Exchange Students #1

A story by Kendal Reed

The room is still mostly empty when Piper arrives. The desks are arranged in a horseshoe shape, all facing the center; Araceli is sitting near one end working on her calligraphy, and Floyd is a couple seats over, watching and trying not to look like he doesn’t know how to break the silence. Piper rolls her eyes and smiles at the same time.

They’re expecting her, but they can’t see her; they’re expecting that, too, so they don’t look. She sits down, invisible, behind the desk at the far end of the horseshoe.

Other kids trickle in over the next few minutes. Shapes and sizes vary, but only a few of them have obvious estrangements- there’s a dark-haired girl in a tank top whose straps don’t touch her shoulders, and an Asian guy whose hands look wrong somehow. Piper thinks about getting up to investigate, but then decides it’s not that important.

The guy with the hands is a freshman. They’re easy to spot this time of day, at the beginning of the year- classes have been over for a little while, so most people have gone back to the dorms and dropped their stuff. The ones still carrying backpacks or whatever are the ones who aren’t used to the schedule yet. (Bailey taught Piper that, before she graduated.)

She counts four of them, just like last year- but this time all four are guys. That’s weird. She’ll have to watch that.

Piper can’t remember where she first heard the old saying about judging books by their covers, but she knows she never really thought about it until last year. Even back home, when the girls in her class went from acting friendly to talking behind her back and then worse, she thought for a long time that they must have changed- that they really had been her friends, and if she could just figure out why they didn’t like her anymore, then she’d be able to fix it.

It was Bailey who finally put the pieces together for her. She said people are like icebergs- all the stuff you can see right away is just a little piece of the real deal. Sometimes you can pay attention to the surface stuff and figure out what’s underneath. Other times you don’t find out about it until you run into it and it rips you open.

You can’t always know how to get close without hurting yourself. The important thing is to remember that until you get close, and sometimes even then, you don’t have the whole picture.

The IKC was full of different kinds of icebergs. Some of them were more or less mapped, like Araceli- they didn’t have much to hide, but they marked it out very carefully, because they’d break if someone touched it wrong. Others were small and fragile underneath, like Floyd- they looked as strong as anything, until you got in close and found the scars where pieces had been broken off.

But they weren’t all hiding vulnerable spots. Some of them were sharp. That’s why she’s doing this.

People keep filtering in for a little while. Most of them just check the board to see if they’re in the right place, and then sit down and don’t say anything. Araceli was right- it’s all single file; none of them show up together. After the size of the group reaches double digits, it’s still so quiet Piper’s almost tempted to just blow an enormous raspberry and see what happens-

And then Miss Delaney stands up from behind the desk where she’s been grading papers, and the noise from her chair scraping back across the floor makes two or three of the new kids almost jump out of their skins.

(Piper might have laughed at that, except that Miss D is staring right at her when she does it. She looks down to check- yep, still invisible- but still spends several seconds making herself calm down, and doesn’t see the tall boy near the center of the horseshoe suddenly looking in her direction.)

“All right, let’s get started!” The teacher opens a drawer and takes out a dish full of brightly colored candy. “When you get the bowl, take three pieces and pass the rest. After everyone has three, just keep it moving. You can eat some if you want, but hold on to those three- they’ll be important later.” She picks out three for herself and sets them on the desk, then walks over and hands the bowl to the girl seated at the far end of the horseshoe.

“So.” She looks around at the odd assortment of kids- not even a group yet, really- and smiles anyway. “Welcome to the first meeting of the Cultural Exchange Association. Some of you may have heard of the Invisible Kids Club; I know there are a few of you who were members last year. I liked running that group, but now I’m starting to think it was too narrow, so this year I’m doing something different. This group will have a lot of the same kinds of discussions and games and team activities that the IKC used to, and it’ll be open to anyone who wants to meet new people and share their experiences.

“If it’s going to work, though, we’re all going to have to agree to some ground rules. Above all, this needs to be a safe space to talk about anything. No one in this room will judge you or insult you or try to hurt you in any way- and if you feel hurt by something someone else says or does, just say so, and one way or another, it will stop. We have a non-aggression pact here, and you have to agree to respect it.

“If you insult someone, you will apologize, sincerely, or you will leave and not come back. If it goes beyond insults, the school authorities will get involved. If I hear about you mistreating another student outside this room, same thing. If you don’t understand how you insulted someone, you will apologize anyway.

“We’re here to get to know each other, and we will try to figure out when there’s been a misunderstanding and how to avoid it in the future- but we can’t do that while someone feels like they’re under attack. When someone is hurting, their first priority is to make it stop, and our first priority is to help them. If anyone has a problem with that, I suggest they speak up, or else leave now.”

