“I’m glad you saw that,” my mom says, “because I keep trying to tell you. The moment that beacon activates, they’ll be coming. I only saw a glimpse, and that was enough to make my skin crawl.”
My stomach flutters. “Tell me again.”
My mom hesitates, then nods. “I had just failed another infertility treatment, and they showed up at my apartment. They had a baby, with skin the color of fresh-picked lavender, and big round eyes, and they said you were a clone of someone who had just died, someone important. They took some of my DNA and used it to make you look like my daughter, so I could watch you until they were ready to come get you. They showed me a hologram of the monsters that I needed to keep you hidden from, and it was like seeing an army sent by death itself.”
My mom leans on my quilted shoulder, like she’s about to start crying.
Then she takes a deep breath instead. “Let’s do something fun tomorrow. I have a day off. Worthington Garden Party?”
“Wow. What? Really? We haven’t played Worthington Garden Party in forever.”
The beacon goes back to sleep behind my breastbone.
“Oh! There’s that brand-new mall near the tech campus that we haven’t even been to yet. I can wear my church-lady hat!” My mom laughs, and rubs her hands together, and I can’t help smiling too.
But after she leaves, I close my eyes again, and I still see the pale giant leering at me. Raising that terrible gun. I feel frozen to the marrow, like I’ve waded neck-deep into a lake on the bleakest day of winter.
Worthington Garden Party is a game my mom and I invented, where we go through the mall looking at things we could never afford to buy, and we pretend that we’re planning a fancy garden party for the Worthingtons (who don’t exist, just in case it wasn’t already obvious).
My mom puts on her scariest hat, with the carnations and the pink ribbon, and I wear bright apricot capri pants. And we drive to the new shopping center, over on the rich side of town.
The kitchen store has this red-chrome machine that turns fresh fruit into a decorative fountain, and you can program it to spray a few different patterns. “I don’t know,” my mom says, in a very serious voice. “The Worthingtons are quite particular about their juice formations. We wouldn’t want to have a fruit salute that lacks proper parabolas.” My mom says the words “fruit salute” with a straight face.
“Yes, yes,” I say. “I mean, the Worthingtons. How many times have they said they prefer their papaya juice to really soar? So many times.”
My mom nods gravely. “Yes. The Worthingtons have strong opinions about properly aerodynamic papaya juice.” Over in the corner, the salesperson is hiding her giggles behind her hand.
This is the mom I’ve been missing lately. The one who decided that she and I would treat everything like a grand ridiculous adventure, the two of us against the universe. Even when we went camping and set fire to our tent, and got ourselves menaced by beavers. (They were really terrifying. I swear.)
“I always knew that you were going to be taken away from me,” my mom told me a while ago. “I thought about taking you off the grid, or trying to find people to train you in survival skills. But I decided it was better for you to have some good memories of your time as a human being. However long that lasts.”
We keep moving through the mall, along marble floors that are so shiny, I see a murky ghost of myself reflected in them. We gaze upon shiny shoes, in a riot of colors, that cost nearly a month’s rent. These kid-leather saddle shoes, with peacock feather heads all around the sides, might be just the thing to help the Worthingtons launch the season. “Mundane,” my mother proclaims, squinting at them. “Frightfully mundane.”
The only thing we actually buy is a basket of truffle fries, which we eat in the food court. They smell of rich oils and spices, but they taste like regular fries, just a little sweeter.
My mom chatters about the book club she keeps missing, and I let myself breathe. It’s okay. Only humans ’round these parts.
Then I look away for a second, and see the pale man, standing near the video game store. Watching us. His lip curls upward, and he pats the ugly gun attached to his dark tunic.
When I look again, a second later, the pale man is gone.
The next day at Clinton High, someone has posted a slut-shaming video about Samantha Kinnock, and it has a hundred likes already. Only thirty seconds long, just a close-up of Samantha’s ass in this pair of booty shorts that she decided to wear one weekend, with ugly messages popping up. I hear Lauren Bose and her other friends whisper about it in the hallway.
It never stops. The cycle just keeps going and going. People only feel like their footing is secure when they can step on someone else’s head.
Why would I even want to be human?
I step into Lauren’s path and the rage settles onto me, like armor.
“Leave Samantha alone.”
I get tunnel vision, and my nerves are jangling, and Lauren’s dimply smirk gets under my skin—and the beacon wakes up. Something to add to Rachael’s chart of cartoon Tinas.
