PodCastle 671: TRIPLE FEATURE! A Mindreader’s Guide to Surviving Your First Year at the All-Girls Superhero Academy; Chameleon; The First Stop Is Always the Last

Show Notes

Rated PG.


A Mindreader’s Guide to Surviving Your First Year at the All-Girls Superhero Academy

by Jenn Reese

The day you arrive at the academy, you spend just three minutes outside the car before begging your mom to drive you back home. There are too many girls. They’re too loud. They’re laughing. Some of them are flying. Even if you weren’t a mindreader, you’d be overwhelmed.

Your mother, who took a day off work and has driven eleven hours straight to get you here, refuses. She is the worst mother ever.

A girl approaches, her eyes so sharp you expect her codename to be DAZZLE or CHARISMA or SINGULARITY. You can’t stop yourself from reading her mind: she calls herself Meg.

You refuse to shake Meg’s hand and demand that she leave you alone. You tell her your superpower and that nothing she thinks is safe from you. You tell her you don’t want or need friends.

You’re grateful she’s not a mindreader, too.

Meg shrugs and tells you she can blow things up with a thought. She offers to show you to your dorm. Bewildered, you hug your mother goodbye, grab your duffel, and follow Meg, whose hair is brown and whose eyes are lighter brown and whose codename should be TEMPEST or HURRICANE or AVALANCHE based on how she’s making you feel.

For the next three weeks, the days are a blur of headaches and other girls’ anxieties.

I’m not strong enough to stop a train.

I’m too slow to defuse the bomb.

My witty rejoinders are not actually witty.

That creepy mindreader is probably reading my mind.

But there’s also girls kissing each other. So much kissing. Eavesdropping makes you feel more connected and more alone, both at once, like a tsunami that excitedly tumbles you to shore, while at the same time trying to drown you and smash your head on the rocks. You wish you could block out all their make-out sessions. And yet… if you could, you don’t know if you would.

You learn to get by, as you always have. You study in the stacks, which are almost always empty. You eat lunch in your dorm room when your roommate is making out with someone in the stacks. You do not attend parties or join clubs, and you do not participate in the Save-the-City simulations… not that anyone asked you to join their team. Don’t they realize you could read the other team members’ minds as well?

One day you’re walking to class along the path that maximizes your chances to see Meg walking to her class, and you run into her. She’s crying. You’ve been acing Controlling Your Powers class and do not immediately read her mind. Which is frustrating, because it forces you to actually ask her what’s wrong, and speaking to other humans as if you’re not a freak is a skill you’ve yet to master.

Meg doesn’t notice how you mumble, how the words come out in the wrong order, how you keep glancing at the trees and the sky and the ground instead of looking in her light-brown eyes. Or if she notices, it doesn’t seem to matter.

She tells you that her three older brothers have just signed on as henchpeople for a supervillain. Meg is afraid that deep down, she’s evil, too. Why else is her power about blowing things up?

You attempt to comfort her and could not be more awkward if awkward was your superpower. But for a second, her sharp eyes soften and she takes your hand. She asks you to read her mind. To tell her if she’s evil. She’s going to let down her barriers, just this once.

Just for you.

You pull away and shake your head. You don’t care if she’s evil. Most days you think you are, too. But if you go into her mind, you’ll see everything: what she really thinks about you, or if she thinks about you at all. You’ve been down this road so many times, and it always ends in a great fiery crash and your heart bleeding out on the pavement.

Meg says please again and suddenly your A+ in Resisting Torture is absolutely meaningless. You crumble.

Her mind is chaotic and messy, and you sift through it carefully, trying to respect her privacy while at the same time rooting through her most secret thoughts and feelings. You find her asshole brothers and her disinterested parents and, surprisingly, many images of yourself.

You sitting in the stacks studying, a pen dangling from your mouth.

You standing near the bleachers, pretending not to watch Save-the-City while obviously actually watching it.

And you on that first day of school, standing by your mother’s car and wearing a scowl, as if anger could somehow protect you. But there’s sun dappling your hair and cheeks and nose and the way you’re wringing your hands betrays exactly how nervous and excited you are to be there.

