Chapter 1: 1.
Apparently, I'm the captain of the Decathlon team. Or something. I was just wondering if you had any quizzes or guides that I could use.
It's weird writing to Liz. Like, they were friends, kind of, to the extent that MJ even has friends, though Liz was more like a teacher or a camp counselor, always looking at a clipboard and frowning. MJ's more polite than she would be if she were writing to one of her friends, if she had any, or people she talks to through school email that aren't teachers. Which is really just Peter and Ned, or various assigned partners on group projects.
Liz must be bored or maybe it's the time difference - and what time do schools in Oregon even start? She knows the capital (Salem, not Portland) and the 'fun fact' that it began as a state that actually officially banned black people and that Portlandia is pretty funny, but that's about it.
Liz responds quickly and includes a link to a well-curated Google Drive with - are those meeting notes? And reflection prompts for post-match debriefs?
There are about 5,000 practice questions and a document detailing the rules that's probably longer than whatever governs U.N. meetings, and a helpful one-pager for new team members. In a subfolder, there's a document with links to other practice question sites with ratings of how well they model the decathlon questions and how did none of them never notice that Liz was actually insane?
And now MJ has to squish her Doc Martens into Liz's tasteful and school-appropriate flats, at least metaphorically. Shoes to fill or whatever. Shit.
There's a folder that has a profile of every team member, with a picture, grade level, and subject-area strengths: Ned's good on almost anything computer-related or spatial; Flash is good on pre-Columbian history (huh) and musicals (huh again); Peter's good on science, Spanish (though MJ is in his Spanish class and knows that le gusta hacer la tarea), and any events requiring manual dexterity.
She looks at her own profile, the picture of her that's mostly her hair from that time last year she decided that she didn't feel like dealing with it, until her mother had threatened to chop it or relax it again. Her strengths are listed as, unsurprisingly, post-colonial literature, Spanish (MJ tambien hace la tarea, even if she didn't particularly le gusta it.), and art. Nothing she didn't know, but it shows Liz knows them pretty well.
There's more, including suggested groupings for when they split on team assignments and wow, Liz put her as a 'can go anywhere;' she'll need to work on her scowling technique.
It's all a lot, especially since MJ thought this would be mostly reading practice questions and keeping Flash from using the bell for comedic effect. This is way more than she signed up for, even if her dad keeps badgering her about having 'leadership experience' for her college applications. She just didn't really process that being a leader meant ... actually leading people, and it sounds dumb once she thinks it, but it's true.
There's another document and it's a freaking annotated bibliography - OK, it's a set of books on coaching with Liz's thoughts, and one is available for free through the library's Kindle service and doesn't have a wait list. If she puts it on her Kindle, she can tell people she's reading ‘Another Country’ again.
Thanks for the lesson plans. These are pretty thorough. Definitely got some big shoes to fill. If there's anything else, lemme know.
Hope Oregon is going well and everything. Sorry about - I guess the move is probably pretty hard. I transferred in 5th grade and it seemed like everyone had a best friend already. Can't imagine what that's like in senior year.
Everyone on the team says 'hi' and they'll probably snapchat you if they hate practice or whatever. Mr. Harrington got a new blazer and it's worse than most of his old ones somehow, but now we all know that puce and puce green are different colors and knowing is half the battle as he always says.
She hits send before she types something she regrets, like how she knows how hard it is to be at a place with no friends - and Liz probably has friends already, she's the kind of likable that MJ should hate but doesn't. Or how it sucks having a parent who's always away, though her mother is deployed and not in actual prison.
Practice goes well enough, though there a couple of moments where Liz probably would have done something different and Flash seems to want to pick at Peter and Ned even more than normal - probably because he's grounded until the end of time since Spider-Man stole his dad's car and wants to lash out at someone - but it goes OK.
Peter looks more tired than he should given that it's only Tuesday, and MJ thinks about asking him what's up but she doesn't know if that's an overstep or some kind of breach of Decathlon etiquette and besides, Mr. Harrington is talking to him already.
She's been walking out with Ned and him - or not with them, but they all walk to the front doors together and wait for the train together, and should she wait now that's he's lagging? She stops before the door and spends probably too much time tying one of her shoes and definitely not trying to listen to what they're talking about.
She doesn't hear much, only sees Mr. Harrington clap one of Peter's shoulders and then Peter is walking toward her looking sort of ... he doesn't do sad well, or maybe he does sad too well because he's got that kicked-puppy thing going that shouldn't make her feel a bunch of feelings.
He smiles when he sees her, and that makes her feel something else, low and close to her spine, both that he wants to smile at her and that he's trying to cover up whatever it is bothering him by smiling the way she does by not smiling.
It makes her say, "You want to get some pizza or something?" because she needs to eat and her dad is teaching a night class that evening and won't be home until after she's pretending to be asleep.
Peter looks surprised, eyes going wide like she just offered him a kidney and not a slice. "Uh, OK. Can Ned come too?"
"Sure," she says, shrugging. It's not like she meant it as a date or anything.
They get pizza and eat at the stools at a back counter, Peter between her and Ned, both of them kind of talking with their mouths full, to each other, over each other. She goes in and out of listening - at home will be too quiet, even when she puts on something at random from her dad's music collection, and it's all familiar stuff from their lunchtime conversations anyway.
"OK, but listen, listen, listen," Ned says, like Peter hadn't been. "Like, what if when Iron Man opened up that portal or whatever with the Chitauri, what if it was a Hellmouth -," and he turns to MJ - "that's a thing from Buffy, which is a show, and -"
"Yeah," MJ says. "I also have Netflix, dude." She and her mom sometimes watch it when her mom is home and wants to have mother-daughter time by which she means watching shows from the mid-to-late 90s that her mom says help her understand MJ's teen angst. "It sucks less than some other stuff."
Ned looks like he wants to give her a dissertation on why exactly Buffy doesn't suck, but Peter makes a hand motion like 'not the time,' and so he just says, "So what if the thing that he opened over New York was a Hellmouth and everything that's happened since then - with all these 'enhanced individuals,'" and he does air quotes, "that's just because of what he did."
"But he was Iron Man before then - and Thor was Thor and Hulk's been Hulk since - I don't know, but he's been Hulk for a while," Peter says.
"I'm not saying that it's the source of all the weird stuff happening," and he nudges Peter like Peter is one of the weird things that's happened. "But like, maybe it's emitting some kind of, I don't know, mystical energy or something that's attracting everyone to New York. Like, you don't hear about Avengers, Tokyo-edition. Or Avengers, Calcutta-style."
"I mean, there was Sokovia," MJ says. "And Lagos." And if this were Flash and not Ned she might say something about his Western-centrism or limited perspective or the fact that his go-to insult for Peter is probably a sublimation tactic for his actual Peter-related thirst - not that she knows literally anything about that. At all.
But since it's Ned, he just shrugs and sucks the last of his soda out of the bottom of his cup noisily. "It's still kinda weird that stuff doesn't seem to go down as much in like Chicago or LA."
"Tony, I mean Iron Man, I mean, Mr. Stark is located here," Peter says.
And it's always been a little strange to MJ how Stark plucked this rando kid from Queens to be his intern, but then Peter seems to have that effect on people.
"What do you do at your internship, anyway?" MJ asks.
"Uh," Peter says, like it's the first time anyone actually wanted to know. "You know. Intern stuff."
“Intern stuff,” she repeats.
“Um, things with spreadsheets?” Peter asks it like it’s a question, and over his shoulder Ned is giving a double thumbs up with a grin that says ‘nice one, buddy.’
“Spreadsheets.” She keeps her tone flat, because there’s a certain level of incredulity she has at most of the things Peter claims - like how he was mysteriously absent for the trip up the Washington Monument - but it’s probably better for everyone if he doesn’t know how much she knows he’s lying.
He does have the good sense to look vaguely guilty, and Ned breaks the moment by taking another noisy sip of his soda, even though it’s nothing but ice and air in his cup. “Hey, we better get going,” he says. “That um project for um history is uhhhh.”
It’s due in three weeks and she has the same one, but it’s an exit and she lets them take it.
Home is quiet, but not more so than usual - she pulls something from her dad’s collection, a Nina Simone kind of mood, one he’s played again and again when her mother is deployed. She reads for a while, a Sandra Cisneros book for school, her Twitter feed, some poetry she’d written late at night that now looks like nothing she was trying to say.
They don’t have Decathlon practice tomorrow, but they do Thursday and Friday afternoon, like the losers they are. She should probably plan, because they’re going to look at her like they’d looked at Liz - like she should know what to do and what to say; like she should have thought about what they’re asking her.
Liz has a practice agenda template in the Drive, and MJ fills it out and fills it out again until she has something approaching what they’d done previously. An initial question to the group, individual self-assessments about a specific topic, studying and paired quizzing, and then a free-for-all lightning round reviewing what they’d done the last few practices.
An ‘anonymous turtle’ icon appears at the upper right hand of the doc, and she opens the chat window to ask who it is. Before she can, though, she gets a ping on her gchat from Liz.
Liz: It’s me. On the agenda doc.
Liz: Looks good. I like the focus on the Gupta Empire. Everyone’s supposed to learn it at the beginning of 9th grade, but most of them forget stuff if it’s been more than a year.
MJ pauses before responding, because her assessment is just kind of Liz - targeted, specific, thoughtful. They weren’t really friends, but they weren’t unfriendly, and it feels a little strange that MJ should be the target of Liz’s time and attention. Maybe she doesn’t want to be blamed if the team doesn’t do well this year. There’s too much to say, and so MJ just says:
Liz gives a ‘thumbs up’ emoji.
