Christine Adjani sat by herself at the round white table in the nook by the bay window, smiling in silence at old pictures of her and Declun, when the double doors across the living room shattered inward.
The jolt of surprise sent her manicured fingers flying. Her phone landed in the corner as the young woman stood behind her chair, her wide eyes pinned to the behemoth striding through the swinging, splintered remains of her front entry.
She was so big. Declun had said she was big.
But she was so big.
Christine would have recognized her anywhere, even though they had never met. It was the hair. It was just like AJ’s, but even wilder—who would’ve thought that was possible?—and two shades lighter in color. Same as her eyes. It wasn’t hard to see what had drawn Declun to her. Before. When she’d been smaller.
But there was hardly any of that left. The woman in the entry was someone else. Her breasts were all but gone. Her prominent brow fought her jaw for dominance of her face. Her arms and legs were . . . unbelievable. Christine had known plenty of big guys. Her brothers were both over six feet and muscular. But their limbs were covered in a natural jiggle.
Xana’s swung solid like steel girders.
She didn’t look at Christine. She simply strode for the hall to the bedrooms.
“He’s not here,” Christine blurted.
Xana stopped. But she didn’t turn. She just waited for an explanation.
Christine stood behind her chair and gripped the back tightly. “Declun took him to the doctor.” She looked to the side. “Or at least, he was supposed to. The school called. He was late.”
Xana turned. She was scowling. But not at Christine.
And right then, in her face, the young woman saw the truth of it. All of it. Everything the McDooms had told her about AJ’s mother.
Or everything that mattered anyway.
Christine shut her eyes for a moment. She had believed it. She didn’t have reason not to. Or so she thought. But it was all a lie. Just like the rest. And they got away with it. Just like always. How easy was it, how easy for people to believe, when Xana looked like that?
But now that the big woman was standing before her, angry face rimmed in pain, Christine could see. Xana couldn’t help how she looked. Of course she couldn’t. And she loved her son. Of course she did.
Shame turned the young woman’s skin pink, and it showed even through her makeup.
“Doctor?” Xana took a couple steps closer and the floor shook. “What’s wrong? Is he sick?”
Christine looked up. Her heart broke at the sight of Xana’s heavy face. Once stoic as a dam, now it cracked in a flood of fear.
“Is he . . .”
“Is he growing? Normally, I mean.”
Christine could tell Xana almost didn’t want to hear the answer. She nodded. “He’s a healthy little boy. He just has his mother’s muscles.” She looked up. “And her hair.”
Xana’s shoulders dropped in relief. She looked down and saw the shattered bits of door on the floor. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “For the mess. I didn’t think anyone would . . .”
“Be here? Or let you in?”
Christine nodded. It didn’t really matter.
Xana looked at the beautiful woman before her. Her makeup was pristine. And expensive. And her jewelry . . . Xana was sure the earrings alone were worth more money than she had made her entire life.
She looked down again. “You’re not what I expected.”
Christine had no idea what to say. “You must hate me.”
“Thank you. For taking care of my son.”
The young woman nodded. “Wait.” She lifted her expensive heels over the pieces of door on the floor and walked to the kitchen. “I have something for you.”
“For me?” Xana took a few steps forward, then stopped and waited. “The police are on their way,” she said to fill the silence.
Christine retrieved a piece of paper from a stuffed drawer. “Police?” she called. Then she realized. To get up to the tenth floor, Xana would’ve had to force her way past the doorman downstairs. The security desk would have phoned it in immediately. She wondered how much time they had. And why Xana didn’t seem to be worried.
Christine walked back into the living room and held out the paper. “I kept it in the drawer with the bills.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s the last place Declun would ever look. I knew he’d just get angry. If he saw.”
Xana took it. It was white. Heavy. Construction paper. She turned it over.
It was a drawing. Just like the one Sister Rosa had shown her back home. It was AJ’s. An explosion of crayon. Swarms of lines. Still, Xana could see herself clearly. She’d beaten just about every costumed villain—and hero—the boy had ever seen.
