A Second Generation Whateley Academy Story
The tiny office, crammed with filing cabinets and a tiny desk, was empty which suited Ms. Corrow perfectly. It wasn't her office, it was for the mountain of paperwork that the administration declared was necessary for the hospital to run. It was also used by staff and volunteers alike, when they needed to take a breather, or to shut out the world and pretend they were somewhere else. But for the next little while, she could pretend it was hers.
As a volunteer of almost two years, she filled in where necessary, and filing was one job mostly left to the unpaid helpers, so the trained staff could focus on patients. Since she'd had a bad night, doing the filing, which most people hated, was perfect, it was sterile, impersonal, and kept her mind occupied.
A knock on the door made her sigh in frustration. She didn't want to deal with people today. All the daily volunteer spots were filled, she didn't even need to be here. But given the choice of doing nothing in an empty apartment or doing something useful, it was an easy decision. Putting on a warm smile she leaned back from the desk, making it look like she was ready and willing to talk and deal with whatever they needed her to do.
The door opened a moment later and Amber, another volunteer, peeked inside, instead of her usual big, infectious smile, there was only a little smile, something serious must be going on. “Tiffany, got a moment?” the eternally happy, young woman asked.
“Of course, what can I do for you?” she asked, almost fooling herself with how inviting her words sounded.
“I'm trying to help Iris with her English, but she's not doing well. I think she'd like you to sit with her.
She should have guessed it would involve the young teen. Forcing herself to smile, she nodded. “Yeah, no problem. Just let me finish this up and I'll be there in a few minutes.”
“Thanks. I'll just go around and see if anyone else needs some help,” Amber said, before closing the door.
Quickly filing the last few items,, Tiffany gave herself a quick look in her phone. The streaks of premature grey hair were showing again. Maybe she should just let herself go grey naturally, it wasn't like she wanted to impress anyone. Combing flat a few stray hairs, she straightened her top, and left the quiet sanctuary.
The hospital floor was relatively quiet. It was just after lunch, so most of the kids were quietly playing, resting, away for tests, or doing schoolwork. She nodded politely to the nurses and doctors she passed. She knew all of them by their first name, despite being a volunteer she spent almost as much time at the hospital doing what she could to help, as they did.
Applying a healthy dose of hand sanitizer, she knocked on Iris's door and waited several moments before going in. Normally she'd wait to be welcomed in, privacy was in short supply for the patients, giving them some sense of personal space was the least she could do, but that wasn't possible in this room. Entering the bright, sunlit room where Winnie the Pooh and Piglet were playing beside a creek, she smiled at the fourteen year old who was lying on her bed hooked up to an oxygen machine.
Iris looked at her with dull, tired eyes. The girl had always been skinny for the nearly two years Tiffany had known her, but the latest lung infection had melted the flesh away, leaving her cheeks hollow and sallow skin stretched tight across her bones. A deep, gasping wheeze came from the girl with every breath.
“Hi, Iris. I heard you didn't want to do your English homework,” she said, taking a seat beside the bed.
“To Kill a Mockingbird is boring,” the teen said, her voice a quiet, raspy whisper.
Patting her hand, Tiffany nodded. “I never really liked it when I had to read it in school either. I preferred fantasy books, like The Wizard of Oz and Narnia.”
“I like Kiki's Delivery Service, the book and the anime.” She'd told Tiffany about the book before, they'd even watched the anime together. The fact that Iris had forgotten was just one more sign of how bad her condition was.
“I always wanted to fly,” Iris continued. “Read last night about a guy whose last words were 'looks like a good night to fly.' That's pretty good. Memorable.”
Smiling, she said. “Yeah that's a good one. Did you hear the famous last words of an 18th century nun?”
The teen shook her head.
“Louise-Marie Therese, I believe, was on her deathbed and let out an enormous fart. She told the astonished onlookers that, 'a woman who can fart is not dead.' She died before anyone could argue with her.”
“I like it, but I've heard better. Oscar Wilde, 'Either that wallpaper goes, or I go.'” A small giggle managed to make its way out of her frail body, causing her wheezing to worsen.
Taking a cup of water from the stand, Tiffany held the straw so the teen could take a drink. “Feel better?” she asked.
Iris nodded. “A little. Are you going to try to convince me to do my homework?”
“No, I think you can call in sick today. If Mrs. Bellamy complains, you tell her to talk to me.” When patients were very sick, the homework was used to help keep a normal schedule and make the girl feel like she was going to survive, to give her something to fight for just a little bit longer. There wasn't much point now, they all knew she wasn't going to leave the hospital alive. Even if they used magic to heal her, it wouldn't fix her genes, she'd be in the exact same condition within a year. The few healers with that kind of power who might be willing to help would refuse, there were too many others they could help who would go on to lead long, healthy lives. She was also too sick for a double lung transplant, the anesthetics would kill her.
“The Emerald Watchman is coming by later this afternoon, do you want to see him?” she asked.
Shaking her head, the teen rolled her eyes. “No. I saw him last year, and the year before that, and almost every year since I was eight. He just does the same thing every time. Can we talk instead.”
“Of course. Anything you want, as long as you want.”
“I want you to write this down and give it to my parents.”
Tiffany got a pad of paper and a pen from the nightstand drawer, holding back her tears, she'd been expecting the request for over a month. It was common with terminal patients, and she'd done it a few times before for those who couldn't write it themselves. “Ready when you are.”
“For my funeral, I want everyone to wear something colourful, I'd like yellow, but anything bright is good. And that includes Dad, he has to wear those ugly coveralls all day, he needs some colour in his life. I wanted the ceremony outside, but it's going to be too cold, so make sure the room is bright, lots of light, and pictures of flowers and trees all over. I don't want to be buried, cremate me. And this is really important. I want my ashes dropped somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, not just off shore.”
“Why do you want that?”
“Mom and dad haven't had a vacation since I got sick. They need to take a break, but I know they won't take one without a kick in the butt. So they, and Gabriel and Andrea, have to go to some nice tropical island, or maybe a cruise ship, with me, and drop my ashes into the ocean. If they don't I'll come back and haunt them.”
“OK. We can tell them together when they come on Saturday.”
The strength seemed to leave Iris, and she sank down deeper into her pillow. “Sure. If I'm still here.”
Tiffany finished washing the few dishes left over from her small supper along with the morning dishes, and went to the cold, almost bare living room. Putting on some relaxing piano music, she sat down with a new book she'd bought on her way home, Kiki's Delivery Service, and tried to read.
A few minutes later she gave up, she couldn't focus on the words.
Going to her bedroom, which was more of an office with a small bed shoved into the corner, she realized this was going to be another bad night.
Heading to the second bedroom, she took a moment to compose herself before stepping inside. It was a typical teen girls room. A little cramped, but everything was neatly placed and ready to be used. Running her finger over the nightstand, she realized it had been at least two week since she'd been in the room. Getting a dust cloth, Tiffany began dusting everything, taking special care of the framed pictures that covered the walls, including a signed poster of a former superhero and her ward. She'd change the bedding when she did laundry on the weekend.
Satisfied with her work, she closed the door once more, took some sleeping pills and headed for bed.
The Next Day
Shifting a little in her seat, Tiffany discretely tried to get the blood flowing to her leg again. Her hands were clasped around the hand of Mrs. Lee, who was leaning on her shoulder. To an observer they'd look like good friends. In reality she'd only met the woman a little over four hours ago, not that it mattered to either of them.
The woman’s son was in surgery to relieve pressure on his broken back. If things went well, he'd be able to walk and run again after rehabilitation, if they didn't, he might be able to hobble along, or never walk again, or have to go through many more surgeries later. When Tiffany had introduced herself and offered to sit with her during the surgery, Mrs. Lee had latched onto her like a lifeline. Her husband had to work, and she had no one to come with her to offer support, so Tiffany filled the role.
They didn't talk, Tiffany was fine with that. Some parents wouldn't stop talking, others needed to have someone talking to them, she could do either easily enough. Mrs Lee just needed someone to anchor her, as she waited helplessly to find out if her child would be OK. It might not seem like much, but Tiffany had filled the roll of quiet support often enough to know how vital it could be. She'd also been on the receiving end of it twice.
The surgeon came out, he had a very small smile as Mrs. Lee rushed over to him to find out how it had gone. Tiffany stayed in her seat, not listening to the words, just watching the woman's reaction. There were tears, but a smile as well, followed by a hug.
She smiled and used a tissue to dab at her eyes, it seemed like this was one of the good days. Now would Mrs. Lee come over and want to talk and thank her, maybe invite her to lunch while she waited for a chance to see her son? Or would she rush off to wait outside his room ignoring the rest of the world?
Either one was good, she'd done her job helping to take some of the burden for a few hours. That was all she wanted to do.
“Tiffany,” Judy said, coming into the waiting room.
“What?” she asked.
“Iris wants to talk to you.”
The pleasant mood crashed. “How long has she been waiting?”
“About two hours. When she heard what you were doing, she said it could wait,” Judy said.
Tiffany silently cursed, a dying girl shouldn't have to wait, but Mrs. Lee had needed her as well. Sometimes there was no good solution. “Thanks, I'll go see her now. Stay here and if Mrs. Lee needs anything help her out.”
Not waiting for a response, she hurried away. She'd called the girls parents the night before, offering support. They already knew how badly off their daughter was and were desperately trying to work something out so they could come see her. They hoped they'd be able to arrive that night, but that would likely be too late. The girl needed someone with her now. the nurses were there of course, they would make sure someone was with her to make her comfortable and talk to her, but they also had to look after the other children.
And being honest with herself, she needed to be there for the girl. When she'd first volunteered at the hospital, not sure if it was the right thing to do, not sure if she deserved to be around children, Iris had been there, making jokes and playing pranks on the 'noob'. That had helped drag her out of the haze of pain and grief that had become her life.
The least she could in return was to help make her death as peaceful as possible.
Before going to Iris's room, she stopped to get her new book, Kiki's Delivery Service, from her bag, it would help pass the time more peacefully. Surprisingly the door was open and the girl was sitting up talking with some of her friends. She was still badly wheezing, and her voice was weak, but she didn't look exhausted, just tired, and her cheeks had some colour in them.
“Tiffany, you're finally here!” the girl wheezed.
It took a second to realize she should say something. Iris hadn't had that much energy for weeks, and after seeing her yesterday the improvement was bordering on miraculous. “Sorry it took so long, I was helping someone,” she finally said. “You seem to be feeling better.”
“Can you guys give us some privacy?” she asked her friends.
They slowly walked and rolled out of the room, saying goodbye, patting her hand, or hugging her. Closing the door behind them, Tiffany took a seat so she wouldn't loom over the girl.