Nobody does, of course. Nobody did last year either.

“Now that that’s out of the way, we can get started. For our first meeting, I thought we’d have a little icebreaker to get to know each other better. Does everybody have their three pieces?”

An assortment of nods, cemented with a “Yep!” from one girl who sounds more cheerful than she has any right to be, especially on only three pieces of candy.

Miss D picks up the projector remote and presses a button. The screen descends from the ceiling, and lights up to display a presentation slide with a list of questions.

“Excellent. Now, we’re each going to get a chance to talk. When it’s your turn, answer all the questions on the first list, plus the three from the second that match your candy. I tried to make these all pretty light, but you’re welcome to opt out of anything you’re not comfortable with. After your turn is over, take your candy off your desk, and choose someone who still has theirs out to go next. Okay?”

Satisfied, she glances over her shoulder, then down at her candy. “My name’s Alexa Delaney- you can call me Miss Delaney, or just Alexa. I had someone last year who liked ‘Miss D’; that’s fine too.

“I’m not a student here, but I am an Extra: my power lets me sort of see what people are feeling.

“If I were building my dream house, I’d want to put in a real grand piano. Or at least, I’d want to hire someone to put one in.” That gets a couple of chuckles.

“Now, yellow is… two people I admire. A friend of mine recommended a reporter named Steven Pearlstein, who writes a column about the economy. I’ve been reading that for a while now, and I really enjoy it- he takes these complicated situations and shows you all the different forces that help to produce them, and he does it without being boring or losing track of the point.

“Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of BlackBachs- the things they do with rhythm and change of key are really interesting.” She smiles and looks around the room. “Now, who wants to go next?”

The first hand up belongs to one of the freshmen- a blond guy, kind of skinny, with a messenger bag instead of a backpack. Miss D nods, and he turns his attention to the group. “My name’s Eric Underhill, and my pronouns are he-him-his. I’m from Whitmore- that’s in Illinois, I signed up to go here instead. My power makes bits of dirt and dust and stuff start shifting back and forth or up and down when I’m around. If I concentrate, I can make some of it go where I want, but it usually bounces back when I let go. The longer I stay in one place, the stronger it gets, so I have to get up and move sometimes, to keep it quiet.

“I have a green, a yellow, and a purple, so… hmm. One thing I’m looking forward to in the future is more positive representation for marginalized groups, like people with disabilities or gender dysphoria. Those kids need role models too- maybe more than the rest of us, because society spends so much time talking about how they’re supposedly broken or whatever. Some people have been doing good work there- I definitely admire Adrian Foltz for what’s been happening with Knot Theory and the neurodiverse characters- but there’s a long way to go, you know?” Piper glances in Araceli’s direction, hoping to catch a reaction, but she doesn’t really look any more interested than anyone else.

“In the second grade I was really into rock collecting. My dad made me throw most of them out, but I still have some of the nicer ones on a shelf in my room at home. Maybe I’ll bring some in sometime, if anybody’s interested.” He shrugs and looks around at the group, then turns to Miss D expectantly.

Eric acts like he’s perfectly safe. Everything he said came with an explanation- his hometown, his power, even his name. He’s drawing a map around his iceberg, and that means one of two things- either the map is real, because he doesn’t want to rub anyone the wrong way, or the map is fake, because he wants people to get in close before they find the spikes.

Piper’s going to be watching him.

He’s picked someone to go next. Her hair is dark and straight, hanging past her shoulders. Her T-shirt has a cartoon character on it- an alien or monster or something, someone Piper recognizes but can’t place.

“Oh. Um. My name’s Camille Palomo, and I’m from Erie, Pennsylvania. My power is… I basically don’t lose things? There’s more to it, but mostly I just know where all my stuff is, all the time.” She’s quiet, even addressing the group like this, but she gets her footing after a minute.

“Red… um… this past break I went home and got to hang out with my friend Maya from down the street again. I showed her some of the new stuff I learned here, and we talked about what we’ve been doing, watched some movies… it was nice.

“For yellow I’d say Lauren Faust- she came up with the new My Little Pony show, the one that’s all over the Internet now. It’s really good, it’s not just for little kids or anything. It’s got good messages, and it’s really funny.

“Purple- ooh! My parents finally caved and bought me the electronic Dragon Flyer for my birthday this year. It hasn’t shown up at the house yet, but I made my dad promise to ship it here when it does. I can’t wait to try it.”

