by Leonard Thrope
(What follows is an expanded re-write of Gribble's "Power Juice," with all due credit for the characters, situations, and turns of phrase. Contains explicit sex, so the usual caveats apply. If you ain't 18, beat it, Jack.)
Peter Campbell drove out to the school Saturday morning with his friends Rhoan and Tayt and Matt, all of them crazy to find out if it was true. It was. COUGAR FALLS HIGH SCHOOL DECIMATED IN MASSIVE EXPLOSION that morning's edition of the Cascade Courier had proclaimed, above a jarring yet tantalizing photo of the rubble taken some time late that night. FOUR STUDENTS, ONE TEACHER REPORTED MISSING, FEARED DEAD went the tag line.
They got there early, over an hour before class would have begun on a school day, and it was already a mob scene. It was like there was a concert going on. Making his way slowly up Toyer Avenue, Peter saw what looked like most of CFHS's student body amassed on the northeastern edge of campus, plus their families, plus a slew of people he didn't recognize, probably from Linville, Howell Lake, even Cascade. KOMO, KING, KIRO, and KCPQ news vans were parked near the tennis courts at the edge the parking lot, amid such throngs of people that the concrete lot itself was invisible. There were even a few adventurous students and parents who were perched atop the tennis courts' high chain-link fence for a better view. Others were standing on pickup beds and van roofs, some using binoculars. Peter spotted a quartet of shoulder-mounted cameras trained on Mr. Arnell (a.k.a. Mr. Asshole), the principal, who was facing a quartet of reporters in trenchcoats, two of whom Peter instantly recognized from TV. All the way from Seattle! Peter thought wonderingly. Somehow, seeing people from TV in person made the disaster sink in more than anything, even more than the sight of the flattened school. The school itself, or the absence thereof, was just too unreal to be grasped all at once.
There was a long line of Cougar Falls police and Snohomish County sheriff cruisers parked along Toyer Avenue's L-bend, the cops standing in clumps in their rain slickers and plastic-sealed hats, talking somberly and casting doubtful looks at the razed campus. They paid Peter's old Accord no mind as it crawled past. There were also two ambulances, but the paramedics were just standing around drinking coffee; apparently no one had been found, at least not alive. Another crowd had gathered in the big grassy field to the north of the greenhouses, and it was here that Peter nosed to a stop. His friends, giddy with the prospect of this unexpected vacation, squirmed out through the open windows like the Duke boys, but Peter identified more with the humorless expressions on the cops' faces. He'd learned from the paper that Josh Cates was among the missing, and while they were by no means close friends, Peter had known Josh since jayvee cross-country, when Peter was a freshman and Josh was a sophomore. Like the cops, Peter saw the ruins less like an undreamt-of blessing and more like a giant, impromptu grave. And anyway he was grounded enough to recognize that this vacation could not possibly last more than a few days, and soon enough their education would continue, even if it meant they got divided and parceled out to the high schools in Linville and Cascade.
Peter and his friends took turns examining the rubble closely through Rhoan's dad's binoculars, across the yellow POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS tape that kept them and the rest of the assembled throng from getting within fifty feet of campus. The weather was overcast and drizzly, but there was plenty of light for them to see. The 200, 300, 400, administration and gymnasium buildings were flattened just as completely as if a Paul Bunyan-sized steam roller had coming chugging through, and what was left of the 100 building looked as though it had been gone over with a flame thrower. There were crumbled cinderblocks, pulverized timbers, cracked concrete, shattered glass, shredded siding, gutted metal ducts, torn carpeting, loose doors, twisted lockers, chairs and desks flung about like giant pieces of confetti. And paper, of course, lying in sodden gray drifts like snow. Peter had heard the geeks in his chemistry class speculating about what the detonation of the 100 building's propane supply might do, but even their wildest imaginings paled before this. It seemed hard for him to believe that a tank the size of a Volkswagen Beetle could have such destructive power. It looked more to Peter like the result of massive carpet-bombing.
The opening chant of Pink Floyd's perennial dismissal of the educational process went up from Steve Coyle's old Monte Carlo, drawing scattered cheers from students, followed by scattered boos from frowning parents. Steve Coyle and his stoner buddies folded their arms and leaned against the Monte Carlo, silently daring the scowling cops to make a move. Judging from snatches of conversation Peter heard, the prevailing opinion among students and parents alike was that this was the work of a Columbine-style outcast conspiracy, and Peter thought it would've been wiser for the stoners to lay low. It could've been them just as easily as it could've been anybody.
When it was Peter's turn with the binoculars, he darted his gaze here and there randomly. He saw a half-deflated basketball with a shaft of rebar piercing it, a textbook from his US history class open face-down and swollen by rainwater to the size of a catalog, the cracked shell of a hard drive, and shiny white shards that had almost certainly been the toilets and urinals from the 400 building's restrooms. He saw the Pepsi machine from the administration building, the front torn off and pop cans everywhere; next to this was a treasure trove of chip bags and candy bars from The Den, the school's small student-run convenience store. He saw what was left of the lat pull machine from the gym, lying on its side in the courtyard, the weight plates loose around it like dominoes. He saw an intact length of aluminum siding with a crater in it that was grooved as though it had been punched by a gigantic fist.
He saw a hand.
Peter gasped, lowered the binoculars, peered at the area with unaided eyes. It was a hand all right, tiny now but definitely still there, grasping shakily at the air like that of a drowning person. It dropped out of sight and then reappeared again. It seemed to be coming from the crater that had been the 400 building. He put the binoculars back to his eyes and tweaked the focusing knob. The hand, still there, streaked with black as though it had been rooting around in a fireplace. "Hey!" he finally managed, dropped the binoculars to the hood of his car. "Hey, there's someone alive in there!"
A hundred different conversations behind him were cut off, turning into inarticulate murmurs of surprise as people turned to him, then threw their gazes at the ruins of the school. Shouts went up from the crowd as other people began to spot the hand.
By this time Peter was gone, under the tape and bounding down what had once been the walk on the 100 building's east side. The footing was treacherous, with debris slanting every which way, but Peter had been in cross country for over two years and could run like a gazelle. Behind him was a steady rattle of feet, probably one or more of his friends. "Hey you! Stop!" a voice shouted from his left, so authoritative it had to be one of the cops, and in the corner of his eye he saw blue and green figures begin to swarm across the visitor's parking lot, trying to cut him off.
He made his way down what had been, as far as he could tell, the courtyard's center pathway. On his left were chunks of gray stone that were apparently all that was left of the so-called monolith, the twelve-foot-tall obelisk of weather-stained concrete that had been the school's centerpiece. Beyond that, the cops were gaining, and were apparently going to get him before he could get to the hand. "Hey!" "Hey, look at that!" "Hey look!" the cops began to shout, and as one they slowed. Good, that's good, Peter thought with relief: now the cops were going to be with him instead of against him. But now he would be the first to reach the flailing hand.
Fourteen hours prior, Karen had stood in the 400 building's hallway, stooping to work the combination to her locker. A guy passing her, most any of the guys in Cougar Falls High School, might have slowed in their way past to steal a quick glance at her round derri're, or the modest little nubs of her breasts. But they would not have done more than slow. Karen's face was that of a child prodigy: round, pale, chubby, and, in spite of her perspicacious blue gaze, impossibly callow. Even her stylish brunette bob couldn't dispel the sense of cloying youth; her body was quite sensual, in its own way, but her diminutive stature and especially her face made it seem that her curves came more from a fulsome bone structure, precocious hormones, and a few too many Ho-Hos'whereas the fact was that her body had nearly finished puberty, yet had somehow left her face back in elementary school. Karen's front teeth were separated by a small, immature-looking gap, her voice was sibilant'her z-sounds come out like the z in azure, so if she tried to say Zack was at the zoo, it came out something like Zshack wazsh at the zshoo'and she unconsciously aggravated the effect by affecting a sassy, pesky kid-sister attitude. Other kids at CFHS, friend and foe both, called her Squirt, and even Karen had to admit that the moniker fit her perfectly. No one, upon meeting her, could have possibly guessed that she was a day over thirteen, much less seventeen. Only the dark, bruised-looking stains pooling under her eyes hinted at her true age.
Despite all that, what really kept all the guys at CFHS walking past without pause was her mind, the most formidable in the school, the kind that, they all sensed'if only in the form of a vague unease'was destined for greatness.
But there were no guys walking past now. The school day had ended thirty minutes before, and the only other people on campus, as far as Karen knew, were those practicing sports'football, cross country, tennis, soccer, whatever else they practiced in the fall. Karen didn't really know, or care. Sports weren't her thing. And she wasn't opening her locker to get school books, or her coat, or anything so mundane. She was getting something she had no right to be getting, something that she shouldn't even know about, much less possess.
Her mind wandered, and she had to spin the dial to clear it and start over. What was behind the door of her locker could raze the whole school, and for that matter the whole town like a bomb'what was she, an ordinary high school kid still in the thick of adolescence, doing with it? When exactly had things gotten so weird? Just yesterday, she realized, though it seemed days ago now, if not weeks ago. Her father, the head of the school's science department, had suddenly left town that morning, called away by his other employer, the Pentagon. In his absent-minded haste he'd left the suitcase containing back-up notes on his project sitting on the kitchen table. Karen, ever curious and never satisfied by the easy pabulum of her schoolwork, had perused the project outline while she ate her usual breakfast of Kix with soy milk, kicking her legs childishly, and she quickly became fascinated. He was trying to develop a rapid-growth serum, that would greatly increase the size, strength, and mental prowess of a human being. He had not, however, been able to actually make it work. Telling herself that she needed to keep the notes safe, in case someone broke into the house while she was away'ignoring the fact that her father's den was equipped with a very sophisticated safe'Karen had taken the briefcase with her to school.
As it turned out, she was glad of the distraction the project would provide. She needed distraction, because when she arrived at school before homeroom and opened her locker, she found a folded rectangle of notebook paper atop the pile of textbooks and binders, a note that someone had slipped into one of the locker's vents. It turned out that it was from her boyfriend Josh, though by the time she'd finished the letter, she had become aware, through a haze of denial and shock and grief, that she had better get used to thinking of him as her ex-boyfriend Josh.
The culprit was obvious, and she didn't need the letter's painfully clumsy hinting to realize that Amy Raibe, Josh's "friend" that he'd been seen with so much lately, was at the root of this. Josh was Karen's first boyfriend, the only boy she'd ever been able to even imagine'on the rare occasions she pulled her head out of her books long enough to think about such mundane matters'getting romantic with, and the news that it was over between them made for a big, bitter pill that could not possibly be swallowed all in one sitting. Even here, on the cusp of adulthood, Karen had always been satisfied with nothing more scandalous than hand-holding, hugging, and occasional close-mouthed pecks. But apparently Josh had wanted more, and apparently he'd found it in Amy.
