“The Johnson boy came out today.”
“Yeah? What did he choose to do?”
“Fly, of course. Just like his parents.”
“Kid never did have any imagination.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I think it must be nice for the whole family to fly together. To just step out the front door and sail into the air and go anywhere you like. It’s what the majority of people choose, you know. It always has been.”
“Oh boy do I know! People filling up the skies with no controls, no traffic rules, no safety requirements. Flying collisions have replaced accidental overdoses as the leading cause of death.
“The Job Authority has tried to figure out something, but no one knows what they can do. Traffic lights and traffic lanes in the air? In three dimensions? And even if they could, it wouldn’t cut out the accidents from joy-flying over the lake.”
“Oh, no. Is that what you did again today?”
“Three kids stunting and goofing off over the lake last night. That nonsense is dangerous enough during the day. But in the dark? And with alcohol? There’s a thin line between reckless and stupid. The kid reported his two friends crashed into each other and went down. They didn’t come up.”
“Did you find them, Dad?” Their daughter, Margie, had been listening while reading her homework.
He looked at her solemnly and nodded. “It took a while. He couldn’t tell us where they went down since it happened at night and he wasn’t paying much attention. Aquaman would ask the fish and find out. Instead, I just swam around in ever-widening circles until I found them.”
“Dad, no offense, but you don’t look much like Aquaman anyway.”
He looked at himself, shrugged, and grinned a little. “Yeah, I know.” He ran his hand over his thin dark hair and the inevitable facial stubble of early evening. He patted the large area just above his belt. “I’m afraid my family tends to carry around more weight than we need. Sorry I passed that on to you, Kiddo.”
His wife chipped in, “Don’t take all the blame, John.” Marsha, blonde and still pretty, carried more pounds than necessary, just like her husband. “Unfortunately, I contributed my share of ‘weighty’ genes too.”
Margie returned to the previous subject. “That sounds pretty tedious, just swimming around in circles.”
“But I still enjoy the water. I wouldn’t have minded at all except that the lake is so muddy. That made it hard to see and hard to breathe. Like walking through a dust storm. After I’d carried the bodies ashore I had to stick my head in the cleaning tank for fifteen minutes just to wash my lungs out and get all the guck out of my eyes.”
“Dad, why do you do it? Didn’t the JA give you any other options?”
“Sure. I could have been an underwater demolitions guy, but I wouldn’t be home much and rigging or defusing bombs did not appeal to me, especially after I met your mother.”
He turned to his wife. “And how was your day, Honey?”
She shrugged. “About average. Two idiots tried to smuggle bags of drugs in their intestines. The x-ray machine won’t catch that, but I do. And one aspiring hijacker tried to get through with a plastic gun in his crotch. But these eyes are better than any x-ray machine.
“At least I get a change of pace. Tomorrow’s my rotation day at the hospital.”
“Mom, isn’t that gross? Seeing people’s insides, seeing broken bones and tumors, and digestion, and all that nasty stuff?”
“It was at first. But I’ve been seeing it since I turned 15. I’m used to it by now. And in both jobs, I get to save lives, so it’s more than worth it. Besides, that’s what I chose.
“And on the subject of 15, you’re coming up on that, Margie. Have you decided yet what you’re going to do?”
“No. But I have decided sort of what I want. I want something that will be fun. And I don’t want something that the stupid Job Authority can make un-fun!”
“Tall order, Kiddo.” remarked her father. “Not the fun part. Whatever you choose can be fun…for about three years. When you turn 18, the JA will have decided how to turn you into a productive member of society.
“Used to be, one of the favorites, especially of small boys, was to be really strong. Lift-500-pounds-strong. That became less popular when they realized the JA would assign them to loading trucks and ships and trains, or moving furniture.
“How did school go today?”
Margie shrugged. “The usual teasing and name-calling. And no, Dad, I don’t want you to come down there.”
“But why can’t I have some fun? I’d like to take that Cody Johnson dipstick and see how well he can swim underwater. With me holding his leg.” John grinned wickedly.
“You’d have to take him pretty deep. He just had to show us all his talent. He can go to 30 feet tall.”
“Wasn’t he already the biggest kid in class?”
“Yeah. But I guess he wanted to be even bigger, so he could be even more of a complete butthead.”
“That’s often the way it is, Margie. But don’t worry about it. He won’t stretch that high too often; except when the JA assigns him to wash second-story windows, or repair telephone lines. And not even that in a strong wind.”
“Because his weight won’t change. Mass always stays the same. Whatever he weighs normally is what he’ll weigh when he stretches up. If he’s 150 at six feet, he’s 150 at thirty feet. It works in reverse, too. If somebody wants the ability to get real small, they’ll still be 150, whether at six feet or six inches.”
“Really? What about the people that fly? Don’t they have to get lighter?”
“Nope. They just levitate themselves. Despite generations of study, science hasn’t figured out how these changes happen, or how we become what we become or how we do what we do. The best that they’ve done is figure out how we can control what we become.
“No one is really aware of what’s going on with their bodies during the change. We all just become some sort of super fluid under the shell, then change back into what looks like ourselves, but changed.
