With a sigh, a long-suffering one, Ivy read the same paragraph for at least the third time.
She was normally very focused – – especially when she was reading an interesting article from the American Journal of Botany.
Well, interesting to her, she thought. Selina would groan, and Harley would loudly complain about how bored she was just from the title alone: Phenotypic Plasticity of Leaves in Quercus acerifolia.
Face it, Pam, she thought, you're too distracted at the moment for proper reading comprehension.
Lowering the journal, she glanced down at her current three distractions. Over the last week and a half, the sporelings had grown in leaps and bounds. At seventeen weeks, Ivy approximated that the sporelings were as physically and mentally developed as a typical ten-year-old human child. It wasn't a perfect comparison--the sporelings were fiercely intelligent--and Ivy, who liked her math nice and neat, was not happy with having an extra variable. She couldn't be sure if their intelligence was symptomatic of the hybridization process or if it was due to genetic expression of her own DNA. At any rate, they were full of energy, incredibly inquisitive about their world, and their only real sentient contact was with Ivy.
They were growing so fast that keeping them in appropriate clothing was difficult. Selina was a lifesaver. Her love of shopping couldn't be denied, so Ivy had her going every few days to buy clothing for the girls. As of yet, Ivy hadn't allowed the sporelings out, for fear of the danger to them. Still, she knew it was important that if they did need to leave for whatever reason, they would have civilian clothes to move about the city in.
She knew that despite their development, the girls were dangerously sheltered. She didn't like leaving them alone, despite her living security system – – a series of incredibly deadly carnivorous plant hybrids – – because as curious as they were there was always the chance they would injure themselves. She tried to tell herself it was all purely scientific, her interest in them, but deep down she knew she was already dangerously attached to the three little girls. I'm becoming a helicopter mom, she thought, smiling to herself.
Ivy disliked television. Too often it was intellectually vacant and basically a time wasting exercise with little to no actual value. She had to admit, however, that the TV had helped immensely with the girls language skills, encouraging them to vocalize, rather than just communicate through the Green – – a faster and more comprehensive form of communication in almost every way. At the moment, the girls were glued to some cartoon about reptilian warriors. Ivy was almost certain that Harley could've told her all about these things, but Ivy was lost. She tried…
"Mama," Hazel said, "are there really such things as mutants?"
"Yes, baby," Ivy answered, only briefly glancing up from her journal to see that Hazel had turned to her, her hazel eyes (the source of her name) very serious. Hazel was a very direct girl. Intelligent and discerning. Like Ivy herself, she tended to skip over things like tact.
"Are there really mutant turtles?" This from Rose, whose skin was a beautiful coral color, and the source of her name. She had turned to regard Ivy with solemn eyes as well, and she lightly brushed a tress of hair behind her ear. Rose was very quiet, almost shy, and at times still reverted to communicating through the Green.
"Well, not exactly. At least, to my knowledge, there are no bipedal turtle assassins. Now, there are turtle mutations..."
"Are we mutants?" Thorn asked. It was almost a whisper, Thorn still had memories of her traumatic abuse at the hands of the Gardens lab. It had faded, buy Ivy still had concerns. She was hopeful that any potential PTSD would fade as well.
Ivy felt a strange emotion. Like sympathy, she guessed, if she were to put a label to it. Empathy maybe? She knew what it was like to not understand herself. "We are plant and animal hybrids, girls. So yes, we are mutations, but that word isn't necessarily a bad thing. Mutation is the tool of evolution. That is how we change to be better, stronger."
On the screen, these turtle warriors had started fighting some monster and the girls forgot the questions for a time and glued themselves to the set. Ivy checked her phone, halfway hoping for a text from Harley. Selina had sent her yet another funny cat video. She saved it to show the girls later...they loved them, but every time she showed them one they asked for a cat – – a very bad idea when her apartment was protected by the Dionaea audraea.
"Okay girls. I think it's about time for bed." Ivy stood up and stretched, dropping the journal on the couch. Immediately, there was a chorus of protests.
