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“Right,” she said. “So it’s like this. Hand.” She held her hand up between us. I’d never noticed how long and slender her fingers were before – not that I’d had the excuse or opportunity. “Desk.” She laid her hand on the smooth surface of the desk. “Both made of atoms packed together in a dense but regular structure, right?”
I shrugged. “Yeah. And?”
“In theory,” she said, stressing the word far more than normal, “if you aligned the atoms perfectly and were able to make sure that you didn’t lose electrons in the process, and could account for the electro-magnetics going on, you could pass one through the other. Right?”
“Yeah,” I said warily. “I suppose. In theory.”
“So do it,” she said, leaning back.
My eyebrows knitted together. “But I can’t. It’s impossible.”
“No. you just said yourself, it’s theoretically possible.”
“So do it.”
I stared at her for a long moment. “You’re crazy, right? That’s what this is actually all about. Either this is the Insanity Club, or you’re all having a big joke at my expense.” I glanced around the room. Matt and Pip seemed pretty incapable of having a joke full stop, so they were obviously the insanity contingent. Greg and Megan, though? They were capable of anything, and the way Greg was peering intently at me, arms folded over his chest and lips pressed so tight you could barely see them, did nothing to allay my suspicions.
Megan gave an explosive sigh. “Look, I really want you to figure this out on your own. Heaven knows, you’re smart enough. But being smart isn’t enough; you have to believe things are possible, too.” She caught my eye and held it. “You saw me walk through the door.”
Her face gave nothing away, but my stomach flip-flopped. “What do you mean?” I said, unwilling to admit to anything.
“You know what I mean.” Face impassive, gaze unwavering.
I held my own for a second longer, then screwed up my nose. “Oh, all right. I give in. You win. Yes, it’s theoretically possible. No, I seriously doubt anyone can do it. Yes, I’ll try anyway, and if I find out any of you have a video camera hidden somewhere in the room, I swear, I will make your life a misery.” I pressed my hand against the surface of the desk. “Here goes nothing.” I pressed against the shiny melamine-coated wood, heart racing nine to the dozen.
Nothing. I exhaled the breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. “There. See? Nothing. It’s just not possible.”
Megan huffed. “Idiot. You’re not really trying.”
“I am!” I protested. “See?” I pressed my hand against the very solid desk until the tips of my fingers went white.
“I don’t mean physically,” she said. “I mean mentally. Up here.” She tapped her temple.
Behind me, Greg snorted. “Oh, just give up, Meegs. He’s not going to get it. He’s been hanging out with the cool kids for five years; he might have some intelligence left in there somewhere, if you say so, but there’s too much attitude in the way.”
Says he, king of arrogance. “Look, shut up, all right? I’ll get it. Just tell me what I’m supposed to be getting.”
Megan studied me, eyes wide. “Are you really sure about this?” she asked eventually. “Because once you’re committed, there’s no going back. This isn’t the kind of thing you can un-do, or un-see.”
Nerves and frustration and anger and impatience warred for control. “Look, I can handle it, okay? I’m not stupid, and my attitude” – I glanced at Greg – “is fine. Just tell me what I’m trying to do, or how it is I’m supposed to do the impossible, or whatever.”
Megan placed her hand on the table next to mine and contemplated it. “It’s about belief, you see,” she said slowly. “Knowing something in your head and knowing it are different.” Her eyes flicked up and found mine. “Sometimes it helps to see it first.”
I was too busy staring into her ocean-blue eyes to notice at first that her hand was disappearing into the desk – and then I noticed, and flinched away.
“Anything’s possible, if you can just figure out how,” she said, still staring wide-eyed at me, almost like she was begging me to believe her.
Slowly, I moved my hand back onto the table next to hers. I swallowed. “I… I believe,” I whispered. I closed my eyes and imagined the atoms in my hand aligning perfectly with the atoms of the desk, imagined the dense structures relaxing and expanding, sinking and meshing into one another until the two were interlocked, meshed – but still separate, still different structures.
My eyes fluttered open and my gaze rested on my hand, only half visible, fingertips fully integrated with the desk. A smile softened the tension in my jaw. I did it.
I did it. Holy crap, I did it. My hand is part of the desk. My hand is part of the desk. Sudden and irrational panic gripped my chest and I tried to jerk my hand away – and the desk jolted.
Megan cried out, closed her eyes briefly and extracted her own hand – but mine wouldn’t budge. I pulled again, breaths coming shallow and fast, but the desk moved too, wouldn’t separate. I was trapped, I couldn’t get away, and it was like primary school when they caught me in the finger trap that first time and wouldn’t let me out and they all crowded around and shoved, and it was gentle at first until they realised I couldn’t get away, and then it turned mean, and they sang ‘Chris-fit, Chris-fit, Chris-fit is a misfit!’ and I had to hide the bruises from my mother and I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think…
Megan’s voice cut through the panic and I realised she’d called my name a couple of times, and that the hands on my shoulders weren’t hurting me, but were trying to catch me, trying to prevent me from thrashing. “Steady on, man.”
