Andrea G. Stewart was a Writers of the Future finalist. Her first novel was published last year, and she is hard at work on the next one. This is her fourth appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

Andrea G. Stewart

The carpet stinks of plastic and cheese, and Gloria's got her knee digging into my back in her version of a therapeutic hold. I can feel the heat from her skin. My lips mash into the spot--I’m sure it's the exact spot--where Tim-Tom barfed last week. Gloria had forgotten to lock the medicine cabinet, and Tim-Tom drank all the cough syrup in a pathetic attempt to get high.

Who'm I kidding. I'd have done the same if I'd gotten there first.

"I'll let you go when you can remain calm," Gloria drones on above me.

I can't help myself; I try to zap her even though I know it won't work. The crackle rushes through me, lifting the hairs on my arms. But when it gets to where Gloria's holding my wrists, it just fizzles. They've got a dampener over the whole house, locked up tight in a fireproof safe. I should be thankful for the dampener, my social worker says--otherwise we'd be caged like animals.

Can't find the gratitude in me right now.

"Tim-Tom puked here," I say. I wriggle and squirm, but she's got my arms secured, and I can only kick uselessly.

"I'll let you go when you can remain calm."

"You're a bitch. A fucking bitch-whale." The knee in my back digs a little harder.

"I'll let you go when you can remain calm."

For a second I try the thing my therapist told me to—three deep breaths. I get past the first one before I stop. Man, fuck that shit. I kick and scream as loud as I can. I hope I disturb the neighbors. I hope my voice shatters the windows. I hope I put a hole in this ugly-ass carpet or a hole in ugly-ass Gloria.

Twenty or so minutes later, Gloria gets off of me and goes to the office. I just lie there, my throat aching and my toes sore, my face pressed into Tim-Tom's puke spot. Therapeutic hold means back down to level zero--no privileges which means no Net. I keep thinking I’m close to getting out of this place, and then I screw up all over again. I can't even remember how I got on the floor--what it was that made me lose my cool. The sun has started to set, sending pink beams of light through the shades.

"Jeff. Jeffrey. Jeff. Jeff." Birdy walks into the living room and crouches next to me, head cocked to the side. I scoot to the side, but he follows. He wraps his skinny little arms around his knees. Birdy's not his real name, but we call him that and he never seemed to mind. The kid creeps me out. I don't know what kind of special-special he is, but he rarely goes out of the house, and when he does, someone has to cart along another dampener behind him.

He reaches out, one cold finger tracing across my forehead. He smiles. "Jeffrey."

I jerk away from him without a word. The rest of us try not to talk to him unless one of the staff makes us. We may be freaks, but Birdy’s in a category of his own.

He curls his fingers to his chest. "Jeff." It's halfway to a whine. "Jeff Jeff."

Kinda feel bad, even though Birdy’s no use to me. He doesn’t ever get Net access. I push myself to my feet, wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. I keep my voice low, so the kids in the family room can’t hear me talking to him. "Yeah well, whatever."

Birdy’s smile widens, as if I've apologized. He follows me into the family room and perches next to me on the couch, pale toes and fingers curled around the edge of the cushion. An infomercial about a push-up bra blares from the television. The other on-duty staff, Mike, makes dinner in the adjoining kitchen. Mac 'n cheese, by the smell. Yay.

"Yeah," Tim-Tom says from his spot in the recliner. "Yeah, lemme see the front again, girl." He's leaning forward, blinking like he's saving each flickering image for later use. Probably is. We don’t get regular Net access unless we’re on level three, and even then the good sites are blocked. The light from the television shines off his pimply face, his limp brown hair.

"You could do your homework, you know," Mike calls.

All three of us ignore him. Birdy, 'cause he's, well, Birdy, and Tim-Tom and I 'cause it's Saturday, and everybody knows you don't do homework until Sunday. Roland would ignore him too, if he was here. He's visiting his mom in Bellford. He tells all the other residents how they're transitioning him back to living at home, dampener-free. Most parents of specials don't use dampeners—they teach their kids control when they're young. It's special-specials like me, ones with labels like "conduct disorder" or "schizoaffective disorder" who get dumped in group homes when they can't behave, and cut off from their abilities. And besides, dampeners are expensive.

