Exchange Students #2

A story by Kendal Reed

Camille stops listening about ten minutes before the end of US History. Today is Thursday, which means she’s almost out of time to decide whether she’s going back to Exchange Association. She mostly liked the last meeting, and Miss Delaney seems nice enough- but there was also that fiasco at the end with the invisible girl. Some of the other kids made her feel lame or awkward, but most of them sounded cool or at least interesting… She starts to make a list.

Two minutes before the bell, the cons outnumber the pros, but they’re also mostly things like “might get laughed at” and “cuts into my online time”- the kind of things her friends would tell her not to listen to. She’s always saying how she has so few people to talk to at school, and Miss Delaney picked her for this group herself. She decides she should at least stay long enough to have a real conversation with someone.

She scrambles to write down the homework, then carefully packs her things and follows the crowd out onto the quad. A few hundred yards to the west and about thirty feet off the ground, she can feel the tightly bound weight of her dorm room- clothes, posters, sheets, Charlotte Marmot and Sigil Bear, books, DVDs, action figures, HexCasters minis, towels, and more, all outlining another little corner of the world, the same way that her hands and arms and face and legs and feet outline this one. If not for the mob of other students, she could almost walk there with her eyes closed.

When she arrives at Resnick Hall, she doesn’t follow the other students around to the front of the building- she just walks over to the wall beneath her room and waits, watching a few flying upperclassmen arc overhead in the minute or two before her roommate arrives. She can’t feel the knob turning or the door opening, not exactly- but the draft across her bedsheets is a pretty good clue, and the uneven push on the Star Power poster hanging on the inside of the door clinches it.

She shrugs out of her backpack’s straps and steps away from it, turning to see it hang unsupported in the air. It’s old and stained in a couple of places and the third zipper pocket comes undone sometimes, and her aunt and uncle bought her a nice new one last year… but she hasn’t replaced it yet, because it’s familiar, and there aren’t many things familiar enough to let her do this.

She lifts the bag further off the ground, moving it up and up above her head. The assessment committee put her in a Limited Telekinesis class last year, but she didn’t have much in common with the gravity-bending or earth-moving types. She doesn’t have to concentrate or stay focused to move things; lifting something that’s really hers is just like moving another muscle. Sure, sometimes she worries about dropping things when she’s lifting them three stories above the ground and they have all her books and schoolwork inside, but it’s a lot less scary than if she were up there too.

She knocks at the window with the left strap, the one with the pin fastened to it so Doris can hear, and then waits for her to open it before pushing the bag inside and over to rest on her bed. The straps give a little courtesy wave as a thank you, and then she turns and heads for the Exchange.

When she arrives, Miss Delaney is writing something at one end of the whiteboard. A few of the others are already here, mostly freshmen- she recognizes Eric, the one who talked about Knot Theory, sitting at one end of the front row and showing something on his phone to Owen, the superhero boy from St. Louis. The boy with four hands and the eighth-grader with the frizzy hair both seem to be texting, and the tall quiet guy looks like he’s actually introducing himself to Shirley from Care and Feeding, so that’s different. She doesn’t see Floyd or Piper anywhere, but she knows that doesn’t mean anything… and the same goes for Joey, she realizes.

Camille picks out a seat toward one end of the front row and sits down, wondering if she should try to involve herself in Eric’s conversation. She doesn’t know what he’s looking at, but Owen looks kind of worried. Is somebody in trouble?

“All right, if everybody could please sit down?” Miss Delaney addresses the group. “Welcome back! I’m glad to see so many of you decided to join us again, and I hope I don’t disappoint.

“Before we get started today, I want to explain something we’ll be using in this group throughout the year.” She holds up something that looks like one of those paper scoreboards, with the cards that you flip over when somebody scores. “I’m going to be keeping track of something I call Experience Points. You’ll get a point every time you participate in a group activity or a discussion, but they’ll also be awarded for generally acting in the spirit of the group, like sharing something about yourself, or helping another member with a problem.

“Sometimes I’ll tell you a way to earn points in advance, and sometimes I won’t even mention it when it happens. The important thing is, you’re all adding to the same total, and every time you pass a certain milestone, there’ll be a reward- maybe we’ll have a movie night, or order pizza, or something else if we can agree on it. I think there’ll be a big one in October- if you guys can get up to a hundred before Strange Day rolls around, maybe we can take a trip up to New Troy for the weekend. Does that sound like fun?”

A chance to visit the biggest Extra community on the continent? During the 50th anniversary Strange Day festival? That certainly gets everyone’s attention. Camille can’t follow all these conversations at once, but she picks up a few things… Only Owen and Shirley have ever been in town for one of the famous parties, but everyone’s heard of them. A couple others- Dahlia, who’s just shown up and taken the seat next to her, and a voice she recognizes afterward as Piper- have seen the city at other times of year, and even they were impressed. Dahlia remembers “trees like houses,” and a big glass playground where different rooms had different gravities. But on Strange Day it’s supposed to be like a county fair, an amusement park, and the Macy’s parade all rolled into one.

After a few minutes Miss Delaney knocks on the desk to signal for attention. Camille looks up and notices she’s set the scoreboard to 15. “I’ll take that as a yes,” she says with a smile. “Which brings us to today’s activity. Before we get into any heavy discussions in this group, we’re going to have a few meetings with team-building activities- things that are just for fun, and help us get comfortable being ourselves around each other. Sometimes I’ll have a challenge or a goal for you all, and sometimes we’ll just get together and blow off steam. This week I brought a puzzle.” She holds up a small stack of index cards, each with a big question mark on the back.

