly professional, but I think the situation warrants a little break. I won't mention you."

"Okay," I said, rubbing my face to remind myself where I was. "Okay."

"I promise that I will find someone who will listen to this, Renata," Pearl said.

"Okay," I said. "Okay, thank you."

"Right," she said. There was a pregnant pause.

I knew what she was expecting. "I promise I won't go spelunking," I said. "I don't want to. I don't want to see inside that man's head again."

"All right," she said. "I'll let you know what I hear back, okay?"

"Okay. And I'll go get something to eat." I did another deep breath. "Thanks, Pearl."

"It's what I'm here for," she said.

"One more thing," I said.

"Hm?" Pearl said.

I said, "I think I'm ready for that new dog now."


From the Author:
I got up way too early this morning to be entertaining, alas.

Remember that, through May, I'm running the commenting incentive again, because reading your comments is the most fun on the Internet I have all day. So if I get 50 total comments in May, I will post twice weekly through June. As before, if you all post 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through July too. Get up to 100 comments, the twice-weekly postings continue through August.

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wonder_city: (Default)

I suppose it was inevitable, really. The tabloids had been chattering about it for a couple of weeks. But it was still a shock, in the last fifteen minutes of the program, to see the square-jawed, broad-shouldered, florid white man on the doorstep of the Wonderful House. He had mostly brown hair with a few touches of grey starting at the temples.

Brandon, of course, opened the door. He gave the man one of his lazy smiles and said, "Delivery?" despite the obvious lack of a uniform.

The man's fists bunched, and his shoulders flexed back under the rumpled flannel shirt. "I'm here for my daughter."

There was a brief flicker of surprise on Brandon's face and his pale eyebrows rose. "Sure. Come on in." He stepped back from the door, and the man thumped heavily over the threshold.

In truth, I'd been expecting something like this since WonderfulHouseWatch and several other online fansites (yes, all right, I admit it, I was well and truly hooked) had posted interviews with the director and the producers, where they all dropped broad, mysterious, cryptic hints that Lizzie's little outburst with the boiling water had been set off by a messy and abusive family background. She might have kept her real name secret, but her family, wherever they were, knew who she was, and so did their neighbors. No matter how small a town she came from, they'd have to come out of the woodwork and defend themselves -- and, in fact, the smaller the town, the more they had at stake.

Simon and Jeshri were hanging out, chatting, draped bonelessly over the furniture in the living room when the middle-aged man stepped in. One of their cameras pulled back for a full-length shot: he was wearing work boots and jeans that looked like he'd slept in them, as well as the red-dominant plaid flannel. I guessed he'd left his coat in the car, wherever that was, since the week had been warm, for early March, but not that warm.

The man glowered around and said, "I'm Robert Maxwell, and I'm here for my daughter."

Simon bounced up to his bare feet. "I'm Simon Canis," he said, extending a hand. "I guess you're talking about Lizzie?"

The man gave Simon a curled-lip glance and ignored the proffered hand. "I'm talking about Robyn."

Simon let his hand drop and considered Maxwell coolly through his tinted lenses. "I'll go ask around and see if we have a Robyn here," he said, and strode toward the stairs.

The man beat him to the stairs in two long strides and shouldered past him, taking the stairs two at a time. Simon sprinted after him and grabbed the man by the belt, yanking him to a halt at the top of the stairs with a strength that surprised Maxwell (and me).

"I'll say it once, nicely, sir," Simon said genially enough, worming around the big man to stand in front of him. "I'll ask around. If there's a Robyn here who wants to talk to you, she'll come down to see you."

Maxwell's hands clenched and unclenched. Simon casually removed his glasses and stared up at the man's face. Maxwell twitched visibly under that disturbing yellow gaze, then he turned and descended the stairs like a sullen child. Simon blinked as if appalled and waved a hand in front of his nose.

Back in the living room, Brandon lolled on a chair, grinning like a hyena. Jeshri had consolidated herself in the corner of the sofa, her bare feet not actually tucked under her, just folded up onto the seat with her. One of her hands dangled, seemingly at random, over the back of the couch, but the camera angled so we could see her fingers were just inches from the nearest electrical outlet.

Maxwell stood awkwardly, his surprise arrival effectively cockblocked. I could see anger and frustration stewing in his face, though.

Lizzie came down the stairs, chin up, shoulders back, jaw tense, a woman determined to go to her execution like a queen. Simon managed to descend behind her with just enough presence to let everyone know he was there without detracting from her entrance.

She stopped at the foot of the stairs and glanced over the room. Brandon couldn't look more like a train wreck spectator if he'd brought popcorn. Jeshri was coiled tensely. Maxwell was a monolith.

Finally, Lizzie said, "Hi, Dad."

Maxwell opened his mouth to say something, then looked around at the witnesses. He said, peremptorily, "Robyn. Talk. Now." He then turned, at random, and went through a door -- the door the viewers all knew led to the hallway to the kitchen.

I could see Simon visibly biting his lip, and then mouthing He's drunk to Lizzie behind the man's back.

Lizzie looked at Simon, then Jeshri, and followed.

We then saw Maxwell in the kitchen. He turned to face Lizzie, then bellowed, "YOU! OUT!" to the cameraperson, advancing threateningly. The camera backed hastily out of the room.

And then we saw them in the kitchen. Lizzie cast a glance around the room, possibly reassuring herself of the positioning of the hidden cameras.

Maxwell paced for a moment, then turned on her. "You have shamed us," he said, thick finger pointing at her and shaking just a little, like his voice. His knuckles were knobby and red with the beginnings of arthritis.

I could see Lizzie trying for one of Simon's more ironic expressions. "You? How?"

"We had agreed," he said, not withdrawing the finger an iota, "to keep the little matter of your para power in the family."

"That's why I didn't use the name you gave me," Lizzie said.

"Like none of our neighbors would recognize you?" Maxwell said, the rage in his voice almost erasing the question mark.

"Like anyone in that desert in Nebraska matters?" Lizzie said, and flinched violently as Maxwell raised his hand.

He didn't swing, though, and lowered it after a moment's silence. "Not only did you rub your promise in our faces --" he began.

"What promise?" she shouted. "I never promised not to tell anyone! I'm an adult and I needed to register, because you are welcome to ruin your lives, but I'll be damned if I'll let you ruin mine by getting me arrested!"

Suddenly, we had a small close-up of Simon's face in the upper corner of the screen: his eyes were closed, but you could almost see his ears swiveling.

He continued as if she hadn't spoken. "-- but now you're spreading these lies about your family," he hissed, pulling a crumpled sheet of tabloid newsprint from his hip pocket.

"I never said anything to those reporters," Lizzie said, looking like she was trying to press herself back into the kitchen counter. "That was all guesses from the producers." She gritted her teeth and glared up at him furiously. I realized he'd closed the distance between them. "Besides, they aren't that far off the truth, and you know it, you bastard!"

