Zapped by Sherwood Smith

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  I remember a mobile hanging over my crib. It was a cardboard carousel of flying horses, with little animals—teddy bears, bunnies, cats—riding on their backs. One of my parents would set the mobile in motion, then they’d shut me in and leave me alone. But that was okay because the mobile would stay in motion until I was asleep.

  Babies don’t wonder why a thing doesn’t need batteries. To them, the world is filled with magic. It isn’t until you get older that the adults begin to dispel the magical things, one by one, for your own good. It’s their duty, they say, to prepare you for reality.

  Sometimes their reality turns out not to be yours. That’s what happened to me.

  Things were just always there. If I was drawing, I didn’t have to look up to grab my scissors or eraser or another pen. I reached, and picked it up.

  Who knows if I ever would have noticed, if it hadn’t been for my getting sick halfway through summer, just after we moved to San Diego. I woke up one morning and couldn’t swallow past the spikes in my throat. Mom Gwen took one look, deployed the thermometer, then banished me to bed.

  The next three or four days aren’t worth talking about. Dad set up the TV in my room—a big concession in our family—but I was so sick that opening my eyes gave me a headache.

  By the end of the week the fever was gone, I’d watched all my favorite DVDs a million times, and I got restless. Getting up still made me light-headed, but I wanted to look through my sketchbook and mess with a drawing or two. The sketchbook was on my nightstand, where I’d left it the night before I got sick, but my pencils still lay on my desk.

  I sat up in bed. The headache pounded. I flopped back, sighing as I stretched my hand toward my desk a mile away … and my fingers closed around the smooth shape of a drawing pencil.

  I brought it up to my face. A perfectly ordinary pencil. Huh?

  I flung the pencil to the end of my bed. It sat on the duvet beside the hump of my foot. When I wiggled my toes, the pencil began sliding off the bed. Again I reached without thinking, and there it was, in my fingers again.

  My heart started thumping. Was the pencil, like, alive? I laid it on my stomach, stretched out my hand nearby, and waited. Nothing happened. I made grabbing motions with my fingers, and again nothing happened. I poked the pencil, which began to roll off. This time I was aware of the little zap in my arm muscle—the twitch just before you move—a tiny light flared blue-white and the pencil smacked into my palm.

  So I tried to reach without actually reaching for the other pencils on my desk. One by one they flashed into my fingers like they were on an invisible yoyo string.

  Half an hour later my head was buzzing strangely, but on my bed lay a bunch of little stuff: an eraser, rubber bands, paper clips, and more pencils. I even tried to move my sketchbook, but that one made my head go whish-whoom like some kind of drum, and the sketchbook sat where it was.

  Maybe this was just a flu dream. I grabbed my phone to search on flu+”side effects.” I got more than I wanted to know about influenza (written in a jumble of scary medicalese) but nowhere did it say anything about zapping stuff with your mind.

  I thought about yelling for one of my parents, but hesitated. Both my moms are cool, and so is my dad, but they are all practical people. They really like Normal. I figured out by the time I was five that having three parents wasn’t Normal to some people, and as I got older, I found that it was important to my parents that we all be Normal to outsiders.

  This stuff with the pencils was definitely not Normal.

  Who else was there to ask? My younger brothers would be thrilled, but no way would they keep it to themselves. They’d be running all over shouting “Abracadabra,” or whatever secret power words they’d learned from cartoons or video games, trying to fly or turn invisible or shoot laser beams out of their eyes. So I decided to keep it to myself. It wasn’t hurting anybody. I’d experiment in the safety of my room while I recovered.

  I found that it was easy to zap things to my hand, but it was a lot harder to zap them back. My tries were so wild I had to laugh.

  Practice, I knew about. It had taken lots of practice to learn how to draw manga and anime figures, which was my favorite thing to do. After a day of tries, I perceived a kind of whisper inside my head, though I couldn’t tell you the actual spell. But I could zap paper clips and rubber bands to my desk blotter.

  The rest of the summer I spent biking down to the beach to explore, drawing, and—when no one was around—zapping little stuff around.

  The first day of school came. There I was again, in a sea of strangers, only now it was high school, bigger and scarier than middle school had been. At least there was a Gay-Straight Student Alliance. I wasn’t sure yet who or what I liked, but as our many moves pretty much guaranteed little luck in finding and keeping friends, my parents had said that if a school had a version of the Alliance, it would probably be a safe place to hang out and eat lunch. Way better than finding myself totally alone in a crowd of three thousand.

  The rest of school was school, and at least it was the first day in high school for all the ninth graders, not just me.

  Meanwhile, I kept experimenting, and I was able to zap paper clips to land near, then in, a water glass on my desk. As the days turned into a week, the objects got a little bigger. Paper was tricky, because of the way it bent and fluttered in the air. If I moved it too fast it crumpled, and once even tore. Learning how to zap paper made me aware of stuff like air currents.

