The Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years. In Carrie Vaughn’s “The Thing about Growing Up in Jokertown,” a group of teenage jokers yearn to explore outside the confines of their strange little neighborhood and get a real taste of the Big Apple.
The thing about growing up in Jokertown is it gives you some weird ideas about what’s normal.
Ma got me a job that summer at Antoine’s Corner Store, just a couple of hours a day. She’s been working there for I don’t know how long. Like twenty years. Forever. She wants me working because she says I need to do something, maybe to keep me out of trouble. She and Dad are apparently worried I’m going to join a gang, like the Werewolves or the Killer Geeks, because those are the ones they read about in the papers. They read all these stories about kids running with gangs, and since I can really, you know, run, I think they’re worried I’ll get recruited by drug dealers wanting me to make deliveries across town. I’m all, “Ma, I look like a human whippet, no one’s going to hire me to run drugs, I stand out way too much.” One eyewitness and every cop on the Lower East Side would know exactly who they were talking about.
But when Ma looks at me she doesn’t see a human whippet—five-three me with scruffy dark hair and a chest as big as a keg, with a wasp waist and the legs like an Olympic sprinter. And the fangs, don’t forget the fangs. Mongoose fangs, which was what got me my nickname—Rikki. My real name is Miranda. Nobody calls me that except the teachers at school. Rikki or Miranda, Ma just sees me as her little princess, her miracle joker baby.
It could also be that Ma got me the job because she started working at Antoine’s when she was sixteen, my age. Most parents who want their kids to follow in their footsteps are doctors or senators, stuff like that. But Ma wants me to work in a convenience store. Stay in the neighborhood. Support my community, because that’s another thing about growing up in Jokertown—it’s the only home some of us will ever have.
Jokertown gives you some weird ideas of what’s normal, but if you never leave, you never need everybody else’s normal. Normal normal.
That day, I’m restocking sodas in the cooler while Ma works behind the counter, ringing up frozen burritos and cough syrup and stuff. The bell on the door rings when someone comes in, and I can usually tell without looking if the customer is a local or not.
“Hey, June! How are things?” This is a male voice, gruff and friendly.
Ma answers, “Oh, can’t complain. It’s been hot, but you know that. What’ll it be?”
“Gimme a pack of the Camels.”
I peek over the magazine rack and see a middle-aged guy in a tank top, porkpie hat, and elephant ears the size of dinner plates, flapping just a little like he’s trying to stir up a breeze to keep cool. Ma hands him his cigarettes, he gives her a wadded up bill, and they talk some more about the weather. Then he waves, and she waves back with one of her tentacles.
Above the waist, Ma, June Michaelson, who’s lived in Jokertown since her wild card turned when she was fifteen, is a forty-year-old woman with curly, shoulder-length hair dyed auburn, a round face and wide smile. She wears nice button-up shirts in bright colors and dangly earrings. She’s the kind of person who asks if you’ve had enough to eat and if you’d like to come over for some coffee and a cinnamon roll.
Below the waist, she has a half dozen fat green tentacles instead of legs. She’s like a mermaid but part octopus instead of fish. She totally walks around on those things, too. They’re super strong and flexible. When she really wants to freak someone out, she’ll reach over the counter with one of her tentacles to hand the customer their bag.
She always wants to freak out the tourists.
Sometimes, a nat who sees her right away will turn around and walk back out of the store because they can’t handle it. Sometimes they’ll already be at the counter with a can of soda and it’s too late to leave, at least without being rude, and to give most people credit, they don’t want to be rude. They try to be cool about it. But you can see in their eyes that Ma breaks their minds.
The guy with the elephant ears doesn’t blink because, you know, Jokertown. But the next time the bell on the door rings, the guy who walks in is a nat. Or looks like a nat, maybe in his twenties, wearing a nice shirt and khakis and some kind of hip goatee. More than that, he’s a tourist, like he’s slumming it in Jokertown, or he thinks he’s still too far north to be in Jokertown proper. He looks around nervously, sees my whippet shape, and quickly glances away. His hand taps against his leg like he wants to be anywhere but here.
He goes to grab a pack of batteries and a bag of chips and then heads to the counter, where Ma waits with her big, friendly, cinnamon-roll smile.
“Would you like a bag for that?” she asks, ringing him up on the register with her totally normal hands.
“Yeah, that’d be great.”
“There you go, hon.” She lifts out the bag with one of her tentacles twisted firmly around it.
“Jesus!” the guy screams, falling back three feet and knocking over half the chips display. Ma, she just smiles.
Heaving breaths like he’s been attacked by a lion, the guy struggles to get his feet under him and then rushes out the door, slamming it open hard on its hinges. He remembers to grab his bag first, but holds it by the bottom, where Ma hasn’t touched it.
Ma leans over the counter and calls after him, grinning, “Have a nice day!”
I stand and look at her over the magazine rack. “Ma. Really?”
“Oh, honey, it’s fine! And now he has a story to take back to his friends in the Village, or Brooklyn, or wherever he’s from.”