Birdy makes a happy little noise when the oven timer goes off, rocking until he swings off the edge of the couch and onto the floor.

Birdy and me are the only ones who don’t get to visit family. I've been kicked from foster home to foster home until three years ago, when I lost my temper and took out the electricity on an entire block. Never could keep my temper, but I guess that was the last straw.

I'm not like Roland; I don’t know who my mom is. All I know is she’s probably living out there in a house without a dampener, without constant supervision. I need the Net so I can find her, get her to take me in and get out of this shit hole, no matter how I feel about her.

She's the reason I'm special-special, and living in this goddamned house.

* * *

Gloria drops me off at school just after second bell. I’m on a modified schedule, on account of my status. Roland and Tim-Tom slide out of the van before me. Roland’s nearly as fat as Gloria, but I never call him names. He’s special-special with a nasty side--he can open wounds with a glare. The dampener at school is huge--a metal whirring box as big as a person and locked up behind steel bars in the office. They say it's mostly to keep crazies from using their abilities on school grounds, but I think we all know it's there to keep the special kids from dicking off in class. It doesn’t run on lunch breaks, or at P.E., but I zapped somebody once and got suspended for a week. Gave him enough of a jolt to sit him on his ass and make his hair stand on end. I thought it was pretty funny, but the only thing more boring than school is not being in school while everyone else is. While Roland and Tim-Tom head toward where the older kids like to sneak a smoke, I find Phil.

He spots me heading for him and tries to lose himself in the crowd, but his height does him no favors. The guy is built like a giraffe. I snag his backpack. "Hey," I say as I pull him closer, "I need to ask you a favor."

His hand goes immediately to the transmitter stuck to the right side of his face. "No," he says.

"C'mon, I just need to borrow it for a few minutes, before third period. Twenty bucks. Five minutes." I wouldn't push Phil so hard if I didn't know that he's a wimp. He's special--can jump higher than the basketball hoop--but his mom didn't use her abilities while she was preggers with him, so Phil doesn't have any mental problems. He doesn't get another "special" tagged on. Follows the rules just like his mom. Won't hit me or jump on me or whatever, no matter how much I bother him.

He pulls off the sticky tube, tugs free the earbud. "Fine." He clicks a button on the bottom of the tube. "Just don't unlock my settings. Whenever it starts to adjust to you, it gives me a screaming headache when I get it back."

"Sure, sure." I stick the transmitter on my face, hook on the earbud, and then I'm connected to the Net.

It's an assault on my senses. Phil's got things lined up in color-coded categories, with sub-categories beneath those. I focus and blink to access e-mail. The transmitter scans my retina and then my messages pop up.

There’s one from the postmaster--message undeliverable--and another from someone I thought might be my mom. She’s around the right age, and the bio on her webpage mentions an ability to zap things.

Her message only has two words. “No” and “sorry” with a comma in between, no period, as if she couldn’t even be bothered to finish the goddamned sentence.

I click the button on the transmitter to “unlock” and scatter Phil’s stupid color-coded categories across the view screen. I just can’t give a fuck about what Phil wants right now, and at least his settings don’t give me a headache anymore. Before the bell rings, I hop over to ConGlom and start a new post.

I know ur out there. may 18 2001. thats the day u left me at the fire station in oakland. i no u dont wanna be found cause I ben looking 4 u 4 ever. u made me this way. Special special. Ive got a right 2 a real home.

Phil grabs for the transmitter. “Time’s up.”

I wrestle with him for a minute, struggle to add the name of my group home and get the thing posted before he sees what I was doing. Makes me look like a real pussy, crying about my mom. Done. I let him take the transmitter, slap twenty bucks in his hand and walk away before he sees what I did to his settings.

Maybe, if I’m lucky, she goes on ConGlom, or she probably knows somebody who does--somebody who can say, “Hey, what happened to that baby you dumped sixteen years ago?”