“The first stage is essentially like charades. Each of these cards has a key word or phrase on it. I’m going to call you up one at a time, and you’ll get to read one of them. Once you’ve read it, you’ll have to get someone else from the group to guess what it is, using only sounds and gestures.”

She points to the near end of the board, where she was writing earlier. There’s a short list of rules for actors (no words, no spelling, no props, no hidden clues) and for the audience (no Internet, no outside reference material). Next to the list are some diagrams of different gestures with labels- finger on the nose for got it, counting on fingers for numbers, pointer fingers close together for small word, stuff like that.

“When someone guesses correctly, you can write the answer on the board and go back to your seat. After everyone’s had a turn, we’ll begin stage two, where you have to figure out what ties together all the stage one answers. For instance, if the final answer were Halloween, I might have written stage one keys like Frankenstein, neighborhood, chocolate, disguise, cobwebs, autumn, pumpkin, and so on. It’s okay if someone wants to skip stage one, because none of the answers will make or break you on their own- but the more of them you have, the easier it is to guess.” She glances at her desk. “Dahlia, would you mind starting us off?”

“Sure,” comes the reply from the seat next to her. Camille remembers her name from last week- the girl with the funny hair, who talked about her summer vacation. She walks up to take a card and laughs when she reads it.

She moves with a funny sort of not-quite-right rhythm as she walks out in front of the group, and Camille notices for the first time that she’s barefoot. Despite the lack of shoes, socks or even sandals, her feet look perfectly clean- not exactly manicured (pedicured?) but not nearly as dirty as you’d expect. It must be hard for her to use the sidewalks- and that’s when Camille realizes that her feet don’t touch the ground, either. What did she say her power was, again?

Someone calls out “two parts”, and Camille remembers that this isn’t the puzzle she’s supposed to be working on. She looks up to see Dahlia nod and point to the first of two outstretched fingers. “First part,” says the same voice, and she nods again.

She lowers one hand and uses the other to draw a shape in front of her- a big circle, almost a full arm’s length from the center to the edge. “Clock?” Eric guesses, but she shakes her head. Next she draws a line down the middle of the circle, and another one crossing it from left to right.

“Scope?” That’s Owen. “I mean-” He doesn’t quite finish saying the word. “Crosshairs?” But that’s not it either. Now she’s tracing- no, she’s outlining one of the segments of the circle: straight down from the top, then out to her right, then around the edge. Somebody else guesses “Top left… northwest?” but that isn’t it either. Dahlia facepalms and holds her other hand in front of her, shaking it from side to side for the forget it signal.

The next sign she makes is just drawing a short horizontal line in the air, then holding one hand above it and one below. On the upper hand she closes her fist and holds out one finger; on the lower one she holds out all four fingers but hides her thumb…

“Uh… one left, four right?” somebody says halfheartedly. It’s Nathan, the first-year with the train hobby. Dahlia shakes her head and turns her hands, keeping them in the same place but now pointing all five fingers up. “Oh! One over four- one fourth!” She nods and points to him, then makes the rolling keep guessing signal with her other hand. “That’s not it? Um… what’s like a fourth…”

Camille hears someone typing. It’s not Miss Delaney, but the rules say they’re not supposed to be using their phones, so… She glances down the line of desks- it’s the girl with the frizzy hair- A something- who has that speech problem. Before Camille can figure out what she’s typing, though, somebody else figures out the clue (“quarter”), and the younger girl sets down her phone.

Eric narrates the next few gestures. “First part quarter, second part…” Camille glances up to see Dahlia turn and face the board, then reach up and over her shoulder, toward her-

“Back! Quarterback?” Owen chimes in again, and this time Dahlia nods and touches her nose (after she turns her head so everyone can see). She walks over to the opposite end of the whiteboard and writes:

quarterback

before she goes to sit down.

Enrico- the tall guy who was so quiet last week- gets called next. He spends a few moments just looking at his card, his lips pressed tight together in an intense thoughtful look, but finally he sets it down and turns to the group. He holds up one hand with three fingers extended and the other with all four fingers flat and pressed together- the signal for part. “Three parts,” Joey interprets, and he nods. His next gesture is just one hand, twisting a path through the air in front of him with fingers and thumb all held parallel. It goes up and down and side to side, pretty much at random…

“Snake?” Eric guesses, but Enrico shakes his head.

Nathan chimes in next. “No, I think it’s supposed to be flying. Something that flies?” That gets a nod. “Okay- um- a bird? A bug maybe?”

“Uh. Airborn?” That was Floyd. (Nathan asks “airborne what?”, and somebody has to explain it means “flying Extra”. Camille suddenly remembers how embarrassing it was being a freshman.)

And Enrico’s still shaking his head. This time he puts a hand up in front of him. It looks like a crossing guard saying “stop”, but that isn’t one of the signs from the board…

“Stop flying?” Nathan tries again. Enrico doesn’t look happy with that answer.

“I think he wants you to stop guessing,” Joey explains, leaning forward to look over at Nathan and Floyd. Finally Enrico nods. Some of the others kind of laugh. Rude.

He repeats the flying gesture with one hand, this time with the other arm held flat underneath. (“Okay, now it looks like flying,” Eric concedes.) After a few moments, he loops the “flying” hand around and brings it in low over the flat arm until they touch, then holds it still, resting on top.