“One of these days somebody’s gonna pull a gun on you.”
“I’ve been working here twenty-five years and it hasn’t happened yet. Rikki, you worry an awful lot for someone your age.”
I’m sixteen, and near as I can figure all my friends and I do is worry. What are we gonna be when we grow up, who’s gonna ask us to prom, how the hell do you fit in when you don’t look like anybody else in the whole world. We’ve got a lot to worry about.
I glance at the clock hanging in the back of the store. A half hour more and then I can leave. I’m supposed to hang out with my friends later. That’s all I’m doing, when Ma thinks I’m joining a gang.
The bell rings again, and this time Dad comes in. A lot of days he’ll stop by on his lunch break “to say hi to my girls.” I smile every time.
“Hey, Dad,” I say.
“How are my girls today?” He leans over the front counter for a kiss from Ma that lingers. If it weren’t for the counter, it wouldn’t be just her arms wrapping around him.
Dad’s a manager for the sanitation department, and, like Ma, he’s been working at the same place for practically his whole life. He also moved to Jokertown when his card turned. He’s got lizard eyes and a forked tongue, but unless you look real close he just seems like a regular guy. He fools people. Ma says he’s “passing,” and that’s how he got so high up in management at the sanitation department. But he says no, it’s just that no one else wants to be a supervisor in Jokertown. It’s the same with the cops, the utilities guys, everything.
“You working hard over there, Rikki?”
“Yeah, Dad,” I say, both annoyed with the ritual and happy to have it.
“Rikki’s a good worker, Nick,” Ma says.
“I know it. You’re a good kid.”
He reaches out for a big hug, and I lean into it. I can’t remember when he started having trouble getting his arms around my whippet chest. I squeeze back harder to try to make up for it, to tell him everything’s okay.
Ma and Dad have been worried about me since I started high school last year. It’s because I tried out for the track team and didn’t make it, even though I can run faster than anyone else at the school. Than anyone in the city. It’s because the state athletic board has rules about wild carders competing in sports against nats. Unfair advantage, they say, even though I’m just me. But my friend Beastie can’t go out for football because he’s like seven feet tall and super strong. He’d kick ass at football, and I guess that’s the problem. The coach says there’s too big a chance he’d hurt somebody. But I know Beastie. He can control himself, and he’d never hurt anybody. He just wants to go for a letter jacket like anyone else.
But in Jokertown we end up mainly competing against each other.
So my parents are worried I’m depressed. I don’t think I am. I knew I couldn’t be on the track team. But I’d like to show people I can run.
There’s gotta be something out there for me to do, where I can run and have it be useful and not just some weird joker trick.
Dad picks out a soda; Ma gives it to him on the house. “What’re you doing after work, Rikki?”
“Just hanging out,” I say, like usual. He and Ma both get that worried look again, and I want to yell, “I’m fine.”
Then it’s time for him to go back to work, and we both wave him out the door, and finally it’s time for my shift to end.
“I’m clocking out, Ma.”
“And you’re going straight back home, right?”
“No, I told you, I’m seeing Beastie and Kris and them at Seward Park, like usual.”
“You’ll be home by dinner.” She says it like half a question, half a command.
I get exasperated. “Yes!”
She hesitates for a second, and I worry that she’s going to say something, tell me no, I have to stay in and study or help with dinner or just be around, so she won’t have to worry about me. She worries about me a lot. Dad says it’s normal, but I think it’s because the odds have been against me since the day I was born and she knows it.
But finally she says, “Okay. But be careful!”
I’m already out of the store.
I am a miracle baby because I was a joker before I was born. The genetics of it work like this: The wild card gene is recessive, so you can have one wild card parent and one nat parent and be okay. You’ll be born with the gene, but you won’t be a wild carder. The only way you can get the virus is by getting infected.
But if both your parents are wild carders? If they both have the virus, and therefore the gene is written into their DNA? You’re gonna have the gene, and you get the same odds as anyone who gets the virus: ninety percent chance of death. One percent chance of becoming an ace. Nine percent chance of being a human whippet, or octopus mermaid, or whatever.
I had two older siblings. They died before they were born—they got the ninety percent. “Third time’s the charm,” Dad used to say whenever he looked at me, until I told him to stop it. I’m the miracle baby, the one who lived, the one who beat the odds. Well, most of the odds, anyway.
I coulda been born an ace, and I wonder what would have happened then. Because the thing about Ma and Dad that no one says out loud is: They wanted a joker baby, like them. I wonder, if I’d been born an ace, with a regular human body and amazing powers, would they have loved me? I asked her that once. “Ma. What would you have done if I’d turned an ace?”
Her lips pressed into a tight line, the way they did when she had to give herself a moment to think. She finally said, “You’re always an ace to me, dear.”
Yeah, that didn’t answer my question.
I run the few blocks to Seward Park just because I can, covering entire blocks in a few seconds, blowing past people who glare at me and shout after me to slow the hell down, but I don’t care. I’m careful. I look where I’m going. I can’t not run, with my lungs full of air and my legs burning with power.