‘Cause he’s a grown-ass man now.

* * *

Some weirdo’s prodding Birdy with a machine when I get home. Happens a lot, like Birdy’s a car someone can fix. Kid’s got this look on his face, like it hurts, but he’s smiling through it ‘cause he doesn’t want to say “no.” Or maybe he just doesn't know how. The machine sits on the dining room table, and the guy’s got this metal rod stuck in Birdy’s ear.

“Hey,” I say to him.

The guy looks up. He’s wearing a lab coat. His lapel covers most of the name on the tag, but I can see the company logo--a globe with a lightning bolt down the center.

I wave a hand at the machine. “Whatever you’re doing with that rod? He doesn’t like it.”

Weirdo pulls out the rod and opens his floppy mouth to respond, but then Mike calls from the kitchen. “Jeffrey, someone’s on the phone for you.”

A tingle runs through me. Nobody calls for me. Not ever.

When I get to the kitchen, Mike’s holding the phone out to me. I take it and turn away. “Hello?”

Whoever’s on the other line’s a mouth-breather. I just hear that: in-out, crackle. “Hello?” I try again. Nothing. “You called and asked for me for a reason. You got something to say, say it.” I cover the mouthpiece and look at Mike. “Did they say who they were?”

He only shrugs. “She said she was one of your friends.”


I slide my hand off the mouthpiece. “It’s you, isn’t it?” I don’t even know what to say; I’ve played out so many different scenarios but none of them started with a silent phone call.

On her end, someone whines in the background. “Mooom, you said you would come see…!”

And just like that, click.

Takes me a few minutes to lower the phone from my ear. Whoever my mom is, she’s got another kid.

“Ow! Goddammit!” Weirdo shouts from the dining room.

I flip the phone onto the counter and dash around the wall, Mike on my heels. Birdy’s sitting at the dining room table, a goofy sort of grin on his face.

Lab-coat man is rubbing the back of his head. A book lies on the floor at his feet--a hardcover.

“Stupid thing fell off the shelf,” he says, waving a hand at the bookshelf against the wall behind him. “Do these kids not know how to put a book on a shelf?”

I’m formulating a reply, something with “your mom” in it, but Mike gets there first.

“You okay?”

“Fine.” The man grimaces. “Can’t you bring him into my lab next time?”

Mike shrugs. “You’ll have to take that up with his social worker. Be glad you’re allowed to see him at all.”

I exchange glances with Birdy. Soon as our eyes meet, I know he did it. The dampener's downstairs, in a safe in Gloria's study. It runs on batteries and it's always on. The dampener should cover the entire house and some of the yard, but somehow--some way--Birdy got through. Just tipped a book off the shelf is all, but if he can do that with the dampener on, what can he do without it?

* * *

I always have trouble sleeping but tonight is worse than most. After Birdy’s little outburst, I tried to track the call and didn’t get anywhere. Private number, blocked. I’m so close, and all I can do is squirm around in bed, trying to get comfortable.

Just as I start to doze off, I feel a cold finger on my forehead.

“Eight three eight five five five two three eight seven.”

I open my eyes and stare into Birdy’s smiling face, my heart knocking at my ribs. “The hell, Birdy? You always sneak up on people when they’re sleeping?”

“Eight three eight five five five two three eight seven. Jeffrey Jeff.” He prods at my forehead one more time, and then slinks away, quiet as a cat.

It takes me a moment longer to fully awaken and when I do it hits me: Birdy, little shit that he is, just gave me my mom’s telephone number.

* * *

I try the number in the morning and get voicemail. “Hi, you’ve reached Jocelyn Mulvaney. I can’t answer the phone right now, but leave your name and number, and I’ll call you right back.” I don’t leave a name or number, just hang up and think about trying again, but I don’t.

At school, I look for Phil again. I’ve got a name now, and I wanna know more about the woman it belongs to. Does she have space in her home for me? I try to sling an arm around his shoulders, but he’s way too tall for that, and he shrugs me off easily.

