by Beth Cato
“The pond is open today!”
No one else was in the kitchen, but I had to make the cheery announcement, even if it was just to myself. It was tradition.
Mom’s St. John Ambulance books sat on the table, one still flipped open. She’d just gotten a job as receptionist at the old folks’ home and they had her taking a first aid course. At the far side of the table, two mugs touched handles like old friends. Two packets of cocoa – the best kind, with the little marshmallows – lay flat behind the mugs. I grinned. The cocoa would wait until we got back from hockey.
She used to always set out four mugs. Maybe I could still pull down at least one more.
“Chuck?” My brother’s door was open a smidge. The lights were off and he was sitting in front of the computer. The faint light from the monitor cast a spooky glow on his face. “The pond’s open, remember? You want to come?”
In the funny light, it took me a second to realize his eyes were shut. His hands were folded on his lap, graceful like when we had to sit all proper in church. It’s not like he needed to touch the keyboard.
“I’m busy, Sara.” His voice creaked like an old floorboard. Since he’d “manifested,” as the local Guild rep liked to say, Chuck had been able to listen and talk to computers. The Guild had even given us a brand spanking new Tandy 2000 so Chuck could hone his skills.
He used to have lots of other skills, too. A husky singing voice. Quick wit. A mean slapshot.
“But this… it’s the first day.” My shoulders slumped. This had been our tradition since I was five, wearing awful figure skates with pink laces. I mean, the first day on our pond! This used to mean everything to our whole gang – me, Chuck, Chuck’s best friend Jeff, and my buddy Amaud.
“Fine,” I muttered, shoving myself from the doorway and stalking to the kitchen. If I had a superpower, I’d still play hockey. Maybe I’d even be better, depending on what I could do. Our little town of Red Hawk already had crazy odds, with two manifested kids. Even Edmonton, as big as it was, only had five.
“Hockey day! Hockey day!” I chanted beneath my breath as I rummaged around in the kitchen. I refused to let Chuck ruin my morning. I charred some toast and slathered on gobs of butter to compensate. I glanced at the St. John Ambulance book as I chewed, and all the information flooded back into my head from when I was stupid enough to skim through it a few days back: bloody arms, tourniquets, rescue breathing, brain trauma. I gagged and forced myself to swallow. I should have known better than to even look between the covers, with how my memory was and all. “Eidetic memory” was the fancy term for it. My grandpa memorized the whole Bible and could spout passages on request. Mom said she’d kill to have inherited the family knack, but she didn’t know how things were in school. Everyone hates know-it-alls. Hates in a mean sort of way.
A minute later, I swiped the crumbs onto the floor, grabbed my gear and bolted out the door.
The morning smelled all wet and fresh, ice crystals zinging in my nostrils. The sun glared through gauze-thin clouds, and I glared back. I didn’t want a warm and sunny day that’d make all the ice melt. Snow crunched under my boots, and my tied-together skates swayed against my shoulder. My freshly-taped hockey stick felt perfect in my grip.
Up ahead, Amaud waited for me under our meeting tree. He’d accidentally crushed his glasses a few days back and his face looked bare and weird without them.
Amaud was the other gifted kid in town. He wasn’t a technophile like Chuck. He was big. Like, refrigerator-sized big, and still growing. That also had its own fancy term, “myostatin-related muscle hypertrophy,” but what it really meant was Amaud was becoming some super muscle man.
It was weird to think of Amaud as a man at all. I mean, he was twelve, same as me, but I was still totally average and now he towered over me.
I wouldn’t be average forever.
“Where’re your skates?” I called.
He shook his head, like in slow motion. “Don’t fit,” he said in his low mumble. His hockey stick was too short, just coming up to his chest. Even his snow shovel looked stubby next to him.
Amaud never said much. Kids always teased him for being slow, but he was really super-smart except for math; that’s how we met, because our teacher made me start tutoring him back in first grade. But Amaud read Shakespeare for fun. No one else in school did that. No one would want to.