“Runway?” Nathan guesses. Enrico looks hesitant- doesn’t nod or shake his head, just repeats the gesture.

Dahlia volunteers “rest”. That gets him to switch to the keep guessing signal from the board- so she’s close, but not there yet. “Perch” gets the same response. Flying and then touching…

“Wait, is it… landing?”

Enrico nods suddenly, finger pointing to Owen. (“What? But I already said ‘stop flying’,” Nathan protests. Camille admits he has a point…)

Enrico’s focus is still on Owen when he makes the next signal- hands above head, pointer fingers extended, pushing together. “Smaller word… land?”

Finger on the nose. “So… three parts, first part ‘land’?” Another nod. “All right… what’s the second part?”

Enrico pauses. He holds one arm in front of him at an angle, like he’s in a hip-hop video- then shakes his head and tries drawing in the air instead. It’s a long diagonal with flat parts at either end, like… “Escalator?” Camille offers, but no.

He draws the shape again, this time adding a vertical line dropping down from the high end. Then he goes through it again but backward- up the vertical, across, then suddenly swooping down the diagonal and out the other end in one quick motion.

“Ohhh. Slide.” That’s Hisashi, the freshman with the four arms. Enrico nods and taps his nose. “That’s the second word?” Another nod. “So… land, slide, something.” Nod.

“Is it- ah- is it winning?” Floyd asks. Enrico looks really surprised- he hasn’t signaled for the third word at all yet, but he nods and points to Floyd before making the keep guessing signal with his other hand.

“What? How-?” Nathan asks. It makes sense, but-

It looks like Floyd’s still not really comfortable in the spotlight. “I- well, in… in the news and stuff, they say- when somebody wins something, like, really hard, they say it was a landslide. So… yeah.”

Araceli knocks on the table, and Owen speaks up for her. “Yeah, that sounds good- is it ‘victory’?” he asks. “Landslide victory?”

Enrico nods and touches his nose, then goes to write the answer on the board. “Awesome! Good call, man,” Hisashi says to Floyd. They’re sitting a couple of seats apart, but Hisashi grins and stretches an arm across, holding it up for a high five. Floyd looks kind of embarrassed, but he goes for it.

When Enrico’s finished writing, Camille sees that he’s capitalized both words- Landslide Victory. That looks familiar, but she’s not sure why. Meanwhile Miss Delaney calls on Eric.

He starts by putting his arms up and out in front of him, hands curled like they’re gripping opposite edges of something that’s not quite flat, around chest level. He leans forward over it, and his head turns from one end of the group to the other as he opens and closes his mouth. “Speech,” someone guesses, and he nods, but he doesn’t start miming something new- he keeps one hand in place and draws a line down his shirt with the other.

He starts to add another line crossing it horizontally, but then pauses and shakes his head. Both hands go up in front of his face and shake back and forth, as if warding something off- forget it. After that he stands still for a minute, looking toward the floor with a hand under his chin to let them know he’s thinking.

When he looks up again, he holds one forearm horizontal in front of him and uses the other hand to tap on his wrist.

“Biometer?”

Camille turns and looks- that was Nathan. Apparently she’s not the only one who’s confused. Nathan doesn’t seem to know why, but he notices the attention. “You know- the monitor thing, with the display for heartbeat and cholesterol and stuff? The output from your ensims?”

Your what?

“Oh, yeah,” Shirley nods. “Rita has one of those, for her diabetes.”

“One of what?” Dahlia asks. “What are you talking about?”

Shirley explains quickly. “A screen you wear on your wrist, that shows the readouts from these little machines they implant in your blood vessels.”

“Ohhhhkay then.” Dahlia shrugs. “But this-” she turns to Nathan and imitates Eric’s wrist gesture- “usually means watch, not… whatever you said.”

“I know that,” Nathan says flatly. “But he doesn’t have a watch.”

Meanwhile, Eric has changed his stance. Now he has his right arm pointing straight up and his left pointing down and to one side. After a few moments, he moves the left one a little further down and in, and then a little further.

“Clock!” That was Shirley. Eric nods, and then quickly swings his left arm through a full circle.

For some reason Shirley doesn’t respond. Camille is the first to fill in. “Hour?”

He nods again, then sticks both hands out in front of him, palms flat toward each other, and moves them apart. Over the head means idea, in front means thing- so this is bigger thing.

“Bigger than an hour… Day?” He nods, then makes the same signal again. “Week?” Another nod, and then he moves his hands a lot further apart. “Longer than a week?” He shakes his hands (forget it), then moves one over his head in an arc that ends behind him (back up). “Okay. Week.” He nods, and then makes brackets with his thumbs and index fingers, holding them about shoulder width apart. Then he moves one of them closer to the other. After a few moments he moves it back, and pauses before moving it in again. What does this have to do with “week”? Week… smaller? Week… together? They already had-

“Weekend,” somebody says suddenly. Oh. That makes sense.

Eric nods and turns- apparently it was Joey. Eric’s hands go up and then slide toward each other- smaller idea.

“Part of the weekend?” Another nod, keep guessing. “Saturday?” Keep guessing. “Sunday?” Got it!. Eric turns and adds to the list. Quarterback, landslide victory, Sunday… is this about-

“Maybe it’s about the Super Bowl,” Owen ventures. Was this year’s Super Bowl a landslide? Camille doesn’t remember. Meanwhile Eric is returning his card, and Araceli (the girl with the phone, that’s her name) gets called up to receive the next one.

