By Susan Stone (email@example.com)
Summary: A story tracking the life of Laney Kent (the only one of the Kent brood lacking in superpowers) from adolescence to maturity. This story explores what Lois and Clark's kids might be like, and also sets about reconciling the issue of Clark's alienness with religions of the world.
Author's Note: This story was inspired by list discussion of what Lois and Clark's kids might be like, and of how Clark might fit into religion. So be warned <g> that this story contains religious themes, though it's not a sermon or a tract or anything of the kind. Feedback is appreciated and desired. Many thanks to Kathy Pernisek for previewing/editing, and to Deena Cross and Diane Levitan for encouraging me to write this. Sports terminology, for those unfamiliar with basketball and American football. If you know your sports, or if you don't mind occasionally not understanding what the characters are talking about (it's not crucial to the plot), just page down to the beginning of the story!
NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) basketball tournament — a 64-team single elimination tournament that determines the college basketball champion. Usually refers to the men's tournament, but the women's uses an identical system. A committee divides the teams into four brackets of sixteen teams. Within each bracket, the teams are assigned a "seed", from 1 for the strongest down to 16 for the weakest. In the first round, 1 plays 16, 2 plays 15, etc. Upsets are an annual occurrence, but so far no 16 seed has ever beaten a 1. Several have come close, though, so it could happen. The tournament is extremely popular, and many offices and groups of friends form pools to bet on the outcome. The worst thing that can happen to you is to have your pick for the national championship lose in the first round. That's what happens to Clark in the Daily Planet pool of 2004—Team A, whom he picked to win it all, was upset by Team B in the first round. Lois, on the other hand, picked Team C to win the championship and was correct.
Final Four — The winners of the four tournament brackets, who play for the national championship on the third and final weekend of the tournament.
Guard — a basketball position. Each team plays two guards, who collectively form the "backcourt." Guards are typically the shortest players on the team, playing toward the back and outside rather than close to the basket like the taller forwards and centers.
Shot clock — A basketball team has 35 seconds after taking possession of the ball to attempt a shot, or they are penalized. A large clock over each basket counts this time down.
Trey — A basket shot from outside an arc drawn on the court that is worth three points, rather than the two points awarded for baskets shot from closer to the net.
ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) — one of many conferences of colleges organized for competitive sports, the ACC is particularly known for men's basketball.
Wide receiver — A football position. A player on the offense whose primary duty is to catch passes.
Special teams — In football, when a team scores or fails to advance ten yards in four attempts, it must kick the ball to the other team. Kicks after scores are called "kickoffs"; those after failures to advance are "punts". Both the kicking and receiving teams are known as special teams, distinguished from the regular offense and defense. And now, without further ado…
*Laney, wake up!*
Laney Kent sat up in bed in response to the voice sounding in her mind. *I'm awake*, she thought. *I'll be there in a few minutes.* She checked the clock. Two a.m. Moving slowly and stealthily, she slid out of bed and dressed in old jeans, a dark t-shirt, and hiking boots. She pulled her heavy brown-black hair into a ponytail, and, after a moment's thought, took insect repellent from her dresser and slathered it on her exposed skin. Smelly stuff—she'd have to be sure to shower before Marty or her parents saw her tomorrow so they wouldn't suspect—but if she were to come down with malaria in a week or so, there would be no way to keep this a secret, so there would really be hell to pay.
She tiptoed to the door and opened it, cursing its tendency to creak. Fortunately, Claire's room was next door. Of course, she couldn't be totally silent, so if Marty or Dad were listening then she was just dead and would probably be grounded until her high school graduation, which was flatly unreasonable. It wasn't like she was sneaking out to a wild party like most kids her age would be.
Slipping into Claire's room, she shut the door behind her. Claire sat perched on the window seat, dressed similarly to Laney. Otherwise, there was small resemblance between the sisters. Thirteen-year-old Claire was a slight, pale girl, with straight golden-brown hair and hazel eyes, while fifteen-year- old Laney was tall, tanned, and athletic, with abundant wavy hair and brightly dark eyes. Outsiders tended to assume Laney was the strong one of the family, but in actuality Claire was far stronger and had never been sick—Laney was the only one of the three Kent sisters who had human limitations.
*Ready?* Claire asked with her thoughts. She had telepathic abilities, unique even within their one-of-a-kind family. When she chose, she could make her thoughts audible in the mind of anyone within about a one-mile range, and hear any thoughts directed at her. She had to initiate the connection, and it was under her control—no one could eavesdrop. For obvious reasons, she rarely used her ability outside the family, though she had been known to prevent accidents by alerting strangers to impending dangers. Laney was her favorite partner in thought, and the sisters had been sharing thoughts since their toddler days, giving them a secret world apart from their parents and big sister, Marty.
*Ready*, Laney replied. *But where are Dad and Marty?*
*Can you hear anything that might wake them?*
Claire concentrated. *No. It seems like a quiet night to me. But you know they can hear a lot better than I can.* She shrugged apologetically. Her superhearing wasn't as acute as Marty's or their father's, possibly because she was still so young. However, Marty had been stronger, quicker, and sharper of hearing and vision at the same age.
*Don't apologize. Compared to you, I'm deaf.*
*Don't say that!*
*Why not? It's no more than the truth. But never mind. Time's wasting.*
Claire smiled and extended her hand. Laney crossed the room and took it. They perched side-by-side on the windowsill for a moment, drinking in fragrant June night air. *One, two, three,* Claire counted. In unison, they jumped, and Laney felt the crackle of her sister's strength as they flew into the night. It was a little scary, flying with her only link to her sister their clasped hands, held up by Claire's aura as if she could fly on her own. The times she'd flown with her father, he'd carried her in his arms, but she was so much bigger and taller than Claire that being carried by her struck them both as absurd and awkward.
Claire had only been flying for about six months. She and Marty had developed superpowers at a younger age than their father had, though they weren't quite sure why. Maybe girls developed such powers earlier, just as human girls usually started puberty earlier, or maybe it was simply having their father around to show them what they were capable of. In any case, Claire was new enough to flight that Dad still placed certain restrictions on her: she was supposed to stay within the eastern half of the country, and she wasn't supposed to carry passengers. While Claire and Laney were on the whole more obedient than the average teenager, both considered the flight limits insupportable. There was a whole world out there to be explored, most of its more interesting parts outside of the eastern U.S., and carrying Laney didn't tire Claire any more than a good healthy workout would tire a human.
Still, Laney wondered if this little adventure was really such a good idea. They'd never snuck out in the middle of the night before, and the farthest they'd gone was Costa Rica. Was it really such a good idea to go all the way to the opposite side of the world, to Papua New Guinea? Claire had promised she'd found the most beautiful spot ever, unspoiled mountain rain forest, when they'd thought the trip through that morning, but was it worth the risks? She hoped the long flight with her added weight wouldn't tire her sister out. If carrying her normal distances was the same to her sister as playing a basketball game would be to her, would this be like playing nonstop all afternoon? Most of all, she worried that an emergency would awaken Dad in their absence. He routinely counted his household's heartbeats when returning from night rescue work, and if two were missing, would he ever be mad! She frowned, as she often did, over the trials of having such a father. The she noticed how much clearer and more abundant the stars appeared from only a few thousand feet above the ground, and her worries were forgotten in her delight in the galactic beauty.
After about half an hour in the air—Claire wasn't as fast as Marty or Dad, either—they arrived over a large island, and Claire slowed the pace considerably. It was daylight there, of course, and quite humid, but not as hot as Laney had expected. Then, mentally kicking herself, she recalled that this was, after all, the Southern Hemisphere and it was winter now, or as close as it got to winter in a rain forest. *Here we are!* Claire thought. *It's just up this river…and the then the second big tributary stream in the mountains. The place I want to show you is a little bit of a clearing, so we'll land a little away from it and hike in. Less chance of being seen.*
*Good idea,* Laney thought. *I'd hate to start a new religion in some tribe. Can you imagine? Worshipping flying white girls?* Both girls laughed as they settled to the ground in the midst of the forest. As always, it took Laney a moment to get her balance and readjust to gravity's familiar pull. As soon as it felt normal to have her weight on her feet, she stared around her, amazed at the lush greener. "Wow," she breathed.
"It's wonderful, isn't it?" Claire said, also aloud. She led the way through the dense undergrowth, pointing out details of the ecosystem as they went along. Ecology had been her passion since she'd seen her first National Geographic nature special as a young child, and half the fun of flying for her was getting to visit exotic, isolated wildernesses.
Sitting by the waterfall at his favorite thinking spot, all alone, Thad Krystkiewicz knew he must be hallucinating when he heard voices and footsteps approaching. By itself, that wouldn't be so unusual, but the voices had the rhythms of American English and the tone quality of teenage girls. It couldn't be, because he was the only American teen for several days traveling distance. He shook his head vigorously. It was one thing to really wish there was someone more like him to talk to, but imagining such a person was a problem!
Then, two girls stepped into the clearing, and he knew he wasn't making them up. For one thing, he admitted, his imagination would've created gorgeous blonde twins, not one pale, wispy brown-haired girl and one dark, wiry one who looked almost as tall as he was. For another, instead of coming forward to meet him, they stared at him in consternation; then, after a rapid exchange of glances, turned to flee in the direction from which they came.
He started to his feet. "Please don't go. Can't you stay and talk? I never get to talk to Americans my age."
They looked at him for a long moment, and then at each other again. From the expressions playing across their faces, Thad would've sworn they were arguing, and the younger wanted to stay and the older to leave. But when they came into the clearing, it was the older, black-haired girl who led the way. "I'm Laney Kent," she said, "and this is my sister Claire." Her voice was clear and pleasant, but there was something faintly defensive in her posture, her crossed arms, and the challenge of her dark eyes.
"I'm Thad Krystkiewicz." He smiled, tentatively.
"Thad Krisst-kev-itz," Laney pronounced carefully.
"It's kind of a mouthful," he said with a rueful chuckle, "and not spelled all that much like it sounds. In English, at least." She smiled in return, a toothy, transforming smile. He decided he liked her, mostly because of that smile.
"Nice to meet you," Claire said shyly into the silence.
"But kind of surprising," Laney added.
"I'm just as surprised to meet you. Why are you here, anyway, and who are you? I thought I knew all the Americans in this area, and I hadn't heard anything about new people coming in."
"We're just visiting," Claire said.
"We're camping with our family," Laney said. "We like wilderness camping."
"Where's your camp?"
"Back there a little ways," she said, pointing vaguely in the direction from which they'd appeared.
It was the opposite direction from his home, and he didn't know it very well. The terrain was rugged and forbidding, which he supposed would appeal to a family who enjoyed wilderness camping. But the girls didn't quite look the part. "Um, you really shouldn't hike very far without machetes and canteens," he said, indicating the canteen at his belt and the machete that lay with his backpack on the flat rock near the waterfall.
"We know," Laney assured him. "We just wandered a little farther than we meant to today, that's all." Both girls seemed a little nervous, and Thad would've thought they were lying except that their story was the only remotely plausible explanation for why two American girls had miraculously appeared by his waterfall.
"So why are you here?" Laney asked.
"Oh! I live here. My parents are doctors in the mission clinic in Biloka village, just over that mountain."
"You mean your parents are missionaries? I didn't know there still *were* missionaries." Laney clapped a hand over her mouth, looking embarrassed and afraid she'd offended him.
He made a dismissive gesture. "Yeah. Still."
"But they're doctors, too? What's their work like?"
"Oh no, doctor talk," Claire said. "I think I'll just walk along the stream for a bit. Laney wants to be a doctor when she grows up," she said over her shoulder as she walked away.
"Claire's shy around strangers," Laney said by way of apology. "And she wants to be an ecologist—either that or take over our grandparents' farm—so when she's in a place like this she'd rather be with plants than people."
"That's okay." They stared at each other, standing awkwardly on the soft ground by the edge of the stream. "Do you want to sit down?" he asked.
He led the way to his flat rock by the waterfall, and they sat. "This is my favorite place in the whole world just to come and think. It's so loud and hectic in our house and in the village."