Beastie’s already at the park. He’s hard to miss. He doesn’t sit on the bench because he would break it, so he sits on the ground like a giant fuzzy boulder, hands draped on his thighs, his shirt hanging over him like a tent. He looks like a giant teddy bear until you notice the curving horns on his head and his long, pale claws. He jokes that he’s gonna learn to knit with them someday.
Kris is on the bench next to him, wrapped up in her hoodie. It’s a hot summer day but the hood is pulled way over her head so only her chin peeks out. Somehow, she’s still able to glare. Her hands and sleeves are shoved deep in her pockets. Kris basically looks like a normal human, except for her skin. Her parents are black, but Kris’s skin changes color depending on how she feels. Her mom calls her the walking mood ring, but none of us have ever seen a real mood ring so we take her word for it. Kris can’t control it any more than she can control whether she’s happy or sad or scared or angry. So she wears the hoodie. Right now her chin is sort of a pinkish swirl, which means she’s a little bit sad, but not enough to say anything about it. She gets self-conscious when people ask her what’s wrong all the time. Best thing to do with Kris is pretend you don’t notice when her face goes from purple to blue to yellow because someone just said something stupid and she’s furious. You can ask, but she’ll just fold up and not say anything. If she wants to say something, she’ll say something.
Then there’s Splat. I don’t notice him at first because he’s under the park bench. He’s part of the sidewalk, in fact. Flat. If I hadn’t stopped ten feet away to look for him on purpose, I’d be stepping on his leg. Splat—his name is really Franklin Steinberg—can do something to his body that makes all his bones and organs and everything spread out until they are, mostly, flat. So when he presses himself to the wall he really presses himself to the wall. He would be an ace, except he can’t actually do anything when he’s splatted out. The way he explains it, his muscle tissue loses elasticity and he can’t get the leverage to so much as slither under a closed door or lift a carpet to trip someone. He’s tried. He’s still trying. He practices every day but only ever has enough strength to pull himself back into his normal shape. Still, there isn’t a one of us he hasn’t scared by hiding behind a telephone pole and jumping out and yelling, “Boo!” He’s a hoot at parties.
“I see you,” I announce as I approach.
Splat picks himself up, which is weird to watch. It’s like film of water spilling rolled backward, the pieces sucking toward some central point which rises from the ground to become a lanky dark-haired kid, arms wrapped around his knees, sitting under the bench and grinning up at us.
Kris screeches, jumping off the bench and launching away like a frightened cat, hood slipping off her head to reveal the skin of her face splotching between blue and red.
“Jesus fuck, Splat! Why didn’t you say something?”
Beastie gets to his feet but doesn’t jump like Kris. He turns to me and says in his deep voice, “We didn’t think he was here yet. Hey, Rikki.”
“Hey. So, Splat, learn any juicy gossip?”
He unfolds himself and crawls from under the bench. “Naw, these clowns are boring, just talking about school and stuff.”
Kris hits him on the shoulder. Her skin settles back to a neutral brown, and she yanks the hood back over her short dark hair.
I slouch on the park bench. Kris slouches next to me, Splat follows, and Beastie settles back on the grass. “So what’s up?” I ask.
“Nothing,” Kris says.
“Nothing,” Beastie repeats.
Splat shrugs. “My dad didn’t come home again. Don’t know when he’s coming back this time.”
“Aw, man, I’m sorry.”
“Naw, it’s cool.”
Of course, if it was really cool, he wouldn’t have said anything about it. But what can you say to make something like that better? He’s saying it just to let it out, and we listen.
“What do you want to do?” I ask. My feet are itching to do something. They usually are.
“I dunno. Just hang out, I guess,” Splat says, and the others echo it. I sigh. Hanging out it is, then. I slump back against the bench and look into the trees.
A bus pulls up to the curb on the park’s east side. Its hissing brakes draw my attention. Like, a big coach tour bus, and the door opens and a crowd of people spills out and gathers on the sidewalk. They don’t go any farther than that, clinging to the side of the bus like it’s a life raft. A bunch of them are taking pictures.
“Tourists,” Splat declares with disgust.
Sure enough, the woman in the neat skirt and suit jacket who’d gotten off first is speaking—she’s too far away for us to hear exactly what she’s saying, but the way she points like she’s lecturing, we can pretty much guess. Here’s the street where protesters led by the JJS, Jokers for a Just Society, gathered in 1976, sparking the riots that ruined Senator Hartmann’s first presidential bid. A couple of blocks that way is the brownstone where Xavier Desmond, the celebrated activist and unofficial mayor of Jokertown, lived. Our Lady of Perpetual Misery is a block in the other direction. This park has always been a gathering place for joker civil rights activists, though in recent years the neighborhood has been peaceful, yadda yadda. I got most of the spiel from Ma and Dad when I was growing up. They came to Jokertown after it all went down in ’76, and sometimes I think they were sorry they’d missed it.