"Oh, Mama, can we please stay up and finish the show?" Thorn asked, her eyes pleading. Immediately the others took up the refrain. Ivy was tired and after a moment of contemplation, she decided there wouldn't be much harm.
"Oh very well. But as soon as it goes off, you three are in bed. I expect you to drink a glass of water, you're all growing and you need it." There was a chorus of thank yous and promises to behave, and then three hugs and three kisses good night. Ivy was smiling as she climbed in bed, took off her glasses, placed her phone on the nightstand, then clicked off her lamp. In the other room she could hear very faintly more turtle action, and she smiled to herself as she drifted off, strangely...content.
"I wish I could be a ninja," Rose said thoughtfully from where she was laying on her stomach, chin propped in her hands. She turned and looked at Hazel, who was coloring. Hazel glanced back.
"Why would you want to be a ninja? Aunt Selina is kind of a ninja right? Mama's a lot scarier than she is." Rose frowned, prettily...everything Rose did, she did prettily. Hazel just shook her head and continued coloring the page in her book.
"I didn't say I wanted to be scary. I said I wanted to be a ninja. It looks like fun." She was pouting now, and Hazel felt a little bad.
"I don't know, I think I want to try pizza," mused Thorn from her place at the end of the couch. She shifted so that her legs were up on the back and her head dangled down. Thorn was always eating something, and right now she was munching on some of Mama's dried banana chips. Hazel and Rose thought it might be because when she was a baby, Thorn was kept locked up.
"Well, you know Mama likes to keep really close track of everything we eat. She wouldn't like it if we had pizza. I don't think that's vegan…" Rose muttered, barely remembering not to say it through the Green.
"Well, she's asleep. What she doesn't know – –" began Thorn.
"Won't hurt her. You know, all we have to do is get her phone and we can call for pizza to get delivered." Hazel had put her book down and was now sitting up, looking at the other two, a grin beginning to play on her lips.
"Okay, one of us needs to sneak in her bedroom and get her phone. A-and her purse. We will need money to pay the delivery guy." Thorn said in a conspiratorial whisper.
"I don't like this. You guys are going to get us in trouble." Rose looked nervous, and she was glancing toward Mama's bedroom.
"You better not tell. Besides, what she going to do? Ground us? We don't ever get to go anywhere or do anything anyway." Thorn crossed her arms.
"Know what, we're going to get some pizza. If you don't help, you don't get any when it gets here. But you're going to be blamed for it anyway. You're outvoted, Rose."
"This is your chance to have a ninja mission, Rose!"
Meekly, Rose nodded. "Ok, I'm in, I guess."
Hazel stood up and she sat on the couch next to Thorn in order to plan. Reluctantly, Rose sat at their feet and listened. Like their favorite reptilian ninjas the girls named their plan: Operation Secret Pie. The first step was Mama's phone. Hazel would sneak into the dark bedroom and slip it off the table. Mama usually plugged it in, so the challenge was to get it out without the sound of it being unplugged waking Mama up. She was not a deep sleeper – – the entire plan hinged on the success of Hazel's mission.
Step two was securing money for the pizza. Thorn would sneak into the kitchen pretending to get food in case Mama awoke. Her habit of constantly wanting to snack would work in the girls' favor. Mama's purse was usually left on the kitchen table. Thorn would grab some cash and then sneak back into the living room.
Step three was Rose calling a pizza place and placing an order. The girls really had no idea what pizza tasted like or what went on one. Mama was very serious about their diets. They were strictly vegan like her… She told them once that their nutritional needs were so simple they didn't require any other food. It was more important for them to get sunlight. All three of the girls were incredibly tired of said simple diets. They saw all sorts of interesting things being eaten on TV and they'd already discussed wanting to try things like pizza.