Piper can’t help noticing the change in Camille’s expression and bearing since she started talking- it’s like night and day. There were people like that in the IKC, too- like icebergs that bobbed up and down, showing different parts at different times. They tended to be more fragile than dangerous- they got exposed easily, so hiding things took more effort, and they wouldn’t waste that on anything that wasn’t really important.

If she lit up like that when she was angry, or talking about something nasty like some of the girls back home, that would be a problem- but dragon toys are probably safe.

Araceli is up next. Instead of looking around the room, she turns to look at the whiteboard and presses a button on her phone, activating the pocket projector that throws its beam up beside the one already there. It takes a moment to warm up, and Piper uses the opportunity to check out the confused expressions appearing on the other kids’ faces. (It’s not exactly useful information, but it is fun.) Soon, though, the image resolves into words:

I’m Araceli Ribeiro. I’m only in eighth grade, but this is my second year at Summit. I live in Mansfield.

My power makes me disappear sometimes. I’m still learning to control it.

The words hang there for a few seconds while Araceli glances around for signs of comprehension, then they vanish, replaced by another prepared slide.

I have apraxia of speech. This means my brain has trouble planning the mouth movements it takes to form words. Some words come out fine; others get all scrambled. It’s usually easier to write or type instead. (I’ve been typing since I was six!)

Piper doesn’t bother reading most of the slide- she saw it last year, she knows the drill. She looks around instead, trying to get a sense of what the other kids think. Most are pretty straightforward- reading, thinking, one or two looking surprised or glancing at Araceli herself. Eric gives an exaggerated nod and keeps his eyes on the board, like he’s listening to a teacher review last night’s homework.

The guy next to Chelly, a black boy with glasses and a baseball T-shirt, is hard to read- he keeps looking sort of blurred, like she’s seeing him through frosted glass or something. For a split second she can actually see the space behind him, and then he’s back, and relaxed again, carefully paying attention. He’s another freshman, still carrying his bags- a new invisible kid, maybe?

Before Piper can guess, the display changes, and now Araceli is typing:

My pieces are all purple. I’m looking forward to: being able to make my power work on command, trying out for the fo

She stops, backspaces a couple of times.

trying out for the soccer team, and

Hesitates. Thinking.

and finishing the Munnys I’m working on.

That gets a few weird looks, so she explains:

(Munnys are blank white dolls that you can draw your own designs on. I have a set that I’m painting as the heroes from Sym-Bionic Titan!)

She gives everyone time to read through, and then the words disappear, replaced by a new, prepared slide.

I was in the Invisible Kids Club last year. I had a lot of fun! I hope this year’s club is just as good.

Araceli smiles and switches off the projector, then turns to the group. The blurry kid’s hand is up before she even turns around, and he gets her attention easily. She glances around for other hands, then nods in his direction.

He’s mostly in focus now- only his head blurs for a moment or two before he speaks. “Sorry, um… can I borrow that for a minute?” he asks her, nodding in the direction of her phone, with the projector still attached. “It’s just-”

She’s already nodding, making a flicking sort of gesture with two fingers. Piper doesn’t get it at first, but the freshman looks like he does.

“Yeah- trade you, sure. Thanks.” And then… something happens, and suddenly the projector is on and pointed at the board again, displaying a news headline with a large photo underneath.

Neighborhood Crusader Honored With Leadership Award

The photo shows a group of people on stage in front of a curtain. Four of them have similar faces and matching outfits- domino masks and white leather bodysuits, each with a different color and design over the chest. The shortest of the four is the focus of the picture; he wears overlapping yellow bullseye designs and a friendly smile, aimed just to the left of the camera, and is shown accepting a small sculpted trophy from the well-dressed man on his left. On his right, ignoring the camera entirely, is a lighter-skinned guy with a thick build and a ponytail. They look like they’re probably holding hands, but the photo cuts off too high to be sure.

Behind them and further left are the other three bodysuits- red, blue, and green- plus a uniformed police officer. She’s a certified Extra- Piper recognizes the green-and-purple pin they wear. The faces of the officer and one of the costumed group- a tall, skinny guy with a green emblem shaped like a shooting star- have colored circles drawn around them.

Almost before Piper can wonder what the heck this is supposed to be, the guy holding the projector starts talking. “My name’s Owen Gibson-Laurent. These are my parents, in the circles- my dad is Slide from the St. Louis Crusaders, and my mom is their police liaison. Ceasefire, Capsule, and Impact are my aunt and uncles.

“They’re not super popular like Tornado Express or anything, but they’re a big deal at home- they’ve been around for almost thirty years now, and the city loves ‘em.