Liz: You may want to consider the sequence of practices - I wouldn’t focus all on history, for instance, since the questions don’t. There’s a good paper on how mixed practice increases recall.
And she gives a link to something from a teaching magazine, an actual article on different quiz structures and -
MJ: um ok
MJ: not sure i’m ready for this
There’s a pause, a ‘Liz is typing' notification, and then:
And wow, she didn’t think Liz would be quite like that about things and then -
Liz: I wasn’t either. Took like a year to feel like I knew what I was doing. If you want, I can take a look at whatever you come up with.
She hesitates because on the one hand, it’s kind of irritating that Liz thinks she doesn’t know what she’s doing, but on the other, she doesn’t know what she’s doing, and Liz must be bored and lonely to be on gchat at 5pm Pacific Time checking on MJ’s work.
MJ could probably say something that would make Liz back off - she’s good at that - but instead she just types: ‘tx’ again, and a smiley face that gchat formats into an emoji.
Wednesday proceeds with the normal pattern of classes, lunch sitting-by-but-not-sitting-with Ned and Peter, more classes, and a rattling train ride home. Her dad isn’t teaching that night, so it’s family dinner, or whatever they call it when they both watch TV while eating at the same time.
“School going OK?” he asks, like he doesn’t have a weekly alert about her grades sent from the school’s online gradebook each Friday.
“Yeah,” MJ says.
He waits, because he’s good at that, inducing others to talk. She sits in on his classes sometimes, music appreciation classes at whatever community college has him as an adjunct. He works at the prison too, dissecting lyrics and musical themes with inmates - she hasn’t gone to those classes, but thinks that he’s probably good at it: good at drawing others out in conversation, willing to wait a beat or two longer than most people before it becomes awkward, the kind of focused attention that gets people to say things they probably wouldn’t otherwise.
“I’m worried about the Decathlon team,” she says. “I’m in charge now and ... “
They’re sitting close enough on the couch that she can tip her head onto his shoulder and he knows better than to pet her hair, but he pets the space right above it.
“And I’m afraid the team will know that I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Hmmm,” her dad says. “Seems like it could be a problem. But they picked you, right?”
“Yeah but -”
“It just seems like they might know you’re new,” he says. “And that you’ve had to take over for someone else on short notice. That kind of thing might make some people more forgiving of mistakes.”
“I just don’t want to make any,” she says, sighing and leaning back against the couch. “Liz didn’t seem to.”
“Did she work really hard?” he asks. “And did you feel like she was listening to people and making decisions with the team’s best interests in mind?”
“Then you have nothing to worry about.” He kisses her on the forehead, and lets her stay slumped against the couch while he clears both of their plates off the coffee table.
Practice the next day isn’t a complete disaster, if only because the number of disasters to hit New York recently has recalibrated MJ’s understanding of the term. On a scale of one to crashing an invisible airplane into Coney Island, it’s about an eight.
Flash and Peter instigate most of it after Mr. Harrington steps out to make a call, telling them not to commit any felonies on his way out.
Peter looks like he hasn’t slept any more than he did on Tuesday - and Flash needles him about, well, everything: Missing an answer on a Spanish quiz, having off-brand sneakers, not showing up at nationals.
“ - And now you can’t even get an stupid question right! And Liz isn’t here and we’ll be done for the year and -”
Peter gets up, into Flash’s face, looking angrier than MJ has ever seen him, face red, hands tensing into fists. He pokes Flash in the chest hard enough that Flash stumbles back and then falls into a chair.
“Ow,” he says, with real feeling and Flash might be soft, but that shouldn’t have hurt him for real unless Peter is much stronger than he looks.
Ned steps in between them, hands up like he’s defending Peter at basketball, arms waving, and Peter looks like he’s considering shoving Ned, and that’s when MJ gets onto a table, sticks two fingers in her mouth and executes the loudest whistle she’s ever managed. It’s pretty close to Peter, and he clamps both hands over his ears like the sound physically pains him.
“You,” she yells, pointing at Flash. “Sit down and stay down until I tell you. You two -” and she points at Peter and Ned. “Go out in the hallway and wait for me. I will be there in a minute.”
All three of them nod, and she waits until Peter and Ned have left before turning to Flash and going, “OK, first of all, what the fuck?”
“He’s the one who -”
“Shut the fuck up,” MJ says.
“Liz never -”
“I said shut the actual fuck up. Take a couple deep breaths and start composing a long, heartfelt, and plaintive message to the team apologizing and begging to be let back on as second alternate.”
“If I’m feeling generous.” She doesn’t look at him again, jumping down from the table and turning her back on him as she walks out, though she can practically feel his stare.
In the hallway, Peter looks like he stuck his entire head under the water fountain or that Ned had done it for him. He’s squatting on the floor, looking between his feet like the wood gloss of the floor is trying to tell him something. “Sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have -”
“Shut it,” MJ says.
His mouth clicks shut, and he looks up at her, contrite.
“I don’t know what your deal is or why today of all days you had to let Flash get to you,” she says. “But you both seem determined to be assholes.”
“Are you kicking me off the team?” Peter asks.
She shakes her head. “You’re both second alternates until you can figure this shit out,” she says. “And,” and she knows this will suck for her more than it will for either one of them, “you’re both going to sit with me until you can do so without trying to kill each other.”
Peter scrubs a hand over his face. “I’m just, I know it’s not an excuse, but I’m just really tired right now.”
She squats down, taking a look at him, and he has dents under his eyes from exhaustion, what looks like a fading bruise on his cheekbone, and looks pale even for a white boy. “Get some rest,” she says, more gently than she had been. Both of you can come back to practice Monday but just - get some sleep, OK?”
“Thanks, MJ,” he mumbles. “You’re uh. I think you’re going to be a good team captain.”
“Quit kissing my ass, Parker,” she says, and he laughs.
Friday practice goes more smoothly with Peter and Flash gone. There’s no yelling, for one thing, just the hushed quiet of leafing through study guides, and the mixed practice lightning round at end is actually pretty fun.
“Can we keep score? Like across practices as a scrimmage?” Betty asks.
“With prizes!” says the new kid, who’s a freshman and whose name MJ can’t actually remember.
“OK,” MJ says. “But New Kid’s the score keeper. You good with that, New Kid?”
The new kid flushes. “Sure, OK, yes, ma’am,” she says.
She’s online later, and of course she’s online at 11pm on a Friday, so she’s a little surprised when Liz is there too.
MJ: one of the freshmen called me ma’am today at practice
Liz: LOL. Nice.
MJ: they want to do an in-team scrimmage thing. like harry potter houses. i’m making them think of mascots and everything
Liz: Oooh, that’s a really good idea. I might steal that one.
MJ: are you on a team out there?
Liz: No. They’d already done try-outs by the time I transfered. And my mom doesn’t want me, you know, traveling for competitions and stuff.
MJ: that why youre home now?
Liz: Yeah. Netflix and pizza. Not like there’s much to do here.
MJ: that sucks
MJ’s evening hasn’t been much different, except her dad had brought home Thai food and she got out of watching whatever documentary on jazz he had by saying she wanted to read instead.
MJ: what’re you watching?
Liz: Some Netflix series my mom likes. She’s been talking about doing my hair later. Just twists or something.
MJ: sounds nice
Liz: Not really how I thought Friday nights during senior year would go …
Liz: Yeah. :-/ I think I’m going to do this -
And she sends a set of Pinterest links to various hairstyles. MJ doesn’t really have an opinion on any of them, but she studies them anyway.
MJ: this one’ll look nice
Liz: Thanks. I’m gonna think about it. Just feels like I want a change somehow.
Liz: OK, the show’s starting. Have a good night!
MJ reads for a while, then scrolls through her Twitter and Tumblr feeds, though it’s a slow news day, just the normal depressing shit, until she nods off.
When she wakes up, there’s an alien ship hovering over lower Manhattan, spewing out drones.
It says something that her first response is to sigh, “Again” while her dad pours her half a cup of coffee and then whitens it with soy milk. They watch on TV as the Avengers try to fight the thing, Iron Man flying in for some kind of attack, the one with a red face that the TV anchors identify as Vision shooting what looks like energy bursts from his forehead.
The National Guard is out too, and for once MJ is happy that her mother is deployed to sit and take inventory on an Air Force base in Afghanistan where she says the most exciting thing that happens is chocolate cake day in the cafeteria.
There’s fighting, of course, a relay of shots back and forth, and the news advises everyone near Manhattan to get to an interior room or in a basement if possible to avoid becoming collateral damage. They don’t really have either of those as an option - and they’re far enough from Manhattan that they probably don’t need to, but her dad makes her help push furniture in front of the windows case there’s a blast wave, and they hunker down to wait it out.
On TV, they zoom in on a small red and blue dot that flashes across screen, and Spider-Man is apparently there, slinging between skyscrapers and shooting a combination of webs at one of the alien drones. He does a set of tumbles and twists that make MJ nauseated just looking at them, and then he goes into a free fall, until Iron Man snags him and uses his momentum to slingshot him at a drone.
Or, he almost misses, and he’s hanging on by his fingertips and then he wraps enough webbing around it to secure his grip and he’s steering, now, arms straining as the drone tries to resist him. It must have some signal to return to its host ship because it takes off straight up, Spider-Man clinging to it and MJ can’t look, but can’t look away either.
The drone is almost to the ship, Spider-Man still on it, and a hatch opens, a beam descending and Spider-Man throws himself up on a top of the drone, balancing like he’s on a surfboard, aiming his hands straight above him, doing some complex maneuver with his wrists that must send up pulses of webbing.