Finally, step four was Rose answering the door, paying the pizza man, and getting the pizza. Of the three, Rose would probably have the easiest time passing as a normal person. Her skin was pink, but Thorn literally had thorns growing out of her skin, and Hazel's skin color didn't look human at all. After they made their plan, the girls put it into action.
Carefully, Hazel crept into Mama's dark bedroom. She was asleep, her back to the nightstand, her luxurious red hair fanned out on the bed next to her. For the briefest of moments, Hazel hesitated. She loved Mama, and she didn't want to disappoint her. Still, she wanted to try pizza, so she steeled herself. She made no noise – – Aunt Selina would've been proud. Mama's phone was haphazardly tossed onto the nightstand next to her glasses. The corner of the little device was hanging off in free space, and it would've required just a nudge to make it fall. Hazel's heart was pounding it felt like it was trying to break free, but she reached up and very gently took the phone off the nightstand, her eyes never leaving the back of Mama's head. This was the hard part, but she carefully wrapped the phone in the folds of her shirt, muffling it. Then she pulled the cord out of the little jack.
It was faint, but she still heard it. Holding her breath she stared at Mama's back, waiting for her to rollover or sit up. Nothing happened, and ever so gently Hazel let her breath out, before retreating back the way she'd come.
Meanwhile, Thorn padded into the kitchen. She didn't have to worry about being stealthy, but rooting through Mama's purse and taking money? That was definitely a violation of trust. If Mama found out. She would be furious. For all her bravado , Thorn really didn't want to be on Mama's bad side for any reason. But, she'd made a promise, and she and the other girls were in this together. Mama had tossed her purse haphazardly onto the table earlier that day, so Thorn climbed up into a chair, sat on the table, pulled the purse to her, and begin looking through it. There were things that Thorn didn't recognize. She knew Mama's badge: a little square of plastic with Mama's picture and the name Dr. Pamela Isley stenciled on it. Mama's keys, a few bits of makeup that Thorn knew Mama rarely wore – – she didn't need it – – but occasionally would dab on, and finally Mama's wallet. She opened it, and in the cash slot there was a crisp stack of fresh, new-looking bills. She took two labeled "20" and then quickly replaced the wallet and pushed the purse back where it belonged. Folding the two pieces of paper, she tucked them away in her nightgown's pockets and padded back in the living room.
The girls excitedly gathered around Mama's phone. They would have to call, but they had no way of knowing what the pizza phone number was. Thorn had watched mama use her phone enough to know the lock pattern to open it, so they did and they took entirely too long admiring all the pretty icons and moving around the screens. Mama's background was someone they had been told was Aunt Harley – – a pretty blonde girl with strange makeup and a big smile on her face. Mama didn't speak about her much, and when they asked she seemed…sad. They'd already been allowed on Mama's laptop, under strict supervision, and so they were not unfamiliar with the Internet. Rose was the one with the idea.
"We can use the Internet to look up the number." The other two eagerly agreed so Thorn searched and found a pizza place. Rose tapped the phone number in and was about to make the call when she froze and looked at the other two.
"Do either of you know what our address is?" Hazel and Thorn looked surprised, and for a few moments there was panic as the three tried to decide how to proceed. Finally, Hazel remembered that Mama stacked the mail on the front table as she came through the door, so the girls huddled around it until they found a letter, a bill, and knew that they had their address.
"Gotham Pizza Pies, what can I do you for?" The voice was gruff and male. Rose, who had never heard a male voice in person other than Darshan, froze. Hazel nudged her, and finally she answered.
"Uhm, hi. I am Rose, and I would like a pizza please."
"Sure t'ing, er, Rose. Whattaya want?"
"A pizza." She remembered her manners. "Please."
"Yeah, I got that part. What kinda pizza do ya want?"
"Oh." Said Rose. "What, uhm, kind you have?"
There was a noise of frustration on the other line. "Look girl, I gotta lotta pizzas to make. Don't you know what you like?"
Rose knew that honesty was the best policy. "I don't. This will be my first pizza."