“I grew up living in Shelley Base with just family and tutors and stuff, so this is actually my first time in public school.” He hands over Araceli’s phone and goes on to the next question without missing a beat. “So my hometown is St. Louis Missouri, and I’m a freshman. I’m a scalar- do people still say that?”

There’s a good number of nods, but he explains anyway- he has an adjustable time scale, he can speed himself up relative to the rest of the world, like the Visitor or that writer from the BBC, Yulia something. That’s what the two watches are for- one measures time in his accelerated frame, the other stays synched with the outside world.

“For my dream house, I’d want some really big windows, with a nice view to look at in the morning. At the Base we had high rises all around, so you couldn’t see much of anything. I’m looking forward to the new Hitman game coming out next month, and I admire my Uncle Dominic. He’s a baseline, and he gets a lot of media attention and stuff just by being Uncle Cassidy’s boyfriend, but he still goes to work and fixes people’s wiring and stuff every day just like his coworkers. I think that’s really nice.”

Piper raises an eyebrow. His dad’s a superhero, his mom’s a cop, his aunt and uncles are local heroes… and his role model is, what, a handyman? Then again, there’s probably some reason he’s going to school here, and not anyplace closer to home…

Still, he seems pretty harmless. He’s definitely got hidden depths, if he spent most of his life in just one building, and he might not even know where they all are- but he knows enough to warn people, and he’s trying. The club should be good for that.

Floyd raises his hand to go next. That’s a surprise- he looks pretty uncomfortable in the spotlight, especially compared to Owen. It’s been weird dealing with him lately; he wasn’t so withdrawn this time last year- but then, nobody knew about his mom back then, either.

“Um. Hi. Uh. Floyd Yates. Soff-a-more.” Piper cringes at the mispronounciation.

“You mean sophomore?” One of the other kids- the girl with the floating shoulder straps that Piper noticed earlier.

“Oh. Yeah, is that- okay. Sorry.” He takes a moment to recover, glances at the screen again. “Hometown, Tarlton… Power, uh, I’m like Araceli- Invisible Kids 2012, wooo.” He forces a grin and waves one hand, but the enthusiasm completely fails to materialize.

“I have… green is… okay. In second grade I got my first pair of…”

He looks just fine for a second. Better than fine, even- normal. Comfortable. Like the Floyd from before.

And then it all falls out from under him, and he looks… lost. Like he just came home and found all his furniture is gone. His mouth just hangs open for a second, his hands freeze in mid-gesture.

“No. Hang on, I…” He closes his eyes, puts his hands flat on the desk. His head tilts forward a little, that screwed-up, concentrating look on his face.

Piper feels a pang of guilt. If he wanted to get away, she could do that in ten seconds- run right through the desks, grab him, cloak him, and pull him through the door. If he wanted someone to leave him alone, she could go all poltergeist on them- scream from nowhere, throw things, even punch or kick if she had to. But this… her power is all wrong for this. If she goes near him she might make footsteps, and even then she’s not sure she can touch him gently without cloaking him. Affecting other people wasn’t covered in freshman metamorphics…

Araceli types on her phone for a second, then turns the screen toward him and knocks on the desk. He looks over and reads it, then nods, relaxing his shoulders a little. “Yeah, that… that’d be good. Thanks.” He turns to face the middle of the group. “I’m gonna pass for right now. Sorry. Somebody else can go.”

The girl next to him reaches out and puts a hand on his desk- not touching him, but closer than she would’ve been without trying. “Okay. Thanks, Floyd.”

For a second Piper resents how comfortable she looks while he’s struggling, but then she sees him relax a little, and that helps.

While she’s talking (blah blah Shirley Bellamy, blah blah named after the American hero…), Piper glances around the room, checking reactions. No actual complaints- that’s good, but it’s still just surface. Camille and a few others- the tall guy in the middle section, the freshman with the weird hands- are obviously watching Floyd and not Shirley, and none of them look too comfortable. That’s probably a good sign.

The pronoun kid, Eric, looks… maybe not angry, but… irritated? Annoyed? Didn’t he just say kids with disabilities aren’t broken and they need acceptance or whatever? Not that Floyd’s disabled, but still. What a dick.

Shirley finally says something that gets Piper’s full attention: “Does anybody have any environment sensitivities? Air pressure, chemical composition, anything like that? Epilepsy maybe?” Nobody objects, but she takes another moment to check on Floyd in particular, leaning down to look him in the eyes. (Her hair is really nice- it’s wrapped up in this complicated bun thing that Piper couldn’t do in a million years.)

