Her room felt strange. So familiar. Yet it also felt as it had last year when she had come home after two eternal, busy weeks of National competition, living out of a tiny crowded hotel room, enduring a kaleidoscope of locker rooms and backstage clutter and intrusive reporters poking microphones in her face and staged interviews under hot lights. She had felt then as she did now: an imposter who did not belong.
Yet there were all her familiar belongings all about her. And her bed, its covers pulled back and waiting.
She half-fell, half-crawled into bed and was, as seemed to be her habit now, instantly asleep.
At 12:03 she was instantly awake. It was only her mother carefully opening her bedroom door, so carefully no normal human could have heard anything, given how well the door was made and how well-oiled were its hinges and door handle mechanism. But Sasha was no longer normal. She awoke completely. Moved not a millimeter. Kept her eyes closed and changed her breathing not at all. Recognized her mother from a dozen cues. Decided she needed sleep more than lunch. And plunged back into dreamland.
At 4:53 she awoke. Her body told her she needed no more sleep but needed food. She was up and across the room and changing clothes in the closet before she even thought to do so.
She paused. Damn. She had always loved, when she could, to ease slowly into wakefulness and lie abed, luxuriating in the freedom to do nothing but feel the sheets about her and enjoy the mild noises of the neighborhood through the screen of her open window.
She completed dressing, in loose jean shorts and a crimson tee-shirt with the gold logo and name of her high school, OCEANSIDE HIGH, on its chest. She pulled on soccasins, paused again, noting something.
While she had been asleep her body had been monitoring dozens of sounds coming through the window: the creaking of tree limbs in the breeze off the ocean, the sound of leaves rustling against each other, a dog barking — she knew exactly which one because she knew his voice, faint though his barks were. She had heard a lawn mower further still, and even further the sounds of children playing a ball game. And a dozen more sounds. Together and along with her memory they had built up a picture of the neighborhood for a quarter mile around. The picture was so complete it was as if her home and everything in it were made of glass. Or as if she had X-ray vision like one of those superheroes in the comic books her brother had loved when he was younger.
Now that she turned her attention to what she was sensing she realized all her other senses had contributed to the picture. There were dozens of odors, ever-so-slight air movements against body hairs, pressure against her eardrums and her sinuses which made them act like a barometers, micro movements of the house felt through the bed and now through the soles of her feet, changes of light coming in through the half-closed Venetian blinds….
She stopped cataloging all the input. Including those internal ones which made her body seem as if it was transparent.
The wonder was that she didn’t feel swamped by all the input. Thinking back she realized that her body had been subconsciously adapting to her new sensitivity since she had awakened in her coffin. It had also learned to turn that sensitivity up and down.
She went into the hallway and down the stairs to the first floor, noting that her sisters were in their rooms, her brother talking with their mother in the den, her father cooking in the kitchen. A gourmet cook — his Italian heritage, he said — he was outdoing himself today, considering how wonderful the scents wafting to her were.
Halfway down the stairs she realized she was treading the steps with such controlled power and delicacy that she was utterly silent. Like another of her bother’s superheroes, she thought, chuckling: the Shadow. She began deliberately stomping her feet.
No, too much! She sounded like a robot!
“Hi, Papá. Pepper-crusted salmon! In your salsa especial. Gracias, gracias, mil gracias!“
He turned to her, receiving her kiss on a cheek, kissed her proffered cheek in turn.
Dinner that night followed the family’s usual pattern but was livelier, almost boisterous. After the bulk of the meal was done each family member, starting with the youngest, shared something about their day. The Elf had been chosen as Young Clara in the school’s annual Christmas ballet. The Beauty had survived being the cheerleaders’ apex of the pyramid cheer. Sasha had slept the day away. Their brother had a new girlfriend back at his college. Their father had started a new sculpture. Their mother had a new and very rich corporate account.
Meal over, their mother told them to leave the table alone and go into the living room. She tripped the button of the waiting coffee pot and arranged a silver tray with cups and sugar bowl and cream, then followed her children out of the room. Meanwhile their father took a bottle of champagne from the fridge and arranged champagne flutes on a second tray and followed everyone else.
Everyone headed for the conversation nook across from the entertainment console with its large flat screen TV and other equipment. Their mother placed her tray on the glass-topped kick table in front of the couch as their father placed his tray on one of the side tables. Then she urged Sasha to sit in the center of the couch and sat beside her. Her two sisters crowded into one of the side chairs. Brandon perched on its chair arm while he tried to play with the Elf’s pixie haircut while she pretended to swat at his hands.