Christine shifted in her expensive shoes. She realized they’d both been on their feet and she should probably ask her guest to sit. But then, both of the off-white couches were covered in door debris, and she wasn’t sure Xana could fit between those narrow, padded arms of the chairs at the table. Not that Xana seemed like she needed to sit. She didn’t shift her weight like normal people did. She was motionless, legs like stone pillars, as her eyes burned holes in the drawing in her hand.
She was so big.
Christine looked down to keep from staring. She wondered if muscles like that ever tired. Probably not. Xana could probably stand over AJ, protecting him, forever.
No, she stopped herself. Not just AJ. Xana could stand over everyone.
“His teacher called. He said AJ was making up stories.”
Xana looked up.
“About his mom. Wearing armor. Fighting bad guys. Saving people. During the blackout.”
Xana looked down at the drawing again. It was so much better than the one she had seen before. Maybe AJ would be an artist.
“Kids make up stories, of course. But his teacher said AJ wouldn’t let it go. That he was bragging to the other students.”
“Bragging?” Xana scowled. That was Declun’s influence. That wouldn’t do.
“He feels a little lost here,” Christine added quickly. “Like he doesn’t fit in. He tries to compensate for it. But he’s a little boy, like his father, and sometimes he doesn’t handle it very well. I guess some of the older kids started teasing him about it at recess. All his fantastic stories about his mom. He got into a fight. Over you.”
“Hairline fractures in two fingers in his left hand.” Christine held up hers. “And he broke the bigger boy’s sternum.” She paused. “With one punch.”
Xana sighed loudly. She was missing so much. His whole childhood. Or so it seemed.
Christine looked at Xana. At her size. At her muscles. At the slight bulge under her shirt that hinted at a bandage on her chest. At the bruises on her face masked by her dark complexion. At the calluses on her knuckles. As if she’d been punching things. Hard things.
Christine looked at Xana’s face, full of sadness and longing. And hope. “It’s true. Isn’t it?”
Xana was silent.
“The things he said.”
Xana looked out the bay window at the building across the street.
“You really were on that bridge.” Christine’s lips pursed. “You saved all those people.” Her eyes welled. “Even me.” Why was it always easy to see through everyone else’s problems, she wondered, but never your own?
And then a thought. “Why did you come here?” Christine shut her eyes fast. That sounded bad. “Sorry. I mean, what is it you wanted?”
“To see him.”
“But why now? I mean, if you’ve been here since then, why didn’t you come before?”
Xana looked the young woman in the eyes. She wasn’t the only one who could see the truth of things. Xana knew that look on her face, the look of a woman finally accepting what she knew she should have suspected all along. It was the same face Xana had worn in Guyana. When Abby and Renkist tried to destroy her by peeling back the curtain the McDooms had draped over her world.
Xana thought about her first trip to New York, when she watched from her secret perch as her son ran into another woman’s outstretched arms. This woman. Xana had been so focused on AJ, she hadn’t thought about Declun’s new companion. She came from money. That was clear. She was poised, educated. And smart. She had seen through Xana well enough. That meant she was smart enough to see through Declun, too. Eventually. Not someone he would pick. That meant Christine was Mal’s choice. Probably some kind of arranged marriage.
Xana remembered the young woman’s face. At the school. As she knelt and held out her hands to receive a smiling AJ. “You care about him.”
Christine looked to her phone on the floor across the room. Full of selfies of her and Declun. “I did.”
“No.” Xana said softly. “Not Declun.”
“Oh.” Christine smiled. “Right.” Then the smile faded. “Yeah. I do. He’s such a great kid. To be honest . . .” Her mouth hung open.
“I’m kinda jealous. Of you.”
“Me?” Xana’s eyes got wide. This woman was young and beautiful and rich and all the things Xana could never be. “I’m nobody. I’m a . . . a freak. I have to sneak around at night so I won’t be seen. I have no friends. Anymore. I don’t have a country or even a home, let alone one as nice as this.” She looked around. It was gorgeous. Or, it had been. Until Xana showed up. She looked at the shattered wood on the carpet.
“But you’re free,” Christine objected. “Maybe you don’t see it. You get to go anywhere. Do anything. And look at you. You don’t have to worry about anyone pushing you around or trying to hurt or control you.”
“Why are you with him?” It was blunt.
But Christine didn’t flinch. “Our fathers,” she said matter-of-factly.