Isn’t any sign of any of it now, except what the tour guides say.
Some of those cameras are clearly pointed at us, the local color, a group of joker kids hanging out in the park. Splat stands up and points both middle fingers at the tourists, scowling. Some of them look startled, eyes widening. Most just keep taking pictures. And won’t that look nice in the family album? The tour guide hustles everyone back on the bus a moment later.
“We might as well be zoo animals,” Splat mutters. “Stick us in a cage, put us in the zoo.”
Funny he should be the one to say that, seeing as how he looks basically normal when he isn’t splatting himself. It’s me and Beastie, with his pelt of hair and canine face, who look like animals. It’s Kris who hides under a hoodie. I think about saying something, but it’ll just twist a knife. Into whom, I’m not really sure.
“It’s a free country,” Beastie says. Out of us all, he looks like the monster, but he’s the calmest. The most sensible, even. He only scares people when they deserve it. “We’re not in a cage. We can go anywhere we want.”
“Yeah, right,” Splat says, laughing.
We all know what he means: Sure, it’s not like there are any laws that say a bunch of joker kids can’t go walking up Broadway and then buy a hot dog and hang out in Times Square like anyone else. But hardly anyone actually does it. People would stare. We might not be able to find someone to actually sell us a hot dog. Splat would do okay; so would Kris. But Beastie? Me? A cop or two would start tailing us, and maybe even stop us and ask questions. What’re you kids doing so far from home?—because they wouldn’t have to ask where we’re from. And if we were lucky, the encounter would end with them saying, “Maybe you kids ought to get on home before you get in trouble,” and there’d be just a little bit of a threat in the statement.
We have Jokertown; we’ve had Jokertown for sixty years, so people like us don’t bother the rest of Manhattan. Things like that don’t ever change.
But right now it makes me angry. Maybe we’re not really in a cage, but then maybe we are.
“Yeah, right,” I say firmly, looking straight at Splat. “I’ve lived in New York my whole life and you know where I’ve never been? Central Park. Have you been to Central Park? Have you? And you?”
I point at each of them in turn and they all shake their heads. Suddenly, the fact makes me furious. Why haven’t I been to Central Park? It’s literally just up the road. Why didn’t my folks ever taken me to Central Park when I was a little kid? Not even to the actual real zoo that’s there? Why?
Too much hassle, I suppose. Not just because of the subway ride uptown, but because of the stares, the awkwardness. The cops suggesting that maybe you ought to get on home now.
I stand, hands on hips. “I want to go to Central Park.”
“Now?” Kris says, frowning.
“Sure. Why not?” They’re all looking at me like I’m crazy, but that just makes me more determined. I can’t back down now. Why not go to Central Park? We can even walk. Might take all day, but we can do it. “You guys don’t have to go. I’ll go by myself.”
Beastie lumbers to his feet. It’s like watching a mountain move. “I’ll go. It’s a nice day for it. It’ll be fun.”
I smile a quick thank you at him for backing me up.
Patting his arm, I say, “Come on.” We start across the park to the sidewalk, him with his big, slow giant’s stride, me with my quick, jittery one.
We haven’t gotten far when Splat calls out for us to wait. He and Kris trot to catch up, though neither looks happy. Splat is surly and Kris is huddled deeper into her hoodie than ever. Her chin has gone sort of green.
“I’m bored,” Splat explains. “Might as well see what happens.”
“Real supportive there, jerk face,” I say.
“You’ll change your mind before you get to midtown,” he shoots back.
Which makes me absolutely determined that I won’t.
We decide to take the subway.
This has a lot of pros and a lot of cons. Pro: We’ll get there faster and with a lot less effort. On a warm summer day like today it’ll be a lot more comfortable than walking in the sun, especially for Beastie. Cons: It’ll be a lot less comfortable, especially for Beastie, being cooped up in a tiny metal car with people crowding in around him. If we get into a situation we need to get out of—well, we couldn’t. The thing about walking is that no matter how long it takes or how tired we get, we can always bug out if we need to.
We leave the decision up to Beastie, and he picks the subway. The trip is a straight shot on the six. If it gets awful we can always get out and walk back.
People clear the way for us as we go down the stairs at Canal Street. They pretty much have to—Beastie fills half the staircase by himself. People take one look at him and arc around, giving him room. Next to Beastie, they barely notice me and my whippet look. The rest of us travel in his wake.
Really, in this part of town we don’t even get too many stares. Pretty much everyone around here lives in Jokertown and has scales for skin or feathers coming out of their ears or too many eyes or something. Even the nats here don’t take a second look. And really, who can say that all these nats are really nats, and not some kind of ace or deuce or whatever, keeping to themselves and trying not to get noticed?
That’s another thing about growing up in Jokertown: You never take anything for granted because so many things aren’t what they seem.
Before too much waiting, the northbound train rolls up and we’re off on our adventure.