She looks at it a little longer than usual, then puts it down and walks out to the front-and-center spot that everyone else has been using. She shows one extended finger on one hand, and the other hand’s fingers extended and pressed together.

“One part,” someone translates, and she nods-

and then she stops nodding.

Stops moving. Drops her hands to her sides. Her face goes blank, stares straight ahead.

Shirley is in the middle; she’s closest. “Are you okay?” No response.

Before Shirley can even stand up, Owen- the superhero boy, she remembers- is suddenly right there, looking over her shoulder. Camille’s not sure why he’s doing that, and not getting her to the nurse or something, but then-

“Owen, please sit down.” That was Miss Delaney. There’s a half second where Camille thinks someone’s going to complain, but then the teacher is talking again. “It’s all right. Araceli is playing the game. Don’t worry about it.”

There might be one or two people who relax. Hisashi isn’t one of them. “But she’s- she could be having a stroke or something! We should at least-”

“She’s not.” All eyes on Enrico, now, except maybe a few. He’s still looking at Araceli- but maybe “looking” is the wrong word. “Breathing’s normal. Heart rate is up, but not nearly that bad. She’s awake. Maybe stressed out a little, but not in shock or anything. She’s doing this on purpose.” He purses his lips thoughtfully. “Is it ‘blank’?”

Camille looks back to Araceli. No response.

“‘Still’?” That one’s Dahlia. Still nothing. “‘Frozen’? Uh… ‘paralyzed’?” Nothing’s changing, but at least nobody’s panicking anymore… hopefully they really shouldn’t be…

Piper thumps a hand on her desk. “Chelly, stop it, you’re creeping me out!”

Just as suddenly, Araceli’s right hand is up and pointing at Piper, and her left is making the circular keep guessing signal.

Somebody swears under their breath. Camille doesn’t catch who it is; they’re almost drowned out by the whole room’s sigh of relief.

Before Camille can even guess at what’s going on, Piper follows instructions. “Um… ‘stop’?”

Araceli shakes her head. There’s a quick sequence of gestures with a left-to-right motion… is that supposed to be after?

Piper seems to think so. “‘Creepy’?”

Araceli nods, then makes the spinning motion again: keep guessing.

“Like creepy, but different… ‘Spooky’?” Spinning motion… Araceli’s eyes widen, and her lips open, showing her teeth pressed together. “‘Eerie’?” That was Floyd.

Araceli taps her nose with one hand and closes her lips in a smile. She turns and picks up a whiteboard marker, then slowly and deliberately adds to the list of solved clues:

E

ER

No way.

ERIE

Camille, who lives in Erie, Pennsylvania, manages to keep from yelling. Or groaning. Or thumping her head against the desk.

But it’s a struggle.

Nathan’s turn. This should be interesting. He considers the clue card for a moment, then shrugs and puts it on the shelf with the whiteboard markers. His first sign is two fingers on one hand, the other hand flat with fingers extended.

“Two parts,” Joey interprets, and he nods. He starts to gesture something else, then stops, then goes back to the previous pose, this time taking the flat hand and changing it to point to the first of the extended fingers. “First part?” Another nod. He brings one hand up almost in front of his face, then curls his fingers like they’re wrapped around something and begins to mouth words while gesturing with the other hand.

“Singing?” That’s Shirley, which is kind of surprising. She was really talkative last week, but this time Camille almost forgot she was here. It’s almost like she and Enrico switched somehow. Nathan nods, then turns to one side, his right hand still holding something in front of his face. He takes the other hand and points to whatever it is.

“Microphone!” Eric chimes in. Nathan nods and points to him, then gives the flat-hands-pushing-together. “Smaller word… Mike?” Finger on the nose. “First word, Mike. Second word?”

Nathan turns to one side again, then tries to draw a shape in the air facing him. “Dude, we can’t see that,” Dahlia points out, even though she’s seated toward the end of the line and probably can. He turns away from the group- that’s weird- and draws it again, in the space in front of the whiteboard. It’s just a big rectangle, about twice as wide as it is tall… He steps off to one side and half turns toward them, then makes a clicking motion with one thumb.

“Um… TV?” Enrico ventures, looking skeptical, but Nathan immediately taps his nose. “Huh! Right, Mike Teavee. That makes sense.” Nathan nods again and goes for the whiteboard marker.

“Huh?” That’s Piper- the invisible girl from the last meeting. “How does that make sense? It’s just- I dunno, two words. Different machines?”

“You know- Mike Teavee!” Apparently Joey’s got this one. “The first person ever to be sent by television!” Joey is smiling, but Piper’s still got a blank look.

Her friend Floyd’s got her back, though. “It’s from a book- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl. He’s one of the children who win the Golden Tickets.” That seems to get the point across.

“You never read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?” Enrico seems incredulous.

Piper shrugs. “What- is that weird?”

Everybody mostly just shrugs. Nathan hasn’t read it either- he didn’t understand the clue, so he improvised. Owen has, though- apparently his uncle liked it when he was a kid. Hisashi’s parents didn’t let him read it for some reason- something about murders. That’s kind of ridiculous; all the kids were fine in the end, weren’t they? Floyd recommends it- he says it’s funny.

