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Curious Key

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20th, Sunday

Normal Illinois


Silverware went click, clatter, clink, on a square table in a room rectangular room. An old, antique cuckoo clock ticked in the corner, next to the staircase. The wallpaper was dark, and if Kat looked behind her she knew she’d see a glass case filled with exotic china. The tiles that Kat’s feet just barely touched were floral. She bit her lip, straightened her blouse, grabbed at the hem of her skirt and squeezed.


Click. Her mother stared down at a slab of meat as she sawed at it with a knife. Clink. Her little brother set down his glass after drinking it all in one gulp. It did not break the silence as much as punctuate it. “So,†her mother said, tapping the edge of her plate with a fork, “Lyle, how has school been?â€


“Fine.†Bless him, her brother looked almost as uncomfortable as she felt, squirming in his seat, averting his eyes and reverting to monosyllables.


But Kat’s mother just raised an eyebrow. “Oh?†Oh, how he squirmed under that. When he didn’t say anything she sniffed pointed her knife at Kat. “He’s been having trouble in Ms. Lynn’s class, Lilly. You did well with her; you should help your brother.†She was a small woman, with sharp, angular features and eyes like jagged flint.


“Uh,†Kat eyed the knife and smiled. “Sure.†Her mother nodded as though to say ‘of course’ and drove the knife back into her meat with a wet thud.

Edited by Freely Seek
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This wasn’t the way this visit was supposed to go. Kat wasn’t entirely sure what she’d expected, but her mother had set up a small feast for her to gorge on. She counted her favorite foods—a nice steak, tender in her mouth—where had she gotten a nice steak like this in winter?—lines of sausage. Bacon for dinner. Kat knew that game well enough; her mother was buttering her up for something.

It was Kat’s father that spoke next, a big man with a gentle face. “How about you Lilly?†He missed or ignored a sharp look from her mother in his hurry to include her in the conversation. “How’s school been for you?â€

“Slow.†No smile this time. “Things have slowed down until the other kids get back from their breaks.†Kat could see the question, ‘what break?’ forming in her father’s mind when he jolted and looked sideways at his wife.

A few seconds under her hard glare and he realized it too. Oh right, the Day of Wrath. This line of conversation wasn't innocent. “Of course,†he said, turning back to face Kat, his eyes mournful. “I’m sorry, Lilly.â€

It only frustrated her more. “Please,†she held up one hand and rubbed her eyes with the other. “I just wanted to get away from that for a while.â€

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Kat’s parents shared a conspiratorial look, so short she barely noticed it’d happened at all. She put both hands on the table and leaned forward. “What?â€

Her father reached over, put a huge hand over the top of her head and tousled through her hair. “We can talk about it later. Just enjoy yourself for a while.†A kiss on her forehead, a comforting touch on the shoulder. “We’re here for you.†Kat’s mother bit down on her lip, said nothing.

That wrung a shy smile from Kat, and the atmosphere at the table warmed. Lyle sang complaints about Ms. Lynn, her father shared stories about what had happened in the dojo while she was gone and her mother told deadpan stories about clients whose exaggerated personalities had no right to exist on this side of the television screen.

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“Lyle,†Kat’s mother said, once the plates were clean of food and Kat was washing the residue off her plate. “Don’t you have something you want to ask your sister?â€

Looking over her shoulder, Kat saw her brother’s shoulders fall. It was hard to ignore when he was standing up; she’d inherited their father’s face and mother’s stature, but Lyle had gotten what was left over. He was already shooting up way too fast—he’d be taller than her when his growth came in, she was sure, and the baby softness of his face was already started to harden along the edges. He four years younger, but barely shorter, and wider besides. “Sis,†he said, clutching hands behind his back. “Can you help me with my math?â€

Weird. He didn't like homework; she’d expected Lyle to argue more. Kat turned toward him, put a hand on her waist and gave him a sideways smile. “Sure.†She dropped her stuff in the dishwasher and started up the stairs, listening to the creaks in familiar places and flexing her toes at the feel of carpet beneath bare feet. Ms. Lynn’s stuff wasn’t all that hard, and it seemed like her brother had it halfway already.