Backed into a corner as she was, she couldn't dodge the massive fist that buried itself in her stomach. The breath went out of her with a *woof* and he pinned her against the counter with his fist, yanking her head back by the hair with his free hand. "You're coming home with me, you little bitch," Maxwell snarled, "if I have to break every bone in your body first."

In the upper corner, Simon's eyes popped open and he was a blur of motion out of frame.

Lizzie retched, her arms flailing backward for the counter. I -- and the camera controller, given the zoom -- realized she was reaching for the knife block. She knocked it over and cut herself scrabbling for a blade, any blade.

The kitchen door burst open, spilling Simon and Jeshri into the room. Jeshri reached over the table beside the door, jammed a nail file into the electrical outlet there, and instantly lit up with blue crackling fire. Simon dropped into a crouch, both hands abruptly furry and full of claws.

"Let her go," Jeshri said through her teeth. "I can hit you so that no electricity touches her. Try me."

"Or me," Simon rumbled thickly, and I noticed that his face was lengthening as we watched, huge fangs sprouting from his jaws.

Maxwell was distracted by the paranormal menaces in the door, which meant that Lizzie managed to stab one of the knives into him, just as her eyes were rolling back in her head and just before her hands went limp.

Maxwell screamed and jumped back, pawing at where a paring knife was buried to the hilt in the meat of his shoulder. Simon pounced, knocking Maxwell flat on his back, still screaming. Lizzie slid to the floor, apparently keeping just enough presence of mind to keep her head from hitting anything on the way down.

Jeshri yanked the file out of the socket and dragged out her cell phone.

The camera cut to the police, watching the EMTs carry Maxwell out on a stretcher and advising him on his Miranda rights. Cut again to the police questioning Simon and Jeshri, and even Brandon, who grinned and gave the camera thumbsups when he thought the cops weren't looking. Some other EMTs talking quietly to Lizzie, who was still sitting on the floor of the kitchen, shaking her head, her face streaked with tears. The police talking to Lizzie and then, police walking Lizzie out in handcuffs.

Tom arrived just then, and he paused on the front steps to stare after the police. He looked up at the doorway, where Simon and Jeshri stood, faces grim. "I go out for one day, just one day," Tom exclaimed, "and look at what you people get up to!"

I shut the television view off and went over to the fansites, where outrage was spilling over that Lizzie -- some people insisted on calling her Robyn -- had been arrested. Frankly, I was surprised that Simon and Jeshri hadn't been arrested as well. The policy on domestic calls in Wonder City was to arrest everyone and let the judge sort them out, because domestics can escalate to cosmic proportions here, given a chance.

The top comment on the Wonderful Forum, "liked" by well over 400 people, was, "It takes a special kind of stupid to go on national television to beat your daughter."

Reader, I hit "like" as well.


From the Author:

ETA: Shadesong has hit her fundraising goal, because Jack's surgery cost less than expected!

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction.

wonder_city: (Default)
A Little Bird Told Me

It was 3 am and, as usual, I was awake.

My internal clock has been skewed from normal since I buried myself here. We tried to compensate with real sunlight being piped in via fiber optics for my "outdoor" spaces (the greenhouse, the pool, the little forest-jungle area that used to hold the original builder's mutant human-eating plants) and complicated ambient light sources that changed according to the time of day and, more recently, according to the weather outside. But I'm only willing to go so far with, say, climate control, so I don't get seasons, I don't get real breezes, I don't get a lot of the true outdoor experience. Plus, there are the meds, which can make me sleepy or wide awake, depending on what I need to be able to do. If the worst side effect of all this is that my sleep cycle is just a little bizarre? I'm very grateful.

One of the best things to happen in recent years has been the explosion of the Internet, and, in particular, of text-based social media. I often can't watch online videos for the same reason I limit my television-watching -- though the odd cat or dog doing something adorable is certainly welcome, and I became a die-hard fan of Maru and his Internet cousins when my Great Dane, Liza, died last year. (I'm still not ready to get a new dog, no matter what my therapist Pearl says.) In any case, Twitter is one of my favorite news sources, since newspaper sites are often too busy and unpredictable in terms of popups and photos and other strange additions.

Also, in the very rare event that I become a fan of someone or something, I can often follow events on Twitter.

Like, um, It's a Wonderful House.

First, I read this:

HereBoy Simon Canis
Whose turn is it for dishes this week? #IaWH #dishwashing

And all I could think was Oh, no, I know where this is going.

So it went. And I was trapped, as surely anyone who has ever been trapped reading someone being wrong on the Internet at an ungodly hour of the morning when she had to work the next morning.

TomTheTruck Tom Nguyen
Whose do you think it is? #IaWH #dishwashing

JeshriPatel Rajeshri Patel
@BrandNameMan, have you ever learned to do dishes? It's not that hard. We have a dishwasher after all. #IaWH #dishwashing

TinLizzie Tin Lizzie

HereBoy Simon Canis
Dude, we know you're awake. #IaWH #ICanHearYouBreathing

BrandNameMan Brandon deJong
'Sup? #IaWH

TomTheTruck Tom Nguyen
DISHES. #IaWH #dishwashing

JeshriPatel Rajeshri Patel
DISHES. #IaWH #dishwashing

TinLizzie Tin Lizzie
DISHES. #IaWH #dishwashing #IAmNotYourMom

HereBoy Simon Canis
Seriously, how do you survive on your own without drowning in your own filth? #IaWH #TrashHouseBoys

BrandNameMan Brandon deJong
Get off my case. If u want em done so bad, do em urselves. #IaWH #GetAMaidForThat

JeshriPatel Rajeshri Patel
That was not the agreement. You signed the agreement too. #IaWH #ContractsRBinding

BrandNameMan Brandon deJong
What r u goin 2 do, sue me? Simone alredy threatnd that for the name thing #IaWH #Trannies

HereBoy Simon Canis
Sorry to see that spelling at a first grade level is beyond you. #IaWH #TheStupidItBurns

JeshriPatel Rajeshri Patel
'Simone' did not; the producers told you it could be a legal issue, which it could. #IaWH #Transbashing

TinLizzie Tin Lizzie
Which is all BESIDE THE POINT. Point being: DISHES. #IaWH #dishwashing

TomTheTruck Tom Nguyen
Yes, thanks, Liz. #IaWH #BackToYouBob

BrandNameMan Brandon deJong
Speaking of suing @TinLizzie is it true ur parents r talking to tabloids? #IaWH #slander

JeshriPatel Rajeshri Patel
Ignore him, Lizzie. He's ignoring us. #IaWH #WeLiveWithAnAsshole

TomTheTruck Tom Nguyen
WTF is your problem, man? How did you survive a frat w/o getting beat down? #IaWH

BrandNameMan Brandon deJong
Dunno whats wrong w/u ppl; my brothers like me. #IaWH #SUPes

I had to stop and look that one up: Sigma Upsilon Pi, or SUPes, the first paranormal fraternity. Membership: 97% white men.

