Tag: "Nathaniel Lee"

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EP455: Keep Your Shape

by Robert Sheckley
read by Nathaniel Lee

author Robert Sheckley

author Robert Sheckley

about the author…

(from Wikipedia) Robert Sheckley was born in Brooklyn, New York. In 1931 the family moved to Maplewood, New Jersey. Sheckley attended Columbia High School, where he discovered science fiction. He graduated in 1946 and hitchhiked to California the same year, where he tried numerous jobs: landscape gardener, pretzel salesman, barman, milkman, warehouseman, and general laborer “board man” in a hand-painted necktie studio. Finally, still in 1946, he joined the U.S. Army and was sent to Korea. During his time in the army he served as a guard, an army newspaper editor, a payroll clerk, and guitarist in an army band. He left the service in 1948.

Sheckley then attended New York University, where he received an undergraduate degree in 1951. The same year he married for the first time, to Barbara Scadron. The couple had one son, Jason. Sheckley worked in an aircraft factory and as an assistant metallurgist for a short time, but his breakthrough came quickly: in late 1951 he sold his first story, Final Examination, to Imagination magazine. He quickly gained prominence as a writer, publishing stories in Imagination, Galaxy, and other science fiction magazines. The 1950s saw the publication of Sheckley’s first four books: short story collections Untouched by Human Hands (Ballantine, 1954), Citizen in Space (1955), and Pilgrimage to Earth (Bantam, 1957), and a novel, Immortality, Inc. (first published as a serial in Galaxy, 1958).

Sheckley and Scadron divorced in 1956. The writer married journalist Ziva Kwitney in 1957. The newly married couple lived in Greenwich Village. Their daughter, Alisa Kwitney, born in 1964, would herself become a successful writer. Applauded by critic Kingsley Amis, Sheckley was now selling many of his deft, satiric stories to mainstream magazines such as Playboy. In addition to his science fiction stories, in 1960s Sheckley started writing suspense fiction. More short story collections and novels appeared in the 1960s, and a film adaptation of an early story by Sheckley, The 10th Victim, was released in 1965.

Sheckley spent much of 1970s living on Ibiza. He and Kwitney divorced in 1972 and the same year Sheckley married Abby Schulman, whom he had met in Ibiza. The couple had two children, Anya and Jed. The couple separated while living in London. In 1980, the writer returned to the United States and became fiction editor of the newly established OMNI magazine. Sheckley left OMNI in 1981 with his fourth wife, writer Jay Rothbell a.k.a. Jay Sheckley, and they subsequently traveled widely in Europe, finally ending up in Portland, Oregon, where they separated. He married Gail Dana of Portland in 1990. Sheckley continued publishing further science fiction and espionage/mystery stories, and collaborated with other writers such as Roger Zelazny and Harry Harrison.

During a 2005 visit to Ukraine for the Ukrainian Sci-Fi Computer Week, an international event for science fiction writers, Sheckley fell ill and had to be hospitalized in Kiev on April 27. His condition was very serious for one week, but he appeared to be slowly recovering. Sheckley’s official website ran a fundraising campaign to help cover Sheckley’s treatment and his return to the United States. Sheckley settled in Red Hook, in northern Dutchess County, New York, to be near his daughters Anya and Alisa. On November 20 he had surgery for a brain aneurysm; he died in a Poughkeepsie hospital on December 9, 2005.

about the narrator…

Nathaniel Lee is Escape Pod’s assistant editor and sometime contributor.  His writing can be found at various online venues, including Daily Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and all of the EA podcasts.  He lives somewhat unwillingly in North Carolina with his wife and son and their obligatory authorial cats.

 

Keep Your Shape
by Robert Sheckley

Pid the Pilot slowed the ship almost to a standstill, and peered anxiously at the green planet below.
Even without instruments, there was no mistaking it. Third from its sun, it was the only planet in this system capable of sustaining life. Peacefully it swam beneath its gauze of clouds.
It looked very innocent. And yet, twenty previous Grom expeditions had set out to prepare this planet for invasion—and vanished utterly, without a word.
Pid hesitated only a moment, before starting irrevocably down. There was no point in hovering and worrying. He and his two crewmen were as ready now as they would ever be. Their compact Displacers were stored in body pouches, inactive but ready.
Pid wanted to say something to his crew, but wasn’t sure how to put it.
The crew waited. Ilg the Radioman had sent the final message to the Grom planet. Ger the Detector read sixteen dials at once, and reported, “No sign of alien activity.” His body surfaces flowed carelessly.

