|The backstory, more or less, via FantasticFiction.co.uk|
Chapter 1: The Yurt
The car pulled out and around a circular flower bed set right in the middle of the intersection, the first one with no traffic light since they’d left the freeway. Now the street cut down to two lanes, with a wide median strip planted in grass and huge, old oaks. The long-bodied modern houses with their front garages were gone. Now the houses were wood or red-brick mountains, with towering oak trees in front that framed them in little bays, and beautiful gardens. “There it is,” Mr. Wong said, as they passed the middle house of the block.
John’s new billet was big, with a tiny porch in front with a door in a bright sky blue, while the window sills were a cheery red. The tile roof was steeply pitched and blank except for a little solar panel and a satellite dish next to the chimney. There was a front lawn, immaculate flower beds, and a rock garden planted in strange, wilting, hairy little yellow flowers. Past the house, the median was interrupted, and Mr. Wong pulled into it, crossed the opposite lane, and entered an alleyway. The billet house, to the left, showed a few more windows and a thin side yard, but at the end of the alley, Mr. Wong turned again onto a back alley. Now they were driving by a high fence protecting a big backyard, with a huge pine tree of some kind leaning out and over. Mr. Wong turned into a wide garage at the end of the yard.
John got out. He’d called the front seat first, but it had turned out that Rafaella had never even heard of “shotgun,” and he’d ended up feeling pretty guilty, and taking a passenger seat instead. And that was why he almost ended up pushing his door into the backside of a tall, athletically-built blond man backing carefully out of the candy-apple red Civic convertible that was so obviously not his car.
“Ready to go, son?” Mr Wong asked, hesitating just a second on the “son.”
“Sir! Yes, sir,” said the blond boy, sounding even more awkward than you’d think that would make someone sound.
“Remember, no speeding, and stick to the Interstates,” Mr. Wong added.
“I have less than three days before Late Admissions orientation, and it’s a long way to Frisco, chief. I won’t have any time for backroading, even if I wanted too. It’s been a long time since I’ve been, I mean, since I’ve...”
John is fascinated by the expressions that chase themselves across Mr. Wong’s face, like a little play that tells a story that he just couldn’t read. Mr. Wong must be upset, though, because he forgets, to introduce him and Rafaella to the man. Instead, he opens a door in the side of the garage and leads them out. John hoists his tiny grip, while Rafaella takes her slightly bigger one over one shoulder, her sword and harness over the other, and they walk out of the garage and into the back yard. And for the first time since . . . .the airport? John can’t quite remember,. . . . they are hit by the full heat and humidity of a late August Philadelphia day. John feels like wilting, but, ahead of him, Rafaella’s skin, showing above and below her yellow tank top, just glows richer as she puts her hand up to cup her eyes. It was really warm outside, John thinks, as he shifts his eyes to take in the back of the house.
Here, the porch is wide and inviting, with a steeply sloped roof and a gabled window of a third-story bedroom high above. There are two lawnchairs arranged in the sun, one red and one white, and a pair of mountain bikes thrown down carelessly on the lawn just inside the gate, between the pine and a trim but old apple tree dragging low under the weight of its fruit. A raised-bed vegetable garden occupies the middle left, with tall sunflowers at either end. Mr. Wong picked up the red chair and folds it, slowly and tenderly, then wiped his eyes before opening the latch and ushering them into a big mud room, with an ultra-modern washer and dryer to one side, and a dog blanket and food dish to one side next to a bootstand. A massive, wolf-like dog lies on the blanket, wagging its tail as the group walk in, but otherwise unmoving. John can’t help but notice how deep the dog’s chest is.
To the other side is an older, Asian woman, almost a foot shorter than Mr. Wong, but obviously his wife. Mrs. Wong is a handsome woman for her age. Movie star looks, in fact, although no Chinese movie star would have such an anti-stereotypical aquiline nose.
“So these are Rafaella and John? Welcome to our home, and please, come in out of the shade so that I can have a good look at you.”
Mr Wong replies, “Honey, can I leave you to get them settled in? The zoning hearing at City just got moved up, and I need to make sure that none of Jenny’s stuff got missed.”