TinLizzie Tin Lizzie
The creep was part of his frat at Penn State. That's why they're all buddybuddy. #IaWH #StalkerFace

HereBoy Simon Canis
The creep? #IaWH #CluelessInWC

JeshriPatel Rajeshri Patel
His camera guy. #IaWH #StalkerFace

TomTheTruck Tom Nguyen
Makes alot of sense now. #IaWH #BandOfAssholes

BrandNameMan Brandon deJong
At lest some1 appreciates good jokes. none of u do. #IaWH #HatersGonnaHate

HereBoy Simon Canis
Let's just say your humor lacks sophistication. And manners. #IaWH #WhatHumor #RudeJerks

TinLizzie Tin Lizzie
Leaving aside his sad little bromance, DISHES. #IaWH #dishwashing

JeshriPatel Rajeshri Patel
The kitchen is beyond disgusting. I saw something crawling in there. #IaWH #BugsInTheNight

TomTheTruck Tom Nguyen
That was @BrandNameMan after last night's bender. #IaWH #ILiveWithALush

BrandNameMan Brandon deJong
I handel my liquer better than you @TomTheTruck. #IaWH #JackDaniels #Tequila

HereBoy Simon Canis
Jesus, I can't look at this spelling anymore. DID you graduate from college, @BrandNameMan? Or did you Photoshop your diploma? #IaWH #MyPoorEyes

BrandNameMan Brandon deJong
PENN STATE BEAVER WOOOOOOO #IaWH #PennState #psu #nittanylions

JeshriPatel Rajeshri Patel
...You have GOT to be shitting me. #IaWH

TomTheTruck Tom Nguyen
I know PennState has a bunch of campuses. #IaWH #psu

TinLizzie Tin Lizzie
It's out near Pittsburg per GoogleMaps. #IaWH #Useful

HereBoy Simon Canis
Beaver? Really? Really? #IaWH #gobsmacked

BrandNameMan Brandon deJong

JeshriPatel Rajeshri Patel
Notice he spelled all that perfectly? #IaWH #WhyAmINotSurprised

TomTheTruck Tom Nguyen
He's wasted again. I can hear him singing upstairs. #IaWH #ILiveWithALush

HereBoy Simon Canis
I can hear him singing WHEREVER I AM IN THE HOUSE. #IaWH #WolfEarsSometimesSuck

TinLizzie Tin Lizzie
Fuck this. I need to cook. My turn is coming out of the next rotation, ok? #IaWH #dishwashing #FedUpToTheTeeth

HereBoy Simon Canis
We shouldn't give in. He'll never do the dishes if we do. #IaWH #dishwashing #AntiJerkEnabling

TomTheTruck Tom Nguyen
No one can really be this much of an ass, can they? Are they paying him to be like this? #IaWH #paranoia

HereBoy Simon Canis
Probably. #IaWH #ProducersAreGhoulsAndCannibals

Just at that point, my email went ding, and I saw it was my sister Reesy. The idea of Reesy actually emailing me got my attention; she says she hates email and texting and, basically, everything that's comfortable for me, and always wants to talk on the phone. I minimized my Twitter window and flipped over to email.


Can barely type on this thing because I am crying so hard. Don't know if you saw, but Yanaye Smallwood was found dead down at the river. You remember her? She was Audra's bestie from kindergarten on. She went away to college, but came back for grad school, and she was going to graduate next year her mama said with a PhD in sociology. She was one of your people, R, did you know that? She could breathe underwater or something like that, but she never got involved in spandex nonsense. She and Audra have been tight the last couple of years again. Audra is finally asleep in her room I made her stay she was so broken up.

But Rennie I am SO ANGRY. The police/newspapers are saying Yanaye was an addict and a prostitute and she was no such thing. They are saying it because SHE IS BLACK you know it. Audra says Yanaye fell and broke her back a few years ago but didn't break it all the way, but has been in terrible pain since. Audra says she was on vicodin then oxy but was switching to smack cause the doctors stopped prescribing for her and oxy is harder to get in WC. But she's not an addict the way they mean and would never be a prostitute!!!!

I am so angry and A is angry and what can we do about it? I thought of you though Rennie. You know so many people and maybe Ruth could say something to someone and make them stop saying it. Her mama is such a mess over it I am going to visit tomorrow, don't know what I will cook yet but at least that gives me something to do. Please tell me you will try and I can tell her mama that and maybe she will feel better.


I remembered Yanaye: beautiful and brilliant, smart as a whip with a mouth to match. I had seen photos and heard Audra talk about her, and from Audie's mind I'd gotten a flavor of the girl and then the woman. Of course, I knew nothing about the woman's life -- despite Reesy's assertions, one can never know what someone might do, and there's no shame -- despite much jabbering to the contrary -- in turning to the sex industry if that's the only place you can get paid. I knew, for instance, that my sister LaShawna had been a stripper for a while in her twenties -- though I knew that Reesy and Mama didn't know about it. It was how LaShawna had put food on the table for her children and paid her rent for four years.

But I could think of one woman who might be interested in getting to the bottom of it. When I looked at the clock, it was nearly 5, and I just gave up on the idea of sleeping before my client came in at 9. I wrote a careful email to Suzanne Feldstein. On her "Feldspar" blog, she'd been covering the murders down by the riverfront, and had been systematically deconstructing the police's lazy assertions that they were mob killings. I thought she was just the woman for the job of rooting out the truth.
wonder_city: (Default)
Over the Back Fence

Megan felt intensely awkward ringing the doorbell of the Wonderful House. She could see the camera mounted in the tree outside, aimed at her back. She hoped that it was tightly focused for the head of a person of normal height was was currently getting a nice view of the nondescript back of her jacket.

The door was flung open and the infamous Brandon was standing there, his uncombed hair pointing in six different directions, wearing a t-shirt that said Yes, that's my superpower and I'm also happy to see you and a pair of grey sweatpants. "Hi!" he said, managing to sound insinuating with just that one syllable. Her sense of familiarity faded abruptly, perhaps overwhelmed by the tidal wave of dislike.

She looked past him at the cameraman who was following him around, and very nearly staggered back a step. The white cameraman had the same huge photogenic grin as Brandon, the same jawline, nearly the same nose, similar build but better musculature, and gave her the same eerie sense of having seen him before. Above the nose, his face was shadowed briefly by a baseball cap (the Philly Phanatic goggled at the world from the front of it), and when he tilted his head back to aim the camera up at her, she could see that he had a large strawberry mark across his forehead and a pair of too-small, too-close-together eyes squinted her way. The sense of familiarity faded again.

"I was wondering if Simon was home," Megan said.

"Oh, hey!" Brandon said, a lightbulb unfortunately going on in his head. "You're Megan Amazon! You saved the city a couple months ago!"

She rolled her eyes. "Yes, I am. No, I didn't. Is Simon in?"

"Sure, come on in!" he said, backing up to let her pass.

Stepping in past him, she was struck by the truly stupid quantity of antiques furnishing the small foyer: a little walnut table, ceramic sculptures, and other knick knacks. She tried not to breathe too hard. Brandon squeezed past her and led her into the living room.

"Good thing you didn't get on the show!" Brandon said over his shoulder. "The place isn't built for big girls like you."