“I just wanted to tell you that I feel great. I know I still sound bad, but I'm breathing easier than I have in months. They did some tests this morning and my lungs aren't filling up with snot. And I ate all my breakfast today, then asked for seconds.”
She grinned at the news, the girls enthusiasm infecting her. Getting to her feet, she gently hugged her. “That is amazing!” she said.
“I know. I had a dream last night, I was an angel flying through the sky on golden wings. It was just as wonderful as I thought flying would be. It was like I was doing it for real and I didn't want it to stop. Then I woke up and I was able to breathe without feeling like I was drowning. I've been getting better ever since,” she said, her eyes glowed with newfound life and delight.
“You certainly look better today. Your parents are trying to make it here tonight, how about I fix your hair, then your friends can help you pick a nice shirt for when they arrive?”
“Can you help me pick the shirt?”
She smiled at the request. “You trust the fashion sense of an old lady?”
“You're not that old,” Iris said. “And you always make yourself look good. Even when you wear jeans and a t-shirt you act like you're on camera.”
“Really?” Tiffany asked, honestly surprised.
“Yeah. Jody used to tell us you were probably an actress or a singer, she even tried to look you up a few times.”
Laughing, she got a comb and hairbrush, placed a few pillows behind Iris's back so she could comb her hair, and began working on the terrible case of bedhead, gently working out the knots and snarls. “I wasn't an actress and no one wants to hear me sing.”
“So who were you?”
“A very different person.”
“Come on! I've known you for over a year and you've barely told me anything about you, while you know my whole life story. It's not fair.”
“Tell you what, when you can come out with me for shopping and a nice meal, I'll answer some of your questions,” she said.
The girl crossed her arms and humphed. “That might never happen.”
“Yesterday neither of us thought I'd be doing your hair and you'd be breathing well enough to talk for this long. Consider this incentive to get better. Now how do you want me to do your hair.”
They talked as she worked on the hair, gossip from around the ward, songs, movies and TV, nice simple things that helped the time pass.
Putting a flowery hair clip in the black hair, Tiffany stepped back and admired her work. It wasn't anything fancy, but the shoulder length hair was nice and tidy, and the bangs were quite fetching. Holding up a mirror she asked, “What do you think?”
Iris looked at herself, tilting her head this way and that before grinning, “I like it, nice and simple.” The grin turned to a look of confusion. “But why are my eyes yellow?”
“My eyes are a little yellow, am I getting jaundice? I'm finally feeling OK, I don't want to have to deal with that again.”
Bending down to get a better look, she saw that the girl was right, her eyes were turning yellow. It wasn't the dull yellow of jaundice which would cover the entire eye, but a bright lemony yellow, and it was only on the irises.
For a brief moment Tiffany froze, old fear and anger filled her. She pushed it down, refusing to let it control her. “I'm pretty sure it's not jaundice. Let me go talk to a nurse and we'll get you checked out. Don't worry too much about it until we know more.”
Walking out, she forced herself to appear casual and unconcerned. At the nurses station she found the head nurse. “Excuse me, Gianna, can I have a moment in private?” she asked.1
“Sure,” the woman said, leading her to the small office. Closing the door, she asked, “What's up?”
“What's the policy on mutants?” Tiffany asked.
Gianna frowned. “If they're potentially dangerous, we isolate them and call in the experts. If their powers aren't dangerous or they have them under control, we treat them like any other child. Why?”
“Iris manifested last night. Her irises are turning a bright yellow, and it would explain why she had the sudden improvement.”
“You seem pretty certain about this.”
“I'm an educated laywoman, I studied them for over a decade. How much do you know about mutants?” she asked.
“Not as much as I'd like and none of it recent,” Gianna admitted. “We've only had a handful come through here, all of them for regular physical injuries, and one burnout who didn't make it out of ER.”
“All right, when a child manifests, they often get low level regeneration. Their body needs it to create the new organs and changes to their bodies, allowing them to safely handle their powers. This usually helps fix any illnesses or injuries they might have. If she has a BIT, it can even correct existing genetic defects.” She closed her eyes in thought, dredging up old information, trying to forget why she'd studied the issue so hard. “When it's causing major changes, it's usually not very fast, taking weeks or months to finish, sometimes years. It's why young mutants are most affected by burn out, they can push their powers too hard before their new system has a chance to fully develop and control their powers.”
“OK. I'll set her up for some tests to see if she has the genes, and call in an expert to look her over. Has she done anything that could hurt herself or others?”
Tiffany shook her head. “No, she seems safe enough.”
“Will you be OK with this?” the nurse asked, looking her straight in the eyes.
She didn't answer immediately. Could she help Iris? Did she deserve to? Staring at her hands, she could almost see the blood on them. She nodded. “I'll stay by her side and help her as much as I can. When her parents come, I'll talk with them after they hear all the medical details. I can give them some advice on what to expect socially.” Despite her doubts her voice was firm.
“I'm sure they'll appreciate that. Is there anything else I should know?”
She shook her head, tears welling up in her eyes. “No. Can I have a few minutes alone.”
Gianna gave her a quick hug. “If you need anything let me know. You're a good person, we'll help you.”
As soon as she was alone, Tiffany sat down, put her head in her hands and wept.
Sipping a glass of wine, Tiffany watched Iris's parents, carefully judging their reactions as they quietly ate their meal. She considered Marsha and Peter Cortanza friends, so when they managed to come to the city she liked to help them as best she could. Sometimes it was giving presents of clothes and school supplies to their children, other times it was a night out for a good meal and maybe a show.
Their faces were a mix of cautious enthusiasm, worry, and disbelief. They'd gone through a whirlwind of emotions, at first certain they were going to their daughters deathbed, if they made it in time. Then learning she'd pulled off a miraculous recovery, potentially giving them a few more weeks or months with their child. Once they arrived, they'd been carefully told their daughter was likely a mutant and might actually completely recover, becoming a healthy teen with a long life ahead of her. Then Tiffany had told them about some of the trouble they might experience for having a mutant daughter. It was a lot to take in.
Marsha pushed her plate away. “So you've told us a lot, but how bad is it, really?”
“It depends on many things. Where you live, how obvious the mutation is, what the mutation is, and luck. Some places will have groups that actively hunt down mutants. Too many will quietly attack them or make their lives a living hell.” She looked at the table, too ashamed to look at them for a moment.
“Other places will take a more cautious live and let live approach. And some can be mutant friendly. This is more common for mutants who don't stand out. If Iris just needs sunglasses or contacts, she should be able to live a fairly normal life.”
“How likely is that?” Peter asked.
“I don't know,” she admitted. “I could give you some old numbers about how many mutants with GSD are in the US, but it wouldn't really help much. Right now you should think about your town and how they are likely to react to a mutant. You don't want to have Iris come home healthy and ready to live her life only to face an H1 hit squad, or to be shunned at school.”
Marsha reached out to grip her husband’s arm. “That really happens? The hit squads, I mean.”
“Yes,” she said, her voice cracking. She took another sip of her wine.
“Is that what-”
“Please don't ask,” Tiffany said.
The couple looked at her with pitying eyes. Tiffany looked away, knowing she didn't deserve the sympathy. There was an uncomfortable silence as she fought to regain her composure and they gave her the space she desperately needed. Thankfully the server came to take away their plates and returned with dessert. They eagerly dug in, grateful for something to break the awkwardness.
Able to talk again, she decided to get the rest of the discussion over and done with. “After Iris is healthy enough, she's going to need power testing and an MID. The best place to get it in the city is with the MCO. They aren't friendly with mutants, but they follow the rules. If you want, I'll take her. I know the rules, and will make sure they don't bend certain lines.”
“What would they try to bend?” Peter asked.
“The most common one is her identity. They aren't supposed to ask her name or the name of her family, but if someone lets it slip they'll write it down. So they'll sometimes ask outright for a name, or recommend leaving contact information in case something happens,” she explained. “I'll make sure that doesn't happen.”
“That's very generous of you. We really don't know how to thank you for everything.”
“Just make sure Iris grows up knowing she's loved and protected,” Tiffany said.
A Week Later
Iris's ragged coughing filled the room. To most people it would sound horrendous, like she was coughing up a lung. The rattling from her chest was even worse. Tiffany wasn't worried, in fact she was smiling as she massaged the girls back, helping to loosen the phlegm coating her lungs.
Long, ropy threads of brown mucus fell into a bowl. It had already been emptied once, and was almost full again. The thick slime had built up over many months, too thick to be coughed out or absorbed, it had filled her lungs and sinuses, slowly drowning her. Then for the last week, it had been loosening up, and now it was coming out, seemingly all in one go.
Iris stopped coughing, wiping her face with a damp cloth. “I have to take a break,” she gasped.
Taking the bowl, Tiffany placed it in the bathroom where it could be dealt with later. Returning to her chair, she watched the teen take a drink without any help. Despite dripping with sweat Iris looked almost healthy. Her skin had regained its colour, she was rapidly putting on weight, and she hadn't had to use an oxygen machine for over three days.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Good. Really good. I'm still not breathing great, but I haven't felt like this in years,” Iris said. “I think I can even have a shower on my own. I've almost forgotten what that feels like.”
Taking a quick look at her chart, it did say she could take unattended showers. “Are you sure you can handle it? You're still weak,” she said, not wanting Iris to hurt herself.
“A little help getting there would be nice. But yeah, I'm pretty sure I can.”
Getting some things out of the small wardrobe, Tiffany put them over one arm, and held out her free hand. With a bit of effort, she got Iris to her feet. Even holding onto her arm, the teen swayed a little on weak legs that weren't used to walking anymore.
Tiffany gave her plenty of time to get her balance. Holding her up wasn't that difficult, the teen was small for her age and very underweight. “Ready?” she asked, once the swaying stopped.
“Yeah. Lets do this before I fall over.”
With slow, shuffling steps, they made their way to the bathroom. Easing Iris to the sliding shower seat, she turned on the shower, getting it to a good temperature and made sure the soap and shampoo was within easy reach. As she left to allow the girl to undress in private, she said, “When you're done just give me a shout,” she said.
While Iris washed herself off, Tiffany had her own cleaning to do. Stripping the sweat soaked sheets and blanket from the bed, she remade the bed with fresh linen. It wasn't her job today, but no one was going to complain about her helping out.
“I'm done!” Iris yelled.
Her heart soared at hearing the girl shout. She went back to the bathroom, where Iris had managed to dry herself mostly off and put on her housecoat while still sitting. She shut off the shower, dried the girls legs off, wrapped her hair in a towel and then it was another slow walk to the bed.
Unwrapping her hair, Tiffany began rubbing it dry. “Do you want to get out of the room after you get dressed?” she asked.
“Yes! I'm sick of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet,” Iris replied, glaring at the colourful mural.
“I think some of your friends are practising for the Christmas talent show right now. Maybe they can fit you in. What do you want to wear?”
