When I looked back on it, the trouble had probably started with the superheroes.
For most of my thirteen years, I had kept to a policy of strict secrecy when it came to my powers. But there had been a brief phase—between ages seven and eight—when my sense of caution had slipped. I had no choice but to blame that lapse in judgment on the superhero cartoons.
Parents always talk about how television shows are corrupting their young, impressionable kids with wrong-headed logic, broken morals, and dangerous ideas. My parents said those things too, when they were chatting with other adults, but they never got involved enough in my life to prize me away from the TV or comic books. So, while they were busy not parenting, my powers were growing, and my favorite superheroes were filling my head with dangerous ideas indeed.
Spiderman said people with powers had a responsibility to use them to help people, so why shouldn’t I use mine? Superman had crowds cheering his name. Why shouldn’t they cheer for me? Those colorful vigilantes were the closest thing to people like me I could find anywhere, even if they weren’t real. Why shouldn’t I follow their example?
To my seven-year-old mind and rapidly expanding ego, it was sound logic: I have superpowers, so I must be a superhero. The idea was so grand and intoxicating that for the first time, it made me forget how Ms. Mitchell had reacted to my abilities—how people always reacted to things they couldn’t explain. Drunk on those high-flying fictions, I decided to try using my powers in the open.
I had to stop there for a moment to press my knuckles into my head, squeezing my eyes shut. “I thought it would be fine, as long as I was using them for good.”
“So, you showed other people your powers?” Daniel asked as the sky pressed down on us and I felt myself shrinking.
“Yeah,” I said miserably. “Not the grown-ups, thankfully. Just other kids.”
“What did you show them?”
“I’m not sure.” The memory of the whole thing made me cringe so hard that it had been years since I had let myself think back to any of it. “I think it was… snowballs.” And, weirdly enough, now that I put myself back in that first moment, I found myself smiling. “I was having a snowball fight with some other kids at recess. My neighbors, Ryan and Gabe, were having trouble getting our fort to stand up, so I used my water powers to push the snow together and make it stick to itself. They thought it was awesome.” I could still remember the rush of elation and relief I had felt when I saw their amazed smiles, when they cried, “Wow, do that again!” For just a moment, I thought I had found a space where I could use my abilities freely.
“So, I kept going. I used my powers to pack together snowballs and make them fly. First I just shot my snowballs at the other team, but soon everyone gathered around and wanted to see how I could make them hover, and spin, and fly around in circles. So, yeah,” I laughed. “Not exactly heroic, but…”
“But fun!” Daniel said emphatically. “It’s fun, right?”
“It was…” For a little while.
“That’s how powers are supposed to be when you’re a kid.”
“It did feel right,” I said, “using my powers out in the open space.” Like after years of living curled up in a box, I had suddenly burst and realized what it was like to stretch my limbs all the way out. “And it was nice to be admired,” I admitted, “not that I really did anything super heroic or impressive—unless you count, like, bending the broken basketball pole back into shape. One time I used my wind powers to get a ball down from a tree. I wasn’t exactly saving lives.”
“But you were helping people,” Daniel said brightly. “You were doing good.”
“Yeah, not everyone saw it that way. One of the boys got freaked out and tried to tell the teachers.”
“Did they believe him?”
“Of course not,” I laughed. “That doesn’t happen—not on Earth, anyway. They just told him to stop making up stories. Anyway, after showing off my powers that first time, I obviously became the most popular girl on the playground. The other kids loved my tricks… well, most of them did anyway. I think Gabe and some of the others were jealous of all the attention I was getting. They wanted to do the things that I could. And, I mean, who wouldn’t? Having magic powers is, like, every little kid’s dream, right? And, at that point, I—I still didn’t get how weird my powers were. I thought maybe other people could do what I did if I just explained it to them. So, I tried to teach some of my classmates.”
“But they couldn’t do it?” Daniel said.
“Of course they couldn’t. And that was when some of them started getting mean.”