Sitting in Zoltan's living room after the last show, they had discussed whether Brandon could really be as obnoxious as they were portraying him. Now she had the canonical answer. "And I'm sure it isn't built for large women like me either," she said, being grateful for the high ceilings that allowed her to loom, just a little.

He turned back and gave her big eyes and an O mouth, waving his hands in mock-panic. "Oh, I'm sorry! Is that spelled with an 'i' or a 'y'?"

She glanced back, toward the camera that Brandon was mugging for, and saw the cameraman grinning. She looked back at Brandon and smiled icily. "Be careful," she said in a low voice, "because I haven't signed any contracts."

His silly expression intensified and she shoved past him roughly, sending him staggering. As she glanced into the empty kitchen and approached the stairs, she heard Brandon saying, "I should've known she was Simone's friend. Big ol' bulldagger, ain't she?"

Megan couldn't resist. She looked over her shoulder and said, "As they say, I am if you are the alternative." Then she climbed the stairs two at a time for fear that she really would turn around and knock Brandon's head off.

She knocked lightly on Simon's door and, in response to Simon's, "What?" she replied, in a high, singsong voice, "Siiiimonnnn, let me iiiii-iiinnn before I kill your houuuuusemaaaaate."

Simon threw open the door and grabbed her by the wrist to drag her inside. He slammed the door, then looked very closely around the doorjamb. He reached out and pressed a thumb against a spot, and Megan heard a crunching noise. "Damn bugs," he muttered.

"In this place?" she said, edging away from the door. The room really was very small.

"They're everywhere," Simon said. "Always trying to get into the bedrooms and bathrooms. Some asshole posted a video of Jeshri taking her shirt off the other day. I'm waiting for my crotch shot any time now."

"Oh," Megan said. "That kind of bug."

"Yeah, what'd you think I meant?" Simon said, throwing himself onto his bed. He was wearing a ribbed white tank top and black basketball shorts. "Did you bring it?" he said excitedly.

"Of course," Megan said, producing a brown paper bag from under her jacket. "Do you think I'd brave this pit of voles for fun?"

He peered into the bag. "Thankyouthankyouthankyou," he said breathlessly. "I wouldn't have been able to make it home before meeting Suzanne and hitting the hotel tomorrow night. And the soft pack just isn't going to cut it for her."

Megan snorted. "I bet not. Will Excalibur there be enough, given her penchant for the Great Blue?"

"It'll be fiiiiine," Simon said fondly, and closed the bag, tucking it under his pillow. "How is the old homestead, anyway?"

"Everyone's pretty much the same," Megan said, sitting down tailor style on the rug. "G is a little crazier and a little more possessed, though. Watson and I finally staged a little intervention and, um, took her cats. Because they were afraid of you-know-who, and you-know-who seems... kind of scarily unpredictable."

"Oh, maaaaan," Simon said, wide-eyed, pressing his bare feet together and holding them there with his hands. "You took her cats? What did she say?"

"That was the most worrying thing," Megan said, remembering G standing in the doorway, watching the two of them carrying the last cats -- Evason and Uhura -- up the stairs to Watson's apartment, her eyes dry and bleak. "She told us she thought it was for the best."

"Ohhhh, I can't believe this shit is happening and I'm here," Simon said, rocking back and forth. "She didn't even argue?"

"Nope," Megan said. "Not even a token protest."

"Fuuuuuuck," he said.

"Yeah," Megan said. "Oh, and Watson and I went to Madame Destiny to ask for advice on how to deal with G."

Simon raised an eyebrow. "Did you get an answer from Madame or from the Oracle?"

"Both," Megan said, rubbing her face with both hands. "Madame hadn't really heard much about this place we're going to try asking next, this shop called Sator's, but she knew it had been there for a really long time. Like, a hundred years long time."

Simon whistled. "I guess that means that whatever they do works?"

"I hope," Megan said. "They offer 'ghost removal' so that sounds hopeful to me."

"Fingers crossed," Simon said. "What did the Oracle say?"

"Watson asked how to get Meteor to stop possessing G," Megan said. "The Oracle said -- let me see if I can get this right -- 'Seek the square's zero, seek the man of the west. Make her a hero, let that end your quest.'"

"Wow," Simon said after a short silence. "The Oracle is really shit at poetry, isn't it?"

"That's what X said," Megan said. "X is really interesting, isn't sie?"

"You mean 'sexy', don't you?" Simon said.

Megan reached over and gently thumped him on top of the head. He seized her arm and wrestled with her briefly, making adorable little growly noises. Megan got the idea that perhaps Simon was going a little stir-crazy in here.

After a few minutes of that, Simon flung himself back on the bed. "Well, I guess I don't have the market cornered on fucked up housemates."

"Speaking of that," Megan said, "can you tell me what the living hell happened with Lizzie? I feel kind of responsible for her."

Simon shrugged. "Jeshri and Tom and I followed her out of the room, and Jeshri threatened to fry every camera in the house if the cameras didn't get out. Lizzie was a mess, a total mess. Jeshri had to talk her out from under a table, and I had to keep Tom from going and trying to be all comforting at her."

"Tom? Comforting?" Megan said.

"I know, they don't show it, and he mostly doesn't show it," Simon said. "He's afraid that if he shows it on camera, they'll start playing up the effeminate Asian guy thing."

"Is that why he's playing uber-butch?" Megan said.

"No, he is that butch," Simon said. "He really is. He's butcher than your mom in the 70s. But he's a nice guy, too."

"Does somebody have a little crush?" Megan teased.

Simon gave her a shocked and offended look. "You have got to be kidding." Under her skeptical eyebrow lift, he melted a little. "I wouldn't call it a crush. I would call it 'wanting to lick him all over.' Happy?"

Megan snorted hard. "So anyway," she said, "you were telling me about Lizzie. Under a table?"

"Yeah," Simon said. "Jeshri got her to come out, and she was more like herself then, and asked us if she'd hurt Brandon. Tom had to remind her that the asshole was invulnerable, and the most she did was give him a really hot shower, which he probably needed, which made her laugh."

"Good boy," Megan said. "Did she say what he did? It looked like he just touched her arm or her lower back -- Zoltan rewound it and ran it like six times for us."

"Oh, geez, you guys are all watching down with Zoltan?" Simon said, covering his face. "Even Mr. Hammer?" he squeaked.

"No, Jack hasn't been down," Megan assured him. "Apparently, he and the 'toy boy' have a standing appointment that night."

"Thank god," Simon said. "You do know his latest toy is Citizen Pain of the Young Cosmics, right?"

Megan blinked. "Um, no. You mean, the android that Nereid confessed to having the hots for?"

"One and the same," Simon said. "But no, Lizzie didn't tell us. Jeshri took her off to her room and asked me to make some tea. I did -- Jimmy Bo Bob and his shadow had cleared out -- and put a lot of sugar in it. Good for shock. Or so Agatha Christie says."

"And then she didn't want to talk about it," Megan said.