Once she’s satisfied, she turns to the group again, holding one hand out above her desk. “Okay! Nobody blink.”

She smiles, and suddenly she’s holding a thick purple binder where there had been only air. There’s some noise when it appears, but only a little- it’s not the sharp pop like when Pinhole teleports, more of a short hiss like a bicycle pump or a sudden intake of breath. A few eyebrows go up, but before anyone can really react, she starts talking again.

“I can grab it anytime, from anywhere, and it comes back safe no matter what, like restoring a backup… but it’s just this, nothing else. Believe me, I’ve tried.

“My dream house would have to have a big home theater setup, with lots of comfy chairs to hang out and watch movies in. And a good neighborhood, with lots of nice people to invite over for movie night! That’s one of the things I love about living here during the year- all my friends are, like, a block away. In Patterson there’s like half a mile between every house; you have to get in the car to go ask the neighbors for a cup of sugar.” She giggles, and some of the others chuckle or smile back. “So I was really excited to be back here after break. On move-in day I must’ve spent hours just going around to the different dorms and talking to everybody about their summer, getting back into the swing of things. And now I’m all set! Who wants to go next?”

Piper has to take a minute to process that. Orange, orange, red… two “dream house”, one “happy memory”… the home theater, the friendly neighbors, the catching up on move-in day. It was all in there; she just wasn’t counting until now, because Shirley made it all sound like one thing instead of handling each on its own.

Bailey told her once that even Extra abilities take time and practice before you can do complicated tricks with them. If someone does something you’ve never even thought of trying and makes it look easy, it’s probably because they’ve done it a lot.

Last year, Floyd was more comfortable in the spotlight than any of the new kids. It took months before anyone even suspected he was lying; he made everything he said sound completely natural, even the excuses he made when something didn’t add up.

Shirley’s from a small town, just like Floyd is- and she’s better at it than he was. Piper isn’t sure whether to be concerned or just terrified. What the heck made her so afraid to just say what she’s thinking?

The guy she picked is… really good-looking, honestly. Bright blue eyes, close-cut hair… He’s fairly relaxed, but not so smooth as Shirley was. “Hey,” he starts out, flashing a smile. His teeth are really white, in sharp contrast to his skin. Piper’s not sure she’s seen teeth that bright in person before- he looks like someone out of a magazine. “I’m Joey Sissoko, from Middletown, and I’m a shapeshifter class B- biologic autonomic.”

He explains, but Piper isn’t listening. She knows the keywords from Metamorphic Abilities last year- he can’t change into anything that’s not survivable, like losing his heart or brain, and his power helps with that- he doesn’t have to specify all the details of a shape, it’ll fill in some blanks for him. It’s pretty convenient as shapeshifting goes- bio-voluntary Extras have a lot more risk of screwing themselves up, and abiotic ones have more options and more durability but more room to temporarily lose important things too. There’d been a girl in her class last year who could turn into just about anything, even water or sand- but if she broke off a piece, she couldn’t move it anymore, and if she changed back without it, she came out shorter, or with some hair missing.

She tunes back into the conversation in time to hear that Joey wants to be a fashion designer. That’s… pretty cool, actually. He sounds like an actor or something too- there’s a bit of an accent she doesn’t recognize, but he’s easy to understand, and the sound is smooth and even. He could probably go to Hollywood and be set for life, like that Hazzard guy from all those kung fu movies, but he wants to do more than just what comes easily to him. She can respect that.

“And I have another purple, so… how about something closer to home? In my free time I like to do cosplay- I make costumes of my favorite TV characters and wear them to conventions or group photo shoots with friends; it’s a lot of fun. Right now I’m working on a costume of Pride, from Fullmetal Alchemist, with all the creepy shadows and eyes and everything. I’m hoping to get that done before the end of the year, so I can wear it when I meet up with my group back home.” He looks around a little, checking reactions, and seems a little disappointed- nothing but the usual polite smiles. “Okay, red… something else, then. Let’s see…” He looks off into space, drums his fingers on the desk for a second, and then his face lights up. “Oh! Last month, I found out Eien Strife was doing a show in Cincinnati, and my friends and I got to see them play in person. I still have a poster with their autographs.”

It looks like most of the group is as confused by “A-N Strife” as Piper is. Still, Joey seems satisfied this time. Maybe he’s a hipster or something.