If Josh had been looking for someone who was Karen "Squirt" Duvay's polar opposite, Karen thought, he certainly couldn't have picked a better girl than Amy Raibe. At 5'3, ninety pounds and a 1.9 GPA, with chic chestnut-brown hair, wide lascivious eyes, a ribald lift to her nose, long lissome legs and a warm yet vacant grin, Amy was all beauty and no brains. Karen remembered, in classes she'd had with Amy freshman year, that the aspiring diva would invariably respond to questions from the teacher by saying "Uhhh -" in that fragile high-pitched voice of hers, apparently interrupted out of whatever Barbie-and-Ken daydream she was perpetually lost in. Last year, junior year, Amy's usual in-class response was a clueless "Huh?"; and even Karen, no expert on such things, could tell that more often than not Amy was stoned out of her gourd. In the two classes she had with Amy this semester, Karen had observed that the girl could expound on precisely five subjects: people in Cougar Falls suck; the weather in Cougar Falls sucks; school sucks; I really want to go to LA; four-twenty is the international time to "partake." Karen was only occasionally in earshot of Amy, and even she had noticed that Amy never failed to bring these things up as though for the first time, as though her brain were a sieve and while she slept each night it managed to lose everything that had happened to her since she was born. She was an imbecile. But the guys who hung around her didn't seem to mind. Karen had no close friends with whom to gossip, but she had overheard plenty of rumors, squirreled back and forth between the more popular girls like trading cards: Amy and Brent Wilson in a stall in the boy's bathroom, Amy and Jay Hughes in the backseat of his Camaro, Amy and Keith Osborne in a fitting room at the Gap. Karen, never one to take things at face value, had always supposed such rumors to be dismissable as jealous speculation. Now, she'd discovered, sometimes even the most heated ad populum slander was all too true. If this is what growing up is all about, Karen thought, I think I'd rather just stay a kid. It was bad enough that Josh had dumped her. The fact that he had dumped her in favor of such a relentless twit just made it that much harder to accept.
She hadn't seen Josh all that day, and she supposed that, after slipping the note in her locker, he may have just decided to call it a day. She wished she'd be able to similarly avoid encountering Amy, but there she was in PE, then again in drawing class. The girl everyone thought of as Squirt was anything but impulsive, and therefore everyone was surprised, not least of all herself, when she went up to Amy and blurted out how she felt. She tried her utmost to suppress the babyish lisp in her voice, to make herself sound something like an adult, but it crept out anyway, undermining her attempt at seriousness.
"Josh isn't your property, honey, and you need to come to terms with that." The defense came not from Amy but from Jennifer Nevitt, the senior homecoming queen, who had interposed herself between the two girls. Jennifer's interest was not at all impartial; she was Amy's neighbor, and the two had been friends since they were little kids. "It's not like Amy cast a spell on him. If he chose to be with her, that's his decision to make."
"Yeah, no doubt," Amy said in her tiny voice, stepping around Jennifer so she could face Karen again. "Squirt. He's not anyone's property." She gave a reflective little giggle, then added, "But if he was someone's property, he'd be mine."
Karen looked uncertainly from one girl to the other, a lump in her throat, the tears finally making their arrival. She could dismiss Amy as nitwitted fluff. Jennifer, however, for all her beauty and her popularity, had Karen's respect'Karen had never really interacted with her before, but the cheerleading squad's zaftig blonde leader was in all of her honors classes, and while she couldn't match Karen's phenomenal grades, she did seem to hold her own. Looking up at them, her eyes welling with tears, Karen had the horrible, inescapable feeling that she was only a little girl being stared down by full-grown women, that while she'd been distracted Josh too had crossed over the threshold of adulthood, leaving little Squirt behind. At any rate, Karen had never initiated this sort of emotionally charged confrontation before, and she retreated from it by doing something else she had never done before, by running straight out of the room, crashing into and knocking over a desk on the way. Before the door had fully closed, she heard people laughing, actually laughing behind her. Smooth move, Ex-Lax, she berated herself as she limped down the empty hallway, eyes stinging with tears, her face so flushed with humiliation it felt like it might explode, her hip screaming bloody murder. She wanted to do nothing more than hide in a stall in the bathroom, but a sense of duty made her go to the office, where she tremulously told the school secretary that she had left class because she felt sick. The school secretary, sympathetic as ever to Mr. Duvay's adorable and studious little daughter, led Karen into one of the empty offices, where Karen proceeded to cry her eyes out for the remainder of the school day. At some point her drawing teacher came by to drop off her books.
When the final bell rang, Karen wiped off her face with a tissue and ventured back out into the crowded hallway. Of course, she almost immediately passed Amy, who gave her a triumphant little smirk. Karen forced her eyes ahead, going straight to her locker. There was only one thing she knew that could take her mind off a problem of this magnitude. She drew out the aluminum-plated briefcase that contained her father's notes, shut her locker, and started off for the 100 building.
She had a copy of the keys to get into the building'her father, trusting her adult sense of responsibility, had given them to her, and prior to that day Karen had never even imagined violating that trust. But there she was, creeping into her father's classroom with his top-secret materials in tow, then making her way into the back room which connected all four labs. In this room, the science teachers had their computers, and they congregated here at lunch and between periods. Another hallway led into storerooms for the science department's chemical supplies. The lights were all on, and Karen supposed that the janitorial staff would come and go before she'd left. She settled into a chair before her father's computer and tried to look nonchalant as she opened the briefcase.
There were hard-copy notes on the project in the briefcase, but also a CD, which Karen inserted into the lab computer. Then she hunched over the keyboard and went to work. Everything had been laid out neatly and concisely by her father, so much the better for his fellow Pentagon researchers, and Karen, whose true passion lay in biochemistry, had no problem absorbing the formula's parameters. Time passed, as her eyes zipped busily to and fro, the mouse key clicking as she scrolled through file after file. As she considered the chemical equations, she began to think she knew where her father had failed, why the formula wasn't working. Suddenly she became aware that someone was watching her, and looked up to see Mr. Falstaff, who taught freshman biology, standing in the doorway. She nearly dissolved into total guilt-ridden panic, and then realized that, since he was facing her and not the computer screen, he hadn't been able to see the baleful TOP SECRET and EYES ONLY flags that kept jumping up all over the screen. She took a deep breath, forced herself to be steady, then said, "Oh, hi, Mr. Falstaff."
"Hi, Karen," he said carefully. Her being here was hardly unusual'she often came in before and after school to use her father's computer'but he seemed pensive somehow. He looked at the expensive briefcase lying open next to the computer. The weather-beaten Jansport pack, Karen's usual companion, was resting against the leg of her chair. How he assessed this was unclear to Karen. At length he said, "I, uh, heard what happened today."
"Oh." Karen looked down at the keyboard, her face burning. Actually, caught up in the exciting notion that she might perfect the formula herself, she had quite forgotten that Joshua Cates existed. She gathered her thoughts, trying madly to figure out what he wanted from her; meanwhile, she was surreptitiously minimizing all the open files, making it so that, if he should come around to face the screen, he wouldn't be able to see what she was doing. Finally, playing up her pesky kid-sister voice for all it was worth, she managed, "Yeah. It's, uh, relationship stuff. I'm sure I'll get over it."
"That's good," Mr. Falstaff said thoughtfully, coming into the room, and Karen began to panic while trying desperately to keep from looking like she was panicking. "It would be a shame if you had to miss school because of this." His arms folded, he slowly rounded the table. His eyes roved over the briefcase again, and Karen knew that he surely must recognize it. "Of course, if you had something to keep yourself occupied -"
"Uh," Karen said stupidly, as Mr. Falstaff came around behind her. The screen showed only the desktop with its many icons, but the task bar underneath was full of minimized windows. Karen didn't know what else she could say. She only hoped Mr. Falstaff would assume she'd been looking at pornography or something.
"Something like a project -" Mr. Falstaff prodded.
Karen remained quiet. She thought her face must be as red as a beet.
"Something like - your father's project -"
Karen craned her neck to look up at him, her eyes very wide, her jaw slack.
Mr. Falstaff smiled genially. "Oh, yes, I know all about it. Your father's research, that is. And I happened to spot you going around campus with that conspicuous briefcase today. When I heard about what happened between you and those other girls, and then found you in here - well, one and one make two, do they not?"
"Uhhhh," Karen said, and trailed off into a resigned sigh. Was this really happening? She dropped her head in defeat and whispered, "Something like that."
Mr. Falstaff chuckled mirthfully and set himself on the desk beside her, tucking his hands into the crooks of his arms. "It really wasn't that hard to guess, you know. I knew it was only a matter of time before Rob's absentmindedness and your own insatiable curiosity would intersect. Oh, but don't worry: I have no intention of saying anything to him. In fact, I intend to help you."
Karen looked up at him with renewed surprise.
"Oh yes, you understood me all right," Mr. Falstaff said. "Your father hasn't confided to me or anything about what he's been up to; I've simply picked up clues he's left behind, just as you have. All I really know is that he's working on a rapid mass-increasing serum, and that he's been stymied for months now. But with you and I working together to overcome the problem'well, sometimes these things want only for a fresh perspective, isn't that right?"
Karen continued to look at him, only now with a more shrewd expression. "And if we get it to work? Who gets to write the abstract in JAMA?"
Mr. Falstaff laughed brightly, revealing capped molars. "If you want me to tell you that I'm not interested in fame or fortune, well, that would be a lie. But I'm also interested in scientific progress, and I think that's the important thing here. I'm presuming that your father has the majority of the formula in place already, and as such the vast majority of its rewards should go to him. A small credit in the write-up would be enough to satisfy me."
Karen thought about it, kneading her upper lip with the tip of her pinky. As smart as she was for her age, she was still only a senior in high school; Mr. Falstaff, on the other hand, had been researching biochemistry for decades. She knew she would need his help. And, more importantly, she liked and trusted him. She didn't believe he would try and swipe the completed formula for himself. "All right," she said, and began using the mouse to reopen all the windows. Mr. Falstaff smiled and then pulled up a chair next to her.
Within minutes the pair realized that Karen had indeed discovered the flaw in the original formula'it was so big and obvious to Karen, and she believed that the obviousness was what had caused her father to miss it. (The thought that her gentle, soft-spoken father might have wanted the project to fail never crossed her mind.) By seven o'clock, the janitors had finished their cleanup, the building was deserted for the night, and the pair had constructed what they believed was the correct recipe. They stood, Mr. Falstaff shrugging off his smock as Karen took off her sweatshirt. Karen's face reddened again, and although she wasn't usually aware of what she carried on her chest, she was aware of it now, and knew how bad this might look if anyone should see them, the ripe young girl and the dirty old teacher alone in the classroom after dark. But Mr. Falstaff went right into the storeroom without so much as a look at her, and Karen was relieved. She realized she didn't even know if he was married. She followed him into the storeroom and together they began to collect the necessary chemicals. At one of the lab stations in Karen's father's room, they set up a Bunsen burner, ring stand, racks of test tubes and beakers, and went to work. By just after eight, Mr. Falstaff thought they had it. He held a large beaker up to the light, swirling the syrupy, pale green colloid. Sixteen ounces'if their calculations were correct, enough to make a person as small as Karen the size of a building.