“Hey Phil, do you think I could--”

“No.” He crosses his arms and tilts his head, and suddenly he looks like a wall. “You’re an asshole, you know that, Jeffrey? It took me almost an hour last night to get my settings back to the way I like them.”

I shrug. “Sorry, man. You’re right, it was a dick thing to do.”

He shakes his head. “You only apologize when you want something.” Deliberately, he peels the transmitter from his face, puts it into his messenger bag, and snaps the metal buckle shut. “You want a favor? Ask someone else.” He turns and walks away.

I’ve been waiting sixteen fucking years to find out who my mom is, to get out of the system. The energy gathers behind my eyes and I put out a hand to zap him. But it doesn't even slide down my arm; it fizzles, leaving my head fuzzy and irritated, like I've just licked a battery and then stuck it between my ears. Goddamn school dampener--it doesn't even let me hope, not for a second. “You’re such a pussy, Phil!" I shout. "A six-foot-two, giant, limp-dick pussy!”

A few kids turn their heads to stare at me, but Phil doesn’t even look back.

* * *

School is torture. It’s like death by waterboarding. I skip out on fifth period to carve curse words into the boys’ restroom stalls. Anything’s better than listening to Mr. Nichols talk about history. There’s something calming about the scratch of metal against metal, the peeling paint. I put my cheek against the partition, and the coolness of it seems to leach into my brain. I just need to get through the day.

When lunch hits and the dampener gets switched off, I entertain myself by running a small current through the stall walls so that anyone trying to open a door gets a little static shock.

By the time eighth period rolls around, I want to shoot myself in the face just to put myself out of my misery. My head hurts, and anytime I think of Jocelyn Mulvaney, my pulse starts racing. Pretty sure my pits stink, with all the sweating I’m doing.

Gloria picks us up after ninth period. Roland and Tim-Tom shove one another in the back seat and I just want to scream at them to shut the hell up.

I make a beeline for the phone as soon as we get in the door. 

“Hey,” Gloria says. “Hey!”

I stop and turn, ‘cause I know she’s talking to me.

She huffs and puffs from the dining room to the kitchen. “You’re on level zero, Jeffrey. Mike marked down a phone call this morning. You get one a day, ten minutes tops.”

Gloria is such a bitch. I clench my hands into fists. And then what my therapist said pops into my head again. Stupid deep breaths. I try it, faster than he probably intended.

Feels like the heat in my chest dies down a little, gives me room to think. “I just got an answering machine this morning. C’mon, Gloria, I didn’t even get to talk to anyone.”

Tim-Tom, behind her, makes kissy noises. I flip the finger at him.

She shakes her head. “One phone call. The rules are the rules.”

All day. I’ve been waiting all day. Deep breaths. How the hell Birdy stays calm with people poking at him all the time, I’ve got no idea. “I think I found my mom. Her name’s Jocelyn Mulvaney.” I grit my teeth. “Please.”

Gloria purses her lips, and she looks like a puffer fish with beady little eyes. “Fine. Ten minutes.”

I grab the phone off the counter before she can change her mind. This time, when I call, someone picks up after the third ring.

“Hello?” For a second, I think it might be her, but it’s just a little girl voice.

“Can I speak to your mom? Jocelyn Mulvaney?”

The girl sniffles. And then she takes a deep breath. “Mooom!”

I’ve got to hold the phone a few inches from my ear just so her voice doesn’t kill my eardrums. Definitely the same kid as yesterday. Birdy pointed me true. Could be my kid sister I just finished talking to. A sister. It’s like I woke up on another planet.

A shuffling sound, and then a different voice. “Hello?” Deeper, more mature.

“Hi,” I say, “my name’s Jeffrey.” I stop there, my mouth drier than a camel’s balls.

“Hi…Jeffrey.” A quick tapping sound, like she’s flicking the end of a pen against a table. “Is there a reason you called?”

“Did you leave a baby at a fire station in Oakland sixteen years ago? ‘Cause I think you might be my mom.”

Silence, not even the crackle of breath.