“Lyle,†she said, rapping her knuckles playfully against the side of his head. “You didn’t need my help for this. You’ve got this all figured out already.â€

He turned and looked at her with sober eyes, disregarding what she'd said completely. “Lilly,†he asked, “Are you a superhero?â€

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Dead silence.

Kat bit down on her lip and crossed her arms. “Did Mom and Dad tell you?†She said, her voice low.

Lyle shook his head, pulled out his phone and fiddled with it. When he turned it back toward her she saw herself leaping from a lamppost down on stage with Aaron Walsh. The camera was pointed at her side, but it was easy enough to tell who it was. “Turn it off.†Odd. She hadn’t meant to sound quite so harsh. Her brother pressed a button on the phone and the video cut off. He was still looking at her, expectant. “Yeah,†she sighed. “That’s me.â€

He turned suddenly shy, reached back and scratching at his neck. “Can I see?â€

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Kat breathed and closed her eyes, not so much to focus as hide the red glow she’d started to see in the mirror each morning. She reached an imaginary hand toward the red sun that glowed in her minds eye and felt a rush of exhilarating power run through her.

Lyle knew that Kat was a metahuman—there just wasn’t a lot that they could hide from people inside the family. The hero bit . . . that she’d decided to hide from him. That was what he wanted to see. So she reached for the space between spaces where she kept her uniform and felt entropic darkness run up her body from the bottom up, replacing her clothes as it went.

When she opened her eyes again she was in full Warp costume, standing in her brother’s room. He was staring up at her with big eyes, and a smile so wide it would have looked disingenuous on anyone older. “Oh my God,†he said, “you’re a superhero!â€

She stood a little taller.

“Do you like . . . go on patrol?†Lyle held both his fists close to his chest, eyes shining like stars. “Stop crime?†He did a child’s approximation of shadow boxing.

The corners of Kat’s mouth turned up. “Yes.â€

“Oh my God, that is the coolest!â€

She tousled her little brother’s hair, smiling at a slant. “Damn right it is.â€

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It took about half an hour to quench Lyle’s thirst for stories. He hadn’t been nearly this much a hero geek when she’d left—this was a new thing. When she’d moved down to Freedom, maybe?

She made the change back when Lyle was satisfied he knew what morphemic molecules felt like and took a detour on the way back downstairs and stepped into her old room. The door creaked, and the room was dark. She saw a bed with thick red sheets and white walls. They’d unplugged her personal computer and moved it somewhere more convenient, but the rest was all still here.

Photos lay out on the desk—an array of children in colorful clothes and costumes. Kat could pick out her younger self in each of the younger pictures, name everyone else in the troupe by their face and conjured up a story. A kung-fu medal here, there, all of it covered in a thin layer of dust, like artifacts in some lost pharaoh’s tomb, daring graverobbers to move them from their pedestals. She held a hand over each of them, did not disturb them.

Kat sat down on the end of her bed and felt the fabric of it under her hand. She smiled the way you smiled at a memory.

A silhouette in the doorway cast its shadow across the room. “Lilly?†Kat looked up and saw her mother framed in light. She reached inside and flicked a switch that chased the shadows out of her room. “We need to talk.†She stepped inside, Kat’s father’s mammoth outline not far behind.

Her mother sat next to her and laid a hand on her knee. “We’re transferring you away from Claremont.â€

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“Wait,†Kat held up her hands. “Back up. What?â€

Her mother gave a sharp look, shook her head as if to say ‘don’t be foolish.’ “We agreed to send you to Claremont so you would get your unique abilities under control.â€

Next came Kat’s father. “We’ve been getting reports of your progress. They think you’re more than capable of operating on your own, without any outside help. We know you’ll sleep more at ease in your own bed.â€

But Kat just shook her head. “No,†she said, and when her parents opened their mouths to drive over her she went more clear; “No! I was all done with that months ago, but you didn’t try to take me back. Why now?â€