After a minute or two, someone reminds them that they’re only halfway through the puzzle. Apparently Shirley is up next.

Shirley starts with both hands together in front of her, fingers and thumbs pinched together with palms down like she’s opening a bag or something. She holds that pose for a second or two, then lets go and pushes inward from both sides instead.

“Need?” Nathan guesses. Camille has no idea where that came from- but if Shirley is confused, she doesn’t show it; she just shakes her head and tries something new.

Camille is still wondering whether to speak up while Shirley draws a little rectangle in the air. It’s about as wide as her palm and maybe twice as tall, and she finishes by poking at two opposite corners, one top and one bottom. She looks up from her hands to glance around at the audience, then holds one hand flat beside the rectangle and holds the other hand’s finger and thumb around the other side in a bracket shape. She slides the bracket way out to one side before flattening that hand and sliding it back in-

“Oh!” Hisashi exclaims suddenly. “Cards. Playing cards.” Shirley points and nods, but doesn’t signal that that’s the answer.

“Something about cards?” Floyd asks after a second. She points to him and nods again, then glances over her shoulder at the signals on the board. When she turns back toward them, she’s holding both hands above her head and pushing them together. “Okay. Smaller than cards…”

“Hot Wheels!” Camille blinks and turns her head; it’s Nathan again. This is not his day- but he’s grinning and looking around expectantly.  ”‘Cause car is smaller than card, and Hot Wheels are smaller than a pack of cards… get it?”

Out of the corner of her eye Camille sees Shirley turn and check the board again. At the same time, Eric’s explaining- she signaled for smaller idea, not smaller word or smaller thing. “So it’s probably something more specific, like… a suit? Spades? Hearts?” He looks over at Shirley, but she shakes her head and tries another pose.

She holds her left hand out to her side, palm down, and crouches slightly to hold it near the floor. Then she moves it to a slightly higher position and holds it there instead, and then another one higher than that…

“Rank?” Owen asks, and she nods. She stands up straight but keeps her hand out, raising it a little higher than her head. “A high rank. Face card?” She makes the keep guessing signal with her right hand, and raises the left even higher. “Higher th-” He cuts off in the middle of the word again. “Ace!”

Shirley grins and touches her nose. While she goes to write the answer on the board, Miss Delaney calls Camille’s name. For a moment she freezes, trying to think of what she’s done wrong or what question she’s supposed to be answering- and then she sees the big 24 on the scoreboard, and remembers the game. She fights down the urge to pass the turn and walks up to the desk to choose a card. The one she turns over reads:

indigo

Um.

What?

That’s a color, right? She glances over at the rules on the board. No words, no spelling, no props. How is she supposed to make anyone guess a color? Maybe break it up into smaller words, like with “landslide”- “in”, “dig”, “go”? But how would you do “in”, anyway?

Indigo, indigo… Camille runs her free hand through her hair; nervous habit. The Indigo Girls are pretty famous, but she doesn’t know them well enough to act it out. Indigo… Plateau? Maybe, but it’d be hard, and she doesn’t even know if anyone knows Pokémon well enough to remember the name.

What color is indigo, anyway? She remembers reading somewhere that it comes between blue and…

Oh.

Okay.

She smiles and sets the card back down, then walks out in front of everyone. First pose- hands up in front of her and above her head, palms down, fingers wiggling up and down individually as she brings her hands down to waist level and then repeats.

“Puppets?” Hisashi guesses, and she shakes her head. She closes her hands into fists and crosses her arms over her head, glancing up and from side to side like she’s worried about something falling.

“Oh! Rain,” Eric answers, and she points to him and nods. Next part should be easy. She takes a finger and traces the top half of a circle in the air in front of her- a big one, as big as she can make while standing in one place. A couple of people guess “rainbow” at the same time; she doesn’t bother pointing, just nods and smiles.

Now for the hard part. She holds both fists out in front of her, palms forward, and unfurls fingers one after another- right pinky, right ring finger (doesn’t quite work), right middle finger (now it does)…

“Are you counting?” That’s Enrico. She nods and lets him narrate while she continues. “Four, five, six, seven, ei- oh, just seven?” She nods again, stopping with her right hand fully open and just the thumb and pointer from the left.

“Seven what? Seven rainbows?” Piper looks confused, but Camille doesn’t worry- they’ll get there. Still holding the seven fingers out, she flexes her left thumb in and out quickly, for six of seven.

“Rainbow six!” Owen exclaims suddenly. She doesn’t know what that means, so she just shakes her head, looking around for any sign from someone else. Come on, guys…

Eric is still confused. “The sixth something… out of seven?” She nods, but that doesn’t seem to help, so she draws the rainbow again. “Yeah, rainbow, we got that…” She holds her left pointer up where the first arc started and uses her right to draw it again, a little further in. “Two rainbows?” She shakes her head. Why is nobody getting this? Parts of the- oh. Duh. There’s a pose for that.

She checks the board and then faces them again. Hands over her head, palms flat toward each other, and push together-

It takes a second but suddenly Joey has it. “Colors! Parts of the rainbow.” She points and nods vigorously. Finally. Now, seven fingers… “Seven colors-” She flexes her left thumb. “The sixth color out of seven!” More nodding. Come on, almost there. A couple people are already reciting under their breath; she can hear Araceli typing-

“Indigo!” There it is. She taps her nose and turns, but- wait, who said that? Double wait- who cares? She writes the answer on the board and plops back into her seat.

