We became friends after I read and fangirled over the first and second books and critiqued the third (!!! I know. I'm so lucky.) It was then that Trisha said, "You know, I have some downtime. Would you like me to read ONE?"
(Yes OMG YES.)
So she read ONE. Funny thing about writers who become good friends and CPs - often, their writing is kind of similar. Turns out that Trisha's and my writing? Is A LOT similar.
Yep. We both write pretty lyrically, about strong, occasionally snarky, female protagonists who don't take 'no' for an answer. So, she loved ONE, and I died of happiness. Then I asked her to blurb it, and died of happiness again when she said of course she would (!!!)
And THEN? She offered to put the first chapter of ONE in the back of the final installment of her The Last Year series. So, of course, I screamed, accepted, and did an epic happy dance. Because I. Had. Arrived.
To make a long story short, SUMMER RUINS, the fourth and final installment in The Last Year series, comes out today. Which also means that anyone who buys it can read the first chapter of ONE in the back (!!!)
I was going to make all of you buy SUMMER RUINS, but my assistant John said that wasn't fair, and that I should post it here. And, of course, he was right, as he always is. So. Without further ado, the first chapter of my debut Young Adult Sci-Fi, ONE:
Most nights, and some mornings before sunrise, I sneak to the back of the shed and I practice. I push myself off the ground, telling my body to go weightless, and hover. An inch, two, six, a foot. I stay there for seconds, then minutes.
I can’t generate enough tension between my body and the air to take a step - can’t even make myself drift. I’d give anything just to be able to float along like a freaking ghost.
I’m a One – a half-superpowered freak. It’s the same sad story for all of us. Every superpower is made up of at least two distinct abilities. A kid can only fly if she can make her body light and then somehow propel herself forward.
Two powers. Not One.
Every One puts up with getting teased at Superior High, waiting for their second ability to show up. While they do, that One power starts to fade. There are still shimmers of it, but after a while the kid quits trying and the One fizzles into nothingness. Then their disappointed Super parents ship them off to Nelson “Normal” High, like mine did.
Here's my secret - I never quit trying.
This morning, standing in our weedy backyard surrounded by a chorus of crickets, behind the ancient shed with chipping red paint, I go weightless. It happens so fast I feel like I’m being pushed upward. My heart jumps.
I try to move, try to resist the air, or push it away from me, and…nothing. I’ve been practicing so much I’ve gotten fast at going light. So I’m a speedy floater. Great.
I could hover here forever, until my muscles strain, then burn, then ache, then tremble, weeping and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. I know I’d just end up collapsing on the grass.
Nevertheless, I smile when I have to will some weight into my body, to keep from floating above the shed. I definitely cleared three feet this time. Four years of hard work, and I can float an extra two feet.
Maybe by the time I’m eighty, I can say “hi” to the folks taking hot air balloon rides at the Nebraska State fair.
I’ve watched all the old-school cartoons about misfit superhero kids who just need to work on developing their powers in order to totally rule. But I’m not a freaking X-man. I know I can’t work on my One power hard enough that it becomes something better, something more. And it’s not like I can magically give myself a Second.
I know. I know.
But my body whispers to me. It tells me I can fly, if only I’m brave enough, strong enough, determined enough.
I sigh and trudge back to the house, being careful to dry the dew from my shoes before heading in to get ready for my first day at Normal.
Dad slows the car as Nelson High comes into view. It's about a third the size of Superior High, and the building’s face is shot through with mossy cracks, dull with years of dirt the groundskeepers didn't bother to power wash before the first day. It’s a strange contrast to the slick solar panels that blanket the roof, glinting silver-blue and reflecting the sky full of white, fluffy clouds. Most people think these older-model panels are hideous, but I always love it when a building’s roof looks like an extension of the sky.
I can’t take my eyes off the school, but I can feel Dad looking at me from the driver's seat.
“Dad.” I pat his knee, a little awkwardly. “I’m just going to school. A different one, but still just school. I’ll be fine. Maybe better. You know…than I was,” I say.
Dad eyes me. He doesn’t believe me, but he’s going to pretend he does.
I clear my throat. “You could have let me drive myself.”
“What if you didn’t get a pass? Or couldn’t find a spot? Best to figure out the lay of the land...”