Beastie has a method for entering a subway car. Having friends along helps, because we can get in first and kind of stake out space for him at the end, where he can lean up against the emergency door, hunch in under the ceiling and not worry about squishing anyone. As soon as the door opens, the three of us rush in and form kind of a cordon. He comes in next and has to crouch down, tuck himself under the top of the door, and pull himself through. He’s done this before but there’s always a moment when he looks like he might stick—he’s that big. But with a twist of his shoulders, he’ll wiggle his body and hunch down like some kind of gargoyle. The rest of us stand guard and glare back at anyone who might look like they want to give him a hard time. He swiped his card like everyone else, right?
The train rolls on, stopping at stops, and people get off and on. The farther north we travel, the more jokers leave, the more nats board, and the more people look over at us and scowl. Round about the Grand Central stop, a man in a business suit starts to get on our car, sees us—Beastie hunched in the back and the rest of us standing in front of him, glaring out and daring anyone to complain—and turns around to hurry to a different car. Kris’s skin goes a searing red at that, and Splat presses himself as far to the wall as he can—I’m not sure he even realizes he’s doing it. He looks like an ad poster.
I want to pace. I want to run. My feet twitch, and I tap them on the floor, first one then the other. Beastie stays calm, hunched over in a half-crouch, gazing forward with a wry smile.
“It’s kind of an adventure, yeah?” he says. I roll my eyes.
“Remind me why we’re going to Central Park again,” Splat says, peeling himself off the wall to face the rest of us.
“To prove that we can,” I answer.
“Should we have told someone where we’re going?” Kris has on a permanent wince, like she’s thinking this whole idea was bad. Her skin won’t settle on a single color, and I’m getting kind of seasick looking at her.
“Like who?” I say.
“My mom? I should have told my mom,” she murmurs.
“And if she said no would you have just stayed home?”
She shrugs, which means the answer is yes, but she doesn’t want to admit it.
“And this is why we didn’t tell anyone,” I declare. My own parents? They’d be horrified if they knew where I am. Jokertown is safe, and so we stay in Jokertown.
Just another couple of stops and we can get off.
As I’m thinking this, the subway car lurches, wheels screeching on tracks. Emergency brakes. Everybody in the car falls forward, grabbing at seats and poles. Beastie, sitting in the back, not holding on to anything, tips all the way forward, crashing onto the floor—and right on top of Splat.
People look around, trying to figure out why the train stopped. Beastie hurries to pick himself up, rocking back and reaching up for a pole.
“Oh, jeez, Franklin, I’m sorry. You okay?”
Splat has gone flat, compressed to the floor, limbs all splayed out. He re-forms to his regular body shape, inflating like a balloon, starting with his hands and feet, spreading up to his arms and legs, until finally he has enough leverage in his muscles to push up and climb to standing.
Beastie brushes at Splat’s shirt and shoulders, wiping off dirt and grit from the subway floor.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Splat says, sounding tired. “What the hell’s happening with the train?”
A voice comes over the loudspeaker, but it’s scratchy and filled with static, and nobody can make it out. We sit in that dark tunnel between stations for five, maybe ten minutes before the train slowly rolls forward again. So, just a temporary thing. But the whole time I’m thinking, what if we have to get out? What if someone gets mad at us for being here? I want to run.
The next stop, we decide, is close enough. We’ve all gotten claustrophobic, and this whole idea is looking less good by the minute. Besides, Beastie’s legs are falling asleep.
We roll in to the Fifty-Ninth Street station—and the door sticks. All the other doors open, but our car is sealed up, and maybe this has something to do with the emergency stop. We stand by, waiting, penned in by a giant stroller and its owner, a young woman struggling to move forward, if only the door would let her out.
Meanwhile, the baby in the stroller is staring up at Beastie, real quiet, eyes round. I’m sure it’s going to start screaming any minute at the big scary monster, and then the kid’s mother will freak out, and station security will show up, and everything will get terrible—
Beastie starts making faces, stretching open his eyes, puffing up his cheeks, poofing breaths to make the hair on his chin fly out.
The baby smiles. Then its whole face squishes up and it lets out this gurgling little laugh.
Its mother glances over, goes pale for a second. She looks at her baby, looks at Beastie, then back to her baby. I can’t tell what she’s thinking. Like, she seems to want to grab the stroller and run. But the door won’t open.
“Sorry,” she says. “I can’t get it—”
“It’s not your fault,” I reply. “Door’s stuck.”
“Here,” Beastie says, and reaches over all of us. He works his claws into the crack, one at a time, then pulls. Wrenches back until whatever is stuck in the gears pops, and the door slides open like it’s supposed to.
The woman collects herself, arranges the stroller, and smiles nervously. “Thanks,” she says, rolling the stroller through the door and across the platform.
Beastie waves his claws at the baby, who is still gurgling happily.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Splat mutters, and we run.
We hurry out of the station, the crowd parting in front of Beastie like magic.
Upstairs, back on the street, we all heave a sigh. Kris hunches further under her hood than ever. Beastie stretches, and I shake out my legs. We linger on the corner to get our bearings.
