On a warm Sunday afternoon, after the meeting at which Lannis – again – came too close for my comfort, I am on a rare excursion in the park, with my older brother and his children. Stopping at an ice-cream seller’s cart, my niece and I are choosing cones for the others, when I feel someone watching me. That prickling feeling usually heralds Daniel’s arrival, but he wouldn’t hesitate to say hello.
I hand over a twenty to the vendor, tell my niece not to get anything for me – in fact, to tell Daddy that I had to go, and I’ll see him later. I get out of there as fast as I can: if someone’s hunting me, I don’t want them anywhere near the kids.
The sunlight dazzles me as I come out of the trees onto the roadway through the park, throwing blinding sparks over the dust motes on my sunglasses. I cross hastily over the road, back into the dim woods on the far side. Around here, the ground is unpredictable, thick with tree-roots bubbling out of the ground. But I make a point of being prepared for the unexpected, and, short as I am, never wear heels. My ballerina flats cope fine with the rough terrain.
Someone is following me. I can hear something clattering over the tree-roots.
Deep breath. Bored smile. Turn slowly, pushing sunglasses back into hair. Mother taught me it’s rude to leave sunglasses – or gloves – on, when stopping to talk to someone. In costume, with a mask, everything’s different.
Oh, no, it’s Lannis.
“Ah’m sawry…” Deliberate deep-South drawl – horrible, but nothing like my usual voice. “Yuh must hev con-fused me with someb’dy else.”
She’s grinning at me, hand raised in an awkward little wave. Pushing a bike – that explains the clattering.
“Come on, Star, I know it’s you.”
“Ah hev no ah-deah whut yuh are talkin’ about.” I sound like Scarlett flaming O’Hara.
“Stop it or I’ll yell your name out loud.”
Back to my normal voice, I snarl, “Fine. What?”
“Who was the kid?”
“Really? She looks just like you. Is she your sister or something?”
“I said she was a friend’s daughter, Lannis, now drop it. What do you want?” Fishing in my purse for my sunglasses case, I come up with a pack of my brother’s cigarettes. It’s been a year since I smoked, and that time was only because Mother was in town, but right now I think I’m justified. I tap one out and light it, wandering along the road. Lannis follows me, still wheeling her bike.
“I’ve never seen you smoke.”
“You’ve never seen me off-duty.” I blow smoke away from her, trying to think what to say. “You girls all have the makings of good superheroes, and I’ll help as much as I can, but my life is my own problem.”
She nods, slowly. “So it is a problem. I wondered, with all that angst about your mother – what happened, anyway?”
“It is also irredeemably rude to read other members of the team without their express permission.”
“What’s your name?”
“Starlight.” I turn off the road, back into the trees – we’ve started heading back toward the playground, and the last thing I need right now is Lannis and my brother meeting each other.
“Your other name.” Dropping the bike, she sits down at the foot of a tree, looking up at me instead of down for once, waiting.
“Well, what’s yours?” I stamp out the end of the cigarette on the tarmac of the road, stoop to pick it up, and join her under the tree.
“Lannis.” She sounds confused, and I wait. At last she grins. “Oh, that other name. I was thinking of Clarity.”
“It’s good. I’m Zielonya.” Clarity. It suits her, with her wide-open eyes and honest expression. The name could handle a costume in blue and silver – something floaty and ethereal, I think. At the moment, though, she’s wearing a blue v-necked sweater and black slacks. Flat shoes, but she’s still taller than me standing. Odd that: in conversation, height is so rarely power.
Well, fair’s fair. I know she’s Lannis-Marie Raehe. I know where she lives and what her parents do. “Zielonya King. Don’t Google me, I’m not there.”
“What do your friends call you – Zie?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” I reply coolly.
“You couldn’t tell what your friends call you?” Lannis – Clarity – smiles again, and quotes, changing the names: “Her parents called her Zielonya, and teachers called her King. I can’t tell you how her friends spoke to her, for she had none. Is that it?”
“Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” I confirm. I’ve been called a variety of names, by friends, and enemies, and teammates, and family, including Zie, Zeke, Lonnie, Twinkle, and many other things I’d rather not be called again. “Now, you said you wanted to learn how to defend yourself.” It’s rather transparent, but I hope she’ll take the hint.
She doesn’t. “Your friends call you Starlight just now, because they don’t know your other name.”
“Very sweet of you. But you’re right; perhaps we’d better wait until we can all be together. Don’t want you getting a head start, do we?” I’m tempted to light another cigarette, but don’t. Largely this is because my niece comes bouncing across to us from the playground, not looking where she’s going, and certainly not seeing the truck rattling down the road far too fast.
Lannis is watching me, wondering what I’m going to do. I can’t do nothing, or the kid will die. I can’t do something obvious, or I’ll be blown. Somehow, I have to make it look like she was hit by the truck. Split-second timing here. Just before the truck reaches the girl, I throw a wall of air in front of it, stopping it dead without it touching her, and add in a moving flicker to knock her off her feet. Studying the way she falls, I nod.
Standing quickly, I dart across to her and pick her up, checking for damage. Grazed knees and hands – nothing serious.
“Dorogaya, ty v poryadke? Ne govorit’. Pereyti k pape srazu.” Hopefully Lannis doesn’t speak Russian. “Ladno, khoroshaya devochka.”
My niece spits on her grazes to take the sting away, and obediently trots away across the grass, in the direction she came from.
I hate having to pull changes when I’m off-duty; makes me paranoid for hours afterwards that someone will have noticed. I really – really – hate it when my work and my family get mixed up in each other. Except with Mother. Everything to do with Mother is mixed up.
Lannis is staring at me. This is getting old. “What did you say to her? How many languages do you speak?”
“Lannis, I’m sorry, but I think I’d better go now.”
“Um – I was just wondering, since I now know what your face looks like and all – I usually go to the evening Bible study at the church on the other side of the park – I was wondering if you’d like to come along? And your friend too, if they want.”
“Religion isn’t really his thing… but sure, I’ll come. So long as you promise not to stalk me home.”
Oh, dear, what have I let myself in for?