“My yellow t-shirt and shorts. They match my eyes now.”
Once she was dried and dressed, Tiffany helped her get into a wheelchair and headed out. Word hadn't gotten out that Iris was a mutant, the nurses knew, but they were keeping it to themselves, so everyone they passed was simply happy that the girl was doing so much better. The greetings and well wishing made going down the corridor a slow process, but listening to her talking to everyone without gasping for air made it all worthwhile.
They finally made it to the right room, where three girls were singing, 'All I Want For Christmas is You'. The door was mostly closed, so she knocked and asked, “Can we come in?”
“Just a minute!” came the reply. A few seconds later the door opened and Candace, a thirteen year old with a pink hat covering her scalp came out. “Oh my god, Iris! You're out of bed!” the girl exclaimed, bending down to give her friend a hug.
“Hey Iris! I got a new scar!” Lynn, the oldest girl of the group said, raising her shirt to show a fresh row of stitches on her stomach. “Pretty cool huh”
“Very cool Lynn,” Iris said, giving her a thumbs up.
“Damn, you don't sound like a dead girl rolling anymore.”
“I'm out of danger and feeling fine. What did I miss?”
Handing over the wheelchair to Candace, Tiffany stepped back, “Have fun girls.”
The girls all said goodbye, including Annie who was lying in bed with a metal frame around her leg.
With a light heart, Tiffany went off to see if there was anything she could do for someone else.
"It hurts,” Iris sobbed. Clutching Tiffany's hand so hard her nails drew blood.
A nurse wearing gloves that radiated heat, was massaging the girls leg, trying to work out a cramp that had every muscle from her hip to her toes knotted up, under skin that was stretched taut. Tiffany wanted to help, but Iris wouldn't let go of her hand. The best she could do was bite her lip, suck up the pain, and stroke the girls face, letting her know she wasn't alone.
Over the last two weeks, even before Iris's body had gotten rid of the last of the built up mucus, she'd started growing at an impossibly fast rate. At first it was muscle and fat, much to everyone's delight. It had been uncomfortable, but she'd been painfully thin, some discomfort could be dealt with. They'd gotten ready to discharge her.
Then her bones had started lengthening, causing intense growing pains, as tendons, muscle and skin struggled to keep up with the radical growth surge. It was the equivalent of going through puberty in a few weeks. The usual muscle relaxants worked for a few hours at most, then the pain and cramps came back.
“It's going to be OK. It hurts now, but it's going to stop soon,” Tiffany said. Twisting awkwardly, she got a damp washcloth and began dabbing at the sweat and tears dripping from the girls face. “Once this is all done, you're going to feel better than ever. Remember what I told you about BITs, your body is just in a hurry to get it all done.”
What felt like hours later, but was only fifteen or twenty minutes, the cramps began to ease from a combination of muscle relaxants and the massaging. Still clutching Tiffany's hand, Iris fell asleep, utterly exhausted.
Slowly and carefully, Tiffany freed her hand, cleaned the cuts and left the room. The girl would be asleep for a few hours at least, before her muscles began spasming again. Peeking into the small hospital classroom, Mrs. Bellamy was helping the thirteen to eighteen year old patients with their math, at least the ones who could leave their room. Moving on, she came to the small library where children were reading books, alone and to each other.
Stepping inside, she started to walk over to Ruth, who was wiping down a stack of books, when a tiny hand tugged at her shirt. “Ms. Corrow.”
Kneeling down, she grinned at a five year old with a feeding tube in his nose. “Hi Bobby, what do you need?”
“Can you read me a story?” he asked, holding up The Cat in The Hat.
“Of course,” she said. All the big chairs were taken, so she went to a child size table and took a seat on the floor while he sat on a chair.
As she read, some of the other younger kids came over to listen. As soon as she was done reading, she was handed another book. Some of the children wandered away, or were taken away by nurses and parents for tests, medication, or to rest, and more came over.
On the fifth book, a nurse motioned for her. Handing the book to a willing mother who was sitting off to the side with a toddler on her lap, Tiffany hurried over to the nurse.
“Dr. Adler is with Iris, she'd like you there.”
The smile slipped for a moment. The doctor, who was the local expert on mutants, had been checking in on Iris regularly since she manifested, unfortunately he wasn't used to working with young people. Thanking the nurse, she headed to the room.
Inside Iris was sleepily watching the doctor as he looked over a file. “Good day, Dr. Adler,” she said, forcing herself to be pleasant.
He continued to look at the file for a few moments, before deigning to look at her. “Good, you're finally here,” he said in a cold monotone, then returned to looking at the file.
“How are you feeling, Iris?” she asked.
“Sore, but it's bearable,” the girl said.
“Are you ready to begin, Iris?” he asked, his tone professional.
“I guess so.”
“Please take off your shirt.”
Iris followed his directions, revealing her new sports bra. Tiffany had had to buy her several new ones as the girl had gone from an A cup to a C cup seemingly overnight. Shifting on the bed, she turned her back to the doctor.
He poked at two bumps coming out of her upper back, right around her shoulder blades. They weren't very large, not yet big enough to make lying on her back difficult, but they were very noticeable in anything but a baggy sweatshirt.
“Any discomfort?” he asked.
“No. They're itchy but that's it.”
“Good, good,” he said. “Any change in your diet?”
“Not really. I'm still eating a ton of food, and nothing is making me sick or tasting different,” Iris replied.
He asked her a series of other questions, took several measurements as well as her weight, and wrote a long series of notes on his tablet. Once he was done, he said, “I can confidently say you are growing wings, young lady.”
Her eyes lit up. “I'll be able to fly?”
“Provided your mutation continues progressing normally, yes,” he said, his lips curling up into what might possibly be called a smile. “This will cause some problems with sitting, sleeping and lying on your back, but judging from the x-rays and tests we ran the other day, your body is adjusting nicely. Your heart and lungs are increasing in size to compensate for your new physical condition. Normally this would be concerning, but we've seen similar adjustments with mutants who have high intensity, physical powers, and it seems to be a natural adaptation with few to no side effects. Your tendons have strengthened as well, which should make flying much easier for you. You are going to be a very strong and healthy young woman soon.”
For the first time since the exam started, Tiffany spoke up. “What about her growing pains?”
The tiny smile vanished, and his eyes darkened. “She has grown almost eight inches since manifesting, and it looks like the growth is slowing down. I'd estimate in another two weeks she'll be around five feet, seven inches. The growing pains will gradually lessen in the coming days and end completely two or three days after she reaches her full height.”
“When can I fly?” Iris asked.
“That is hard to say. Knowing exactly what your powers are beyond the physical, will help determine that. If you have a largely physical power, it could be several months or even years before your wings are large enough to permit flying. If you have gravity powers, a PK field, or an innate flight power, you might get relatively small wings and be capable of flying in a matter of weeks. We will have to wait and see.”
Yawning, Iris slumped down onto her pillow. The little energy she'd regained from her nap had run out.
“Iris hasn't been sleeping well, is there anything else you need, doctor?” Tiffany asked.
“I think I'm done here,” he said. “I'll be back next week, Iris. If you experience anything out of the ordinary make sure to let one of the nurses know and I'll come by as soon as possible to make sure you're OK.”
“OK, thanks,” Iris said, pulling her blanket up to her chin.
Tiffany left the room with the doctor. “Excuse me Dr. Adler, her parents would like to know if there's a chance she could be safely discharged by Christmas?”
“I'll make a note to send them the information as soon as I know,” he said, heading for the elevator.
“Thank you, but if it’s possible, they'd like an answer as soon as possible. They don't have much money, so if they stay here for Christmas, they need to make their plans as early as possible,” she explained.
“Ms. Corrow” he said, turning her name into a curse, “I will not make a decision on one of my patients, until I'm certain of the answer. I will definitely not be rushed by someone with your history. Since the parents and the patient have asked that you be kept in the loop, I have done so, but that is all I will do with you. The mere fact that they let you be around children, much less mutant children, after what you did to your daughter, is disgusting. Now, unlike you, I have work to do.”
With that he turned away from her, effectively ending the conversation.
Tiffany's shoulders slumped, she left to get her coat and purse. Memories of the past rose up. She had to get away, get her head in order, before she dealt with anyone else. She took the stairs down to the exit, not wanting to be seen by anyone, just wanting to be alone.
Deserving to be alone.
Three Days Later
Tiffany folded a t-shirt, placing it back on the shelf, and went looking for anything else that needed to be done in the gift shop. The shop was run entirely by volunteers, helping raise money for the hospital. It was usually covered by people who wanted to help out but couldn't handle working with sick children, or volunteers who needed a break before they burned out.
It had been one of the first places Tiffany had covered when she first volunteered, before she'd trusted herself to be around children. And it was where she'd first met Iris, who had come in looking for a birthday present.
Grabbing a broom she began sweeping for the third time that morning. Keeping busy was important. Nothing good would happen staying still, doing nothing.
“Hi Tiffany,” Iris said.
She jumped at the voice. Turning around she saw the teen leaning on a shelf full of handmade toys. Iris looked good, healthy and not in pain. Her face had shifted a little, becoming prettier, fewer blemishes, fuller lips, the nose a touch smaller, the eyes a little bigger, but the girl she had known was still there.
“Hi Iris. I didn't hear you come in,” she finally said, her voice cracking a little.
“I was trying to be quiet. I couldn't surprise people like that before all of this. The wheezing gave me away,” Iris said.
“How are you feeling? Are the cramps getting better?”
“Not much. The muscle relaxants are working a little better now, but I'm still out for at least half the day. Right now is a good time, no pain, not even any twinges, so I thought I'd visit you. You haven't been around much.”
She looked away. “I've been busy. You're doing so well now, I thought you didn't need me as much.”
“That's not it. You're usually a good liar, but something has you more depressed than usual. It's Dr. Adler right? He really hates your guts,” Iris said.
“How he feels about me isn't important. He can make sure you stay healthy, that's all that matters.” She turned away to keep sweeping.
A moment later she was enveloped in a hug. Iris rested her head on her shoulder, “You're my friend. You're practically my second mom. You matter to me.”
The words hit hard. Taking hold of the girl’s hand she began sobbing.
Sitting in an office chair in the tiny supply room, Iris pulled at her shirt, which was wet from tears. “I never realized just how wet you could get when offering a shoulder to cry on.”
“I usually keep a spare shirt around in case mine gets too wet,” Tiffany said, wiping her eyes with a soggy tissue. “I'm sorry about that. You shouldn't have to worry about me.”
“I told you already, you matter to me. You've done a lot for me, the least I can do is give you a hug when you need it.” Iris handed her another tissue. “And you really needed it. You usually act happy or professional when anyone's around, but you've been acting differently the last few weeks.”
“How have I been acting?”