"It's beautiful," she said, stretching out gracefully to dangle one hand in the pool at the base of the fall. She studied him from under half-shut eyelids. She'd never met anyone while out flying with Claire before, and it worried her. She was glad he'd bought her story about wilderness camping, since it hadn't sounded all that plausible to her. Anyway, they'd never see him again, and why should he suspect anything? It wasn't like anyone knew Superman had a family. No reason at all not to stay and talk to him this once. He was appealing enough. Earnest friendliness radiated from his every feature, and he wasn't so gangly and in need of a haircut he'd be handsome. She especially liked his eyes, which were deep-set and richly brown, full of alert intelligence. Clearly, he was lonely and needed a friend to talk to, and she could sympathize with loneliness, since her family situation imposed a certain secretiveness and isolation upon her that didn't come naturally. "So how did your parents end up here?" she asked. "This isn't where I'd expect to find doctors."
"Believe me, they're needed. Before Mom and Dad even started med school, they knew they wanted to do something like this. A lot of their work is educational, teaching people about hygiene and preventative medicine, stuff that would be taken for granted in the States. It's tough sometimes working with people who believe all sickness is a result of witchcraft."
"Witchcraft? You mean like curses and stuff?"
"Wow. I don't know if I'd have the patience to be a doctor under those conditions. I want to see results right away."
"What do you want to do? Surgery?"
"Maybe. I'm interested in organ transplants. But right now I think I want to work in an ER."
"I don't know if I could handle that. It's so much stress, and you don't get a long term relationship with your patients."
"That's the drawback, of course, but I want to help people in a crisis, when it's life-or-death at that moment. When I was little I wanted to be a police officer so I could stop crimes, but then I decided it's doctors who save the most lives. What about you? Do you want to be a doctor, too?"
"I think so. I guess I'm kind of in between my parents and you. My aunt in Chicago is the director of an inner city clinic, and I'd like to do something like that."
"Wow, is everyone in your family a doctor?"
"No, just Mom, Dad, and Aunt Diane. What about you? Are either of your parents doctors?"
"No, they're reporters with the Daily Planet."
"Cool. We follow world news with the on-line edition."
"But my Grandfather Lane is a doctor—sports medicine. And my best friend's parents are pediatricians in Chinatown. Maybe they're a little bit like your aunt."
"So you're from Metropolis?"
"Yep. What about you? I mean, before you came here."
"My dad's family is from Chicago and my mom is from near San Francisco. When we're in the States, the Bay Area is our home base, but we travel around a lot. I've never been to Metropolis, though."
"It's just another big city."
"I wouldn't say that. No other city has Superman."
She rolled her eyes. She could never quite get used to all the hero worship Dad got.
He flushed slightly. "I guess it's a little childish to still be into Superman."
"Oh, not at all—that's not it. All the kids at school are into Superman, and so are most of the adults in Metropolis. It's just that— well, he's a friend of our family, from way back when he first appeared in the city and Mom and Dad covered the story, so he seems ordinary to me. I mean, imagine if everyone acted about your Aunt Diane the way people act about Superman."
He laughed. "If Aunt Diane could fly and went around saving lives, I'm sure they would."
"But your aunt does go around saving lives at her clinic, doesn't she? So the only difference between her and Superman is that his powers give him extra resources."
"That's a pretty big difference."
"Um…Laney, Thad?" Claire had approached, unnoticed. "We really need to be getting back."
"How much longer will you be camping here?" Thad asked.
Laney was opening her mouth to say they were leaving first thing tomorrow, but Claire was quicker. "Two more days."
*What on earth are you doing?* Laney thought, but Claire wasn't accepting thoughts.
"Can you come here again?" he asked.
Part of her wanted to say no, since she didn't really think it was a good idea for Claire to make a flight like this three days in a row. But something about the wistful, hopeful look in his eyes changed her mind. "Same time, same place tomorrow?"
"See ya then." She hoped to God they wouldn't get caught or otherwise prevented from returning. As she and Claire left the clearing, she looked over her shoulder. He was still watching. She waved.
A few minutes later, when they were airborne and speeding northeast, Laney spoke up. "Claire, what do you mean saying we'll be there another two days?"
*You want to go back, don't you?* Claire thought.
*Maybe. Yes. But you sure took charge of things. Who's the big sister around here, anyway?*
Claire smiled. *If you didn't want to go back, you shouldn't have told him we'd be there tomorrow.*
*But can you fly like this for another two nights in a row?*
*It's kind of tiring. But I'll be fine if I take naps during the day.*
*I hope Dad doesn't catch us. I'd hate for Thad to wait for us and us not be there.*
The flight home was uneventful, and within half an hour they hovered over their house. Claire listened carefully. *Coast is clear! Everyone's asleep.* They quickly dropped between the tall trees beside the house and into Claire's window. They could never fly in and out of Laney's room, since she'd been given the front bedroom, the only one whose windows weren't hidden from public view by the thick trees surrounding three sides of their house. She didn't complain, since it was the biggest one, even bigger than their parents'.
After the girls said good-night, Laney slipped back into her room, quickly undressed, and slid into bed. Regretfully, she set the alarm for 6:30, to be certain of being the first one in the family to shower.
It worked like a charm. Neither Marty nor their parents noticed that they were more tired than normal at breakfast, and none of them were around to notice that both girls took afternoon naps after returning home from their summer programs—Laney's advanced Red Cross first aid class and Claire's Junior Ecologist program at the Museum of Natural History. The next night, Laney awoke before Claire's two a.m. wake-up thought. Determined to look more like wilderness campers, she and Claire had dug through the family's camping equipment in the basement and discovered two canteens. They hadn't had any luck finding machetes lying around the house, and their allowances wouldn't cover buying them. However, Laney had a Swiss Army knife, and she hoped it gave her at least some of the appearance of a serious outdoorswoman. Dressed, armed, and canteened, she crept out to meet her sister, and together they flew into the night.
When they arrived in the clearing, careful to approach from the same direction as before, Thad was waiting impatiently. After a friendly but cursory greeting, Claire wandered downstream to continue her communion with the tropical ecosystem. Thad and Laney sat down on the rock by the waterfall and started talking. She was amazed by how easy and comfortable it was. She had many friends, including her best friend and neighbor, Monica, and she and Claire had always been close, but talking to Thad was different. She and Monica tended to study, shop, and play sports together rather than talk in any depth, and Claire was younger and had different interests. With Thad, there seemed to be a subtle alchemy at work that kept the words pouring out of her mouth and gave interest to the most mundane subjects.
They talked about their names.
"Thad's an unusual name. Is it short for something?"
"Thaddeus. Mom thinks with a name like Krystkiewicz, you need a nice impressive first name, too. Her name is Tammy, and she nearly kept her maiden name because she thought Tammy Krystkiewicz sounded so silly."
Laney laughed. "I can see what she means. What's your dad's name?"
"Joe. And he's always thought my mom is just a little too creative with names, so my middle name is David. And my little sister Kat—she's ten—her whole name is Katerina Ellen."
"Ellen's my middle name, too."
"Oh? I guess Laney isn't short for Elaine, then."
"No, it's long for Lane—that's my mom's maiden name, and her mom is Ellen. All of us have family names. Marty is Martha Lois, for Grandmom—that's my dad's mother—and Mom. Claire is Claire Joanna—if any of us had been a boy we would've been Clark Jonathan for Dad and Granddad, and Claire's was the closest girl's name."
"Family names are nice. None of us have them, which is okay, since all my immediate ancestors were Joes and Bobs and Marys and Anns. Maybe Mom is a little too creative, but I'd rather be Thad than Bob any day."
"I agree. Anyway, you don't look like a Bob."
A little later, they talked about sports.
"Mom and Dad are both sports fanatics, but it's hard to get American sports all the way out here. They read some of the clari.sports newsgroups and look at on-line newspapers, and some of our friends and family in the States send us tapes of the most important football and basketball games. Oh, and the deciding game of the World Series, if it's any good that year. It's kind of weird knowing who won before you watch, but I love football and basketball. I wish I could try to play, but the boys in the village obviously don't play American sports. Dad put up a basketball goal outside our house, and I shoot a lot, but it's not the same as being on a team."
"I play basketball," she said after a slight hesitation, glad to discover another common interest but hating the idea of making him more upset about everything he was missing growing up out here in the middle of nowhere. "Volleyball, too, but basketball is my favorite, and I'm better at it. I've been practicing since I was five. My dad built our goal, too. And before that, he bought me one of those little adjustable height plastic goals they make for little kids." She smiled, staring into the distance with reminiscent eyes. "It all started for me with basketball one day when I had to stay home from preschool with the flu. Dad stayed with me, and it was March, the first day of the NCAA tournament. I watched with him, but we rooted for different teams. My team won, and when it was over I asked him if he thought *I* could play basketball. As soon as I was well, I found that plastic goal waiting for me in the backyard."
"You must have a pretty nice dad, to buy you the goal after you rooted against his team. Do you remember who the teams were?"
"Of course. It was the Princeton-Kansas game of 2004."
"That game! We have it on tape. It's my parents' favorite."
"The only time in history a sixteen seed has beaten a one seed. Ten years later, and they still bring it up every year. Why is it your parents' favorite? Did they go to Princeton, or do they just like seeing underdogs win?"
"Mom went to Penn and Dad went to Dartmouth, so it's kind of an Ivy League thing. Not that they're so fond of Princeton, but they say beating Kansas reflected well on the whole league. And they do like a good underdog. Who doesn't?"
"My dad didn't, not that year. He's from Kansas, so they're his favorite team. And plus, they were his pick to win it all that year, so Princeton's little miracle ruined his chances in the newsroom pool that year. He still complains about it, and Mom still rubs it in—she'd gone with Arkansas and ended up winning the pool."
He laughed. "So are you on your school's basketball team?"
She nodded. "I play guard. Next year is just my sophomore year, but Coach says unless something drastic happens I'll start this season."
"That's great! I just wish there was a team for me to be on."
Not long afterward, Claire reappeared, and the girls left, promising a final visit the next day.
The final visit began much like the previous one, but the conversation soon took a more serious turn.
"Do you believe in God?" Thad asked. From the way he leaned forward and knitted his eyebrows together, she got the impression her answer was important to him. He was, after all, a missionary kid.
For the first time since the first few minutes after they'd met, no response sprang immediately to her lips. She'd had very little experience with organized religion. Other than visiting historical churches and attending friends' bar and bat mitzvahs, all she knew came from her friendship with Monica, who went to church every Sunday with her parents. When the Wongs had first moved in next door to the Kents and seven- year-olds Laney and Monica had become friends, Monica had invited her to a summer day camp type program called Bible School, and she'd gone. It had been a fun week. Laney had enjoyed the games, crafts, and singing, and the stories the teacher told about some man named Jesus who'd lived a long time ago had been interesting. She'd wanted to go to church with Monica every Sunday after that, since apparently there was something called Sunday School that was just like Bible School, only it met once a week year round. When she'd asked her parents, they'd given a noncommittal answer and exchanged significant looks. Later that day, she'd overheard a conversation between them.
"I really don't see how it would do any harm," Dad had said. "She's having so much fun with Monica. Those two are getting to be inseparable."
"I'm glad we have such nice neighbors with a daughter her age, but I still don't like the idea of her going to church every week. You know religious people aren't that wild about you, you've seen the tracts and heard the street preachers, and I don't want our daughter joining some group where she'd be regarded as some kind of antichrist or demon spawn if they knew the truth of her ancestry."
"Lois, the only people who think that are fanatics, cultists even. You know the Wongs don't feel that way, and I can't believe anyone in their church would have those kind of ideas—they're Presbyterians, I think."
"I don't know. It just seems so strange to think of a child of ours becoming religious."
At that point, Laney had slipped away, in turmoil. She didn't want to stop going to church with Monica, but she also didn't want to be called an antichrist or a demon spawn. She had no idea what they were, but they sounded terrible. Apparently her dad had won the argument, because they never told her she couldn't go to church. However, she herself had told Monica she didn't want to go anymore, and after a few vain invitations, her friend had given up. Over the years, she'd of course gained a more sophisticated understanding of religion, and she knew it was only the most radical fringe groups who feared and distrusted her father. Still, she tended to agree with her mother that it would be strange for her to join a religion, and she doubted any organized religion would accept her if they knew she wasn't quite human.