 

Noticing the flow, Pid knew what to say to his crew. Ever since they had left Grom, shape-discipline had been disgustingly lax. The Invasion Chief had warned him; but still, he had to do something about it. It was his duty, since lower castes such as Radiomen and Detectors were notoriously prone to Shapelessness.
“A lot of hopes are resting on this expedition,” he began slowly. “We’re a long way from home now.”
Ger the Detector nodded. Ilg the Radioman flowed out of his prescribed shape and molded himself comfortably to a wall.
“However,” Pid said sternly, “distance is no excuse for promiscuous Shapelessness.”
Ilg flowed hastily back into proper Radioman’s shape.
“Exotic forms will undoubtedly be called for,” Pid went on. “And for that we have a special dispensation. But remember—anyshape not assumed strictly in the line of duty is a foul, lawless device of The Shapeless One!”
Ger’s body surfaces abruptly stopped flowing.
“That’s all,” Pid said, and flowed into his controls. The ship started down, so smoothly co-ordinated that Pid felt a glow of pride.
They were good workers, he decided. He just couldn’t expect them to be as shape-conscious as a high-caste Pilot. Even the Invasion Chief had told him that.
“Pid,” the Invasion Chief had said at their last interview, “we need this planet desperately.”
“Yes, sir,” Pid had said, standing at full attention, never quivering from Optimum Pilot’s Shape.
“One of you,” the Chief said heavily, “must get through and set up a Displacer near an atomic power source. The army will be standing by at this end, ready to step through.”
“We’ll do it, sir,” Pid said.
“This expedition has to succeed,” the Chief said, and his features blurred momentarily from sheer fatigue. “In strictest confidence, there’s considerable unrest on Grom. The Miner caste is on strike, for instance. They want a new digging shape. Say the old one is inefficient.”
Pid looked properly indignant. The Mining Shape had been set down by the Ancients fifty thousand years ago, together with the rest of the basic shapes. And now these upstarts wanted to change it!
“That’s not all,” the Chief told him. “We’ve uncovered a new Cult of Shapelessness. Picked up almost eight thousand Grom, and I don’t know how many more we missed.”
Pid knew that Shapelessness was a lure of The Shapeless One, the greatest evil that the Grom mind could conceive of. But why, he wondered, did so many Grom fall for His lures?

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Escape Artists Metacast

An urgent update on the status of Escape Artists, its three podcasts, our plans for the future and why we desperately need your help getting there.

Escape Artists Metacast

 

Escape Artists, Inc.
P.O. Box 83
Woodstock, GA 30188
Additional music provided by D-Form - http://www.reverbnation.com/dform
Sound effects provided by users kasa90 (http://freesound.org/people/kasa90/) and TasmanianPower (http://freesound.org/people/TasmanianPower/) of FreeSound.org
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EP405: Vestigial Girl

by Alex Wilson
Read by Nathaniel Lee

Links for this episode:

About the Author…

from the author’s website: Alex Wilson writes fiction and comics in Carrboro, NC. His comic with Silvio dB The Time of Reflection won the Eagle Award in 2012.
His work has appeared/will appear in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Rambler, LCRW, Weird Tales, The Florida Review, Futurismic, Outlaw Territory II (Image Comics), ChiZine, Pif, and Dragon. Locus Magazine has called him a “promising new writer,” and Publishers Weekly also has nice things to say.

About the Narrator…

Nathaniel Lee is Escape Pod’s assistant editor and sometime contributor.  His writing can be found at various online venues, including Daily Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and all of the EA podcasts.  He lives somewhat unwillingly in North Carolina with his wife and son and their obligatory authorial cats.

 

Vestigial Girl
By Alex Wilson

The cartoon butterflies were sleeping along the pushlight nursery wallpaper as Charlene fumbled with her cradle’s locking mechanism, using fingers too large and uncoordinated for anything so practical. She blinked away the fuzziness of the low light–clearing her eyes for less than a second–and fought against the calming scent of lavender wafting up through her mattress. She flexed the monster in her throat. She didn’t love the feeling, but would miss such control over at least this one part of her body.

She heard muffled voices in the next room, beyond the transparent gate of her cradle, beyond the sleeping butterflies. Her fathers were fighting again, and they’d forgotten to activate the night muffler to hide the sounds. This was a good thing, this night. Of course they usually didn’t check on her again after nine o’clock, but it usually wasn’t so important that she hear them coming if they did.

Six months ago, Charlene had averaged three hours, forty-four minutes to open her cradlelock on any given evening; tonight it took her only forty-seven minutes. She wasn’t ready to celebrate that her physical development might finally, slowly be catching up with that of her mind. She wasn’t sure what that meant yet. She had an idea that it wasn’t entirely good news.

Again, she flexed the monster. She was four years old, and this limited mastery of her throat was still her only material proficiency.

The lock clicked. The cradle gate swung gently open. The voices in the next room became louder and clearer.

“Calm down, Gary. There’s still hope.”

“Think you’ll still say that after we’ve been changing diapers another twenty years?”

Daddy Oliver was calling Daddy Gary by his given name. That meant he was upset. When they weren’t upset, they called each other Chum or Babe, terms of affection rather than identity. She’d figured out all this on her own, from watching, from listening, from reading. She understood that degrees of isolation and socialization weren’t the only indicators of potential, and sometimes her fathers did, too. But could observation, without interaction, adequately prepare her for life? Could she defeat the monster entirely on her own?

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EP380: Punk Voyager

By Shaenon Garrity
Read by Nathaniel Lee

Discuss on our forums. 