Their father sat beside Sasha opposite his wife, the champagne bottle steadied between his knees while he dealt with its cork. At the loudly festive “pop!” he snatched a towel he’d swung over one shoulder and wrapped it around the top of the bottle neck to catch the few overflowing suds. Then he poured each flute mostly full, except for one. This he filled half full and handed to the Elf. The remaining flutes he handed to everyone else, except for his own. This he lifted high.
In Spanish he said, “To the one restored to us!” Everyone lifted their glasses and half-stood, half-leaned forward to clink their glasses together. They drank, the Elf with a grimace. Sasha drank too much too fast and the bubbles rose into her nose and tickled it. She sneezed. Everyone laughed.
If she was superhuman now she was sadly fallible!
The rest of the week and weekend Sasha stayed out of school. She visited with her two best friends and several other buds, took part in a big noisy pizza and beer party. She spent time with her family. She caught up on homework. And she spent a lot of time learning about herself.
The day after she came home from the hospital Dr. O’Neill helped her a good deal with that last.
His wife greeted her enthusiastically at their large sprawling adobe-style near the ocean. After some fussing and a bit of catching up — the O’Neills had quite enjoyed their travels — she escorted Sasha to the small office her husband kept in their home. In the doorway she said, “Look who’s here!”
The white-haired old doctor, who definitely did not look his eighty-something years, looked up from a magazine. Smiling, he came around his desk, engulfed her in an embrace. He thanked his wife and asked if Sasha would stay for lunch. At a happy Yes! his wife patted her shoulder and said she would start fixing the food right now.
“OK. Let’s give you a quick once-over to make sure I’m caught up with your condition.”
She followed him into a side room as he shrugged a white lab coat over his loose flowered short-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts. He had her sit on an exam table and went through a fairly standard exam, listening to her heart and lungs, checking her pulse and blood pressure, checking her eyes and ears and inside her mouth, and did several more checks. He also measured her height and weight.
Back in his office he finished recording stuff in her medical folder, then got up and hung his lab coat on a clothes tree.
“We’re done here. Let’s get some fresh air while we give Effie plenty of time to fix some treats.”
The air was indeed fresh, coming as it did off the Pacific on a sunshiny day. They strolled across the back lawn and crossed under two trees which shaded a barbecue grill and tables and benches. They turned to follow the packed gravel path along the cliff that fell to a small private beach below. After a while they stopped in the shade of a palm tree and leaned on the wooden rails that fenced off the bush-packed cliffside from the lawn. They watched the water and several sailing ships and a huge tanker far enough out that the horizon obscured almost half of it. After a few minutes he turned to her.
“That business with the exam was just to establish that you are my patient. It’s correct, pretty much. But I lied about your weight and height. You’ve gained about ten pounds and grown two inches.”
“I have?!” She looked at him in alarm. Acrobats had to be small to compete. Her growth spurt almost two years ago was why she had been forced to changed specialties. Another growth spurt–!
“Don’t worry about it. You will also find that you are becoming stronger and faster. That will offset your increase in size.” He had been their family doctor before she was born. He had understood her problem with height. He had explained that it was because of something called the square-cube law. It was why fleas could jump many times their height, and elephants could not jump at all.
“You seem to know what happened to me. You hinted that in the hospital.”
“I don’t know much. But I once knew someone like you and she told me a little bit about it.”
“I was shot when I was young by a couple of men. A woman killed them with her hands, moving so fast she was a blur.”
He nodded, looked out unseeing at the ocean.
“Then she saved my life. She just put her hands on me and the bullets oozed out. The bleeding stopped and the wounds healed fast enough I could watch them do it. Then she took me home and fed me and in a few days I was as good as new. Better. She gave me a little of her ability to heal with a touch. It’s weak and I have to use regular methods too.”
“Is that when you decided to be a doctor?”
“I felt I had to do something to deserve her gift. Gifts.
“Anyway, while I was recuperating under her care she told me a little bit about herself. She had died and come back to life improved. After a few years she decided her life had been spared so that she could help others. So she did.”
“And that gave you the idea you had to do the same.”
“Yes. She never told me so. Never even hinted at it. Good thing, too. I’ve always been a stubborn ornery cuss. Doing the opposite of what people tried to make me do.”
She laughed. That revelation was no surprise.
The lunch lasted almost three hours, what with looking at all the photos they had taken before their trip had been cut short by her death, and listening to reminisces. She enjoyed every minute. She loved these two people who were like grandparents to her. And she had always been fascinated by other places. That had been a, small, part of the appeal of competing athletically.