“Broken. You still smile and help out, but your eyes are always sad, and you hide more often.” The teen tilted her head, studying her. Her eyes widened in understanding. “You've been like this since I manifested. Your daughter manifested too, didn't she.”
“What happened to her?”
Tiffany wanted to run away. The pain, the self loathing, the fear that she had lived with for over two years, keeping them firmly in the background came roaring back, opening up old wounds in her soul. “She was afraid of me. She thought I'd hurt her. And we both trusted people we shouldn't have.”
“Did she run away?”
She nodded. “After she ran away and blocked my number, some people I thought were friends, people I thought I could trust, found out where she was hiding. Instead of telling me, they tried to kill her. I called the police as soon as I heard. We were five minutes too late.”
“They killed her?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “She got away from them. She ran away again when she heard the police sirens. She left the city completely.”
“And she never called you?”
Tears began to fall again. “She couldn't. They found a crashed car, out in the middle of nowhere. It had some of her things in it, but she and the driver had disappeared. They never found either of them.” She looked at Iris with a bitter smile. “So my biggest hope is that my daughter is alive and safe somewhere, but hates me so much, or is so terrified of me, that she wants nothing to do with me.”
A Week Before Christmas
“Everyone's staring at me,” Iris said, slouching down as they made their way along the busy sidewalk.
Tiffany put an arm around her shoulder, trying to not knock the sensitive wings that were somewhat hidden under the coat. The budding wings were perfectly positioned to make it look like she had enormous 80's style shoulder pads. The growing pains had mostly stopped a few days ago, the only reason she was still at the hospital was to make sure her wings were coming in properly. However the teen had been given permission to go out for day trips as long as someone went with her. So she had volunteered to take her on a Christmas shopping trip for the day.
“Stand up straight,” she said. “If you try to hide like that it just makes people look harder. Remember confidence is important.”
“Easy for you to say,” the teen groused.
"Trust me, I've held my own against politicians who hated my guts. If you look confident and self assured, most of the time people will back down.”
“And what happens the rest of the time?”
“You get into a fight,” she admitted. “It's not perfect, but I've found you get into less fights by being confident.”
“So where exactly are we going?” Iris asked, looking at the boutique and high end shops that lined the street. “I thought we were going Christmas shopping, but this area is a little out of my price range.”
Lowering her scarf so the teen could see her smile, Tiffany said, “We'll get to that soon enough. Right now you're getting an early Christmas present.”
“Really? What is it?”
“You need a new wardrobe, not just for your new size, but for your wings as well. You can't go around in oversized tracksuits. So I called around and found a place that does custom clothes and alterations for customers with...” she tried to think of the best way to phrase things, “unique body types.”
“You're serious?” Iris asked.
While she couldn't see the teens eyes behind the sunglasses, Tiffany was pretty sure they were bugging out. “Yes. Merry Christmas,” she said, opening a door to a high end clothing shop.
Stepping inside, they were met by a well dressed middle aged woman. “Hello, how can I help you today?”
“I'm Tiffany Corrow and this is Iris, I called ahead,” she said.
“Oh yes, I've been expecting you. I'm Gloria, I'll be taking care of you today. If you can just give me your coats, you won't need them for a while,” the saleswoman said.
Iris looked at her for some support before taking her coat and sunglasses off. Tiffany gave her shoulder a squeeze while Gloria hung their coats up. “See anything you like?” she asked.
“Um. Everything. Is that real silk?” Iris asked, pointing at a beautiful red blouse.
“Yes it is,” Gloria said, looking over the teen. “I think that would look really good on you, it doesn't quite go with your eyes, but it is perfect for your black hair.”
“I was thinking that something more in a bright lemony yellow for fun, and a mellow beige for other times,” Tiffany said.
“Yellow is a must, it will be lovely with her eyes. I'm not sure about the beige, she'll want it just a touch darker, maybe a tan.”
“Do you have a tan top? We can see how it will look.”
“We have an ankle length tan dress that looks to be just about her size. It has a low back so it will fit under her wings.”
“How does that sou-” Tiffany stopped what she was saying, as she realized that girl had disappeared. “Iris!” she yelled, looking around.
The teens head popped out from behind a row of dresses. “Yeah?”
Her rising panic faded away. “Don't wander off like that.”
“You guys were talking, I decided to see what I like. It's not that big of a store, kind of hard to get lost in here.”
Gloria gave them both a sheepish smile. “We probably should have asked her what she wanted.”
Tiffany felt her cheeks heat up. “Sorry, Iris. Do you see anything you like?”
“Everything. I haven't really had a chance to go shopping for a few years,” the teen admitted. “Can I try some of these on? I'm kind of afraid to touch anything.”
“With your wings, we'll have to be careful about some of the tops, but as long as the clothes won't catch on them, you can try anything you like,” Gloria said.
Iris's grin lit up the store.
“Can I get some help?” Iris called from the changing room.
Tiffany opened the door and immediately saw the problem, the scooped back red blouse had gotten caught on one of the girls wings. The wings stuck out awkwardly, and could only bend a little, making putting on shirts rather difficult. “Just a moment,” she said, sliding the fabric into place.
“Thanks. I didn't want to damage it.” Turning to look at her, her face lit up with pleasure, Iris asked, “So how do I look?”
Seeing the beautiful young woman, her thick hair gently curled and falling over her shoulders, her cheeks a lovely red, her eyes alive and full of energy, it brought tears to her eyes. “You look wonderful.”
Somehow her grin got bigger. “Thanks. I wish I knew what my wings will look like once they're grown. I don't want to get something that will clash with them.”
“The night you manifested, you dreamed that you had golden wings. I think they'll look something like that. Your BIT is your mental image of yourself.”
“Oh yeah, I'd almost forgotten that. I was thinking a lot about heaven and angels back then” she said. “Too bad they're taking so long to grow, right now they look really ugly.”
“Patience is a virtue sometimes. You don't want them coming in so fast they hurt, do you?”
Iris shuddered. “I can wait.”
“If I'm right and your wings will be yellow, red won't work that well. Black and white are always good, green, blue and pink would be best, and some light browns would help mellow out the yellow,” she said. “Let's ask Gloria if they have anything in those shades, now that we know the scoop back shirts fit properly.”
Two hour later, Tiffany led the much more confident and better dressed Iris, outside. They didn't have any bags, since most of the clothes needed some adjustments, they'd all be delivered to the hospital later in the week. Now they had a lunch reservation to make, and then they could go shopping for presents and more casual clothes.
They got to her car, and the heater was very welcome after the short walk, Denver in winter wasn't freezing, but it wasn't exactly warm either. Pulling out of the parking lot, she headed for the restaurant.
“How can you afford all of this stuff?” Iris asked.
“What?” Tiffany asked.
“You just spent over a thousand dollars on clothes for me. I'm grateful and kind of shocked,” she hurriedly added, “but how can you afford it. My parents would faint at that bill.”
“I don't spend much money on myself,” she replied.
“But you don't have a job, you spend most of your day volunteering, and you bring in little presents and things all the time. Are you secretly a millionaire?”
She had to laugh at that. “No, I'm well off, but I'm not a millionaire. I got some good advice on investing, and was able to build up a nice nest egg while I was working. Then when I came here, I sold my old house and a lot of my things, I put most of that into stocks and other investments as well. Now I live off the dividends.”
Iris let out a long whistle. “I'm impressed.”
“I didn't know you could whistle.”
“Dad taught me before I got really sick. Haven't been able to do it for years. He promised to teach me more when I go back home for Christmas.” She looked down at her lap. “It's going to be weird going home, knowing its a permanent thing. I've kind of gotten used to thinking of the hospital as home, and spending time with the family was just a vacation. It's been three years since I was in a regular class, and the last time I went to school I'd be so exhausted by the end, I'd get home and crash for the whole evening.”
Reaching over, Tiffany took a hold of her hand. “ I won't tell you it will be easy, it's going to be different and weird, but you're a fighter. You wouldn't have lasted as long as you have if you gave up easily. This is a new challenge for you, but it won't be nearly as tough as what you've already survived.”
“Yeah. You're right,” Iris said, sounding more sure of herself.
“Just remember, nothing is going to happen that you can't handle by yourself, or with a bit of help. It may not be pretty and you may get knocked down, but nothing has to keep you down. Just keep getting back up until you're strong enough to climb over or break down whatever is holding you back.”
Iris thought about that for a minute. “Does that actually work?”
“It's why I keep getting up in the morning,” she replied.
They came to a nice steakhouse and went inside, getting seated immediately. “Order whatever you want,” Tiffany said.
“Anything? My appetite is through the roof right now,” the teen said.
“Today is my Christmas present to you,” she said. “So don't worry about me, or my wallet. I just want to see you having a great time. And take off your coat, you'll start to melt.”
“But... what about my wings?”
“What about them?” she asked. “You won't be able to hide them much longer, you might as well get used to showing them off now. Remember what I told you about being confident?”
Iris closed her eyes, her lips moving slightly as if she was talking to herself. With a firm nod, she took off the winter jacket, revealing her new green top and her wing nubs. “All right, I did it.”
Tiffany rewarded her with a warm smile. “I'm proud of you. Take it from me, never let your fear control you, you won't like where it leads.”
The server came with the menus, she jerked to a stop at the sight of the growing wings, her mouth dropping opening. Iris hunched down in her seat a little, and Tiffany felt her anger rise. Before she could say anything, the server was smiling again, and stepped up to the table.
“Hi, I'm Sam, I'll be your waitress today,” she said, passing them the menus. “Do you know what you'd like to drink, or should I give you a few minutes?”
“I'll have a lemonade,” Iris said.
“Ice tea for me, please” Tiffany said.
The server left, which made Iris sit up a little straighter. The lunch hour rush was over, so there weren't many people in the place, and none were close to them, just like Tiffany had planned when she made the reservations.
“You seem happy.”
“What?” Tiffany asked in surprise.
“You seem really happy,” Iris repeated. “Even your eyes are happy.”
“I guess I am,” she admitted. “It's been a long time since I've gone shopping like this.”
“Since your daugh- Sorry.”
For a second, she wanted to end that topic. Bury it deep, and leave it alone, where it couldn't hurt her. Instead she nodded. “Yes. We had a mother-daughter shopping spree about a week before she ran away. It was after she manifested. I think she wanted to do something fun with me. Before she left.”
The girl nodded in understanding, then awkwardly looked at the menu. Silence reigned until the server came back with their drinks and took their orders.
“Can I ask you about her?” Iris asked.
“About my daughter?” Tiffany asked reluctantly.
“I did promise to answer your questions if you could go out shopping with me, didn't I?” she said with a rueful smile. “OK, let's do this.”
“What was she like?”
