CHAPTER 1 SCAM
“YOU LOOK GREAT IN THOSE jeans!” Ethan said.
He handed the guy a flyer.
The guy did not look great in those jeans. It was abundantly clear he’d gone commando just to fit into them. His legs would probably never bend again.
But Ethan didn’t care. He was in a good mood, and the whole world was going to benefit. He moved on, scanning the crowd.
It was the last Saturday night before Christmas, and Ivy Street was buzzing. The clubs were about to open and everyone was ready to dance.
“Hey,” Ethan said to a young woman in a purple feather boa. “Don’t feel bad. Your boss is a total idiot.”
She took the flyer. “How’d you . . .”
Ethan shrugged. How indeed.
“And, girl, purple is your color!” he enthused.
She beamed at him.
He was practically singing tonight.
Of course, it wasn’t Ethan talking. It was his other voice. The one that always knew how to get Ethan what he wanted. And tonight all he wanted was for everyone to feel as happy as he did. So the voice was telling them whatever they needed to hear.
He moved on, feeling the happy. Letting the happy light him up from inside.
It was almost weird feeling this good, but for once his life was turning around. With the Summer of Suck in his rearview mirror, Ethan was free and clear. No more worrying about bank robbers and drug-dealing mobsters. No more being grounded by his mom. Even the other Zeroes were laying off their usual Scam bashing, treating him like part of the team.
And then there was Kelsie. After the kidnapping and the near-death experience inside the exploding building, she’d been pretty PTSD. Add in the despair of losing her dad and, well, it had been bad times.
But now she was on the up and up. Sometimes even happy. And if she was happy, then Ethan was too. Seriously happy.
“Your mom got you a Raystar 47 for Christmas!” Ethan heard himself say. He had no idea what that meant, but in front of him some guy’s eyes lit up like a pair of horny fireflies. He must’ve really wanted that Raystar.
“Hey, how’d you even—” the guy began.
Ethan gave him a flyer and kept moving through the crowd.
Kelsie had settled easily into the Zeroes. You’re my family now, she’d told Ethan shyly, and he’d practically gone supernova with pride. Kelsie liked being with other people who had powers. She liked DJing at the Dish, exploring what she could do with a dance crowd. She didn’t even mind Glorious Leader’s endless “training.”
One time Kelsie had said she was only in Cambria until she had enough cash to go find her mom in New Orleans. But she was still here, so maybe Kelsie had another reason to stay in Cambria. Someone she didn’t want to leave behind.
Ethan hoped so, anyhow.
“Hey, you!” the voice cried as Ethan handed some short-ass kid a flyer. “You should totally tell her how you feel! Love is in the air, dude!”
Ethan blinked, playing back the words in his head. Was that a sign? That was a stretch—the voice never talked to Ethan directly. But this was one of those nights when anything seemed possible.
Okay. He’d talk to Kelsie tonight, right after the Dish closed.
“Whoa.” The kid was wearing that familiar, startled expression everyone did when the voice plumbed their secrets. “You know about my stepmom?”
“I . . . wait. Your stepmom?” Ethan switched to his own
voice. “Forget I said anything, kid. Seriously, abort. Abort!”
He snatched back the flyer. Kid was too young for the Dish anyway.
Glorious Leader—Nate—had sent him over to Ivy Street, telling him to rope in people who were young and ready to dance. But if some fourteen-year-old kid turned up at the Dish, they’d all blame Ethan.
It was a reminder to focus, to not get swept up in the happy. Especially later with Kelsie. If he used his Zero voice to confess his feelings, Kelsie would know. So he had to use his own clumsy, fallible Ethan Cooper voice.
This flyer thing was the perfect warm-up. Hitting all these people with good news made him feel expansive and confident. On top of the world.
In fact, he was doing such a good job that he was almost out of flyers. But it wasn’t quitting time yet.
If he was going to talk to Kelsie tonight—which he definitely was, no chickening out—he needed a huge, happy, agreeable mob in the Dish. Because then Kelsie would be so hooked into the passion and thrill of the crowd that she’d see the truth. Yes, Ethan, I’m totally in love with you, too. I always have been. Since the moment you showed me I wasn’t the only one in the world with a power!