  I kept my experiments to myself, either in my room or at the beach when I was alone. At school, I used my well-honed skills at blending in, like always sitting in the middle of the room if there was a choice. Front, you were too exposed, under the teacher’s eye. The back was where the troublemakers like to hide from the teacher’s eye.

  One day in math class, I heard a guy in the back row behind me sniggering while the teacher was at the door, talking to somebody in the hall.

  Our family has been moving every two years, whenever Mom Gwen was reassigned to some other military base, so I didn’t make much effort to learn people’s names at every new school. But you don’t start over every two years without learning how to spot the bullies who go after anyone nerdy, alone, who can’t fight back.

  To identify possible danger, I knocked my math book off my desk. As I picked it up, I snuck a peek behind me—just as this moose of a boy tossed a spitball at a skinny girl with enormous glasses, who sat two desks away from me.

  Anger boiled in my stomach. The girl wasn’t doing anything. She was bent over her work, her shoulder blades poking like wing stubs at the back of her oversized tie-dye t-shirt. The spitwad was about to land in her pale, frizzy hair, unless …

  I flexed m
y zap muscle, and zinged the spitball right back at the boy. It landed on his cheek with a splat.

  The boy jerked like he’d sat on cactus, and the entire back row broke into snickers. The teacher whirled around, her eyes going straight to the boy, who was wiping the spitball off his face, and said, “Lunch detention, Kyle Moore.”

  “But I didn’t do anything!”

  “Would you like after-school detention as well?”

  I bent over my notebook, my heart pounding.

  I’d broken my promise to never use my power outside my room, but zapping a bully had felt good.

  So good that I couldn’t resist another opportunity to try my power.

  When I look in my mirror in the morning, I see a plain girl with brown hair and a round face and a duck body. Normal. Normal for my parents means well-adjusted, successfully fitting in. At school, it means you’re boring. The only way to popularity, if you aren’t pretty or rich, is being good at sports, or having some kind of other talent.

  All the P.E. classes had begun a basketball unit while the coaches tried to scout players for school sports. Like most of the girls who weren’t athletic, basketball for me meant trying to remember all the rules and staying out of the way of the knees and elbows of the bigger, more aggressive girls.

  The second day, near the end of the period, the score was tied, and the swarm of girls somehow surrounded me. A fierce red-haired junior yelled, “Hey, you, wake up!”

  “Ibberts!” bellowed the teacher, who was also the referee.

  My hands came up defensively in front of me and I found myself holding the ball.

  “Shoot!” everybody screamed.

  I didn’t think, I just tossed the ball up and then zapped it straight to the basket to get it away from me.

  My teammates shrieked, the bell rang, and we headed for the locker room, everyone yelling “Great shot!” and “That was awesome!” at me. The fierce girl said, “Whoa, how did you get that spin on it? That was amazing.”

  I felt good. I felt as good as I had when I zapped that spitwad back at Kyle Whoever—who, I noticed, hadn’t thrown another spitwad in that class.

  The next day, the ball got passed to me twice, and both times I zapped it. Again the praise, which really felt great. Especially since they didn’t seem to see that little flare of light, or maybe they thought it was a reflection.

  After that, when the ball got passed to me, I zapped it every time. I never tried to go after it. I didn’t like being knocked into and shoved, but if the ball got to my hands, I made sure it went straight to the basket.

  “You’re a natural, kid,” Coach Albert said, giving me a hearty thump on the back. Like most P.E. teachers, Ms. Albert was terrifyingly athletic. She looked at me like I’d sprouted feathers, then said, “I want you to start coming to after-school practice. You might go straight into varsity.”

  I didn’t know what to say. When I told the parents, they all looked as surprised as the coach had, but Mom Tate said, “Awesome! I used to love volleyball,” Mom Gwen said, “Of course you can stay after school, just make sure you have your phone with you for the bus ride home,” and Dad said, “Why not give it a try?” Like why not give boiled turnips a try? He definitely did not have the sports gene.

  I showed up after school the next day, nervous and scared, and Coach Albert put me into a one on one with that fierce redhead, who everyone called Ginger. I already knew she was the star player of the varsity team.

  At first it was self defense to use my zap power to pull the ball to me, and then to send it to the basket, in spite of the fact that she could run circles around me. Ginger turned into a kind of human machine, bouncing, bobbing, weaving, trying even harder, but as soon as that ball was in the air, I yanked it and zap!

  When the teacher blew the whistle, Ginger hadn’t scored once. She came up to me, breathing hard, and stuck out her hand. “You’re really good, Laurel,” she said, wheezing from her efforts. I looked into her face, and saw a kind of hurt in the way her eyebrows puckered. There was even a little sheen in her eyes, like tears that weren’t going to fall. You’ve seen people trying hard not to cry, right? “Will you practice with me, and show me some stuff?” she asked.

  That look whomped me right in the guts. I knew I wasn’t any good moving on the court. I scored because I cheated.

  “I think I was just lucky,” I said, edging away.

  “Lucky? You’re hot,” Ginger said. “Hotter than both my brothers in college. Would you come over to my place on Saturday? We turned our backyard into a court.”