“You said your skates fit in October!” My voice squealed. Snow shivered from a branch overhead.
“My feet’ve gotten bigger since then.” He shrugged.
“Well, you were going to be goalie, anyway. Don’t think you’re getting out of it.” He was no Grant Fuhr, but at the very least Amaud could stand there and let stuff bounce off him.
First Chuck, now this. I stalked past Amaud and blinked back tears.
His voice softened. “I’m not trying to get out of it. I like playing hockey with you.”
I grunted. The pond was just over the rise. My feet crunched through a thin layer of ice with every stomp, the crystals scratching through cloth to my calves. I suppose I could have let Amaud go first and plow through, but I wasn’t lazy like that.
“Did you finish your math homework?” I asked, needing to change the subject.
I squinted at the annoyingly bright sky. “Started it, meaning you did one page and stopped at the word problem, right? ‘Mary ate 3/8 of a pizza, while Michael ate 1/16, while little Susan ate 1/32.'” I saw the words in my head, clear as if I held the book in front of me. A neat trick but no superpower; superpowers did something. All I could do was bore people to death. Or open my big fat mouth yet again and cause half the class to pin me down on the playground and shove snow down my sweater. “I’ve shown you how to do common denominators a million times. It’s no different when the numbers are stuck between words.”
“Hate math,” he muttered.
“I know.” Amaud wouldn’t have made it past basic addition without me harping on him every day.
I frowned and tilted an ear. I could swear I heard kids laughing and the thuds and whispers of skates on ice, but this was our street, our pond. The kids on the other side of town had their indoor rink and all – why’d they come here? I started to jog. Amaud huffed behind me, his heavy feet pounding.
Older kids in blue jerseys cluttered the ice. These guys had gotten here early. The ice was scraped clean. White gouges gleamed across the surface and cast-off boots designated the goals on either side of the pond. The sweaters were from the high school team, complete with a blazing red hawk embroidered on the front. Chuck used to wear one before his brain started computer-talk.
I recognized a tall mop-head of red hair. “Hey, Jeff!” Angry as I was, I knew not to try and run or I’d just flop down the slope.
Jeff swirled off from the rest and scraped to a stop right in front of me, his face ruddy with exertion and cold. “Hey, Sara.”
He had been Chuck’s best friend since preschool, like my second brother as far back as I could remember. He always drank his cocoa out of an old Christmas mug showing Santa and his sleigh. About now, I felt like shattering that mug to a million pieces.
“What’s all this?” I jabbed my stick at the players. “This is our pond. Your team can practice at your own rink, or on one of the ponds on the east side.”
The one time I’d tried to skate at one of their ponds – it had a changing room shack with heaters and everything – the kids demanded I pay admission and laughed the whole time, knowing I could never pay.
Jeff looked past me. “No Chuck?” Sadness flashed in his eyes, and he blinked it away. “Hey, Amaud.”
“No.” My word came out as a growl. “Listen, this is our–”
“Emphasis on ‘our.’ Look, Sara, I live here, too. I’ve been coming here since before you were born. The school rink is hosting some event today and I invited the guys over.”
“So can we play, too?” I met his eye.
Jeff cringed. “That’s… probably not a good idea. Look, Sara, you’re a sixth grader. Some of these guys are seniors–”
One of those seniors zoomed by. “Hey, come on, we’re playing a game here! Tell the little girl to go build snowmen with the other kiddies.” The other players laughed.
I looked past Jeff to where three girls in puffy coats were building snowmen along the little ridge that separated our pond from big pond beyond. They couldn’t have been older than five or six. Heat flushed my cheeks.
“We’ll be out of here soon,” said Jeff, a pleading note in his voice.
“This was our pond,” I snapped.
“Well, the old gang isn’t what it used to be.” Something shifted in his face then, making him sound colder. Older. He skated backwards and away. Ice spat off the blades.