“Jeffrey,” she says it in a half-whisper, her breathing almost covering the sound of my name. “How did you get this number?”

Not exactly the first thing you want to hear from your long-lost mom. “A friend.” Is Birdy my friend? I don’t know, but it sounds cool to say. I want to ask her all the important questions, but a lifetime of hurt bubbles to the surface. “Why didn’t you ever want to see me?”

On the couch, Roland mimes a crying baby. I turn my back before I do something stupid, like chuck the phone at his head.

“I’m not…I’m not a hero, Jeffrey.” She sounds like she’s about to cry. “I know what happens to a baby if you use your gifts when you’re pregnant. I’m not cut out for that. I can’t handle a kid with special needs.”

“I’m in a group home.” Thought I’d feel angry, but I just feel cold. Get me out get me out.

She chokes back a sob. “I’ve got a little girl to think about now, too.”

I hear the implication. I’m irrational, wild, dangerous. I want to peel my own skin off--that’s how dirty I feel. Instead, I start bargaining. “You could just have lunch with me on weekends--Tim-Tom’s dad does that. I didn’t mean I had to live with you. Jesus!” I try to scoff, like it’s a joke, but my throat’s all tight. “Least tell me where my dad is.” Maybe he can get me out of here.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, and my heart sinks to the soles of my feet. “He’s incarcerated. He tried to rob a bank, and shot someone on his way out. His name’s Edward Bent, if you ever wanted to look him up.”

It feels like she’s shoveling crumbs off a plate that once held caviar. She’s sorry, just as I imagined, but it’s my kind of sorry--it changes nothing. “Come see me in person. That’s all I’m asking for.” She can't say no if she sees me, I know it.

She takes a long, shaky breath. “I just wanted to hear your voice, once, to know that you’re living a decent life.”

“You think this is a decent life?” Having to ask permission just to breathe, living with a bunch of boys just as messed up as me, being watched like a hawk--it's a group prison, not a group home. “You’ve got some balls on you.”

She swallows, and her voice is steady when she speaks. “I don’t think you should call this number again.”

My hand starts shaking, the phone wobbling by my ear. I dig my fingers into the plastic until my nails ache. “Fuuuuuuuck!” I scream into the phone so loudly I never even hear it click on the other end, but I know it does. She’s putting down the phone, shaking off the tears, turning back to her normal, perfect life with her normal, perfect child.

I chuck the phone, hard as I can, at Roland’s head. He deflects it with an elbow, and it crashes into the wall, leaving an ugly black streak. “The fuck, man?”

Next thing I know, I’m on the floor, my cheek pressed into the linoleum, Gloria’s knee at my back. I don’t even hear her; I scream and sob as a little voice in the back of my head says, again and again: “It’s over.”

* * *

I wear myself out in Gloria’s therapeutic hold, and when she finally gets off of me, I go to my room and shut the door. I don’t want dinner, don’t want anything except to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. My mom’s a bitch and my dad’s a criminal and I'm stuck in this home until I'm eighteen.

Gloria knocks a while after dinner. “Jeffrey? Are you okay? Did you want to talk about it?”

I’d usually cuss her out, but I can’t even muster up a response.

She slides something under the door and then her footsteps fade.

It’s almost dark by the time I turn over to see what she shoved under my door. Looks like a few sheets of paper. I get just enough curiosity to roll out of bed and crawl over to them.

A headline in stark letters catches my attention. “Local Hero Saves Fifty.” Next to the article is a picture of a solemn-looking young woman, the flash catching the whites of her eyes. I see my chin in hers, and we’ve got the same eyebrows and dark, curly hair. The caption underneath reads “Jocelyn Mulvaney,” but I knew it would after looking at her.

The article lays out the scene: a storm that started near the end of a basketball game. A crowded parking lot rife with puddles. A fallen tree, a snapped power line.

And there was Jocelyn, catching it before the line could fall, absorbing its power into her own body. “I didn’t think about it,” her quote says. “I just did it. I’m not a hero.”