Dredging up old memories, Tiffany smiled sadly. “She was... special and fearless. She was only fourteen, but she could give wonderful speeches and debate with adults. She had a way with words that made you react, whether you agreed with her or not. She wrote the speeches herself. She'd ask me to read them over, and I'd make some suggestions, but they were always minor things. Her writing was just as good. She had a monthly article that thousands of people read.” She smiled with pride.
“She had a great future in front of her. It wasn't the future I wanted for her at the time, she was able to see things more clearly than I did, things I didn't let myself see. But she convinced me to step back and give her some more space, let her become her own person, not a younger version of myself.
“And she was stubborn. Probably even more stubborn than I was back then. When she believed in something, nothing could change her opinion and she'd make sure you knew it.” She chuckled. “She made me want to pull my hair out a few times, and we had a few, loud, arguments, but I always loved her. Up until the very end, I think she loved me, even if she didn't trust me.”
Iris leaned over a little, looking past her. “Those people are staring at me.”
Turning around, she saw that a couple was looking at them. “Ignore them. You need to learn to pick your battles, and some people staring isn't worth your time or energy. You're a beautiful, unique, young lady and will only get more beautiful as time goes on, so you'll get stared at a lot by people. Learn to use it to your advantage.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“It's hardly easy, but it's a skill you can learn, it just takes time and practice. Once your wings have come in completely, you'll find it gets a bit easier. Now, what do you think your family would like for Christmas?” she asked.
Finishing up their dessert, Tiffany waved to the server, who was talking with the hostess. The woman quickly came over with their bill.
“I'm sorry, but I think you should come with me and leave through the back,” she said.
“What's the problem?” Tiffany asked.
“There's a group of people loitering outside, at least two of them have Humanity First pins.”
Iris gasped, hunching down and looking around like a scared mouse. Tiffany felt an anger rise up in her that she hadn't felt in over two years. Getting to her feet, she put on her coat. “Wait here Iris, I'll be back in a moment,” she said, her voice as hard and cold as ice.
Going to the door, she peered out, getting a good look at the group. She smiled thinly as she recognized one of them. Stepping out with her head held high, she strode over to the third highest member of the Denver Chapter of H1!.
“Darryl, it's been a long time,” she said.
He was taken aback by her approach and hostile tone. Then he realized who she was. “Tiffany!”
“So, I'm guessing someone called and told you there was a mutant in the restaurant?”
“Maybe,” he said. “Have you gone over to Evolution Rocks, since your daughter turned?”
Her glare should have burned him to ash. “Don't mention their name to me, and don't you dare talk about my daughter.”
He stepped forward, trying to use his size to intimidate her. “And what will you do about it?”
She didn't back up. “I'm going to give you two minutes to leave with your tails between your legs. And if you see me, or my friend again, you are going to turn around and pretend you never saw us.”
His eyes narrowed, she heard his friends moving in to circle her. “Why will I do that?”
“The Shelley family, March 2013. The 'homeless lizard freak', January 2011. Mark Khan, July, 1st, 2010, you like to brag while drunk. I wonder what the police will find out if I point them in the right direction?” she said.
His defiance turned to anger. “You've got your own secrets, I could share them too.”
She grinned. “Try it. I'll go to jail for a few years. You'll go to jail for life, and so will quite a few of your friends. If it protects the girl inside, I'll do my time with a smile.”
Darryl stepped back, scowling. “Come on guys,” he said to his friends, “we're going.”
“Just a minute,” she said. “Pass the word around. If any H1 member goes after a girl with wings, if they so much as spit near her, I'll make sure all the filthy secrets I know about get made public.”
If looks could kill, Tiffany would have died a hundred times over. She watched them go, smiling coldly as they glared at her, a few spit in her direction, an act of petty defiance. Once they were out of sight she walked back into the restaurant, ignoring the shocked looks of the hostess and servers. Sitting back down at her table, she was amused to see their server come rushing over.
“Could I have a glass of wine?” she asked.
“Yeah, no problem,” the woman said.
Iris, still looking scared, watched the server walk hurriedly away, before asking, “What just happened?”
"I talked with them and convinced them to go away. They shouldn't bother you in the future, but if anyone does, let me know,” Tiffany said, placing her hands on her knees so no one would see them shaking.
“But how did you do that?”
“Remember what I said about being confident?”
The teen nodded.
“Confidence and a little bit of knowledge are powerful tools.”
Mid-Morning, Christmas Eve
“If you get a mutant healer as a friend, put a good word in for me,” Annie said, as she gave Iris a hug.
"I will, promise,” Iris said, helping her friend back into her wheelchair.
Tiffany watched from the sideline with Mr. And Mrs. Cortanza, as nurses, doctors and friends all said good-bye to the teenager who had been on her deathbed two months ago. There were some jealous looks, getting perfect health and wings, how couldn't there be jealousy, but very few patients were going to get upset at Iris for it. As for the staff and volunteers, seeing a child, mutant or not, leave the hospital on her own two feet and not having to worry about them coming back, was a victory that made up for the tragedies.
Several minutes later, Iris was able to make her way to the elevator and her parents. Tiffany hit the button for them, and handed Iris a suitcase. “All your new clothes are in here, and some Christmas presents from everyone.”
“Thanks,” she said.
They all stepped into the elevator, the teen being held close by her parents. Iris brushed some tears from her eyes. “It's weird, I'm actually leaving here and not planning on coming back.”
“When you're in town, you can come and say hi,” Tiffany reminded her.
“She's right we'll have to come back sometimes to get your wings looked at,” Mr. Cortanza said. “We can set aside some time to visit after the checkup.”
“That's not the same as actually living here,” the teen said. “It's kind of scary. Last month I wrote about what I wanted for my funeral, and now I'm looking at going back home and to school where I'll practically be a new girl. And I've got wings, which still look ugly, so I'm going to stick out more than ever. And eventually I'll be able to fly, which is awesome and terrifying at the same time.”
Stepping out of the elevator, they moved to a quiet corner of the lobby.
Tiffany stepped back a bit, while Mrs. Cortanza moved in to give her daughter a hug. “It's a big change, but we're so happy you're healthy and coming home. Your brother and sister are so excited. Gabriel won't stop talking about what powers he wants, and Andrea can't wait to have her big sister home, she already wants to raid your closet.”
Mr. Cortanza came over to her. “We really can't thank you enough for everything. Are you sure you don't want to come with us for a few days? It will be a bit tight, but we'd all love to have you over for Christmas dinner.”
“No, you guys need some time getting Iris settled, I'd just be in the way,” Tiffany said. “And we're going to have a Christmas party tomorrow, they're going to need help keeping the kids under control. And I've got a lot of little gifts sitting in my apartment to hand out. Maybe I can drop by in a few weeks.”
“Just give us the word and we'll roll out the red carpet,” he said.
“Thanks. I'll be sure to take you up on it soon.”
Iris came over, enveloping her in a hug. “Thanks so much for being there for me.”
Tears started forming in her eyes, as she wrapped her arms around the girl. “I should be thanking you, you've helped me more than I can say. Stay in touch, OK?”
“I will. And if you want to talk about your daughter, I'll be there for you.”
“All right you need to get home and say hi to your brother and sister. Get going,” she said.
Watching them leave the lobby, Tiffany found herself smiling. She was sad seeing Iris leave, but she was overjoyed that the girl was healthy, happy and had a loving family. That they were so ready to welcome her into it, was something she hadn't expected would ever happen again.
Feeling happier than she had in over two years, she headed back up with a skip in her step. Santa Claus was coming soon, she didn't want to miss that.
Friday, Late February
Tiffany pulled into the Cortanza driveway, happy to be getting out of the car after the four hour drive, she'd never enjoyed long car rides, but for Iris, she was willing to do it, even in the middle of winter. It wouldn't be a long trip, just a few days. Getting her suitcase out of the backseat, she made her way to the front door where Marsha Cortanza had just appeared.
“Thanks for coming,” Marsha said. “Iris has been over the moon since hearing you were coming.”
“I couldn't stay at home after getting her email. How bad is it really?” she asked, stepping inside the warm house.
“Pretty bad. We've tried everything we can think of, but the bullying is just getting worse. Come and sit down, do you want some coffee?”
They went to the kitchen, and Tiffany took a seat at the table. “Coffee would be nice. What did the principal say?”
Moving around the kitchen, Marsha got the coffee ready as she answered. “She said they were looking into it, but no one has been caught doing it, none of her classmates are saying anything, and when they go after her directly they always have friends who can say they were somewhere else.”
“Pushing, shoving, grabbing her wings, yanking out feathers and running away. But her locker has been vandalized, her books and notes stolen, she's on her third book bag already.” The womans voice was cracking by the end. She'd only just gotten her daughter back from a death sentence, and now this was happening. “We don't want to take her out of school, she's already behind others in her grade. And she'd just spend all day at home, what type of a life is that?”
Tiffany nodded in agreement. “How about your other kids, are they getting bullied?”
“No, they're doing all right at least. It just seems to all be coming from a small group of popular kids around her grade. We tried our best to see how she'd be treated, most of the town acted like it wasn't a big deal. There were some weird looks, a bit of caution, but nothing serious. We didn't think she'd be welcomed in with open arms, but she'd at least be allowed to have a somewhat normal life.” Bringing the coffee to the table, Marsha took a seat, head low in defeat. “No one will even talk to her at school. They're too afraid of the gang of bullies to risk it.”
The door suddenly slammed open. Iris stormed in without a winter coat, soaking wet, her tiny wings covered in a thin layer of golden feathers flared in anger. “I'M NOT GOING BACK THERE!” she screamed.
Tiffany and Marsha ran over to her, the smell of urine assaulted their noses.
“Don't touch me! I need to have a shower,” the girl yelled, heading to the bathroom, refusing to look in their direction.
Marsha started to sob helplessly. Tiffany pulled her in for a hug, offering what little support she could.
Iris stared silently out the car window as they drove to Denver.
After a lot of painful discussions, talking to a lawyer, and going over various options, it was decided that Iris would stay with Tiffany. It wouldn't be permanent, just until her family had something worked out with the school that would ensure their daughters safety, or they were able to find work in a place that was more mutant friendly. No one tried to pretend it was an ideal situation, it was simply the best they could come up with, after several students put a bag over Iris' head from behind and threw urine filled balloons at her.
The police were investigating, but with no witnesses, it didn't look hopeful that anything would happen.
So Tiffany would look after her, helping her with homeschooling and working with a tutor, making sure she had a safe living environment. Also and possibly most importantly, she'd get Iris working as a junior volunteer at the hospital, so she could spend a few hours a week with her old friends and not be completely isolated. Tiffany was also willing to play chaperone for Iris and any of her friends who could leave the hospital for a few hours for shopping and entertainment.
“Aren't you cold?” she asked.