“Well, first Gabe started shunning me and giving me these nasty looks all the time. I… I guess I kind of understand why,” I said, after considering for a moment. “See, before I became the playground hero, he and Ryan were the cool kids everyone wanted to play with. They were jealous. We were seven. It makes sense. It wasn’t even a big deal really, until Carson opened up his stupid mouth.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “Carson Masters.” Neither my parents nor I had brought up Carson in years. Just saying his name sent a bitter shiver of guilt down to my core. “Gabe was my friend before, but Carson and I had never liked each other… I knew things were going wrong from the way he looked at me when I used my powers…” The same way Ms. Mitchell had looked at me, the way my parents looked at me. “For a while all he did was glare at me from across the playground and I just sort of ignored him, but then…”
“Then?” Daniel prompted when I trailed off.
I wrapped my arms around myself, clutching my sweatshirt around me, before continuing. “Then one day, he came to school with a more powerful weapon to use against me.”
“What was that?”
“Well… Carson and his family were super Christian. To be fair, so were most of the people at my school. I don’t want it to seem like I have anything against Christians; my mom is one—and so was my grandpa—and they’re two of the nicest people I’ve ever known. But Carson’s parents weren’t the nice kind.”
“Wait. Back up. So, what’s a Christian?”
“It’s someone who believes that Jesus was the son of the One True God, and that he was crucified so all humans could be forgiven for their sins, and a lot of other stuff that doesn’t make sense if you think about it for two seconds.”
“Oh.” Daniel still looked profoundly confused. “So, it’s like, a weird religion?”
“Yeah—well—no. It’s the most common religion in the country. So, when Carson had the brilliant idea of telling his parents about me and my powers, they set him straight on how to deal with me.”
“What do you mean? Their religion had something to do with your powers?”
“Oh, you bet. See, according to Christianity, God is the only one who’s supposed to have supernatural powers. Anyone else with powers must have gotten them from the Devil.”
“The Devil, the incarnation of all evil in the world.”
“Oh… So… people think special powers are evil?” Daniel said in confusion.
“Yeah, especially with women, for whatever stupid reason. Powerful women are always bad.”
“What?” Daniel let out an incredulous laugh. “But that doesn’t make any sense. Nyama is naturally more powerful in women. And anyway, if there are no powerful women, where are the powerful men supposed to come from?”
“Yeah, I didn’t make it up.”
“So, after the Carson kid talked to his parents, what happened?”
“Well, he just sort of walked up to me one day and was like ‘I know what you are, you freak.’” I wondered if Daniel could hear the tremor in my voice through my nasal impression of a seven-year-old Carson. “‘You’re a witch and you’re going to burn in hell. My mom told me so’.”
“And what did you say?” Daniel asked.
“I just told him his mom was dumb and he should mind his own business.”
“It didn’t bother you?”
“I didn’t believe him, if that’s what you mean. This was the kid who tried to tell the class that the dinosaurs coexisted with humans and that God made the whole universe in six days, so I wasn’t about to take anything he said too seriously. The sad thing was that the rest of the kids weren’t as smart. He just didn’t shut up and—well, you know how when you’re a little kid, you’ll repeat anything you hear enough times?”
“So, over a few days, a lot of them actually started to believe him when he said I was evil and had sold my soul to the devil or whatever. Suddenly, kids I had thought were my friends wouldn’t even talk to me or sit next to me anymore. Some of the other kids from more religious family probably actually believed him, but for some of them I think it was just an excuse to hate me for being able to do what they couldn’t. I stopped using my powers in the open after that, but the damage was already done. Nobody looked at me the same way.”
“That sucks,” said Daniel, “but are you really telling me you won’t show anyone your powers just because some kids were mean to you when you were seven? Do you really think that’s how everyone would react?”
“I know it is,” I said darkly. “That’s what happens to people with supposed magic powers on Earth. They get burned at the stake, or crucified, or stoned to death. Freaking Jesus was no exception.” I didn’t mention that another famous case happened to be my namesake. That was something I did my best not to think about.
“But why?” Daniel asked.
“Because people are stupid. Because they get scared of anything they can’t explain, and there’s never been any explanation for me.”
Daniel opened his mouth to say something more, but closed it again.
“Besides,” I said grimly. “I wasn’t finished with the story. It gets worse.”
“Really? What happened then?”
“Carson didn’t stop with the devil thing. He kept going for, like, a week, following me around, getting everyone else to join in teasing me and chanting things, and—God, I hated him!” My fingers dug into my arms until it hurt. “And to make things worse, he also lived on my street and got all the neighborhood kids on board—my friends, Ryan and Gabe. I would have gone to my teacher or my parents, but that would have meant explaining my powers to them and, at that point, the last thing I wanted was more people knowing. I was afraid they would react the same way as the kids. I didn’t know what to do…”
“So, you just stood there and took it?”