"Laney?" Thad said.
"Oh! I'm sorry. I'm just thinking how to answer. I'm not sure if I believe in God. I know none of the religions seem true to me, but sometimes it seems like the universe is too complicated to happen by chance. So I guess I believe there's some kind of supreme being or beings, but not like Christians or Hindus or whoever think."
"Hmm. I guess that makes you a theist. Maybe a little bit of an agnostic, too, since you don't sound very sure about it."
"An agnostic theist. I'll have to remember that next time the Jehovah's Witnesses come to our house. I'll tell them, 'Go away, we're agnostic theists here, and we're happy the way we are.'"
"But wouldn't you be happier, if you knew there was a God who loved you and had a plan for your life? And how do you know God isn't like Christians think?"
Her eyes narrowed to dark slits. "Thad Krystkiewicz, are you trying to convert me? If you are, I don't particularly appreciate it."
He looked abashed. "I can't help it. It's important to me. And besides, Christians are *supposed* to tell other people about Jesus."
"Does that make me your conversion project of the week? Don't you get enough of that in a missionary family?"
"C'mon, Laney, you know that's not fair. I know we haven't known each other long, but don't you know I don't see you as a project. You're my friend," he said, making "friend" sound like something as precious as diamonds. "I just wish you were staying here for good so we could keep seeing each other."
She softened immediately. "Good. You're my friend, too. I wish you lived in Metropolis. But I don't think I could ever believe in your God."
"How do you know?"
This time his tone was curious rather than challenging, so she chose not to take offense and gave his question some thought, trying to give the most honest answer she could without giving too much away. "I guess all the religions I know anything about are so Earth-centered. They're all for humans, so I don't see how they're still relevant when we know humans aren't the only intelligent life there is. You know—they claim to explain everything but they don't really. So I think religions are probably just what people invented to explain what they didn't understand."
"I can see how you'd see it that way, especially since Superman's a friend of your family. And I'd agree with you that some religions—or at least part of some religions—are just ways to explain how the world works, like the Greek myth about Persephone to explain why we have seasons. But what if God wanted to communicate with us? That's how I see Christianity—it's God taking an interest in us, caring enough about us to offer Himself for us."
"That sounds very nice, but it's still Earth-centered."
"I was getting to that. I believe God created the whole universe, so however many intelligent life forms there are, I'm sure God loves them and provides for them just as much as for us. I don't know if it's the same way exactly, but I'm sure He provides. But that's not really our responsibility. We're humans, so we're responsible to relate to God the way He provided for humans."
He was smiling with all the complacency of someone who'd just presented a watertight argument. Laney's answering smile was faintly ironic. It *was* a good argument, and if she were any of the billions of *humans* on Earth, she might've been convinced by it. She fumbled a bit trying to think of what to say next, since the truth wasn't an option. "That just seems a little weird to me. You'd think God would be a little more…I dunno…consistent? Comprehensive? That He'd say the same things to everybody."
"Well, I don't know, really. Maybe He is. And I'm sure He'd never be inconsistent in His *character*, but He could still create different kinds of life that have to deal with Him in different ways. I guess if God is infinite, He could create an infinite variety of life forms, and—"
Before Thad could continue his theological speculations, Claire approached, eyeing her watch regretfully. "Thad, Laney, I'm sorry, but we have to go."
They stared at each other silently for a moment. "I guess this is it, then," she said.
"Guess so." He took her hand. "I'm going to miss you."
"And I'll remember you."
"Me too." They drew near and hugged quickly. "Have a great life, okay, Thad?"
"You too, Laney. Keep up your basketball."
*Laney, we really do have to leave,* Claire thought.
She backed away from him. "Good-bye, Thad."
She left with her sister and didn't look back.
Laney and Claire's parents never suspected anything. In Papua New Guinea, the Doctors Krystkiewicz noticed that their firstborn went from slightly lonely to deeply melancholy overnight. After several family conferences, it was decided that he needed more educational and social opportunities with other teens. Accordingly, he was sent to San Jose to live with relatives for his final three years of high school. He liked his new friends, did well in school, and discovered a natural aptitude for football. His only regret was that San Jose was on the other side of the country from Metropolis.
Watching him out of the corner of her eye, Laney recognized the expression on her father's face. It was that infamous "I want to help Laney and/or Lois out, but she'll kill me if I don't let her do this by herself" look. She didn't like the look, but it was much better than him stepping in and unpacking for her. Sure, it was a simple no-brainer task, and sure he could do it in five seconds as opposed to the hours it was taking her, but it was her stuff and her dorm room, so she'd unpack it herself, thank you very much.
18-year-old Laney Kent was quite pleased with herself just then. As a first team All-American guard with a 4.0 GPA and high SAT scores, she'd been recruited by all the best basketball and academic schools in the country. She could've gone to U.Conn, or Metropolis U. with her older sister Marty, or had her pick of the Ivies, but she'd decided to go to Stanford and get the best of both worlds. Its location on the West Coast, far, far away from home, didn't hurt. She couldn't wait to start the life of a normal college girl, far removed from her childhood world of secrets and superpowers. She'd been there less than 24 hours, but already she felt a new sense of freedom. No longer would she have to be careful when she had friends over to visit lest they walk in on her father or sisters in the act of levitating or speed-cooking. No more inventing cover stories when one of them dashed off to save the day. And no more living with the constant, nagging fear of discovery.
Of course, she wasn't burning all her bridges. Her roommate was Monica Wong, who'd been her neighbor and best friend since second grade. And she was sure she'd spend a substantial amount of time on the phone and email with her immediate and extended family. Frustrating and stressful as they were, she loved them, she thought, as she gave a photo of herself seated between her grandparents on their farmhouse porch steps the most prominent spot on her desk.
"What time is your flight tomorrow morning?" she asked. At Monica's dad's suggestion, the two fathers had rented a U-Haul together and driven cross-country for freshman move-in, and would fly back together the next day. Dad was secretly less than thrilled with the idea, having planned to save time and money by transporting Laney and her stuff via Superman Airways, but Dr. Wong's idea had been logical, and Laney had wanted to travel with her friend. They'd had fun. Just then, Monica was out having a last dinner with Dr. Wong, who Laney presumed was saying the same sentimental and overprotective things her dad had been subjecting her to for the last half hour.
"Eight a.m. Bright and early. Such a long, cramped flight, too."
"Poor Dad, having to sit on a plane for hours and hours," she said, with a slight trace of true sympathy.
"I've survived worse, and I'm looking forward to Lois meeting me at the airport. That's one of those ordinary married things we've almost never done."
Laney laughed. "You two!"
"What about us?"
"You're very romantic for people who've been married over twenty years and have two kids in college. But it's sweet, really it is. Embarrassing, but sweet."
Before he could respond, both were startled by an unfamiliar voice from the open doorway. "Laney? Laney Kent?"
She spun around to face the doorway, knocking over a picture frame. Staring at her wonderingly was a tall, lean guy her age with angular features and curly brown hair, dressed for the gym in clothing emblazoned with the Stanford football logo. He'd changed a lot, but she'd have known those clear, alert brown eyes anywhere. "Thad!"
They took the few steps separating them at a run and embraced. "I never thought I'd see you again!" she said, as they released each other.
"You're a freshman here too?"
"How? I mean, you had to play in high school to be recruited."
"A little while after you left, my parents decided to send me to live with my aunt and uncle in San Jose to finish high school, so I went out for the team right away. I've only been playing three years, but…"
"That's *great*! But how did you know I was here?"
"I started following all the Stanford sports news after I accepted their scholarship offer. One day this spring I read that the women's basketball team had recruited first-team All- American guard Lane Kent of Metropolis, and I knew that had to be you. So I just looked up your room in the online directory, and here I am."
"Wow! I'm so glad to see you!"
Clark cleared his throat, reminding Laney of his presence and causing Thad to notice it for the first time. They faced him. "Um, Dad, this is Thad Krystkiewicz. Claire and I met him when we were all on that camping trip, in Papua New Guinea, three years ago. Thad, this is my father."
They shook hands and exchanged polite greetings. Something bothered Thad about the way Laney introduced her father. The words she'd chosen and the way she'd subtly stressed when and where they'd met both made it sound like she was covering a lie. Either that, or she felt she had to remind him of a major trip to the far side of the world only three years ago. That made no sense at all. Mr. Kent looked like a healthy man in his early fifties, not someone in bad enough condition to forget something like that. Strange. He remembered that Laney and Claire hadn't had the proper attire and gear for camping and had seemed very nervous the first time they'd met. There was an air of unreality and mystery about those three days years ago that was enhanced by Laney's current behavior, but he knew it had to have been real. He was sane, they both remembered it, and the only rational explanation was that she'd really been there camping with her family. He must've misinterpreted the tone of her introduction.
Into an increasingly awkward silence, he heard himself say, "You look just alike!"
Laney and her father smiled at each other, identically. "I don't know, he's a few inches taller," she said.
"And her hair isn't gray," he finished.
Thad laughed. "I'm sure I'm not the first person to notice."
"No, actually my wife was the first, closely followed by my mother. Laney was all of a few minutes old at the time." He smiled fondly upon his daughter, who rolled her eyes.
Thad was struck by a sudden, sharp pang of loneliness for his own parents. Laney and every other freshman at move- in seemed to view them as embarrassments to be rid of as quickly as possible, but it was rough being one of the few not accompanied by one or two people who sort of wished he'd never stopped being a baby.
"Are you just moving in as well?" Mr. Kent asked.
"No, sir, I've been here a few weeks. I'm on the football team, so I had to come a few weeks early for practice."
"Of course. What's your position?"
"Wide receiver, but it looks like any playing time I get this year will be on special teams."
"I played in college myself."
From there, their conversation flowed into an amiable discussion of great moments in football history. Laney just listened. She was no slouch in her knowledge of football, but she couldn't rival their expertise. Thad had grown and filled out a lot in three years. Now he was every inch the football player, a little taller than her dad and nearly as solidly built. She was amazed and delighted that they'd ended up at the same school, and that he'd taken the time and trouble to seek her out the day she'd arrived on campus.
In the middle of a debate over who would be the year's national champion, Thad looked at his watch and gasped. "I've got to run or I'll be late meeting some folks for dinner. Laney, do you have any lunch plans for tomorrow?"
"Want to meet then?"
"Yes." They hastily arranged a meeting time and place, and Thad left.
Dad closed the door behind him sat down in her desk chair, staring at her solemnly. "Uh-oh, the lecture look," she said.
"No, it's not. Not exactly. It's pointless to lecture you over something that happened three years ago. But I would like some answers."
She pulled up Monica's chair and sat across from him, arms crossed defensively. "What are your questions?"
"First of all, how long had Claire been flying when you took that trip? About six months?"
"Something like that, yes."
"Before she was allowed to go that far, or have passengers at all."
"Why did you break the rules?"
"You'd really have to ask Claire why she flew there in the first place. I think she just wanted to explore everywhere that she could, especially the unspoiled green places. When she found someplace really pretty, she'd take me along so she could show it to somebody."
"So this Papua New Guinea trip wasn't an isolated occurrence."
"No, but most of the other trips weren't anything like that far, and it was the only time we ever met anyone when we looked out of place. We were a lot more careful after we met Thad."
"You only met him once, then?"
"Um, no, actually. We went back the next two nights. Nights in Metropolis, that is. It was daylight there."
Laney thought about mentioning that going back had been Claire's idea, but decided that would make her a tattle- tale. Anyway, she'd hardly been an unwilling passenger.
"That explains a little better why he came looking for you and was so glad to see you."
Laney turned her head and inspected the wall. It was a boring wall, plain white with no posters yet, but she fixed her eyes on it.
"He's very nice, of course. I like him. How did he come to be living there, anyway? I gather he grew up there, and then went to high school with family in the States?"
She faced him again, smiling slightly. "His parents are missionary doctors."
"I see. I guess it would have to be either that, or anthropologists, or something along those lines. You told him you were camping with your family?"
"I always like to know the stories the rest of you are telling the world. Helps me keep everything straight." They grinned at each other conspiratorially.