Everything seems to go faster after that. Hisashi’s turn lasts about thirty seconds- he draws a circle around his head with one finger, and then draws a couple more circles, and after a couple guesses he’s adding “HEADS” to the list of answers. (It’s kind of funny when Floyd guesses “heads will roll” because of the circles, but everybody admits he did have a good point.)

Floyd starts by rubbing his belly enthusiastically, then opens his mouth and lets his tongue hang out, turning side to side to show it to everyone. (Camille has to giggle- he’s really enthusiastic and animated, and it’s so far from what she expected- but she tries to flash him the thumbs-up to say she’s laughing with him, and she thinks it works.) Enrico guesses “sick” at first- it’s not the answer, but it does get a few laughs. Eventually Eric guesses “taste” instead, and from there Floyd adds signs for numbers until Dahlia and Hisashi figure out he means “umami”, the fifth basic taste. Dahlia even admits that she wouldn’t have known what to do with that clue, and tells him he did a good job.

Joey is another quick one- he acts out “sneeze” and signals for a short sound to follow it, and Araceli gets Owen to guess “sneezy”, like the dwarf from the movie.

They don’t really trip up until Piper’s turn. She starts by drawing a circle in the air, then moves her hands like she’s spinning it from side to side. “Ball?” Nathan offers. That makes sense, but she doesn’t respond- she isn’t frozen like Araceli was, she just looks like she’s not sure what to say.

Joey rescues her. “Is it like a ball?” That gets a nod, and Nathan gets back into it. “Sphere?” Keep guessing. She shapes the ball again, and then draws lines across it, running top to bottom-

“Globe?” Camille offers, and Piper nods and points to her, but doesn’t touch her nose. So it is a globe, but that’s not the answer. Piper traces the globe one more time, then points up from underneath with her other hand. The bottom of the globe… “South Pole?” A nod, then hands above the head, pulling apart. Bigger than the South Pole.

“Antarctica!” Nathan blurts out a half second before Camille does, so they don’t quite sync up and it sounds like “antanticica”.

He apologizes, but Camille is still focused up front; she doesn’t respond until Piper has picked up a marker to note the answer. “It’s okay- we can share,” she tells him.

“Yeah- it’s a big continent,” Joey chimes in, and they both laugh.

She looks up at the board again. Eleven down, one to go, and she has no idea how these could all fit together…

The last clue is Owen’s. Camille sees the flicker in his expression when he reads the card- not a twitch of muscle but a visual flicker, like a lightning flash that momentarily casts his face in shadow. There were other scalars in her Extended Senses course last year, and in Sensory Abilities the year before, but she’s never really gotten used to seeing people do things like that. It’s one thing to see someone lift a refrigerator in one hand or walk through walls, but the thought that they could be doing anything, so fast that you wouldn’t even notice, is still kind of creepy. Her parents say she’s “off in her own world” when she talks to her friends online, but Owen really does have his own world, where no one moves but him…

Shirley’s voice snaps her attention back to the classroom. “Two parts. Second part…” Owen repeats Piper’s sphere-shape motions from before, but smaller, only about the size of his head. “Ball?” He nods and spreads his feet a little, bends slightly at the knees and waist. He brings his hands together and “shows” the ball between them, then flicks the right hand downward suddenly and moves the left aside. He repeats the flicking motion with the right hand, twice in succession, then with the left hand followed by the right-

“Basketball!” Oh- that makes sense, he’s dribbling. Camille sees him nod in Dahlia’s direction, then point down toward his feet with both hands. “Basketball… shoes? No…” He picks up a foot and then stamps it down again, probably a little louder than he meant to. “Floor?” A nod, and the keep-guessing signal. “That, um… what’s it called? The rubber floor stuff?” He shakes his head, then brings both hands up in front of him, with forefinger and thumb at right angles. It looks like he’s lining up a photo. What does that mean?

“Court!” Owen taps his nose- that’s Enrico again. He’s really on the ball today. (Heh. Ball.) “Second part, court?” Owen nods. “Okay. First part?” He nods again, then raises his right arm above his head and points his eyes in the same direction, fingers outstretched and wiggling like he’s reaching for something.

“High! High court?” Nathan guesses. Owen nods, but gives the go-on signal- so that’s it, but not exactly. He raises one finger on either hand and holds them above his head, then draws them apart.

“Higher court?” Piper interjects before Camille can decipher this one. Owen nods again, but keeps signaling. “Highest court?” Another nod, almost frantic, and the go-on signal- and then three or four people guess “Supreme Court!” all at once, and he taps his nose and grins. There might be a lot of freshmen in this group, but they know their branches of government at least. It doesn’t hurt that the Langenbrunner decision has been all over the news lately.

While Owen is writing, she looks over the list again.

quarterback
Landslide Victory
Sunday
ERIE
Mike Teavee
ace
indigo
HEADS
umami
Sneezy
Antarctica

Supreme Court” doesn’t help clear it up at all.

That doesn’t stop Miss Delaney, though. “All right! Great job, everybody,” she assures them. Her scoreboard is still out, and showing 30 points. “You can get your phones out now. Stage 2 is a tricky one- you might have to do some research. But if you guess the answer before the end of the meeting, you’ll earn five bonus points.”

Camille reads over the list one more time. On the whiteboard below it is a written reminder of how Stage Two works:

Each of these phrases is part of a group of clues to the final puzzle.
Order doesn’t matter, but number does- the more clues you have, the easier it will be to solve.
The final answer will describe the group as a whole.