“Yeah. I told them to stop at first. Then I just cried.”
“You didn’t just blow them away with your powers? Fa-Kiye, you must have had patience of steel!”
“No, I—I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” I said. “I wanted them to like me again. I wanted to be good. But I wasn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well…” This was the part of the story I had been dreading. “One day, Carson kind of cornered me in front of his house after we got off the bus. Gabe and Ryan were there too. I guess the bus was a little early that day because our parents weren’t there to pick us up yet. Carson had been picking on me all day, but after we got off the bus, where there were no adults, he got… violent. They started hitting me and grabbing my hair. It didn’t really hurt me, obviously, but it was scary. It’s scary to know that someone wants to hurt you like that. Then they picked up rocks and chunks of ice and started throwing them at me… that did kind of hurt. One sharp rock actually broke the skin, right here.” I put a hand behind my left ear.
“Carson grabbed me and—he was going to hit me with this really big rock. I didn’t know what to do, so I pulled out the all-purpose little kid line; ‘I’ll tell my mom.’ He just laughed and he said…” I swallowed and found a lump swelling in my throat. “He told me to go ahead and do it because—he said ‘Your mom won’t help you. She wouldn’t love you if she knew,’ and that was it.”
“What? That was what?”
“I don’t—” I shook my head. “I don’t remember exactly what happened next. All I remember is how angry I felt, how scared, how much I hated him. I felt something in me—like when I build up energy to use my powers, but… not quite like that. It was more, more than my body could hold, and I couldn’t control it. I don’t know how to explain it. It shook me. It felt like it was going to break me apart.”
“What did you do?”
“I grabbed him.” I reached into the air before me, my fingers curling into the coat of an imaginary Carson Masters. “I grabbed him so hard I don’t think I could have let go even if I wanted to. And all that energy inside me, it exploded.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I…” My outstretched hands tightened into fists as I tried to find the words to describe the sensation. “It was like something inside me broke, and everything just kind of jolted out of me at once. I had my hands on his chest and I just”—I thrust both my fists forward into the air—“pushed him.”
“He flew twenty feet and smashed through the wooden fence outside his house. We ran to him—Ryan and Gabe and I—and they started yelling his name, but he didn’t get up. Th-there—” I pressed a hand to my lips as the unwelcome image sharpened in my mind, red against the snow. “There was blood coming from his head. I was sure he was dead.”
I felt like I was about to start crying and crushed my hand harder into my mouth.
“So, what did you do?”
I shook my head. “I just stood there. I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there like an idiot until his mom heard his friends screaming and came outside a-and…”
“Hey, are you okay?” Daniel asked, his voice suddenly softening.
“Yeah.” I tried to swallow and choked on the lump in my throat, a stupid wheezing sound squeaked out of me and the tears spilled over. “Sorry.” I balled the sleeves of my sweatshirt in my fists and pressed them into my eyes as my breath hitched and stuttered. Why was I crying? I didn’t want to cry. “I’m sorry,” I gulped. “I’ve just never told anyone about that and it—” A breath caught and I couldn’t finish.
There was an awkward pause. Then Daniel put his hand on my shoulder. The warmth alone eased some of the shaking.
“Hey, Joan. Listen, I know that must have been scary and it probably seemed like the end of the world, but it’s actually not that uncommon.”
I lifted my head a fraction. “What?”
“The kind of accident you’re describing happens to lots of little kids on Duna, especially in my country, where adyns and theonites live together. It’s the number one cause of injury—and death—of adyn children in Carytha.”
“Really?” That was horrifying.
“It’s also the number one argument for segregation in schools,” Daniel sighed. “The parents and teachers give you a thousand rules for how to play safe with your adyn friends—when you tag them, don’t hit too hard, when you hug them, don’t squeeze too hard, never, never let out any fire around them—but things can still go wrong. I mean, you saw what happened when that Cameron guy tried to hit me. Sometimes it’s not even your fault.”
“Yeah, but that time—with Carson—it was—I—”
“It can happen to anyone,” Daniel said reassuringly. “Seriously, everyone who grew up in a mixed community has their horror stories.” He paused for a moment. “You want to hear mine?”