The beam falters for a second, releasing one giant burst of energy that hits Spider-Man full on and then blinks out. It doesn’t matter, because Spider-Man is falling and MJ’s raises her hand like she can actually save him through the screen, watching him tumble, scorched, through the air, below the line of buildings, down down, and she gasps because he’s going to die right in front of her, right in front of everyone watching and -
Iron Man catches him, carrying Spider-Man, who looks rag-doll limp, and MJ hasn’t cried at a movie since she was six, but she’s crying now, partially relief, partially with worry that he might already be dead.
The Decathlon group text has been blowing up, with everyone checking in except Peter, who’s gone silent and MJ isn’t worried, exactly, but there’s something in her gut that doesn’t settle right either, even though he doesn’t live any closer to Manhattan than she does. Even when Tony Stark releases a statement an hour later that says that Spider-Man is alive and recovering.
Peter comes to school on Monday looking like he’s been in a fight, hair singed, limping visibly.
“I was downtown when it happened,” he says, holding his ribs.
“Should you even be here?” MJ asks, breaking the code of lunch silence because Peter is clearly not OK.
“I’m fine,” Peter says, wincing. “I’ll be fine. Just got a little hurt in one of the explosions.”
Even Flash must take pity on him, because Decathlon practice goes OK, though Peter slumps forward a little onto the library table. MJ maneuvers her chair closer to him, and he leans against her. This close, he still smells a little charred, and there are matching bruises on each of his wrists like something had been locked around them.
“I’m walking to the train,” she says, after.
“Me too,” Ned says, and looks pointedly at Peter.
“OK,” Peter says. “I’ll come with you guys.”
They walk flanking him, and Peter grabs her wrist, fingers around her forearm, to steady himself. He’s too short to really put an arm over her shoulder, but he keeps his hand on her arm until they get to the train platform.
“You gonna be good getting up to your apartment?” she asks, once they’re on the train, Peter seated between them, arm still slung over Ned. His hand has slid lower, until they’re practically palm to palm, and she expected his hand to be soft or clammy, but instead it’s dry as paper and a little rough.
“I can take him,” Ned says.
“I texted May,” Peter says. “She’s going to come and meet me. And Mr. Stark came to visit. When he found out I got hurt. So they can probably get me from there.”
“OK,” Ned says, but he’s not happy about it. “You gonna come to school tomorrow?”
“I’m -” Peter begins.
“No, wrong answer,” Ned says, and Peter slumps even more then, like his strings have been cut.
MJ finds herself itching to want to do something even if it’s as simple as putting her hand on his head, and he has other people to dote on him, but it’s -
“You should stay home,” she says, and his head moves as he’s nodding. He’s exerted himself enough that the back of his neck looks damp with sweat, hair sticking there, and it’s well into December, too cold for it to be anything but effort.
May and Tony freaking Stark are waiting on the subway platform for him, and she and Ned do an awkward hand-off before getting back on the train.
“He’s uh -” Ned begins, looking around at the other passengers.
“Hurt,” MJ says.
“Yes,” Ned says, evenly. Like this isn’t the first time he’s had to do something like this for Peter.
“You think he’s coming to school tomorrow?”
“May’ll try to stop him, but he’s …”
“Stubborn?” MJ supplies
“He’s Peter,” Ned says with a shrug. “Sometimes he needs a voice of reason.”
“And that’s you and May?”
Ned looks at her like she said something funny. “That’s us and May, yeah,” he says, gesturing to her as well. “Um, here’s my stop. See you tomorrow.”
Liz is online when she gets home, and MJ has the urge to tell her about what happened with Peter. They’d all been friends. Are friends.
MJ: Peter got hurt in the attack yesterday
Liz: !!!! Is he OK?
MJ: i think so he said he was close to one of the explosions but he looked pretty bad
MJ: the avengers were there too. and spiderman. he got hit during the battle
Liz doesn’t respond, but MJ’s phone starts buzzing a second later and it’s Liz. They’re not really phone friends, and MJ can’t imagine calling Liz to talk about anything, until she answers and goes, “He’s -”
And Liz goes, “Spider-Man. It took me a while to figure out too, but yeah. Yeah.”
Neither of them says anything for a second, because what else is there to say? Peter’s Spider-Man. Peter, who went and got himself hurt fighting aliens over the weekend and came to Decathalon practice on Monday. Peter who acted like the pop quiz in Spanish class was the worst thing to happen to him last week, who poked Flash in the chest with one finger and pushed him down, who always seems tired and bruised, who -
“Did you tell him,” MJ asks, “that you knew?”
“No,” Liz says. “It felt like he had too much going on and it wouldn’t be fair to him. And it wasn’t until after my dad - so no. I didn’t.”
“I’m sorry,” MJ says. “About um, your dad. I’m good at telling people stuff about themselves, but I’m not - I don’t know what I should say.”
Liz laughs, and it doesn’t sound happy. “This is just - my dad always said I had my life all planned out. I did. I was going to go to Columbia, and major in classics and art history. I was going to Yale Law, to write on their law review. I was going to clerk for a federal judge and ... “
“You could still,” MJ says. “You could still do all of that.”
“The money’s gone, Michelle,” Liz says. “They froze his accounts, and there were a few things in my mother’s name, but now it’s too late. I can put the adjusted income on my FAFSA and just hope that I beat every other student - kids who’ve been working for this for years - for a scholarship. My mom keeps saying that going to a state college out here isn’t the end of the world but. It kind of feels like it is.”
“Yeah,” MJ breathes, because she has a plan like that too; every kid at their school probably does. Except hers involves Reed or Grinnell or Brown, maybe, a grad degree in creative nonfiction. Ned’s is CMU and studying brain-computer interfaces, and Peter’s is MIT and materials science and he could die before he gets there, which -
“You know what someone said to me out here, when I told him my father was in prison? He asked if it was for being in a gang.”
“That is so fucked up,” MJ says.
“I hate it here,” Liz says. “It’s pretty but like, I just miss everyone.”
She sucks in a breath, and she’s crying, and what is MJ supposed to do? She likes to draw people in crisis, but not like actual crisis, just the normal teenage and teacher meltdown stuff. It’s easier than getting involved. “We miss you,” she says, finally. “The team does. Peter does.”
“I never thought I’d miss Queens, but all I want to do is go back to the way things were. Before.”
“Your dad,” MJ asks. “Do you think he knows? I mean about Peter.” Silence for a good 15 seconds, enough that MJ checks to see if the call got dropped, but it didn’t.
“I don’t - he didn’t say,” Liz says. “But I think. I think he did. Spider-Man - Peter - saved my life. My father believed in paying debts, on not owing anyone anything. I think he knew, but he didn’t want me to know. To keep me safe. And Peter. You should, you should think about if you want to tell Peter you know.”
“Ned knows I do. Or I think he does. This is all kind of confusing.”
“Yeah,” Liz says. “But just - think about if you want him to know or not. Because you can’t really take that back.”
“You’ve had a while to think it over,” MJ says.
“I have,” she says. “I wouldn’t, I decided, but that’s your decision.”
“You were a really good team captain,” MJ says, because it’s true. “And I’m glad that you’ll be out of there soon.”
“Me too,” Liz says. “I should let you go.” Which is her gracious ‘Liz’ way of saying that she needs to go.
“Um, if you want to text me,” MJ says. “Not on like the group chat. That’d be OK.”
“Thanks,” Liz says.
For some reason, that makes Liz laugh, and she says ‘goodbye’ and hangs up.
The next day at school, and all MJ can think is, “Peter is Spider-Man, Peter is Spider-Man,” over and over. It’s just so - it’s a lot, and she sits with Ned at lunch and lets her hair cover her face, and shoves cafeteria food in her mouth.
Ned makes an elaborate show of looking around before saying, “You get used to it. It took a while for me to really piece together that the guy who helped me build the Lego Death Star and the guy who throws himself off buildings is the same guy.”
“Do you worry about him?”
“I thought it was cool as hell,” Ned says. “Until he nearly died. Twice. Then it got less cool.”
“Yeah,” Ned says. “This time wasn’t even as serious as the others.”
“He got blasted in the chest. By aliens.”
“Like I said,” Ned says. “Not as serious. You can go visit him after school. He would. He’d probably like that, OK? But don’t tell him I said that.” And he’s blushing like he said something embarrassing and oh.
“We have practice,” Michelle says.
“Uh, you’re the captain,” Ned says. “End practice early.”
She doesn’t end practice early, but she does deputize the New Kid - whose name it turns out is Harriet, though she says, “Call me Harry, everyone does.” - to run the lightning round.
Delmar’s has a new temporary space a few storefronts down from where it was, and she asks for Peter’s order, with the bread squished down extra flat and Delmar gives her a long look and throws in a bag of chips and a can of tea for free. “Tell him to feel better,” he says. “And tell his aunt I said ‘hi.’”
“I will do one of those things,” MJ says, but pays her five and takes the bag.
May opens the door when MJ knocks and smiles when she sees the bag MJ’s holding. “He’s resting,” she says. “But I can see if he’s feeling up to a visitor.”
He apparently is and is sitting up in bed when MJ goes to his room. “Come to see your favorite second alternate?” he asks.
“Is Flash here too?” she asks, taking an exaggerated look around the room, and he leans forward and holds his ribs when he laughs. “I brought you,” and she holds up the bag. “Bread extra flat, right?”
“You’re a very observant person,” Peter says, making grabby hands for the sandwich.
He eats messily, and MJ fills him on what happened at school, and at practice, and the silly thing Ned had done and the fact that he missed polymer chemistry lab day, and they’d seen who could make the bounciest bouncey ball.