There was a moment of silence on the other end. "Lemme speed this up. Awright--I got a large pepperoni, classic crust, order of breadsticks, and a Coke. Sound good?"
Rose smiled and nodded, which caused the other two girls to stifle giggles because clearly the man couldn't see her. "Yes that sounds wonderful."
"Awright, 24.99 and it'll be there in t'irty ta fawty minutes." The man recited their address to them without having been told. Rose's eyes were round as she looked the other two girls before telling the man that yes, that was the right address. There was a little sound, and the call went dead.
And that was the scariest part, by far, of Operation Secret Pie. At any time, they knew Mama could awaken. If she caught them still up after the turtles were over she would march them to bed straightaway. They distracted themselves with Mama's phone for the next half hour, playing a game on it – – Mama didn't approve of video games and she had scowled at Darshan when he brought over his 'X Box' a few days ago. They snooped through the pictures, which were mostly of Aunt Selina or Aunt Harley and they were looking at a selfie of Mama and Aunt Selina in front of some mountains when there was a loud knock at the front door.
"Quick," hissed Thorn, "answer it, before he wakes up Mama!"
Rose made a sound that was something like, "MEEP," and rushed to the door, throwing it open just as the man was about to knock again. He was tall and lean, very young, with a big thick bushy beard and long greasy hair. Rose had never seen a man like him. He had glasses, like Mama sometimes wore, only with thicker frames. The man looked down at her – – and Rose thought he looked very sleepy, with big bags under his eyes-- and then he glanced at a little piece of paper attached to the cardboard box he was holding.
"Hey there, that'll be 24.99?" Rose was having an attack of shyness, so instead of answering verbally she reached into her nightgown, pulled out the two bills, and held them up.
He took the money, handed her the box, a bag, and set a big bottle of some liquid on the ground. The box was quite big and very awkward for her to hold. He said, "okay, let me just get your change."
Rose was beginning to panic. The man was loud, and she was terrified Mama would hear a male voice, wake up, and come to investigate. This wasn't her idea! But, even though she was terrified, the smell coming from the box was tantalizing – – like nothing she had ever smelled before. Remembering something she'd heard the turtles say, she quickly replied, "keep the change!"
The man grinned at her and nodded. "Thank you very much. You have a nice night, sweetheart." He turned away to leave and Rose piped up.
"No, my name is Rose. Not sweetheart. You have a good night too!" She shut the door before the man could reply.
They wasted no time. Peeling the box open they were confronted with a hot, gooey, cheesy, greasy mess. There were sticks of bread and a red sauce to dip them in. The bottle was full of a syrupy sweet liquid that burned when you drank it. It was all hot and messy.
It was glorious. They ate, they drank from the bottle, they giggled, they argued over who got the last stick of bread. Unable to contain her grin, Thorn was biting into a big slice, Hazel was taking a drink, and Rose was mopping up the last of the red sauce with her pinky finger, when Operation Secret Pie became...less secret.
"What's all this then?"
Mama's voice was thunderous. Or at least it felt that way. Actually her voice was rather calm, but the girls were terrified as they looked up at her. She stood, dressed in her leafy one-piece, fists on her hips, one perfectly arched eyebrow raised, and a look that made them all want to hide.
Nobody said anything. Finally as the silence stretched, Thorn spoke up. "We wanted to try pizza, Mama."
"So in order to do so, you snuck in my room, stole my phone, stole money from my purse, called a pizza place, and had this feast delivered?"
Rose could fill her eyes stinging, and she was concentrating on not crying. Hazel wouldn't look up. Thorn bit her lip, and then nodded slowly.
Mama leaned down and scooped Thorn up, hugging her close. Holding her with one arm, she gestured with the other, and Rose and Hazel ran to her for a big group hug. Mama held them tight, and just like that all three knew that Mama was strong, that she loved them, and that she would always keep them safe.
"Now girls, you are not aware of the rule but you need to know – – never throw a food party without inviting Poison Ivy" Mama grabbed a slice with a smile.