“The lay of the land” is one of the phrases Dad uses when he’s worried. To be honest, I’m worried myself.
It’s been ten years since my One power - going weightless - showed up. Seven years since Mom and Dad started to worry, in whispered voices, that I’d never get a Second, like the other kids. Only one year since I’d pretty masterfully failed at Superior High. One year since we all knew I would always float instead of learning to fly – knew I would only ever be a One.
I was worried sophomore year at Superior would suck, anyway, what with the fliers and the speeders and the teleporters rubbing their superpowers in my face just by being there. This way, maybe it doesn’t have to.
“Did your hair for the first day, Merry Berry?” Dad flips an end of my hair with his finger. He’s lucky I’m feeling slightly optimistic this morning, or I might mess his up right back. It looks flawless for work at the Hub, as usual.
I don’t answer.
“Well,” he says, “you look beautiful.”
I humor him with a shake of my head and a smile.
All my features are slight, like my stature: a pixie nose, near-translucent skin with not even a freckle to decorate my cheeks, sparse eyebrows.
But my hair is the worst. The longer I let it grow, the more it tapers from thick brunette into baby-fine, dull brownish ends, so I keep it short, at my shoulders. At least it waves instead of lying stick-straight. It’s wispy as the clouds on a clear day.
“I know Mom gave you a new lock. Did you clear out your smartcuff from last year?”
I roll my eyes and push up my sleeve to show him that yes, the three-inch wide flexible tablet that holds all the information I need to get through the day, besides acting as a phone, GPS, and universal ID, has been wiped clean of all the stuff I needed at Superior. I don’t tell him that I spent days hacking it to change the ID status from “Merrin Grey: One” to “Merrin Grey: Normal.”
I pop the door handle open and crack it before we’re even fully stopped. The football field, which peeks out from behind the school, has a fresh frame of bright white lines and a state-of-the-art looking scoreboard. I imagine the classrooms and the locker rooms feature an according disparity. Great.
“Three thirty, Dad. Okay?” I scoot myself out of the seat and onto the sidewalk. I let the door fall shut before he can answer. Not because I’m trying to be rude, but because I think if I hear Dad’s voice now I might cry and mess up the first mascara I’ve worn for about ten months.
I’m not really upset about transferring from Superior High to Nelson.
I’m not. I’m not.
No one really says it out loud, but everyone knows Supers and Normals hate each other – too much decades-old bad blood. Supers say the Normals were jealous of them, and that’s what caused tensions in the first place. Normals say they didn’t know anything about Supers, or whether they could be trusted.
I can see that. The way the Supers treated me, a sad powerless kid, at SHS, I figure maybe the Supers scared the crap out of Normals, sixty years ago. Superstrength, or teleporting, or being able to shoot fire, could be terrifying if it was used as a threat.
Being a One is the worst – we’re caught exactly in between Super and Normal, between stuck-up and terrified. Supers assume we're jealous, and Normals assume we're full of ourselves.
But here, I’m the new kid. No one knows anything about me. And here, no one has to. I take a deep breath through my nose, trying to ease the pit in my stomach.
I’m feeling a little too light this morning.
The wind feels like it might blow me away today. My loose, tissue-thin shirt hangs off my bony shoulders, then blows against the curve of my back, and I know that anyone can tell how thin I am in the tank top underneath. My cuffed denim shorts go down to my knees, and because Mom picked them up in the girl’s department, they fit snugly to my legs. That’s fine, since I learned that baggy pants only made me look ridiculous, and even more slight.
I look down at the ground and take a deep breath. Heavy. Be heavy. My eye catches the one thing that will make me smile - my blue plaid Chucks. My brothers, Michael and Max, gave them to me for my sixteenth birthday last month. They thought I would like them, and they were absolutely right. Awesome kids, no matter how jealous I am of their insanely rare water-walking skills.
With any luck, this year will just be the boring prelude to where I really belong – occupying one of the spots in the Biotech Hub’s summer internship program. I can do anything if it leads to that. I breathe deeply, hoping the air pressure in my lungs will make me heavier, and take my first steps toward a normal year at Nelson High.