"But seriously," he said, "I know Claire likes taking you places, but don't let her overdo it. I'd rather she didn't take a passenger to the other side of the world *now*, much less when she was thirteen."
"What do you mean, 'overdo it'? She's like you and Marty, it's not going to hurt her. Sure, she's not quite as fast or strong, but other than that."
"I guess that's what bothers me. She's not quite the same as us. Marty is like me, and you're like a normal healthy human, but Claire is…different. I don't know why her powers are different. And I don't think you realize how strange it is for her to be a telepath, since you've had her voice in your head for most of your life. I don't know. I worry about her. Maybe it's just that she doesn't look as strong."
"C'mon, Dad, *I'm* the one who *looks* the strongest. I think you just like to worry about us."
"That's what fathers are for."
"I know. But will you promise me not to fly over every night to check on me?"
"Of course. Believe it or not, I do realize you're growing up."
"You realize, though, that you've got a bit of an awkward situation with this Thad Krystkiewicz."
"What do you mean? Why should he suspect anything?"
"No reason, now. But I'm worried about what's going to happen when he meets Monica. She knows you've never been on a camping trip to Papua New Guinea."
"You're going to have to think of some reason to tell him not to tell Monica where you met."
She slumped forward and covered her face with her hands, muttering, "I thought I'd put all that behind me here."
He sighed sympathetically. "I know. I thought so, too."
After a moment, she looked up and smiled wanly. "You've been at this a lot longer than I have. What would you tell him?"
"I don't know if my advice is all that good. I was known to use cheese-of-the-month club as an excuse."
"Right now I'm open to any and all suggestions."
The first half hour of lunch with Thad went very well. They ate in one of the dining halls, and Laney steered them to the most isolated table she could fine. She wasn't thrilled with the story she and Dad had concocted, and she didn't want anyone but Thad to hear it. She put off raising the subject for as long as she could, while they caught up on the past three years of each other's lives.
Finally she couldn't wait any longer. When a silence developed, she cleared her throat and said, "Thad?"
Reading her mood, he looked concerned. "What is it?"
"Can you promise me something? Even if it sounds weird?"
"Well, I'll have to hear what it is first."
She poked at the remains of her salad with her fork. "When we met, when I told you we were camping, that wasn't quite the whole story."
"Oh?" His eyes narrowed. He looked puzzled, but not surprised.
"We really were camping, but Papua New Guinea was sort of a side trip. My parents were doing an undercover investigation of drug smuggling in Bangkok."
"And they took their kids? Isn't that dangerous?"
Laney sighed. She wasn't thrilled about the story, but it was better than her original idea, that her parents occasionally acted as government couriers in matters of national security. "Not really. Superman kind of keeps an eye on our family, so he would've come if we were in danger." She bit her lip. *Great, Laney, make him associate you with Superman.*
"Unless he was really busy with some natural disaster halfway around the world."
This was starting to get exasperating. It was hardly the first time she'd invented a story to cover for her family, and it was rare for anyone to ask so many questions about it. "I wasn't scared," she snapped. "Having us along helped their cover. We were a family on vacation instead of a couple of reporters."
"If you say so … why are you telling me about this now, anyway?"
"Because it was *undercover*, none of our friends knew we were going overseas. They thought we went to my grandparents in Kansas for our vacation that summer."
"But when the story came out, wouldn't it have been under your parents' byline? Then people must've figured out they'd been there."
"Uh, the story never ran. They didn't get quite enough evidence to publish."
"But what if it had run?"
"Oh, they would've made it sound like they'd gotten their information from other sources. If anyone had known they were there investigating, it might've been dangerous, someone might've come after them for revenge, and—" She was starting to babble, and Thad was squinting at her, bewildered yet suspicious. "Anyway, my roommate, Monica, has no idea I was ever in Papua New Guinea or Bangkok, even though she's my best friend and we grew up next door to each other, so would you please not tell her where we met."
"Lie about it? I guess …"
"Not lie exactly, just not talk about it. Say we just met last night."
"That sounds like a lie to me."
"Not really. We *did* just meet *again* last night. Leaving out the 'again' isn't lying. It's just telling certain facts in a way that obscures certain other facts."
"Which still sounds like lying to me."
"So? Sometimes you have to lie! Come on, don't tell me you never lie about anything."
"Not when I can help it."
"Not even when somebody asks you if her outfit makes her look fat and it does?"
"Laney, girls don't usually ask *guys* stuff like that."
"You're sidestepping my question."
"Okay. I guess it's sometimes okay when it's a little thing to keep a person's feelings from getting hurt. But only very little things. The bigger things you need to talk about even if it's painful, because pain from honesty is better from the pain from keeping things inside, or the pain the other person would feel if they found out you lied to them."
She simply nodded, knowing enough about her parents' courtship to agree with him one hundred percent.
"Hmm, and I guess it's okay to lie to protect the innocent. Like when Rahab was hiding the Israelite spies."
"Oh, sorry, it's from the Bible. The Book of Joshua. Maybe a better example would be if you were in Europe during World War Two and you were hiding Jews. If the Nazis came to your door and asked if there were any Jews living there, I think it would be okay to lie."
"You *think* it would be okay?"
"There are some who don't. They'd call it doing evil that good may come, and say the ends could never justify the means. But I think they're wrong, mainly because the situation is so close to Rahab in the Bible."
She laughed and shook her head.
"You're a strange one, Thad Krystkiewicz."
"Why is that?"
"Because you shouldn't need some Bible story to tell you it's okay to lie to save Jews from the Nazis! It should be self-evident. We're talking about lives here, snatching people from the jaws of death!"
"Well, I would say the only reason it's self-evident is because teachings from the Bible and other moral sources are so embedded in the culture that some of their principles seem self-evident."
"Maybe. Anyway, to get back to the point, is it okay to not tell Monica or anyone else how we met? You can look at it as not hurting Monica. Best friends are supposed to tell each other everything, so she might be kind of hurt if she found out I'd kept my trip a secret from her. Or you could even look at it as protecting my innocent parents from the Bangkok drug lords. You never know how news might travel …" *You're babbling again, Laney Kent!* "I'll do all the explaining. All you have to do is go along."
"I guess I can do that."
"Thank you. I really do appreciate it." She paused, took a swig of her apple juice, and tapped her fingers on the table thoughtfully. "But what if you're the Jew?"
"In Nazi Europe. You said it's okay to lie to protect someone else who's innocent, do you do the same thing to protect yourself? You know, get a fake ID that says you're not Jewish and all that."
"That's an interesting twist on the question, but I suppose the principle remains the same. I mean, why should it matter whether you're protecting yourself or …"
When she returned to her room, Monica was out, but Laney took the Bible from her roommate's bookshelf and looked up the Book of Joshua. It was confusing, since it seemed to pick up in the middle of a story, but it seemed like God was giving these Israelites land that already had people on it, and they were supposed to conquer it. That struck her as strange and kind of upsetting, since Monica and her parents had always talked about God as loving. Almost right away, in the second chapter, she found the story of Rahab and discovered, with a shocked giggle, that Rahab was a harlot who had hidden the Israelite spies who were checking out her city in preparation for their invasion. She'd have to bring this up with Thad again next time she saw him. If he saw a woman who was a prostitute and a traitor as the model of virtue, and spies who were preparing to conquer a land as innocents, somehow comparable to Jews under Nazi rule, he was even stranger than she'd thought.
Within a few weeks, Laney, Thad, and Monica had settled into college life. Thad and Monica had met a day or two after freshman move-in and had hit it off pretty well. He'd been perfectly gracious and smooth in his agreement with Laney's story that they'd met the day of move-in and discovered common interests in sports and medicine. Thad and Laney had physics and biology together and were even in the same biology lab section. She suspected—correctly—that he had switched sections so they could be lab partners. In spite of his busy football practice schedule, he found time to have a meal or two with her every week, and they studied together more evenings than not. He and Monica joined a Christian fellowship organization, and they and their friends were at first mildly pesky to Laney in their persistent invitations asking her to attend this Bible study or come hear that speaker. She always refused with a polite smile, and by October she thought they were getting the idea.
"I could cheerfully throw this book out the window about now!" Laney declared, eyeing the physics text as if contained poison. "Or burn it. That's even better. I don't suppose you have any matches? Of course it might be tough to disable the sprinkler system…" It was now late October, and Laney and Thad had vowed to spend all of a Sunday afternoon and evening studying for Tuesday's upcoming physics midterm. However, two hours into the grind, it wasn't going well. Formulas and principles were blurring into a haze, and they were starting to wonder if Einstein and Hawking hadn't discovered more than anyone really needed to know.
"I think we need a break," Thad said.
"Not a bad idea. Let's take five." She closed her book and set her notes aside. "That was an impressive punt return you had yesterday," she said to change the subject, smiling brightly.
"Thanks. But I think we need more than five. I was thinking more like an hour."
"I don't think we can afford an hour. The exam is Tuesday morning and we just started reviewing problem sets."
"We have plenty of time. Dave hasn't even started reviewing yet." Dave was Thad's roommate.
"Dave doesn't have football or basketball practice tomorrow. We do."
"He also didn't work as hard on it as we did before now. Besides, practice is only for a couple hours. We still have all of tomorrow evening." He stared at her thoughtfully. She'd turned into a study demon in the week or two since her basketball practices had started, determined not to let the game pull her grades down, and it looked like the pressure was getting to her. "As a matter of fact, why don't we take the whole afternoon off? Let's see…we could drive into the city and explore a bit, have dinner in Chinatown, and come back with hours and hours for physics."
"That's crazy! We can't waste so much time."
"It's not waste. You've got to have some fun, too, or you get too worn out to learn anything. All work and no play, you know."
"You see, that's the problem. I do play. I play basketball, and that doesn't leave much time for other games."
"Give me a break! No, give yourself a break. You've been studying more since practice started than before. I've had football practice all along, and you don't notice *me* spending every waking moment I'm not in class or on the field studying, and though I hate to brag my grades are just fine, thank you. I dare you to take the afternoon off."
"I don't take dares."
"Okay then, keep studying." He shut his book, flopped onto his bed, and yawned and stretched ostentatiously.
"What are you doing?"
"Taking a few hours off. I think I'll take a nap. It's been entirely too long since I had a good Sunday afternoon nap. That was a tiring game yesterday, too."
"I thought we agreed to study all day."
"I'm not stopping you from studying."
"But it's no fun studying by myself."
"It's also no fun studying with you when you're too cranky to think straight."
"I'm not cranky!"
He rolled onto his side and fluffed his pillow.
"Okay, okay. Let's go to San Francisco."
He sat up with a grin. "Give me five minutes to change into something better for walking around in." He was still dressed for church, though he'd shed shoes, coat, and tie and rolled up his sleeves.
"Meet you downstairs."
Laney quickly admitted that taking the afternoon off had been a good idea. It was a dream of a day, crisp and clear with a delightful breeze. She hadn't spent any time in the city since coming to Stanford other than a tour with her hall during freshman orientation, and trolley riding, window shopping, and strolling along Fisherman's Wharf were much more fun with Thad than with a confused herd of new freshman. In the three years he'd lived in San Jose, he'd spent enough time in San Francisco to be a good tour guide. And besides, his company was more satisfying than anyone else's, even Claire's or Monica's. At that moment, she acknowledged to herself that he was her best friend now. Even though she and Monica had always had lots of fun together, getting to know Thad this year had introduced a new dimension to her idea of friendship. Never before had she found so much pleasure and peace in another person's company, just in their everyday talk and silences, in studying and sharing dreams and arguing the meaning of life.
For his part, Thad was enjoying watching Laney unwind. Relaxation wasn't one of her specialties. It wasn't just her recent study frenzy; she'd always acted somewhat tense and on guard, as if there were some things she didn't want even him or Monica to see. But now, though she wasn't completely dropping her guard, she seemed more at ease than she had since those few days in Papua New Guinea. Her walk was almost a skip or a dance at times, and she took obvious delight in letting the breeze blow her long dark hair. It was such beautiful hair, and such a perfect frame for her strong, faintly exotic features. Deliberately, he looked away, focusing on architecture, passersby, the blue of the sky, anything but his friend. He too found her company more satisfying than anyone else's, but he was horribly afraid he was falling in love with her, and he couldn't let that happen. They were friends, the best of friends, but that was all they could be. He couldn't consider dating a woman who didn't share his faith, because he couldn't risk ending up in a marriage that wasn't a Christian marriage, based on Biblical ideals and a common relationship with God. Not even with Laney. But there was nothing to keep him from being her best friend, which was a relief, because there was no one in the world quite like Laney Kent.