"Now what?" asked Karen, a little nervously.
"Why'I don't know." Now Mr. Falstaff sounded nervous too, and Karen looked at him suspiciously, wondering if he would renege on his promise to give her father most of the credit. But his eyes were fixed on the beaker, and there were beads of sweat on his brow, as though the beaker were filled with something unstable, like nitroglycerin. "Put it away and wait for your father to get home so we can give him the good news, I suppose."
Karen's dark blue eyes followed the beaker as Mr. Falstaff lowered it to the countertop. "And after that?"
"After that it goes to the Pentagon," Mr. Falstaff said, speaking as though his mind were elsewhere. "They'll test it'on mice, on cats, then pigs and monkeys, and finally on some hapless soldier. If it works, your father will be a very rich man."
Neither of them spoke for a few moments, just stared at the beaker. Karen felt as though she were being hypnotized by it. As though another girl were using her mouth as a microphone, she heard herself say, "I don't think it's toxic."
"Oh, no, neither do I," Mr. Falstaff said, swiveling his head as though to glance at Karen but never taking his eyes from the beaker. "In fact, even if it doesn't work at all, I think the worst it would do is give you a stomach ache."
Another, much longer period of silence passed. Karen knew that on an ordinary day she would've been eager to do as Mr. Falstaff had said, just put the stuff away and wait for her father to return and decide what to do next. But this was no ordinary day. She had called Amy Raibe a cheating whore to her face, and she most certainly wouldn't have done that on an ordinary day. She had a sudden image of herself grabbing the beaker in both hands, bringing it to her lips, and gulping it all down, with rivulets streaming down her cheeks and chin.
"We're not going to just put it away, are we?" Mr. Falstaff asked quietly.
Karen darted a distrustful glance at him, wondering if he meant to drink it himself.
He met her eyes and smiled faintly. "Well, what are you waiting for? This is what you wanted all along, isn't it? Strength? Power? No longer having to be afraid? No longer being at the mercy of popular girls like Amy Raibe and Jennifer Nevitt, or careless, mercurial boys like Josh Cates? Isn't that what this was about from the start?"
Karen looked at him with her mouth slightly open, just enough to show the tiny gap between her two front teeth. She thought about denying what he'd said, but she didn't know where to start. Instead she lowered her head in a sign they both recognized as acquiescence.
Mr. Falstaff took a smaller beaker and poured an ounce of the serum into it. Then he slid it in front of Karen. "There it is," he said. "The doorway to a new you."
Karen stared at the smaller beaker. Surely, she wasn't actually going to do this. Making herself into an amazon made for a pleasant daydream, a way to escape the grief and humiliation of being dumped. Wouldn't it be nice to be Amy's height, to be able to look her in the eye? Or, even better, to look down on her? To look way down on her? But to actually go though with it? That was crazy. Moving slowly, as though in a dream, Karen picked up the beaker. She glanced at Mr. Falstaff again. His face was a hard, twitching mass of tension, covered with sweat that gleamed like oil. He was clearly as nervous as she was, but for some reason he was just as determined to see her go through with it.
Karen looked at the beaker in her hand. If it has to be someone, why not me? she asked herself, and before she could think about it any more she knocked it back. It was as thick as cough syrup and tasted like burnt leaves.
The effect was almost immediate. As Mr. Falstaff watched, Karen grew a few inches taller, her breasts swelling a full cup size larger and her hair extending a few inches closer to the line of her shoulders, her legs coming into slightly clearer relief inside her loose jeans. Karen saw nothing; her eyes were closed, and a small moan escaped her lips. She'd never had an orgasm before, but she thought that, if it was anything akin to the divine sensation she'd just experienced, maybe she just should've gone ahead and had sex with Josh after all. If it was a choice between keeping her virtue and experiencing that sublime pleasure again, then she would choose the pleasure, no question. She looked around the room as though she'd stumbled here in the midst of a somnambulant dream and was now seeing it for the first time. Mr. Falstaff was slumped against the counter, staring at her, breathing in great whooping gasps. Karen smiled at him curiously, revealing teeth that were all close together and very straight.. Her face was lean enough that she now looked her age, if not a little bit older; her smile was truly winning. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yes, yes," Mr. Falstaff grunted, pushing himself upright. "It's just that, well'the changes are so'so dramatic'well, here." He walked quickly into the central office, his legs swinging rigidly like those of a robot, and then came back out with a hand-held mirror. Karen took it and marveled at what she saw, touching her face to confirm its reality. "I am different," she said. She knew that if Josh saw her like this, he'd take back those horrible things he'd written and swear off Amy and all other girls forever. She set the mirror on the countertop, looked around, then picked up the ring stand. She gripped both ends and pushed. She wasn't able to bend it - but hadn't it creased? Just a little bit? She set it back down, and she and Mr. Falstaff looked at each other excitedly.
"We should try it again," Karen said.
Mr. Falstaff poured out two more ounces of the formula, smiling giddily. "Repetition is the cornerstone of scientific theory," he said, handing the small beaker to her.
Karen drank it. As before, there was a moment where nothing happened, and then she was bursting out all over the place. The tops of her sneakers tore away from the soles. The hems of her jeans rose like capri pants, and her quads split open the stitching down the sides. Her breasts swelled under her T-shirt until they jutted like nosecones. Her hair grew down past her shoulders. Her face continued to resculpt itself, becoming ever more sleek and aristocratic, no longer that of an overgrown baby. She grew in height until she was almost six feet tall, even taller than Mr. Falstaff.
Karen missed again what it looked like as her body added inches to its height, but that hardly mattered, because in her mind it seemed she had sprung from the nadir of a shadowy vale to the peak of the tallest mountain in the world. Everything was still there, all the color and the sound and the texture, only now it was smaller and yet somehow infinitely more clear, everything there for her aquiline senses to seize and magnify at her leisure. Her eyes drifted open again, and a slow smile lit her features. She needed no mirror to tell herself what she had become. The formula had done so much more than make her strong'it had made her something above and beyond human, without peer, more than a match for history's greatest minds. She looked at the slumped and panting Mr. Falstaff and saw the erection straining at the fly of his slacks. She recognized that he was having an overt sexual reaction, and accepted this piece of information with academic disinterest. It seemed only natural to her that her appearance would cause debilitating lust in lesser creatures. The straps of her bra were slicing into her back, and she reached up under the hem of her shirt and ripped it off; as it turned out, her breasts no longer needed its support in the least. Then she snatched up the ringstand, and with some effort she tied its iron rod into a bow.
"Good lord," Mr. Falstaff wheezed, one hand clutching at his chest.
Karen planted her hands on her hips and smirked at him. "Impressive, am I not? But not as impressive as I could be. Why, I've already deduced a modification to the original serum that could increase its potency by a factor of ten, and'" Then she frowned and put a hand on her forehead, feeling at least temporarily like herself again. "I'I'm sorry, Mr. Falstaff. I don't know what came over me."
"It's all right my dear, perfectly all right," Mr. Falstaff said, levering himself back into a standing position. He used his sleeve to arm the sweat from his brow. "We knew it was going to affect your mind somehow; increased intelligence, apparently, is the effect, or perhaps one of several effects." He studied her closely. "Tell me, do you really think you can reconfigure the formula?"
Karen knitted her brow, her eyes lowered and shuttling busily to and fro. "I - I already have. I can see the formula, its structure and its effects, as though my mind were plugged in to the computer." At once Karen's face became imperious again, and one eyebrow arched. "Not surprising, considering that I am now the most intelligent being on the face of the planet."
Mr. Falstaff peered at her curiously. "I see that arrogance is another effect."
"Yeeess," Karen agreed, studying him in turn with eyes that had taken on an eerily intense shade of blue. The teacher seemed stooped and craven and disgusting to her, like a large cockroach that was for some reason wearing clothes. "It would seem so." She raised her hands and watched them begin to spastically clench into fists despite her. "And while one would think that my enhanced intellect would render me greater emotional control, I find myself more consumed with vengeance than ever."
"That makes sense," Mr. Falstaff said thoughtfully, crossing his arms and stoking his chin. "Your father did design this for military purposes, and a superman wouldn't be much use to the army if he were only interested in books and chess games. A lust for violence would balance'"
"Violence!" Karen hissed, and slammed a fist down on the countertop, leaving a web of cracks. "Amy Raibe has crossed me! Now she will pay the price."
Mr. Falstaff studied her apprehensively. "What do you intend to do?"
Karen stared at the floor for a moment, then shook her head angrily and turned away, folding her arms under her breasts. "I don't know. I'd like to kill her, and Josh too. But I know that my time with this body, this mind, is limited, and when the normal Karen returns, she would be "stricken with remorse,' as lazy prose-writers put it. As much as I would like to make them pay with their lives, I must to some extent accede to her wishes."
A long period of silence passed as the two considered their respective dilemmas. At length Karen went to her backpack, pulled out two empty plastic bottles and tossed them to Mr. Falstaff. He managed to get a grip on them and looked at their labels. One had contained Volvic spring water, the other Power Juice sports drink. "Pour off the remainder of the serum into those bottles," Karen instructed. "I will leave with them and consider my next course of action. You will clean up the lab and remove all traces of what has happened." She nodded at the remains of her shoes, socks, and bra. Then she glared at him, making him flinch a little. "You can do nothing to stop me. If you call the authorities you will only force me to kill them, and afford the normal Karen much guilt when she returns tomorrow."
"Oh, don't worry about me," Mr. Falstaff said agreeably. "I wouldn't dream of trying to stand in the way of such a determined young woman." He set about pouring out the serum, ten ounces into the Power Juice bottle, the remaining three into the Volvic bottle.
Karen shouldered her bag and took the briefcase in one hand and the two bottles in the other. She went to the door, then stopped and turned back. Mr. Falstaff was looking at her attentively. "I must say," she said, "you've been very cooperative about all this."
"Don't worry about me," Mr. Falstaff said again, grinning a foolish dog grin that Karen had never seen on him before. "I've gotten all the reward I need."
Karen recalled the huge erection he'd gotten from watching her transform, then nodded and headed out. She supposed he had indeed.
She made one detour, to drop her backpack, the briefcase, and the Power Juice bottle off at her locker in the 400 building, then marched off into the misty night, eyes distant, mouth curled with a species of reflective, sadistic good humor. Make the heart of her inferior quail with fear, yes. And no more. She had all but forgotten that the Volvic bottle was still in her hand.