For a list of all Escape Pod stories by this author or narrator, visit our sortable Wikipedia page

Rated 13+ for rebellious vulgarity


Punk Voyager
By Shaenon K. Garrity

Punk Voyager was built by punks.  They made it from beer cans, razors, safety pins, and a surfboard some D-bag had left on the beach. Also plutonium.  Where did they get plutonium?  Around.  f*** you.

The punks who built Punk Voyager were Johnny Bonesaw, Johnny Razor, Mexican Johnny D-bag, Red Viscera, and some other guys.  No, asshole, nobody remembers what other guys.  They were f***ing wasted, these punks.  They’d been drinking on the San Diego beach all day and night, talking about making a run to Tijuana and then forgetting and punching each other.  They’d built a fire on the beach, and all night the fire went up and went down while the punks threw beer cans at the seagulls.

Forget the s*** I just said, it wasn’t the punks who did it.  They were f***ing punks.  The hell they know about astro-engineering? Truth is that Punk Voyager was the strung-out masterpiece of Mexican Johnny D-bag’s girlfriend, Lacuna, who had a doctorate in structural engineering.  Before she burned out and ran for the coast, Lacuna was named Alice McGuire and built secret nuclear submarines for a government contractor in Ohio.  It sucked.  But that was where she got the skills to construct an unmanned deep-space probe.  Same principle, right?  Keep the radiation in and the water out.  Or the vacuum of space, whatever, it’s all the same s*** to an engineer.

f*** that, it wasn’t really Lacuna’s baby.  It wasn’t her idea.  The idea was Red’s.

“f***ing space,” he said that fateful night.  He was lying on his back looking up at space, is why he said it.

“Hell yeah,” said Johnny Bonesaw.

“s*** ain’t nothing but rocks and UFOs.”

“Ain’t no such thing as a UFO.”

“Like hell there ain’t,” said Red.  “CIA knows all about it.  Them and the astronauts.”

Red was always saying that s***, though.  Everything was the CIA and the saucer people with that burnout.

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EP348: Nemesis

By Nathaniel Lee
Read by Mat Weller
Guest host: Dave Thompson of PodCastle
Discuss on our forums.
An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Nathaniel Lee
All stories read by Mat Weller
Rated 13 and up for violence

Nemesis
by Nathaniel Lee

It was the middle of second-period Spanish when I felt my cell phone go off in my pocket. Three pulses, then two. That meant one of my alerts had hit paydirt. I’ve got newsfeeds filtered for keywords, pairing “emergency” and the names of every local school and business I could think of, plus I got Kenny from sixth period computer Science to cobble together a kind of hack on the actual first responders’ radio channels. If my phone had gone off, then there was trouble.

If there was trouble, then the city needed Atom Boy.

So where was he?

Well, if I was in Spanish, then he was in History. No, wait, he’d dropped the AP course. Did he have some kind of math now instead? Crud. I had no idea. I’d lost our hero.

“Miss Ramsey?”

“Ahem!”

“Uh, um, I mean, uh, Señora Ramsey?”

” Sí, Quentin?”

“Yo, uh, yo poder uso el baño?”

“Puedo. Y sí, se puede. Andale.”

I clapped a hand over my pocket to keep my phone-bulge hidden and ran out of the classroom, careful to turn to the right as if I were heading for the boy’s room. A couple of months ago, that wouldn’t have been a bad idea; I’d discovered Adam’s secret when I walked in on him trying to get out of his tights at the end of fourth period. Which he’d missed, by the way, and I’d had to cover for him and pretend like I’d gotten a text from his mom about an emergency dental appointment.

Nowadays, I made him use the locked room in the old elementary school building, next door to the art room. I had a key because Mr. Adelaide trusted me to use it only to work on my project. I felt bad about abusing that trust, but I figure helping a superhero save the world every week counts as some sort of civic duty. I checked there first.

Adam was sitting at one of the old desks, his feet sticking out about a mile because it was designed for five-year-olds. He had his suit half on. His pale chest was bare, exposing those three wispy little curls that he was so proud of. He didn’t look up when I came in.

“Adam? What’s wrong?”

“I’ve lost my powers.” His voice was dull, his eyes unfocused. He sounded grim and deadly serious.

“Oh, for crying out loud, Adam, we’ve been over this. Remember, last month? You thought it was some kind of lingering effect from the Recluse’s poison bite, but it was all psychosoma-whosit.” I ran in and snatched up his backpack, rummaging for his pill-box. “Have you been taking your Paxil?”

“It made me gassy. I’m on a new one now. Starts with an ‘s,’ I think.”

“Well, whatever it is, have you been taking it?”

“No! I want to be me, not what some drug makes me.”

I resisted the urge to punch him. It would be like hitting a steel wall, anyway. Instead, I found the box and opened it. The previous week’s pills were all still in their slots. White pills, red pills, blue pills. Patriotic. “Which one is it?”

Adam shrugged.

“Argh!” I pulled out one of each, thought about it, then made it two of each. He had superpowers. He could take it. “Here. Take these and get a move on.”

Adam picked the pills up. “I told you, I lost my powers.”

“You did not.”

“Did so.”