This ball of light throbs and pounds against the wall of my chest like a trapped animal, pale glow showing through my hoodie. And I think, It’s happening, damn damn damn, I’ll finally be who I was meant to be.
One of Lauren’s friends, maybe Kayla, sticks out her foot, and trips me. I fall face-first onto the tile floor, hard enough to scrape my palms. Everyone is laughing and chattering and aiming their phones.
The beacon sputters.
All at once, I’m not picking myself up off the hallway of Clinton High. I’m raising myself, painfully, off an opaque black surface made out of glass, or plastic. The floor quakes under my hands and knees—and all around me is nothing but darkness, peppered with tiny lights.
Stars to my left, stars to my right, stars all around.
I’m standing on top of a spaceship, in deep space.
And my skin has turned purple. Not grape-soda purple, more like a pale, bluish purple that shimmers as it catches the starlight. I’m wearing a crimson suit, or some kind of uniform, with a river of lights on the left sleeve and a picture of a strange mask, like for an opera singer, on the right. My violet palms are cupped around a holographic message that I somehow know is telling me this spaceship is about to explode.
“You mustn’t blame yourself,” says a voice like the rustling of dead leaves in the wind. “You were always doomed to fail.” The giant from my bedroom turns his depthless black eyes toward me. He’s wearing a bloodred sash across his long dark tunic.
His face looks wrong, even besides the paleness and the big dark eye pools. I can’t figure it out at first, but then I realize: he’s too perfect. No flaws, no blemishes. The two sides of his face are exactly the same, like a mirror image. His dark hair is cropped short across his white scalp.
“Marrant, even if you kill me, that doesn’t mean I’ve failed,” I hear myself say. “There are victories greater than death. I might not live to see justice done, but I can see it coming. Also, that sash makes you look like a third-rate CrudePink singer.”
The giant—Marrant?—snarls and lunges forward, and his right hand holds the same weapon as in my vision from the other night. I’ve never even seen a regular gun up close, but at this range, I can tell this one will rip my entire body in half.
The darkness in Marrant’s eyes makes me feel tiny, weak, a speck of nothing.
Then reality comes crashing back. My skin is back to its usual shade of pale cream. I’m standing there in the hallway, trembling, and the bell is ringing, and I’m about to be late for class. My legs won’t budge, no matter how hard I try to make them.
Saturday morning, the sunlight invades my tiny curtained-off “bedroom” and wakes me from a clammy bad dream. Even awake, I keep remembering Marrant’s creepy voice—and I startle, as if I had more layers of nightmare to wake from.
My phone is jittering with all the gossip from Waymaker fandom and random updates about some Clinton High drama that I barely noticed in the midst of my Marrant obsession . . . and then there’s a message from Rachael on the Lasagna Hats server.
Monday Barker. It’s happening: disco party! Coming to pick you up at noon.
The Lasagna Hats started as a backchannel group for Waymaker players—until the game had one gross update too many, and then we started just chatting about whatever. And somehow it turned into a place to organize pranks and disruptions against all of the world’s scuzziest creeps.
I grab my backpack, dump out all my school stuff, and cram it full of noisemakers, glitter, and my mom’s old costume stuff. I’m already snapping out of my anxiety spiral.
The back seat of Rachael’s car is covered with art supplies and sketchpads, and I can tell at a glance that she’s leveled up since I last saw her works in progress. As soon as I get in her car, Rachael chatters to me about Monday Barker—that online “personality” who says that girls are naturally bad at science and math, and women should never have gotten the vote.
Then Rachael trails off, because she can tell I’m only half listening.
“Okay,” she says. “What’s wrong with you?” I can barely find the words to tell her I’ve started having hallucinations about an alien serial killer.
The artwork on Rachael’s back seat includes a hand-colored drawing of a zebra wearing a ruffly collar and velvet jacket, raising a sword and riding a narwhal across the clouds. Somehow this image gives me the courage to explain about Marrant.
“Pretty sure these were actual memories from . . . before,” I say. “I think this means it’s going to light up soon.”
“That’s great.” Rachael glances at my face. “Wait. Why isn’t that great?”
“It is. Except . . . I’ve been waiting and dreaming for so long, and now it’s suddenly a real thing. And . . . what if there’s nothing out there but the evil murder team? What if all the friendly aliens are dead? Or don’t bother to show up?”
“Huh.” She drives onto the highway and merges into traffic without slowing down. “I guess there’s only one way to find out.”
I close my eyes, and remember that oily voice: You were always doomed to fail.