As the day drew to a close they walked through Chinatown toward Thad's favorite restaurant. "This place is amazing! Some Saturday this spring when there's no football or basketball going on, we'll have to come early enough for dim sum. But tonight you have to try the squid."
"Eew! Not squid. I'm pretty adventurous about food, and I love Chinese—Dad used to always bring us take-out from China…town, in Metropolis, when I was a kid—but for some reason I can't eat squid without thinking of where it came from. I just didn't have your childhood experience of eating creepy things."
"Yes, I promise you, if you'd ever had some nice juicy grubs and beetles, you wouldn't turn up your nose at squid."
She looked at him and burst out laughing.
"You just don't look like someone who grew up eating bugs."
"Well it's not like it was my whole diet. As a matter of fact, Mom and Dad never cooked bugs. It was only when we ate with people in the village. We ate a lot of chicken. Pork too, sometimes. Vegetables and rice every day, and for Thanksgiving and Christmas—"
She wasn't listening. In a loud, ringing voice, she proclaimed, "Yes, the sordid secret is finally out. Thad Krystkiewicz, the six foot two freshman football sensation, grew up on bugs and grubs!"
"Did not! I tell you, Aunt Diane sent us peanut butter, and—"
"Yes, folks, for extra protein he spread those bugs with peanut butter! That's what makes him so tall and strong. He looks All-American, but at heart he's just a jungle boy." She paused and spoke in her normal voice. "Hey, I like that. Can I call you Jungle Boy from now on?"
"You can call me whatever you want," he said rashly, delighted by her improved mood.
"Hmm…maybe Tarzan? Nah…Mowgli? Better, but I still like Jungle Boy."
Suddenly, shots rang out, out of sight but nearby. A woman screamed. Laney blinked, and took off running toward the gunfire. Thad stood frozen in horror for several seconds before he could summon the courage to follow.
With her head start she was at the shooting site on the block parallel to the one on which they'd been walking before he could catch her and pull her back. He pulled up short at the corner, too frightened to venture further and wishing he could make himself invisible. What did Laney think she was *doing* charging into the middle of a crime scene? But there she was, standing between two armed men, not ten yards from either. At her feet lay a bloody child, and close by knelt a wailing woman. The gunmen stood immobile, guns lowered. Thad didn't know if their paralysis came from accidentally catching a child in the crossfire or from the shock of a strange, unarmed young woman rushing onto the scene to confront them.
Whichever was the case, Laney was quick to seize her advantage, such as it was. "Put the guns down," she said with calm authority, a darkly radiant avenging angel in jeans and a Stanford sweatshirt. The only sign of nervousness Thad could detect was her crossed arms, which he had quickly learned meant Laney on the defensive.
The gunmen shook off their lethargy, stared at her and then at each other, and ran off in opposite directions without dropping their guns. She lurched forward as if she wanted to follow one of them, and then muttered a curse and dropped to her knees beside the child, examining his wounds. Thad took a deep breath, just then noticing he had a death grip on a street sign. Laughing weakly, he let go and trotted to Laney's side. She flashed him a distracted smile. "It's not as bad as it looks," she said. "He's losing a lot of blood, but he's only wounded in the arm and shoulder." Her tone was matter- of-fact, as if she faced these situations on a regular basis. As she spoke, she leaned her weight onto the pressure point near the boy's shoulder. He joined in, elevating his arm and applying pressure to the worst wound. The mother rose and stood over them, speaking what sounded like thanks and entreaties in a Chinese dialect.
"Ma'am, you should call 911," he said.
She stared at him blankly and shook her head.
"Do you know English?" he asked. Her face remained uncomprehending. "I'd better go call myself," he murmured to Laney. "I think I saw a pay phone on the corner."
She nodded. He quickly made the call and returned to help Laney. Within a few minutes, an ambulance and a police car had arrive. The paramedics took over, complimenting Laney and Thad on their work, and a police officer took their statements.
"You may be called to identify the gunmen and to testify if it gets that far," she said.
"Whatever we can do," Thad said.
"Of course," Laney added.
"Unfortunately, I'm not optimistic that we'll catch them. There's a lot of organized crime in Chinatown, and the culture isn't one that cooperates with law enforcement. It's only gotten worse with this new wave of refugees, too."
The officer surveyed her coolly. "Ms. Kent, you may well have saved that child's life, and kept the shootout from being any worse, but it was foolish of you to charge in like you did. It's amazing they didn't shoot you. You say you're a freshman at Stanford—well, I don't know where you come from, but big cities can be dangerous—"
"I'm from Metropolis," Laney snapped. "Not the suburbs, but the city itself. This is hardly the first time I've heard a gunshot or seen a crime scene."
The officer shook her head. "Please just be careful."
For their safety, the officers offered to take them to their destination. Blood-spattered as they both were and shaken up as Thad felt, dinner no longer appealed, so they went to the parking deck where Thad had left his car.
They didn't say much to each other until they got out onto the highway headed back toward campus. "What?" she finally asked.
"That police officer was right."
"You need to be more careful! You act like you have no concept that there's such a thing as danger."
"Come on! If everyone was careful, there wouldn't be any heroes!"
"Is that what you want, to be a hero?"
"Yes! Got a problem with that?"
"If you get yourself killed in the process, yes!"
"But I didn't!"
"Sometimes you have to take risks. If I hadn't done anything, that little boy could've bled to death, and those gang members might've killed each other."
"They'll probably kill each other anyway, somewhere else."
"Cynicism doesn't become you, Thad. Besides, even if I only helped the boy, isn't that enough?"
"Yes." His tone was reluctant. "But I wish you had more of a concept of danger."
"I do have a concept. I just choose to ignore it, that's all."
He shook his head, and they were quiet for most of the drive back. After showering, they met back at his room and attempted to take up physics where they'd left off. It was a flat effort, since Thad at least was utterly incapable of focusing on problem sets and formulas. He hoped he wouldn't do too poorly on the midterm, but he reflected that if his freshman physics grade stood out as exceptionally low on his med school applications a few years down the road, at least he had a good story to explain why.
After the exam, which was easier than they had feared, they walked across campus together toward a dining hall for lunch. A bright flyer posted to a kiosk caught Laney's eye. "'He who saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire universe'," she read. "That's a nice quote."
"What, are you still trying to convince me that running toward gunfire is a good thing to do?
"I wasn't trying to do any such thing," she said loftily, "but it does make a good argument for my point of view, don't you think?"
He nodded reluctantly. "I've always liked that quote. It's from the Talmud, which is Jewish religious commentary from around 200 BCE to 200 CE."
She laughed. "You should go on Jeopardy and hope one of the categories is religious history."
He grinned, and turned aside to read the flyer. "This is today," he said. "I think I'll stop by after lunch."
"What is it?" she asked, trying to read over his shoulder.
He made room for her. "The Jewish Center is sponsoring blood testing for the bone marrow donor pool. They're hoping to find a match for this little girl with leukemia." He pointed to the photo of a wan, thin toddler. "It says the most likely match would be someone of Eastern European Jewish descent. One of my great-great grandfathers was Jewish, the one who came from Russia, so maybe it's worth a try, especially since most of my other ancestors were Eastern European Gentiles. Want to do it, too?" His tone assumed she would.
She laughed nervously. "I doubt it would help that little girl, since I'm neither Jewish nor Eastern European."
He squinted at her. "How do you know? I thought you told me your father was adopted and you didn't know anything about where he came from. You could be just about anything."
"That's right, Dad was left on my grandparents' doorstep, more or less, but this was in rural Kansas, which doesn't exactly have a high Jewish or Eastern European population."
"Still, you might as well go in for this test. It says they put you in an international database, so if you're a match for anyone needing a transplant, they can find you."
She studied the ground. "I don't like needles," she muttered.
"That's crazy! You'll run toward gunfire, blood obviously doesn't bother you, and you want to work in an ER, but you're afraid of needles?"
"Yes," she said, crossing her arms and squaring her chin defiantly. "It's just a phobia of mine, that's all. I know it's silly, but aren't phobias irrational by definition?"
He patted her on the shoulder. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have given you a hard time. It's just surprising, that's all. Not what one would expect in someone as fearless as you, or someone who wants to be a doctor."
"I never said I was fearless, and I'm not afraid of sticking other people with needles." He laughed, she changed the subject, and all was well between them.
"So if it's okay with you and Dad, I think I'll go with Thad to his aunt and uncle's in San Jose on Thanksgiving," Laney said. It was the Sunday before the holiday, and she was having her weekly phone conversation with her parents—just Mom tonight, since Dad was out helping combat a flood in Bangladesh.
"We're not going to forbid you, of course, but I wish you'd come to Kansas with the rest of us. We'd all miss you, and I know your grandparents are especially looking forward to seeing you."
"I'll miss all of you, too, but it's not like I have the whole weekend off. We have practice on Friday and the season opener on Saturday, remember? Besides, it's not long until Christmas, and I'll see you all then."
"Still, Marty or Clark could fly you out to Kansas and then back on Friday morning. It's not like it's any trouble."
"I know, Mom, but then what do I tell everyone when they ask me where I went for the holiday?" Laney asked, lowering her voice slightly. Monica was out of the room, but the walls were pretty thin.
"I'm sure you could think of something reasonable. Say you went to family friends somewhere in the Bay area."
"But I hate lying. And besides, Thad would want to know which suburb they're in and when he can meet them."
"Well then, I suppose you could say that Superman flew you out to Kansas as a favor to your family. That wouldn't be a lie."
"No, but I don't want everyone associating me in their minds with Superman. Anyway, I want to be like everyone else from out of town on the team, and most everyone else from a faraway state, and not go home for Thanksgiving. Nothing against going home—I just want to keep up the illusion that I'm like everyone else."
"I understand," Mom said, in a tone that assured Laney that she did, and would manage to explain it to Dad when he got home. "Go to Thad's, then. It sounds like he has a nice family. But what are the others who are far from home doing? What about Monica?"
"Most of the others from basketball are going with people on the team who live nearby. I was invited to Irene Bowman's, but … And Monica, she's going in with a bunch of the Christian Fellowship people from far away, they're going to cook together. They invited me, too, but I wanted to go with Thad."
"Laney, I know I'm being a nosy mother, but are you and Thad together?"
"No, Mom! We're best friends, I guess, but we couldn't…he wouldn't…"
"How do you know?"
"It's this religion thing. He's a Christian, you know, and apparently the serious ones like him don't date anyone who's not a Christian."
"Hmm…did he tell you that?"
"Ah, no, we've never discussed it. Monica told me about it. You know the Wongs have always gone to church and stuff, but Monica's been taking it a lot more seriously this year since she joined this fellowship group. Anyway, some guy on our hall asked her out, and she turned him down. He's a really nice guy, probably the sweetest and cutest and smartest on the hall. I would've gone out with him..I think…as long as I didn't have other commitments…so I asked her why not. That's when she explained to me about only dating Christians. Apparently Christian marriage has its own set of rules and even symbolism, and it doesn't really work right unless both are Christians."
"If it's that important, you could think about becoming a Christian yourself."
"Mom! I don't believe you! First of all, how could I belong to a human religion, when I'm only half human? I remember you saying, way back when I was seven and went to church with Monica, that you were nervous about me going for that very reason. They probably wouldn't even take me, if they knew the full story about my background! Second of all, I'm not going to say I'm a Christian just to date Thad. Much as I hate it, I have to lie to him, but I *won't* make a hypocrite of myself. And besides, who said anything about dating? It's never even entered the picture. We're just friends."
"Laney, Laney, Laney…I don't know where to begin. First of all, I wish you'd stop calling yourself half human."
"Why? It's true."
"Yes, but you make it sound like you're half a person sometimes. And when did I ever say I didn't want you going to church with Monica? As I remember it, you stopped of your own accord."