“We’re doing Barbie bungee jump next week, so you better be better by then. We gotta see how close we can get Barbie to the ground using rubber bands after we launch her into the stairwell, and you’d better be my lab partner for that.”
She leans over to maybe punch him in the arm, but then stops half way when he leans up, sandwich crumbs on his chest, and hugs her instead.
“Oh,” she says, when he lets her go. “I mean. The team misses you.” She feels like she’s saying that a lot.
“Thanks,” he says. “For the sandwich. And for coming to see me.” He looks tired again, suddenly, and he gestures for a bottle of pills next to the bed. “I’m supposed to take these right after eating.”
There’s a glass of water too, and she hands that to him first, then counts out two pills like the dosage says and gives him those as well.
“These make me a little goofy,” he says, after he swallows them with a drink of water.
“As opposed to …”
“Ha,” he says. “And sleepy. I mean, they kinda knock me out.”
“I can -” she says, rising to go.
“Would you stick around?” he asks. “Just until I fall asleep.” He looks a little surprised that he asked that, cheeks red, and it’s pretty cute, really. Even MJ can admit that.
“Um, OK,” she says. It feels weird to sit in the desk chair, almost like she should be psychoanalyzing or asking him about his dreams or something, so she sits on the floor instead, close enough that when one of Peter’s arms drops down, she only hesitates for a second before reaching to hold his hand.
“Liz says ‘hi,’” she says, and she doesn’t know why she says it, only that she feels like she’s weirdly betraying a friend by doing this with him.
“Oh,” Peter says, voice already beginning to slur. “How’s she doing in Oregon?”
Terrible, MJ wants to say. Miserable. Because Spider-Man defeated her father and now he’s in prison, and she’s not even mad at you like I would be.
“You could text her,” MJ says, instead. “She was worried when she heard you were hurt.”
“I didn’t know if she’d really forgiven me for, um, ditching her at the dance.”
And MJ’s pretty sure he means for that other stuff too, but she just squeezes his hand and says, “She has.”
“You guys talk?” Peter asks.
“Mostly about Decathlon stuff.”
“Thought you didn’t have friends,” he says, and he drifts off after that.
“Seems like I do,” she says, quietly, mostly to herself. She sits for a while, reading a book off the app on her phone, and listening to him breathe. It's nice.
She gets up later, going into the kitchen where May is sitting at the counter. “He’s asleep,” she says.
“Good,” May says, and she looks like she needs rest herself. “Did you want to stay for dinner?”
“Uh,” MJ says.
“I could use the company,” May says. “I always want to get to know Peter’s friends.”
Probably to make sure that we’re not super-villains trying to kill her nephew, MJ doesn’t say, and instead shrugs. “OK,” she says. “I’ll need to text my dad. He’s working tonight, anyway.”
“What does he do?” May asks, light enough that it’s not really light at all, given what Liz’s father did.
MJ swallows before saying, “Musicology professor. At Hunter and a couple of other places.”
“Is he gone a lot?” May says, and MJ is tempted to reach up and adjust to the kitchen light fixture hanging above her, just so this interrogation has more thematic lighting, MJ on a stool while Peter’s aunt plays ‘good cop’ for a while.
“No,” she says. “But he works nights. My mom is in the Air Force. She’s in Afghanistan right now. Doing inventory management.”
“Inventory management, huh,” May says. “How do you feel about pasta?”
“Good,” MJ says, because pasta seems like a neutral topic.
“How about zoodles?” And MJ has literally never seen a more menacingly wielded spiralizer, but she swallows and nods, and accepts the zucchini that May gives her to shred.
Dinner ends up being a mix of whole wheat pasta and zucchini noodles under some of the best red sauce MJ has ever eaten.
Once settled, May continues her interrogation about MJ’s interests (art, postcolonial literature, blogging, the Twilight Zone), best and worst subjects at school (English and doesn’t really have one, but she’s not fond of gym), plans for after high school (college, grad school, working at the Atlantic), thoughts about the recent attack in Manhattan (bad and scary), feelings about the Mets' season (not great, though she doesn’t follow baseball the way her dad does), and a short biography of each of her parents, beginning with where their parents were born (Queens, Queens, Queens, and the DR).
It’s more than she’s said about herself well, maybe, ever, but at the end, her answers seem to satisfy May, and she fixes a plate of pasta with relatively few zoodles and a lot of Parmesan and sends her in to wake up Peter.
He’s lost his shirt sometime in his sleep, and she pauses for a minute in the doorway, because how did none of them not know he was a superhero because - OK. OK.
She makes a show of knocking on the open door, and Peter stirs and then smiles sleepily when he sees her. And MJ thinks of herself in adjectives: dispassionate, observant, remote, intimidating, scowling, cynical, and occasionally mean, but whatever word she has for what she’s feeling right then, she doesn’t know, only that it’s new and feels like a slow, spreading warmth within her.
“May made pasta.”
“Oooh,” Peter says. “Um, does it have those zucchini noodles?”
“Very few,” MJ says.
“Then I stand by my 'oooh.'”
She sits in the desk chair this time, and he’s feeling well enough to eat sitting up, feet on the floor, ducking down so he doesn’t hit his head on the top bunk.
“Your aunt has a future with the CIA, by the way. I think she now has my dental records and my grandparents’ social security numbers.”
“May likes to make sure she knows my friends,” Peter says, with a ‘what can you do?’ shrug.
And it’s enough that MJ almost says it, almost says, ‘It’s because you’re Spider-Man,’ but something in his expression makes her stop. “It was weird when she got the phone book and lighter, OK?” she says instead.
Peter smiles at her, and it’s a different smile than he usually has, softer and maybe the drugs are still affecting him, but it’s one that makes her want to lean in and put her hand on his face, to see what kissing him might be like.
“Were you gonna sleep over?” he asks, though it’s barely 8 o’clock.
“My dad would literally murder you,” she says, then, realizes that Liz’s dad probably tried to do just that. “I mean figuratively literally. Not literally literally. Mostly, he’d try to get you to listen to experimental jazz, and it’s the same thing. Some of it involves the kazoo.”
He smiles that same way again, and she holds his gaze for probably a second too long, savoring it, before saying her goodbyes to him, and then to May.
She spends a lot of her train ride home listening to music and feeling her lips curl up into a smile.
Chapter 2: 2.
December seems to go both fast and slow, the rush of midterms and crawl into Winter Break after, when even her most hard-ass teachers start showing videos in the last few days.
Thank you for your lovely comments and for sticking with this story! Feedback appreciated. I'm dontsleepsharks at gmail and tumblr.
December seems to go both fast and slow, the rush of midterms and crawl into Winter Break after, when even her most hard-ass teachers start showing videos in the last few days. They decorate cookies that look like cells, and make solutions that smell like various fruits, and watch the old version of Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando, and generally don’t do much in the way of challenging work.
Mr. Harrington brings them donuts for practice, and MJ doesn’t keep the team any longer than she needs to, though she assigns review material for each of the over the break.
Even Peter and Flash seem to be getting along OK, though Flash makes a big show of giving everyone gift cards as presents.
Things are winding down at practice, when she hears Peter say, “I don’t need it,” quietly to Flash and she braces for having to step between them when he continues, “I know you’re working to pay off the car, I mean.”
“Just take it, Parker,” Flash says. “Get yourself a new face or whatever.”
“Merry Christmas, Flash,” Peter says.
“Merry Christmas, Penis,” Flash says, and it feels somehow like progress.
Her mom comes home for Christmas, wearing a dark blue uniform with her name placket that says ‘Danvers’ on it. She hugs MJ long enough that it starts to hurt, and smells her hair and tells her that they’re going for some real American pancakes and then to see the tree in Rockefeller Plaza. It’s dumb and touristy as hell and her mom insists on holding her hand and buying her a pair of earrings MJ probably won’t ever wear to school, and asking her about literally everything going on in her life. There are things that suck more than this.
“So you’re the captain of the team?” her mom asks.
“Just because Liz had to move,” MJ says.
“But they picked you?”
“You sound like Dad.”
“Your father’s a very smart man,” she says. “Look who he married after all.”
They stop to admire a model train display in a shop window. It’s a tiny town, like no place that MJ has been, everything scenic and in miniature, and there are little evergreen trees with tiny dustings of snow on them. It’s how she pictures where Liz lives in Oregon, some place remote and safe and dull, and something about it makes her say, “Can we, um, go buy some presents? For my friends at school?”
“Of course, Michelle,” her mom says.
Ned’s easy to get a present for, Lego Boba Fett and a fidget spinner just because she wants to see him drive Mr. Harrington crazy. She finds a clipboard with actual sparkles on it that she can send to Liz along with the book on different leadership styles she’d already gotten her.
Peter is harder to shop for, because she doesn’t really know what she wants the gift to say. He’d been better since he’d gotten back to school, no other injuries, but no other hand-holding either, and if Facebook weren’t for old people she’d be selecting ‘it’s complicated’ from the relationship options.
Her mom finds her paused down one aisle looking at a Star Wars DVD set, which he probably already has, anyway. “Seems like a pretty expensive gift,” she says. “For a friend.”
“Moooom,” MJ says, and she can feel her face heating up.
“Sometimes, the best gift is spending time with someone,” her mom says. “And that DVD set is 80 dollars, Michelle. I’m not helping you pay for it.”
In the end, she makes him a mix, carefully selecting and compiling songs from her father’s CD collection, a few that she’d liked on Spotify, a range of things that she likes that he might like too. She’s nervous to give it to him, even when he invites her and Ned over for a post-Christmas party, which is really just the three of them watching movies and drinking hot chocolate.
He gives each of them a bag of cookies that May made - “There’s, uh, there’s a lot of fig in them,” he says. “If you like figs.”
