wonder_city: (Default)
Apparently, even the lighter episodes are hard to write as I come up to the end of the book. Two more episodes, I think.

ETA: I have been unforgivably lax in tagging for volume 3. My policy is to tag someone if they physically appear or speak in the episode (speaking includes emails and chats). If you notice that I've failed to tag someone in an episode, please do let me know!

Per Angusta Ad Augusta

I had told my mother, "I'll be damned if I'm going to shake the hand of our first African-American President with a robot proxy, but I don't have a damned thing to wear!"

And so there I was, getting out of my sister Reesy's car with Mama and my other sister LaShawna, going shopping like a normal person.

Well, not really normal. The shop we were going to was a little boutique that LaShawna's friend Majestiq ran, and it was after normal hours. It was a hot, thick-aired, breezeless August evening, tall buildings shading us from the late rays of the fast-approaching sunset. I could hear the music down the block, and the kids shrieking as they played some game, and traffic noises. I could smell people's late dinners cooking, the rich, savory scents of the Haitian restaurant the next block over, and my sister LaShawna's perfume, floral and sweet.

I wasn't in my bunker. I was dressed in my breeziest (and best) black dress and flats. I was going out with my mother and sisters. They were taking me shopping for the first time in thirty-odd years.

Majestiq, a gorgeous dark-skinned black woman, unlocked the front door for us. Her natural hair was in an updo and she was wearing the most gorgeous purple dress I'd seen in a long time. She was a good three or four sizes larger than me, at least, I guessed.

While Majestiq and LaShawna hugged, Mama gave me a "Told you so" look—we'd had an argument about whether my tall, skinny sister could possibly know someone who could clothe me. Reesy looked vaguely uncomfortable when Majestiq hugged her too.

"LaShawna's told me so much about you, Renata," Majestiq said, not attempting to hug me, but shaking my gloved hand when I offered it. She gave me a delighted grin. "Us big girls gotta stick together, right?"

"You bet," I said, and we fistbumped. Reesy rolled her eyes, but Mama jabbed her (always very sharp) elbow into her.

The boutique was small. When we walked in, there was a set of drawers up on a table on our right, against the wall, a cash register podium in front of us, and the rest of the room to our left, containing one long rack of dresses, two stacked racks of blouses, and a long rack of slacks. There was a short rack, tucked in the odd corner next to the door to the changing room, which held coats. There were hatboxes stacked on shelves above the racks.

Majestiq walked around me thoughtfully, biting her dark-red glossed lower lip. After completing her circuit, she nodded and said, "I got a few things for you to try." She walked directly to a spot on the dresses rack and started pulling tea-length afternoon dresses out for me to look at.

We all decided that the flounced chartreuse trumpet dress and sun-yellow one-shoulder dress with the pencil skirt were probably not for me, but the emerald green strapless fake-wraparound was a possible, as were the scoop-necked royal blue sheath with the three-quarter-sleeve jacket, the sleeveless purple keyhole neckline, and the short-sleeved Queen Anne a-line in black silk jacquard. Back to the changing room for me.

I was wearing my little alien charm and I was also on some serious meds, but that didn't stop my ears from overhearing my mother explaining to Majestiq, possibly after some other comment, "She's my daughter from my second husband, God rest his soul, and favors him more than me."

Reesy said, "I'm the one who looks like Mama, so at least I know how good I'm gonna look when I'm 84."

That froze me right there. Was Mama really 84? I did the mental math… oh, lord, yes, she was. It took a lot of effort not to burst into tears—the meds always made me a little weepy—thinking about how much I'd missed of her because of the institution and then being trapped in my bunker. Because of a stupid accident of genes.

As I slipped on the dress, I did more mental math. I was 47, going on 48, which meant LaShawna was 61 and Reesy was… 65? Seriously? That meant my older brothers, Raymond and Darius, were 64 and 62. My younger brother Michael was 45. I was always grateful for the younger sibling when I was growing up, because the others were so much older than me.

The black jacquard was too much like a funeral, and was a little tight in the shoulders ("Damn, woman, I wish I had shoulders like yours," Majestiq said, tugging gently on the fabric. "You work out?" "All the time," I said.), but the emerald green wraparound looked amazing—in the body at least, but there was just something off about it. ("Mmm, no, Rennie," LaShawna said. "She's right," Mama said, "though I can't quite say why.") I nearly cried then, because I really wanted the sleeveless purple one to work on me, since a very similar one looked so good on Majestiq, but I kept it together and it was worth it. The keyhole neck showed just enough cleavage and my admirable shoulders apparently looked great in a sleeveless dress. Through the body, it was a little big. ("Don't you fret," Majestiq said, "I do alterations.")