We’re not in Jokertown anymore.
First off, we’re the only jokers in sight. All kinds of people fill the sidewalks, rushing back and forth to wherever. Young, old, men, women, all ethnicities, in suits and skirts and raggedy jeans and workout clothes. None of them are jokers. It’s actually weird, seeing so many people and not a scale or tentacle in sight.
We slow down traffic, with people rubbernecking to look at us. Pedestrians hesitate, look us all over, then keep going, maybe walking a little faster. Nobody says anything. They just look. I almost want somebody to say something so that I can yell at them.
We’re on Fifty-Ninth Street. Way north from Jokertown, which doesn’t even have street numbers. More than sixty blocks. Yeah, it’s an adventure all right.
Across the street stands a wall of trees. Green, for the whole block. And I can’t see the other side of it, like back at Seward Park, where traffic is pretty much visible all the way around. This really is a whole wall of green.
“Well?” I ask the others. “Ready?”
“Lead on,” Beastie says, smiling. If he’s still smiling, things can’t be that bad.
We find a place to cross the street and walk toward the park’s entrance.
The whole time, Splat mutters, “Central Park. What’s the big deal anyway?” He hasn’t stopped complaining. Like, Central Park could be the greatest thing ever but he’ll be damned if he’s going to enjoy it. “A few trees and some lawn and joggers and what else? We got parks back in Jokertown—”
We enter the park. He stops and stares. We all do.
Factually, he’s right. We have parks and lawns and trees in Jokertown. Little ones, squares of green bounded by traffic and buildings on all sides. But this . . . is different. I can’t even explain it. It’s like as soon as we leave the sidewalk, the traffic and city noises fall away. Trees rise up, lawn stretches ahead, and a calm settles. Sure, people are still around, crowds of them passing back and forth, tourists taking pictures, people with kids enjoying the day. But here they seem more spread out. Everyone, even the women in business suits and headphones and athletic shoes power walking to or from work, seem a little more laid back.
And everything is green. Even sunlight coming through the trees turns green.
“Whoa,” Splat finishes his observation.
A little ways in, on a winding blacktop trail, the trees open up to reveal a wide expanse of lawn. Here, a few people play Frisbee. Others lie stretched out on picnic blankets, reading books or talking. Farther ahead, the lawn slopes down to the edge of a wide pond where a bunch of ducks swim. Ducks, in the middle of New York City.
People look at us. They stare for a minute. And then they go back to their books and their friends. They leave us alone. After all, this is New York.
We walk for a while, following a path that loops around a hill and reveals even more park beyond. Endless park, that seems to go on forever. The path eventually brings us to a big lake. At the edge, a little kid feeds the ducks that continually squawk and ruffle their feathers. I start to think we’ve left the city entirely.
No one tells us to leave, and nobody stops to take pictures of us. Not that I notice, anyway. After a while, Kris picks out a spot in the sun and lies on the grass. She still wears her hoodie, but she turns her face up, squinting at the sun and sighing. The rest of us sprawl around her, and we just sit there for a long time.
“Good idea, Rikki,” Beastie says, grinning so his lips curl up around his big teeth.
We’ve done it. An actual real quest. It feels good.
Predictably, Splat gets bored and wants to go home first. “I’m hot and tired. It’s late. We walked for hours and we still have to get back home.”
I’m actually thinking how good it feels to really stretch my legs. Maybe I’ll take off at a run on one of those jogging trails. I can run faster than anyone here, I bet. Run the whole length of the park and see it all.
“Maybe we should go back,” Kris says. “I gotta be home before dark.”
So do I, but I’m glad I’m not the one who says it out loud and has to make the decision to go back.
“Ready, Rikki?” Beastie asks. He touches my shoulder with his massive hand—lightly, just a brush, because he’s always so careful with everyone. He’s never met anyone he can’t just stomp into the ground. But he never does.
I take another look around, feeling like I’m in some kind of valley, and the tops of the skyscrapers are mountains. I breathe deep, so I can remember what this smells like. Yeah, this has been a good day.
Walking back, we get a little bit lost—if you told me I’d ever get lost anywhere in the city, I wouldn’t have believed you. But a path curves away from where we expected it to, and it leads to a road which, it turns out, doesn’t go anywhere. We double back to one of the main paths to find our way out of the park and to a subway station.
We’re just about there when I hear shouting. I stop; the others stop with me and look to where I do—in the direction of uptown, where a white guy holding a backpack is running as hard as he can.
A couple of cops chase him. The shouting is them telling the guy to stop. Well, isn’t this exciting? I wonder what he’s done. Is this a mugging interrupted or something else?
“Why don’t they just shoot him?” Splat says.
I glare at him. We ought to be happy the cops aren’t just shooting in the middle of Central Park on a nice sunny day. The guy is fast, pulling ahead. I can see where he’s headed: to the east side, cutting across the grass. If he gets over the hill, the cops aren’t going to catch him.