Which sounded unlikely, now that Ethan played the words in his head. But if she didn’t say exactly that, at least she probably wouldn’t say anything too soul-crushing.
Kelsie would never make him feel bad.
More flyers, then, to amp up the Dish tonight. So many flyers.
Ethan headed for the Office-O on the next block.
* * *
The place was practically empty.
He passed an old dude dozing behind the counter and headed to the back, where the copiers were lined up under the fluorescent lights like small armored vehicles. There was a young couple, Ethan’s age, dressed for a night out in Ivy Street’s club scene. The guy had a funky half-shaved haircut, and the girl wore a black frilled skirt.
Not Ethan’s bag, but definitely the kind of people that Nate wanted at the Dish. Once he had more flyers, the voice would make their day telling them how awesome they looked.
He paused at the first copier, but it was flashing PAPER TRAY EMPTY. He tried the next copier. Same. Ditto the third. He scanned the row of copiers. All the red lights were flashing.
Okay, that was irritating. He looked around for someone in a blue Office-O shirt to help him.
Then he heard the ka-chunk of a paper drawer being slid out, and he turned to the young couple. The guy emptied the copier tray and took the paper to a paper cutter at the end of the row. The girl lined up the pile and began slicing.
What the hell?
Ethan stepped forward and cleared his throat. “Um, guys?
They sell paper here, you know. You don’t have to take it from the copiers.”
“Don’t have any money,” the girl said.
Ethan frowned. Like they could walk out of here with a thousand sheets of Office-O paper under their arms for free?
But if Ethan started arguing, he’d disturb the happy that filled him. So he smiled and let himself have a moment of wanting paper. Wanting the guy to give him some paper, and be glad about it.
The voice took over. “Dude, I need to make some copies. And you’ll be interested in why.”
The guy pulled the paper drawer from the last machine, ignoring Ethan. He was skinny, but tall, and carried himself like he wasn’t afraid of anyone.
“There’s this club that’s special, if you know what I mean.”
That got the guy’s attention. Ethan held up his one remaining flyer.
“Coolest underground place in Cambria,” the voice confirmed. “With the hottest DJ and the sweetest crowd. Just help me out with some paper so I can make sure there’s a super-big party there tonight.”
The guy smiled, like Ethan was suddenly an old pal. “That sounds great, buddy. Knock yourself out.”
He slid the full tray back into the last machine and stepped back with a bow.
“Hey, thanks,” Ethan said in his own voice.
That was the thing to remember about the voice. It didn’t have to be a brutal weapon to do its thing. It didn’t have to cut people down. As long as Ethan maintained a high level of affection for all humankind, the voice was happy being a sweetheart.
Maybe that was the key to superpowers. Not taking them too seriously. Not taking yourself too seriously.
Like, using your power for good or something.
He laid down his last flyer, swiped Nate’s credit card along the card reader, and let the machine do its thing. While it rattled off a few hundred copies, Ethan slipped a lozenge from his pocket and stuck it in his mouth. A voice-induced burn was building in his throat.
But getting a good crowd for Kelsie was worth it.
Six months was a record for him. His previous longest crush—Mari Prendergast, freshman year—had lasted about a week and a half. So this wait made him even more certain that Kelsie was the real deal.
He’d almost blurted out his feelings a dozen times in the days and nights after her dad died. But grief had given her a kind of thousand-yard stare, like she was lost inside her own skull. Trying to talk romance at a time like that would’ve been cruel and unusual.
So he’d waited until things had calmed down for everyone.
The copier clattered to a halt. Ethan gathered his flyers and handed one to the couple at the paper cutter. He unleashed the voice to give them a last dose of happy.
“You’ll love it, guys. And best of all, they’ll never see you coming!”
Okay, that was pretty out there. But no weirder than the voice’s stepmom advice earlier.
The couple looked surprised too, but Ethan just nodded and smiled like everything was normal. He headed for the door.