I glared at him. This called for drastic measures. I turned, picked up a wooden dowel from the supply table, closed my eyes, and whacked him over the head. I used my right hand this time; my left is my drawing hand, and I didn’t want to lose it for two weeks. The actinic flash was blinding even through my eyelids, and I felt myself hurled backwards and into the pile of paper rolls. Better than the chairs, at least. I opened my eyes to see Adam standing, fists raised over his head and crackling with azure energy. His eyes glowed, too, and his hair stood on end and shimmered blue like it was made of fiber optic cables.

“Ha ha!” he shouted. “I’m back. I’m back!” He turned to me and his face fell. “Oh, geez, Q. I’m sorry.”

I glanced at my right hand. My fingertips were blackened, and soot from the incinerated rod reached up to my elbow. I didn’t even feel anything yet. I tried to move my fingers. Oops. Bad idea.

“I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine,” I said, gritting my teeth. I waved him on. “Just go get whatever it is.” I heard footsteps approaching. “Hurry!”

Adam nodded and took off out the window, leaving a trail of sky-blue sparkles that faded gradually. I hauled myself upright and smacked my lips. His backwash tastes like Blue Razzberry slushie. I wonder if he knows.

Someone was rattling the doorknob. Not Mr. Adelaide, then, at least. I’d hate for him to be the one to discover me ruining his secret room. I decided I’d tell them I was messing around with fireworks and burned my hand. As long as the nurse didn’t have a Geiger counter, they’d never know the difference.

I took a moment to look out the window. Adam was already out of sight, his trail hardly visible against the deeper blue of the sky. I turned and looked at my half-finished sculpture for Honors Art. I called it “Heroism.” I’d miss working on it.

I went to open the door.

#

That evening, I decided to go to the fort. I had to wait for Mom and Dad to go to sleep; I was grounded for a month in addition to the three-day suspension I caught for creating a fire hazard, and the only reason it wasn’t worse was because I’d managed to convince everyone I’d wanted to use the fireworks as part of an art project and not just as a prank. Not a bad idea, actually. I wish I’d thought of it before. At any rate, it’s a good thing Adam didn’t get superpowers until after I was already known as a “good kid.” We’d both have been expelled by now if I didn’t have that reputation to draw on. Even so, I was already on the last threads of trust with most of my teachers.

It was dark out in the woods. We’d had candles and flashlights and stuff stashed here for ages, though, and ever since I started taking Art class seriously, I’ve made sure I also had a good bright lamp and spare batteries. The fort itself was basically falling apart now. It had been falling apart when it was new, for that matter, just a couple of planks leaned together. We had a tent set up, though, and waterproof camping bags with all kinds of useful things. I know Adam kept his spare costume out here, for instance. And his porn stash.

My hand was all covered in ointment and bandaged up. They’d had to send me to the actual hospital because the nurse’s office didn’t have the right supplies. I still don’t think it was that bad. It just stung, was all. I could have gotten worse at a regular old campfire. It’s not like Adam hit me directly with one of his energy beams or something. I used my forearm to balance my sketchbook and kept my palm turned away. It itched, but I knew better than to try and scratch it. Being Adam’s friend meant knowing a lot about burns.

The first few pages of my sketchbook had some abortive landscape drawings and a first attempt at a still life for last month’s assignment. In the corners and the margins, though, were my anatomy studies. Mostly Adam, at least the recognizable ones. Adam laughing, Adam with his hair all glowy, Adam taking off from the barbecue pit at his house.

The others were all Belinda.

I never drew her in full. An eye, or a hand, or a shoulder; never enough that someone could recognize her. The stuff with Adam I could pass off as imagination, but when someone stole my sketchbook – and let’s face it, in high school, that’s a “when,” not an “if” – I emphatically did not want them to be able to figure out I had a pathetic geek crush on Linda. She goes by Linda now; she used to prefer Bella, when we were all little, but she hates those stupid vampire books and says they ruined the name for her. For all I care, she could call herself Snot-Hog the Uglinator and I’d still draw her in my sketchbook. I’d broken my rule, now that we were coming up to Winter Break, and started work on a full portrait of her. I wanted to give it to her as a present, but I also wanted to be able to disappear for two weeks right afterward if it didn’t go over well.

I’d been drawing it for over a week, working on getting everything just right. It was hard to work mostly from memory, but it wasn’t like I didn’t know what she looked like. She stared up at me from the page, her eyes dark and a hint of a smile playing around her lips. The background wasn’t filled in yet; that was what I’d come out here to work on. I’d decided on a vaguely Classical theme, so I started on the rough pencils for a set of columns and some curling vines. Maybe a fountain in the background. It was a relief to lose myself in my work for a while, like diving into a pool on a hot summer day, letting the stress and fatigue and pain drizzle away and leave me in peace. I decided my ego was bruised enough that I was allowed to indulge in a little fantasy, so I sketched myself in as a companion for Linda, off to one side. Very lightly, so I could erase it afterward; that would be more than a little presumptuous to give as a gift. It was only when I came to the face that I realized I’d drawn it wrong. This shape was tall, athletic, with a strong chin and pale hair.