When you’re done reading Meg’s mind, you tell her she’s not evil. At least, not any more evil than you are, or your classmates, or your headmistress. You tell her that evil isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. She won’t end up a villain like her brothers unless she wants to.

When Meg kisses you, you kiss her back. Her lips taste like her memory of summers at the ocean, sundrenched and salty, and kissing her in person is so much better than when you were just reading about kissing in other girls’ minds. You think that if Meg decides to become a supervillain, you will be her most loyal henchwoman.

You are once again grateful that Meg is not a mindreader.

And that she knows what to do with her tongue.

A few months later, when you and Meg are holding hands in the stacks, when you’re late for Extreme Physics and she’s late for Hostage Negotiations and neither of you cares, not even a little, you’ll call her BLAZE and VOLCANO and SUPERNOVA, because it makes her blush when you imply that she’s hot.

Your mom was right not to drive you home, back on that first day. She is not, in retrospect, the worst mother ever. The academy still overwhelms you, but you want to stay. Not just for Meg, but because you like who you’re starting to be here. Because last week you got invited to play Save-the-City. And because if evil is a verb, so is hero.


Chameleon

by Kate Heartfield

I’m glad you can’t see me, I lie to the girl in the window seat, with the rainbow hair. It’s OK. I’m not much to look at. I’m not beautiful like you.

She’s my age, but I’m not made of rainbows and a Propagandhi t-shirt. At the moment, I’m a girl made of a rough polyblend weave in brown and blue, with a drop of baby puke, a splash of diet Coke and a lot of sweat. My arms are indistinguishable from the molded beige plastic of the arms of the chair.

But as far as bus rides go, this one isn’t too bad, because no one is sitting on me. Sure, the rainbow-haired girl threw her backpack on me, but it’s a small, light backpack, with Jonny Appleseed sticking out of it, and I don’t mind riding with it on my lap. I’ll keep it safe for you, I say, knowing she can’t hear me.

The bus wheezes to a stop and a man in a trucker cap gets on. There are two empty seats, and there’s me, and I look like an empty seat. Please no, I say, though he can’t hear. Please keep walking.

He pauses right next to me, so close I have to squish to avoid his jeans. For a moment I think he senses me; sometimes I wonder about men with that look in their eyes, whether they sit on me on purpose. They seem to enjoy it. I prepare to shut my mind down, to wait it out.

But the girl doesn’t move her backpack. Her head is half-shaved, up to just above her ear, and it’s growing in golden, below the rainbows on top. I wonder what it would feel like against my fingers, a shaved head like that.

“Move your bag,” the man says.

She turns to him, pops pink gum between pink lips. “Nope.” She makes that “nope” last a hundred years. He stares at her for a hundred more, and I’m thinking how my luck is the worst, but then he just rolls his eyes, and steps down the aisle, muttering, “damn Millennials.”

“My mother is a Millennial,” the rainbow-haired girl says, super loud. She grins, and once he’s sitting somewhere else, she picks up her backpack and puts it on her own lap. “There,” she says. “There aren’t any more stops until we get to Toronto, so you should be safe now.”

I blink hard, forgetting to avoid doing that because the movement weirds people out. In kindergarten, back when I didn’t realize I was starting to blend in to the world, I gave a boy nightmares by handing him a pair of scissors.

Are you talking to me?

“Sure,” she says, with a smile.

You can hear me? You can see me?

She sighs. “My ex-girlfriend was a chameleon, some of the time. She used to fade into the background when we were around other people. Now that I know the signs, I can’t unsee them, I guess.”

Sometimes I’ve noticed other people who are like me, but we never talk to each other, acknowledge each other. I’ve never heard us called “chameleons” before. My mom just called me “freak” or “sneak,” back when I could turn it on and off, when I could choose to be seen when I wanted to.

Wow, I say, and then blush, which is bad because it looks like a shadow where no shadow should be, but I can’t help it. So I guess you heard everything I said, before.

“Yep,” she says, and this “yep” lasts so long it sends shivers all over my body. She’s smiling at me. “Thanks. I’m Hannah.”

Julia, I say. It’s been a long time since I’ve said my own name. Are you going to Toronto?

“For starters, yeah. I need somewhere to hide from my life for a while and think about stuff. Somewhere where nobody knows me.”