In iceberg terms, he’s hard to place. Something about the way he referred to his friends at home, without using any particular names, felt kind of odd… but when Floyd was lying about home, that was one of the things he was really good about. If Joey’s lying about his friends, he’s not very good at it…

The guy with the funny hands is up next. “Hey. My name is Hisashi Fukui, and I’m in the ninth grade. I live in Woodburn, Kentucky.”

That’s weird. Kentucky’s Academy doesn’t have half as many kids as Summit, so it’s not like he’s here because they need the space. (What do they call themselves, again? Some really old city, like Troy or Delphi…) And he’s a freshman, so he’s not in a temporary exchange program- either he volunteered, or somebody put him here.

“My estrangement looks mostly biological, but the doctors say otherwise. Apparently I don’t just have spare arms- I have Extra arms.”

A couple of people laugh. Piper doesn’t get it- is he kidding? Sure, she hasn’t figured out what’s weird about his hands, but she’s not so dumb she wouldn’t notice if…

He lays both hands on the edge of the desk in front of him. One, two- left and right.

Then he does it again. Without moving the first set.

Piper stifles a groan. Apparently she is that dumb.

“I’m still investigating everything I can do with them. I know they’re very flexible and can safely extend quite a long way, but apparently there’s more to it. That’s a good violet, I guess. I’m looking forward to seeing what else I can do.

“From there… let’s go backwards. Green is for something that I enjoyed in the second grade. Second grade was Mr. Gadhavi’s class, and that was… right after the twins were born, when we first moved in with Sofu and Soba.”

He sees the raised hand and reacts immediately. “My grandfather and grandmother.” A nod. Understanding. The hand goes down. “In second grade… I got really into computer games that year. I used to come home from school and run to the PC to play Reader Rabbit or Mathman.”

“And… red. A happy memory. In July we went to this neat little science museum in Barren River, where all the exhibits are interactive- things like marble mazes and kaleidoscopes and electric circuits, that you can play with and then read about how they work. I didn’t get to try it much for myself, but… for a few hours, all my brothers and sisters were having fun at once, and that is priceless.”

There are only a few kids left to pick from, and none of them are raising their hands. While Hisashi figures out who to call on, Piper tries to puzzle him out.

He doesn’t have any obvious problems, even familiar ones- but he’s here when he could be in Kentucky, and he didn’t transfer. Somebody in the system decided to put him here, instead of closer to home. That’s usually a sign of something- it was with Floyd, it is with her- but he sounds like he’s pretty happy at home. In fact, he probably talked more about home than about himself…

There’s something under the surface there, but she has no idea what it is.

One of the remaining kids finally puts his hand up, and Hisashi points to him almost immediately. The guy- Asian, freshman, bowl cut- sighs, glances at the other two, and then starts talking.

“Okay. I’m Nathan Lu, I’m from Canton, and machines talk to me. That doesn’t mean I control them- I just understand what they’re saying when they talk, and I can figure out how they work if I look close enough. Like, I know there are thirteen cell phones in this room- three on OpenVoice, two on Ringular, four on Americell, three on Sprint, and one prepaid on Cricket- but that’s all. I can’t make them do anything- otherwise I’d make them all ring at once, or something.

“A little over a month ago was my estrangement day. This year we ate pizza and watched The Three Musketeers. There’s this really cool airship fight, where…”

Piper glances around, checking expressions. “Estrangement day”? She remembers when she first got her powers, sure, and it is kind of a big deal, but she’s never heard of anybody celebrating it afterward- she can’t even remember the date. A few of the other kids look confused as well- maybe it’s a Canton thing?

“If I were designing a dream house, it’d have a big display kind of room, where I could put my model trains. I always wanted someplace to put a more complicated layout- there’s stuff that doesn’t make sense in a small one, like a turntable or a real viaduct, or some of the tricks they use to climb hills in real railways, like…”

Sometimes being invisible is really handy, just to keep people from seeing the look on your face. Piper feels like her eyes are going to glaze over. Toward the end, Owen vanishes for a second or two; when he reappears, Nathan seems to snap out of it.

“Oh. Sorry. And the last one… in the second grade I had this box thing from career day at school- like a cube made of smaller cubes connected at the corners, so you can unfold it into a rectangle and then flip it around so it shows a different design. I thought that was so cool.”

This time he looks embarrassed, at least, and Piper thinks she knows what he’s talking about. She’ll say one thing for this kid- she can’t see him keeping any big secrets.

Only two left to talk, besides Floyd- a taller guy with dark hair and brownish skin, and the girl Piper noticed earlier, with the shoulder straps. Tall guy has had this kind of unfocused look the whole time, like there’s something more interesting going on that no one else can see. Shoulders is paying attention, but her arms are crossed in front of her and she’s doing that “really?” look Araceli has sometimes- head tilted just a little forward and to one side, mouth flat, eyes not quite all the way open.