“Okay, so. What do all these things have in common?” Shirley slips back into her usual can-do attitude. When nobody responds, she tilts herself back in her chair and glances up and down the row. “Anybody?”

“Don’t do that, you’ll fall,” Hisashi says, and Camille hears the thunk of the chair landing back on all fours.

“Hmm… games, maybe?” Enrico volunteers. “If the first three are about football… the ace is from cards…”

“What about winning?” Owen offers. “Like Floyd said. Mike Teavee didn’t play a game, but he won something.”

Camille glances over the list. “Indigo Plateau is where you meet the Elite Four and become Champion.”

“Heads I win, tails you lose,” Dahlia chimes in. “And… Antarctica was a race once, wasn’t it? To the South Pole?”

“What about…” Suddenly Piper bursts out laughing. “Oh man! Umami- because- the taste of victory!

Camille giggles a little. Encouraged by sounds from the others, her laughter builds until she feels like she’s shaking… and then it fades, and she isn’t shaking anymore. Something else is. She stops and holds very still, until she can pick out the little twitches around her, like raindrops hitting her clothes but sometimes from the inside…

“Uh. Do you feel that?” she asks, turning to Dahlia in the seat beside her.

“Feel what?”

“There’s something- in my-” She stands up and winces, pulling at one of her sleeves, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever it is. That’s when she notices Eric just beyond arm’s reach, and the way he looks like she’s watching through a heat haze- his skin and hair seeming to wave back and forth in places. “Uh…”

He turns and looks up at her, and seems to go into awkward overdrive. “Oh, crap, did I-” He scoots his chair back. “Lemme just-” The twitching ramps up for a moment as he stands up, and then it vanishes. Meanwhile he walks briskly over to the classroom door. “Sorry, don’t mind me…” He steps out and closes it behind him.

Dahlia asks the question before Camille’s even finished thinking it. “What was that about?”

“No idea,” Piper replies nonchalantly. “I vote hopeless freshman crush.” She turns to Camille. “What’d you do, catch him writing his first name with your last name?”

“What? I don’t-” The twitching is gone, but apparently the awkward is contagious.

“No, he just accidentally brushed his hand against hers… and then their eyes met…” Camille mentally deletes Joey from her list of potential friends.

“You said you felt something, right? Right before he left?” Dahlia is next.

“Guys. Quit it.” Enrico speaks with sudden authority. “Eric told us last week, remember? When his power builds up, he has to move. He’s coming right back.”

Araceli knocks for attention, then gestures to Nathan’s backpack and then to Eric’s chair. Sure enough, he left his messenger bag behind.

Camille decides to use her newfound attention for something useful. “So… winning?”

Nobody can fit “Sneezy” or “Erie” into that theory, at least not convincingly- but Nathan thinks a lot of them relate to cold or winter, and Piper thinks they might be about specific senses. She’s talking about how “quarterback” is someone who gets tackled, which is touch, when Eric walks back in. The hazy look is gone now, and when he sits back down next to Camille nothing twitches.

“Sorry about that.” He pauses, then looks over at her. “It was me, right? I mean- is it gone now?”

She nods. “It’s okay. It was a surprise, that’s all. I forgot- what do you do, exactly?”

“It’s… kind of telekinetic?” He shrugs. “I make dirt and dust move around, mostly at random. I can control it, but only a little- they have me in Preliminary PK Control until I figure out what the heck I’m doing. One thing I do know is, moving burns it off. The longer I stay in one place, the more powerful it gets, and the more area it covers. I should’ve gotten up sooner.” He turns to look at the board, and Camille follows suit.

“What about… extremes?” Shirley says after a moment. “The highest card, the highest court, the last day… the last continent…”

“The last taste,” Nathan continues.

“Things that are first or last,” Eric nods. “Boundaries. Like the Erie Canal.”

“Indigo isn’t first or last,” Dahlia points out.

“It’s second to last,” Floyd counters. “So is Mike Teavee. After him it’s just Charlie left.”

Camille is still trying to figure out the second clue. “Maybe Landslide Victory is supposed to be a type of ending?”

“Huh! And then- Sneezy could be the start of something, like the first thing you notice when you get sick.” Enrico sounds impressed.

Camille hears Araceli get up and walk over to the board.

“The Ace is first and last, in a lot of games,” Owen chimes in. “And so is the quarterback- he leads the team, but he stands behind everyone else.”

“Isn’t that a fullback?” Piper wonders. Camille honestly doesn’t know, but it sounds like Owen does.

Somebody clears their throat. Camille looks over toward the sound and sees Araceli, standing by the list on the whiteboard. She points to the description of stage two, and then moves her arm to cover part of the first two lines:

Each of these phrases is part of a group ███████████████████████████
Order doesn’t matter, but number does ███████████████████████████
The final answer will describe the group as a whole.

Araceli glances over at Miss Delaney, who just smiles. The scoreboard has gone up to 31, though. That seems like a good sign.

“Huh.” Piper is the first one to react. “Okay, so if we forget first and last… what groups are these things part of? A quarterback plays on a team… Sunday is a day of the week…”

Floyd picks it up from there. “Erie is a Great Lake. Mike Teavee is a Golden Ticket winner. Ace is a card-”

“Ace is a rank of cards.”

“Right, yeah… You think that’s what the number part means? Like, it’s number one?”