I don't know why Gloria gave this to me--maybe she's trying to tell me that even specials make mistakes. Jocelyn must have known already, at the time the article was written, what was happening in her belly. I can see it in her face, even if no one else did. She did a good thing; she did a terrible thing.

But she moved on.

I’m the one that’s stuck in the same place.

* * *

Early morning squirms its way in through my blinds, highlighting everything in orange. I check the clock. Five forty-three, way too early to get ready for school. Besides, what’s the point? I’ve got no future, no matter how hard I try. But my stomach rumbles, so I haul myself out of bed, still wearing yesterday’s clothes. My own odor surrounds me, a personal stink-cloud.

Birdy waits for me on the other side of the door. He crouches on the floor, knees to chest, pale fingers blending with pale toes. I want to smack him out of the way I’m so upset, but he did me a solid.

“Thanks,” I tell him, “for that number the other day.” Lot of good it did me.

He just stares up at me as if I haven’t said a word. No one else is around, so I reach out and pat his head, like I would a little kid. “You did good,” I say. Birdy sucks in his lower lip and smiles, his whole face going bright.

Funny thing is, it makes me smile too. He’s kind of dopey, Birdy is, if I don’t think about what he can do with a dampener on. Then he’s all sorts of creepy.

When I go downstairs Kevin, the night staff guy, is sitting on the couch with a book. “You’re supposed to be in your room,” he says as I step foot on the first floor.

“I’m hungry. Didn’t get dinner.”

Kevin’s gaze follows me as I raid the fridge for leftovers, and I wonder if he can tell I’ve been crying. “Gloria told me about your outburst,” he says.

I pull out a plastic container with pork and rice in it and pop it in the microwave. “Yeah, so what?”

“You keep that sort of thing up--for instance, not listening when people tell you where you’re supposed to be--you’re going to end up in a locked facility.”

I shrug, like I don’t care, but my stomach turns. In a locked facility, all the schooling takes place on the grounds, all the counseling. You don’t leave. If I think I’m stuck now, a locked facility is even worse. I didn’t think I was being that bad, but maybe this last therapeutic hold’s got Gloria thinking she doesn’t want to deal with me anymore. And she’ll get a call from school about my class skipping, maybe even the vandalism in the bathroom if they put two and two together.

I shut the microwave door with more force than necessary. “It’s done. Did you want me to eat it down here or in my room?” Either way is a rules violation, but I’m starving and not scared enough to put the whole thing back in the fridge.

“You can eat it down here.”

Whatever. I scarf it down past my aching throat and throw the container in the dishwasher.

“You can come back down at six thirty.” Kevin turns the page.

I flip off his back with both hands as I head back up the stairs. It’s six oh three. What a dick.

* * *

I don’t wake up again until nine. Gloria lets me stay home. I don’t like that she feels sorry for me, but I sit on my bed, feeling too sorry for myself to care. Never gonna get out of the group home. It’s still hitting me.

Birdy’s tutor arrives mid-morning. I hear her downstairs, reading letters and animals off a chart. Birdy never says a word. I can picture him perched on the edge of a chair, rocking a bit, that silly grin on his face. I think he likes being talked to.

Sometime in the afternoon, Gloria knocks on my door. This time, she comes in when I don’t reply. I look back, just to make sure it’s her, but turn my attention back to the window. Quiet day in the neighborhood. Some old guy’s planting flowers by his front door.

“We need to talk.”

I get that tingle again, and I really don’t like it. “What’s there to say?”

She comes nearer and sits on the edge of my bed. The whole thing tilts, like the mattress is a ship about to sink into the sea. “I got a call from the school this morning.” Gloria rattles off the things I’ve been caught doing lately, and why the school administration is unhappy I’ve been doing them.

A white van pulls onto our street, puttering down the road like the driver’s not sure he’s got the right place. “It’s just this stuff with my mom. I’ll do better.” I put my elbow on the windowsill and my head in my hand.

“That might not be good enough.”