I’m guessing there are three hundred students in the whole school, which means everyone here knows everyone else. I let out a slow sigh of relief when I realize none of the students milling through the halls look at me. Either no one notices me, or no one cares. Or, since it’s the first day and I’m new, I’ll pass for a freshman.
I find the administrative office easily enough. I have to pound on the ancient touchscreen installed there to get my schedule, and when I finally get it to download onto my cuff, it takes another torturous several minutes of waiting for the map of the school to appear. Through the thick, translucent office wall, something catches my eye. A tall, middle-aged man with black hair slicked back from his forehead and glasses, pushes out the door. I swear the faint scent of licorice wafts out after him. He looks just like my Organic Chemistry professor from Superior High.
Maybe not everything about Normal High will be awful and unfamiliar after all.
I wave my wrist under the ID scanner in a variety of positions, but it just won’t register. It’s all I can do not to growl at it. Finally, it beeps its recognition, and I push out through the door as the stilted robotic voice croaks, “Good morning, sophomore Merrin Grey.”
The hallway teems with students, but I think I see him. Yes. The black hair, and those thick-rimmed glasses. That’s got to be him. He’s talking to a petite woman in a navy suit at the end of the hallway, leaning close to her ear, his eyes darting around at the students. They both nod at each other and start to walk down the hall, away from me. She motions toward a door.
As I get closer, I see the placard next to it reads “Principal Lee’s office.” I push through the crowd, but just as they reach the door and the woman reaches out to turn the knob, some clumsy kid rams into my shoulder, spinning me around. I don’t even care enough to be embarrassed or to yell at the jerk, because when I look up, the door’s closing behind them.
I pinch my lips together, cursing under my breath. Mr. Hoffman is the one who came and dragged me out of the first horrific day of freshman biology, gave me a test, checked it over in about three minutes, and walked me to his class full of AP Organic Chemistry seniors without another word. While the other freshmen were trying to impress each other with their superpowers, I was staying behind in his classroom while he graded assignments, building models and generally kicking Orgo’s ass. By the end of the year I was working from a college textbook.
Mr. Hoffman’s the one who made me think I could score a spot in the Biotech Hub’s summer internship. Only five kids get to go every year, and I don’t think a One has ever landed a chance.
I slump against one of the walls and check my schedule on my cuff. Nothing with Hoffman. I’m sure that whatever he’s teaching is so high level I’ll have to get notes from Mom and Dad and a meeting with the principal just to get me a seat in the class. That is, if I actually did see him. I can’t imagine why he would actually leave the state-of-the-art Superior classrooms to come teach at this dump.
I pass my locker, number 5637, noting its location. I have nothing to put in it yet, and don’t feel like programming the new print-scanning lock Mom slipped in my bag, so I don’t even stop.
My first class is History – Modern American. I sigh with relief. At Superior High, freshmen take this class, so I should’ve already learned all this stuff. When I click through my reader to find the textbook, though, it’s not AMERICA: PATHWAYS TO PROGRESS, the one we used last year. Instead, it’s AMERICAN HERITAGE AND YOU.
There’s no teacher’s desk at the front of this classroom. When one of the few adults I’d seen in a bright orange Nelson High polo shirt walks into the classroom, plugs a cartridge into a port on the back wall, and a 3-D projector displays a life-sized image of a teacher at the front of the room, I almost cry with disappointment.
This year, the weird projected holo-teacher says, we’ll be focusing on American history post-Uranium Wars, but she wants to go through a brief summary of that thirty-year period before we begin.
“Seventy-five years ago, foreign missiles suddenly and deliberately attacked a transport of uranium cores being transported to safe storage in the American desert, triggering the Uranium World Wars. The leakage into Lake Michigan made thousands sick, killing some, and fundamentally altered the genetic structure of thousands of others.
“Many of these individuals developed extraordinary powers: for example, super speed or strength, control of natural forces, teleportation or telekinesis. Twenty years later, a diabolical group of five of these mutants, all leaders in their communities, formed a plan to assassinate the President of the United States and overthrow the government. Thankfully, it was stopped before damage was done.
“Never had our nation experienced such a threat from within our own borders.
“Most of the mutant population, some thirty thousand strong, was concentrated around the Great Lakes. Even after the investigations and trials in the aftermath of said threat, we knew that some among them were potentially dangerous. Though most were loyal Americans, no one knew what would happen among this concentrated population if the new leaders’ efforts congealed into a full-fledged revolution.