“Maybe I can’t do this.” I suck in a deep breath through my teeth. “Maybe I’m just out of my league and I’m going to die. Maybe I’m just not strong enough.”
Rachael glances at me again, and shrugs. “Maybe,” is all she says.
She doesn’t talk again for ages. I think this is the “working something out in her own head” silence.
We make a pit stop at a convenience store, and Rachael pauses in the parking lot. “Remember when you decked Walter Gough for calling me an orca in a smock?” (It wasn’t a smock, it was a nice chemise from Torrid, and Walter deserved worse.) “Remember the great lunch lady war, and that Frito pie costume you wore?”
“The entire time I’ve known you, people have kept telling you to stop being such an obnoxious pain in the butt,” Rachael says with a gleam in her eye. “But here you are, preparing to put on a ridiculous costume and prank Monday Barker. This is who you are. So . . . if some alien murder team shows up to test you, I feel sorry for them.”
Rachael smiles at me. Everything suddenly feels extremely heavy and lighter than air, at the same time.
“Oh my god,” I say. “Can I hug you? I know you don’t always like to be touched, but—”
Rachael nods, and I pull her into a bear hug. She smells of fancy soap and acetone, and her arms wrap around me super gently.
Then she lets go of me, and I let go too, and we go to buy some extra-spicy chips and ultra-caffeinated sodas, the perfect fuel for confronting asshattery (ass-millinery?). I keep thinking of what Rachael just said, and a sugar rush spreads throughout my whole body.
I feel like I almost forgot something massively important, but then my best friend was there to remind me.
Monday Barker is scheduled to speak at the Lions Club in Islington, and we’re setting up at the park across the street. Bette and Turtle have a glitter mist machine and a big disco ball, and a dozen other people, mostly my age, have brought sparkly decorations. I wander around helping people to figure out the best place to set up, since this “disco party” was sort of my idea.
“We got this,” says Turtle, buttoning their white suit jacket over a red shirt. “Why don’t you get yourself ready?” They’ve put pink streaks into their hair-swoosh.
In other words, Stop trying to micromanage everyone. Message received.
I retreat to Rachael’s car, where I rummage in my knapsack and put on a bright red spangly tuxedo shirt and a big fluffy pink skirt I stole from my mom, plus shoes covered with sequins.
Rachael sets to work finishing some signs she was making, which are full of rainbows and stars and shiny Day-Glo paint. I pull out the tubes of glitter-goop I brought with me, and she lets me spread some around the edges using a popsicle stick.
I coax Rachael into telling me about the comic she’s working on right now. “It’s about a group of animals living on a boat. They thought they were getting on Noah’s Ark, but the guy they thought was Noah skipped out on them, and now they’re just stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean alone. There’s a pair of giraffes, and a poly triad of walruses. They have to teach themselves to sail, and maybe they’re going to become pirates who only steal fresh produce. Once I have enough of it, I might put it online.”
“Hell yeah,” I say. “The world deserves to learn how excellent you are.”
She just nods and keeps adding more sparkle.
I wish the bullies hadn’t driven Rachael away from school. She just made too easy a target for ass-millinery: her parents are nudists, she’s a super-introvert who sometimes talks to herself when she gets stressed, and she wears loose rayon clothing to hide all her curves.
The rich kids, whose parents worked at the tech campus, took her picture and used filters to make her look like an actual dog. Kids “accidentally” tripped her up as she walked into school, or shoved her in the girls’ room. One time, someone dumped a can of coffee grounds from the teacher’s lounge on her head. I tried to protect her, but I couldn’t be there all the time.
So . . . homeschooling. And me never seeing Rachael during the week anymore.
Soon there are about twenty of us across the street from the Lions Club, everybody feeding off everyone else’s energy and hoisting Rachael’s glorious awning. And a pro–Monday Barker crowd is already gathered across the street, on the front walk of this old one-story brick meeting hall with flaking paint on its wooden sign.
A town car pulls up, and Monday Barker gets out, flanked by two beefy men in dark suits holding walkie-talkies. Monday Barker is about my mom’s age, with sideburns enclosing his round face, and a huge crown of upswept hair. He waves in a robotic motion, and his fans scream and freak out.
Someone on our side fires up a big speaker on wheels, playing old disco music. The handful of cops between us and the Lions Club tense up, but we’re not trying to start anything. We’re just having an impromptu dance party.