“Come on,” I said to Amaud without looking at him. “Let’s go shoot pucks on the big pond.”
We trudged along the snowy shore. A few low whistles and utters of, “Damn,” showed they recognized Amaud’s presence – not that he could be ignored. I got angrier with every step. One of the little girls tried to say hi and I just glared until she shriveled into her fluffy hood.
No one was on the big pond. No one was supposed to be on the big pond, really. It was too big to freeze in the middle. But along the shore was okay, and better than nothing. That’s almost what I had – nothing. I fumbled the puck out of my pocket and thwacked it, hard.
“You could have like, done something!” I snarled at Amaud. I knew I shouldn’t take it out on him but I couldn’t help it.
“You could throw them off the ice! Do something! I’d do something!” I flung my skates into the snow bank. I didn’t even feel like putting them on now. I just needed to hit things.
Amaud walked along the crunchy shore. I could see the puck from where I was, but he walked past it three times before he plucked it up and tossed it back my way. He really needed his new glasses.
“No, you don’t.” I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath. Chuck, Jeff, Amaud… everyone was changing. I hated it. And if I had to change, let this be the time. Let it be something brilliant. I could burst out of my skin like a butterfly from a cocoon.
“I don’t hurt people. You don’t hurt people.”
“I don’t know. Maybe some people should be hurt.” Tears burned in my eyes. I knew I was saying stupid stuff, but I wanted to get it out. See if it helped me feel better.
“I want to help, not hurt.” Amaud’s voice was soft as he kicked the puck back at me. Anger made me feel too hot beneath my coat, even when I was standing still. “I want to feel like I’m going through… this for some reason. A purpose.” He motioned at his massive body.
I wanted that purpose, too. I wanted to fly. I wanted to heal people with a touch of my hand. Maybe not talk to computers like Chuck, but there were lots of other powers out there – fire from fingertips, cold creation, fast running, amazing hearing. Dozens more, probably.
“I hurt all the time.”
Those words came from nowhere. I blinked at Amaud. “What?”
“I hurt all the time. I can feel my muscles stretch, even when I sleep. They say – the Guild people say – that I’m going to be so big and heavy it’s going to mess with my joints. I may not be able to walk by the time I’m forty.”
“Oh.” I don’t think I ever heard Amaud say that much at once. “But the Guild, they have healers. They can take care of you, right?”
He shook his head, slow and swaying. “I don’t know.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I still had that awful, raw knot in my chest, that tight feeling that had been there since Chuck started listening inside his head instead of with his ears, since Amaud’s body started changing to something big and foreign. They were special. Different. Isolated in a way, yeah, but… amazing.
I wanted to be amazing, too. Not just the weird girl who had to sit at the front of the class so no one beat her up.
I handled the puck with my stick, then I reeled back and struck it with all my strength. In my head, I could see it like an old cartoon – flames and contrails, like a rocket to the moon. In reality, it skittered over the ice and landed on the far shore.
“I’ll get it,” I said and set down my stick. Amaud would never be able to see the puck that far away.
All of a sudden I felt deflated. Tired. I didn’t know what to think anymore, about Amaud or any of this. The echoes of the hockey players at the little pond seemed to dully ricochet in my head. A small gust of wind slapped my face as I walked along the shore. Icy stones squealed beneath a thin sheet of snow.
It took me a few minutes to find the puck. It had bounced off a tree or two and landed on a little drift. I trotted back towards the pond.
The first thing I saw was glaring pink – a little girl’s coat – way out in the middle of the big pond. My heart just about stopped. Then I saw Amaud crawling out on the ice, halfway from the shore to her.
“Oh, God,” I whispered. The puck fell from my hand. “Amaud! Amaud! Go slow, okay? Be careful!” What had he been thinking?! Why didn’t he yell for help? I’d never heard him yell in my life, but now would have been the perfect time. He probably weighed three hundred pounds. The ice out there’d be thin as skin.