“I don’t know,” I sniffed. “Do I?”
“I broke my best friends arm.”
“I know it sounds bad—it is bad—but I didn’t mean to. See, I was always extra careful about not burning people since I sometimes have trouble containing my taya, but when we were playing, it was just easy for me to forget that Lucian was more fragile than me, I tackled him a little too hard, and I heard this ‘snap!’” Daniel winced. “I realized what I’d done right away, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so terrible about anything in my life. I might actually have started crying right there but when Lucian got done screaming, you know the first thing he said?”
“‘It’s okay,’” Daniel said softly. “He said, ‘It’s okay. I know you didn’t meant to.’ He told me not to cry, because even with his arm broken in two pieces, he understood that I would never do that to him on purpose—because we were friends.”
I could only stare at Daniel as he held me in that earnest gaze of his. Could what he said be true? Could someone really be that forgiving?
“Of course, I didn’t actually get off that easy,” Daniel said with an uncomfortable laugh. “When he found out, Dad made me go tell Lucian’s mom that I broke her son’s arm. That was the scariest part. Then parents sat us down and we had this big about safety and responsibility. Worst playdate ever.”
“Well, I didn’t have any grown-ups to talk to me about this stuff,” I said. “No one on this planet is ready to deal with that kind of thing. They don’t understand, they don’t want to talk about it; they just freak out—then I freak out too. That’s why I can’t use my powers around normal people. That’s why I try to keep to myself. It’s not just because of what other people might do; it’s because of what I might do. I might have really hurt Carson that day. I might have killed him.”
“But he didn’t die, right?” Daniel said anxiously.
“They never told us. For weeks, they kept him inside or in a hospital or something. Wherever he was, I didn’t see him and his mom wouldn’t let me anywhere near their house.”
“But you must have found out at some point.”
“No.” I pressed my lips together. “We moved.”
“Yeah. To the other side of the county. My parents tried to tell me it was because it was closer to my dad’s work, but that was a total lie. His commute was twice as long after the move. He actually ended up having to get a new job. Even back then, I knew it was my fault we had to leave; I couldn’t step outside the door without everyone acting like I had a bomb strapped to my chest… My mom and dad were happy in that neighborhood. They liked our life there. I ruined that for them.”
“I’m sure they don’t feel that way,” Daniel said with an air of confidence that made me envy him.
“What? They never told you they blamed you, did they?”
“They didn’t have to.”
“So, you just haven’t used your powers since then?” Daniel asked.
“No, I still use them,” I said. Not using my powers was like not breathing. Well, maybe not that extreme, but it did start to make me tense and cranky after more than a day. They were the only way I ever felt comfortable in my own skin. No amount of fear was ever going to take that away from me. “I use them every night, just never outside my room.”
“That’s not right,” Daniel said. “You need space to use your powers if you really want them to develop. No theonite should be forced to hide their powers…”
Just then, a drop of coolness hit my cheek. A moment later, a larger one plopped onto the back of my hand.
“Oh, look at that.” I smiled up at the sky as the drops began to come down faster. “It’s finally raining.”
Daniel shuddered faintly and tried to pull his jacket over his head. “I hate the rain.”
“Aww.” I put my hands out, catching a dozen or so raindrops above my fingertips. “How can you hate the rain?” I twirled my fingers so that the beads of water chased one another around my hand.
“I’m a tajaka,” Daniel grumbled. “It’s in my nature.”
“In your nature?” I laughed, letting four drops slide to the end of my index finger to merge into one big one. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” I flicked the fat droplet from my fingertip to splat against Daniel’s cheek.
“Agh!” He flinched away, wiping his face on the back of his hand. “Hey!” He turned to glare at me, but there was a smile behind it.
Spinning more drops together, I whipped a second glob of water in Daniel’s direction. This time, however, he pushed out a breath of hot orange flames. Fire met water with a crackling hiss and both disappeared in a puff of steam. Daniel and I looked at each other through the dispersing vapor and laughed.
“Joan?” Daniel said, still smiling.
“I was just thinking, if you’re so unhappy here, maybe… maybe you could come back to Duna with us.”
I opened my mouth to say—well, I don’t know what I was going to say—but at that moment the heavens split open and the world turned white.