Nathan points to tall guy. Piper can’t really blame him.

The guy’s focus shifts to the center of the room- still not looking at anyone in particular, but more present than when he was just staring into space, at least.

“Enrico Wolfe, with an E. Senior. Indianapolis. Enhanced hearing.” He glances down at the candy on his desk.

“Looking forward to… graduation, I guess. Really enjoyed… volunteering. I do some neighborhood watch stuff back home, makes me feel helpful.” That’s interesting, at least.

“And… my ‘dream house’.” He gives each word a weird stretched-out emphasis, like he can’t believe he’s really saying them.

There’s a pretty significant pause, and then… “I dunno. A big bathtub, with those massage jet things.” He tilts his head toward Shoulders. “Over to you.”

Geez. This guy isn’t an iceberg so much as a lighthouse, flashing Do Not Approach. Before Piper can make any good guesses about what it is he’s avoiding, Shoulders nods and then rolls her head from one shoulder to the other, like she’s just waking up. Her hair hangs down from her forehead in a weird ragged edge, and she flips her head back sharply to get it out of her eyes.

“Okay. Dahlia Fletcher… Jackson, Michigan… exoform force field…”

She looks about as interested as Enrico was, but after a deep breath and a couple of seconds she gets started anyway. “I… hh. Okay. A couple years back my dad and I went to Benton Harbor for a few days over summer vacation. There’s this place called Jean Klock Park, it’s like half a mile of beach and stuff off Lake Michigan. It’s pretty nice, not too crowded.

“Someone I admire… huh. That’s actually…” She taps a finger on the table, and then looks up. “I wasn’t going to talk about this, but… I read online about Jean Klock Park, when we were planning that vacation, and I found this story.

“I haven’t thought about this in like a year, so I’ll probably mess it up, but whatever. In the early nineteen hundreds there was this couple, the Klocks, who lived in Benton Harbor, and their daughter died when she was a baby.

“And they’d been saving up, right, because they were going to have another mouth to feed, and then suddenly they weren’t. So they took the money and they bought all this undeveloped land, like 90 acres, right along the coast of the lake. They got this really nice place with a great view… and they gave it away. They had the city make it into a public park, and name it after their daughter, and agree never to build on it or use it for anything else.

“The guy, Mr. Klock, wrote up a letter to go with the deed, and… I don’t remember the exact words. Something like, ‘if you’ve never owned any land, this is your land. If you don’t have your own music, the waves will be your music. This is your beach, and your land, and your dunes. We can’t give it to our child- so you keep it, and give it to yours.’ And I thought that was pretty great. So that’s somebody I look up to- the guy who bought 90 acres of beach playground for other people’s daughters.”

Wow. That was not even a little what Piper was expecting. Dahlia definitely has hidden depths, and they are… kind of beautiful.

It looks like the rest of the room agrees, too- a lot more of them are looking at her now, and most of those are smiling or giving little nods.

Meanwhile Dahlia glances at her last piece of candy, and then laughs. “Okay, no. No more of the park story. My dream house would probably have a playground and stuff, because that’s awesome, but also… my own vegetable garden. Yeah.”

She looks around the horseshoe, checking desks for candy. Floyd’s is the only one left.

“You ready?”

Piper has a decision to make.

“I… yeah. Okay.”

How many of these people are going to make this club better? Dahlia is one. Floyd and Chelly are two- that’s three. Before Dahlia-

“I’m Floyd Yates, and I’m a sophomore.”

Good- he said it right that time, that’ll make him feel better… Wait. No! Focus!

Before Dahlia was.. tall guy. Didn’t say anything. Still three. Before him…

“I used to live in Tarlton, but now I stay at the school.”

Piper closes her eyes and tries to concentrate, block out what he’s saying. It doesn’t help- her eyelids are invisible, just like the rest of her. She sees right through them. Stupid power!

“I can turn invisible and walk through walls, but I can’t see or hear very well while I’m doing it. People can’t usually hear me, either.”

Perfect. Rub it in.

Before tall guy was… talky kid. Freshman. Cell phones. That makes four.

“I have orange, yellow, and green. I wanna… I’m going to start with yellow.”

Whose idea was this, anyway? Hiding from the Invisible Kids Club? If Evan knew about this, he would laugh so hard…

“Piper?”

“WHAT!?” she snaps, the word out of her mouth like an angry missile before she even finishes thinking it.