The young woman nodded. “But you have AJ. And he thinks the world of you. He always will. No matter what. I know it seems like—”
Xana’s face finally cracked. Her lips quivered and she covered them.
Christine scowled. “I’m sorry. Did I . . .”
“Do you think so?” Xana asked softly. “No matter what?”
“Even if I have to leave?”
That was it.
That was why the big woman had come. Now. She wanted permission. For something. From her son.
Christine Adjani took two steps forward and reached out with manicured hands. She took Xana’s. They were so huge. Bigger than Declun’s. Bigger than everyone’s. “He already thinks his mother is out there doing something good and important. If you would’ve asked me ten minutes ago, I would’ve said it was just a story he was telling himself to avoid the truth.
“But I would’ve been wrong. You haven’t left him. At. All. And whatever you’re out there doing, whatever gave you these calluses, it’s important.” She paused. “Important enough to keep you away from him. For a while.”
The big woman’s bushy hair brushed against the ceiling.
She was so big. Her shadow was so big.
“Probably a lot more important than going to charity functions that cost more money to run than they raise.”
Out the shattered door and down the hall, the elevator opened. Two police officers and a doorman stepped out.
Xana’s stoic face returned. She backed away from Christine immediately. “They shouldn’t see you with me,” she whispered.
“It’s not safe.” Xana walked around the mess she caused and stood in the door.
“All right, that’s enough.” The first officer, a bald man with a big gut, removed the metal cuffs from his belt and reached for Xana’s hands. He stopped. He looked at her wrists. He looked at the handcuffs. He looked at her wrists again.
There was no way they’d fit.
“I won’t resist,” Xana said quietly.
Christine grabbed her purse. “I’m coming.”
“Miss.” The doorman held up his hands. “You should stay—”
“I’m coming.” Christine pushed past the man. “She’s my friend. There’s just been a misunderstanding.”
Xana turned. She hadn’t expected that word.
Christine looked up at her. “I forgot to tell the front desk that we were expecting a guest. She just wanted to see her son. I want to make sure that gets in the police report.”
Xana kept her eyes on the young woman for several steps as the policemen led her to the elevator. The second man looked at Xana’s head. He wasn’t sure she’d fit.
There was a police van parked on the street out front. Everyone could see it clearly through the building’s once-secure front door, now bent outward. A small crowd waited just past the spray of splintered glass on the sidewalk. The police were ready for her. Two squad cars, one at each end of the street, temporarily warned away street traffic with flashing lights.
Xana got into the back of the van without a struggle. She sat as best she could on the narrow metal bench. There was a man in there with her. He wore body armor. No gun, but he had a riot helmet and a heavy, round-tipped baton.
Christine scurried in her heels to the back before the men closed the door. “I’ll get you out,” she called.
“You won’t need to,” Xana explained. “I won’t make it to the station.”
Christine scowled. “What? What do you mean?”
The doors slammed shut and the engine started. The van was waiting for one of the squad cars to back itself around and lead them through midday traffic.
The man in the riot helmet and body armor sat across from Xana, baton in hand, and stared.
“You will probably get hurt,” she said softly. “I’m sorry.”
“Shut up,” he barked.
Xana ignored him and leaned her head back against the metal side of the van. That’s when she heard his voice.
Xana perked up. Her scalp tingled and seemed to tug against the elastic band that held her hair back. “Wait,” she whispered. She stood, head bowed under the ceiling that was too short for her, and strode to the back. Her steps shook the van.
The van’s rear double doors each had a long oval window, crosshatched with metal wire, so that any officers outside could assess the interior before unlocking the door.
And there he was.
Xana covered her mouth.
He was on the street. Right outside the van.
AJ was right there.
Not more than ten feet from her.
“Sit down!” the guard repeated. He stood and brandished the baton.
Hunched low under the ceiling, Xana couldn’t have cared less. AJ was there. Her son. Right in front of her. He was standing next to his father, who was arguing with Christine.
And then the boy must have understood what was going on, because he turned. And saw her.
Xana melted—wholly, completely—as AJ’s face lit up like a festival parade. She felt a warmth flood her. She felt fireworks, even in her artificial heart, and the power of it spread from her chest to the tips of her toes.