“Military authorities therefore determined that all of them would have to move. Tens of thousands of men, women, and children, all affected by supernatural abilities caused by the uranium contamination decades earlier, were removed from their homes to communities in established, out-of-the-way places. Of course, the government helped in any cases of financial hardship, and once the families had reached their destinations, provided housing and plenty of healthful nourishment for all.
“The mutated citizens wanted to go to work developing their abilities for the betterment of society. In areas away from our main government and weapons stores, and under appropriate safeguards, many were allowed to do so, under the condition that they would work together with the existing United States Government for the welfare of all United States citizens.”
After every sentence this non-teacher speaks, my mouth drops open just a little farther. This is not the history they taught us at Superior.
Of course, they taught us about the Uranium Wars, and the attempted government takeover. But the story of the camps sounded totally different at Superior.
Notices were posted. All mutated persons, and their families, were required to register. The evacuation was not cheerful. Stones were thrown, and jeers were screamed. It was out of fear, they taught us at Superior. Of course the Normals feared the Supers. But this twisting of history is inexcusable.
This lecture at Nelson doesn’t include video footage of the internment camps’ shoddy housing, or the mothers clutching their crying babies while they waited for the food trucks. It doesn’t show the Supers waiting in long lines to see doctors they didn’t trust, or the makeshift schoolrooms full of dirty-looking kids in clothes that didn’t fit quite right.
The holo-teacher directs us to the touchscreens in our desktops to answer some multiple choice questions about the lecture. I force my brain to go numb as I answer them the way I know the textbook wants us to.
I don’t know exactly what this means for the next three years I’m supposed to spend here at Nelson High. But after hearing this lecture, I know I can’t spend my life among Normals. No way.
I’ve got to get that internship.
By the time I’ve sat through Calculus, Bio, and English, I’m feeling grateful for the remote-lecturing holo-teachers – it means there’s no one to ask me to stand at the front of the classroom and introduce myself. That is, until I realize people are going to start asking me who I am to my face.
I have no idea what to expect from these Normal kids. Will they suspect I’m not like them? Can they see that I can float, if I want to?
I manage to keep my head down all the way to my locker. All I want is to get there to ditch my sweatshirt, retreat to the girl’s room - if I can figure out where it is - lock myself in a stall for a few minutes, and take a deep breath for the first time since I got here.
And maybe eat my lunch in there. Just for today.
I wiggle the handle of my locker, but it won’t open. I bend down to take a look at it. No jerk’s poured superglue in there or anything.
Before I know it, I’m shaking the stupid locker handle so hard it’s making a racket, and a few people standing near me look over and cock their heads. When I almost whack my own face with my struggling hand, I give up, resting my head against the cool, solid metal for a second, breathing in through my nose.
I am seriously losing it. Over a locker.
Half a second later, a shoulder taller than my head pushes into the metal door, then a large hand with long, thin fingers jiggles the handle side-to-side a couple times and wrenches it up, letting the locker pop open.
I feel the warmth of his nearness against my cheek, countering the chill of the locker, like a shock on my skin. The guy clears his throat, then says quietly, “They’re tricky.”
I barely glance at him before I look down at the floor, but I do catch that he has blond hair and glasses.
“You new here?”
Before I can answer, some guy halfway down the hall hollers, “E! Coming?”
The guy at my locker – “E” - gives his head half a shake, smiles a little, then turns to walk away.
And now everyone’s staring at me. Great.
As soon as I find my way to the bathroom, I place both hands on the rim of one of the sinks, steadying myself there. After a few seconds, I splash my face with water, then reach over to the soap dispenser. Everything about this place feels dirty.
As I’m lathering my hands, I notice the logo on the soap dispenser. The Hub Technology logo appears on every product made at one of the Hubs. It’s five ovals, one for each Hub, intersecting in the shape of an atom with a key as the nucleus. Someone has crossed out the “Hub” in “Hub Technology” and written “Freak” next to it.
Suddenly, I can’t get enough air into my lungs. I duck into a stall, sit on the toilet, bury my face in my hands, and take one, two deep breaths.I hope with everything in me that all the other kids actually eat in the cafeteria.