"I overheard you talking to Dad. Something about how some of the fringe groups think he's the Antichrist or something, and you were afraid that if I heard anything like that from going to church that it would hurt me."
"Oh! Now I remember. That was right after the Church of the Imminent Tribulation somehow got hold of some Kryptonite and was plotting to kill Superman. They were found out before he was in any danger, and we didn't talk about it to you girls then, but I was a little more touchy than normal about religion then."
"I can understand that."
"Also, you must not have heard our whole conversation, because I seem to remember that after I calmed down a little we agreed that going to church with the Wongs couldn't hurt you, since we knew they were nice, kind people, and their church wasn't a cult."
"Oh. I wish I hadn't run off before hearing all you said, then. Or that I'd never overheard at all."
"Anyway, as for the rest of what you said, maybe I didn't pick the best way to bring this up, but I've been looking for a good opportunity to talk to you about…relationships. You're old enough now for things to turn serious. I know girls don't normally want their mothers' advice on these things, but since our family is different—"
"To say the least."
"—I'd like to do anything I can to prevent you girls from making the same mistakes Clark and I did, early on."
Laney smiled in spite of herself. "I guess Marty got the same lecture two years ago?"
"Actually, no. I haven't brought it up with her yet. You're younger, but you've known what you wanted from life for years now. Marty is still changing her major every semester. You're so much more focused that I can see you settling down before she does. And besides, Marty has never talked about any one boy so much as you talk about Thad."
"But as I keep telling you, Thad's just a friend."
"Lately you've been calling him your best friend. That's different. Of course, I may be biased, since that's how Clark and I started out."
"Not everyone follows that pattern. There is such a thing as a man and woman just being friends."
"I know, I know. I'm not saying I had some kind of premonition that Thad's the one for you, either. It's just as likely you haven't even met him yet, and you two will always just be friends. But it doesn't hurt to think ahead about how you'll handle things when you are sure you've found the right one."
"I've already thought about *that*. Obviously, I couldn't make a commitment to marry somebody without telling him who…or what…I am."
"That's not exactly what I meant, though it is very important. I'm just worried that you're building a wall around yourself so high that you won't be able to see when it's the right time to let someone in. If you do find yourself falling in love with Thad, or anyone else, and you think he loves you too, don't assume the barriers are insurmountable without even trying to get over or around them."
"I'll try not to."
"Like this religion thing. How do you know Thad wouldn't compromise his beliefs for a woman he really loved?"
She laughed wryly. "Mom, you have no idea what Thad is like when it comes to Christianity. He doesn't compromise."
"Then maybe you could change. I'm not saying you should be a hypocrite and pretend to be a Christian. That wouldn't be fair to him, and besides, while I was forced to raise liars I hope I didn't raise any hypocrites." Both laughed. "But maybe you shouldn't be so quick to assume you couldn't be a Christian because you're a little different biologically."
"Maybe, maybe." Her tone was reluctant.
"All I'm saying is keep an open mind. I'm almost sure it would be premature now, but maybe at some point you'll need to ask Thad if there's room in his religion for someone like you."
"But if it got to that point it would be awfully painful if he said no."
Lois sighed. "Unfortunately, no one has yet come up with a way to keep the pain out of it."
Monica came into the room then, and after a brief discussion of less personal matters, Laney and her mother got off the phone.
After finishing their classes and practices Wednesday afternoon, Thad and Laney drove to his aunt and uncle's home in San Jose. The house was neat and cozy, with warm golden lights shining out of its windows into the autumn twilight. As Aunt Deena and Uncle Mike came to the door to greet them and usher them into the bright, cheery house, already full of holiday baking smells, Laney felt a pang of homesickness for her grandparents' farm, a place just as cozily homey where she would have been welcomed as a daughter of the house rather than just as Thad's friend. But the feeling was quickly dissipated by the family's hospitality. Before she knew it, she was in the kitchen with Thad, Deena, and Mike, helping prepare a simple spaghetti and salad supper and being included in their banter. It fascinated her to watch Thad and Mike together. Mike was Thad's mother's younger brother, and uncle and nephew were much alike in coloring, build, and mannerisms, though Thad was the quieter of the two.
As for Deena, she was a bright-eyed, warm-hearted woman who instantly recognized Laney as a kindred spirit. "Let me tell you, it's nice having another woman here. Not that Thad and Mike are the old-fashioned types who don't do their share of the work, but usually it's just me and the three of them," she said, gesturing with a wooden spoon at her husband, her nephew, and her five-year-old son, Liam, who was very much underfoot.
Laney smiled. "My family is exactly the opposite. I'm one of three girls, my mom is one of two girls, and both of my cousins are girls."
"I guess you pick on your dad, then."
"Sometimes," she admitted, chuckling. "But he doesn't mind, not really. And if he did, he'd have better sense than to say anything about it. He's well-trained."
"Good. Every woman should have a well-trained man or two around. I had to do a lot of work on this one after we married," she said, swatting her husband with a dishtowel, "so I'm trying to start Liam right young. I have to admit Thad's mother did a great job with him. He came here already respectful and hardworking."
"He's not that way all the time," Laney said plaintively.
Amid the general laughter, they adjourned to the dining room for supper. Afterward, they watched TV and talked in the den. Thad and Laney spent most of the time playing with Liam, who was delighted to have his beloved cousin back, with a brand new playmate as a bonus. He was a high-energy child, and one of his favorite games was to run full tilt toward a grown-up and fling himself at his or her legs, yelling "Tackle!" The first time he did it to Laney, she made a great show of falling dramatically—albeit gracefully and carefully—to the floor. Before he could escape, she deftly caught him by the shoulders and held him aloft.
Liam was delighted. "Look, I'm flying like Superman!" Laney permitted herself a small, ironic smile.
"You've just discovered two of our son's three main interests," Mike said as she set him down. "If he's not being a football player like Thad, he's either Superman or a dinosaur."
"A typical boy," Laney said, rumpling his hair.
"He was Superman for Halloween this year," Deena said. "And he loves that costume. He'd wear it all the time if I let him."
Laney wasn't surprised. It was a perennial favorite costume. She idly wondered if anyone else had to hand out candy every year to tiny tots dressed like his or her father.
After the Late Show, Deena showed Laney to Thad's room, as he settled in on the fold-out couch in the den. Even if she hadn't known, Laney could've guessed that Thad hadn't grown up in that room. It still bore the plain, neutral decor of the guest room it had originally been, and all of the sports trophies and academic honors were from the three years he had attended high school in the States. Here and there were scattered tribal artifacts that Laney neither wondered about nor particularly noticed, since Thad had long since explained the significance of similar items in his dorm room. Sleepily reflecting that Thad was lucky to have such nice relatives to live with since his parents were so far away, and she was lucky they were so welcoming to his friends, she snuggled down under a fluffy comforter and quickly fell asleep.
The next morning Thad awakened fairly early, but the sound of water running upstairs informed him that Laney had beaten him to the shower. Aunt Deena and Uncle Mike were already busy in the kitchen preparing the big dinner. This year his grandmother and quite a few of Aunt Deena's relatives were coming over, so Thanksgiving was to be quite a production. Thad was ready to join them in the kitchen when Liam tackled him and attempted to drag him upstairs. "Go on," Aunt Deena told him. "Right now the most helpful thing you could do is keep him busy."
So Thad followed his young cousin to his room, a messy little chamber whose decor reflected Liam's three main interests. Football posters covered the walls, his comforter had a dinosaur motif, and at the head of the bed was a nearly life- sized Superman poster. Thad studied it idly as he listened to Liam's chatter, answered his questions, and made T. rex sound effects where appropriate. He'd had an identical, though much smaller, poster when he was about Liam's age and going through his own Superman phase. It hadn't lasted long in the steamy island climate, and he'd forgotten about it until he saw this one of Liam's—a new addition that hadn't been there at Thad's last visit a few weeks earlier. It was an old photo of the young Superman, a boyish twenty-something figure. He guessed it must have been taken at least twenty-five years ago, but it was still a more popular image with kids than the somewhat avuncular Superman of the present. Come to think of it, Superman looked to be about the same age as his own parents, he thought, remembering the handful of newspaper photos and TV interviews he'd seen recently. A hale and amazingly strong figure, but undoubtedly middle-aged. *Why does that poster seem so familiar?* he wondered. It had been a dozen years or more since he'd had the same one, and while he certainly had no trouble recognizing Superman, that didn't explain the feeling of everyday familiarity he got from looking at it. It was as if he were looking at a picture of Liam, or Aunt Deena and Uncle Mike, or his roommate, or…
Laney, who at that opportune moment appeared in the doorway, smiling and bidding them a cheerful good morning. With a Herculean effort, Thad kept his jaw from dropping and his eyes from popping and returned her greeting in something resembling his normal voice. She couldn't see the poster, since it was on the same wall as the door, and Thad remembered that she hadn't been in Liam's room at all yet. He wondered if she would've stayed where she was, looking as she did, if she had known. She'd just come from the shower and was enveloped in a red terry robe. Her wet hair was combed severely back in unconscious mimicry of the figure on the poster, not a yard from where she stood. Thad's normally ordered thoughts were an unaccustomed jumble. *What the…?* *How on…?* *Who…?*
Liam shared none of his confusion. "*You* look just like Superman," he informed Laney in a matter-of-fact voice.
She giggled nervously. Giggling was uncharacteristic of her; when she was amused she either chuckled or laughed heartily. Then she crossed her arms across her chest, unwittingly enhancing the likeness, and said, "I dunno, Liam, our hair and eyes are about the same color, but the world is full of people with dark hair and eyes."
Liam accepted her explanation, being young enough still to be distracted by the fact that she was a woman in a bathrobe rather than a man in tights and too young to realize the implications of the resemblance. Thad, however, saw immediately how absurd Laney's explanation was. Same hair and eye color, indeed! There was that, plus the same broad- shouldered, athletic frame, the same large hands, the same posture and mannerisms, and most of all the same facial features. Her nose was a little narrower, and there were other small differences, but overall her features and Superman's had the same unusual combination of smoothness and strength. He had never seen two people resemble each other so much unless they were closely related, siblings or parent and child, and not often then. He certainly didn't look that much like either of his parents. But that would mean…that would make her…how could that *be*?
Meanwhile, Liam was chattering away to Laney about his toys and all the things they could do. "…and the T. rex eats the other dinosaurs right up!" he said. "Thad does a good T. rex noise. Show her, Thad! Do the T. Rex."
"Rowr!" he complied, making a playful chomp at the little boy's nose. Liam squealed with delight, and Laney flashed Thad her bright-eyed, toothy comrade's smile. To his surprise, he found himself smiling back normally. He had a natural gift of self-restraint, of observing others and hiding his own thoughts, that had been enhanced by growing up in a foreign culture and then coming to a big suburban high school at fifteen, and that gift served him well now. Plus, it was obvious she didn't want anyone to know. She hadn't told him, and it was clear Monica didn't know either. He wouldn't say a thing, he would act totally natural. But would she ever trust him enough to tell him about it of her own accord, or would he be holding this secret in for the rest of his life?
After some more toy talk with Liam, Laney left to dress and dry her hair. Thad showered and got ready too, taking much more time than normal. He knew he only had this short time to adjust to his new knowledge before he had to join Laney, make sure she was comfortable with his family, and generally treat her just as he had yesterday. The more he thought about it, the more sense it all made. He even wondered why he hadn't figured it out before. Of course Laney and Claire hadn't been dressed for wilderness camping that first day. They must've flown halfway around the world from Metropolis in the superhuman equivalent of joyriding, and not told their parents, which would explain the oddness of her behavior when she'd introduced him to her father and told him how they'd met.