Thirty-four hours before Peter Campbell would go dashing for the flailing hand, Jennifer had finished her homework, and was now engaged in her usual pre-bedtime ritual, sitting on the porch, a cigarette in her hand and a half-empty bottle of Coors Light at her side. The beer was her mother's, of course; Cora Nevitt had never told her daughter that she was allowed to drink them, but if she noticed that they disappeared from the refrigerator at the rate of around one a night, she never mentioned it. The cigarette was her own; if her mother so much as smelled cigarette smoke in the house, she would have flipped out. Jennifer didn't mind smoking outside. Even on chilly nights like this, she enjoyed sitting on the stoop of her covered porch in her pajamas and bathrobe and slippers, looking down the gentle slope of her lawn and over at the adjoining houses in the cul-de-sac, hearing the croaks of frogs and the occasional ghostly, mournful barking and baying of the dog on the next street up. She considered going next door to see if Amy had any weed on her'she usually did'and then remembered that Amy had mentioned that she was expecting Josh to come over that night. Jennifer took another drag on her cigarette, smiling ruefully. If Josh was over there, then Amy would definitely be incommunicado, that's a big ten-four, Cletus, over and out. Jennifer liked Amy, no doubt about that, but she was wise enough to see the gap between her friend's intelligence and that of Joshua Cates. She knew that what had primarily attracted him to her had been the lure of actual sex'Jennifer was too worldly and too cynical not to perceive this, and knew all too well how it could have torn away his loyalty to Squirt like so many dried leaves caught in the wake of a passing semi'and she wondered how long it would take before he realized that there really wasn't all that much to her, and started missing his brainy ex-girlfriend, no doubt longing to teach her the tricks he'd learned under Amy's adroit tutelage. Not too long, Jennifer thought, certainly not more than a month.
Jennifer's own relationships with the opposite sex were characterized by what she thought of as the Monica Lewinsky Syndrome, which was just as much of a curse to her as it was a blessing. Guys took one quick look at her, recognized how far she deviated from the scrawny lingerie models and Playboy centerfolds they had been brought up to idolize, and looked away. As they spent more time around her, though, they looked more closely at her pretty, sweet, delicate face, and shortly thereafter began to sense her powerful sensuality, lurid as a branding iron. Jennifer, no fool, played this dynamic up to an extreme, often making a disingenuously aloof, angel-eyed show of sucking and licking one of the Tootsie Pops that always filled the side pocket of her bag, until the guy in question was shaking and sweating and just about begging for a blowjob. Unlike Amy, however, Jennifer tended to keep them at bay; no matter how much she pleased them, eventually they would get to thinking about how much they would rather be seen around school with a girl like Amy, all long legs and firm little tits. Like Karen, Jennifer had little interest in sex, and while she was no virgin, she always made it a point to get more from her boyfriends than she gave. She was a control freak, and refused to put herself in a situation where she wasn't the one calling the shots. Also, she was all too aware of Amy's seamy reputation, and had no desire to earn the same for herself.
Jennifer took another drag on her cigarette, realized it was down to the filter, then crushed it out. At that moment she saw a strange woman enter the cul-de-sac. Jennifer wondered if she were homeless, if there was any such thing out here in the sticks'the woman's clothes were way too small for her, and there was a feral look in her face that Jennifer could see even all these yards away. Also, she didn't seem to be wearing shoes. Jennifer raised her beer and took another sip. The woman, carrying something like a bottle, kept coming, and for some reason Jennifer couldn't explain she became uneasy and scooted herself back, behind the hedge that grew beside the porch. For a moment she thought the woman was going to come to her house, and she considered fleeing inside. But then the woman stopped and turned, facing Amy's house.
Jennifer got up on her knees and continued peering out from behind the hedge, grateful that she always left the porch light off when she came out here. She could see the woman more clearly in the glow from Amy's porch light. There was something familiar about her'she looked a bit like Karen Duvay, but of course it couldn't be her, the woman was a full foot taller than little Squirt, and Jennifer supposed that it was only her earlier musings about Amy and Josh's situation that made her see such a resemblance. But still - didn't Squirt wear that exact same lanyard around her neck? And the jeans'hadn't Squirt been wearing those jeans today? Did Squirt have an older sister? Not that Jennifer knew of. And Karen's mother had passed away, she was positive of that'Mrs. Duvay had been her teacher in sixth grade, and Jennifer had cried at the memorial service in seventh. The woman just went on staring up at Amy's house. Then, as Jennifer watched, the woman spun the cap from her bottle, upended it over her mouth, then flicked empty bottle away with casual yet frightening power that propelled it like a missile over Jennifer's house and into the next cul-de-sac. The woman hunched forward, then straightened - no, she was doing more than straightening, she was growing, and Jennifer realized that it had been Karen all along, and whatever she'd done to make herself sprout to six feet, now made her launch to seven. Her jeans shredded completely at the sides, then snapped at the waist and dropped to her feet like the draping of a statue, revealing calves and quads like faces of rock. The arms of her T-shirt split, and the pressure of her expanding chest caused elliptical eyelets to crawl open under the collar, revealing cleavage between tits like alabaster cannonballs. Her dark hair curled and flowed closer to the arch of her perfect ass. Jennifer gaped, nearly wetting her pants in her excitement, as Karen gave a sinister, extremely un-Squirtlike laugh. Her old white T-shirt, washed hundreds of times and probably comfortably loose when Squirt had worn it under her sweatshirt earlier that day, now only came to her midriff and was breathtakingly skin-tight over her mind-boggling curves. Her nipples stood out like bullets. Her white cotton panties had also survived, though they had been frayed at the seams by her upper adductors and stretched nearly to transparency. The total loss of her baby fat had revealed a face that was awesome in its exquisitely cruel, confident beauty. Karen'if the malevolent-looking amazon could be thought of as Karen (she certainly couldn't be thought of as Squirt anymore)'started up the lawn.
Jennifer edged out from behind the bush to watch the amazon's progress, her hands dropping unwittingly to her crotch. Her eyes were sparkling with a fervent light. She had known for a long time what an aphrodisiac power was for her'her little cock-teases with the Tootsie Pops were an indulgence into that heady feeling'and, she now believed, she had just seen the next step up. Were the effects permanent, or, like Jekyll and Hyde, would it be just plain old Squirt again tomorrow morning at school? No matter; Jennifer would find out soon enough. And somehow'friendship or force, blackmail or treachery'she would get Karen's secret for herself, whatever it was. And then, as the song went: whoo baby, she would have her some fun that night. Her fingers began to dig and rub at her eagerly aching center. Oh baby, gonna have me some fun, I'm gonna have me some fun, I'm gonna have me some fun -
The Control Group
Again, Karen got distracted, and again she had to start doing her combination over again. What, exactly, had she done last night? She'd ended up at Amy's house, of course. She'd been standing at the foot of the lawn, debating whether or not to actually go up to the house, when she was seized by a horrible vision: Amy's burly father and equally burly older brothers swarming out, subduing her and taking her to the police station, where she would have to explain what had happened to her. And where'd she be deprived of the rest of the formula. Of course, that was ridiculous'she knew darn well that Amy was the only child of a single mother'but she couldn't shake the vision, and before she knew what she was doing she'd guzzled the bottle of formula she'd brought with her. And had it seemed before that she'd jumped to the top of a mountain? With six ounces inside her, it was more like being shot into outer space, the whole world below her, yet again, conversely, every little detail, from the individual ridges on blades of grass to the list of ingredients on the beer can lying crushed in the gutter, laid out in utter clarity. And the voices from her cells - they'd filled her mind like a gigantic fist, squeezing her tiny former self within them. She'd gone up to the lit bedroom window and peered through the blinds, a distant, meek part of her hoping that she would see nothing more infuriating than Amy doing homework, or at worst that Amy and Josh would be engaged in a chaste game of cards. What she saw was Amy and Josh stark naked, Josh on his back in the narrow bed, Amy hunched over him with his cock lost in her mouth. The next thing Karen knew, she was standing in the bedroom with them, a cloud of plaster dust slowly settling to the floor around her. Josh didn't seem to notice what was happening, not right away'Amy was in rare form that night'but Amy jerked upright, eyes huge with shock and her jaw slack. For a second Karen paused, wondering why Amy's bare tits looked so small. Then she realized: padded bra. She noticed Josh's semen glinting on the back of Amy's tongue, and the sight of it made her more furious than ever. That was the point where her memory began to fade most severely. She remembered that Amy had actually had the temerity to talk back to her'or, at least, had seemed to'and after that Karen had lost it for a while, slapping and backhanding the tender little trollop around the room. Josh had tried heroically to intervene, which only netted him his own share of punishment. But Karen had beaten them with a sort of precision, aiming more to hurt and humiliate than to break and kill, which she could have done all too easily. Karen thought she'd left the two of them alive and ambulatory, but she hadn't been entirely sure.
When she woke up the next morning, she was naked and in her dad's queen-sized bed, and while there was someone sleeping next to her, it was most definitely not her dad. What it looked like was a giant ridge of tanned muscular flesh with tattoos'as though the sheer bestial power which had filled her last night had somehow separated itself and assumed corporeal form'and Karen, all too aware that she was back to her soft-skinned little self, crept out of bed just as quietly as if she had woken up next to a live grizzly bear.
She had put on some pajamas and was pacing around the kitchen, trying to make herself think'where that guy might have come from, what she was going to do about him, and why the hell her crotch hurt so much'when she heard him get up. She was hopping from one foot to the other, trying to be calm, when he came lumbering into the room. Seeing him in bed, she'd thought him a large man; now she found that he was a huge man, as big as any of those guys from that Monday Nitro show that Josh and his friends liked to watch. He had a thick beard and a mustache, long hair, and a complex tattoo of a falcon over his left pectoral. There were bruises and welts all over him, and even some weird ladder-like marks that looked like bites. He had wrapped a bedsheet around his middle, which he held in place with one hand. His chest and armpits were hairy, and another slash of hair stretched like an arrowhead down from his navel, disappearing under the line of the sheet to become a dark patch under the sheet's sheer white material. Those are his pubes, Karen thought with a kind of fainting revulsion.
"Oh, hah there, little darlin," the man said in a deep, resonant voice, plainly as surprised to see her as she was to see him. "Where's y'mama at?"
Her mother? Her mother had been dead for five years! Karen thought about asking him what in the hell he was talking about, then realized: he was talking about her, the amazon she had become under the formula's influence. Surely no rational person could conclude that the two were one and the same. And what the hell had she done last night? Gone to a bar, picked up this Australopithecus robustus, brought him back to her dad's bed, and then lost her virginity to him, beating him savagely in the process? It was crazy, but there was simply no other conclusion she could draw. It was supposed to make me a war machine, she thought dismally, not a sex machine. But of course she was young, and repressed, and had a lot more hormones than the more mature men for whom the formula had been tailored.
And if her dad ever found out about this - It was bad enough that she'd gone through his top-secret stuff, worse that she'd brazenly taken a substance that made crack look about as dangerous as Nutrasweet. If he found out about this most ultimate indiscretion - if he had come home at that moment, Karen believed she would have died from shame. It would have been preferable to, not to mention easier than, trying to explain each man's presence to the other. She forced her mind back to the dilemma at hand. "Uh, she's, uh - at the gym!" Karen said with sudden brightness. "Yeah, she went to the gym. To work out."
The man looked at her for a moment, then smiled charmingly. "Well, ah'll tell you, sweetheart, I don't doubt that. I don't doubt that one bit. Your mama, she's somethin else. I hope I'm not makin you uncomfortable and all, waltzin around half nekkid like this."
"Well." Karen thought about it, decided that the truth, in this instance, was best. "Yeah, I guess so."