She could feel her mother’s grip grow tight, to the edge of pain. “We saw the broadcast, Katharine. It is not safe for you there.â€

“Mom, I dress up in body armor and punch criminals.†Kat held her palms up toward the ceiling. “I don’t do it because it’s safe!â€

Her mother stood up. She was not a tall woman, but she knew the art of looming. “What is WRONG with you?†Her words lashed, and Kat winced back from them. “We saw the broadcast,†she said again. “Before it cut out. We saw that poor girl die. It could have been you!†She speared Kat with a finger. “Katharine, you could be dead, do you understand that?†Her mother was yelling, now. Kat was scooting backwards on her bed, eyes wide. There was fear in her eyes, and love, all tangled together. “I will NOT leave you in danger!â€

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Kat turned to her father, eyes pleading, but he shook his head. “Your mother’s right,†he said, very quiet. “We only want you to be safe.â€

She felt a rock the size of a small moon fall in her stomach. There were no allies in this room, and . . . they were Mom and Dad. The frightened little girl in her demanded she stay still—they were angry, they were scared. Hide in a hole and let them solve the problem. They will make it go away. Everything will be fine.

The rest of her remembered people bleeding out on the streets of Freedm, and would have nothing of it. “S-safe,†her mouth stuttered the word. “Who’ll keep everyone else safe?â€

Her parents gave her an odd look. She cleared her throat, breathed in deep, once, twice, thrice. “The broadcast cut out.†Kat said, slipping off the bed, standing with it between them. “You didn’t see the rest. The robot started firing into the crowd. Killed a few people, hurt more. Who got them out of the line of fire?â€

“When that was over, who beat the robot so it couldn’t hurt anyone else?â€

“Who helped take out a radio box directing more?â€

Kat pointed a thumb toward herself. “I’ve worried lots. About what I should have done, about the people who got hurt—or killed—cause I wasn’t fast enough.†she said. “I’ve never worried about dying. But if I wasn’t there, more people would’ve gotten hurt. And if I’m not there next time, more people will get hurt. So when something goes south, I’ll be there to help, and there’s nowhere on the planet you can transfer me that’ll keep me away. If you’ve read what they’ve been sending home, you know that.â€

“This is what it looks like to me.†She held her hands like the arms of a scale, raised her right hand. “You can let me go where I can learn to keep myself safe, and where I’ll get into big trouble.†Kat brought the left up. “Or I can still get in trouble, without the training.â€

Kat let her hands fall to her sides and met her parents’ eyes. “Your call.â€

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Kat had often imagined what her mother might look like if she was thwarted. It was teeth-grating, wrathful; like a Mafioso mouthing ‘you’re next.’ Except that now, her mother looked like none of these things. She looked like a wight, expression dead, with wide, startled eyes. For a little while she just stared, pupils darting, and Kat knew she was looking for some answer.  She turned around and walked out of the room like a half-broken windup toy.

It disturbed Kat on a far deeper level than her yelling had.

Her father, enormous and silence, stared at her with sad eyes. Kat’s expression folded inward. “Dad . . .â€

“You meant it,†he said, still staring. “Every word.â€

Kat bit down on her lip, nodded once.

“You . . . No.†He ran a hand over his face. “Please, Katharine.†He pleaded. “She can’t bear thinking you might . . . I can’t bear it. We know you're doing good out there, but we want you to be safe. Just come home.â€

Kat turned eyes down. It was harder to answer her father, soft and understanding, than her mother ever did. Again the little frightened girl begged that Kat not hurt him anymore, say anything just to keep him from being sad. “I'm sorry," she whispered. "No.â€

He took a long, deep breath. “. . . Okay. You’re a good girl, Lilly.†Her father wiped his eyes and turned away. “I’m . . . proud. Of you.†He stepped outside and eased the door slowly shut behind him.

Kat listened to the sound of his footfalls down the hall, fading, as they followed her mother down the stairs. She blinked, clutched at her chest where her heart should be “I’m not a very good daughter.â€

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