Not that competitive athletes saw a lot besides hotel rooms and restaurants and locker rooms. That she intended to change someday.
She pondered what she had learned as she drove home, windows down and the wind blowing in her hair, a pleasure in the full length of each and every strand.
She was not alone. Though there were not many like her, or everybody would know about them. Of course, they would hide their differences just as she and Dr. O’Neill were hiding hers.
Were older shapechangers the inspiration for legends of werewolves and the like? She supposed she could become a were-something if she tried. But it wouldn’t be fast like in the movies and books. And why would she want to?
She could become a Sasquatch. She already knew she could grow fur very quickly and get rid of it just as quickly. Though it was not really fur. It was very slender tentacles that looked like fur.
Which made her wonder: had there actually been a Medusa?
She shuddered. She was SO not growing snake heads on the ends of her hair!
As the days passed she became ever surer in her shapechanger powers. For instance, she could change the color of her skin in a second or less. The colors included the usual brown and black (which was really just a very deep brown). There was also an actual canary yellow, and red, purple, and an almost blue. Green was beyond her.
With some practice she learned to grow strips and circles and squares on her skin. And even more elaborate designs. Yippee! She was Super-Tattoo Girl! She laughed. So NOT an impressive super power!
Monday as she prepared to leave for school a car horn beeped a few times outside her home. She looked out the front window and saw Rocio’s five-year-old Mercedes mid-size in the street. She had forgotten that the Twins had insisted they were going to chauffeur her to school.
She hurriedly gathered her things together and trotted out to the car, leaving a hurried “Ciao!” to her father behind her. As she neared the shiny silvery auto the passenger-side rear door opened. Inside she could see Tina in the front passenger seat leaning over her seat back to push open the car door from the inside. Sasha threw her back-pack into to the car and tumbled into the seat and buckled her seat belt.
“I still say you should have let me drive myself to school. Now you have drive me home too.”
“Hush,” said Rocky. “The conquering hero is not going to be tooling her own chariot today.” She glanced at Tina. There was something conspiratorial in the look.
The Twins were hiding something from her.
She saw what when they swung onto the street in front of Oceanside High. The usual teen crowd was not spilling into the school doors. They were standing around, waiting for — Oh, no! — her.
That was obvious even before everyone turned toward Rocio’s car. There was a huge banner stretched across the front of the school, strategically placed so that the cameras from three TV camera vans could see the engraved Oceanside High School sign above it. The banner read WELCOME HOME OUR OLYMPIC HERO.
Sasha was annoyed, touched, embarrassed, and cynical all at once, the last because the school administration was jumping the gun on her selection for next year’s Olympics. This way they could bias the process a bit and gain publicity for their connection to the separate but affiliated Sports Training Facility in which Sasha trained.
Sasha was fairly sure she would be an Olympic pick. In the US National Sports Association trials earlier this year she had won gold in all three of her events. But it was not certain. There was still a lot of politicking and observation of the candidates’ training ahead.
Rocio pulled the Mercedes up in front of the school and Tina jumped out to open Sasha’s door. She reluctantly got out. Off to one side the school band, or a section of it, began to play. Cheerleaders off to the other side began a chant. And a row of football team members in full uniform and helmets rose from a crouch in front of the school and rushed her.
Time slowed. The world grew bright, with sharp edges. Sound almost ceased. Adrenaline spiked. All her skills in Olympic competitive Judo came online. A path through the football players which would leave them broken behind her presented itself.
She relaxed and stood straight. The players scooped her up, protesting but laughing, and carried her up the school’s front steps to deposit her in front of the school’s top administrator amid three TV crews with shoulder-mounted cameras. Two female reporters and one male reporter crowded near-by, microphones poised before the administrator.
“Sasha, welcome back to the school. We are happy to see you safe, and proud to call you one of us.”
She went on like that for a minute or so more, then turned the reporters loose on Sasha, warning them that they could ask only a few questions.
“Sasha, how do you feel after your terrible and heroic ordeal?” one reporter asked. The other two let her get her question out and remained silent. Evidently the three had worked out a round robin interview deal so each could get their sound bites and quotes before rushing on to some other breaking story.
“I feel incredibly grateful to be alive.” Short and sweet and innocuous, that was the way to answer. She had become a skilled interviewee years ago, with the help of her coaches and her mom, an astute politician from her years as a district attorney.