"Well, ah'm sorry about that, little darlin, I honestly didn't know'well, never you mind that. I'll git mahself dressed, and then I'll just skedaddle, how's about that?"
"Soundzsh like a plan."
The huge man smiled again, then turned and went to the bedroom. Karen wasn't really nervous about him, not anymore. Massive as he was, even if he'd had some sort of hostile intentions, he was clearly too cowed by the thought of Karen's "mother" to try anything funny. Relaxing a little, Karen began to assemble breakfast. She didn't know what to expect from the coming day, but decided that, at the very least, she could expect a wide berth from Amy.
Karen was never so wrong about anything as she was about that. When she passed Amy and Jennifer in the hall before first period, they glared at her, then huddled together and spoke furtively. Karen hoped nervously that that would be the end of it, but then came PE. The class was filing out of the gym to run its usual circuit around the campus, Karen straggling at the rear, when suddenly she was grabbed by the back of her sweatshirt and flung to the ground. She looked up at a very furious-looking Amy Raibe. Amy had tried to cover as much of her face as possible, parting her hair in the middle and brushing it close along her cheeks like a cowl, but Karen could see a freshly scabbed cut under her chin, and large bruises on her forehead and cheeks; whatever other marks were left over from last night, whatever else Karen had done to her, they were hidden under her hooded sweatshirt and jogging pants. Jennifer stood beside her, regarding Karen with a flat expression.
"I "on't think it's right that you send your stupid friend to do your dirty work." Amy said. She was trying to sound threatening, but her high-pitched little voice thwarted her, and even to Karen, frightened as she was, she sounded ridiculous. "If you got a problem with me, you should come tell me yourself. Josh is mine, that's all there is to it. If I see that muscle freak friend of yours again, I'm calling the cops on her, and on you too." Then she hauled back and kicked her, right smack in the side of the knee. Karen cried out and grabbed her leg. Amy kicked her again, more enthusiastically, this time in the thigh. Then Jennifer leaned down and slapped her smartly across the back of the head. "Squirt," Jennifer spat derisively. Karen whimpered, her eyes filling with tears. Jennifer and Amy exchanged a look, Jennifer nodded, and then the pair headed out after the rest of the class. Karen sat there weeping for a few minutes, then forced herself to get up, wipe her eyes, and stumble outside.
Karen paused one last time as she worked the combination to her locker. It had only gotten worse from there, Amy whispering taunts and threats from behind her in drawing, and Jennifer going out of her way to shoulder Karen into a row of lockers when they passed in the hall. So they thought she was nothing more than a helpless little squirt, huh? She would show them. She saw herself swelling to enormous size, bursting free of her clothes, her line of vision rising as though she were on a slow glass elevator, and that wonderful/horrible drugged euphoria overtaking her, making the world flush and harden into tones of copper, an elixir of sensuality and sadism in which sex and violence were fused into a single terrible act, her huge palms compulsively squeezing as she prepared to pop Amy's head from her narrow shoulders like a champagne cork. With fresh memories of antagonism to stoke that inner fire, could she stop herself this time? She thought not. I'll just take a little, she told herself, even as another, colder part of her sensed the lie and let it pass. Just half an ounce, every day, so I'm a little bigger and stronger and won't have to be afraid of them anymore. But not so much that they don't recognize me. Not so much that I'd
hurt her. Not that much. With this promise, flimsy as a Dixie cup, held in her mind, she spun the lock's knob briskly to clear it and resumed dialing the combination.
For a panicked moment, she couldn't find the bottle, and had a horrid vision of turning around and seeing Amy standing behind her with an evil grin, holding the empty bottle in one hand and wiping her mouth with the back of the other. Then she remembered that she had bundled it in her windbreaker. She dug inside and drew it out, holding it as tenderly as a baby.
At that moment something snagged her left wrist, drew it back, then wrenched it mercilessly upward, between her shoulder blades. Karen gasped and scrunched her eyes against the pain. The bottle was pulled from her hand, and she opened her eyes to see Amy standing before her, wearing a clingy white sweater and tight brown polyester slacks, holding the prize in two hands and smiling with a sort of vacant smugness. She was stoned, of course. Was that Jennifer holding her arm? Apparently Karen had been recognized last night after all. But how did Amy know that the stuff in the Power Juice bottle was anything more than high-carb sports drink?
"Hey!" someone shouted. Karen and Amy looked to see Josh fast-walking, then running toward them from the far end of the hall. "Hey, what are you doing to her?"
"Josh, help me!" Karen squealed. To her horror, before she'd even finished her plaintive cry, Amy had spun the top of the bottle off, and before the top had even finished clattering on the linoleum floor, the bottle was empty. Karen was amazed; but as Josh could've told her, Amy's specialty was all things oral, and she had used her talent to the fullest just now: with the bottle upended and its rim held in her lips, she had opened her throat and sucked the whole thing down in a single huge gulp.
"NOOOOO!" Karen howled, hearing someone howl the denial along with her, and then the pressure on her arm melted away. She lunged forward, arms out, and shoved Amy. Amy, who was two inches taller than Karen but weighed maybe all of ninety-five pounds soaking wet, hit the lockers, bounced off, and fell to the floor with a small "Uff!" Karen, stooped, scrabbling for the empty bottle'and then someone shoved her. She went careening sideways into the lockers, hit them with an impact that sent all the padlocks jangling, and then landed on her butt, the wind knocked out of her. She looked up to see Jennifer holding the empty bottle, her dark downslanted eyes more canted than usual, her jaw slack with dismay. Fluid pooled in the curve under the bottle neck, but precious little, not enough for so much as a taste. "You'!" She glared at her friend as Amy rose awkwardly to her feet. "Moron! Backstabber!" Jennifer's delicate honey-tinctured face went an eloquent shade of coral pink, and she threw the bottle, which ricocheted from Amy's shoulder. "We were supposed to share it! At least - you didn't have to drink the whole thing!"
"Sorry," Amy said, but that shiny smile was just as wide as ever. "He was coming. I had to do something." She actually hunched her head bobbed it, giggling theatrically, as though this were a cartoon and she the impish child hero, troublesome but vindicated and loved on the basis of her cuteness.
"But - the whole thing? Amy'!"
There was a clatter of sneaker-shod feet, and Josh made his arrival. He immediately stooped, clasped one hand around Karen's waist and the other under her arm, and helped her up. "Now what's going on here?" he demanded with uncharacteristic anger, glaring at Jennifer, then at Amy.
"She'" Karen tried to find the words, even as she wondered what good it could possibly do. Was there still time to throw Amy on the ground and jam a finger down her throat? The formula wasn't working as fast as it had yesterday; apparently spending the night in her locker had done something to its efficacy. "She drank my'"
"It's not even doing anything anyway," Amy went on; neither she nor Jennifer even seemed aware of Josh's presence now, so intent were they on this belated battle of the wills. "Are you sure'" With that she broke off, closed her eyes, tilted back her head, and gave a long, low moan. At the start of the moan her brow furrowed, as though she were in pain, but then her face cleared and they all recognized it for the sound of pure pleasure that it was. It trailed off into a sigh as her wide eyes reopened slightly, reflecting sparks of light. "Oh," she said as though speaking from a dream, her voice strangely deeper now, "oh, I think it's'" Her smile broadened, becoming huge. "Oh, yeah," she murmured, and then Josh uttered a bark of fright and stepped backwards, taking Karen with him. He knew that Amy was shorter than him'their crotches met when they pressed face-to-face, but her forehead came against his mouth'but whatever had been in the bottle, whatever she had drunk, had made it so that her eyes were level with his. And they were getting higher. His own eyes were huge, and they became bigger still when he looked down and saw her breasts, which were now the size of softballs, only pointed and upturned. Her cable-knit sweater stretched and thinned, and even as her breasts swelled larger they bobbed skyward, until they were at eye level with him.
Josh forced himself to look down. The brown polyester slacks, made to hug Amy's slim porn-star hips, were being savagely distended. The seams along the side stretched, opened, then all at once gave way with popping and purring sounds, revealing hard muscle that was exposed in a stripe from hip to ankle. Her shoes quickly followed, the tops torn from the soles, and her white toes wriggled beneath.
There was another low purring sound, and Josh looked up to see that her breasts had torn a diamond-shaped eyelet in the face of her sweater, revealing a heart-stopping view of cleavage, one pale swollen arc pressed to the other, the black padded bra intact but looking absurdly out of place stretched across the tips of those monster breasts. The waist of her slacks popped like a muffled pistol, and they dropped to pool about her ankles. By this time the lower hem of Amy's sweater had risen to show her waspish waist, and in the absence of pants her signature black panties were revealed, stretched so tautly that they had become a wan shade of gray. Her flat yet formerly soft belly, meanwhile, was drawing into increasingly pronounced cobbles. Through the sounds of tearing fabric and a strange, organic groaning and creaking caused by the actual growth of her tissues, Josh became aware that she was still moaning, moaning affirmatives and at the same time laughing, her arms bent and her hands cupping and squeezing her titanic tits. The eyelet over her cleavage continued to grow, up and down, even as lines of secondary eyelets sprouted open on her upper arms, revealing boulder-like biceps. Her rings snapped off and tinkled on the floor. Karen stumbled back against Josh and he clutched her'it was nothing more than instinct, as Josh felt on the verge of passing out himself. Karen was moaning queasily, and then with a flash of insight Josh looked down at her and heard himself say, from his spitless mouth, "It was you, wasn't it? Last night." He had realized: the huge, savage, vindictively sadistic brunette who had crashed into Amy's room, slapped the two of them around, and then crashed out was none other than Karen herself, under the influence of whatever the hell Amy had just drunk.
Karen forced her stricken eyes up to his, then squeezed his arm convulsively. "I'm sorry, Josh," she whispered, and then tucked the side of her head against his chest. "I'm so sorry."
They turned back to the utterly unbelievable sight before them. The sweater, the bra, and the panties all gave at once, sliding and whispering to the floor. There was a being towering over the remains of Amy Raibe's clothes, very female, right where Amy Raibe had been standing less than a minute ago; but it was not Amy Raibe. Rather, this being was a nude living monument to feminine power: a taut muscular Valkyrie, a marble-skinned titan, a flame-haired goddess. Judging by the few spare inches between the top of her head and the ceiling, Josh guessed she was a solid eight feet tall, and her formerly shoulder-length hair now tumbled in a wild, glossy fall to the small of her back. Her small delta of pubic hair, the only body hair visible, was as thick as lamb's wool. Her breasts, which she continued to fondle and tweak, were huge and jutted urgently outward like twin accusations, defying gravity, the nipples swollen to the size of rifle shells, and each pointing off at a slight angle as though her tits were wall-eyed. All of her cuts and bruises from last night had completely disappeared. Josh tried to marry this image with his memories of Amy from the nights they'd spent together'her long slender legs, modest, nearly flat little breasts, narrow shoulders, smooth muscle-free arms'and failed. She was no longer laughing, but the tracks of joyful tears ran down her cheeks, and there were glistening trails down the insides of her thighs. Her bottle-green eyes were huge and clear, having lost the vacant opacity that had eventually become such a turnoff for him'whatever else that stuff had done, it had apparently erased her marijuana high'and her gaze was thoughtful in a way he had never seen before, a calculating way that he associated more with Jennifer.