  “I’ll ask at home,” I said, feeling like the slimiest worm who ever slimed.

  After a sleepless night, I made a resolution: no more basketball star. This resolution was hard to keep, especially after I threw the ball normally the next day, and of course missed by a mile. My team groaned and shrieked in disbelief. I zapped the next shot, but then made myself throw the third normally. Miss. Then the fourth.

  And so it went, for the rest of the week. The guilt turned to a kind of sick boil in my stomach when Ginger’s disbelief turned into lip-curled contempt. Did she think I was screwing up on purpose?

  The next time I zapped the ball, not into the basket, but just above it, then zapped it again so it ricocheted into the coach’s chair, knocking it over. After that, I did two more ricochet zaps, thumping the ball out of bounds both times. People stopped throwing it to me as often, but when a third throw came my way, I ricocheted it off the rim and made the ball crash onto the table holding people’s water bottles.

  “You’re trying too hard, Ibberts,” the coach said kindly. “We’ll bench you for a few days. Rest your arms.”

  I nodded, but the next week, did even worse, and gradually they forgot about me.

  Or so it seemed.

  I meant to keep my head down, my attention on my schoolwork, but I couldn’t help noticing that skinny little nerd from math—Mercy Lund, I learned when the teacher called roll—scurrying from class to class, her big eyes goggling frog-like behind those glasses, her yellow-white hair fluffing out like duck down around her head. Mercy clutched her books tight against her skinny chest with her knobby hands, like some kind of armor.

  A couple months into the year, it was time for auditions for the holiday assembly. I had signed up for art as an elective, which, I found out, meant set painting for the productions. So I was there for the auditions, as we measured and cut and hammered to build flats. The auditions started out with the usual sort of stuff I’d seen at every school: terrible garage bands who thought if you played loud enough, no one would notice you’d never taken any lessons, lip-synching to popular songs while hip-bumping around the stage, the stand-up comedians who repeated jokes they got off the comedy channel.

  I froze when Mercy walked out, wearing a baggy, faded pink track suit with this white tunic thing over it that looked like a pillowcase with armholes cut out. She’d taken off her glasses, which made her eyes look like pale marbles. The kids in the audience waiting for their turns to try out rustled even more than usual; a bunch of boys started a coughing context, and giggles and laughs came from the back row.

  The music started, something classical, the noise from the audience almost drowning the speakers. But then Mercy lifted her arms, twirled around on one foot, took a few light steps and leaped high in the air, toes pointed, arms arched. She floated down like a swan in flight, the tunic rippling almost like feathers.

  “Whoa!” someone in the front yelled, followed by laughter. My stomach clenched, my toes bunched up in my shoes, and I nearly dropped my paintbrush, I felt so sorry for that girl. Why did she have to try out? It was like she was inviting the mean kids to be mean.

  But as the music rose, Mercy danced on, twirling faster until she was a blur of pink and white, her leaps high, landing as lightly as a bird. The auditorium had gone quiet.

  I let out my breath and turned on my stool so I could watch her, and noticed that everybody else backstage was also watching. I’d never seen anyth
ing so graceful, not even the girls who had been taking ballet since they were five. This was different from ballet, it was a wild kind of dance, strong and free. She reminded me of the egrets and cormorants I’d seen along Coronado Beach, the ones diving out of the sky, then snapping out broad wings before zooming up against the clouds, so graceful that your heart catches at the sight.

  When the music ended, Mercy took a quick little bow, skinny and knobby again, but there was loud, genuine applause.

  “You are in,” said the teacher in charge.

  Mercy ducked her head, and though I was barely twenty feet away, I scarcely heard her “Thank you.”

  “You’ll need a costume,” the teacher said.

  “I know. I’ll have one,” Mercy replied.

  “Good. Next!”

  The next day in math class, Kyle acted the way the really angry bullies act, like it’s a personal insult when someone they’ve pushed to the bottom doesn’t stay there. He walked by Mercy’s desk and knocked all her books to the floor, then kicked her notebook to the back row.

  The teacher looked up sharply, and Kyle said in a fake voice, “Sorry, Mercy.” He sneered her name, then said with exaggerated politeness, “I’ll pick it up.” He bent to pick up her notebook, managed to open it so all her papers spilled all over, and with his back to the teacher, hawked a loogie into the papers.

  His buddies in the back row nearly died with laughter. Half the class looked like they were going to laugh. Some looked away. He set the mess down on Mercy’s desk with exaggerated care, and turned away, smirking and making a covert thumbs up.

  Instinct made me act. I zapped a pencil to the floor just before he took a step. His foot came down on it, and he began to slide. I zapped the pencil my hardest, which was just enough torque to turn the slide into a total pratfall.

  Everyone in the class burst out laughing.

  “Whose pencil is that?” Kyle muttered as he got up. “I’m gonna kill you.”

  “Care to speak up, Kyle?” the teacher asked. “Have you any more entertainment for the class, or may we get to work?”

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