“When I was a little younger than you are now I decided I wanted to breathe and live underwater and on land—yeah, just like Aquaman. I concentrated on that for the last few months before I started making the shell. Everybody does it that way.
“That’s why it’s important for you to decide what you want pretty soon. You’ve got to have some time to concentrate on it, to align your mind, as it says in your biology textbook, so you come out with the ability you want.”
One month later
“Whoa! Margie, thirds? Of course you have to eat a lot more to fuel yourself for the change, but aren’t you overdoing it? You’ve been on a diet since sixth grade. Why the change?”
“Something you said, Dad. That our weight—our mass—doesn’t change, no matter what we become. Well, I’ve decided. I did a lot of looking on the Internet. I’m going to do something that’s only been done about a dozen times total over all these years. I’ll be the first girl! It’s pretty radical. But the heavier I am, the better it’ll be.”
“Really! Care to share?”
“Sorry, no. You and Mom can research it yourselves, or just be surprised.” Margie, a young replica of her mother, allowed herself a secretive little smile. “Right along with a few other people.”
“That’s fine. It’s your decision. Just remember the most important thing. Whatever you choose, make sure you can have fun for at least the next three years!”
Four months later
Margie sloughed off the last of the brittle green shell, stood up, and brushed herself off with a casual air. She looked exactly as she did when the shell enclosed her three months before. Her parents stood side-by-side, anxiously awaiting her first words. She smiled triumphantly. “Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad! What’s for dinner?”
As custom required, they did not quiz her about her new self, and dinner was a quiet affair. Margie went to bed early. But that night, after her parents were asleep, she slipped into the backyard. She looked up at the sky, thin clouds skidding past the half moon. She took a deep breath and invoked her new talent.
An hour of experimentation later, she slipped back into bed. It was wonderful! It did feel very odd—her skin tingled, her ears tickled, her entire body felt stretched. But it did not hurt! She left her back yard and toured the whole town. She controlled it, and herself, completely. And, yes, it was fun.
She lay on her back in her bed and interlocked her fingers behind her head. She conjured an image in her mind, refined it, savored it, and set her lips into a satisfied smile.
At school the next day, while sitting in her seat, it did not take long for her tormentors to resume their self-assigned duties.
Cody Johnson appeared from behind her after “accidentally” popping her in the back of the head with his elbow, as usual. Margie found herself surrounded by Johnson and his three stooges.
“Hey, it’s Large Marge the land-locked barge! Obviously you didn’t decide to come out skinny!”
“Cody, James, Steven, Elmer, take your seats.” They all looked up at Mr. Bradbury. He still faced the chalkboard, busily putting up the day’s lesson. The three boys did not move.
Reluctantly, Margie’s tormentors took their seats. Mr. Bradbury watched them as he continued to apply chalk marks to the board. He possessed three-hundred–sixty degree vision all the time, which was one reason the JA decided he should be a teacher.
During lunch, Margie joined her best friends, Sandy and Brenda.
“You didn’t call us,” Sandy accused in a hurt tone. “We called you when we came out.”
“So now you better tell us, Em. What can you do?”
As she started to answer, Cody and the Morons showed up. “Yeah, Margie the largie, what can you do? Float like a blimp? Bounce like a beach ball? Swim like a hippo?”
Margie smiled condescendingly. “If you want to know, Stretch, come to the park tonight and I’ll show you.”
Cody did not like being called “Stretch.”
“In the park at night? Going to glow like the moon? I’ve got better things to do at night than go to the lame-ass park and watch you do something pathetic.”
“Well, if you’re scared of the dark, don’t be. There are lights around that big grassy area. That’s where I’ll be. You’ll miss something you’ve never seen before if you’re too scared to show up. Your friends can hold your hands if that’ll give you the nerve to walk in the park at eight o’clock at night.”
Brenda spoke up. “We’ll be there! Sandy and I aren’t afraid of the dark! And I can’t wait to see!”
Later, when they were alone, Margie told her friends, “Guys, what you’ll see tonight is seriously rad. It’s going to be scary. But you’ll be safe. I promise. So don’t freak out, okay?”
She arrived at the park well before eight o’clock. She stood beneath a cluster of big trees, hidden by the darkness, and practiced her new talent. It took only a couple of minutes to complete the process, and again assure herself of her control, and change back.
Margie was nervous, but not scared. She looked at the wide open expanse of grass just beyond the trees, illuminated softly by the tall lights installed on the perimeter. She saw them coming—Cody and his three friends, and her two best friends keeping several yards between themselves and the others.
Margie did not know for sure what would happen or even what she might do at the end.
When they were closer, she took a few steps toward them, then stood and waited for them to see her. Then she began.
She hoped her friends wouldn’t freak. She didn’t know how Cody Johnson would react when he was attacked by a 160-pound wolf that had every reason to rip him to shreds. She conjured again the image of Cody Johnson on the ground crying like a little girl as her sharp white teeth and powerful slavering jaws opened inches from his throat while he wet his pants in terror.
She was sure of just one thing. This would be fun.
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