His eyes flicked to the former Amy's friend. The zaftig blonde's fists were clenched, and there were tears and mascara streaking down her face as well'but if those were tears of joy, then Josh was captain of Cougar Falls' football team. Then Jennifer released her fists and actually took a step toward the vermilion-haired goddess. The goddess turned to face her, her hands finally dropping from her tits, which jiggled like heaping bowls of custard. One corner of her mouth pulled up in a sort of amused smirk - but her wide eyes remained curious, thoughtful.
Jennifer took another step and then raised an open, trembly hand. She had no idea what she was going to do'her mind just kept screaming Should've been mine! Should've been mine! Should've been mine!'and she supposed she was going to strike. She hadn't slept a wink last night, just tossed and turned, brainstorming all possible forms the problem might take, planning and plotting and scheming to net Karen's secret for herself. When an exhausted-looking but otherwise normal Squirt had turned up at school this morning, it had been for her a best-case scenario, and Amy's coached goading of Squirt during PE had gone exactly as planned. But then had come Jennifer's final calculated risk, making Amy be the one to grab the bottle while Jennifer subdued Squirt. That was the way it had to be: Amy didn't have the strength to restrain a cranefly. And even then Jennifer still would've gotten it to herself'but then Josh had shown up'and Amy had made her shocking betrayal, and now'! The goddess's abdomen was cobbled like a medieval wall, a wall that stood between Jennifer and the lovely ultimate reward that she still couldn't quite believe she'd lost. If it had been possible, she would've cleaved her former friend's new body in half without a thought and drunk what was left of the formula from her exposed stomach. But she couldn't hurt the goddess, clearly nothing could hurt the goddess, certainly nothing that could be produced by Jennifer's own small, soft, outstretched hand, which now came to rest against the ridged plate of the goddess's abdomen. The skin there was feverishly hot, like a furnace, but even as she pressed against it she could feel the heat begin to ebb quickly, the skin becoming cool and smooth, and twitching like a sort of living steel. Below, she saw the goddess's twat'looking like a minute cleft at the foot of a massive bluff'quiver and drip with arousal. Jennifer then took a good look inside herself, and realized that, as consumed as her mind was with anger over the betrayal, her own body was pretty aroused itself. Before, thinking of what would happen after she'd taken Karen's formula, she'd imagined the utter, unstoppable power she'd command would become an undeniable aphrodisiac for herself. Now, she was discovering, being subject to that same power was its own sort of aphrodisiac. The knowledge came as a surprise, considering what a total control freak she was, but before she knew what she was doing she had stood up on tip-toe and taken the goddess's left nipple into her mouth, the first two fingers of her left hand plunging into the goddess's open wet slit with an audible splortch, her thumb pressing and rolling over the large nub of the goddess's clitoris.
Jennifer went on scooping and sucking that long nipple like a cupcake, but then suddenly there was a terrible bright pain in the roots of her hair and her head was wrenched back. The goddess was staring down at her'grim, as if to remind her (in case there had been any doubt) just who was in charge here. Whoever the goddess might be behind those flat lucid eyes of hers, Jennifer and Josh and Karen again thought, she was not Amy Raibe. Amy Raibe had never affected that sort of cool menace in her life. As if to emphasize her authority, the goddess reached her other hand down, grabbed the low neck of Jennifer's tight black shirt, and pushed, splitting it all the way past the hem, revealing Jennifer's tits in their lacy blue C-cup bra. Slowly, her eyes still locked with the goddess as though mesmerized, Jennifer reached up and undid the bra's clasp. Her hands pushed the cups aside, and began to gently tweak and slide along her own pale nipples, her eyes never leaving the goddess's, again as though she were under hypnotic suggestion. Then the goddess smiled, and it was like a white sun slicing in shafts through gray clouds. Her large hand fell away from Jennifer's pale flaxen hair, and she used both hands to grab Jennifer's buttocks and hoist her up so they were face to face. The goddess closed her eyes and extended her head forward, lips open and questing. Jennifer met them.
Karen's hands squeezed Josh's arm, and then her body pressed against his. He thought she might be fainting again, and it took him a few moments to realize that she was trying instead to quietly urge him toward the door. Even then, it was several more moments before he could bring himself to tear his eyes from the incredible sight, and thus give up hope of seeing how far the pair might go.
Josh and Karen had made it no more than a few feet when a sinewy arm as thick around as Josh's thigh shot in front of them, sinking up to its wrist in the door of a locker. Uttering a breathless little shriek of fright, Josh half-spun and looked up into the goddess's wide, curious eyes. This close up, they gleamed like the kryptonite in the Superman movies, verdant and crystalline and hard, possessing their own cold inner light.
"I do not believe that your freedom could endanger me," the goddess mused in a voice that was husky yet still intrinsically feminine, even sexy. "But I will require information from this one." Her eyes moved to indicate Karen, then returned to Josh. "And I do not wish to be revealed to the world at large, not just yet."
"Amy," Karen pleaded, "you'" That was as far as she got before huge fingers like steel calipers settled on her shoulder and squeezed. There was a creak that even Josh heard and she cried out, sagged against the lockers and began to sob in pain. "You'!" Josh shouted, and then without thinking he rabbit-punched the goddess in her solar plexus. It was like punching rock covered with a lamina of rubber. He yelped and shook out his throbbing hand. The goddess acknowledged his fist no more than she might have acknowledged a sudden warm breeze, and it was in that moment that Josh fully realized who was really in charge here. He had been the dominant figure when he'd come running to break up the fight between the three girls, by dint of his greater, masculine strength; but that authority was gone now. It had ended when Amy had drunk whatever was in the bottle, and no matter what the goddess decided to do to Karen or anyone else, including himself, he was helpless to do anything about it. He saw clearly that she could squeeze the life out of him as easily as he could squeeze the guts out of a grasshopper.
The goddess stared down with her large strange eyes at the weeping Karen and said, "You shall not use that name in my presence again. I share nothing with Amy Raibe and will not allow you to stain me with her name. Henceforth you shall address me as AMARA." With that she pulled the rent locker door out of its frame, then gave it a twist at either end, turning it into a crude sort of rope. This she looped around Josh and Karen, binding them back-to-back.
Karen sniffed, got herself under control. "Amara, if you want," she went on with feverish intensity, "you're under the influence of a drug'a very powerful, very dangerous drug, that's affecting your judgment, affecting it for the worse. But it's not natural, and you have to fight it. You have to think."
Amara, meanwhile, continued to work, peeling out another locker door, twisting it'the sheet metal did not so much crumple under her grip as it gooshed, like warm taffy'and using it to link them to a hole she made between the two exposed lockers. She stepped back, admiring her handiwork, hands on her hips. Her cooze had resumed its oozing, no doubt in delight at this impressive, successful display of her newfound strength.
"If this is unnatural, then I hereby forsake nature," she concluded. "Doubt not, my children: there will come a day when my name is shouted from the hills, when all shall know and worship me. But first I must solidify my base of power'and make certain that none can challenge the mastery of AMARA." She reached down, scooped her fingertips across the underside of her crotch, then pinched the palm over the lower half of Josh's face, sliming him from nose to chin in something warm and musky-smelling. He gasped in surprise. He'd tasted this before, when licking out the inside of Amy's cunt, only now it was a hundred times as strong, and yet also somehow sweeter. Behind Amara, Jennifer was watching this with a bleary sort of urgency. One hand was stroking her breasts, while the other rubbed impatiently at the crotch of her jeans. If Amara indeed had the ability to cast spells with a glance, she had certainly done so with Jennifer, who seemed to Josh to have quite fully gotten over any disappointment at being denied the formula's taste herself.
When Amara turned back to the business at hand, Josh gave their bonds an experimental squeeze. The metal was warm, but there was no give at all'the only one who could get them out of this was Amara herself, who had picked Jennifer up again like a doll and resumed kissing her.
"Why -" Josh whispered, then paused to sort through and single out one of the questions currently crowding his mouth. "Why does she sound so different?"
"It's the formula," Karen intoned morosely, apparently having given up any hope that they might get out of this alive. "It was designed to create super soldiers. It enhances intelligence as well as strength. My dad'he works for the Pentagon'he designed it. But I stumbled on the way to perfect it, to make it actually work. Lucky me," she sighed.
"Karen'Squirt," Josh said wistfully. "Why would you do something like that?"
"I only took a little at first. To test it. It made me feel good, so I took a whole bunch. Not as much as Amy did, though." At that, they both looked apprehensively at the goddess. But Amara seemed fully absorbed now, and if she'd heard the mention of her former name, she didn't react. Jennifer's shredded T-shirt and bra had joined Amy's discarded clothes on the floor, and Amara was now feasting noisily on the smaller girl's chest.
"But'why did you come over? Jesus, I thought you were going to kill us."
Karen sucked in a breath, then hissed, "You left me! You left me and I wanted to die! When I took that first sip of the formula - it was like - it was - it gave me a foothold. It gave me meaning. But it also -" She sighed again. "Intelligence and strength aren't the only things the formula magnifies. It also magnifies aggression. And I had plenty of that toward you and Amy. If it means anything, you're lucky I didn't kill you."
Josh reached back and clasped her hand. "I'm sorry, Karen. I'm sorry I hurt you like that. If I had it to do over again -" He trailed off, realizing how stupid he sounded. If they weren't bound together like this, Karen would've been perfectly justified in spitting in his face, turning on her heel and marching out the door. Instead she squeezed his hand, wordlessly appreciating the sentiment. She had hardly forgiven him, but at the moment he was her only ally, and only together might they have a chance of escaping this nightmare.
There was another heavy purring sound, and the two darted their heads to the side, expecting to see Jennifer somehow metamorphosing into a goddess of her own. But it was only Amara, pulling Jennifer's jeans apart as though they were made of paper, leaving the smaller girl clad only in socks, sneakers, and a pair of lacy blue panties. Like Karen, Cougar Falls High's head cheerleader and senior homecoming queen was on the buxom side, and while Josh thought he preferred Amy's slender body type, he now found that Jennifer's curvy, generous topography had its own special charm, particularly when set against Amara's sheer length, her sheer craggy bulk. Turning his attention to the goddess, he found that Karen's nightmare was to him a dream'an alien dream, perhaps, but a dream nonetheless. The spectacle of her body was awakening within him a powerful fetish he'd never suspected, but now emerged with a potency that was so primal it was scary. It was something above and beyond mere sexual desire, some creepy synergy between his emotions and his hormones, that made his arousal by the old Amy look about as profound as a passing yen for Necco wafers. His own jeans felt on the verge of splitting, solely under the pressure of his massively engorged cock. Had he a free hand, by now he'd have been masturbating wildly; as it was, he stared at the goddess with waves of desire so intense and pure that he felt he might simply pass out. Was this the easy yet slight, forgettable girl he'd been ready to write off as an ill-advised fling? Again, the two images refused to marry. He tried to turn his mind away, but the only thing he could seem to think of was Karen as she was last night, huge, her blue eyes icy and disdainful, and that was just as arousing.