I ran down the shore, screaming. “Jeff! Jeff! Guys! Help!”
They came. I may have wished them terrible pain ten minutes before, but they ran over that crest. There was a split-second pause as they assessed everything, then most of them ran towards me. One headed the other way, to the firehouse.
That’s when I saw the girls, all three of them. One without a coat.
“Amaud, stop! It’s just a coat!” I screamed.
He stopped. The pink coat bobbed about twenty feet away, and had to look like a real kid in his fuzzy sight. He edged backward, slowly. The other guys clustered along the ice, waiting.
“Come on, Amaud,” called Jeff.
It happened so fast, so very fast. That vicious crack that made my whole world break. His legs sank in, but not his upper body. He clutched the ice with his hands splayed out.
There was another crack. Amaud was gone. Just, gone.
I stopped breathing. Everything stopped. “Please, God, please.” I took two steps forward and stopped. I never felt so helpless in my life. Powerless. Jeff and another guy flung themselves down, belly first, and slid out towards that awful black hole. It hurt to watch, it hurt to think they all could die, trying to save Amaud. Big wonderful Amaud.
An arm flailed upward. A head. His hat was gone, his skin so white, so terribly white, his hair black, then he was gone again.
Another flail. A splash. Seconds stretched out like hours. They were almost there. The pond was so shallow. Maybe – maybe he can stand up. Jump up. Something. Another hand out. A brief gleam of face.
“Hang on!” yelled Jeff. The girls wailed in an awful chorus.
The guys were at the hole. Reaching in. Fishing. I took another step forward, willing something to happen, aching for some kind of miracle.
“We got him!” screeched Jeff.
Then they had an arm, somehow. A third guy joined them. I recognized the slick black of Amaud’s coat.
Another sharp crack. No one moved. They didn’t drop in, but they were slow to move after, like an old man from a hospital bed. Together, they somehow pulled him out. He was big, limp, and sleek like a walrus. So, so slowly, they eased him backward. They didn’t dare to stand up for another twenty feet, and then they dragged him as a team.
Amaud’s eyes were closed, his head slack. They set him down on the snow and he was just there.
I ran forward. Dropped to my knees. I touched Amaud. He was cold, achingly cold, dead cold. I willed something to click in my brain. That magic, that superpower, a healing touch.
“What do we do?” asked one of the boys. They were all panting, drenched and shivering.
The images flashed in my head. Page 36 and 37 of Mom’s St. John manual. One of my hands tilted Amaud’s head back, chin jutting up.
Pinch his nostrils shut.
Open mouth and check for obstructions.
I brought down my lips over his. The chill of his lips sank into me and ached in my jawbone. I sealed my mouth over his and released two quick breaths. Releasing his nose, I looked at the rounded wetness of his chest. No movement.
As I looked at his chest again, breath warmed my ear. I gasped, recoiling. Amaud’s dark eyes were wide open. A violent shiver quaked through his massive body.
“We need to get him warm, out of these clothes,” I said. Page 63.
“Firehouse,” said Jeff. The other guys moved in and hauled up Amaud by the coat and legs. I worked my way in between them to grab Amaud’s hand. It was icy, like a fish from the freezer. He convulsed.
“Hey,” I said.
His eyes found mine. “Hey-y-y.” His teeth rattled.
“That was amazing, Sara,” Jeff said as he huffed for breath. Water and sweat beaded from his jaw. The guys leaned forward and struggled up the ridge.
“You guys, too. You got him out.” I grinned down at Amaud. “Hang in there. You’re going to be okay.”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed. We’d saved a life. I’d saved a life. I hadn’t needed to manifest a thing – no healing, no telekinesis.
I sandwiched Amaud’s hand between my palms and rubbed briskly. Maybe I’d warm him some.
And maybe, just maybe, my brain would still let me do a little something more.
In any case, I wasn’t about to let go.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is now out with Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android.
Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and is an Escape Artists Worldwalker, having been published at all four podcasts.
Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.