The white van slows and then pulls into our fucking driveway. The tingle bursts, white-hot, at the base of my neck. All the hairs on my body stand on end. They’re here for me. They’re gonna take me away to a locked facility, and I’m gonna be there ‘til I’m eighteen. I glance back and forth between Gloria and the van. “I’ll change, I promise. I can do more chores, my homework. Just gimme another chance.” Before she can answer, the van door rolls open and two guys get out.

Shit shit shit. I spring from the mattress and dash out the door. If I run, I might be able to get a head start, if I go out the backyard, stay off the roads. I take the stairs down two at a time, and I can barely feel the soles of my feet.

I run face-first into Birdy on the landing. I think we smacked our foreheads together ‘cause my vision gets wobbly. He turns in circles, hands outstretched, eyes wide. “Jeffrey. Jeff Jeff. Jeff.”

Gloria emerges from my bedroom, hands on her hips. “They’re not here for you, Jeffrey. For God’s sake. You’re not hopeless.” A knock sounds at the door, heavy and insistent, and Gloria sighs as she waddles to the staircase.

Birdy grabs my hands. “Jeffrey.”

They’re here for Birdy. Gloria passes us on the stairs and I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on. I pull my fingers free from Birdy’s clammy grip. “Birdy? They gonna run more tests?”

She turns on the bottom step. “He’s been breaking through the dampener. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. I don’t have the funding for anything more powerful, so he’s got to go.”

“But he’s never hurt anyone,” I call after her.

She’s already around the corner, answering the door. I get it. She can’t take a chance. Still doesn’t seem fair. Birdy practically grovels at my feet. “Please. Jeffrey Jeff.”

I can’t even help myself, don’t know why he thinks I can help him.

The two guys appear at the bottom of the stairs. They’re wearing navy blue pants, and short-sleeved, light blue polo shirts. Embroidered on each shirt is the same logo I saw on the guy’s lab coat--the globe with the lightning bolt through the middle. “They’re taking him to a lab?”

Gloria shows up behind them, her fat face peeking between the guys’ shoulders. “It’s just temporary, until his social worker can find a permanent placement for him. Their facilities have a better dampener.”

God, I thought my life was pathetic--Birdy’s parents never visit him either, people barely talk to him, and now he’s getting taken away to a lab where they’re going to poke and prod him for the weeks it takes for his social worker to find a place with a stronger dampener. A place where he won’t know anyone, probably out-of-state. Kid’s alone enough as it is.

One of the guys, the one with the buzz-cut, places a foot on the first step. “Look, we’re not going to hurt him. Just back away, okay?”

I’m standing in front of Birdy, between him and the two guys. I don’t even remember doing it. I may not have a mom or dad, but Birdy’s got nobody. At least I’ve got school, and even Gloria seems to give a damn about me. “What if I don’t? You gonna make me?”

The two guys glance at one another and then start up the stairs. Birdy crouches behind my legs and rocks back and forth. “Jeffrey, no. Please, no.”

That’s when I notice that all the shit on the kitchen counters is hovering above the tiles. The broom by the back door levitates too, and all the books on the coffee table. “Gloria,” I hiss to her and point at all the flying shit. She glances back just as the guys reach the landing. I try to wave them off. “Guys, you might not want to--”

Ah, fuck. Too late. One of them reaches around me and grabs for Birdy’s skinny-ass arm.

Something in the downstairs office explodes. It rattles the pictures on the walls, makes my hearing go dim. Nobody makes a sound except Birdy and his rocking, and I know we’re all thinking the same thing.

The dampener.

Everything’s quiet for a second--and then the world implodes. The roof cracks, sending plaster raining from the ceiling. It all crumbles. It’s like a giant’s digging his fingers into the roof and just peeling it all away. The staircase is the only thing that doesn’t get touched. Gloria still stands at the bottom, and she screams.

Doesn’t stop Birdy. Dishes fly out of the cupboards, crashing onto the tiles. Pictures fall, glass shattering. It’s all dust and shards and creaking pieces of lumber.

One of the guys tries to grab Birdy’s arm again. He gets flung back, and he staggers into Gloria at the bottom of the steps, both of them falling to the floor. The other guy’s just pissing his pants as the walls break down around us. Something metal falls from the second floor to the first--I think it’s my bed frame. The ceiling is gone now, just daylight above us. My heart’s going so fast I think I’m gonna die.