"Yep," Simon said. "And when Maria -- the interviewer -- tried to ask her about it, she refused to answer. Flatly. She had a little conference with the producers after that. I think she got a warning."

"She got a warning? What about the shithead?" Megan said, outraged.

"Nothing, as far as I know," Simon said. "The director isn't happy about that. She thought he should get as much talking-to as Lizzie too."

"Fucking assholes," Megan said. "Has anyone checked to see if deJong's daddy is bankrolling the show or something?"

"I don't know," Simon said, shrugging. "You hungry?"

"Sure," Megan said. "You wanna go out? Even though we're going to be followed?"

"Unless you're worried about anything you say or do being shown on national television," he grinned, hopping off the bed. "I'm used to it."

Megan smirked. "Oh, it's about time for a new salutary horror for Mom," she said, and watched with interest as Simon stripped and dressed in street clothes. His butt continued to be admirable. And his back. And his shoulders. "I hope Suzanne properly appreciates the sacrifices the rest of the world is making on her behalf," she said after a few moments.

Simon looked down at himself, then at Megan. He blushed slightly. "I, um, sorry, I forget..."

Megan waved away his apology. "Don't fret. I'm, um, engaging in dubious judgment right now. I don't need more potential drama."

Simon's gaze sharpened. "What sort of dubious judgment?"

"A... um... Watson sort of dubiosity," Megan said, avoiding his eyes.

"Oh, giiirrrrirl," Simon said. "You... you know about her and G, right?"

"Yeah," Megan said. "She... Watson... said it was over a while ago. Probably around the time Meteor showed up, she thinks."

Simon buried his face in his hands. "You both want G, so you're sleeping together? That has got to be a disaster waiting to happen."

"It didn't shock my therapist," Megan said, a little defiantly.

"And you have a therapist?" Simon said. "Let's go get a couple of pizzas and a case of beer and come back here. It sounds like you have more to tell me than you thought you did."


From the Author:
TOMORROW is the last day to vote for the Best Fiction category for the Rose & Bay Award! Please take a moment and go vote for your preferred finalist! WONDER CITY IS CURRENTLY TIED FOR FIFTH PLACE.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! We're falling! We're falling! Auggggh!

wonder_city: (Default)
Even Those With Only One Head

I tuned in late because I had a difficult patient session run long, and I wanted to swim and take my meds before I sat down to watch the inevitable drama.

When the picture came on, I saw Lizzie and Simon in their khaki trousers, polo shirts, and aprons, serving up lattes with a smile to customers at the Great Scot. I confess I was more intrigued by the coffee shop than what they were doing, and spent a lot of attention -- part of this was my meds at work, making it hard for me to pay attention to just one thing -- looking at the details of the background: the machines and their muffled screeches, the rows of Great Scot merchandise on shelves, the patter of the complicated orders, the bad art on the walls, even the notes they were making on the paper cups were enthralling. I'll never see the inside of one of these shops live, and for some reason, the busy-ness of them is fascinating and appalling in equal doses.

Then they switched to following Jeshri at her job. She was wearing a plain gray coverall with the power company's patch on the left shoulder, and she was rapidly scaling a telephone pole -- with all safety gear in place -- to examine a blown transformer at the top. A few men -- one white, two black or Hispanic -- down below, wearing similar coveralls, were watching her and talking among themselves.

The narrator was making bad puns, but the worst was cut to a moment later, with Brandon saying, "That's what she does for a living? Man, she could climb my pole any day." He started his Beavis-and-Butthead laugh, and high-fived his cameraman.

Then Tom was weightlifting, wearing a ripped muscle shirt and shorts. He was sweating, though I suspected that he'd been oiled to enhance the effect of his gleaming muscles flexing heavily. He was making the faces the weightlifters always seem to make. Brandon poked his head into the room and said, "Man, you work too hard."

Tom grunted without even looking.

"Do you do kung fu too?" Brandon asked, doing a faux Bruce Lee pose.

Tom rolled his eyes and didn't answer.

"Aw, c'mon, man," Brandon said. "You haven't talked to me for days now."

"That's because," Tom said, punctuating his words with bicep curls, "bitching at me for 'what your people did to my uncle over there' without knowing that my parents lost everything in the evacuation of Saigon is one of the stupidest racist-ass things to come out of your mouth yet."

"Well, sorry," Brandon said, without sounding at all contrite. "What was the evacuation of Saigon?"

Tom's hands on the barbell visibly tightened. He clenched his jaws together and turned his back completely on Brandon.

The image changed to Jeshri in the kitchen, presumably after work. She looked into the refrigerator and scowled, then checked the freezer. She strode out to the living room where Lizzie and Simon were playing videogames. "Did either of you eat any of my food?" Jeshri said.

Simon looked up and frowned. "Not to my knowledge. I thought that Hot Pocket was mine..."

Jeshri waved that away and looked inquiringly at Lizzie. "Nope," Lizzie said.

"Then that leaves," Jeshri said, a little too dramatically, "Tom or you-know-who."

"Tom would only eat it if it was mind-bogglingly healthy," Simon said, looking back at the screen. "You know who my bet's on."

"I wish like hell we could vote him off the island," Jeshri said, massaging her temples.

Jeshri stomped upstairs and pounded on Brandon's door. He opened it, still wearing his trademark khakis and Oxford buttondown with the collar turned up. "Hey, Jesh," he said.

"Eat your own food, asshole," Jeshri snarled, spun on her heel and started for the stairs.

"Oh, Jesh, don't be like that!" Brandon said, stepping into the hall after her. "I'll make it up to you!"

She turned back around and put out her hand, palm up. "All right," she said, pursing her lips against the anger that I could tell wanted to rip him up one side and down the other. When he stared at her blankly, she pointed into the palm of her hand. "It's called mun-nee," she enunciated. "Green stuff. Bread. Which brings to mind the question of how you managed to eat an entire loaf in an afternoon, but I'm not asking it."

"Naw," he said, with his "aw shucks" grin and back-of-head rub. "Let me take you out to dinner!"

She stared at him disbelievingly. "You think that I would want to go out with you? And that would somehow make up for you eating my food?"

I knew it was going to happen, but it was still shocking. The good ol' boy vanished in an instant. "What the hell, *****?" he shouted, taking a menacing step toward her. "You're such a f***ing ****tease, you were playing 'hard to get' --" he sang the words through his nose -- "so I came after you, and you turn your nose up at dinner with me? You ****ing *****! You're not going to get better **** in this house!"

"Who says I want any **** in this house?" Jeshri shouted back, still standing her ground in the face of the much larger, angry man. "And I wouldn't touch your diseased toothpick with someone else's ten foot pole, you ****ing asshole!"

Tom burst out of his room at this point, but hesitated, staring at the small Indian woman, fists balled, feet planted, glaring up at the red-faced white man.

"You go, girl," I said, tensely leaning toward the television.

Jeshri sighed and looked at her camera. She gave a small, close-lipped smile, and went down the stairs.

I realized that the commercial break we were having was the last one in the show. How the hell were they going to top that one for drama?