Greg. I stiffened, gulping in air.
“Chris, you have to calm down!” Megan’s voice was high-pitched, distressed, and she looked close to tears.
I closed my eyes, trying to ignore my hand, and drew in a deep, shaky breath. “I’m calm,” I said, forcing my shoulders to relax. “I’m calm.” I’m not Chris-fit anymore, I reminded myself.
Greg held me for another second, fingers digging into the soft skin between collar bone and shoulder, until I shrugged him away. “I’m calm.” I opened my eyes and sought out Megan’s. “Get me out of this?”
“I can’t,” she said, shaking her head.
Panic rose up again. Hell of a finger-trap. “What do you mean?”
“You have to do it yourself. It’s just the same as getting it in there. But you have to relax.”
I nodded, exhaling. I could do this. I got myself into it, I could get out again. It wasn’t a finger-trap. The shock of seeing my hand in the desk had set off the panic, nothing else. Anyone would freak out at the sight of half their hand missing. Anyone.
I took another deep breath to steady myself and closed my eyes. Once again, I imagined the miniscule structure of my hand, the electron links between atoms and the way the connections danced around the connections in the table. I could do this. And then, suddenly, I could; I was no longer just imagining the atomic structure of my hand, I could see it. And the table, too.
Slowly, slowly, I forced the table away from my hand, and my hand moved fractionally upwards. I resisted the temptation to jerk away all at once and moved steadily, atom by atom by atom. I opened my eyes and stole a glance, and relief flooded over me as I saw that my hand was almost free. I couldn’t help myself; I tore it away the last little bit, wincing as I broke some of the atomic bonds and left skin behind.
I sat still, nursing my hand, too stunned to process what had happened.
“You okay, man?” Greg said quietly, hand hovering like he wanted to put it on my shoulder again.
“Yeah,” I said, shrugging away. “I’m cool.”
Greg shrugged too and sat back on his desk.
I stared at mine, at the place where my hand had sunk.
“So you see it is possible,” Megan said quietly.
My gaze flicked to her for a second, then back to my hand. “Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”
“Are you in?” she said, voice still soft.
My brows twitched as I questioned her with my eyes. “I have a choice?”
“Of course you do.”
“You said I couldn’t walk away.” I searched her face.
I clenched and unclenched my jaw, rubbing the spot where my fingertips lacked some of their skin. “Yeah,” I said at last. “Yeah, I’m in.”
The bubble of tension that had been building unnoticed in the room burst, and everyone leaned back in their chairs, breathing deeply. I felt like I’d passed some sort of critical test or something. I guess I had.
Megan smiled. “Welcome to the L.A.O.S.”
I wrinkled my brow. “L.A.O.S.?”
Her smile broke into a grin, but it was Pip that answered my question. “League of Absolutely Ordinary Superheros,” she said.
I got it. Grinning back, I repeated back the words she’d said earlier. “Saving the world through science.”
Pip nodded. “Saving the world through science.”
Feeling like my cheeks might crack from sudden elation, I leaned back and surveyed the group. “So. We’re superheros. We don’t wear spandex, do we?” I added, frowning. “’Cause spandex is just wrong on so many levels.”
Matt frowned. “Spandex is aerodynamic, flexible, flame resistant and helps maintain body temperature. In many ways, it’s the perfect hero fabric.”
Megan sniggered, probably at the horror on my face.
“However,” Matt continued, “for aesthetic reasons, no. We do not wear spandex.”
“Though for you, Chris, we’re always willing to make an exception,” Greg threw in. “Unless, you know, you have image issues.”
“Shut up,” I said. “So. Non-spandex-wearing superheros. Do we have, like, missions? Who are we rescuing next?”
The group exchanged glances and I narrowed my eyes in suspicion. “We do actually do stuff, right?”
“Well,” said Megan, with the air of someone carefully considering their words. “We do have something that needs rescuing.”
“Yes?” I said, still suspicious.
“You know the E. James Downward Maths trophy?”
Dread bubbled up inside. “Yeah…”
“We have to rescue it from St. Joseph’s.”
I groaned, and the bubble burst. “You’re kidding, right?”
But of course, she wasn’t. In less than one hour, I’d blown my cover as a normal human being, discovered I had what basically equated to superpowers, and joined a superhero club – and my first mission was to win the fracking inter-school Maths competition.
Damn it all. Didn’t I say they’d be planning extra credit work before three?