The brick wall of the savings and trust bank seems to shiver. I catch a glimpse of Marrant, the giant with the scary-perfect face and the sneering thin lips, staring at me.
But I remember what I said to him in that vision: There are victories greater than death. I can see justice coming. And then I think about Rachael saying, If an alien murder team shows up, I feel sorry for them.
The throbbing grows stronger . . . but Marrant is gone. The brick wall is just a wall again.
The Monday Barker fans—mostly white boys with bad hair—are chanting something, but I can’t hear them over our music. Rachael and I look at each other and whoop. Someone starts the whole crowd singing along with that song about how we are family. I know, I know. But I get kind of choked up.
We keep on, chanting disco lyrics and holding hands, until Monday Barker’s supporters vanish inside the Lions Club to listen to their idol explain why girls shouldn’t learn to read. Out here, on the disco side of the line, we all start high-fiving each other and jumping up and down.
Afterward, we all head to the 23-Hour Coffee Bomb. Turtle, Bette, and the others all go inside the coffee place, but I pause out in the parking lot, with its scenic view of the wind-beaten sign for the Little Darlings strip club. Rachael sees me and hangs back too.
“I started to get another one of those hallucinations.” I look down at the white gravel. “During the disco party. Snow-white serial killer, staring me down. And this time . . . I faced it. I didn’t get scared. And I could feel the star ball respond to that, like it was powering up.”
“Hmm.” Rachael turns away from the door and looks at me. “Maybe that’s the key. That’s how you get the rescue beacon to switch on.”
“Yeah. Makes total sense. When you can confront that scary vision of your past life or whatever, then it proves you’re ready.” She comes closer and reaches out with one hand. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
“Yeah. I want to be here to see this.” She grins.
I swallow and shiver for a moment, then I clasp her hand and concentrate. Probably better to do this before I lose my nerve, right?
I remember Marrant and his bottomless dark eyes, and the exploding spaceship, and that curdled blob of helplessness inside me. And I catch sight of him again, striding across the road with his death-cannon raised. The icy feeling grows from my core outward, and I clench my free hand into a fist.
Then . . . I start to shake. I can actually see the dark tendrils gathering inside that gun barrel. Pure concentrated death. My heart pounds so loud I can’t even think straight. I couldn’t even help Rachael feel safe at Clinton High. How could I possibly be ready to face Marrant?
“I can’t,” I choke out. “I can’t. I . . . I just can’t.”
“Okay,” Rachael says. “Doesn’t have to be today, right? But I know you got this. Just think of disco and glitter and the look in Monday Barker’s eyes when he tried so damn hard not to notice us in all our finery.”
She squeezes my hand tighter. I look down at the ridiculous skirt I’m still wearing. And I focus on the person I am in those visions—the person who can see justice coming, even on the brink of death. That’s who I’ve always wanted to be.
I’m ready. I know I can do this.
I growl in my throat, and feel a sympathetic thrumming from the top of my rib cage.
The parking lot and the strip-club billboard melt away, and I’m once again standing on top of a spaceship, and my free hand is cupped around a warning that we’re about to blow up. The stars whirl around so fast that I get dizzy, and Marrant is aiming his weapon at point-blank range.
But I can still feel Rachael’s hand wrapped around mine.
I gather myself together, step forward, and smile.
I can’t see what happens next, because a white light floods my eyes, so bright it burns.
Rachael squeezes my hand tighter and says, “Holy bloody hell.”
A million stars flow out of me, inside a globe the size of a tennis ball. I can only stand to look at them through my fingers, all of these red and blue and yellow lights whirling around, with clouds of gas and comets and pulsars.
Way more stars than I’ve ever seen in the sky.
All of my senses feel extra sharp: the burnt-tire smell of the coffee, the whoosh of traffic going past, the jangle of classic rock from inside the café, the tiny rocks under my feet.
Everybody inside the coffee shop is staring and yelling. I catch Turtle’s eye, and they look freaked out. Rachael has her phone out and is taking as many pictures as she can.
As soon as the ball leaves my body, it gets bigger, until I can see more of the individual stars. So many tiny hearts of light, I can’t even count. The sphere expands until I’m surrounded. Stars overhead, stars underfoot. This parking lot has become a planetarium.
I can’t help laughing, yelling, swirling my hands through the star-trails. Feels like I’ve been waiting forever to bathe in this stardust.
Victories Greater Than Death will hit bookshelves on April 14th, 2021. You can find out more about Victories Greater Than Death, including how to pre-order, here.