Half the room jumps, including Floyd. Dahlia nearly falls out of her chair.

Piper remembers she’s invisible.

Blurry kid- Owen- looks over at Floyd like he just announced next week’s lottery numbers. “Did you- was- I thought… you mean this place is haunted?”

She sighs and relaxes her power, fading into view with a sheepish expression. “No… sorry, I… ugh. Keep talking, Floyd. Nobody interrupt.”

There’s a moment or two of silence, and people are probably giving her funny looks, but Piper’s busy burying her face in her hands and feeling like an idiot.

“I. Okay. Um.

“Piper went through a lot of stuff before she came here. I don’t know all the, like, details… Some bad stuff happened to her, and to some of her friends. She got out of it, and now she’s here, but I can tell sometimes that it still hurts.

“And… you know, in scary movies, when they hear a scream far away? Everybody always says ‘oh, there’s a monster over there. Why would you go towards that? Get out of there, don’t go back in.’

“Seeing someone with… I mean… seeing someone who’s in trouble and just… not doing anything… is really, really easy. I know. I’ve seen it. You have your own problems. You don’t know what to do, or who’s right. You shouldn’t get involved. You keep saying these things, and… it gets easier, every time, until you don’t even notice. You just walk right past.

“I admire Piper because… she keeps going back in. She’s got her own problems. More than most people, probably. And sometimes she can’t do anything, or doesn’t know what to do, but… I’ve never seen her just walk away, not from somebody she cared about. She noticed my… what I was doing… when nobody else did. She paid attention- she kept noticing, even when she didn’t know what it was, and now…”

She hears him take a deep breath, and then let it out.

“I had my last custody hearing last week. I don’t have to go home again, if I don’t want to.

“I mean. To my mom’s house. My mother.

“And I couldn’t have done that without Miss Delaney, and Mrs. Cordova, and the judge and the school and… lots of people. Piper wasn’t even- she didn’t do those things, she didn’t come to the hearings. I don’t think she could have even if she wanted to.

“But that’s why I admire her. Because she got it started, even when she knew she couldn’t finish on her own. She didn’t walk past me last December, or in January after break, or… any of those times. She didn’t walk past me today- she wasn’t sure about staying, with so few of us left, she wasn’t sure about talking in front of a bunch of strangers, but I asked. That’s why she was hiding- she’s not spying. We compromised.”

Another breath.

“So that’s yellow.

“I’m… I’m going to skip the green one, if that’s okay. It- I keep thinking about my mother, and… yeah.

“For orange, I want to have my own library someday. Or at least a big room with comfy chairs and lots of bookcases.”

There are some noises after that. Probably people deciding what happens now- whether there’s a discussion, or if the meeting’s over, or if they need to call their lawyers…

“Piper?”

That’s Miss Delaney’s voice.

“Piper, please look at me.”

Okay, there’s officially no point trying to get out of this. She picks her head up off the desk and focuses completely on Miss D- she still doesn’t want to know what everyone else thinks of her right now.

“I understand that you wanted to help your friend. I think Floyd is right- that was very admirable. But this is not an acceptable way of doing it.”

“yes ma’am.”

“We don’t have any rules against using your abilities here- not in this club or in this school. But the school does have to protect the privacy of the students, including the right to conceal the nature of their abilities. No one is allowed to violate that privacy without a warrant- not the police, not the FBI, not the EED. And that applies all over campus, whether it’s the locker room or the dorm or just in a club like this.”

“yes ma’am.”

“I know you didn’t intend to spy on other students, or to learn private information without their consent. But I can’t grade a student on what she intends, and I can’t discipline her for it either.”

Here it comes.

“I’m giving you detention for ten days.”

“Yes ma’am.”

She starts to stand up to leave- she doesn’t want to use her power again, but she really doesn’t want to see the other kids’ faces right now either…

“Don’t go anywhere.”

Oh no. There’s more?

“… yes ma’am?”

“You heard everyone else’s answers. It’s your turn.”

“Huh?”

Miss D gestures to the whiteboard. The list of questions.

“We’ll talk about detention when the meeting is over. Right now, it’s your turn to share.”

Piper stares at the board. She doesn’t have any candy… not that she’s going to argue anyway; it’s the least she can do… but… “You want me to stay?”

The teacher nods, and a little bit of a smile starts to show through. “I certainly don’t want you to walk past.”

She can hear Floyd kind of chuckle at that- and he’s not the only one.

Piper relaxes, just a little, and settles back into the chair.

“Okay.

“My name is Piper Eldred. I’m from Ann Arbor…”

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