More glimpses of life in the house, time passing. In the second floor bathroom, we could see Jeshri's collection of things -- makeup, hair products, skin products -- and a small clutch of soap and shampoo that was apparently Tom's. Simon has a few hair products, a hair pick, and a variety of dental cleaning items -- mouthwashes, different types of floss, an electric toothbrush. The camera shows him brushing his teeth in the morning, shirtless in his loose cotton pajama bottoms, the curved symmetrical scars on his chest showing up brightly against his brown skin.

"Why do I have so many dental products?" he says, apparently repeating a question, appearing baffled. "Because who ever would be intimidated by my flashing fangs if I had fillings in them?"

We see the third floor bathroom, in an astonishing state of disarray -- towels on the floor, shampoo and other bottles heaped on the small counter and in the corners of the shower. Lizzie is staring in at the door, lip curled. We see her a few minutes later, downstairs, saying to Simon and Jeshri, "Guys? Would it be all right if I used this bathroom from now on?"

The other two looked at her in surprise. "You're willing to let him have his own bathroom?" Jeshri said, eyebrows lifted.

Lizzie looked away. "I don't want to have to clean up after him," she said. "I've done enough of that... I mean, it's not like he even seems to try to aim."

"EW!" Simon and Jeshri said in stereo, both of them waving their arms and making faces. "That's fine!" Simon added. "Just don't take forever in the shower in the morning!"

Later, evidently, Lizzie was cooking herself macaroni and cheese from a box. She stood at the stove in her jeans and t-shirt and sneakers, stirring the pasta to make sure it didn't stick to the pan. Brandon strolled into the room behind her.

"I love to see a woman in the kitchen!" he exclaimed with a grin.

She didn't turn, twitch, or in any way acknowledge him.

"I mean, isn't that the way life is supposed to be?" he said, getting another high-five from his cameraman. "The little lady in the kitchen, making dinner, the man coming home from a hard day at work..." He sashayed closer to Lizzie. "Hi, honey, I'm hoooome....!"

I think he put his hand on her lower back, leaning close to her making that kissy fishface some boys think is cute. What I know happened was that she spun like lightning and hit him full in the face with the pot of boiling water.

He reeled back with a shout, then kept shouting, "Ow! ****! ****! ****! Help!" as his skin turned a lovely shade of lobster. I didn't forget he was "modestly" invulnerable.

Lizzie stared at him, jaw slack, and the pot dropped from her hand. The camera didn't linger on her, but I think she dropped it because her hands were shaking too hard to hold it.

The door to the living room burst open, and Simon, Jeshri, and Tom stood there, gawping, as steam rose off Brandon.

Lizzie gave out a little sound like a moan and ran from the room, out the other kitchen door.

The three in the door immediately went after her, Simon bolting ahead, Tom on his heels, and Jeshri at the door when Brandon shouted, "What about me?"

Jeshri paused, looked over her shoulder, and said, "Your buddy, the cameraman, can help you. Once he's finished getting a good shot of your face."

The credits rolled as the door shut behind her.

"Oh, my," I said. "Oh, my, my, my. That girl's got something eating her inside-out."


From the Author:
I'm sure that all of them, at this point, are wondering if $25,000 is enough.

Tip o' the photons to my wife, who came up with the idea of the line from The Hobbit for the title.

Wonder City Stories has been nominated for the Rose & Bay Award! Check out all the nominees in all the categories here. I'd love for you to vote for WCS. And please do consider voting for Dave or Lucid (I mean aerynvale or badfaun!) in the patron category.

I'm posting twice weekly during February. Thank you for all your comments! I love them! They are my precious! Yessss, my preccciousss.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Oooh, we came up the listing a little! Keep clicking, please!

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Something Under the Bridge

All day I told myself I would be too busy relaxing from my hectic work schedule to watch television.

My last patient of the day was an adorable, creative boy who had an intricately intertwined and richly detailed world of stories locked away in his head, complete with multiple timelines and alien worlds. He was constantly creating adventures with these people and places, and he couldn't tell anyone about them because of his issues with external communication. So I was the only person from the outside world to whom he could show his creations, and it was always an endlessly fascinating parade of shiny things on display. I love seeing them and being with him, and his mother tells me that he's trying to interact more with her and his brothers now -- he always has been, I don't bother to tell her since she only believes it when she can see the effort -- but it does wipe me out pretty much completely.

Which is why, my horrible brain told me while I swam, you need to watch something completely mindless tonight.

The night's dinner was Chinese dumplings. Ever since the end of the Unobtanium Chef program went viral on the Internet, there's been a craze for Chinese dumplings in Wonder City -- all the restaurants are trying to do them in new, chic ways. I was pleased, though, when Dario told me that Gloria had actually engaged Hanne Blank herself to talk him through the process of making the evening's dinner. I wrote a quick email to Gloria after I finished every scrap of the amazing food, asking her to see if Ms. Blank would be willing to have a contract like the other chefs. After all, it was all remote anyway. What was the difference whether it was a phone call from Wonder City or from somewhere else?

And then I wrapped up in my black silk pajamas and fuzzy butter-yellow robe, and flopped me and my black ass down in front of the television, prepared for the latest "It's a Wonderful House" to be All About The White Boy. Because, you know, one gets kinda cynical about these things.

Up came the title screen, with the five of them walking down the street, then turning to look at the house. I noticed there was more snow on the ground and their clothes were different. A new title sequence each week? That would be expensive.

This show started out all about them picking their rooms. Brandon and Tom squabbled briefly over the attic room with more windows, but Brandon got it in the end. Tom took a second floor room, saying, "Whatever, man. This one has more space for my weights."

"There's a weight room downstairs," Brandon said. "Why do you have to have your own shit?"

"In case I don't like the company," Tom said, turning his back on Brandon.

Brandon leaned close to the camera and whispered, with a shit-eating grin, "So much for inscrutable Chinese people."

"Oh," I said. "Here's our house troll."

The girls ended up with rooms on the second floor, while Simon took the second attic room, the one with fewer windows but a walk-in closet. Lizzie took the smallest room, little more than a closet, really, saying, "I don't have a lot of stuff. It's no biggie."

"Are you sure?" Jeshri and Simon both said, though Jeshri looked relieved. And Simon added, "Because I don't have to have a lot of stuff. Just books and things. Don't you want a room with a closet?"

"Why should you give up having a closet instead of me?" Lizzie wanted to know.

"Because I live locally," Simon said.

"So do I," Lizzie said.

Simon raised his eyebrows. "At the Y, hon."

Lizzie blushed furiously. "It just means that I don't have as much stuff I'd put in the room."

Simon pursed his lips and glanced at Jeshri through the darkened glasses perched on his nose. She shrugged at him. He drew in a deep breath. "All right, fine, but if you change your mind, I'll switch rooms with you, okay?"

Lizzie, not looking at him, nodded, but didn't say anything.

Tom and Brandon trotted down the stairs to the second floor. "So, are we gonna do bathrooms by floor?"

Lizzie and Jeshri looked at Tom, who shrugged. "It seems logical," Jeshri said.