The boy ran to the van and pressed his hands to the metal. Declun called for him to get away. He wouldn’t even look at Xana.
The squad car on the street must have moved out of the way because the van jerked forward. Christine, wide-eyed, scurried in her heels to the front of the vehicle and planted both hands on the hood. “Just wait!” she yelled.
While the policemen outside politely asked her to please get out of the way, Declun pulled AJ from the rear of the van.
“Mom!” the boy reached out.
“AJ!” Xana’s hand went flat to the glass just as the officer’s baton struck her squarely in the back.
The man dropped it and clutched his wrist. “FUCK!” It was like beating on concrete.
Xana ignored him as she grasped the door, ready to rip it from its hinges.
But she stopped.
Her shoulders fell.
Her hands dropped to her sides.
Xana looked at the bandage on her son’s hands as he twisted and pulled in his father’s arms.
He had broken his finger. Fighting.
Had she taught him it was okay to fight? To hit people? On the bridge? He had broken another boy’s sternum. What would happen when he was older? Bigger? Stronger? Already his father was turning him into a braggart.
Xana pressed her hand flat to the glass one more time.
What would he think if she tore open the vehicle and threw the policemen to the side? That just because someone was stronger, they could do whatever they wanted?
That’s exactly what Malcolm McDoom wanted his grandson to think.
Xana stayed put, trapped by a conscience more powerful than steel.
As soon as it became clear the police had their hands full with Christine—or not, as they were too afraid to lay a hand on a wealthy man’s daughter—Declun set AJ down and dragged him toward the front of the vehicle.
But the boy pulled free and ran back to the oval window.
“Mom. Mom. I saw you.” His voice was muffled by the heavy glass. “On the bridge. I saw you fight that guy with the big arms. And you were all POW!”
Xana smiled and nodded, teary, as she watched her son excitedly recount the events of the blackout. He was getting so much bigger. She could see that now, up close. He was taller, and his face had more definition—a little less like a baby and a little more like a young man.
Xana kept nodding at the boy’s story as she studied every inch of his face. His clothes. They were nice. His hair was clean. And his fingernails, too. That wouldn’t have been the case back home.
“And then you went down to the river to save those people. And I know you didn’t want to hurt that guy.”
The van jerked forward again. Unlike the police, Declun wasn’t worried about handling his fiancée, and when it was clear she would rather make a scene than move, he picked her up and lifted her out of the street.
The young woman was furious.
The van pulled ahead.
Xana watched him get smaller.
Then after a mere hundred yards, the van stopped. They were waiting to turn at the intersection at the end of the short, posh residential side street.
The boy ran down the road as his father called after him.
“Oh, sweetie, be careful in the street,” she whispered.
“You,” the guard called, nursing his broken wrist. “Sit down!”
He was making a lot of noise, Xana realized, but he was giving her space.
“I said, sit down!”
She ignored him as AJ reached the van again.
“Are you gonna get the bad guys?”
His eyes were so wide. So full of expectation. Xana didn’t know what to say. She nodded. “Yes.”
“Okay.” He was smiling.
There was an awkward silence. Xana didn’t know what to say just then. To her own son.
But AJ was just smiling. “Okay,” he repeated with a nod. “I knew you were.”
Then the van started creeping forward.
“I love you, baby!” Xana yelled.
The boy took a couple steps, but stopped rather than follow her into the busy street.
“Sooo much. I’ll find you. I’ll come back. Always! I promise!”
“Bye, Moooom!” AJ yelled and ran along the sidewalk for twenty or so paces, waving his hand at her and smiling.
Xana raised her hand. “Bye, baby,” she whispered. She watched as the boy disappeared in the distance. She watched a little longer. Then she wiped her eyes, sniffed, and took her seat.
Xana took a breath. Not a particularly long breath, nor even a very deep one. But it was the hardest breath of her life—the sigh of resignation that said she was not going to kick open the doors, to run to her son, to fight the entire world to keep them at bay.
For AJ’s sake, she would trade today for the chance at many, many tomorrows.
If she survived.
Xana’s hands were shaking worse even than after the battle in New York.
She shut them and made fists.
She sniffed again.