Blending in is my specialty, I say. That and pancakes. I’m so happy that I made her smile, even though she seems to smile a lot so it’s not that hard. But this one is my smile. I made it.

“I think it’s rad that you can change into anything, Julia. If I were you, I’d go into art galleries all the time, and just become the art, you know? Van Gogh. I really like Van Gogh.”

I nod, but I’ve never been to an art gallery. I used to go to the mall and stand next to a fake waterfall. It had these lights that would change the water into different colors. Like your hair.

She tucks a strand of blue behind her ear. It’s pierced three times, but one of the holes is empty.

“Can I try something?” she asks, and my body knows what it is before my brain will believe it’s true. I nod, and she holds her right hand out, palm up.

I slowly put my left hand over hers and watch it take on every shade of her skin. Our arms slide together and then I’m wearing a little of her t-shirt. There’s a stray sunset-colored hair on my shoulder.

And then for the first time in years, a little of myself sneaks in, a moving shadow on both of our arms, like a ripple in ice cream.

She gives my hand a squeeze before we let go. “That is super cool,” she says.

A couple of hours to Toronto, and I am in no hurry.


The First Stop Is Always the Last

by John Wiswell

 

MONDAY, APRIL 10

The first stop on Selma’s route was equidistant between the mall and the cemetery. Zoning was weird out here. People of shapes she’d never seen streamed down the sidewalk, all in black suits or black dresses. One broke from the crowd and boarded Selma’s bus. The woman climbed up to her and asked–

 

MONDAY, APRIL 10

The first stop on Selma’s route was equidistant between the mall and the cemetery. Zoning was weird out here. People of shapes she’d never seen streamed down the sidewalk, all in black suits or black dresses. One broke from the crowd and boarded Selma’s bus. The woman climbed up to her, eyes downcast as she flashed her ticket.

It was just the two of them aboard as Selma pulled them from the curb. The woman’s sobs sounded like hiccups, and it felt unfair that someone’s grief sounded so cute. Selma pulled a couple tissues from beneath her seat and stretched them back to her.

The woman blotted her eyes. She had had five moles on her left cheek that gave the impression of the minute- and hour-hands on an analog clock. Selma checked the time on her cheek, and wanted to ask if her name was Ms. 8:30.

Ms. 8:30 kept eyeing the ads on the walls for the newest Fast and the Furious.

Selma asked, “You like those movies?”

The woman nodded plaintively, like she got that question all the time. “I saw the last one a thousand times.”

“Me too. Promise not to drive like it, though.”

“Do you like Vin Diesel or The Rock?”

Selma grinned. “More like Michelle Rodriguez.”

The woman looked at her lap, blushing and making fists in her skirt. She–

 

MONDAY, APRIL 10

Ms. 8:30 kept eyeing the ads on the walls for the newest Fast and the Furious. Selma was going to ask about it when the woman said, “They’re fun movies. I love Michelle Rodriguez in them.”

Selma snickered. This was her kind of lady. “Who doesn’t?”

“Thanks for driving me around all morning.”

“Uhm.” Maybe she’d ridden another bus to the funeral? Or was Selma being punked for a viral video? “Have you ridden with me before?”

“About a thousand times today. It’s so nice in here. All you can hear is the hum of the engine.”

Selma did a double-take. Was this lady–

 

MONDAY, APRIL 10

Selma snickered. This was her kind of lady. “Who doesn’t?”

“My name’s Miri.”

“Selma.”

“Sorry. I’ve been on edge all week.” Miri smoothed out her black dress. “My dad passed.”

“That’s hard, hon. My advice? Go easy on yourself. It gets easier to carry with time.”

“It hasn’t yet.” Miri 8:30 scratched at her cheek. “I’m taking over the family business.”

“Oh yeah? I did too, I guess.”

“Your father drove buses?”

“Cabs. I’ve sort of got his career on steroids.” Selma patted the dashboard, and Miri smiled so dryly she could’ve been made of sand. She blotted the moles on her cheek.

“My dad was the god of time.”

 

MONDAY, APRIL 10

“My father was one of the maintenance men for the laws of physics and—no, not that either.”

 

MONDAY, APRIL 10

“I don’t know how to say this.”

