In Over Their Heads
Ava tried to catch her twin brother as he fell.
She and Jackson had been walking with the rest of their family through a dark cave, away from the odd room where they—and their stepsiblings—had learned a dangerous secret. Ava could tell Jackson was off-kilter. Thanks to her illegally enhanced vision, she could see him weaving and squinting and grimacing even though there wasn’t enough light for anyone else to notice. His sandy-brown hair flopped around like a distress flag.
“Jackson, be careful!” she hissed. “Just stop thinking about—”
He was already stumbling, already dropping to his knees, already plunging face-first toward the rocky ground.
Ava grabbed for him, managing to catch his elbow with one hand and his armpit with the other. A year ago, when she and Jackson were both roughly the same size,
that would have been enough for her to hold him up. But Dad had studied human growth charts, and he’d designated age twelve as the time when his son should grow five inches taller than his daughter and put on twenty pounds of muscle mass.
Well, not exactly muscle, Ava corrected herself, even as she cried, “Mom! Help! Jackson is . . .”
Mom reached for Jackson from the other side, but it was too late, and they were all too unbalanced. Gravity took over. Mom and Ava slammed to the ground along with Jackson.
“Oh no! Ava, Jackson, are you okay?” Mom cried, her first concern the children’s well-being, as always. It was maddening. “Someone, please, a flashlight . . .”
Immediately Ava, Mom, and Jackson were caught in a ring of light. Even Ava’s superior vision was temporarily blinded by the glow, so she couldn’t see who was training a flashlight on Jackson’s embarrassing moment and who was just standing there gawking. But she could count shoes, and everyone had circled around the piled-up Lightners: Ava’s stepsiblings, Eryn and Nick Stone, who were also twelve-year-old twins; Dad and his new wife, Denise, who was Eryn and Nick’s mother; and Denise’s ex-husband, Donald, who was the other kids’ father.
Oh, yeah, we’re just like a traveling circus troupe, Ava thought. Come one, come all, to see the happy blended family! Stepparents, stepchildren, stepsiblings—everyone getting along!
Ava truly hoped they could all get along. But that seemed impossible now, given the papers she’d seen Nick tuck under his flannel shirt when the rest of the family found him and Eryn in the cave’s secret room.
“Zzzt, zzzt,” Jackson said, quivering as if he was totally shorting out. It was a sound that made Ava feel queasy and dizzy and in danger of falling apart herself.
Don’t listen, she told herself. Tune it out. Pretend . . .
Pretend she was normal. Pretend she was just an ordinary kid. Pretend she was human. Like Eryn and Nick.
“Is he . . . broken again?” Eryn asked, taking a step back.
Ava wished her vision weren’t quite so good. She wished she couldn’t see the disgust on Eryn’s pretty, normal, human face.
“Can anyone fix him, way out here in the middle of nowhere? In a cave?” Nick asked. Ava tried to give him the benefit of the doubt: Maybe he actually cared. Maybe he was trying to help. Not just pointing out how
weird and troublesome Jackson was. “Don’t you need electricity or something?”
He made electricity sound bizarre and risky and outlandish.
If Jackson were upright and alert right now, he’d probably have a snappy comeback, maybe, Oh, and you don’t ever use electricity yourself? But Dad had programmed Ava to be more sweet and kind than that. She couldn’t do snappy comebacks without worrying that she’d hurt someone’s feelings.
Or maybe she’d learned that from Mom.
“Don’t worry,” Mom said, shoving back her curly red hair, which was just a little longer and thicker and more flamboyant than Ava’s. Mom smiled reassuringly up at Nick and Eryn. “Any of us adults can help Jackson. We just have to, uh . . .”
She pointed to her stomach and pantomimed opening her coat and shirt.
Ava scrambled up and away from Mom and Jackson, almost crashing into Eryn, just as Eryn shoved her flashlight into her dad’s hands and turned her head and took a step back.
Eryn was trying to get away from Mom and Jackson too.
“Ugh, Mom, do you have to talk about it?” Ava asked. “And please don’t do that in public! Not when you have to expose your . . .” She stopped herself from saying “wires.” She knew Nick and Eryn already knew that Mom—and all the other adults and Ava and Jackson—had wires and circuitry hidden inside their bodies, in all the places where Nick and Eryn had normal human organs and blood vessels and bones. But, knowing Mom, she’d probably try to turn the rebooting of Jackson into a science lesson for the kids.
“Ava, we’re hardly in ‘public,’ ” Dad scolded. “We’re in a cave that doesn’t show up on any map, surrounded by a fifty-two-thousand-acre nature preserve that nobody but our family has visited in more than a decade. We’re safe.”
“Except for the possibility of sinkholes and rockslides,” Ava muttered, which made Nick almost grin at her.
Ava envied Eryn her normal-human-girl vibe—like the way she could roll her eyes without the slightest mechanical hesitation. But Nick seemed more likable. More sympathetic.