But the royal blue was flawless, if a little plain. "Oh, you just wear a scarf and that dresses right up!" Reesy said, deflecting my worry with a dismissive little handflick.

I ran a hand over the raw silk covetously. "You think so?"

"Oh, honey," Majestiq said, "have I got a treat for you."

She fetched out a ladder, climbed up, and brought down a hatbox, which she set on a little pedestal table. Then she went to the drawers and fetched out another slim box. Then, with a wink, she opened the hatbox: inside was the most amazing feather-bedecked cartwheel sunhat in a perfectly matched royal blue. Then the smaller box: dress gloves, dyed to match the blue.

I tried on the hat reverently. I'd never gotten to an age where I could wear to church the kinds of hats my mother and her friends did. Well, I mean, yes, of course I had gotten to the age, but I wasn't going to church then. So I'd never had the chance.

I stared at myself in the mirror. The dress and the hat and the gloves all went together to turn me into a woman I'd never seen before.

"You need your hair done properly before you meet him," Mama said. "You come with me to the salon—Florence will open up just for you, I know."

"You are stunning, Rennie," LaShawna said in an awestruck tone.

Reesy, I saw in the mirror, got teary and turned away, and said, a little muffled, "Yes, she is."

"Oh, Majestiq," I breathed. "You have some serious talent."

"Baby, the talent's all you in that outfit," she said. "You go take that off, and I'll get out some shoes for you to try on. We'll find the most comfortable and we'll dye them to match. You can't go this far and not have matching shoes."

"No," I said, unable to look away from the mirror.

"I have always said that all my daughters are beautiful," Mama said, defying some invisible person. "And I have always been right."

"We know, Mama," LaShawna said, and she joined me in the mirror, her long light-skinned smiling face next to my rounder dark-skinned one. "You're gonna give the FLOTUS a run for her money, Rennie."

"Not a chance," I said, finally turning from the mirror. I set the hat gently back into its box and tugged off the gloves. "I'll go change. We don't want to keep you in your shop any later."

"Oh, I wouldn't have missed this chance for the world," Majestiq said, boxing things up neatly.

There was some murmured discussion in the outer room while I changed back into my own dress. I didn't pry, though it would have been easy enough.

When I emerged, I tried on several styles of silk shoe, and inevitably settled on the lowest heel in the lot.

"I can pick up the shoes for you, Rennie," LaShawna said. "I drive right past here on my way home from work."

Majestiq wrapped up everything with violet tissue paper watermarked with her shop's logo and slid it into a big bag with a silky rope-style handle. When I stepped toward the cash register, though, Reesy touched my arm to restrain me, and Mama stepped forward. Mama gave me an arch look when I started to protest. "I couldn't buy you a prom dress or a graduation gown or a wedding dress. I will buy you a dress in which to meet the President after you have saved the world."

I swallowed hard and said, "Yes, Mama. Thank you."

Reesy slipped me a clean handkerchief to dab my eyes with; I hadn't thought to bring even a tissue.

I asked Majestiq if I could hug her as we left, and she accepted graciously, though I could sense she was nervous. She was all smiles as she closed and locked the door behind us.

We walked to the car, and Reesy said, "How are you feeling, honey?"

I knew that this was the point at which I needed to decide if I would take them up on their offer of a little family party (LaShawna had promised it would be quiet, and I knew she was lying, because there was nothing about our family that was quiet). My head was starting to ache a bit, and I was starting to feel like all my skin was raw from the pressure, but I also knew I'd disappoint everyone terribly if I didn't come home with them.

Hell, I'd disappoint myself, I realized.

"Let me take something for my head," I said, opening my purse and reaching for the medicine bottle, "and I think I'm good."

Darius had brought his grill, and so everything spilled out naturally into the joint backyards of Mama's row of houses. Everyone was there: all my brothers, all my nieces and nephews, half my cousins, aunts, and uncles, and pretty much Mama's whole neighborhood.

The migraine lasted a week, but I didn't give a damn.

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Of course I knew what had happened.