He also got Ned Lego Boba Fett, and it’s pretty funny, especially when they reenact him falling into the Sarlacc Pit over and over.
“I got you this,” he says, handing her a long jewelry box. In it, there’s Ravenclaw prefect badge pendant hanging on a thin silver chain.
“You misspelled ‘perfect,’ Parker,” she says, but she shoves her hair up and out of the way so he can help her put on the necklace. His hands linger on her shoulders, and they’re only interrupted by Ned clearing his throat exaggeratedly and then asking if they want to watch Die Hard.
Later, she passes Peter the flash drive with the playlist saved on it, and he goes to upload it to his computer and then to his Starkphone. “Were you gonna listen to it now?” she asks, and points with her chin over to where Ned has fallen asleep on the couch.
“Yeah,” he says, and they both get up as quietly as possible, tiptoeing into his room. Outside it’s not snowing, but it’s gray enough that it feels quiet, clouds like fur covering the sky. It feels insulated, secure, even more so in Peter’s cramped bedroom, which smells like May made him Febreeze it earlier.
“May says I’m supposed to leave the door open if I have a girl in here,” Peter says.
“That happen a lot?” MJ asks.
“Um, mostly hypothetically?”
“Betty Brant came over once when I was in 5th grade, and we got glue stuck in her hair somehow.”
“So, really, this is for my safety,” MJ says.
He leaves the door open a crack, and they lie on Peter’s bed, on the bottom bunk, side-by-side and crowded close, Peter offering her one of his earbuds. The comforter from the top bunk hangs down, enclosing them, and Peter has little plastic stars stuck to the slats of the bed above them forming a pattern. “Aranea,” he says. “It’s a constellation. It means ‘spider.’”
The spider, she thinks. Of course. She traces one of the stars with a finger as the first track queues up. It’s strange listening to the mix she gave him - she knows what’s on it, but it feels surprising somehow - and she watches his face to see his reactions, how he hums along to the songs he knows and listens intently to the ones that he doesn’t.
He likes the Ramones, apparently, and a few of the newer tracks she has, including the Kesha version of “Don’t think twice,” and maybe she shouldn’t have put a break-up song on there.
But he rolls over as they’re listening to it, and she does too, until they’re facing each other, her feet below his and his knees against hers, breathing the same air. His hand comes up on her face, and she had wondered what it’d be like to kiss him.
She knows, now, and she can’t really taste the hot chocolate they’d been drinking, or anything really, and it’s maybe the first time either of them have ever done this, a little clumsy, his hand finally resting on the dip of her waist, the feel of the cool metal of the pendant shifting from where she’d tucked it in her sweater. The second kiss is better, or at least, his nose doesn’t rub against hers as much, and he’s got light enough hair that she hadn’t noticed he’d started shaving, cheek brushing against hers, and -
They don’t get a third kiss, because there’s a thump and a “Hey, where’d you guys go?” from Ned in the living room, and she sits up, adjusting her sweater where it’d gotten bunched.
“Um, give me a second,” Peter says, before rolling over on his back with his knees up, and she smiles at him and blushes and emerges from his room to Ned, who’s trying not to die from rolling his eyes.
“Should I fist bump both of you?” he asks.
“Both of you should buy me another present, just to make up for this.”
“I can demote you to second alternate, you know,” MJ says.
He clutches his chest like he’s been wounded. “You can’t make the whole team second alternate,” he says. “That’s an abuse of power!”
“It’s not a Decathlon-ocracy,” she says. “And I wouldn’t make everyone a second alternate. I think Flash is ready to be first alternate.”
“She wouldn’t what?” Peter emerges from his room, looking decidedly more rumpled than he should be for only having lied down for - oh, it’s getting late.
“I should go,” she says. “My mom wanted us to eat dinner together.” And he walks her to the door and hugs her good-bye while Ned makes gagging noises.
It’s not a real competition, just a pre-season match up, but it feels like a real match when they get trounced.
It’s not even close: The team from Stuyvesant takes an early, commanding lead, and it makes them sloppy. Peter forgets how to calculate a spring constant; Ned forgets that Charleston is the capital of West Virginia, not South Carolina; MJ says ‘Joyce Carol Oates’, when she means ‘Joan Didion;’ and Flash can’t remember that the Music Man took place right there in River City.
All in all, it’s embarrassing, and they should be able to recover points during the team challenge, but by that point Peter and Flash are sniping at each other, and Abraham can’t finish calculating net primary productivity when the judges call time.
“It was awful,” she says, later, on the phone to Liz. “Awful. Like everything we’d been over just leaked out their ears, and I’m beginning to understand why teachers are like that after tests, because I just wanted to -”
“Yeah,” Liz says. “I know that feeling.”
“We didn’t lose like that when you were captain,” MJ says. And it’s not fair that they all looked at her like this was her fault, on the train-ride back from Stuy, everyone staring at her glumly, except Flash, who managed to combine glum and sneering. “This wouldn’t have happened if you were captain.”
“You don’t remember two years ago,” Liz says. “It did happen. It was against the kids from Bronx Sci and they wiped the floor with us. It was embarrassing.”
“But you weren’t captain then,” MJ says, “you would have been a sophomore and -”
“You are a sophomore,” Liz says, and that’s her ‘mom’ voice, her ‘camp counselor,’ voice, and MJ isn’t going to hang up or sulk or slam her phone down on the bed, but she also doesn’t need Liz reassuring her that she’s doing her best, because it’s clearly not good enough.
“Yeah,” she says, and it’s petulant.
“Look,” Liz says. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t - it’s not fair that you got stuck with this.”
And that makes MJ feel even worse, because in the grand governing scheme of the universe, the fact that she led a mediocre team through a mediocre scrimmage doesn’t really register. Peter could be seriously injured or killed. Liz’s father is in prison. Winning some stupid match doesn’t really compare and yet, she wants it.
When she cuts her attention back, Liz is saying. “If I still were captain, I would -”
And MJ doesn’t actually let her finish the sentence, because her thumb moves over the little red circle disconnecting the call. It’s stupid and petty and mean, and she’ll call back in a minute to apologize and blame her phone, but for now, she can flop down and stare up at the ceiling and think of setting the library on fire on Monday.
She takes three deep breaths, and if her chin wobbles even slightly, at least no one else sees her.
“How long was I talking to myself?” Liz asks, when she calls back.
“Uh, like a minute or so,” MJ says. “Sorry. Phone must have … you know.” It’s possible - probable even - that Liz sees through her absolute bullshit, but she’s nice enough not to mention it, and MJ pretends that her apology counts toward her being kind of a brat. “I just don’t know if I’m ready to dissect everything yet.”
“Yeah,” Liz says. “OK. Um, when you are, there’s a folder on the Drive. It has team self-assessments. And reflection prompts.”
Annoyance flares, but there’s no way that MJ can pretend her phone cut out a second time. She must make a noise, because Liz says, “I’m sorry. For real. I try to fix everything. I know.”
And it sounds like it hurts to say, enough that MJ says, “Yeah, I’m sorry too. I’ll take a look at those.”
They both don’t say anything for a second, long enough that it starts to be awkward, when Liz says, “I got into Oregon State. And Hampton. It’s where my mom went.”
“Oh,” MJ says. “Congrats.”
“I don’t really want to go to them. But they’re going to give me some money and well - I guess it’s better than nothing.”
“You’re not going to even try for Columbia?” MJ asks. “‘My dad made vulture wings and crashed an invisible plane into Coney Island’ would be, you know, a pretty good essay.”
“I thought about it,” Liz says. “I thought about it, but I don’t want to get in and not go. And I don’t want to get in just because I wrote about my dad, the super-villain.”
“Yeah,” MJ says. “I get that.”
“Sorry,” Liz says. “I’m just - I can’t really talk to my mom about this any more.”
MJ remembers, suddenly, guiltily, rolling her eyes when her mom tried asking her about her classes, three days into her visit, when the initial thrill of having her home had worn off. “Can you come back and visit? At all? We’d all - you can stay with me.”
“I don’t think I want to,” Liz says. “Peter texted me the other day. Just to say Merry Christmas. And I didn’t think I was still mad at him, but. It took me two hours to send back an emoji. Um, you could come out here. It’s boring and everyone kind of sucks, but there’s … there are lots of trees.”
MJ laughs. “Um, OK. Maybe over Easter break, after the spring Decathlon season ends? I’ll ask my dad.”
“Cool,” Liz says, and MJ thinks she can hear her smile.
MJ’s walking home from the train in late January when it happens.
It’s slushy enough to soak through the hole in the side of her boot. Everything Is muffled, and she has her headphones in, which is why she doesn’t hear them approaching.
She has her dad’s laptop with her, and maybe she checked that she’d had it with her uncarefully on the train, because they flank her, one with a knife visible. “Bag,” he says, then snaps his fingers at her. “Now.”
Her keychain has pepper spray on it, which would be useful if her keys weren’t under three notebooks, her gym shorts, a pencil case, her sketchpad, some tampons, a jar of Vaseline, and a laptop case in her bag. She thinks about screaming, or about running, or maybe about throwing her bag at one of them, but she doesn’t do any of those.
“Bag,” the other one says.
“Can I get my school ID?” she asks, because it’s also on her keychain, and maybe she can get her pepper spray or keys or something.
“No,” he says. His friend with the knife edges closer and she’s not going to cry, she isn’t, but her hands can’t seem to let go of her bag, either, and she knows, intellectually, that ‘fight or flight’ generally means one or the other, but her legs can’t seem to move or her hands and -
Webbing shoots down, wresting the knife from his hands, and the other guy just goes, “Oh shit,” and then gets kicked in the head in a blur of red and blue.