Wait a minute. Her father? He suddenly and vividly remembered meeting Mr. Kent at freshman move-in and being struck by how much he and Laney looked alike. The resemblance was at least as strong as that between Laney and Superman. Thad pondered, comparing his memory of Mr. Kent with what Superman looked like now. If you took away the glasses and slicked his hair back…they were either the same person or identical twins. Who'd have thought it, though? He'd always imagined Superman living off in some kind of private lair, maybe an underground bunker or an arctic fortress, generally apart from and above humanity. Now, if he was right, it turned out that Superman had an ordinary name, a secret identity. Or did it make more sense to think of Superman as the secret identity and Mr. Kent as the real person? That was more like it, since it was Mr. Kent who had all the trappings of a real life—a happy marriage, bright, talented daughters, a nice home, a successful career. It was more or less the kind of life Thad wanted for himself someday, and he was disconcerted to realize that he was an inch or two taller than Superman. Weird.
His thoughts returned to Laney's behavior. Running toward gunfire made sense if bullets couldn't hurt you. And no wonder she hadn't wanted to take a blood test for that bone marrow donor bank! She'd probably break the needle, and her blood composition must be different, somehow. If anyone analyzed a sample of her blood, it would doubtless give her away. The future doctor in him was amazed that a human- alien cross was even possible. He'd love to be able to study her DNA.
The theologian in him remembered their last conversation about Christianity—more accurately, the last time he'd attempted to broach the subject. She'd said, "It's a great thing for you and Monica and the rest of your friends. It obviously gives you meaning and fulfillment and all that jazz. But I just don't think it applies to me." He'd tried to prove that Christianity wasn't a subjective source of meaning and fulfillment, that it was either true across the board, meant for all people, or it was an exercise in futility. She hadn't even seemed willing to listen, and had left the room, saying, "But I still don't think it's for me." Also, when they'd first talked about God three years ago, she'd dismissed most religions as Earth-centric. It must be that she didn't think she belonged in a human religion, since her father wasn't human.
Was she right? When you came down to it, Christianity was about God becoming fully man to redeem humanity. Did that apply to Laney? *Of course it does!* he thought. How could it not, when she acted just like a human? Surely God wouldn't have made it possible for Laney to be born if she was somehow unacceptable to Him. If he, an imperfect human being, cared about her, how could a perfectly loving God do less? Such was Thad's gut reaction, but he wasn't one to draw conclusions from his instincts. H needed logic, and for something like this he needed a Biblical principle…if he could find one. Reluctantly, he realized he wouldn't have time to resolve the issue in his mind today. Why did he have to realize who Laney was on Thanksgiving morning?
When he entered the kitchen to help out, she was already there making a tossed salad while Aunt Deena peeled potatoes and Uncle Mike fussed with the turkey. He half expected to catch her chopping the vegetables at superspeed. She wasn't, of course, though she worked with the practiced efficiency of an expert cook. He envied her the ability to do everything several times faster, so long as nobody was watching.
Fortunately for his still-strained composure, he didn't have to spend much time with her that day. When his grandmother arrived she monopolized his time: as the oldest grandchild he had always been her favorite. As for Laney, everyone in the family seemed to like her—Grandma had made both of them blush by exclaiming, "You're such a pretty girl!"— and she especially hit if off with a cousin of Aunt Deena's who was a surgical nurse.
The next day he drove her back to campus for basketball practice. "I'm sorry we didn't get to hang out much," he said.
"That's okay. You see me practically every day, and this was your family. You should spend all the time with then you can. Besides, I really enjoyed myself. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a big family production like that, and it was interesting seeing what your relatives are like."
"I'm glad you had fun. But I wish you could stay all weekend. I could show you around, and we could finally go to Chinatown for dim sum."
"We'll have to do that one of these days."
"And hope we don't hear gunfire on the way this time. Anyway, I'll be at the game tomorrow."
"That's sweet of you, but I doubt I'll see much playing time. All I get to do this year is sub in for Molly and Jasmine if we're way ahead or one of them gets tired or into foul trouble."
"I've got season tickets. You came to all my home games, and all I did was return a few kicks. Besides, it's not just you—everyone says this year's team is the best in over a decade. I don't want to miss the fun." It surprised him how easy it was to talk to her normally. She was still the same Laney, after all, no matter who her father was.
After he dropped her off, he headed straight home and settled down at the desk in his room with his Bible. For a long moment he stared at the shut book, wondering where to begin. It was certain he wouldn't find the exact solution for his particular dilemma spelled out in some obscure corner of the minor prophets or general epistles, but all he needed was a general principle. After a brief prayer for wisdom, he opened the book and started flipping and skimming, hoping something would catch his eye. It wasn't his usual approach, but he didn't have any better ideas. A first glimmer of inspiration came as he paged through the books of the Law. The Israelites were often told to treat strangers living in their land well, even to love them as themselves. It made sense to extend the passage to apply to Laney, and her father and sisters, as strangers among the larger community of Earth. On the other hand, Thad knew the Israelites had been forbidden to intermarry with outsiders. Did that mean Laney's parents shouldn't have married, and that it would be wrong for a man to marry Laney or one of her sisters? That didn't make any sense to him. Chin in hand, he pondered. *Rahab and Ruth!* he thought. They were both outsiders, women from nations the Israelites were banned from intermarrying with, but they had been accepted because of their faith in God. Ruth even became the great-grandmother of King David. Smiling, he flipped to the Book of Ruth, remembering that it had always been his mother's favorite book, and started reading.
The Stanford women's basketball season opener was almost sold out, despite the fact that it was over Thanksgiving weekend versus a weak opponent. In recent years, it had been *the* sport on campus, and this year the team had debuted at #4 on the AP poll. From the overheard comments of other fans, Thad got the impression most of the crowd had gathered to watch the superstar backcourt of Jasmine Allen and Molly Maloney begin their senior season, one that everyone hoped would see Stanford in the Final Four playing for the national championship. Doubtless he was the only one there who hoped to see one of their prospective replacements get significant playing time.
The game went much as expected. Stanford pulled out to a solid early lead over their cupcake opponent, and with three minutes left in the first half, Coach Dunphy pulled Maloney and sent in Laney. Seeing her in a basketball uniform with her hair pulled back in a severe braid, Thad expected everyone to exclaim over the resemblance to Superman that was so obvious to him. Instead, he noticed several spectators in the rows in front of him flipping through their programs to see who Number 36 was and where she came from.
She looked calm and confident, and she played well. At one point near the end of the half, dwindling time on the shot clock forced her to attempt a longish trey while closely guarded by a tall, persistent opponent. The ball soared to the basket, rolled lightly along the rim, and swooshed into the net. Allen or Maloney couldn't have made a better shot, and the crowd roared its approval, none more enthusiastically than Thad. Then, he was brought up short by the realization that she could've used superpowers to make that shot. Was it really right for her to play sports with such an advantage? He couldn't believe she'd deliberately use her powers, but how could you resist the temptation, when just a little extra speed or power could make all the difference in a close game? He knew if he had superhuman speed and strength, he wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to run just fast enough to catch up with an overthrown pass or to power his way through would- be tacklers.
He watched her closely for the remainder of the half and for the five minutes she played in the second half, but saw nothing else suspicious. She was a remarkable player for a freshman, but her style was poised, patient, and intelligent rather than overwhelmingly fast or powerful. Maybe she had willpower enough not to exercise her powers on the court—at least in a game like this. He'd reserve final judgment until he saw her in a close game with tournament implications.
The next Thursday evening, Laney and Thad lounged in her room, attempting to study for the morrow's biology lab practical. Conditions were ripe for productive studying—there was time pressure and neither was cranky—but they weren't accomplishing much. She was trying to keep them focused, but he seemed hopelessly distracted. Occasionally, when he thought she wasn't paying attention, she caught him studying her quizzically, though he averted his eyes when she looked straight at him. He'd been staring at her like that since Thanksgiving, and it was starting to annoy her. Even when they looked each other in the eye, there was something in his gaze beyond the frank friendship and vague hint of attraction she was accustomed to. Sometimes now she saw a trace of amazement and puzzlement, like the way he'd looked at one of their lab experiments that had gone haywire; other times his expression approached reverent awe. Either way, she didn't like it. And now he was gazing off into space rather than searching his notes.
"Thad! Mother ship to Thad!"
"You're totally out of it tonight."
"I…I'm sorry. I don't know what's gotten into me."
"Maybe you need a break, like when we went to Chinatown."
"I don't know, Laney, it's kind of late to drive all the way into the city, and we already ate dinner. But if you really want to interrupt a gunfight, maybe we can find something a little closer to campus. It's too bad you didn't go to Penn or Yale—West Philadelphia and New Haven offer so much more excitement and adventure than Palo Alto."
She chuckled. "I think I can pass on a gunfight for tonight at least. I was thinking maybe we could go down to the gym and shoot some hoops, just a nice game of one-on- one."
"But you'll kill me."
"I don't know. I've watched you play, and you're not a bad basketball player for a football player. Besides, you're five inches taller. That's a big advantage. And if you really want, I'll spot you a few points."
"Yes! You need a break of some kind, that's obvious, and it won't take long. We're already dressed for it," she said, indicating the T-shirts and sweats both wore.
"Okay, what the heck. I can always tell my grandchildren I was beaten in a game of one-on-one by basketball legend, Lane Kent."
She got up and produced a basketball from underneath her desk. "Okay, let's go."
The gym was crowded and noisy. Apparently they weren't the only ones who needed a study break. But they were able to find an empty goal, and they began, agreeing to play to 21 and spot Thad seven points. It was an even match, but only because Laney held back a bit. She'd played against her father from the time he'd built her a regulation goal, and in high school she'd honed her skills playing against the star center of the boy's team. Malik was a whole foot taller than her and was a freshman at Wake Forest now. Compared to a superhero and an ACC center, a 6'2" football player wasn't that much of a challenge. She figured he knew she wasn't giving her all, but he didn't seem to care.
And then, as they dove simultaneously for a loose ball, somehow his elbow caught her just below her left eye. She sat down hard, covering the eye in a futile attempt to lessen the pain, and he stood up straight, rubbing his elbow. When she uncovered her eye, his jaw dropped. "What is it?" she snapped. Her eye must look a lot worse than it felt, to warrant that shocked face.
"You're getting a black eye," he said in utter wonderment.
"Of course I am! That's usually what happens when someone hits you in the eye."
"But…but you can't be hurt. You're Superman's daughter."
"I take after my mother that way!…Wait a minute. How do you know about my father?" She looked around anxiously, and was relieved to see that no one in the gym was paying them any attention. "And would you please keep your voice down? Do you want people to hear you in Sacramento?"
"Oops! Sorry." He sat down beside her. "Let me see your eye." She allowed him to take her chin in his hand and turn her face toward the light. "Vision blurred, or anything?"
"No. It just really hurts."
"It doesn't look that bad. I mean, for a black eye."
"Gee, thanks. It would feel better if you got me something cold to put on it. And then I think we should go back to my room and talk. God, but we're going to bomb that practical tomorrow."
"No we won't. We've been good little students all semester. We don't need to study much. Besides, now that this is out in the open, I couldn't study if my life depended on it."
She smiled ruefully. "Neither could I. But would you please go get something cold for my eye?"
"Oh yeah! Sorry. I'm just…this is too much." He trotted obediently off in the direction of the locker rooms, and she got up and went to the bleachers, retrieving her basketball.
So he'd figured it out somehow. It must've been over Thanksgiving, since it was just this week he'd been acting kind of weird. But how? She'd been sure she was home free after he swallowed that silly tale about why he couldn't tell Monica where they'd originally met. What else could make him guess? Unlike Dad, Marty, or Claire, she didn't have to constantly make excuses for odd disappearances. And what did Thad the total Christian think of her now that he knew she wasn't truly human?
Two of the players from the game on the next court over interrupted her reverie. "Are you okay?" one asked.
She nodded. "I'll be fine as soon as it stops hurting. Thanks for asking, though."
"You're the freshman guard, Lane Kent, aren't you?" the other asked.
She smiled. "Yes. And I see no reason why this would keep me from playing Saturday."
"Good. I mean, I'm glad you're okay." She chuckled.
Thad reappeared, bearing a clean face towel soaked in cold water. With a relieved sigh, she took it and held it against the bruise.
The two guys surveyed Thad coldly. "You can't go around giving one of our best subs black eyes," one said.
"I wasn't planning to make a regular practice of it," he assured them.
"Just don't do it next year after Allen and Maloney graduate."