But I have a straight shot at him.
I bunch up, clench my fists, preparing. Take a big, huge breath with my oversized lungs, and the extra oxygen lights up my system.
“Rikki, what are you doing?” Kris says warningly.
Beastie adds, “Rikki, wait—”
Leaning forward into the speed, my legs pumping hard, I charge across the grass. Wind tangles my hair and presses against the skin of my face. Nothing but open space ahead of me, no corners to turn or obstacles to watch for. I’ve never been able to run like this except on a track. I grin.
I want to cut the guy off. Get in front of him so he’ll have to slow down and stop, giving the cops time to catch up. Tackling him is probably not the best idea, though I’m pretty sure I could do that too if I wanted. Aim for his legs and dive. But no, I want to be smart about this. All I have to do is intercept him, making him stop or change direction, and let the police do their job. I am very proud of myself for thinking ahead and being reasonable and smart and using common sense.
The runner—with scruffy hair and a beard, wearing a leather jacket even in summer and faded jeans—catches sight of me out of the corner of his eye as I charge up the slope toward him. He does a double take, but he doesn’t slow down and he doesn’t change course, even as I curve around and head straight for him. We’re charging each other now, and I might end up tackling him anyway in a failed game of chicken, because he doesn’t look like he’s going to move and I’m going too fast now to stop or turn without falling or crashing.
I put my head down, ready to take it, and then the running guy disappears. Flashes to nothing right in front of me. Flailing my arms and digging my feet into the grass, I lurch to a stop.
A teleporting ace. Bullshit!
And suddenly the guy’s behind me, still running, not a break in his stride and not looking back. He might be able to teleport, but he only seems able to move a few yards at a time.
I should back off, then. Aces are bad news, ’cause you never know what all they can do, and if you don’t want to get hurt it’s best to stay away. That’s what Ma and Dad always say, at least. A few aces live in Jokertown. And a few aces who look like jokers—nothing like Peregrine, you know, who has wings and can fly, but guys like Beastie who look really weird but are super strong, like ace strong. I should back off, but I’m so angry, I almost had him and then he pulled a trick like that. My lungs fill with air again, and my legs are on fire. I know I can catch this guy. I’m fast enough.
I spin on my foot and once again launch. Dig into the earth and kick my speed up a notch. He keeps running, but in just a second or two I move up behind him. I know I decided not to tackle him or get confrontational. Stay safe by keeping away from the ace, right? But how else am I going to stop him?
I lean in, reach out, grab for his sleeve— He teleports. Boom and boom, just a couple of feet away again, but enough to get out of my reach. He glances over his shoulder and he has on a wide-eyed look of panic. He’s breathing hard. Maybe he can teleport, but he still has to run.
The cops are coming up behind us, shouting. I can’t hear what they’re saying.
The guy changes directions, keeps running. I keep chasing, not tired at all. This is fun. I get close, and he teleports out of my reach—and I change direction and run after him again. It’s chaos, a mess, we’re tearing up all the grass on the hillside and running in circles, and we aren’t going anywhere. I have him corralled, but he stays out of reach.
And then, just when I go to grab him again, he teleports—and lands right in front of the pair of cops who’ve finally caught up with us. The taller of the two, a fit black guy, jams a hood over the guy’s head while the other one wrenches his arm back and puts handcuffs on him.
The runner shouts a bunch of curses, his voice muffled by the hood.
“Shut up, Blinky, you ain’t gonna die,” says the cop cuffing him.
The taller one looks over at me and studies me like he’s trying to figure out what to do. Both cops are nats, and I suddenly wonder how much trouble I’m in.
“And who might you be?” the tall cop asks.
“Um. Miranda Michaelson, sir.”
“Well, Miranda Michaelson, hold on just a minute. We’re going to need to talk to you.”
The rest of the gang finally catches up, slogging up the hill like they’re tired or something. “Rikki! What the hell?” Splat calls.
Beastie comes up and puts a big hand on my shoulder. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I caught a bad guy!”
“You could have been hurt!” he says.
“Seriously,” Kris says, her face blazing red and orange with fear and a little anger.
“These your friends?” the tall cop asks.
“Yeah—we’re not in trouble or anything, are we?”
“No—just . . . just come on, until we get our friend here situated.”
We follow them across the lawn to the Fifth Avenue side of the park. The cops are dragging the blindfolded ace between them, and he’s still yelling.
Splat hisses under his breath, “I think we should run. Before the cops get too interested in us.”
“I want to see what happens,” I say, and Splat huffs, scowling, but he keeps following.
“Can I ask—why the blindfold?” I ask.
The tall cop answers, “He has to be able to see to teleport. If he can’t see, he can’t vanish. Blinky’s an old friend of ours. We have a system. He just got away from us this time.”
“Like Popinjay,” Splat says. Splat knows all about old-school aces and stuff like that. He reads the comic book versions.
“Not nearly as powerful. In fact, Blinky here’s more like a deuce, aren’t you?”