Selma said, “Just let it out. I’m not judgy.”

Miri peered into Selma’s eyes through a rear-view mirror. There was such need in her face. “My dad was in charge of all time on earth. Now I’m supposed to do it. Starting today.”

Selma turned them onto Main Street and blew out a breath. “That’s heavy.”

“What if I screw time up for everyone?”

“Well, what can you do?” Selma found herself thinking of her own father’s funeral. The question was out before she could stop it: “Can you, like, go back and prevent a car wreck?”

“I wish. I can change, like, ordering caramel mocha instead of espresso. Or having a conversation.”

“Conversations can change a lot.”

“How? It’s always the same.”

Selma got an itch in her brain. She asked, “How many times have we talked about this today?”

Miri visibly tensed up, and for no better reason than fear, Selma pumped the breaks. The bus jerked, and when Miri jolted, Selma turned around in her seat. She said for what felt like the first time, “Don’t rewind me. It’s… rude?”

“I’m sorry,” Miri said, her anxiety palpable in her voice. “I just don’t want to go to work. What if I screw everything up?”

“That’s what first days are for,” Selma said, pulling them onto Cassandra Boulevard. “If your dad could get the hang of it, then so can you.”

“How do you know?”

“Because after my dad died, I had to go to work that same night without knowing a thing other than I had big-ass bills. Now a few years later I’m driving you around just fine, aren’t I?”

Miri smirked, but the ensuing hiccup make her look dopey. Dopily cute. “Do you pick up a lot of girls at funerals?”

“I drive a bus. I pick up girls from everywhere.”

It turned out Miri’s laughter sounded like hiccups, too. Miri said, “I bet that sounded smoother in your head.”

“See? Didn’t even have to rewind time to flirt with me. You’ll do great.” Selma yanked off three more tissues, handing them to Miri. “Look. If you make it through today without blowing up the earth, and through the week, I’m off Saturday. Want to go watch Michelle Rodriguez with me?”

Miri brushed a tissue across the clock-hands of her cheek. “A thousand times.”

She got off at the next stop, her steps uncertain, like it was the first in her thousand trips that she’d gotten off. There was a determination in how she stepped into uncertainty. Selma watched her go as new passengers boarded.  She pulled from the curb just a little after 8:30.

About the Authors

Jenn Reese

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Jenn Reese writes science fiction and fantasy adventure stories for readers of all ages. Her first novel, Jade Tiger, is a kung fu action-adventure romance, and her latest books, the Above World trilogy for young readers, feature bioengineered mermaids in a post-apocalyptic future. Jenn is also a graphic designer, a (lapsed) martial artist, and a very occasional voice actor. When she’s not exploring her new home city of Portland, she’s playing video games, learning to knit, or watching far too much TV.

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John Wiswell 

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John (@Wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His fiction has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Fireside Magazine, and Nature Futures. He previously appeared in PodCastle with a reprint of his story “Wet,” which was similarly about sympathy for unusual characters.

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A headshot of author John Wiswell, who is wears a blue Hawaiian short and smiles for the camera. He is holding a red wooden parrot.
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Kate Heartfield

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Kate Heartfield’s fiction has been shortlisted for the Nebula, Locus, Aurora, Sunburst and Crawford awards. She is the author of the historical fantasy novel Armed in Her Fashion, and the two Alice Payne time travel novellas. She also writes interactive fiction, including The Road to Canterbury for Choice of Games. Her forthcoming publications include a historical fantasy novel called The Humours of Grub Street, and another game, this one called The Magician’s Workshop. A former journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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About the Narrators

C. L. Clark

C.L. Clark

Cherae graduated from Indiana University’s creative writing MFA. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH and Uncanny.

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Kim Rogers

Kim Rogers is an EMC actress who can be found at Music Theatre International where she has the pleasure of assisting theatres with all of their licensing needs. She has recently workshopped musicals at Lincoln Center and for the BMI Workshop. She lives with her husband in Brooklyn and can be heard at the top of every episode of the Kaleidocast, available on iTunes and SoundCloud.

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Tina Connolly

Tina Connolly’s books include the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards. She co-hosts Escape Pod, runs Toasted Cake, and is at tinaconnolly.com.

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