The next two reporters then asked pretty much the same question and Sasha gave pretty much the same answer. She was “happy.” She was “glad she could help someone.”
“Sasha, how do you explain the fact that you were declared dead?”
“I don’t. I’m an athlete not a doctor.” She was a veteran at acting stupid and uttering platitudes. But the next reporter asked the same question, not surprisingly. She threw him a tidbit.
Scratching her head, she essayed a puzzled look. “I dunno. One doctor guessed my lungs shut down to protect me from smoke inhalation.”
Her hearing sensitivity was turned down to normal and filtering out the low-voiced comments of those around her. Almost. But she heard the familiar sound of Tina snickering at her performance despite the distance the Twins stood away from her.
She almost smiled but caught herself. Serious, stupid. Serious, stupid. That was her on-TV persona.
“How is your family taking this?” was the next trio of questions in various wordings. Patiently she gave the standard variations on “happy.”
By now she was getting impatient and she knew the reporters had enough for a few morning and evening sound bites. But she held still for the next question: her brother’s reaction since he had skipped part of his training to be with her. She owed it to him to give him a little publicity.
When further questions became even more personal and started to involve her family Sasha glanced at the school administrator and let her face show impatience. That worthy had a few times had dealings with Sasha at her most intransigent. And once with Sasha’s mother. She smoothly and diplomatically ended the short press conference.
Sasha’s next ordeal was to suffer through what was left of the first period in a ceremony in the huge and well-appointed school auditorium. The seats were packed with students and there were plenty standing around the edges. Apparently all the first-period classes had been canceled. She guessed a not few teachers would be pissed at this.
None of them seemed so. At all the rest of her classes for the rest of the school day each teacher expressed at least cursory praise and greetings when the classes began. Except for the last.
Her chemistry teacher was young and earnest and had an unfortunate overbite and receding hairline. He acted as he always did in class.
Sasha stayed after the class ended. She wanted to minimize any hard feelings.
As he turned to her from wiping the white board she said, “Thank you for not embarrassing me in front of the class. And I’m sorry about this morning.”
He was quiet a moment. “I quite admire your exploits, Miss Canaro. Don’t think otherwise. And I appreciate a student who applies herself, as you do. Unlike several other of our star athletes. But I’ve always wondered at the celebration our society so loves of people who do exactly as they ought.”
He made to return to clearing the white board. But Sasha, in a rush of gratitude and affection, interrupted him to give him a hand shake. She wished he looked better. She imagined he must have always had a tough time, looking as he did.
Something passed out of her hand into his. It went by very fast, but her system slowed time so that she caught just enough to know that incredibly complex instructions passed into him. Over the next few years his hair would grow luxurious and his jawbone would recede to an average shape and his teeth would never decay.
Even as time returned to its normal flow for her she realized that she had held his hand too long. She shook it once more and dropped it, leaving the room with a cheery goodbye.
But she was shaken. What had she done to the poor man? She had to talk to Dr. O’Neill about it. And until she did she must take care not to touch anyone, or at least not to wish for something while she did so.
The Twins met her outside her class. The three friends all knew each other’s schedules as well as they knew their own.
On the way home Sasha was unusually quiet, barely attending to what the Twins said, thinking about what had happened with her chemistry teacher. Finally they became quiet also. Then Rocio spoke.
“Are you mad at us for something?”
Sasha was roused from her mood by this. She said sweetly, “Why, no, of course not. You two could not POSSIBLY have anything to do with embarrassing me in front of the entire school. And TV land.”
She knew no such thing. She would not put it past them to have come up with the idea of this morning’s circus and making it happen. They were past masters at behind-the-scenes rabble rousing and getting things to happen in all the venues in which they participated.
She joined in with obviously fake enthusiasm in their latest conversational gambit. She would not do anything to them. But they knew she could and might. She had been known to play elaborate practical jokes. Just letting them wonder when the shoe would drop on them would be punishment enough if they had engineered her back-to-school ordeal.
On the weekend Dr. O’Neill eased her mind a bit and cautioned her as well. It seemed he healed by imagining a desired result and wished for it to happen while touching someone. His power was weak and he had to supplement it with physical intervention. Hers was likely much stronger. But nothing would happen without her explicit wish.
Still, he suggested that she think very carefully about just what she wished for, anticipating difficulties and thinking of limits, especially time limits. The greater the power the more harm as well as good it could do. With great power came great responsibility.
By Monday of the next week matters at school had returned essentially to normal. Sasha breathed a (metaphorical) sigh of relief. She went back to being the best athlete she could possibly be.