I’d drawn Adam out of sheer habit.

Suddenly I didn’t feel like drawing anymore.

With a buzz and a rush of air, Atom Boy landed in front of me. “Hey, Q!”

“Hey, stranger,” I replied. “So what happened? The official news isn’t too helpful.”

“Oh, it was the Lizardtron again,” Adam said breezily. “Marcus thinks that the Genegineer is back, but I recognized that hydraulic work; I think it’s got to be Doktor Tektonic.”

“Who’s Marcus?” I turned off my lamp then closed my sketchbook and tucked it by my side.

“Huh?” Adam’s hair faded back to its normal blond hue, and stopped waving around like an anemone. “Oh, didn’t I tell you about him? He’s this old guy, I think he used to be Mentat, but now he’s a professor at some school for ‘special’ kids, if you know what I mean. He’s been coaching me. You know, mentally.” Adam tapped his head. “It’s cool. I checked his story out, and the Dean of Admissions said they’d offer me a place if I wanted it.”

“You’re leaving? Before graduation?”

“Well, I didn’t accept yet. I have to think about it, you know?”

I hesitated. This was a minefield. “You… haven’t mentioned any of this.”

“Oh, man, bro, it’s just been so busy. Like, the Underground attacked, and then there was that whole trip to the alternate Earth, and Marcus’ voice stopped when I went on that new medicine and I thought maybe it was all a hallucination and it was only today that he got through again. And then I lost my powers or I thought I did and you totally saved the day on that one, Q, Marcus said to tell you that you were cool about that with the thinking fast and stuff.”

“Did he actually say that?”

“No, he said something about a ‘level-headed young individual’ and stuff, he talks like he’s a hundred or something, but he would’ve said ‘cool’ if he knew any words later than like eighteen-twelve or whatever, and I think you gave me a little too much because I feel way hyper, do I seem hyper to you? Mom said it’s a side effect and it’s worse than farting in class but I can’t really tell what do you think?”

“Your mom’s usually right.”

“Dude, I am not getting back on the fart pills. That was awful.”

I managed a smile. “Oh, hey, I got your homework for tonight. I finished most of it, but I’m not in French so I couldn’t do that part.” I pulled the sheaf of papers out of my backpack and stood, careful of my burned hand.

“Q! You are the man, I swear to God.” Adam plucked the papers out and leafed through them.

“I even got a few wrong so they won’t figure out you didn’t do it yourself.”

Adam punched me lightly on the arm. It kind of hurt. “You doof.” Unexpectedly, he grabbed me and pulled me into a rib-cracking hug. “Man, I don’t know what I would do without you. You are my best friend, Q; I mean that.”

“It’s okay, Adam,” I squeaked, barely able to breathe. “You’d do the same for me if you could. You saved my mom from that giant centipede, remember?”

“Yeah, but that’s different.” Adam released me and ducked into the tent to change out of his costume. It’s amazing the difference clothing makes. No one’s ever even commented how much Adam Baum looks like Atom Boy. Probably the glowing blue hair helps. It’s really distracting. “Anyway, I have to get home. You want a ride?”

“Nah. You make everything taste blue for a week when you do that.”

Adam laughed. “You’re such a weirdo, Q. What does that even mean?”

“I’m serious! Have any supervillains ever complained about it?”

“Shut up. Oh, hey, by the way, be careful ’cause if it is Doktor Tektonic, then he knows my real identity and he might come around and cause trouble. Don’t touch anything shiny that ticks, okay?”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

And then he was gone, and the little clearing in the woods where we’d played together as little kids was suddenly darker and full of shadows.

#

The problem was that Adam really was such a nice guy. If he’d been arrogant about it, or if he’d expected me to do all this stuff for him and made a big deal about how busy he was with important stuff elsewhere, or if he’d rubbed my face in my nothing-specialness, I could have been resentful and angry and gotten it out of my system. Adam wasn’t like that. He was honestly surprised whenever I did things to help him out, and he never tried to exclude me or lie to me. He forgot stuff, but that was Adam. He was like a giant, super-powered puppy, happy and cheerful and endlessly loyal. Completely unselfconscious. And completely thoughtless. As in literally without thought. It just never occurred to him that his powers were anything but awesome or that there were any other lives that could be lived, and if he’d had any idea that the sheer rotten unfairness of the whole situation upset me, he’d be even more miserable than I was.

I couldn’t hate Adam for being Adam. All I could do was bottle it up, swallowing my resentment like a slimy toad that crouched in my gut, cold and clammy and undying. Every day, the toad would try to climb up and get out, to force my mouth open and croak bile at Adam and Mom and Dad and Mr. Adelaide and everyone, and my job was to keep him locked away. The toad was my nemesis, my own personal supervillain, and at least I could beat him if I couldn’t beat anyone else. That was how I tried to think of it, anyway. It helped, a little.

I started skipping school to hide out at the fort and work on my drawings. Forged a note about strep throat; all that imitating Adam’s handwriting meant I had lots of practice at that kind of thing. Why should I go? Adam was gone most days, and I hated every class except Art, which I couldn’t enjoy anymore because Mr. Adelaide was mad at me for “abusing his trust,” and what could I tell him? “I had to do it to help a superhero fight a giant robot dragon”?