The guard remained standing as the moving van jostled back and forth. He drew breath to bark at her again, but Xana spoke first.
“You sit quietly,” she said in her best mother voice. Then she added, “and I will do the same.”
The man waited a moment, as if to make it clear it his actions were his choice. Then he did exactly as she requested, and he remained on the bench for six long blocks.
The van accelerated through an intersection and flipped without warning.
It was hit hard and spun in the air. It rolled across the asphalt and Xana planted her hands against the walls to keep herself steady. She planted a foot on the guard, keeping him pressed to the floor so he wouldn’t turn about and break something.
Before the vehicle came to a solid rest, the back doors were ripped off their hinges by a hook on a cable.
Xana winced from the noise as the sideways van slid to a halt. She made sure the policeman was okay. Then she stepped from the vehicle. It had crashed in the middle of an intersection, wide and open. Buildings rose up on all four corners. Cars had run into each other. Traffic lights flashed red. There was debris everywhere. People were huddled behind anything stable or else running away. The braver ones at the back, as well as those standing in the windows overhead, took pictures with their phones.
Xana scanned the scene. So many innocents. And something was burning. She smelled smoke, like a grease fire.
She looked at the line of men waiting for her. There were five, all dressed in white bodysuits, like she’d seen people wear in dangerous labs on TV. White hoods with mirrored visors covered their faces. Two of the men pointed metal nozzles, each attached by a heavy hose to a pair of tanks on their backs.
Streams of foam erupted. As it hit the ground around her feet, it swelled, like bathroom cleanser, and quickly hardened. Xana tugged against it. But she couldn’t move. After trapping her legs, the men raised the nozzles and covered her abdomen and chest. She almost panicked as the foam swelled over her face and neck.
But her assailants left the tiniest corner of her mouth free, along with one nostril and one clear eye. They wrapped the hook and cable around her and dragged her away, like a marshmallow statue, tearing part of the asphalt free. She slid, trapped inside her foam prison, toward a large truck, bigger than the police transport but smaller than a semi. As she moved, she noticed the car fire just down the street from the gas station. The chain reaction of collisions had forced a blue SUV head-on into a sedan parked at one of the pumps, cracking it and sending the hose flying. The latter was on the ground dribbling gas. The fluid darkened the ground as it fell over the curb and fanned out into the street.
Xana’s mouth issued a muffled yell. There was a baby seat in the SUV and a woman with her head on the steering wheel, not moving. People huddled inside the gas station’s tiny mechanic’s office, peering through the glass and afraid to move. The people at the windows of the buildings overhead were either too amazed to notice or too stupid to care about the dark gas trickling toward the burning vehicle.
Xana yelled as loud as she could.
They were just going to leave. They were just going to take her and leave.
Xana gritted her teeth. She struggled. The foam flexed but held her fast. And when she relaxed, its grip seemed tighten. It was getting hard to breath. Xana felt her artificial heart quicken, almost pulling the oxygen through her nostril on its own.
Xana drew several large breaths. Her muscles filled. She relaxed. She heard AJ’s voice in her head. Are you gonna get the bad guys?
Her eyes went wide. He was only a mile or so away. Had they seen him talking to her outside the police van? Did they know about her son?
Was he in danger?
Xana’s giant hands made fists. She shut her eyes. She let out a primal yell.
Her foam prison ruptured in a shower of gray.
Xana jumped to her feet and grabbed the heavy braided cable and pulled with all her strength. The winch was at the back of the rear hold, meant to drag her in, and as she yanked, the cab of the truck lifted into the air as the rear tires bounced on the street toward her. Her attackers scattered as the big vehicle came crashing down on its roof. The ground shook. Glass shattered.
But Xana didn’t flinch. She batted the truck out of her way and walked to one of the men with the tanks, just getting up from the ground. She twisted a round spigot on the man’s back several times and strode away as he frantically reached behind him and gyrated strangely, trying to get the tank off his back before the nozzle burst.
Foam filled the street, trapping all but one of her attackers, who ran.
Xana looked at the gas darkening the ground. She scanned around her. And she saw it. Just down the road on the same side.