She’s seen Peter fight before, on TV, at the Washington Monument when he was trying to break a window, but this is closer, and there are three of them, and she opens her bag and flings her books out of it, her clothes, and fumbles for her keys. She has to depress the trigger on the can with both hands, and it doesn’t start spraying at first, but it gets one of them in the face.
Not the one who has another knife, something smaller than the one Peter had flung away but large enough that it feels like it fills her field of view.
“Watch out!” she says, and Peter turns toward her, and then the guy stabs him, or tries to, Peter twisting away at the last second, and the knife cuts into his suit.
He’s bleeding, no big spray, but enough to be worrying, and she doesn’t know what she’s doing until she’s doing it, shooting one of the muggers with spray and stomping on the other’s foot.
They flee, or at least lope away, and Peter is kind of listing to one side. “Hey,” she says, and loops an arm under his. She uses her gym shirt to stop some of the bleeding, applying direct pressure, and he goes, “Thanks, M- ma’am.”
“You think they’ll come back?” she asks, glancing to where they’d run away.
He shrugs. “Probably safer to get out of here,” and he helps her gather her things and tuck them back into her bag, still pressing her shirt into his side.
Her hands are shaking - adrenaline, probably, and the come-down - and he reaches like he’s going to steady them before pulling back.
“Let’s go up there,” he says, pointing to a landing of a high-up fire escape.
“Can you climb all those stairs?” she asks.
“Loop your arms around my neck,” he says.
He swings up, two great strides that leave him huffing, but she feels safer up here than she did on the sidewalk.
“Thank you,” she says, when he sets her down.
“No problem, um, ma’am,” he says, deliberately trying to deepen his voice. “Just want to make sure you’re OK.”
And it’s so Peter that she wants to yell or cry or hug him. She does the last one, avoiding his hurt side, which has already stopped bleeding, and it catches him off-guard enough that he squeaks a little.
“I know it’s you,” she says, carefully, into his ear. “Thank you.”
“Oh,” he says. The suit’s eyes widen and she can picture his face now, eyes big, a little pale from exertion. “Oh.”
“I’ve known for a while,” she says, pulling back, and she uses the heel of her hand to wipe away where her mascara has run. “Maybe we shouldn’t talk about it out here.”
“Yeah,” he says. “But for real - are you OK?”
She leans against his side, hair spilling out from under her hat onto his shoulder. “Yeah,” she says. “Guess that’s some kind of rite of passage. Welcome to being a real New Yorker.”
He wraps an arm around her, carefully. “If it makes you feel any better, I think that guy wet himself when you sprayed him.”
“You say the sweetest things,” she says. They spend a minute looking out, and it hadn’t occurred to her how much of the city he could see, being Spider-Man. “It’s pretty up here.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Nice view of the river.” He kicks his feet a little and adjusts his arm so she can settle more into him. “The AI in my suit is telling me to kiss you, by the way. Karen’s kind of bossy.”
“I had to name her something.”
She doesn’t kiss him, if only because it’s cold enough that her sweat is beginning to freeze, and his teeth chatter together a little.
“Time to go home,” he says. “You want a ride back to your place or -”
Her father has class tonight and her mother’s back on base, and she probably isn’t going to freak out at an empty apartment, but she doesn’t particularly want to find out if that’s not true. “Um,” she says.
“I was going home anyway,” he says. “That paper for English is killing me.”
Before, she hadn’t really gotten the chance to register what it was like, pressed against him, arms around his neck. She puts her hands through the straps of her bag, and doesn’t say ‘don’t drop me,’ because she doesn’t want to put that idea even out there, and hangs on.
The wind catches them, Peter swinging low enough that she’s just above traffic and then up up up. They don’t have Manhattan’s skyscrapers out in Queens, but the buildings are tall enough, his reach long enough, that this must be what flying feels like, free as anything, the brace of the cold and Peter’s breath warm on her neck from through his mask.
She must be yelling, delighted, because Peter says, “Fun, right?” and the mask somehow shapes into his smile.
They land on the roof of his building, and he glances around to make sure that there’s no one there, and then lifts up his mask enough to show his mouth and kisses her right there, hands at her waist, bold enough that she puts her tongue in his mouth, and he makes a noise almost like a growl and does it back.
They stand for a while, kissing, and she feels elated, insubstantial, like she could step off the edge of the building and never hit the ground.
“Hi,” he says, pulling back, and something about it makes her laugh.
“Hi,” she says back, and her face hurts from smiling.
“You should go down by the stairs there.” He points to the rooftop access door.
“Isn’t it locked?” she asks.
“Not, um - there’s a key under that brick.” And sure enough, there’s a 3D-printed key under a brick.
“I was too hurt to climb down to my window. I had to spend the night up here,” he says. “That was before I told Aunt May.”
“Jesus, Parker,” she says.
“Shhh,” he says. “People in this building know me.”
She goes down the stairs, pausing at a window to examine her reflection. She’s flushed, hair absolutely wild from the wind and from Peter’s hands, and there’s no way May won’t suspect something. She does her best to fix it, tucking it into itself, before declaring it a lost cause. She counts to 30-Mississippi and then knocks on their apartment door.
“Peter’ll be here in a second,” MJ says. “I got, um, jumped. He stopped it.”
“Oh my goodness,” May says, waving her in. “Are you OK? Is he?”
“I’m fine,” she says. “He got a little stabbed but he’s fine. He’s fine.”
“A little stabbed,” May says, pinching the bridge of her nose. “You kids are going to be the death of me.”
She fills a teakettle, putting it on the stove and then opening a canister of loose-leaf tea. “This is supposed to be soothing,” she says.
She also pulls a bottle of bourbon out from a cabinet and puts a little into one mug. There’s a sound of a window opening just as the kettle boils, and she makes two mugs of tea, each with a little tea strainer in it, and hands the one without bourbon to MJ. “Here,” she says. “Be soothed. I’ll go check on him.”
“He’ll be fine,” May says, a few minutes later, emerging from his room. “He’s gonna shower. Do you want to call your parents? Tell them you’re here?”
“I don’t - I don’t want to worry my dad,” she says.
“If something like that happened, and I didn’t know about it, and I found out about it later, I’d be pretty worried.”
“Yeah,” MJ says. “OK.”
Her dad is, understandably, upset, and she puts May on the phone with him.
“Yes, Mr. Jones, Michelle can sleep here. I can lend her some clothes for tomorrow. No, it’s no trouble.” And then, more quietly, “She seems a little shaken up, but fine. Peter too.”
A pause, her dad saying something.
“We probably should meet, given how close they are. I always like meeting Peter’s friends’ parents, and MJ has said so many great things about you. Here she is -” and May hands the phone back.
“I’m going to let your mother know,” he says. “About the mugging. And about you staying over.”
“I still have your laptop,” she says. “I think they saw me with it on the train and tried to -”
“Hey,” he says. “I’ll come pick you up at school tomorrow. We’ll walk to the train together.”
“OK,” she says, and her throat feels tight. “I have practice tomorrow. We’ll be done at 4:30.”
“You know, if you wanted to cancel practice, I bet the team would understand.”
“I just - I want things to be normal, you know?”
“OK, honey,” he says. “I’ll see you then.”
May gives her the option of sleeping in her room or taking the couch, and she chooses the couch, stretching out under the three blankets May gives her. Mostly, they smell like closet and a little like mothballs, but one’s from Peter’s room, and it kind of smells like him. The shirt he lends her to sleep in definitely does too, and it’s comforting, between the tea and non-health-food May had gotten for dinner and Peter in the other room.
She reads on her phone for a while. Right before she goes to sleep, there’s an email alert, a message from her mom that’s mostly typed out little heart symbols because she doesn't have emojis on her phone, that tells her her to call in the morning. She feels something in her chest unwind and drifts into sleep.
It’s a few weeks later, and she goes over to Peter’s after practice. He’d said he’d had to go out for his ‘internship,’ which was approximately four hours ago, leaving her to do homework on their coffee table and listen to May worry.
“I’m not worried,” May says. “I am not worried.”
“Does he do this a lot?” MJ asks.
“No,” May says. “Sometimes. I found out he’d been dropped into the East River once. Stark gave me a tracker that will go off if he stops moving for too long. He’s been in normal range and motion for this but I worry. And he’s not picking up his phone.”
“I can try him,” and MJ sends him a text reading ‘where are you?????’ that gets marked as ‘delivered’ almost instantly. It doesn’t send a read receipt, though, or update when she sends more question marks.
May makes tea, which MJ has learned is her general response to a crisis. “I took a first aid course when I found out about his being … you know,” May says. “In case he needed me.”
“Yeah,” MJ says. “Seems like I should do that. It’ll be, uh, good for college.”
“I should try calling again,” May says, and then dials on speaker and waits as it rings. Peter’s voicemail message picks up, him and Ned reenacting a scene from Empire Strikes Back and then a beep. “Hi Peter,” May says. “Call me when you get this. MJ and I are worried, OK?”
She hangs up and sighs and settles at the kitchen counter with her face down in her arms temporarily. “I could call Stark,” she says, chewing on the edge of a nail. “It’s probably nothing. Knowing Peter, he’s helping someone get a cat out of a tree and can’t reach his phone. There was a truck full of ketchup that overturned once, and he came home looking like … Well. You know. He’ll be fine.” She draws herself up. “Tell me about what you all have been doing in Decathlon.”
“We lost,” she says. “Don’t know if Peter told you. But we, uh, got kinda crushed at our last competition. So we’ve been training pretty hardcore since. I know I’m not as good of a captain as Liz, but, um, I’m trying. A lot.”