“No,” Iris said, even though she was only wearing a light t-shirt and jeans. The car wasn't cold, but Tiffany was wearing a sweater and warm track pants. “The cold doesn't really bother me anymore. Being outside or inside feels pretty much the same after a minute or two.”
“I wish I could do that,” Tiffany said.
“If you want I'll take you flying once I'm a bit better at it.”
A wave of fear washed over her. “We'll see. So how long have you been flying?”
“About a week. I'm pretty bad at it, I can only really keep myself mostly going in a straight line. My wings need to grow more. I can feel the wind going over them, but I can't do much with them yet.”
She nodded, as if she understood. The girls wings had grown a lot in the last few weeks, stretching from elbow to elbow when fully extended. “Give it time, they'll be big enough sooner than you think. And your feathers are coming in nicely, the yellow matches your eyes.”
Iris smiled at that, which made Tiffany feel better, there had been far too few smiles over the last few days. “Yeah, I don't look like a plucked chicken anymore.”
“Since you're flying, I'll set up a powers testing appointment for you. You got a waiver for your MID but it's best to get it settled now that your power is finally showing up.”
The girl hunched her shoulders, trying to make herself smaller, something she'd never done before the bullying. “Do I have to?”
Reaching over, Tiffany squeezed her shoulder. “Yes. Don't worry I'll go with you and make sure everything is done properly. I can even tell you a bit of what to expect.”
“How come you know so much about mutants?” Iris asked. “Did you learn about it after your daughter manifested?”
Her body went cold at the question. “No. I knew about all of it before she manifested.”
“So why did you learn it?”
It felt like her stomach was filled with ice. “If I tell you, you won't like the answer.” Keeping her eyes firmly on the road, she heard the girl shift uncomfortably in her seat.
“I'd really like to know.”
Taking several deep breaths, she tried to think of the best way to respond. “I want you to know that I was a very different person two years ago. I let personal tragedy and fear control me for far too long, and it cost me my daughter. Since then I've had time to think things over and have tried very hard to change myself.”
“You were in H1?” Iris asked, her voice almost a whisper.
“Yes. I was the president of the Cheyenne H1! Branch,” she admitted.
There were several minutes of silence. Finally Iris said, “No wonder your daughter was afraid of you.”
Tiffany nodded, her jaw hurt and her eyes burned as she forced herself to focus on the road, holding back the tears and sobs that wanted to come. “She knew I wouldn't physically hurt her. I was considered a moderate in the organization, but I can understand why she didn't like my idea of isolating mutants from baselines. It was a horrible idea.”
“So what about those H1! Guys from Christmas? You made them go away just by talking to them, what did you say?”
"I know the leader. He's a psychopath, who is very careful about when and where he shows it. I threatened to reveal what I know if he or anyone else came after you.” She refused to look at Iris, scared that she'd see fear or disgust in the girls eyes. Or possibly even worse, sympathy.
“And your daughter? You said she gave great speeches and wrote articles, was she in H1 too?”
Tiffany let out a bitter laugh. “Yes, she was president of the youth group. She was pulling away from it all, talking with a member of Evolution Rocks, arguing with me, getting ready to resign, and then she manifested. When she was openly exposed as a mutant and I quit the organization, while providing evidence to throw several members and the vice-president in prison for attempted murder, it was quite a scandal. It took a lot of favours and money to keep it from going nationwide.”
Iris took her time digesting all of that. “So you're helping me to what? Make amends? Replace your daughter?”
“I spend so much time volunteering at the hospital trying to make up for the damage I've done in the past. I'm helping you,” she stressed the words, “because you're my friend. You were one of the first people to help pull me out of the hell I was living in at the time.
“I'd just lost my daughter. I had realized that the 'good' I thought I was doing was twisted and did far more harm than good, and there was no one I could blame for what happened. It was all my fault. Then you came into the gift shop and started talking to me. And you came in again the next day and played that silly prank on me making me search everywhere for things that didn't exist. And you kept coming each week. You have no idea how much that helped me,” she said, wiping away the tears that had finally come.
“Thank you,” Iris said. “For helping me out, and for trusting me enough to tell me the truth.”
Tiffany opened the door to the bedroom, her hand shaking. A tiny voice in her head shouted that this was wrong, that the room was only meant for her daughter. She forced it down, she'd listen to that voice too often in the past.
“This is your room. I'll take the pictures down tomorrow, so you can put up some of your own,” she said, fighting to keep her voice from faltering.
Looking around the room, Iris put her suitcase down and turned to hug her. “Thank you. This couldn't be easy for you.”
Hugging her back, she almost jumped away when the wings moved to cover her arms. The feathers were still mostly downy with only a few longer flight feathers, which felt very odd. Forcing herself to ignore them, she said, “I think Jeanette would like to see her old things used to help you. Now get cleaned up, I'll order a pizza for supper.”
“Can you make it two?” the girl asked, looking shyly at her feet.
“Sure,” she said.
A half hour later, they were sitting at a tiny kitchen table, eating hot pizza in silence. Tiffany hadn't had anyone come to her apartment for a personal visit, since moving in. Going from a locally well connected political figure, who regularly went to parties, get-togethers and informal meetings at hers and others houses, to whatever she was now, had left her unsure of how to act, especially with a teenage girl.
“What do you do when you're not volunteering?” Iris asked.
“I read, work on hospital fundraising, promotions, and activities, listen to music, and...” She tried to think of what else she did, but outside of cleaning and shopping, there wasn't much. “That's about it.”
“What about fun stuff?”
Tiffany shrugged, feeling rather self conscious. “I like reading. And I enjoy helping at the hospital.”
Looking around the kitchen and living room, the girl seemed disappointed. “Why don't you have any pictures up?”
“I have pictures on my computer and tablet, that's enough for me.” Getting a bit desperate to move the conversation off of her, she said, “Tomorrow we'll be meeting a tutor Mrs. Bellamy recommended. If you get along well, she'll set up a home learning schedule, and see you every three days. And on Wednesday I'll go with you for powers testing.”
The girl scowled at that bit of news. “So while you're out volunteering, I'll be here studying?”
She shook her head. “Visiting hours are nine to eight at the hospital. I've gotten permission to bring you with me, so long as you don't cause any disruptions. You'll be put in some out of the way spot to do your schoolwork, but you can visit your friends.”
“Yes!” Iris shouted, almost tossing her slice of pizza. “I can't wait to see them!”
“It will take about a month to get you a teen volunteer position helping patients for a few hours a week. That will give you an official position, so your being there won't be quite so odd,” she said. “But, this is work, you will follow instructions and not just spend all your time goofing off with your friends, or you're out.”
Sitting up straighter, the girl nodded. “I'll do my best.”
“I know you will,” Tiffany said.
Walking out of the MCO office, Iris rubbed her wings. “I didn't think power testing would be so painful.”
“It didn't look that bad,” Tiffany said.
“You didn't have to fly around a gym for an hour. I don't even know how to stretch some of these muscles,” she complained.
Guiding her friend to the car, Tiffany gave her a sympathetic look. “Let's get home, you can have a hot bath while I make supper.”
“That'll be nice.” Getting into the car, Iris took a moment to adjust her wings under her coat before putting on her seat belt.
Starting the car, Tiffany asked, “Are you really comfortable sitting like that?”
The girl nodded. “Yeah. It's a bit weird, and I hope they get a bit longer so there isn't such a big space between my butt and the seat, but it's like I have a stiff backpack on.”
“Alright, but if it bothers you, let me know and we can try to find something to help.”
Pulling out her MID, Iris studied it for a moment. “Is Energizer 2, Exemplar 3 powerful?”
“It's pretty good,” she said. “If I recall, most mutants are only rated as one or two with their powers. Most superheroes are at least a rank four in one power, and usually six or higher spread over multiple powers.”
“So no superheroics for me?”
“I wouldn't recommend it. I talked with the tester, you just barely qualify as a level three exemplar. That comes from your endurance, and how strong your wing muscles are. You won't be bending metal bars, or carrying people with one hand anytime soon.”
Iris pouted. “And my only real power is flying, not even really fast flying either.”
Tiffany poked her in the ribs. “You're getting greedy. You can fly faster than I can legally drive in the city, and you don't get cold until it's about minus forty. I'd save a fortune on heating if I had that power.”
“Ow! No poking! I got hit by a volleyball there.”
Laughing, they headed for home.
Tiffany was pushing the activity cart down the hallway, going room to room dropping off books, comics, art supplies, games, and other things to the children. After six days being away from the hospital, she was happy to be back. The other volunteers had filled in for her, but she felt like she was letting everyone down by being away, even if it was for an important reason.
She saw Iris sitting out of the way, her new tablet on her lap, hopefully doing her schoolwork and not goofing off. A little boy walked over to her, while his father was talking to a doctor. Moving a little bit closer, Tiffany did a bit of eavesdropping, while organizing the cart.
“Are you here to take Ryan?” the boy asked.
Iris looked up, clearly confused. “Uh, what?”
He pointed at her wings. “You're an angel aren't you? You have angel wings”
Her eyes widened as she realized what was going on. “Yes I do have wings. But I'm not an angel, I'm just a girl.”
“Oh,” the little boy said. “I thought you were here to take Ryan to heaven.”
“Is Ryan your brother?” she asked.
He nodded. “He has a hole in his heart, and is really tiny.”
“Do you want a hug?”
The boy didn't answer, he just threw his arms around her, burying his head in her shoulder.
Iris held him close, and said, “I don't know if he'll get better. But you should know I was living in this very hospital until December. I was really, really sick, and everyone thought I was going to die, even me. But the doctors and nurses worked really hard, and I got all better. I know they're going to work just as hard to save your little brother as they did to save me.”
The boys head moved like he was saying something, but Tiffany had heard enough. smiling, she finished reorganizing the cart and went to the next room on her list.
Tiffany started jogging down the hall as soon as she heard the ear piercing scream of terror. She had no idea what was happening, or how she might be able to help, but in a ward full of curious and scared children, more adults were almost always a good thing when something bad was happening.
“I don't wanna go to heaven!” a child shouted. “I wanna stay here! Don't take me away! Don't take me away!”
Iris stood with her friends, horror etched onto her face, as a little girl who couldn't be older than four had a death grip on her mothers neck, howling in fear, tears streaming down her face. Two nurses were trying to calm the girl down, while a volunteer moved in and led the winged teen down the hall and out of sight.
Edging around the scene, Tiffany went after Iris, and found her in an empty room with the volunteer, and her friends.
“I didn't do anything,” the teen sobbed. “She just started screaming as soon as she saw me.”
Moving up to the girl, Tiffany handed a folder to the volunteer. “Can you take these to Dr. Johnson? I'll handle this.” With her hands free, she made her way past the friends who were trying to comfort Iris, and gently drew the teen into an embrace. Gently rocking her and stroking her hair. Letting her know she wasn't alone.