I can see the house next door through the crumbling walls. Its windows shatter, the glass glittering as it tumbles.

Birdy rocks, and moans, and no one does a goddamned thing. He’s gonna take out the whole neighborhood. There are people in those houses, like the old guy planting his flowers across the street.

I crouch next to Birdy, my palms sweating. His hands are over his ears, his eyes squeezed shut.

I’m not a hero.

“Birdy, c’mon, you’ve got to stop this.” I talk low and quiet; can barely hear myself over the racket. “Take a few deep breaths,” I tell Birdy. Oh man, it sounds so stupid--like a few deep breaths is gonna stop Birdy from ripping the world apart.

He peeks at me, still rocking, his fingers digging into his hair.

“I’ll do it with you, c’mon.” I take in a deep breath, trying to ignore the way the top of the staircase crumbles. His gaze focuses on me, and I see him take a breath too.

He tries, I think he really does. And then he shakes his head and shuts his eyes and I’ve got nothing to work with.

A crackle runs through me, and I remember: the dampener is gone.

Something in the house groans; a spray of water hits my face from a busted pipe. I put a hand on Birdy’s shoulder, and I don’t get flung away like the other guy. The kid trusts me. Takes me only a second to think things through. “Sorry, buddy.”

I zap him, real good.

The house stops shuddering. Birdy’s eyes flicker open, and for a moment, he gives me that dopey grin of his. And then his eyeballs roll back in his head, and he collapses onto the carpet.

Nobody moves.

* * *

Local hero--that’s what they call me. Flip off enough interviewers, though, and people start to leave you alone. Even so, I get a gajillion offers from families wanting to adopt me. Idiots. They don’t know what they’d be getting into. Everyone wants to know about me, and nobody seems to give a damn about Birdy.

I do.

I didn’t give him enough voltage to stop his heart, just enough to knock him out for a while. He’s recovering at the hospital.

People who never cared about our special-special group home start donating money to rebuild it. Gloria comes to see me at the Children’s Home a week after the incident. There’s no dampener here, but I’m the local hero, so nobody cares anymore.

She sits on the couch across from me and hands me a paper covered in numbers. “It’s a tally sheet,” she tells me. “All the donations.”

“So?” I try to hand it back, but she doesn’t take it. “What’s that got to do with me?”

“You saved my life,” she says quietly.

This is awkward as shit. “Whatever.” What do I say now: you would have done the same? It was no big deal? Anytime?

“It’s more than enough to rebuild the house,” she says. “I’m putting the rest into a college fund for you.”

I bark out a laugh and pick at the fraying cloth on the sofa armrest. “That’s a joke.”

She leans forward, clasps her hands together. “It’s not. I know you say you don’t want to get adopted, but there are a lot of families interested in at least fostering you, and you’re going to click with one of them. You can do more with your life, Jeffrey.”

Yeah, I can, but it won’t be college. I make a split-second decision I’ll probably regret later, but I’m used to that. I make mistakes and then I gotta live with them. “Keep your stupid money. Buy a stronger dampener. Let Birdy stay.” I may not know what the hell I want to do with my life, but I know what I don’t want to do with it. Don’t wanna be like my mom.

I’m not gonna just move on and pretend this never happened.

She stares at me for a while, and then just says, “Okay.”

And you know what? I feel like a fucking hero.

Copyright © 2017 by Andrea G. Stewart




The Editor's Word

by Samantha Murray


by Sunil Patel

by Kay Kenyon
by George Nikolopoulos

by Andrea G. Stewart

by Kevin J. Anderson

by Alex Shvartsman

by Brennan Harvey
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
by Yaroslav Barsukov
by Tina Gower

by Robert Silverberg

Mike Resnick
by Joy Ward

Double Star (Part 2)
Heinlein's First Hugo Winner
by Robert A. Heinlein

From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford
Recommended Books
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye









Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2017. All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.