Jane had tried her best to cut all the mental ties between us, but she and I were well intertwined. She managed to break most of them, and I managed to break more when I realized what was happening.

But I still woke up on the floor of my "office" with Flori worriedly pressing her cold, wet nose to my cheek and neck. As I painfully pushed myself up to a sitting position, I broke, just fucking broke, crumpled back down onto the floor weeping.

"Rennie," Ruth said, kneeling down at arm's length from me. "Rennie, what can I do?"

I dragged myself to her and clung to her, like I did that day she took me out of the hospital, clutching at her black spandex and just wailing. A piece of me had died, had just stopped being, and it was like someone had cut me open and tore my liver out while I was conscious.

I really can't explain more than that.

Ruth held me, and Flori pressed herself against my back, whining, and life went on around me as the Gold Stars presumably took possession of the ship and did whatever the fuck it is superheroes did when they weren't dying in my head.

I could feel them all, despite the weird protective thing the aliens gave me, and was of course tangled up in Ruth's mind, but she had practice with me doing that. She rubbed my back, and rubbed Flori's ears, and generally just tried to get us both calmed down. I think Sekhmet came to talk to her over my head once—I could feel Sekhmet close by, and I knew she was telling Ruth about Jane. Ruth had, I think, figured it out already from things running through my head. She didn't really react, she just kept projecting her stolid facade at me.

Eventually, I did calm down. I don't know how long it took. I just finally subsided into hiccoughs and shudders.

Ruth said, "What do you need, Rennie?"

I took a deep breath and tried to talk like a grownup, but it still came out pathetic. "I want to go home."

"Okay, baby," Ruth said. "Okay, I'm gonna take you home."

They rustled up an air-secure escape pod or something and put me and Flori in it, and Ruth flew us home. Flori snaked out of her restraints to huddle in my arms the whole trip down.

And then we were on Terra Firma.

Ruth cracked open the pod on the lawn of the house under which my bunker resided. I had pulled most of my shit together on the trip down, and the alien artifact around my neck kept the worst of the city's psychic explosion away from me. While Ruth moved the pod back to the Gold Stars compound, I took my dog for a walk in the well-trimmed grass and through the less-maintained back yard. There were trees, and birds, and a breeze, and just me and Flori (and a crowd of minds, held at a slight distance) walking in the twilight.

It had been years since I felt free air. My bunker had never—well, okay, rarely—felt like a prison to me the way the spaceship had. This was… therapeutic.

Ruth came back, carrying my mama, and that made me cry again. I hadn't touched my mother in thirty years, I think, and here I was, able to hug her because of those fucking aliens.

At least one good thing came from it.

At least one.

"I've gotta go, Rennie," Ruth said. "There's cleanup to do."

"I know," I said around my mother's embrace. "I know. You'll come back, though? Coffee?"

"You know it, baby," Ruth said. She hesitated, and I reached out for her. She kissed me on the cheek and gave me a quick squeeze before she took off.

"That Ruth," Mama said, and Mama was looking so much older than I remembered the last time we'd talked on video phone—ages ago, more than six months, I know. There was grey in her hair now, and I could swear there wasn't before. "That Ruth," she said again, shaking her greying head.

"I know," I said. "Would you like to come down and have something?" I added, inviting my mother into my house for the first time.

"Are you sure it will be all right?" she said, peering into my face worriedly.

"Please, Mama," I said, stroking my dog's head. "I don't want to be alone right now."

"All right," she said, gathering herself up like she was visiting her sister's house. "Just for a bit, then."

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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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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.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction. Clickety-click. I'll make this button soon.

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An Introduction, For Which We Step a Little Back in Time

When I was a child, I told my mother that her voice sounded like poetry.

I think my third grade teacher, Mrs. Brennan, had been reading poetry to us in class that day, and I went home, and when my mother spoke in her low, mellifluous voice, I thought I could hear all the loveliest words in the world running under her own words, just as I thought I could hear in poetry. Mama had looked surprised, and thanked me, and watched me with a tiny half-smile for the rest of the day.

As an adult -- for I had no time when I was a teenager -- I tried to write poetry, but I just don't have the knack for playing with words. This is ironic for a woman who can have all the words in the world, and all the feelings behind and beneath them, all the invisible meanings and half-meanings. But just because I know them doesn't mean I can put them together into something beautiful.