The head nurse rubbed her forehead in frustration. Tiffany understood the frustration and waited patiently for her to start talking.
“We've had several of the younger children asking about the angel, and if she was here to talk someone away,” Gianna said.
“I know. I've been asked the same thing,” Tiffany said.
“The problem we had today is going to happen again, the little children will see the wings and think angel.”
She nodded in understanding. “You want Iris to stop coming?”
Frowning, Gianna nodded. “Short visits to see her friends are fine. She's a guest, she'll be treated like one. But as much as I love seeing her, spending the entire day here is going to cause problems. If she was a patient, it would be different.”
“But she's not a patient,” Tiffany said. “What if I get something that will cover the wings?”
“If you can find something that works, I'll consider it.”
“Thanks Gianna. I know it's early, but if you don't mind I'll take Iris home and try to figure something out for her,” she said.
The nurse chuckled softly. “You've already done most of your required volunteer hours for the week, remember? You're only here today because you don't have a life. Go, look after Iris and do something fun.”
Tiffany looked pleadingly at Gloria, while Iris stared glumly at some shirts. “So that's the problem,” she told the saleswoman and dressmaker, “I don't want to leave her at home all day, but constantly getting called an angel by children isn't an option.”
“I may have a few ideas. Iris, can you come over here?” Gloria asked.
“What do you need,” the teen asked lifelessly.
“Turn around and hold your wings naturally.”
Taking a tape measure from behind the counter, the woman began measuring Iris' wings, shoulders, back, and several other parts, writing the numbers down in a notebook. Then she made the teen take a number of poses, bending, twisting, moving her arms and more, using her phone to take pictures of each movement. That was followed by a bit of quick sketching in the notebook. Finally, she looked satisfied and had both of them come over to see her design.
“It would be too difficult and time consuming to alter all of your tops to hide your wings. And if you need to fly, taking your shirt off isn't a good option,” Gloria said wryly, as Iris turned beet red. “So instead of that we can give you a cape.”
“Isn't that a little long?” the teen asked.
“You're thinking of a cloak, a cape usually only goes to about your waist or upper thighs. I was thinking three different kinds, in a few colours, so you can mix and match them with your clothes and the weather. The first is a basic straight back cape that is fitted to fit over top of your wing joints and hang down, I think the bottom would look better straight, but we could go with a diamond look,” she said, showing them the sketch.
Tiffany nodded in approval. “I like it.”
“Second, this cape would fit over your shoulders, a little fancier and nice for cooler weather.”
“Fancy,” Iris muttered.
“And third, for rainy or windy weather, a shoulder cape with a hood. Each of these would come with hidden catches to gently hook onto your wings or clothes, keeping them from being easily seen in wind or when you’re moving.”
“Let's not get that in red, I don't wanna deal with wolves,” the teen said.
Tiffany laughed at the joke, happy to see her cheering up. “How quickly could you have the first one done? We'll want all of them, but lets get the first one done ASAP.”
“That depends on what style and fabric you'd like,” Gloria said, leading them towards several rolls of fabric.
“My wallet is going to hate me,” Tiffany muttered, as the other two talked about fabric and colour.
Iris stumbled into the kitchen, rubbing sleep from her eyes and stretching her wings. “Shouldn't you be at the hospital?” she asked.
Putting down her book, Tiffany smiled wryly at the teen. “I was told yesterday that I don't have a life, and I don't need to spend every single day there. So I'm taking Gianna's advice to do something fun, I just have no idea what to do. So while I make you some breakfast, you can think of something for both of us to do after you do some schoolwork.”
“Uh-huh. Give me the easy job.”
Grinning, she said, “Of course. Now I'm thinking bacon, eggs and toast for breakfast.”
The teen paused, her face twisted up a little, before saying, “Sounds good to me.”
“What's the problem?”
“I'm not really sure how I feel about eating eggs, since I'm technically half bird now,” Iris said, gently flapping her wings to emphasize the point.
Thinking about it for a moment, Tiffany said, “You're worrying about it too much. They're not your eggs, which would make eating them really creepy, and I don't think I have a frying pan big enough for that. So it's just like eating meat, you don't worry about eating hamburgers, why worry about eating eggs?”
“Point,” the teen conceded. “All right, load me up with scrambled eggs.”
As she cooked breakfast, Tiffany noticed her friend was awkwardly massaging her wing. It was bent at the large middle joint so it came out under her arm, letting her vigorously rub it from the tip almost to her back.
“Something wrong?” she asked.
“Slept on my wing wrong, it's kind of stiff.”
Curiosity got the best of her. “How do you sleep with wings?”
Iris let out a sigh of relief as her wing began moving more smoothly. “Mostly I sleep on my side or front, I just need to put a pillow down to prop up my stomach. But sometimes I roll onto my back, it's like sleeping on a ladder, and if I don't change position these wings fall asleep or get cramped.”
"Would you like me to get you some more pillows to help keep you from rolling around so much?”
Sitting down at the table, she waved the suggestion away. “Nah. Tried that back home, I usually woke up with the pillows on the floor. Don't worry, they always feel better with a bit of stretching.”
Cracking eggs into a bowl, Tiffany thought about anything that might help, but came up empty. “Well if it becomes a problem let me know. We could probably figure something out.”
It was early afternoon when they arrived at Denver's Downtown Aquarium. Since it was the weekend at the tail end of winter it was a little busy, but not as bad as it would be during tourist season. As they waited in line to show their tickets, Iris began bouncing like a little kid.
“You're excited,” Tiffany said, a little surprised that a teenager would be so happy to visit the aquarium.
“I've only been here once, when I was ten and the hospital volunteers set up a day trip for us,” Iris explained. “It was just like a class trip, and I had so much fun seeing all the fish and animals. I've always wanted to go back, but didn't want to bug my parents since it was too expensive for all five of us.”
Making a mental note to do an outing like that sometime soon, Tiffany gave Iris' arm a quick squeeze. “Since you got your work done this morning, we can stay until closing time. So we can take our time. What do you want to see first?”
Taking a quick look through the pamphlet, the teen said, “The 4D theatre, they've got a show about river otters. And then we can see the mermaids!”
“Yeah, they're a group of swimmers who dress up like mermaids and do a whole show. It's a little kiddy, talking about keeping the ocean clean, teaching people about some of the fish and corals and things, but the swimming is really pretty, and they do tricks with bubbles and things. They can also hold their breath for a long time, one of them can hold it for up to five minutes, she learned it from deep sea divers in Asia,” Iris explained.
That did sound interesting. Scanning their digital tickets, the pair entered the aquarium proper. “All right, lead the way.”
Dabbing the water droplets from her face, Tiffany was smiling as they left the 4D theatre. “That was... different.”
“I didn't know they'd spray water,” Iris said. “When I went there, all they did was blow air at us and move the seats around.” Taking off her jacket, she gave it a quick shake.
Immediately she was getting looked at, and people muttered to themselves, some decided they needed to be elsewhere in a hurry. Looking embarrassed, Iris began putting it back on.
“Do you want to put your jacket on?” Tiffany asked, lightly touching her arm.
“Everyone's looking at me,” the teen whispered.
“Don't let others decide for you. If you want to put it on, do it, if not, don't.”
Biting her lip, Iris looked around nervously, then raising her chin, she slung her jacket over her shoulder, and quickly stretched her wings. “I was a little hot,” she said.
Smiling, Tiffany put her arm around the teens waist. “I've never been here before, which way to the mermaids?”
“That way I think,” Iris said, heading down a wide corridor that was lined with aquariums and colourful fish.
Never having been interested in fish or the ocean, Tiffany didn't know what most of the fish were, but she enjoyed the bright colours and watching the little children who were running from tank to tank oohing and ahhing at the fish. Watching Iris looking around in delight was even better. A week ago she'd been depressed and feeling miserable, but now she was bouncing back beautifully.
She'd seen that in quite a few children who had to spend a lot of time at the hospital, especially the ones with terminal illnesses. They focused more on the moment and the good things in life, because they didn't know how much of a future they might have. Life was too short to dwell on the bad things, deal with the bad as it came, and savour the good things.
Maybe she should try to learn from them.
They came to a huge aquarium, facing several rows of benches. Inside the tank were dozens of tropical fish, a coral reef, a pair of nurse sharks, and several colourful crabs. Taking a seat halfway up, letting the younger children get the close up seats, they eagerly waited for the show.
They didn't need to wait long. Four women with glittering fishtails swam out caves in the reef, waving to the crowd as they twisted and turned in the water like dolphins. An Asian mermaid chased her tail, bending her body backwards almost into a circle, much to the delight of the crowd, while a blonde blew bubbles, shaping them into hearts and circles with careful movements of her arms. When those two surfaced for air, the other two, a brunette and a ginger spun around each other, almost like they were dancing.
The underwater acrobatics went on for a few minutes, and then the main show began. Each of the mermaids introduced themselves, 'talking' underwater, while speakers played a prerecorded message from them. Then they swam around the tank, talking about the fish, what they ate, how they lived, and why it was important to protect them. They acted out how pollution was hurting the ocean, with one of them getting a plastic bag wrapped around her throat, and another coughed and gasped when a barrel of pollution fell into the water.
It was a simple message, aimed at the children, but Tiffany admired the work they were putting into it, and the swimming was wonderful. Iris was enthralled by it all, spreading her wings as she clapped at the end of the show.
Making their way out of the mermaid area, an employee came over to them. “Excuse me, could you come with me?”
“What's wrong,” Tiffany asked, moving slightly to put Iris behind her.
The employee heard the wary tone in her voice, and raised his hands a little defensively. “Nothing's wrong. The mermaids would like to meet you and your daughter in private.”
“Oh, she's not my daught-”
Iris practically shoved her out of the way in excitement. “They want to see me!” she squealed. “Can we please, Tiffany?”
“OK, let's see the mermaids,” she said, motioning for the worker to lead the way.
They went through a backdoor and down a hallway, coming to a fairly basic room with a pool of water on one side, towels, robes, sandals and a bare bones wheelchair neatly placed along one wall. Three of the mermaids were lying down on mats, resting after the show. The fourth one, the blonde, was still in the water.
“Hello,” Tiffany said, “thank you for inviting Iris back here.”
“Oh man! You were so beautiful out there, I wish I could swim like that,” Iris gushed.
The mermaids beamed at the compliment.
“Thank you,” the blonde said. “We're really glad you liked our show. I'm not sure if you caught our names, that's Molly,” she said, pointing at the redhead. “Beverly,” the brunette waved hello. “And last but certainly not least, Ami,” the Asian woman smiled at them. “And I'm Kim, my codename is Muc Mara.”
Tiffany and Iris both looked at the blonde in disbelief.