“Hey, no swearing around the kids,” says the short cop gripping his arm.
“Fuck them, too.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “People say ‘fuck’ all the time around us.”
The tall cop looks like he’s tasted something sour.
A line of three patrol cars waits at the curb, one of them belonging to the cops who’d arrested Blinky, and the other two just seem to be there to watch. We hang out nervously while they load their mugger in the backseat. If we want to run, this is our chance.
“Are you sure they don’t want to arrest us?” Kris says.
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” I say.
Kris glares. “No, you just went running off to interfere with some arrest—”
“They wouldn’t have caught the guy at all if I hadn’t helped!”
The tall cop says, “Hey. You kids aren’t in trouble. We just need a statement. You’re witnesses. So don’t freak out. I’m Officer Dewey, and this is my partner Officer Clancy—”
By this time Clancy has stuffed Blinky in to the car and he edges over to whisper, as if we aren’t right there, “You sure about them? I mean, a bunch of jokers, what are they doing all the way in Central Park—”
Dewey crosses his arms and glares. “They’re not Werewolves, Clancy! Look at them, they’re a bunch of kids.” He looks skeptically at Beastie but doesn’t correct himself.
“Hey!” Splat says. “I’m seventeen; I graduate next year!”
Dewey and Clancy look at each other, and Clancy shrugs, as if to say it’s on his partner’s head. Dewey sighs and goes to the car to get a notebook.
“All right. One at a time. Tell me what you saw.”
Being a witness is easy enough, but it isn’t as much fun as actually running down a bad guy. Officer Dewey says we probably won’t need to do anything else—Blinky had mugged some student; there’d been plenty of witnesses. Since he’s a repeat offender, he’ll likely plead guilty, so there won’t be a trial or anything. But Dewey thanks us for being good citizens and offers to give us a ride home.
“Where do you kids live?” he asks.
We all stare at him. Like, is he serious?
Officer Dewey has to call in a van for Beastie. I ask if maybe we can get a ride in a SWAT van, just to see what that’s like, but no, they have a regular white utility van. Beastie rides in the back. The trip goes a little faster than the one uptown. That doesn’t change how weird it is, riding in a cop car. We have to keep convincing ourselves we haven’t done anything wrong and we aren’t being secretly taken to a jail somewhere.
But no, Officer Dewey drops off Kris and Splat, and we all promise to get together in a couple of days. Just to hang out, we decide. No adventures next time. Beastie gives me a careful hug before he goes up to his apartment. He never has any trouble getting his arms around my barrel chest.
Finally, we stop at my apartment building.
“I’ll walk you up,” Officer Dewey says, parking the van. With the police logo on the side, he can park anywhere.
“You don’t have to do that,” I say. “I mean, I’m sure you’re real busy—”
By now it’s after dark, after supper, which means I’m going to get in trouble. I don’t know what’s going to happen when my folks see Officer Dewey and the police uniform. They’ll think the worst; I’m not looking forward to it.
“Okay, here we are,” I say, standing at the door, not opening it. “Thanks again for the ride—”
The door opens. Ma’s standing right there. It’s like she heard me talking. She’s probably been waiting by the door for an hour, and now I feel terrible.
“Hey, Ma,” I say, shrinking inside myself, blushing hard.
“Rikki, where have you been, you’re late—”
And then she sees Officer Dewey. The blood drains from her face and all her tentacles go limp, flattening on the floor like a carpet. “Aw, jeez, Rikki! What did you do, hon? How many times have I told you to stay out of trouble?”
“Ma, please, it’s not what you think—”
“Officer, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what she’s done, but I’m telling you, she’s a good kid—”
I’m hoping Officer Dewey will say something soon, but he’s staring. One of Ma’s tentacles starts climbing up the wall as she’s talking, and another reaches out to me, trembling. I recognize the signs—the tentacles all kind of quiver when she gets mad.
But I suppose this looks pretty weird to Officer Dewey.
“Ma, just listen!”
“You’re gonna kill your poor father, Rikki, when he hears—”
Officer Dewey finally recovers from his shock with a shiver and manages a polite neutral expression. “Um, Mrs. Michaelson? Rikki isn’t in any trouble at all.”
She stops mid-rant, her tentacles frozen. “What?”
“I just gave her a ride home after she helped us nab a mugger uptown. I thought you might like to hear about what a good citizen she is. You should be proud.” He smiles. I smile. He doesn’t flinch at my fangs.
Ma’s expression goes through a whole range of changes, from shock and upset to confusion, then to relief and finally—pride.
“I know she’s a good kid,” Ma says, beaming. “She’s the best. Thank you for bringing her home and letting me know.”
“My pleasure, Mrs. Michaelson.”
Ma reaches out to me—with a hand, even—and grabs hold of my own. But she puts a tentacle around my shoulder to pull me close in a big hug. And it’s totally normal.
“The Thing About Growing up in Jokertown” copyright © 2016 by Carrie Vaughn
Art copyright © 2016 by John Picacio