"Strength. Intelligence. Aggression," Josh whispered, musing aloud. "But I don't think that's all." With some difficulty he forced his gaze away from the lustful pair and turned his head toward the lockers, dropping his voice even lower. "It magnifies feelings of superiority too, doesn't it? Did you hear the way she was talking? It sounds she plans to take over the world or something."
"I guess," Karen whispered back. She didn't remember any sort of megalomaniacal plans for global conquest last night. But then Amy had consumed considerably more of the serum than she had. And anyway, Amy Raibe was, at heart, probably a very different sort of creature than Karen Duvay. Who knew what sort of demons Amy had been carrying around with her? They'd been stupid and unmotivated demons, maybe, but the flush of the formula had changed all that. "In fact, you're probably right." Karen said. "In a military scenario, the formula would be administered in stringently controlled amounts, to keep its effects from getting out of hand like this'otherwise, none of their super-soldiers would take orders anymore, and they'd just have a platoon of power-crazed demigods fighting for dominance. But it's too late now: the girl we knew as Amy has been shot into a whole different dimension. Taking even more formula might just overload her system and kill her. But it also might make her so big and dense that she could deflect missiles and stomp tanks flat with her foot. I'm pretty sure," she added dismally, "that the latter possibility is what she has in mind."
Josh sighed and allowed his gaze to slip to the floor. The idea that his ditzy wisp of a girlfriend was intending to fashion herself into an indestructible machine of conquest was just too much for him to process.
The girls finished with Jennifer on the ground and Amara with her head buried in the girl's crotch, filling her with a tongue that felt as thick as an arm and nearly long enough to tickle her uterus. After Jennifer had come for the fifth time and felt she could take no more, Amara withdrew, and the two cuddled, naked, unmindful of the hard linoleum. "Amara," Jennifer breathed, exhausted. A part of her still burned at the betrayal, but it was a very small part now. The rest of her had decided that the current situation was tenable'more than tenable, it was beautiful. If the chance should come to grab some of the formula for herself, well, she would hardly pass it up. But for now, in the warmth of afterglow, she was more than willing to be patient. "You're - you're a goddess."
Amara's calm face suddenly hardened, and she rose to a sitting position, staring down imperiously at the perplexed Jennifer. "You flatter me, and indeed I am the most magnificent creature on this earth'as well as the strongest, and the most intelligent, with a mind far beyond what your feeble understanding can grasp. But I am not a goddess. I am not preternatural. The body you see is the product of science, not sorcery. It would be more apt to term myself a superwoman."
Feeling uncomfortable now, Jennifer grabbed her dark blue panties, which had been spared Amara's wrath, and stepped into them. Then she pulled on her bra. She studied her torn shirt, supposing she could at least hide her back and shoulders with it, but then discarded the idea. Normally she was much too self-conscious to appear in public so exposed. But even if they did meet up with anyone else, well, all eyes would be on Amara, to say the least. At that thought she relaxed. Perhaps, she supposed, Amara would figure out how to make more of the formula, and perhaps she could be convinced to give her old friend Jen a taste. Not enough to usurp her authority, certainly (and the fact that the formula seemed to have brought out Amy's own inner, previously unseen control freak was an irony Jennifer found no humor in whatsoever), but a taste. But who knew? Maybe Amara would have relaxed enough by then to cotton to the idea of having a full-fledged equal. At any rate, Jennifer felt she had the superwoman's favor now, had come under the aegis of her unholy strength, and that in itself was a nice feeling. "You talk so much different now," she said offhandedly.
"As I said before, I have little in common with the pathetic creature you knew as Amy Raibe. The only thing that binds us is my access to her memory. In fact, I remember in utter detail everything to which she was exposed, and although she was quite remiss in her studies of the English language, she had listened to it being spoken for seventeen-point-eight-nine years." Amara smiled triumphantly, apparently pleased with every iota she could distance herself from Amy. Then she stood and went over to Josh and Karen and proceeded to remove their bonds. They continued to huddle close to one another, rubbing their sore arms.
"Now," Amara announced, folding her arms over her chest and bringing such force of personality to bear on Karen that the little girl nearly swooned. "I require another batch of the formula. You, Karen Duvay, will show me all of your notes, and then demonstrate to me how it is made."
Karen swayed, not meeting that intense gaze but feeling it all the same, like rods of iron pressed against her head. "I won't," she breathed, then, by great force of will, made herself look up. "I won't tell you anything!"
Rather than explode into a rage, as Karen had expected, Amara only regarded her with a calculating menace. Then she took one great step to the other side of the hallway, grabbed one end of the lockers there, then tore the entire bank free from the wall. Bolts shot off in all directions, clattering on the linoleum floor like steel raindrops. With both hands, she crushed the lockers and their contents, textbooks and old sack lunches and all, down into a ball perhaps two feet in diameter, the steel again squishing under her grip as though it were more liquid than solid. When the ball was finished to her satisfaction, she sidearmed it down the long end of the hall. It traveled in a perfect flat arc as though shot out of a cannon, then exploded through the doors Josh had originally come through with a deafening crash.
Amara turned back to Karen, planting her hands on her hips, her eyes shimmering. There was no longer a trace of a Karen's fury the previous night anywhere on her flawless skin, it was true; but of course, not all wounds were external. "You consumed six ounces of this formula yesterday, and came within an ace of killing the girl who had taken your boyfriend. I have now consumed ten ounces of this formula, and as you should guess I would like nothing more than to return the favor." As Amara spoke, Karen seemed to see the superwoman's eyes pulse even brighter. "I would in fact like nothing more than to beat your pathetic body to pulp, then go out and demolish this entire town. But I am not solely a being of aggression. I am also a being of intellect, and for now, the intellect is the stronger. And I perceive that my first priority must be to secure the source of my power. If you would like to come under the umbrella of my intellect'as you surely must, if you have but a modicum of self-preservation in you'then you will cooperate. Now: what is the duration of the formula's effect?"
Karen swallowed, feeling herself swoon yet again under the sheer power of that green gaze. Her knees wobbled violently. But she held on, again gathering all of her will just to speak. "So what do you think," she said faintly, the words seeming to come as from under a great depth of water. "You think you can just keep taking the formula, and stay the way you are for years and years? It's a drug, and you'll build an immunity to it. Or you'll overdose and die. At heart, you're still a human being, and your body can only put up with this kind of stress for so long."
Unexpectedly, Amara gave a gloating, disparaging chuckle. "Is that what you believe? That the marvel you see before you is nothing more than a freakish mishap, an unfortunate dilemma which requires rectification? I owe my existence to a young girl's impudence, perhaps; but it has gone far beyond impudence now. Can you blame Amy for what she has wrought? Can you blame the caterpillar for weaving its cocoon? As for myself, I suspect that at higher dosages the effects of the formula will become permanent. If you are correct, then I am destined to live again as Amy Raibe, diminished. But at this moment, I am Amara, and Amara won't give up her existence without a fight. Now: what is the duration of the formula's effect?"
"I won't'" Karen got out, and then Amara whirled and punched in a locked wooden door behind her. The door blew completely inward into a janitor's closet, landed against a cinderblock wall with a deafening BOOM! that echoed like a bomb blast up and down the hallway, then shattered like glass and crumbled to the floor.
"DEFY ME AGAIN AND I WILL KILL YOU," Amara bellowed, each word striking Karen like a blow and making her eyes leak again. "Now'what is the duration of the formula's effect?"
"I'" Karen flicked her eyes to Josh, but there was no help to be had there. He was gaping at Amara in pure shock. "I don't really know," she finally managed. "Not more than a few hours, I guess. I don't really remember much from yesterday." Just like you won't remember much from today when you wake up tomorrow, she wanted to add, but held her tongue. She sensed that further reminders of the essential ephemerality of this experience might well make Amara go completely bonkers.
"That's better," Amara said, but looked far from satisfied. "Now, you will show me your notes regarding the formula."
Karen considered claiming that she had no such notes, then discarded the idea with a little shiver. She knew for a fact that Amara wasn't exaggerating about her resentment over last night, magnified over a thousand times by the formula's potency, and would be all too happy to pulverize a limb or two to induce Karen's cooperation. So she turned to her open locker and dug out the ream of papers, which she handed to the superwoman. It looked like a deck of playing cards in Amara's huge hands.
Amara ran her eyes down the top page, slowly at first and then with increasing confidence, as she came to realize the extent of her new cognitive abilities. Soon she was flipping through pages with barely more than a single glance at each. When she'd gone through the stack, she lowered them, looking grim. "As I suspected, my knowledge of science is too rudimentary for me to duplicate the formula myself. In time I could teach myself the necessary information, but -" She trailed off, and Karen, Josh, and Jennifer saw clearly the cramp of fear that passed across her face, so vulnerable it was startling. They all understood it, and all shared the same momentary vision: Amara in the school's library, crammed into a study carrel and going through one book after another, trying in vain to teach herself cutting-edge science with high school materials - until the formula wore off and she was reduced to ditzy old Amy Raibe again, barely able to concoct a gin fizz, much less the incredibly complex formula which had saturated her tissues.
"Very well," Amara said, shaking off her uncertainty and clearly displeased that they had all seen it. "You three shall precede me to the chemistry lab. At once!" she snapped, and the three kids jumped and then started off, eventually picking their way outside to the courtyard through the destroyed doors. The ball Amara had made of the lockers was nowhere to be seen. The campus was deserted, and it was just as well. No one would have paid much attention when the school brain emerged into the cloudy gray daylight, making her way up toward the arrowhead-shaped monolith, not even when she was accompanied by her recent ex-boyfriend, the class wiseacre. The sight of the head cheerleader in her underwear would have made an observer sit up and take notice. But how they would have reacted upon seeing an eight-foot-tall nude muscle goddess bringing up the rear of this procession, one that bore an uncanny resemblance to the school slut, one can only guess.
The door to the lab was locked. Karen began sorting through her keys, but then Amara stepped up and gave the door a mighty kick, snapping it off its hinges and clear to the other side of the room. "Inside," she growled, darting her eyes in every direction. "Begin the demonstration," she ordered Karen when they were all in the lab. "You will make a single ounce of the formula. Do not attempt to trick me. I may not possess a working knowledge of science, but my intellect is almost immeasurable."
As Karen led the superwoman into the storeroom to retrieve the necessary materials, Jennifer climbed up and sat cross-legged on one of the tall peninsular lab stations. After a moment, Josh hoisted himself up and sat next to her. He'd never spoken to Jennifer before'he'd always found her attractive, but she was too popular for the likes of him to approach'but he figured that what was happening was basis enough to open lines of communication. "So," he said in a low voice, "is this the true Amy we're seeing, do you think, or is it the formula?"