“Peter seems to think you’re doing a good job,” May says.
“He’s kinda biased,” MJ says, and it’s not like May doesn’t know, but it feels weird to say it out loud like that.
When she looks up, May looks pleased, if unsurprised. “Ned does too. All you guys seem to take this really seriously. It’s good, to have something to care about like that. To be a team.”
“It’s feels kind of stupid,” MJ says. “That I care this much about some Decathlon team. About school. When he could be -” Dying, her mind supplies. Injured. Captured by aliens. At war with Captain America. “Doing a hundred more important things.”
“It’s not unimportant,” May says. “I know it can feel that way, but if it matters to you, then it matters.”
“It just feels like - I’m in charge of people, and it’s silly, but I really want to win, for us to be good, and nothing about it is life or death, but … ”
“You know, Peter spends a lot of his time giving directions to old ladies,” May says. “Carrying groceries. He gets sneakers off the power lines. That kind of thing. I think - if you told him that, cosmically, none of that matters, he’d still do it anyway. Not everything has to tip the scales of the universe.”
“He’s a special kind of kid,” May says. “And it seems like you’re special to him. Trust me when I say, the good stuff can be rare.” She looks sad for a moment, older or maybe just more tired than she had been a second ago. And Peter talks incessantly, but not about his uncle, and it hadn’t occurred to MJ how recently he must have died.
May smiles, a tight thing, then busies herself with neatening the already neat arrangement of spice canisters on the counter-top. “His life is probably going to be complicated for a long time. It doesn’t mean that everything in it has to be.”
“Is that your blessing?”
“To have him home at a reasonable hour if you can and try not to break his heart?” May says. “Yes.”
“I’ll try,” MJ says. “And try not to.”
Both their phones buzz then, and each grabs one.
Peter: hi sorry sorry sorry. I’m OK. OMW home.
“He’s fine,” MJ says. “Or fine enough to text.”
MJ: we were worried loser
MJ: glad youre ok
May blows out a breath. “I’ll go get the first aid kit, just in case.”
Mid-March, and this time, it’s not a scrimmage, but a qualifier. They’re all nervous: Ned keeps combing his hair down flat, and Peter looks like someone asked him to fight without his suit, and Flash might throw up on her shoes.
“Don’t you dare throw up on my shoes, Flash,” she says. “I can still demote you.”
She can’t, though; they’ll all need to compete and compete well in order to move past their region to state, let alone even think about nationals.
“There’s no shame in losing,” Mr. Harrington says, when they huddle up before competition. “It’s normal to have a championship hangover. Look at the Mets. They’ve been having one since the ‘80s … which was before you all were born, and I’m old.”
“No offense to Mr. Harrington,” MJ says. “But we worked our asses off and -”
“Language,” Mr. Harrington says.
“Our collective ‘a asterisk asterisk’ off,” MJ says. “So you losers better win, OK? Don’t make me call Liz and tell her we lost.”
“Yeah,” Peter says. “Let’s do this.”
“Light saber noises on three,” Ned says.
They count down and make a bunch of noises that probably aren’t close to light saber noises, but it’s them and they’re a team, and MJ laughs.
The first match starts pretty rough, with Ned flubbing a question he’d answered a hundred times in practice, but the other team is just as nervous, and in the end, they eke out a two-point victory.
The second match goes easier, but they’re against a team of freshmen who look kind of scared of them, and Peter actually half-hugs one of them after they win easily and says that they’ll see them back next year.
The third is against Stuy, and Flash really does look like he’s going to puke on her shoes until she says, “Hey, Thompson. It was River City,” and he fake-tips an invisible skimmer hat at her, and then they’re off.
“A deficiency of vitamin C causes scurvy because vitamin C is required for the synthesis of this protein. What is the protein?”
Ned buzzes in: “Collagen.”
“Name the author whose novel ‘The House of the Spirits’ was inspired by the history of Chile.”
Oh, and that one’s for her, but a girl from Stuy buzzes in before she can. “Pablo Neruda.”
“Incorrect,” and MJ depresses her buzzer. “Isabel Allende.”
They continue like that, each team a question away from taking the lead, and a one-point lead is really a tie, and MJ can’t really think of anything but listening for the next question. There’s a break about halfway through, and they swap in Harry for Flash, and the Stuy team changes out their alternates as well, a kid with an actual mustache who looks like he might be some kind of ringer.
There’s a series of questions about the Supreme Court, Abraham answering most of them, and she probably owes him a year’s worth of soda for knowing about Bolling v. Sharpe.
The subjects shift back to the normal mix of things, and Stuy makes a comeback on a run of questions about the Dutch masters that leave her wishing she spent more time reviewing art history.
They’re a point down and one question away, when the judges ask: “Legend has it that, at Ragnarök, the Midgard serpent kills and is killed by what Norse god, who owns the hammer Mjölnir?”
Peter buzzes before she really has time to process the question. “Um, Thor,” he says, and like that, they’re tied and going to sudden death.
It’s a team challenge, a question sheet they’ll have to divide and conquer, and she glances over it before going, “OK, Peter and Ned, you do the emission calculations. Abraham - cap-and-trade policy. Flash, everything you can name about carbon sequestration. Harry and I will do the diagramming for coral bleaching. Questions?”
Everyone nods, and splits up to work on their separate sections. “OK, kid, you got this?” she says to Harry, who’s looking a little green around the edges. “I’ll draw, you annotate.”
“OK,” Harry says.
From there, it’s like she’s channeling the textbook in drawing out their answer, a multi-step process drawn well enough that she’s almost mad she’ll have to give it to the judges. No sooner does she have the diagram done before Harry follows behind, pencil carefully labeling each step and providing descriptors in a caption.
It’s good, good in the way that maybe flying through the air with Peter had felt, good like the possibility that she’ll go out to Oregon and climb mountains for a while with Liz, good like when her mom comes through the door after six months away. Good like maybe she didn’t mess this entire thing up after all. Like maybe they’d seen something in her when they’d picked her as captain that she didn’t see herself until now.
There’s the one-minute warning, and she collects their group’s papers, carefully transposing Ned and Peter’s answers onto their final sheet.
“Time,” the judges say, and when she hands over their work, she knows that, even if Stuy beats them, it won’t be because they didn’t show up prepared.
There’s a five-minute judges’ deliberation in which no one says anything, not even Peter trying to lighten the mood. Instead, they all watch the clock tick for each of 300 seconds. She chews on the edge of a fingernail and even the mustache kid from Stuy looks nervous.
The judges return and it’s not like they’re playing up the drama - they’re adult volunteers, most of whom look like they’ve already had a long day - but they slide their chairs out excruciatingly slowly, sitting down, shuffling papers, neatening the stacks of answers.
She can see clearly Stuy’s answer sheet with a red 13 circled on it, and it’d been a 15-point question, shit, shit, shit but then the judge is reading a score of 14 out loud and that’s not right but -
Peter throws up his hands, and Ned whoops and Abraham actually punches her on the arm. “We did it!” he yells, and Flash is definitely not crying, but her throat feels tight too, and like that, they’re moving onto state.
“Pizza’s on me,” Mr. Harrington says, once they’re done jumping up and down. “Well, pizza’s on the parent-teacher association who finally gave us some money for something other than blazers.”
They’re walking back from getting pizza, and members of the team slowly peeling off to catch the subway or the bus, Flash’s parents picking him up in a new-looking sedan, until it’s just her and Peter.
“That was …” she says.
“Yeah,” Peter says, and he looks down at her hand, ungloved in the March chill, knuckles getting a little red, before taking it. “Do you want to walk for a while?” he asks.
They’re near enough to the river to walk next to it, not going any place in particular, just meandering, and it feels like something has lifted off her chest that’d been weighing her down for months, enough that she’s not thinking about her homework or the Spanish quiz they have Wednesday or much of anything.
“I got dropped in the river a couple months ago,” he says.
“Yeah?” MJ says, though May had mentioned it.
“Fighting Mr. Toomes. Or his, um, minions? Associates?”
“How was it?”
“Cold,” Peter says. “Wet.”
She laughs. “Really, Parker? That’s what you got? Water is wet.”
He smiles at her and leans in, and this is her life now, kissing Peter by the side of the East River. He pulls back, and that’s when she sees it, hanging like a fireball over the city.
“Peter,” she says, pointing up at the ship. “I think you have to go.”
He kisses her again, once, on the cheek and says, “Can you take my stuff after I change?” and she guards the alleyway, only glancing back a few times as he hops, sock-footed, into his suit.
May’s is closer than her apartment and she hauls ass there, knocking on the door until May, who already looks panicked, opens it.
“He’s -” MJ says.
“OK,” May says. “Come in, come in.”
May hugs her, a long hug. “He’ll be all right,” she says, and MJ nods her agreement.
“Tea?” May asks, turning on the TV.
The TV news shows a scene of the fighting. Iron Man, and Peter, and someone else, a woman in a blue costume with a yellow starburst on the chest. They sit and watch, and MJ thinks that maybe that’s what her life will be - waiting to know if her boyfriend is dead. If that’s what May’s life is - waiting for Peter to call, or waiting for someone else to tell her about him.
“You ever think what it’d be like, to have powers?” May says.
“Sometimes. My dad says I look like I’m trying to set fires with my mind,” MJ says. “But if I could have one, I’d want to do what she’s doing.” She points to the woman on screen, who’s flying, face too distant to be seen, sending out what look like pulses of energy.
The kettle whistles, and May brings her a cup that sits, steeping. She watches the color of it diffuse across the water, thinking of molecules vibrating their tiny Brownian motions, the little invisible forces that govern the universe. It occurs to her that this is what panic feels like. “Can we, um,” she says. “Teach me how to wrap a bandage, OK?”