"I just wondered if you wanted, you know, a girls bathroom and a boys bathroom," Brandon said, grinning and running a hand through his carefully-arranged hair. His short blond hair stood straight up in multiple cowlicks, like Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes. He had probably already been abandoned by the show's hair stylists.

"I think we can put up with Tom down here," Jeshri said. "He doesn't seem like the kind of guy to forget to put the seat down."

Tom made some sort of noise -- not quite a protest, but not quite an agreement either. Possibly more of a snort.

"Well, you know," Brandon said, "I didn't know if --" And there was a blur over his mouth and a bleep on the track. "-- here wanted to pee in the girls' room or the boys' room."

Oh, here we go.

"Who?" Jeshri said.

"What?" Lizzie said.

"What the BLEEP?" Tom said.

Simon rolled his eyes and turned slowly to face Brandon. "I'm sure you think you're being cute, but you're not. That's not my name."

"Why not, BLEEP?" Brandon said. "Too girly for you?"

Oh, Simon, I thought. You got yourself a helluva lawyer, didn't you?

Simon let his glasses slip down his nose and looked at Brandon over them. We got a nice closeup of those unnerving yellow eyes. "That's. Not. My. Name."

"You're a girl?" Jeshri and Tom said simultaneously.

Lizzie was frowning, biting her lower lip.

Simon sighed and he looked over his shoulder at them. "No, I'm not. I'm me."

Brandon grinned. "Oh, come on, BLEEP. You know the only reason you want to sleep in the attic is so you can be closer to me!" He slid his hand over his chest and made a kiss face. "Maybe I can convince you that being a girl isn't so bad."

Simon's gaze snapped back to Brandon and even that dense white boy backed up a step. "I may be bisexual, but I wouldn't touch you or someone like you with George Bush's dick, much less allow you to try to 'fix' me. And if you ever come into my room, let me just remind you who has the wolfy jaws of doom, hmm?"

Simon had turned away when that boy who never learned to shut his mouth said, in a singsong, "But then, BLEEP, you'll never win the money for your suuuurgery, right?"

I swear that Simon's hackles went up. There wasn't a thing visible -- his hair was perfect, as the song goes -- but there was a subtle something, in his stance maybe, that changed. Tom and Jeshri even took a step back. Simon didn't bother to turn around. "So you think I'll let you rape me for money? Is that it?"

My jaw dropped. The editors left that in?

Simon looked at the others. "Better lock your doors at night when Brandon's around, folks. Yes, even you, Tom." He glanced back at Brandon. "I don't have to hang around here. I can be queerbashed by better people than you on any street corner." Then he strode out of the room.

There was a long silence, then Brandon laughed and said, "Wow, those people are so sensitive."

"What 'people' are you talking about?" Lizzie said, her voice quavering a little. "Women? Men? Black people? Queer people? Paras?"

"You know," he said, waving his hand after Simon. "Those people."

"I'm not sure I want to be on the same side of the fence with you," Lizzie said, her voice firming up.

"Yeah," Jeshri said. "Leave us out of your little real life flamewars. Try treating people with a little respect." She and Lizzie turned to follow Simon.

Tom grimaced at him and drew close to him. In a low, confidential voice, he growled, "Oh, and a word to the wise? I'm not Chinese, dude." He turned on his heel and stalked out.

Brandon stared after him a moment, then looked at the camera, giving an "aw shucks" kind of look and rubbing the back of his neck. "Those people, man," he said, laughing.

All I could think was that "those people" were going to pound his ass into the floor if he kept that shit up.

There was more, another thirty minutes or so of move-in and glares and silence, but nothing really stacked up to that confrontation.

Still, near the end, Lizzie and Jeshri cornered Simon. "I changed my mind," Lizzie told him. "I want a bigger room. And a closet."

Simon immediately got suspicious, giving them both looks over his glasses. They remained solidly innocent-looking. "I'm going to take her clothes shopping," Jeshri said. "Have you seen her wardrobe?"

He quirked a smile. "Jeans and t-shirts and boots, every day," he said. "Gonna femme her up?"

"I'll try," Jeshri said, trying a conspiratorial grin. "Wanna help?"

Simon relented. "Oh, all right," he said, throwing up his hands. "Anyway, I don't need any closet."

I think I want to send the editors a little thank-you letter.


From the Author:
You knew this was coming, right? Because it had to come.

I'm posting twice weekly during January. If you like this twice-weekly thing, I'm doing it again in January: if January's posts draw 50 comments total, I'll post twice weekly through February too. As before, if you provide a comment bonanza, I'll extend appropriately.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Come on and click. You know you want to.

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I Have Too Long Lived Like an Anchorite

I sipped my afternoon coffee while watching the last birds going at my birdfeeder on the fake window in my office. The January sunset looked cold as the flock of English sparrows mobbed the feeder for a few precious last carbs to get them through the night. I could see a few houses in the distance, since the deciduous trees had long since dropped their leaves and the conifers were not strategically planted. The computer system was programmed to recognize human figures and delete them from my view, so an army of small children could stampede through my lawn far above and I would never see them. I'd probably feel them, but I wouldn't have the visual cue to lock in on their mental wavelengths.

My email chimed and I glanced over at it. LaShawna. I popped the email open with a click and scanned over it:
Little Ren: Get a load of the new show on PARABI at 8. Got a little brother on, Prof Canis' son. Not live, so good for you. Luv, Big Sis

I clicked the link she attached and said aloud, "You have got to be shitting me."

It was a very stylish page with 5 young people, all college age or a little older, posed semi-heroically against a dark background and the logo that read It's A Wonderful House. A blond white boy with a dazzling smile wearing buttondown and khakis started the lineup. Next was a lovely young woman of East Indian descent, I think, with long wavy black hair and a light Bollywood-style complexion, wearing a very attractive red blouse with loose ruffled three-quarter sleeves that showed a triangle of bare midriff just above the waistband of her tight black jeans. A muscular Asian man with a crewcut posed with his fists on his hips, wearing a skin-hugging white t-shirt and blue jeans. The fourth in line was a dishwater blonde white woman who was done up as the epitome of the farmgirl-next-door, a vaguely Western-styled buttondown and jeans and brown cowboy boots. The last in the lineup was a light-skinned, very pretty black man with a perfect goatee and short, flattop haircut, wearing a tailored dark-blue tuxedo with silver-blue lapels over a white shirt, black cummerbund, and black bowtie.

I stared at the "little brother" for a long time. That was not Malik. I didn't know the other Canis kids, but I knew Malik, since he did an internship for me a couple years ago.

Which meant, of course, that I was going to have to watch the wretched thing. I hate reality shows, not just for the sheer tastelessness of them, but because they're filmed relatively close to time, so I sometimes have trouble with mentally hitching myself to the participants. I usually prefer to watch syndicated shows where all the actors have been dead for decades, when I watch TV at all.