Laney's good eye twinkled, and she suppressed laughter. "C'mon Thad, let's go." They walked out, waving goodbye to the two fans. As soon as they were outside, she burst into nervous, hysterical giggles. "I feel like such a piece of meat!" she exclaimed. "Can't have me bruised, since it's a market day the day after tomorrow."
"Price of fame," he said lightly, and then wondered if that was why her family kept their identity a secret. "You know, I forgot to apologize for hitting you."
She waved her free hand dismissively. "Unnecessary. It was just one of those freak things."
After that, they walked in a silence that began companionable and grew tense as they reflected on what had just been revealed and now must be discussed. When they got back to her room, they were dismayed to find Monica and three others working on a group project, and they spun around and left after only the briefest of greetings. In Thad's room, they found his roommate, Dave, studying alone. "Could you study somewhere else? For a couple of hours?" Thad asked.
Dave stared from one to the other. "Sure." His voice was quiet. Packing up his books and notes, he quickly left, shaking his head. Thad locked the door behind him as soon as it shut.
Suddenly struck by a Dave's-eye view of the situation, Laney again gave way to hysterical giggles, collapsing on Thad's bed.
He looked as if he thought she'd gone deranged. "What?" he asked cautiously.
With an heroic effort, she stopped laughing long enough to speak. "What Dave must think of us, rushing in all tense and out of breath, throwing him out for the next couple *hours*."
He sat down opposite her on the other bed. "Oh, shoot, you're right. I'll have some explaining to do."
"Well, just be careful how you explain! I'd a lot rather your roommate think we're in here having wild sex than give him any inkling of what we're talking about."
He made an incongruously delicate shudder of distaste. "Okay. I guess I can live with that."
"I doubt you'll ever have to tell *that* extreme a lie. I just wanted to be sure you understood how big this is, how important it is to my whole family that as few people know as possible."
"I do, I think."
They stared at each other in silence for a moment. "So," Thad said, "where should we start?"
"Why don't you tell me how long you've known, and how you found out?"
"Okay. Well, I've known for a week now, since Thanksgiving morning—"
"That's what I thought. You've acted kind of strange all week."
"I've tried to act normal, but it's a lot to adjust to, especially because I thought you had superpowers."
"But now you see," she said, indicating the black eye, "I don't really have any advantages over anyone else." She sighed. "So. Anyway. How did you figure it out?"
"It's going to sound like such a little thing, but—you never were in Liam's room, were you?" She shook her head, puzzled. "He has this life-size Superman poster by the door. When you came and stood in the doorway, not a yard from the poster, the resemblance was overwhelming. It was especially strong since your hair was so slicked back, and since the poster is from an old photo where Su—he—your father is much younger. So that's how I figured it out. I don't think I would've gotten it just from that, though. There were a lot of things that didn't quite make sense, like meeting you and Claire back home—"
"And the story I came up with for why you couldn't mention meeting me to Monica."
"But since you don't have superpowers, how did you get there."
"Claire does have the powers."
"You mean she carried you all that way?"
"Well, more or less. We link hands. We've always thought it was kind of silly for her to carry me when I'm so much bigger. She really hasn't grown much since you met her. It's always seemed absurd that someone as petite and fragile- looking as Claire can be so strong. Somehow it's not as weird with Dad and Marty, since they look like stronger-than-average humans."
"So Marty has the powers too."
"And you're the middle child." His gaze turned compassionate, and she shrugged and avoided his eyes.
A pause. "Laney!"
"For the last week I've been thinking that little foray into gunfire of yours actually made sense, that you couldn't get hurt, but now…I hate to sound like a shrink, but I hope you don't get yourself killed trying to keep up with your father and sisters."
His tone was more avuncular than she liked, but she decided to let it slide for now. "Oh, never fear, I *know* I can't keep up with them, and I'm very well aware of my mortality. But why should that stop me from helping people? Somebody has to take risks. Besides, I get the risk-seeking personality just as much from my mom. Sometimes I'm amazed she lived long enough to meet Dad, as many times as she risked her neck for a story before he was even around to bail her out." Struck by a thought, she abruptly changed the subject. "You do realize, don't you, that the man you met at freshman move-in is my father, that Superman is really Clark Kent?"
"Yes, I'd figured that part out. I remembered thinking you two looked a lot alike too. And besides, everything you ever said about your family sounded so healthy and normal that I couldn't believe your mother had an affair with Superman or anything like that."
"I'm glad. Because we are a normal family…more or less. I mean, Dad is really just this man who loves his family, and he's a great reporter, and he loves that too, he likes football and basketball, he's a great cook if you don't mind exotic food. He's not all removed and isolated like everyone thinks Superman is. Superman is a disguise really, so Dad can use his powers to help people but can keep his privacy and have something like a normal life. Of course, it's never totally normal, with him always running off because of emergencies, and with all the work and lying it takes to maintain the secret. But you see why it's so important that this stays a secret." She leaned forward, staring at him earnestly. "If it got out, Mom and Dad would lose all their privacy, and they'd go crazy if they had to live under a microscope and never get away just to be themselves. As for me, I guess people would leave me alone as soon as they were convinced I don't have the powers, but Marty and Claire would never have a chance to have real lives."
"I understand. Laney, you know you can trust me. I'll guard this with my life, if it comes to that."
"I…well…thanks." She blushed.
"More than that," he said. "If the only way to keep the secret is for Dave to think we're having wild sex, I'll even sacrifice my reputation for you."
She giggled. "What about my reputation?"
"You're not the one who told Dave you were waiting for your wedding night."
"Anyway, I really do think I understand about your family. I mean, why shouldn't your father want to fit in and have a career and a family and everything the rest of us want. The part that amazes me is that you and your sisters are biologically possible."
"Oh, it amazed Mom and Dad, too. They pretty much assumed they'd have to adopt, but then before they'd even been married a year, Mom was pregnant with Marty. Sometime I'll have to tell you more about our birth stories. Suffice it to say Mom had to pretend to be a total granola who was into homebirth and against all medical intervention in pregnancy, while Dad read practically every obstetrics text in print, because what if something showed up on amniocentesis or even on ultrasound that blew our cover? And what about the blood tests they do in hospitals after you're born? You know, I wasn't entirely lying when I said I was afraid of needles. I'm terrified of what would happen if anyone ever analyzes my blood, like if I'm ever taken into a hospital unconscious. I'm sure my blood is different somehow, but I have no idea how it would show up in tests."
"So you've never had blood taken."
"Never. In high school biology when we did the blood typing lab, all of us smuggled in a little vial of Mom's blood to use. If we do a lab like that here, would you be willing to, um, donate?"
"My blood is your blood." They laughed.
"But seriously, Thad, what do you think of me now that you know?"
"What do you mean, what do I think of you? Why should I think anything different? You're still my best friend and study partner. Not to mention the most talented basketball player I've ever seen—"
"Oh, please! I'm on the same team with Jasmine Allen, Molly Maloney, and Irene Bowman. They're all three more talented—"
"Just more experienced. That first trey you hit in the season opener, I almost thought you were cheating and using superpowers."
"Aw, c'mon, it wasn't that good a shot. Though I've always doubted Dad's claim that he never cheated that way when he played football. You know, when the game is on the line you always reach for that something extra, so if you had all that speed and strength at your disposal…But anyway, that's not quite what I meant when I asked you what you thought of me."
"What did you mean, then?"
"You're such a religious guy. I mean, being a Christian, going to Bible study, no premarital sex, you make decisions based on obscure Bible verses, your parents are missionaries, for God's sake. That's what you're about."
"Well, yeah. Kind of. But why should that make me change my opinion of you?
"Because I'm not a human being."
"I wouldn't say that. I think you are in every way that matters, and so what if you aren't?"
"So I don't fit in your world scheme! Your religion doesn't apply to me. Thad, I've heard rantings and ravings from street preachers, seen tracts that they pass out, all saying that my father is an enemy, maybe even the Antichrist, all because he's an alien. Crazy stuff. Sometimes they say he's the advance guard for an alien army. I even once saw one that suggested that he's a demon in human form entrapping people to follow him via good deeds!"
"Laney, that's not Christianity. That's garden variety conspiracy theory. Some of them preach Jesus, and they may or may not really believe. It's not my job to judge that. But the conspiracy theories aren't Christianity. You know that. You know me and Monica. You know we don't believe anything like that about your father."
"I suppose I do. Really, I know you don't. But you've got to admit Christianity is a human religion. From what you and Monica have told me, I get the idea that the whole point is Jesus becoming a human and dying for humans. What does that have to do with me, or with Dad and Marty and Claire? We're not humans." Her voice was plaintive and challenging.
"You're right about what Jesus did for humans. But thinking about you, and reading my Bible, I've come to see that if the God I worship is real, since He's the creator of the universe, there's got to be universal truth in Christianity."
"Uh huh. Let me see if I understand you here. Are you saying the whole universe should be Christian? Like if we met a whole race of aliens, if there really was such a thing as Vulcans or Klingons, you'd try to convert them?"
"Not exactly. I guess I'm being more philosophical. There's a place in the Bible, Romans 8, if you want to look it up in Monica's Bible and nitpick it the next time you see me like always, where it talks about the whole of creation suffering and waiting for God to redeem us through Jesus. You could say from that that the whole universe needs redeeming, and that Jesus dying once here on Earth is sufficient to redeem it all—humans, aliens, the universe itself."
"That makes Earth pretty important for one tiny little planet."
"Admittedly, it does. But since when does size have anything to do with importance? And I've heard some Christians speculate instead that God would take on the form of as many species as needed redemption to die for them too. That's another possibility. But as for you and your family, you're different from if we met another species out in space."
"Because Earth is your home now, right? You've come to live among us. It's like you just said—your father just wants the same things most humans want, and to live a good life here. Last weekend I kept digging through my Bible to try to answer these questions, to figure out where you fit in, and I came upon all these verses in the Law God gave the Israelites, where they were commanded to love any strangers who came to live among them as themselves. If you expand that out a little bit, it makes sense to apply it to your family. And on through the Bible, I saw that God doesn't want there to be outsiders. If you want more reading assignments, read Ruth, and Ephesians 2. Ruth is all about how a woman who was on the outside becomes part of God's people, and the Ephesians chapter talks about that sort of thing more generally."
"Romans 8, Ruth, and Ephesians 2. I'll look those up, but with finals and all I may not get a chance until Christmas."
"Start with Ruth. It's a beautiful story, and easy enough to read as a nice study break."
"Safer than playing basketball with you, at least." Both laughed, and met each other's eyes with all their old friendliness, and more. Laney knew that for the first time outside her family, she didn't have to worry about putting up a wall. Walls were such a habit by now that it was strange not to have one, but such a relief, too, knowing that Thad knew who she really was and could still accept her. "You really think that I could be a Christian, if I wanted?"
"Yes, I do."
"Maybe I'll think about it, then. You know, I never really thought of having a religion before. I didn't think I could belong. I think I could learn to like the idea."
"I hope so. I know God wouldn't have created you if He didn't love you and want you to know Him."
She smiled, and there was a silence. Thad stood, and extended his hand to her. She took it solemnly and let him pull her to her feet. Except for their farewell at age fifteen, when they'd never expected to see each other again, and their ecstatic reunion at freshman move-in, there had been little physical affection in their friendship thus far. But now she locked her arms around his waist and leaned her had against his shoulder. His arms enclosed her, and they stood together for a long moment. It overwhelmed her to have such a friend she could trust, someone with whom she could let down her long- ingrained guard. She didn't know where this was going, didn't know all the cosmic implications of someone outside of the family being in on the secret, but for now it was good just to feel the rhythm of his breathing and relax. For the first time since she'd found out as a very little girl that her family was like no other in the world, she could really and truly relax. "Thank you," she murmured.
"What for?" he asked, loosening the embrace enough to look her in the eye.
"For being my best friend."
"Thank you for being mine."
"I should go try and get some sleep."
"Me too. Want to have breakfast tomorrow and cram a little for Biology?"
"Okay then." He unlocked the door and opened it for her. "Good night then. Until tomorrow."
Impulsively, she quickly hugged him again. "Until tomorrow," she agreed.
"So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household." — Ephesians 2:19
"The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself." — Leviticus 19:34