Xana ran forward and kicked an empty two-seater, just as she’d done to the jalopy back home. Only she was stronger now, MUCH stronger, and the sports car rolled over itself, pancaked a fire hydrant, and crashed against the wall of a building. Water burst forth—a fifty-foot column that rose straight up and then splattered to the ground.
Xana walked around it and planted a heavy foot on the stream, forcing it down and toward the burning car. After a few moments, the vehicle was completely doused and she turned her foot and washed away the gasoline. Then she lifted it and let the water fall over her like rain as she scanned the scene.
One of the men hiding in the station ran to the pump and turned it off while several onlookers checked the people in the SUV.
Everyone else—the small crowd in the immediate vicinity, the larger one that had gathered at the intersection, and the people in the windows above—was staring at her.
The falling water drenched her hair. She felt like a wet dog.
Xana looked at all the people. They had no idea what was going on. How could they? Who was there to tell them? The Abbys of the world were too busy looking after their own careers. The only time a scandal broke is when it benefited the prince to expose the squire.
The whine of a hovercraft broke her thoughts. She could barely see it at first—just a shimmer in the air that dissipated as the aircraft descended.
She guessed this was her ride.
Maybe her plan had worked.
Xana didn’t know where her friends were. She didn’t know how to find them. She was alone in a foreign country with no visa and barely any money. She knew she wouldn’t last long. It was only a matter of time before she was captured. So she decided to act first.
She wanted to be seen.
Her friends had scattered. But Wink and the others had installed cameras. In AJ’s school. And in Declun’s apartment. So Xana could see her son whenever she wanted. It was their great gift to her. The greatest gift she had ever received. And it seemed they were still active.
The hovercraft landed, the rear doors opened, and Xana climbed inside.
“Is my mom gonna be okay?” AJ was quiet. He knew they weren’t supposed to talk about Xana when Declun was around. But his dad was asleep across the hall.
Christine turned her head sideways and leaned over so her cheek rested on the bed sheet and she was looking AJ square in the face. “What do you think?” she whispered in the dark room.
He nodded, and it bunched his wild hair against his blue pillow.
“I think . . .” Christine pulled his covers up a little more. “I think your mom can do just about anything she wants. And I feel veeeeery bad for the people who might want to hurt her.” She looked at the boy. “Or you.”
AJ smiled and shoved his face into his pillow. He peeked one eye at his dad’s fiancée. Then he rolled on his back and got comfortable. He had been lying on his broken finger and it hurt a little.
“Now. Get some sleep,” she said.
The boy nodded and Christine walked to the door and closed it halfway. She made sure Declun was snoring before closing the door to their bedroom as silently as possible and walking down the hall to the kitchen, where her laptop sat on the table. The makeshift front door the men had installed was holding up nicely. The rest would be fixed in the morning.
She sat and lifted the screen and found the video she had saved. It was different than the first one she had found, not as clear, but that one had disappeared quickly, and Christine was sure to save a copy of the second. Someone had recorded it from a third-floor window of an office building.
Xana pulled an entire truck upside down by yanking on a cable. She kicked a sports car and sent it flying. Her heavy foot forced the water from the bursting hydrant to douse the burning car.
Christine had watched the video at least seven times, but still she covered her mouth and got a little blur in her eyes. So much power . . .
She didn’t know what was going to happen with Declun. They had argued all afternoon. She could tell he was surprised. He was seeing the real her for the first time. She honestly didn’t know whether that was because she had been hiding it or he just hadn’t noticed. A little of both, maybe.
She didn’t know if she could undo the marriage. Or any of the things her father had set in motion. She didn’t know what was going to happen. But as she watched Xana burst from her foam prison for the eighth time, Christine’s forearms erupted in goose bumps and she knew she had to help however she could. And right now, that meant keeping an eye on the little boy in the next room.
She wasn’t sure she could leave him, anyway.
Christine Adjani stared at the screen. The strangest part of the whole thing was the end, where Xana just climbed into the weird-looking aircraft. No fighting. Like she expected it to show up. Like she was waiting to be found.
The laptop speakers vibrated as the vehicle’s engines whined loudly and lifted into the air. It looked so odd. Almost like a flying ambulance.
excerpt from Episode Six of my superpowered sci-fi serial, THE MINUS FACTION.