What could I tell anyone, really? That I was mad at no one because my friend had superpowers and I was afraid to talk to a girl I liked because I didn’t? Everyone around here tried to pretend like superheroes didn’t exist and harrumphed about them whenever they showed up on TV. They’d sure as heck never believe that it was Adam the screwup, the “Baum kid, isn’t it a shame,” who’d saved the city all these times. And I didn’t want to reveal Adam’s secret; they’d make him stop if they knew who he was, make him get licensed and registered by the government and probably sent out to the Middle East or something. I’d promised to protect his identity, and I would keep that promise.

Adam wasn’t around, though. He was off hunting for that person who’d rebuilt Lizardtron and doing stuff for that jerk Marcus and his stupid superhero school. Some kind of test or something. He said he’d found Doktor Tektonic, but even though the Doktor was defeated, the “Prismatic Matrix,” whatever that was, was still missing. Adam didn’t go into much detail, and what little he did say was kind of Adam-ish and therefore mostly unhelpful. I didn’t pressure him. He’d tell me if he wanted to.

Or if his big new friends let him.

So I was alone. Some days I could see the flash and hear the distant rumble of Adam fighting some new monster, but mostly I saw and drew and tried to lose myself for a while. I finished the picture of Linda, but I didn’t give it to her. I tried, once. Went to school and everything, but when I saw her, she was getting into some guy’s car with a bunch of friends and they were all laughing and talking and basically every single person in that car was light-years out of my league, attractiveness-wise. So I left and swallowed the toad back down and went to the woods. I drew studies of everything in the clearing, one tree at a time.

That was how I found the artifact. It was buried in the ground, deep, as if it had impacted with a lot of force after traveling from far away. It glinted in the morning sun, and I had to dig for twenty minutes to get it out. When I did, I found that it was a little handle, like a set of brass knuckles. On the front, where there’d normally be the actual, you know, brass knuckles, there was just a glittery gem-looking thing. It was obviously superhero stuff. I should have called Adam immediately and had him or Marcus or whoever come and get it and contain it and make sure it was safe or whatever, but I felt the toad clawing up my throat and I didn’t.

I put it on my hand instead.

The gem flashed, and the whole thing made a whirring, clattering sound and folded out in some way my eyes couldn’t follow, and suddenly I was wearing a little gauntlet with all kinds of buttons and sliders on it. I tried to pull it off, but it wouldn’t come. I figured it had to be turned off first, so I started trying the buttons and switches one at a time. I’m not an idiot; I kept the business end pointed off into the woods. The fourth switch I tried – a little slider thing at the wrist – made the whole gizmo retract back to its little handheld form. The third button I tried, though, the big green-and-purple one on top, made the gem in front flash and send out some kind of beam that turned a two-foot-thick tree into crystal and shattered it to dust.

I stood there for a while, holding the gizmo and looking at that pile of glittering shards. I felt my lips curl into a smile, and it seemed like they stretched wider and wider until my mouth must have looked like a toad’s.

#

For the rest of that week and the weekend, I tinkered with the gizmo. I figured out how to do lots of things. It had dozens of different weapons, and a couple of them looked like they were means specifically to take on Adam, based on what I knew of his weaknesses. He can’t deal with this one kind of alien crystal stuff – something about the molecular structure – that looked a lot like what the tree turned into, and his power gets borked if you can set up a feedback loop, which is hard because the stuff he puts out is kind of electrical and kind of laser-y at the same time. The glove could do it, though. It also had a force field, a couple of stealth modes, and – my personal favorite – it could fly, at least for a little bit. There’s nothing like the feeling of wind in your face without tasting sour-sweet fizz for hours afterward. I figured out flight on Sunday.

I went back to school the next day. It is really amazing, the feeling you get from walking around with a weapon of mass destruction in the bottom of your backpack. I definitely recommend it if you’re having self-esteem issues. I saw Dave and Deke, who used to take my lunch money every day when I was in third grade, and I waved like we were old friends. They looked at each other, confused, but something in the way I was walking must have told them it would be a bad idea to mess with me. My teachers were all angry about me being absent, especially when I told them I hadn’t even checked on the website what the homework was. I got a lecture every period, but I just smiled and nodded and thought about how I could use my gizmo to destroy the whole school if I wanted.

Linda was there, too. I saw her talking with Adam in homeroom. When had he decided to come back to earth? They were laughing about something. The toad kicked hard at my diaphragm, and I turned my wince into a smile.

“Hey, guys!” I said, leaning in. They both glanced up at me and went quiet. “How’s it going?” I asked. I winked at Adam, and he grinned his goofy Adam-grin, thinking everything was cool.

“It’s great. My big project is almost done.” Adam would make a terrible spy. Thank God he doesn’t take Drama.

“Cool. So… I didn’t know you and Linda still hung out.” I kept my voice casual, icy-calm. I thought about the gizmo.