May gets the first aid kit and runs through a few basics, some of which MJ knows - apply pressure to wounds, elevate injured extremities, don’t remove a projectile or anything else still embedded in an injury. She shudders when she says that one, and goes pale, and MJ takes the roll of gauze from her shaking hand and sets it down.
“Did he tell you we won?” she asks, and it’s probably a dumb thing to say, given that Peter is off fighting and they’re there.
But May nods and says, “He texted me to let me know. He was really excited.”
“Yeah,” MJ says.
On-screen, there’s an explosion, and it’s like what she’d seen before, Peter dropping through the air, when there’s a blur across the screen and he disappears from view.
MJ’s heart beats against her ribs, a rapid pulse that seems to occupy her entire consciousness. Peter is - he can’t be. He isn’t. He isn’t, her brain refuses to allow her to think that, and then there’s someone pounding on the door.
May opens and MJ focuses on Peter being carried, his body limp, head lolling back, for a second so she almost doesn’t notice that the woman carrying him is wearing a blue costume with a yellow starburst on it and red shoulders and she isn’t wearing a mask and she’s -
“Mom?” MJ’s feet feel frozen to the floor, and there’s a sense that the walls of the room have suddenly narrowed, her vision tunneling, and May is moving forward, collecting Peter, whose chest is rising and lowering with breath and MJ can’t look at him, can’t look any place but - “Mom?”
“Michelle,” her mother says. “Help Peter’s aunt.”
She does, mechanically, offloading Peter onto the couch. He’s not visibly bleeding. “Does he need a doctor?” MJ asks.
“He’ll be fine,” her mom says. “I didn’t think it’d be a good idea taking him to a hospital. They sometimes aren’t good with people like us. Stark is sending a nurse. She should be on her way. I need to go - there’s still fighting.”
“People like -” MJ begins.
“I know this is a shock,” her mother says. “We need to make sure he’s alright and then I promise we’ll talk.”
“Does dad know?”
“Your father and I - yes, he knows,” she says. “I love you, honey. I just need to -” An explosion rattles the air, then, close enough that it’s no longer in Manhattan. “I’ll be home later. I was coming back on leave.”
She leaves, not via the stairway, but out of Peter’s bedroom window, unfolding and launching herself into the evening sky, MJ watching her until she disappears from view. She fumbles for her phone, and texts her father, but cell service must be down, and when she calls, it can’t connect.
“Is he OK?” MJ asks, back in the living room. Peter looks like he’s sleeping, and there’s a nurse, a woman with smooth dark hair, who looks completely unsurprised at having to clean a wound for a superpowered teenager. He has a burn, a vivid scorch mark across his chest, red at the edges and blistering at the center.
She’s applying some kind of ointment with gloved hands. “He’ll live,” the nurse says. “You his girlfriend?”
“Um,” MJ says.
“Regardless,” she says. “He’ll need to apply this a few times a day. There’s a matching one on his back. He can do it himself once he’s well enough to sit up and reach over his shoulder, but for now, one of you should do it.”
“OK,” MJ says. She washes her hands with a palmful of soap, counting off three rounds of singing “happy birthday” and scrubbing under her nails. Her hands shake when she accepts the ointment.
Together, they sit him up. The nurse, who says her name is Claire, holds him and MJ applies a thin layer of it to his back. The skin still feels hot to the touch, like he might still be burning and there’s a smell of -
She’s sick, once, into a trash can, and May gathers her hair at the base of her neck, twisting it into a bun that holds itself together. She pats MJ’s shoulder and says, “I can take care of him if you want a glass of water.”
On TV, there’s still fighting, though the Avengers seem to be winning, each explosion on screen punctuated by an accompanying noise from outside the apartment. She sips her water, swishing it around her mouth, and watches May and Claire finish, Claire leaving with more instructions for May on how to make sure his wounds don’t get infected.
“Assuming that he heals at a normal pace,” Claire says. “But who knows?”
Cell service cuts back on that night, and she gets a text from her mother that tells her to remain in place, and one from her father that says they’ll talk in the morning. The team’s group chat blows up, 100 notifications coming in, and everyone’s OK. She gets Peter’s phone from his bag, sending messages that she hopes sound like him, hoping no one notices that the burst of texts goes out all at once.
She sleeps in his room, on the top bunk, with him on the bottom. “I just - it feels -” she says, and May doesn’t question it. She listens to him breathe, steady, until she falls asleep.
It’s before six in the morning when he moans a little, enough to wake her, reviving. She rolls down from the top bunk, sitting on the edge of his bed.
“How long was I out?” he asks.
“A while. You got burned pretty bad.”
He peels back a corner of the bandage they’d put over the wound on his chest, and instead of the hot, blistered red it was, it’s now light like a sunburn. “Yeah, must’ve been,” he says.
“There was a nurse,” MJ says. “She cleaned you up.”
He coughs a little, wincing, and she moves until he can lean against her. “There was someone I was fighting alongside,” he says. “A woman.”
Her mother doesn’t fight with a mask, with any kind of concealment, but perhaps that isn’t her secret to tell, either. “She got you here,” MJ says. “You were in pretty bad shape.”
“I must remember some of it. I was having a dream,” Peter says. “About falling.”
“You did fall,” MJ says.
“I was falling, and you grabbed my hand and held on. It was like … I used to have nightmares, right after my uncle was - it was pretty bad. I’d wake up crying or screaming, and once I woke up and I couldn’t move any of my limbs for a while.”
“And when you got, you know,” and she mimes a pinching motion for ‘being bitten by a genetically modified spider.’
“They stopped,” he says. “And then the Washington Monument. And Liz’s dad, and I got trapped under a building. I kept dreaming that there was water coming in and that I would drown. This time, I was falling in the elevator shaft down the Washington Monument. You came in and you caught me.”
“I couldn’t do that,” MJ says. “I’m not like you.” ‘Or like my mother,’ she thinks, and doesn’t say.
“But that’s um. That’s how I feel. When you’re around, I guess. It sounds pretty dumb.”
“No,” MJ says. “It doesn’t.”
They sit like that, for a while, and his window faces east, the sun rising above the horizon, pouring light over the city. Beside her, Peter breathes steadily. He’s warm against her, and it’s good, good in a way she wouldn’t have appreciated a few months ago.
“I could die,” he says, “I think about you and May and Ned, all watching me die on TV. It’s possible. It’s not fair to ask you to - if you just wanted to go back to being friends, I mean, I would understand.” He lays his hand on the blankets, palm upward, the strap from a web-shooter still circling his wrist. “It’s probably, um, complicated.”
She’s tempted to say that she doesn’t have friends, but that’s a lie and a joke, and one that Peter doesn’t look like he can deal with right then. Instead, she says, “It is,” and takes his hand.
MJ calls her mother at 6:30 in the morning. She doesn’t sound like she’s slept, exhaustion coming through in her voice. “This isn’t how I wanted you to find out,” she says.
“When were you going to tell me?”
“Your father and I, we thought about it, for a long time. It’s not an easy decision, especially since - you take after him, so much. From the day you were born, you looked like him. You looked just alike in your baby pictures. We didn’t know if … We didn’t know if you’d be more like him, or more like me.”
“I could be -” MJ asks. “I could have.” And it’s too much to process, all at once, sitting in Peter’s living room early in the morning, drinking her half-cup of coffee that May had made, the one she’d handed her doused with soy milk so she could drink it. “You mean I could be - like you?”
“Yes,” her mother says. “Or no. But it’s possible.”
“Oh,” MJ says. “When would I know?”
“There’s not really a timeline for this,” her mother says. “It could happen.”
“Or it won’t,” MJ says.
“It’s a lot to accept,” her mother says. “I can understand if you’re angry with me.”
“I’m not,” MJ says, but it feels like she should be. “Some stuff is starting to make sense. I guess I was angrier when you were gone all the time to do inventory, but this is … simpler, or whatever.”
“I’m sorry I was gone for so long,” her mom says. “It was … I missed so much. Your father would send pictures, he’d tell me about you, but it wasn’t the same. And now - I turn around, and you’ve grown up on me. And I wasn’t around to see it.”
“Mom,” MJ says, and it hurts to say.
“There’s an ‘all clear’ on the streets,” her mom says. “You can come home.”
“Yeah,” MJ says. “OK.”
She says goodbye, hugging Peter, careful to avoid the burn on his chest; he kisses her neck in front of May and then blushes, a deep embarrassed red while May laughs at him a little.
Outside the apartment, MJ pauses at the stairway - and it’s five flights down to the street, but it’s five flights up to the roof, and she tightens the straps on her bag before beginning her ascent.
On the roof, the city looks beautiful in the early morning light, and she can picture Liz sitting outside, imagining pine trees straight as row houses, the cold fresh air of early spring. She gets her phone out, texting ‘we won,’ even though it’s four in the morning in Oregon. It’s their victory to share, and Liz needs to know that.
MJ’s not afraid of heights, but when she goes to the edge of the building, it’s a sharp drop down, 10 stories above the street, wind tunneling up, blowing her hair against her face. It’s a sharp drop that could kill anyone, except Peter, except her mother, and she waits for a minute, thinking what it would like to be like to be like them, to leap, to step off the edge and never hit the ground.
She laughs, delighted at the absurdity of it, the possibility of it, loud enough to scare pigeons roosting on the building, loud enough that it eclipses, just for a second, the sound of the wind in her ears. ‘Home,’ she thinks, and turns away from the edge, bag full of books on her back, and she takes the stairs two at a time on her way down to the street.