“Indigo is a color of the rainbow- or it used to be, anyway.”

“Heads is one side of a coin… umami is a basic taste… Sneezy is…”

“Probably the dwarf. Seven dwarves.”

“Antarctica- seven continents.”

“And… Supreme Court. Nine justices.”

“No, it says the clues are parts of a group. The Supreme Court is part of something…” That’s Floyd again.

“Yeah, so- three branches of government.” Eric finishes.

“We should start writing these down,” Shirley suggests.

“Good idea. Give me a second-” Owen vanishes and reappears at the front of the room. When he does, the board looks very different- he’s added a list of group names next to the list of clues, including all the ones they’ve identified so far, and circled the ones they haven’t.

“Show-off,” somebody snorts, but Owen doesn’t even look up from the board.

Camille notices something she doesn’t remember anyone mentioning. “What are the numbers for?” Most of the group names have a number next to them- football team 11, days of the week 7

Owen flickers for a second, then looks over his shoulder at her. “The size of the group,” he answers. “The rules said number matters. Maybe that means something. Like, there are a lot of sevens…”

“Yeah, good thinking…” Shirley says, but Camille isn’t listening. There was something in that list that looked familiar… She pulls out her phone and starts typing a search entry. A few moments later…

“Ha!” she grins and looks up at the group. “Landslide Victory is the eleventh Gangbuster!”

“The who what?”

“Henshin Buntai+ Gangbusters. They’re a costume team and theatre troupe in Japan; they travel around and do performances and fight crime.”

“They came to San Francisco last fall!” Joey grins. “Their first American performance, and they made that big human trafficking bust…”

“Yeah, that’s them,” she nods. “There are ten in the main group, with the costumes and colors and stuff. But their producer is an Extra too- Mighty Find did a profile on him. He used to be a really big deal in disaster relief, he had this power to generate armor for himself and he’d use it to lift heavy things and break through collapsed walls and dam flood waters. He’s retired now, but when he showed up in English news they gave him the callsign Landslide Victory- ‘The Man Who Fights Disaster And Wins.’” She turns her phone toward the group, showing the headline with the “eleventh Gangbuster” moniker.

“Hmm.” Owen nods thoughtfully. “So do I put down ten, or…”

They hear the squeak of someone writing on the whiteboard. Araceli is putting a number next to Landslide Victory- 11/10, with the 11 slightly higher.

“Eleven tenths?” Enrico wonders, but Araceli shakes her head. She writes A++ next to it.

“Eleven out of ten!” Hisashi exclaims. “Yeah, and-” His arms stretch way out to the front of the room, picking up markers from the shelf and writing some more around the middle of the list. “They used to think there were only four basic tastes…” Umami gets marked as 5/4; meanwhile Araceli is writing 7/6 for indigo. “So if number matters, then 5 and 7 and 11 are important but 4 and 6 and 10 aren’t…” He sets down the markers and retracts his arms back toward his seat. It’s very quiet, but weird to watch, like he’s a doll who’s had its string pulled.

“Are they all odd?” Dahlia asks.

Enrico answers first. “No, there’s a 2, for heads. Only two sides of a coin… but why 2, and not…”

“Primes!” Nathan calls out suddenly. “They’re all prime- they can’t be divided by anything but themselves. Two, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen- but no even numbers besides two, and no nine, because it’s three times three.”

“The Supreme Court is nine,” Piper points out.

Nathan glares. “But that’s not how the clues work!”

“Yeah, I’m with Nathan on this one,” Owen nods. “It’s simple but it’s the first thing that fits all the clues. Anybody got anything else?”

Nobody objects, but Shirley raises her hand to ask a question. “Miss Delaney- we can guess more than once, right?”

“Absolutely.” Camille is kind of impressed to see that she hasn’t gotten out a tablet or even a smartphone- she’s just been watching and listening this whole time. She could use more teachers like that.

Owen looks up and down the row again before turning to face the teacher. “Is the answer prime numbers? Or prime-numbered groups?”

“Yes, it is.” Miss D smiles and flips the scoreboard ahead five points, for a total of 36. “Great job, everybody. Give yourselves a hand.”

“You can take mine, if you want.” Hisashi grins and stretches out all four arms along the length of the row, offering high-fives to everyone in turn. He even reaches one up to the front, where Araceli smacks it heartily.

When one of them stops in front of Camille, she takes a moment to look at it up close. It actually looks pretty normal, aside from the length and the lack of any visible elbows… but then, it’s an eight-foot human arm. What’s she expecting?

After a few seconds she shrugs, slaps it, and moves on. This was supposed to be about getting comfortable, right? There’ll be lots of time to ask questions later. (Eric is up at Miss Delaney’s desk right now, apparently getting a head start.)

Speaking of which- she makes herself stop and turn around before she can leave the room.

“Hey, um- Joey, right?” She runs her hand through her hair again and tries to focus on holding eye contact. “Do you have a gallery or something I can look at? For your cosplay? I mean, you said last week-”

“Sure.” He grins, and she kind of forgets to focus on anything else. “Sorry about earlier. I’ll send you the link. What’s your school username?”

A few minutes later she has a new message from zsiss@ohio.academy.edu:

I thought I’d mention- I don’t always look the same, even under the costumes. I hope that’s not too weird.

Apparently she’s not the only one who’s more sensitive than they look.

Maybe this is a good place for her after all.

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