“Ava, you’re reaching an age where it’s understandable for you to have concerns about the changes in your own body,” Ava’s stepmother, Denise, said, in her usual middle-school-psychologist soothing voice. “It’s perfectly natural for preteens like you to transfer some of that anxiety into embarrassment over your parents’ bodily natures. But there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Ava did not envy Nick and Eryn, having their every move psychoanalyzed and explained to them their entire lives. Since Dad and Denise had gotten married, six months ago, Ava had learned to avoid Denise as much as possible.
“Why don’t the three kids go sit over there while Jackson reboots?” Denise’s ex-husband, Donald, suggested, pointing toward a vaguely couch-shaped rock off to the side. “That’ll give Brenda more space to work.”
Ava liked how he made it sound like it would be a kindness—not cowardice—for the kids to walk away. She didn’t know Donald well, but she would have preferred him as a new stepparent over Denise.
Maybe he and Mom . . . ? she thought.
She made the mistake of glancing from Donald to Mom again. Mom was bent over Jackson and had started unzipping her coat. Ava’s head went woozy.
It’s not embarrassment over my parents’ “bodily natures,” Ava thought. It’s that Mom’s body isn’t real. It isn’t human. Just like my body isn’t human. And Jackson’s body isn’t . . .
“Go on,” Donald said, giving Ava a gentle nudge. “You’ll be okay.”
Eryn and Nick hesitated, but Donald gave them a push too, and they followed Ava toward the rock. Still, none of them sat down. Eryn and Nick slid their hands into their jeans pockets and hunched their shoulders. Probably they were just trying to stay warm, since they’d both left their coats back at the campsite, outside the cave. But the identical motion made them seem sneaky, maybe even conspiratorial. Ava saw them dart glances at each other.
They’re both human, and I’m not, Ava thought. I’m outnumbered. Defenseless. What if . . . what if they decide to follow the instructions on the papers hidden under Nick’s shirt?
For the first time since the odd room, she let herself think about the evil words she’d seen written on one of the papers—evil words about how humans needed to destroy robots.
Evil words essentially telling Eryn and Nick that
they needed to kill Ava, Jackson, Mom, Dad, Denise, Donald—and everybody else who wasn’t human.
Maybe . . . maybe that isn’t really what it said, she told herself, fighting dizziness and queasiness and the urge to tumble senselessly to the ground, just like Jackson. I saw those words for only a moment before Nick hid the papers. I don’t think any of the grown-ups even saw that he had papers. Maybe . . . maybe I was just imagining things. Maybe my vision isn’t as good as I thought. Maybe I misread everything. Maybe . . .
It was too hard to fight her own brain. She knew what she’d seen. Her vision swam; her mind sizzled. Her hearing zoomed in and out. In a second she was going to be flat on the ground, making zzzt, zzzt sounds herself.
“Did you just hear something?” Nick asked, cocking his head. “Like maybe . . . footsteps?”
Ava seized on this question as if he’d thrown her a lifeline. She tilted her head too, forcing herself to listen intently. For a moment she couldn’t hear anything over the mechanical buzzing that had started in her ears, another sign that her system was going down. But she and Jackson had upgraded their hearing at the same time that they’d improved their vision, so she told her
self that she owed it to her entire family to listen harder, to be their first line of defense.
She owed it especially to Jackson, who would really be in danger if any outsider saw him with all his innards exposed.
There, she thought, peering at a point off in the darkness. That’s where the sound’s coming from. The footsteps.
The noise seemed about as far away as if she were standing in the goal of a soccer field and the goalie at the other end was tiptoeing around. She took two steps toward that distant point, then changed her mind. No matter who—or what—she and Nick had heard, she couldn’t let anyone else find out how strong her vision was. She retreated all the way back to the three adults clustered around Jackson and Mom, and grabbed her father’s flashlight.
“Eryn and Nick and I need this for a minute,” she muttered.
In a flash she was back by Eryn and Nick’s side. She wasn’t going to faint. Not with this distraction. Not when she needed to protect her family. She linked her arms through the other two kids’ elbows.
“Let’s go see what it is,” she whispered.
“It’s probably just some kind of animal,” Nick said, his voice full of bravado. “Won’t it just run away when we get close?”
Ava could tell that he wished whatever it was would just run away. He didn’t need anything else to worry about tonight.
“It better not be a skunk,” Eryn muttered.
Ava took four more steps toward the spot she’d pinpointed as the source of the footsteps. The footsteps hadn’t sounded again since she’d grabbed the flashlight. Which meant whatever it was had frozen in place, rather than fleeing.
Because it doesn’t know that in another step or two, now that I’m listening closely, I’m going to be able to hear it breathe, she thought. Unless it’s smart enough to hold its breath.
Or maybe it was something that didn’t have to breathe?
Ava and the other two kids took two more steps forward. Then a third. Ava narrowed her eyes.
Oh no. Oh no. Eryn is going to wish it was just a skunk. . . .
But she didn’t say anything to the other two kids.
The three of them kept walking forward, the flashlight in Ava’s hand casting its glow closer and closer to the distant point where they’d heard footsteps.
Oh, good grief, Ava thought. How blind are Eryn and Nick? Do they both need glasses?
Finally, a dozen steps later, Nick gasped.
“Is that . . . is that a girl?” he asked.