I turned the window off and trudged downstairs, feeling grumpy. I proceeded through my evening routine in an ill humor, and the only thing that salvaged it was that the people I snapped at were robots without significant artificial intelligence. I remembered, however, to take my repression meds with dinner. By the end of dinner, I could feel the slight fuzzing that I perceive as being something like a clear astronaut's helmet of static around my head.

Finally, in my crimson pajamas and black terrycloth bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, I settled in front of the television. "Computer," I said, "please turn on PARABI."

"Of course, Renata," the voice said, and the station came on, though no human figures were visible. It was the end of a news program, so the computer was editing out the newscasters. I was grateful.

When the show began, it had a slick and flashy introduction, with all the participants walking together toward the camera in time with the pop theme music, then stopping and looking to the left. The camera followed their gazes to a big, old Painted Lady Victorian -- probably down in the Staybird section of town -- painted up in bright yellow with highlights of green, red, and electric blue. The title of the show fell in from above and landed on an invisible floor with a shudder and a sound effect.

There was a lot of introduction, with one of those smartass narrators who, you can tell, thinks he's clever with his predictable jokes and puns. They showed us the inside of the house, which had a big modern kitchen, a Victorian dining room with coffered ceilings and wallpaper and stained glass windows, a modern living room in pastel colors, and a recreation room done in jewel tones and full of entertainment systems on the first floor. The second and third floors were the bedrooms and bathrooms. The basement had a workout room, with weight equipment and treadmills and an elliptical trainer, as well as a large modern laundry room.

The smartass talked about the deal: they all were to spend 3 months in the house together. They could go to work, but all their spare time had to be spent in the house, except for one night a week that they had "off". Everything in the house could be filmed as long as the person was "decent" and there was nothing else happening that required privacy. They apparently had signed a contract that broke out all the details of privacy and non-privacy. If they got through 3 months without a major para-level fight that damaged the house, they got $25,000 each.

Then we met the participants.

"This is Brandon deJong!" the narrator pronounced in tones of admiration of the blond, blue-eyed frat boy in another buttondown/khaki combination. The view switched to him in a gray suit and blue tie, hair slicked down, working at a desk. "He's an accountant with Bonafide and Faux Tax Accountants, specialists in paranormal solo and team accounting, and has been there for the past five years. A graduate of Penn State, he discovered his modest superstrength and invulnerability while playing football as a teenager. He has participated in several para-only football leagues over the years."

A young, pretty white woman was apparently selected to interview him. "So, Brandon, what do you do in your spare time?"

Brandon smiled and kept smiling as he shrugged. "I mostly party with my friends."

"How do you think you'll spend your time in the Wonderful House, since your friend-time will be limited?" she said with a similarly camera-ready smile.

He gestured broadly. "I guess I'll have to teach these people how to party right."

"And next up," the narrator said, "is the beautiful Rajeshri Patel!" Patel was dressed in low-rise black bellbottoms with some sort of trim around the bottom and a yellow crop top that it was far too cold to wear. Way to not be stereotypical and racist as hell, PARABI. The view changed to her in a gray uniform jumpsuit and cap. "In her real life, Jeshri is not a film star, but she works for the power company, regulating electricity flow with her para power. She graduated cum laude from UCLA, and does a number of things in her spare time, including scrapbooking and Indian dance."

The interviewer didn't have quite as wide a smile for the other young woman as she'd had for deJong. "So what brought you to Wonder City after living in southern California, Jeshri?"

"The romance of it," she said with a laugh. "Everyone always talks about the opportunities for paras in Wonder City, and besides, it's got all the fabulous para history. Who wouldn't want to be where Jane Liberty held the city alone against Nazi paras? Or where the Damned Yankee was discovered?"

"How has Wonder City lived up to its legend?" the interviewer said.

"Very well, thank you," Patel said with a toss of her head. "I enjoy being an important part of Wonder City and its infrastructure. I get to see the most amazing people all the time. I really feel like I'm part of making more history."

After the commercial break, we met, "Tom Nguyen! He makes his living as a long-haul truck driver because his para power is being able to stay awake for a week without any ill effects. To be part of the Wonderful House, he's taken up driving local deliveries and short runs so as to maximize his time at the House."

The interviewer fluttered her eyelashes at Nguyen. "Where did you go to college, Tom?"

He didn't have a camera-ready smile or a knack with words. "Here and there. Got my bachelor's finally at Wonder City U." I wondered how he'd gotten onto the show. When he shifted around in his tight black t-shirt and blue jeans, it became obvious: he's a bodybuilder. With his broad cheekbones and flawless skin, he clearly looked very good on screen tests.

"What do you do when you're not driving?" she asked.

"I work out," he said. "I eat and sleep and whatever. I mean, what do normal people do?"

"Next up is the girl known only as Tin Lizzie," the narrator said. "She wouldn't give us her last name, or anything much about her background. We know she was a farmgirl, and we know that her para power is absorbing energy. Hopefully, she and Jeshri will get along!"

"Why won't you give out your real name?" the interviewer asked.

Tin Lizzie was, as shown on the website, a plain-pretty dishwater blonde white-girl-next-door. She'd lost the Western styling, though, and was presented in t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. She offered up a sheepish grin. "My family is shy, and if I do something stupid, I don't want to embarrass them."

The interviewer laughed falsely. "Well, I'm sure they appreciate it. What do you do for a living?"

"Oh," Tin Lizzie said, laughing and then covering her mouth. "I work at the Great Scot Coffeehouse with Simon."

"Simon Canis is our fifth participant!" the narrator declared, and a picture of the young black man appeared. He was still very snappily dressed, in what looked like black patent leather shoes, black trousers, a dark blue dress shirt, and a silver tie. "He's the son of Professor Canis, and was a member of the Puppy Patrol years ago. A graduate of Wonder City U, he's working in the Great Scot while he decides what he wants to do for a living."

I could see immediately that there was something wrong with the interviewer's body language, but I couldn't decide what it was. She gave him about the same smile wattage as she gave Jeshri. "Some of our viewers who followed the Puppy Patrol will wonder which one you were, Simon, since you changed your name."

That gave me some pause. He still didn't look like Malik.

Simon gave her a sleepy, easy smile and nodded. "Well, I was the one in the black uniform -- the one that didn't talk much. My sister Ivy and my brother Malik did most of the talking, after all."

But Professor Canis only had one son...

Then I realized -- the interviewer was leaning away from Simon. It was very slight, and very professionally covered, but it was there.

"So, I guess there's something that most of our viewers will realize about you pretty quickly," the interviewer said, just a little stiffly.

Simon's smile broadened. He seemed to be enjoying the interviewer's discomfort. "I'm sure that everyone out there with a computer can look it up on Parapedia, Cynthia. I wouldn't want to insult anyone's intelligence by spelling it out."

Oh, Simon, I thought. You are definitely headed for trouble. And damn me if I'm not going to watch every week while you get yourself into it.


From the Author:
I'm posting twice weekly during January thanks to the response! If you like this twice-weekly thing, I'm doing it again in January: if January's posts draw 50 comments total, I'll post twice weekly through February too. As before, if you provide a comment bonanza, I'll extend appropriately.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! It's just a few clicks!


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