“Of course, oh khan of my heart.” She says it with a half-smile, but John can tell that it’s a real pet name. He looks over at Rafaella, and feels a bizarre disappointment when she does not look back. The next few minutes are a blur as Mrs. Wong introduces them to four stories of house. There is a rec room in the basement, an amazing place with beanbag chairs, shag carpet, a pool table, largescreen TV, and gaming consoles. There are piles of empty pizza cartons and thrilling-looking game cartridges in the back, and a door into the rest of the basement that goes unopened. The main floor has the kitchen and dining room and that sort of stuff, and there are five bedrooms on the second floor and another one in the loft. Mrs. Wong lays down rules for laundry and curfews and study times, but all with a smile and a trace of humour that leaves John confused about whether she is strict or a softy. Finally, in the loft, the most amazing thing of all: “This will be your room, John.” John looked around him. Sure, he’d bang his head ‘till he got used to it, but it was big, and he had a floor all to himself, and a bathroom that was the only finished space on the street side. And there was that cool gable. He edged over into it and looked down. Could he climb down the steep pitch of the porch roof? Probably, he thought, before reminding himself that he could fly. Unbelievable. How had he forgotten that he could fly? He was thinking that as he noticed the angry stare that Rafaella was giving him. Obviously he wasn’t the only one who thought that this was the best of the bedrooms. Mrs. Wong noticed, too, because she gave them another of those half smiles.
As they came back down the stairs towards Rafaella’s new room at the corner of the house, a tall Asian girl came up the stairs, followed by the dog from the mud room. She was obviously Mr. and Mrs. Wong’s daughter, and she walked with Mr. Wong’s total physical awareness and Mrs. Wong’s grace. She was old, sixteen or even seventeen, but beautiful, with just a tribute to her mother’s nose, dressed in a gray jacket with blue highlights, a white T-shirt that fell down to her thighs, and droopy jeans. If he hadn’t heard Mrs. Wong pronounce “no skateboards,” he would have pegged her for a skater girl in a second, except that her brand new, short hair cut was a little too full and sculpted. Rafaella stared at her, and the girl stared back –at John. He wondered what he’d done to make her so angry. At least, until she spoke. “Why does he get Jenny’s room?”
“We’ve been over this, May,” her mother answered.
“I’m not grounded. I didn’t do anything wrong. Not like some people. I wouldn’t climb out that window, and if I did, I wouldn’t hurt myself, like dumb old Jenny!”
“May, it’s settled.”
May grabbed the doorknob to her room, threw it open, and launched herself inside. Mrs. Wong, looking over her shoulder, said, “Why don’t you kids get yourselves settled while I sort this out,” and followed her daughter into her room, closing the door behind her. John, who had bought two pocketbooks at ...the airport?... , didn’t need to be invited twice. He was settled on the bed in the loft with a book within minutes. Alas, though, his time with them was short, as a frantic banging started up on his door. He got up and opened it, and two Asian kids his age tumbled in, wearing slogan T-shirts and jean shirts.
“Hi, I’m Amy, and this is Jason. You’re John!”
“Could be Rafaella,” said the boy who must be Jason.
“What kind of name is Rafaella for a boy?” Amy answered.
“What kind of name is Rafaella for a girl?” Jason replied, quick as a wink.
“The “a” makes it a girl name.” Amy shot back.
“Cool story, sis,” Jason said with a deeply sarcastic tone.
“And Mom let him have the window room, because he’s a boy, and the D.L. thinks boys are supposed to sneak out.”
“Your theory only makes sense if Rafaella’s a girl’s name. And the S.D. was a boy, which she isn’t.”
“Jenny wouldn’t sneak out to meet Jason Bieber! And Rafaella is so a girl’s name!”
Without waiting for a reply from her brother, Amy rushed out a “What do you think of the Yurt, so far?”
John took a second to appreciate that he was allowed into the conversation. “That’s this place, right? It’s nice. Not what I expected.”
Amy squinted at him. What’d he say? But John rushed in. “I bet you thought that superheroes lived in underground lairs! Which we totally could, if our parents would just let us.”
John thought about that for a second. “I thought that your parents are nice. Who’s the D.L.? And when’s lunch?”
Jason practically shouted, “Hey, I know you went to McDonalds. I saw the wrappers...”
And Amy interrupted, “The D.L. is the Dragon Lady: Mom. And the S.D. is the Super Doofus, Jenny. But you don’t need to know that because-“
“He doesn’t need to know that either because-“
“And Jenny’s gone to college. In California-“
“All of a sudden-“
“It’s been crazy around here-“
“Not as crazy as when we moved in-“
“But there were five Wong kids and 3 Neilsens here then-“
“Everyone but David-“
“Crazy. And now we’ve got you and Rafaella. This’ll be so much fun-“
“David lives in Chicago. And Henry’s in college in California, too.”
The twins were having so much fun interrupting themselves that John had to play. “So, about the superhero thing.”
Amy actually stopped for a second to think. “Oh, no biggie. Our parents have retired, the older kids are all moved out ‘cept May. So there’s really only one superhero living here right now.”
John thought for a moment. That didn’t make any sense. “Don’t you two have superpowers? Rafaella and I do.”
Now it was Jason’s turn to talk slightly slower. “Oh, Amy and me have powers, but the house rule is, no-one patrols ‘till they’re Juniors.”
“Can’t fight Mechanon ‘till you’re this tall,” Amy said, putting her cupped hand up in the air a bit and hopping like she was going for height, which she couldn’t because of the loft walls.