I remembered all this in an instant, as I often do, when I heard my mother's voice on the direct telephone landline that runs from her little house in the outside world to my living tomb. Mama sang in jazz clubs when we were children -- her second job after her first job cleaning the Manhattan apartments of the white folks who sent her home with hand-me-down clothing for us. My sister Reesy got the good genes of my mother's voice and looks, and sang along with her around the house. My sister Lashawna and my older brothers got the good genes of my mother's first husband, the one who left her for his secretary, with his light skin and long, elegant bones. My younger brother and I look like our father, Mama's second husband, the sweet man who had a heart attack long before his time, and who made us short and round and brown with cheeks our aunts loved to pinch.

"Renata, are you there?" Mama's voice brought me back to the present.

"Sorry, Mama," I said, and with my attention on her, I began to feel the trickle of the words beyond her words washing into me through the phone line.

"I was asking how you were feeling today," Mama said. "You said you had a headache yesterday."

"Yes," I said, noticing the pleasant absence of pain. "Was there something going on in the city yesterday?"

"It was a terrible fight," Mama said. "Part of the nice area just outside downtown was leveled. It was some white man who thought he was a god," she added, with a wry twist of thought that added, Don't they all?

"It felt like a mess," I said. "Was Ruth in it? I thought I heard her once."

"Oh, yes, Ruth was right there in the middle of it, one of the last people standing, the news said."

I never look at the news if I can help it, because if I know something is going on, I can't help but seek it out. My internment here only works when I make a concerted effort to ignore the outside world. "That's not surprising."

"No, not at all. Our girl did all right. They say that it was her and the Fat Lady and the new Amazon and some little white girl no one knows that took him down."

"New Amazon?"

"Yes. Daughter of the original, if the newspapers are to be believed." Mama was of the school of believing only half of what you see, a third of what you hear, and about five percent of what you read. "Big girl, has a Hispanic look to her, if you ask me."

"Well, I'm glad they took him down," I said, and I was. I knew what havoc a man like that could wreak, since the last time something like that had happened, Ruth had been off-planet. I couldn't remember why or where she'd been, because I tried not to remember that time. It was only a week, Mama had said, but it was a week-long nightmare for me, and took me another month to pull myself back together. It takes that much panic to leach through solid stone, but when it does, it's pure madness for me.

Still, this time I'd heard Ruth, she'd been upset, far more than I would expect from a fight of the sort she dealt with -- well, if not every day, then every couple of weeks. That was why it came through, I think; she was terribly worried, and angry, and... I can only describe it as wrenched. I thought perhaps I should call her.

"Did I tell you Lashawna's girl has a concert this weekend?" Mama said, timely as ever with a change of subject.

The direction of my thinking had leaked back to her, I supposed. She wasn't conscious of feeling it, but over the years, I had figured out that she, too, had a gift, but it had been small enough that she'd repressed it, could live in the outside world. My aunt Dolores had always said that Mama had been a sensitive child, too sensitive, but she'd toughened up when she was a teenager. Tough as nails, Dolores said, tough as steel, tough as glass. I hadn't understood the last, had said, "But glass breaks!" And Dolores had told me, "It may break, but the shards slash you and the slivers get under your skin and stay."

Yes, that was Mama.

"What's she playing?" I asked.

"Bach's Minuet in G," Mama said. "She's nervous, of course. I'm gonna find some of my old sheet music for her, though. No point in her only learning music by dead white men."

And so our conversation went on for fifteen minutes. I said, sadly, "Mama, I think that mess yesterday made me tender around the edges."

"All right, baby girl," Mama said. "You take your medicine and I'll talk to you tomorrow. Do you think you'll be all right for the video call on Christmas? You've been edgy lately."

I laughed. "As long as no other supervillains sow mass panic and destruction in Wonder City."

I heard Mama suck her teeth in disgust. "I'll never know why we came to this city anyhow. Good night, Rennie."

"Good night, Mama."

I knew why we had come here.

And it was all on me.


From the Author:
Still broken, but feeling a bit less pain, so able to sit and type now. I'm working from home until next week, when my (oh, joy) physical therapy begins. My wife has been a dream and a wonder in taking care of me and the cats and the house and her own work and everything else. I expect that episodes are going to come slowly, but I wanted to get them started, at least! Thanks for all the good wishes, and I hope you enjoy volume 2 of Wonder City Stories as much as I'm enjoying writing it.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Help us get back up the ratings! I'm sure that will make me feel better. :)


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