“Yeah. She’s, uh, helping me with my French homework,” said Adam, blushing a bit. I clenched my teeth.

“Jeez, Adam, you make it sound dirty,” Linda rolled her eyes. “Just because I let you copy my papers doesn’t mean we’re dating or something.”

“No, not like that. It’s just… not really helping… if I don’t… um…” Adam’s blush deepened.

“It’s cool. I just hadn’t seen much of either of you lately. Other than, you know, like, Pre-Calc. I haven’t talked to you since like last year, Linda.”

“I tried to call you the other day,” said Linda, not meeting my eyes. “Your mom said you were grounded. Did you really try to burn down the school?”

“You’ll have to ask Adam about that one.” I was smiling so hard it hurt my cheeks.

“I thought you went home early that day?” Linda asked Adam.

“Uh…”

See, this is why he needs me. His secret identity would be toast in a half-second if it was up to him. “Nah, Adam’s just a total pyro. He burns things down like once a year at least. Hey, Linda, I need to talk to you. It’s about Art. Do you mind?”

“I gotta go anyway,” said Adam, looking grateful to escape. “See you around.” He left as fast as I’ve ever seen him move without leaving those stupid blue sparkles behind.

“What’s up?” asked Linda. She was biting her lip. Was I making her nervous? Maybe I was wound a little tight. I tried to remember that I was in control and totally all-powerful if I wanted to be. I forced myself to relax.

“I’ve been working on a secret art thing. You know, for the final project? It’s out in the woods right now. I thought maybe you could come and, y’know, give me pointers and stuff? I want it to be awesome because Mister Adelaide is kinda peeved.” There. That sounded totally natural.

Linda looked skeptical. “You mean out in that silly ‘secret fort’ you and Adam had in grade school?”

“Uh, yeah.” Think about the gizmo, I told myself. You’ve got the power. “Yeah, out there. I know it’s dumb, but it’s a big secret and I can’t reveal it until it’s ready, you know?” I licked my lips. “Please? It really would mean a lot to me to have your opinion.”

She met my eyes for the first name. I’d forgotten how blue they were. “Okay. Tomorrow, though, all right? I have cheer practice tonight. Around four?”

“Sure. It’s not due until Friday. I can make changes if I have to, still.” I stood up again. “Thank you.”

“Sure,” she said. When I glanced over my shoulder, she had her head down, staring at her notebook.

#

I spent Tuesday wavering between feeling like I was flying with the sun on my face and feeling like I was in the bottom of a muddy well. I tried to chase the toad away by focusing on warm and happy things like the gizmo and Linda’s expression when she realized what I could do, but the toad kept coming back. Finally, I just resigned myself to the cycle. I have no idea what anyone said in any of my classes. The gizmo sat at the bottom of my backpack, and it was as if I could see it through my desk and the plastic and canvas, glowing like a tiny second sun, just for me.

After school, I ran to the woods and waited. What would I say to Linda? I tried playing out several scenarios while I waited for her to arrive. Maybe I’d just be hovering overhead when she got in and I’d call out and she’d look up, all dramatic and stuff. On second thought… flying with the gizmo is kind of awkward, and I didn’t want her to see me looking like I was hanging from invisible monkey bars. Maybe I’d just casually activate it and shoot a tree. Except she might just get scared and run. But I could catch her, and then… yeah, okay, bad idea. I wished Linda smoked because I knew how to get a really thin little laser and I could be all, “Need a light?” But she didn’t. I couldn’t decide, and I got restless. I paced for a while, but then I started wondering why Linda wasn’t here yet and maybe she got lost or maybe she wasn’t coming at all. I felt vaguely nauseated. I sat down. I checked the time. Half past three. How was I going to kill a half-hour?

I pulled out my sketchbook and tried to clear my head. A charcoal pencil is like Pepto-Bismol for the soul. I drew a leaf. I drew my hand, encased in the gauntlet. I doodled a little stick-figure Adam and then drew a beam from the gauntlet that traveled across the page and scribbled him out, like I used to do when I was little and mad at someone.

Idly, I flipped the pages backwards and saw the drawing I’d finished, the portrait of Linda. Because I knew what to look for, I could just make out the remnants of the empty-faced Adam shape I’d drawn when what I wanted was to put myself in the picture. I imagined myself there now, with my gauntleted hand resting on Linda’s shoulder. Would her expression still have that faint wryness to it? Or would she be biting her lip and glancing away to the side, towards where Adam had been until I erased him?

“Quentin?”

I glanced up, startled. Linda stood on the edge of the clearing, opposite the tent.

“What are you working on? Where’s your art project?”

I didn’t know what to say. I handed her my sketchbook. Her cheeks went pink. “That’s beautiful,” she said. “I wish I actually had a dress that nice. You should be a fashion designer.”

My voice came back, but I used it like a moron. “I stole it from a magazine. The look of the dress, I mean.”

She nodded, her eyes still on the picture. I hadn’t really captured her, not properly. The liveliness of her eyes, the tiny crinkling at the corners of her eyes…

“Is this for me? Is this what you asked me out here to show me?” She looked up, and our eyes met again. I felt something flip-flop inside me that didn’t feel toad-like at all.