“Or you have a driver’s license. Dad says that teens fighting supervillains are safer than teens driving, anyway.” Jason rolled his eyes to show that grownups just didn’t get it.
That was scary. “But –I’m not going to be here for three years, am I? Your sister looks so mad she’ll probably kill me in my sleep. And my parents...” But John realised that he didn’t remember his parents. At all.
The twins raced to open their mouths, and Amy got there first. “Don’t worry about May hating you for taking the top room. She’s just got some kind of mega-peeve going on with Mom and Dad about boys again.”
“Worse than usual?” Jason asked.
“Trust me. I’ve read Twilight. Something epic went down last week, Jas.”
“And, as usual, no-one tells us anything. Heh. Like that’ll stop us,” and then with a tumble of words, Jason was moving on, “We don’t know how long you’ll be with us, John. It depends on your memory, right? We heard that you wiped it yourself with some kind of huge mental blast.”
“Yeah. I remember a dusky world and warriors riding around on flying sharks, and just having blasted Rafaella’s step-brother out of the sky, and nothing else.” It was a memory like a dream, one that you never thought didn’t make sense until you pulled it out and went over it, but it was crystal clear like dreams weren’t, and it didn’t seem strange to him that he didn’t remember anything or anyone else again until he was in the airport with Mr. Wong and Rafaella that morning.
“Trust us,” Amy said. “It’ll be like the Neilsens after the divorce. As soon as Mom and Dad and Mr. Guzman and everybody got things sorted out at their house, the Neilsens went back to their Dad. And as soon as the old Legion has things sorted out at your house, you can go back to your house.”
“The Legion?” John asked.
Jason’s eyes shone as he took up the story, “The old Liberty Legion. The supergroup that Dad was part of, and Mr. Guzman, and Doctor Stonechild, and Mr. Piccolo, and Mrs. Crudup and Ms. Hirsch and, and, all the grownups!”
“So is May in the Legion?”
“Sort of,” Amy answered.
“The Legion is us now!” Jason shouted. “Or, the kids and grandkids and nephews and nieces and clones and whatnot of the old Legion. Ever since Dr. McNeery’s kids started it with David back in 1999, the Junior and Senior classes have patrolled in support of the Liberty League.”
Jason shot back. “Only the most powerful superteam in the world-”
“Wouldn’t that be the Tiger Squad-”
“That’s cheating. The Chinese government conscripts all their supers. There’s like, 50 members in the Squad. The League is voluntary. And classier-“
“So why not the Justice Squadron or the Sentinels. Or the Peacekeepers. Especially if David gets in-“
“The Liberty League is the best!”
Jason was running down, now, so John interrupted with an urgent question. “So when’s dinner?”
Amy looked like she wasn’t done the last conversation, while Jason was exactly on John’s wavelength. “Three hours! Going to be special!”
“Uhm,” John said, visions of, oh, who knew, fried scorpions or fish nest soup dancing through his head.
Amy cocked her fists on her hip and looked straight at John, a fierce look in her eye. “Oh, look at you! Mom cooks American. And if you ever get Chinese here, Dad’ll cook it, and it’ll be the best damn Cantonese style you’ve ever tasted.”
“Just don’t compliment him on it,” Jason said.
“Just sayin’. But Mom does cook weird sometimes, Amy, you’ve got to admit.”“Yeah, that’s a thing, John. Watch it when Mom’s in a mood. Her family was insanely old-fashioned, so she only cooked camping and in the convent. So if she’s happy, you’ll get bizarro recipes for mare’s milk and roast steer, and when she’s mad, plain bean curd on noodles. Bleeah.”
John had a million questions, but only one that might tell him more about dinner. “So your Mom was in the Legion, too?”
“Dragon Lady?” Jason snorted. “No, she was a supervillain ‘till she met Dad.”
Now John was alarmed. “A supervillain?”
Amy was fierce again. “Her heart wasn’t in it. She was going along with a guy. And then one day one of his lieutenants called Dad, ‘Chop-Chop,’ and she decided to go where her heart was.”
Jason sneered, “Oh, that’s mushy girl stuff!”
“You call it what you like, Jas’. But that’s the way it went down.”
“Eh. You should ask May about that sometime, Amy.”
“What? What did she tell you?”
“Never mind now, John needs some rest,” Jason said, suddenly pushing his sister towards the door. Amy went down, kicking her brother over her and out into the hallway to slam against the corridor wall, which sounded more solid than drywall should be. Then the two of them literally rolled down the stairs to the second floor, wrestling as they went, faster than John’s eyes could follow. He closed the door behind them, and went back to the bed. But just before that, out the window, he caught a glimpse of a gray-furred dog clearing the back fence and heading out into the alley. Hadn’t the dog been with May in her room a moment ago?