Iris broke the silence first. “You're a mutant too?”
“Yeah. I don't go showing it off that often. I'm pretty impressed that you're so open about it,” Kim said.
Iris shrugged and shifted her wings. “I can't really hide these things, so might as well show them off. Oh yeah, I'm Iris, or Oriele, like the bird, and this is Tiffany, she's letting me live with her.”
A look of concern and sadness swept over Kim. “Oh, your parents...”
“No!” Iris said, realizing what the woman thought. “My parents are awesome. My school, not so much, so here I am.”
“Was it bullying or the teachers?”
“Bullying,” the teen said, almost spitting the words. “I lasted almost two months before it got too bad.”
Tiffany stepped in. “Her parents are trying to work something out to get her safely back in school, it doesn't look good though. So she has a tutor and we're homeschooling.”
“I'm sorry about that,” Kim said. “But I'm glad you have your family and friend supporting you, a lot of mutants don't.”
The words made Tiffany's stomach grow cold, like it had turned into a block of ice. Somehow she kept the pain from showing on her face. “If it's not too personal, how did your family handle things? We don't know anyone like Iris, and are fumbling our way through it all.”
“My parents weren't exactly happy, but they learned to deal with it. I wasn't much better, losing my legs was tough.” The mermaid raised her tail for emphasis. “It helped that we were told about Whateley soon after I started shifting.”
“Whateley?” Tiffany and Iris asked together.
“A boarding school for mutants. It's actually why I wanted to talk to you, from the sound of things it's just what you need Iris.” She looked at the clock. “We've got to prepare for the next show, but I'll give you my number and we can meet up on Monday. It's my day off so I can meet you whenever it's convenient, and tell you all about it.”
“That would be wonderful. Thank you so much.”
“So,” Tiffany said, looking at the thick admission pack for Whateley, “what do you think?”
They'd just finished a long and eventful talk with Kim about Whateley, and now had a decision to make.
“I'm not sure. It sounds good. What do you think?” Iris asked.
“Having a place to learn about your powers, and being around people in a similar situation sounds like a good idea. It's pretty far away though.”
“It wouldn't be the first time I had to spend a long time away from my family,” the teen replied. “Story of my life really. It would be nice not to be stared at whenever I go outside.”
She nodded in understanding. “You'd be starting really late, but with how much school you've missed, starting off in the junior high program would be best. It'll let you catch up on schoolwork, and it's a small enough group that you'll have time to get your bearings before you start the regular classes in the Fall.”
“I want to take the flying class,” Iris said. “Maybe I'll become better at turning corners. And if I could learn some magic it would be cool.”
“So do I call your parents and tell them about this tonight? They can probably come down on the weekend and talk with Kim. Or at least talk to her over the phone.”
Leaning back, the teen stared at the ceiling, her fingers tapping the table. Straightening up, she nodded. “Let's call them.”
Early morning, March 5th, 2017
Tiffany woke up to her alarm clock blaring. Groaning, she hit the button, and wished she could go back to sleep. The last few days had been a whirlwind of activity, getting Iris ready to go to Whateley, meeting her parents who had arrived in town the day before, and a long tearful dinner last night that lasted well into the night. Despite not being family, they had insisted she join in.
It had been fun, but also very exhausting.
Now she had to get up early in the morning to catch a midday flight to Boston with Iris. That would take six hours so they'd spend the night in Boston and then head to Whateley first thing in the morning. Her parents wanted to go with her, but after dealing with the hospital fees, and now paying tuition to a very expensive private school, they were broke. So she had offered to make sure their daughter got there safe and sound, and she'd look over the school to ensure it was OK.
It was almost laughable that someone with her history would be visiting a school for mutants, but it was happening.
Putting on a comfortable travelling outfit she'd prepared the night before, Tiffany stepped out of her room to make sure Iris was awake. The girl’s family would be coming in an hour to drive them all to the airport, and they had to be ready to go.
“SURPRISE!” Iris yelled.
Tiffany jumped in shock, and then her eyes widened in surprise as she was left speechless.
Her living room, which had been bare of decorations, was now covered in pictures. There were childish drawings of rainbows, nurses, fluffy animals, and what looked like her playing with children. There were photographs, mostly from the hospital, of patients, volunteers and staff, sometimes with her included. There were collages, hand drawn pictures, paintings and even a framed needlepoint that said 'THANK YOU'.
“Wh-what's all this?” she asked.
Iris beamed with delight. “When I first came to live with you, I thought this place looked too bare. It wasn't a home, it was just a place to eat and sleep. So when I went to the hospital with you, I talked with my friends and some others about it. While I was gone they passed the word around and got to work drawing pictures, taking photo's, and other stuff. When I went over to visit earlier this week they gave them to me. It was hard sneaking it past you, but I managed it.”
“I-I-I don't deserve this,” she said, tears forming in her eyes.
Skipping over to her, Iris threw her arms around her. “Hush. You did some bad things. But everyone who helped out did it because no matter what you did in the past, they've only known you to be really helpful and caring, going well above and beyond what most volunteers do. You can feel sad about what happened, but you can't keep beating yourself up over it.”
“But, my daughter,” she sobbed.
Iris hugged her more tightly. “You said she loved you, even if she didn't trust you. Do you think Jeannette would want you to live like this? Punishing yourself all the time, living in a cold apartment with only a tomb to remember her?”
Falling to her knees, Tiffany wailed. Letting out the grief she'd held in her heart for years.
Early morning, March 6th, 2017
Driving her rental car to the gate, Tiffany was surprised by the armed guards who waved at her to stop. She'd been told the school took security seriously, but this was well beyond what she'd expected. After a thorough look at her ID and calling in to confirm she was supposed to be there, they let her in, directing her to the administration building.
It took some time to sign Iris in, by the time they were done it was time for lunch and a student was waiting to show them around.
“Hi, Iris. I'm Tanya,” the purple haired girl said, sounding very cheerful and excited. “I'm from Whitman, the same cottage you're in, so I'll be giving you the tour.”
“Hey. This is my friend Tiffany,” Iris said. “We were told she could look around a bit as well. My parents are a bit overprotective.”
Tanya nodded. “Yep. Ms. Corrow, there are some things that are for students only, but you're more than welcome to come along for the basic tour.”
“Please just call me Tiffany,” she said. “And thank you for taking the time out to play tour guide.”
“It's my pleasure. How would you like to get some lunch at Crystal Hall? It's on the tour and once you taste the food you won't want to leave.”
“Food would be good,” Iris said, as they made their way out of the building.
Tiffany trailed a few feet back, letting Iris do the talking. The purple haired girl seemed like a good kid, so it was best to let the two girls get a feel for each other rather than butting in and potentially messing things up for Iris.
“I like your cape,” Tanya said. “Are you thinking of becoming a superhero?
“Thank you. But no I'm not going to be a superhero, I use it to hide my wings,” Iris said.
“It's a green flag day, you can take it off. If it's a red flag, you need to hide your wings. Yellow flag, you should cover them up, but on days like this, there's no problem.”
The cape was off before Tanya could finish explaining about the flags.
“Nice wings, you can fly with them?”
“Not really. I'm an energizer who can fly. The wings are supposed to help me move around, but they're still too small to do much,” Iris said.
Tuning out the girls, Tiffany looked around the campus. It looked like a lazy Sunday, with students walking around singly and in small groups. The majority seemed to be heading towards the crystal building, which she assumed was Crystal Hall. Most of them looked baseline, but several were slightly off, like two horned girls walking arm in arm, and a girl whose skin and hair was an odd pattern of yellow, blue, green and pink pastels. She bit her lip to stop a gasp when a huge rhino-like man walked past them.
“Hey Tanya!” the pastel girl shouted. “Have you seen Shisa?”
“Not since breakfast. If I see her I'll tell her you're looking for her,” Tanya yelled back. In a more normal voice, she said to Iris, “That's Pastel, she's in our cottage too. You'll usually see her hanging out with Shisa another cottage mate. If you're feeling down Shisa's usually pretty good at cheering people up. Unless you're allergic to cats.”
Inside Crystal Hall, Tiffany had to stop and look around in awe. She had never seen so many mutants in one place. She had imagined what it would be like, but seeing the wide variety of teens with GSD, the use of powers and the number of children who were clearly exemplars just from how handsome or beautiful they were was overwhelming.
“It's pretty awesome, isn't it?” Tanya said.
“Yeah. This beats the hospital cafeteria,” Iris said.
Leading them to the buffet, Tanya asked, “You were in the hospital?”
“Uh-huh. Practically lived there until I manifested, lots of genetic problems that were killing me.”
Tiffany got some food and sat with the two girls, but was lost in thought. If things had been different her daughter could have been here. She could picture herself sitting beside Jeannette, as she was introduced to her friends. Would her daughter look like herself, or become an unearthly beauty? Or would she look like the werewolf girl?
As tears slowly rolled down her cheeks, she prayed that Jeannette was somewhere safe. She didn't notice the sympathetic look coming from Tanya, or Iris shaking her head, as the purple haired girl started to speak.
After an interesting tour of the campus, Ms. Savage put the final concerns Tiffany might have had at ease.
“This is your room, Iris. Your roommate should be back soon, just make yourself at home on the left, while I talk to Tiffany,” the housemother said, holding the door open for her.
“This is an amazing campus,” Tiffany said.
“It's special, and it's never boring,” the Housemother said. “And we're lucky this year, outside of some minor troublemakers and pranksters, the girls here are pretty level headed, for teenagers.”
“With this many teenage girls in one place, I'm surprised the building is still standing,” she joked.
“The secret is heavily reinforced walls and floors.” Just then the door of the cottage opened up. Ms. Savage raised her hand and turned to the student. “Just a second. Pastel, did you find Shisa yet?”
“No. I've looked all over campus, and told a bunch of other students you were looking for her. I think she's hiding in the woods,” the colourful girl said.
Sighing, the housemother turned back to her. “Sorry about that.”
“One of the troublemakers?” Tiffany asked.
“Not usually. Shisa's got a good head on her shoulders, she just likes her privacy sometimes and doesn't bother telling anyone where she's gone. But enough about her, you have some questions from Iris' parents?”
Tiffany opened her car door and got in, it had been an eventful day. The campus was even better than what she thought it would be, the students she'd met seemed friendly enough, and Ms. Savage had sounded extremely competent. It looked like Iris would do well at school.
Driving towards the gate, she saw the colourful girl cradling a large grey cat, walking towards Whitman. Smiling, she wondered if the poor girl would find her friend before evening.
As she came to the gates, she didn't feel the depression she'd expected. There was sadness, it would never leave, but it was bearable now. She didn't know exactly what she would do, but it was time for her to get a life again, at least when she wasn't helping at the hospital.
Smiling to herself, she headed for Boston.