“Yes. No. I mean, um. That’s you. Yours. That picture is- I made it for you. But I…” I froze. Linda was looking at me, expectant. I couldn’t think what to say. She was here, she was back out at the fort like when we were kids, and I hadn’t talked to her in so long and she didn’t know why, maybe she thought I didn’t like her anymore but I did and… and…

“Adam is Atom Boy,” I blurted.

The words hung in the air for a moment. Then Linda laughed. Not a disbelieving laugh, but real belly-shaking hilarity. She doubled over and laughed until she was out of breath.

“It’s true! I’m not kidding! It’s why-”

“No, no, I believe you,” Linda waved a hand, not looking up. “God, no, it makes so much sense now. Of course he is. He thought that up himself, didn’t he? Probably thought it was hilarious. Adam Boy!” She glanced up and burst into peals of laughter again. “Oh, God, no wonder he didn’t want to come to the pizza party, if he’s a superhero on the weekends.” She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and hiccupped, then looked up at me. “What about you?”

“Me?” I slipped my hand into my pocket and gripped the gizmo. “I’m nothing special. I’m just a normal kid.” My other hand shook a little. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and clasped both hands together in front of me.

“No, no, I mean do you want to come to the party on Saturday? It’s a holiday thing. Everyone from school is going to Gallagio’s. Pizza and stuff.”

“I, um…” I felt my cheeks burning.

Linda coughed and chuckled again, as if a laugh got stuck in her throat. “So why tell me about Adam? Did he ask you to tell me? Is he trying to impress me?”

“No, I just… I thought you should know. If you were going to hang out with him.” I stared carefully into the distance over her left shoulder.

“‘Hang out’?” Linda looked puzzled for a moment. “Oh. Oh! Quinnie, you are so silly sometimes, you know that?” She walked forward, still holding my sketchpad. “Adam’s a sweetheart, but he’s… he’s kind of Adam. I don’t think he’s even noticed girls yet, honestly.”

She was close enough to touch, close enough that I smelled her perfume. There was a moment of silence.

“Do you remember what you got for me for my eleventh birthday?” she asked abruptly.

I responded instantly: “A pink Power Ranger zord and all the accessories.”

She smiled. “I still have her, you know. She’s on my dresser, right in front of the mirror. I see her there every morning. Sometimes my mom leaves notes for me in her hands, like she’s waving a sign at a parade or something.”

A high-tension wire was twanging in my innards. I felt like I should be paying attention, but I wasn’t sure to what. “Why do you bring it up?”

“No reason.” Linda leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. She pulled back, looked me in the eyes, and then kissed me again. On the lips, longer and deeper. By the time my brain caught up to what was happening, my body had already reacted, my hands coming up to rest on her back, my mouth opening, my eyes closing. She breathed out, I breathed in. There was no one else in the world. Somewhere far inside me, in the place where my thoughts ran dark and cold, something slick and green hopped in and disappeared without a ripple.

Then Linda pulled away. “So I’ll see you on Saturday,” she said, and it was a promise and a question all at once.

“Yeah…”

She handed me my sketchbook. “Keep my picture safe until I can find a frame for it, okay?”

“Okay.” I felt as though I had just come out of a coma, a long lapse that left me blinking in a strange new day.

“Will you need a ride?”

“Yeah, probably.” I thought of something else. “Um, I’ll have to sneak out, so meet me down at the corner, okay? I’ll be grounded still.”

“Won’t you get in more trouble?”

I shrugged. “It’ll be worth it.”

Linda smiled again, and the sun shone inside me. She began to walk away. “Oh,” she said, turning back, “should I keep Adam’s secret identity, um, secret?”

“Yeah,” I said, rubbing at the back of my neck. “You, uh, probably shouldn’t say anything to him either until I figure out how to warn him.”

She giggled again. “Okay. I can’t believe I didn’t figure it out already. God, it is so obvious in retrospect.” Her eyes twinkled. “You were a good secret-keeper up until just now. I never would have suspected you were involved. You’re so respectable sometimes.”

“Linda, I-” I blushed. I had no words left. I’d forgotten how to talk.

“Shh,” Linda held up a finger. “Take your time. You’ll figure it out eventually. I always said you were the smart one.”

I watched her leave. I slipped my hand into my pocket and pulled out the gizmo. I could give it to Adam. One of his superhero friends or mentors would know what to do with it. I could keep it secret in my backpack for emergencies, just to know it was there. Or I could learn to use it better, maybe wait for Adam to need some help, a sidekick or a superhero partner, the start of a new team. I could do anything I wanted with it, really.

But I didn’t need it anymore.

I found the hole where I’d unburied it weeks ago and dropped it in. I covered the hole with dirt and dragged a log over it to hide the scuffmarks. Adam would find it, eventually. Or he wouldn’t. Maybe that was part of the test, to see if Atom Boy was worth inducting into the ranks of the real superheroes. I wondered if Adam would pass. I hoped he would; it’s all he’s ever really wanted.

“Good luck, Atom Boy,” I said aloud. “And thank you.”