Jennifer stared at the ground for so long that Josh thought she wasn't going to answer, but then she looked up at him and murmured, "I think we're seeing parts of her'parts of her that, for the first time in her life, have been nurtured and allowed to flourish. It's like, in her mind, doors have been opened, lights have been turned on. The old Amy was weak and intuitive and passive; the formula's magnified her strength, her rationality, and her aggression, diminishing everything else. Somewhere in Amara's big head, I think, the essential Amy we knew is rattling around, aware of what Amara as a whole is doing but only partially able to affect it. And I can understand why Amara's so scared. It would almost be a shame if she had to return to her old self. I mean, she'd never be able to get anything close to the plateau she's on now. Can you imagine - can you imagine if the formula came into regular use? The heights of brilliance that ordinary people could reach?"
"Jennifer," Josh chided with a wry look. "Your friend's already done thousands of dollars worth of damage to this school, and even that was under great restraint, "cause she wants Karen to make more of that formula so bad. If we all had a dose as big as Amy's? We'd tear this town to the ground." At that moment Karen returned'looking pale and shaken, even moreso than she had been before'trailed by Amara, who was balancing a huge makeshift tray of multicolored jars on her shoulder. But what, he asked himself, could we possibly do to stop her? Amara had the drop on them, that much was clear. She would force Karen to demonstrate how the formula was made, and then she would kill her, insuring that the secret was known only to herself. Then she would make enough of the formula to make herself fifty feet tall, or a hundred, to the point where cruise missiles and nukes would hurt her no more than the bites of a mosquito'Josh could see this clearly, could see Amara twining Jennifer and himself like barrettes into her hair and then marching them off to Washington DC, where she would pound the White House into powder. Over the ruins she would construct a great palace of white marble, more marvelous than Kublai Khan, surrounded by golden statues of herself. She would dwell inside this palace, where there would be a fountain, a fountain churning out the formula, which she would drink from a silver ewer. Otherwise, what? Living as Amy Raibe, whiling her days away smoking pot and allowing herself to be used by any sleazy guy with the temerity to ask for her, dreaming of becoming a famous vocalist, the next Fiona Apple, but lacking the savvy and the gumption to do any such thing? Now, thanks to the formula, she would spend her days in sublime idyll as empress of the world, carving stone slabs into her likeness and writing epic poetry of her exploits. Up until an hour ago Josh's plan for the future had been to attend law school at the UW, get married at thirty and if at all possible find a cushy job in the Caribbean. Now it seemed the best he could hope for was that Amara would keep him and Jennifer around as chattel, playthings of the flesh, to amuse her when she had the urge. Or perhaps she would dole out enough of the formula to create an army of subordinate superwomen to control the country, with Jennifer as her lieutenant. But of course Jennifer could never be fully trusted, she would always be looking for the opportunity to seize control, to usurp Amara and become the empress herself -
"I guess - I guess you're right," Jennifer said, interrupting Josh's prescient, terribly vivid vision. She was staring with naked longing at the superwoman. "But I'" At once she sniffled, and tears gleamed in her eyes. Realizing for the first time how sexy she really was, Josh put his arm around her bare shoulders. "I love her, I guess," Jennifer said at length. "I don't understand it, but it's true. I guess you know that if you'd come along one minute later, right now it'd probably be me threatening Karen, and you and Amy would be sitting here waxing psychological about what had come over me. But'that's what I feel. All I want is to be alone with her, loving her."
At that moment there was a great crash, and the pair started and turned around guiltily. But Amara was still focused entirely on Karen. "Hesitate again and I will crush your legs to jelly," she announced. Josh had no idea what the pitted, charcoal-colored countertops were made of'some type of concrete, maybe, or ceramic, or sheetrock'but Amara's fist had just demolished one of them as though it were styrofoam, as well as much of the pressboard cabinet below. Karen was hunched before her like a turtle, as though wishing she could simply melt into the ground.
Actually, Karen had an idea, and that was what had made her drift into la-la land and incite Amara's rage. Trembling, she resumed the demonstration, only now secretly implementing the changes she'd devised while a superwoman herself yesterday, the changes that would greatly increase the potency of the formula. She knew that, if Amara drank this improved version of the formula herself, as the superwoman so clearly intended, it would only cause trouble. But Karen thought that if she could cast a shadow of doubt in the superwoman's mind, if she could make her think it might be poison - Amara would make Karen test it out on herself! Even that single ounce would make me so much more powerful, Karen thought frantically as she worked. But let's face it: ridiculously powerful. Is there a limit to how big and strong a person can be? Would the strain just kill me? At the very least, she thought with an inward sigh, my death would bring all this to an end.
But death had entered into the picture already. Josh and Jennifer'who, Karen noticed with chagrin and humiliation, were now cozily hugging and fondling each other'still had no idea, but when she and Amara had gone into the storeroom, they'd run into Mr. Falstaff. Mr. Falstaff didn't look all that worried, though he must have heard Amara smashing in the door; apparently he'd assumed it was Karen. When he recognized this new amazon, however'and saw the terrified Karen beside her, a prisoner'the color drained from his face and his jaw dropped in surprise. "Oh my dear God," he breathed. Apparently Amara had decided that three was the effective limit for her number of hostages (that, and perhaps Amy just wanted to get back at him for whatever crappy grade she'd gotten in his class freshman year), because she'd grinned, grabbed Mr. Falstaff by his shirt-front, taken him outside, and simply thrown him to the horizon. He'd still been alive when he left the ground, but when he came down'probably somewhere in Linville, judging by how small he'd grown, how fast'Karen was pretty sure he'd be dead. At least, she comforted herself, the end would be quick.
She feared for the janitors as well, but they never showed, and eventually she remembered that they didn't come on Friday, instead waiting until Sunday afternoon. A quick-witted witness might've managed to get to a phone and summon help, but even that possibility seemed hopeless. Even if the National Guard, wearing body armor and brandishing machine guns, bazookas, and Lord knew what else were to surround the school, they would be hard-pressed to subdue Amara. In fact, they probably couldn't hurt her any worse than Josh's fist had.
It took her another hour to finish, by which time it was full dark outside. She was so consumed by anxiety over her plan that she totally forgot to demand Amara's assurance that, once she'd finished the demonstration, the superwoman would let her live. But that just would've been for appearances' sake'if her plan worked, what Amara did or didn't intend to do would be of no concern to her. By that time Jennifer and Josh's cuddling had become passionate kissing'denied Amara, each had turned to the other for solace'and he was fumbling for her bra strap when Amara said, "This is my formula'my nectar?" She had a glass beaker held up to the light'it looked like a shot glass in her fingers'swirling an ounce of the clear, greenish colloid.
"That's it - I think," Karen said, and then held her breath.
Amara's gloating smile vanished at once and she glared suspiciously down at Karen. "You - think?"
"Well - I was under a lot of pressure," Karen said in a manufactured whine, hoping desperately that she was convincing. "And I only made this stuff once before. For all I know I might've made a mistake."
"Yes," Amara said, looking away. "Yes, you might have."
Gathering together her diminishing reserve of courage, Karen decided to take things to the next level. "I don't care how much you threaten me!" she shouted stridently. "I'm not taking that stuff!"
Amara's gaze returned to her, and the superwoman broke into a dry smile that Karen didn't like'that Karen didn't like at all. "Do not be foolish," Amara said. "If it were poison, and you perished, there would be no one to show me how the formula is actually made. I will test it'and I believe that Josh here will make a perfect test subject."
"What?" Josh exploded, jumping to the floor. "But'" He looked up into Amara's wide flat eyes, and understood that he was doomed. "But Amy'"
Amara's upper lip curled, and she reached one hand under Josh's buttocks and lifted him with speed that was frightening, so that they were nose to nose. She glared at him a moment longer - then smiled. But it was not one of Amara's cool, distant smiles'there was a glint of whimsy in her eyes, very Amy Raibe, and Josh remembered Jennifer's assertion that the ordinary human Amy they'd known was still rattling around in there, somewhere. "Amy?" Josh breathed incredulously, and then she kissed him on the lips, her mouth opening and her tongue grazing his teeth.
When she broke away, the superwoman continued to regard him with that vacant grin, holding him against her like a child. "I's here all the time," she whispered, as though trying to keep her presence a secret, and even her voice sounded more like Amy.
"But Amy'Jesus, we thought you'd gone crazy! Why are you doing all this?"
"I's just teasin," she assured him, and this close up, her face filling his vision, he could nearly believe that she was back to normal, physically as well as mentally.
"Then'then you'll let us all go?"
"Do you wanna go?" Amy said, hungry gaze moving from his eyes to his lips and back again.
"Uhhh'" Josh's hard-on from watching Amara and Jennifer go at it, which had never really left, was now bigger than ever, digging ardently into Amy's cobbled belly. "Maybe not just yet," he decided, and Amy's grin broadened. They resumed kissing, and when she set him down Josh started to pull his clothes off before Amy could tear them off.
While they were still kissing, Josh could convince himself that the harmless Amy was back, but when the sex began and he had to face her massive body, he once again had to think of her as Amara. And that, he found, made her all the sexier. When she sucked him off, she did it with an intensity that made even her deft performance last night look mediocre, and when he tongued her out his face quickly became sopped with her flowing juices. The actual sex was done in the X position, their backs on the floor, their hands linked and their crotches together. It was hard for him to thrust in that position, but that didn't matter in the least: Amara's cunt muscles rippled and drew on his member with a divine dexterity infinitely above and beyond anything she had managed before, without him having to exert any effort at all. After what seemed like hours she began to spasm, so hard Josh thought she might simply wrench his cock right off. But she didn't, and when she deftly brought about his own climax, it was incredible, contraction upon contraction upon contraction, like ten ejaculations back-to-back, and when Amara slid free of him and stood, he could only sprawl bonelessly on the floor. He looked around with dazed eyes and saw Karen glaring at him with disgust. She threw something at him, which landed with a thump on his sore, wilted crotch. His clothes. He made himself get up and pull them on.
Amara, standing erect, filled her substantial chest cavity with air as she ran her hands up and down her magnificent torso. Jennifer watched her former friend with worship so intense it was nearly a delirium, and even Karen could not help but be awed by the sight. "Yes, yes, oh yes," Amara murmured through a bursting smile, the first true pleasure they'd seen her express, fondling her jutting tits again. Watching her, Josh found that already he wanted to jump on her again, sucking those huge nipples like popsicles. "I am a goddess," Amara asserted, apparently more to herself than anyone else; indeed she seemed to have forgotten that the other three existed. "I must not allow myself to lose this body. I cannot exist in any other form. Amara must endure. She must." With that she reached up and grabbed the beaker from a high shelf, where she had placed it to keep it out of anyone else's reach. Then she advanced on Jennifer.
"No," Jennifer said hoarsely, backing away. Amara kept coming, her smile broadening, her kryptonite eyes glittering. "No!" Jennifer shrieked, trying to bolt. Then the superwoman's hand was on her shoulder, immobilizing her.
"No!" Karen burst out. "Amy, she's your friend!"
Amara slid her hand to the back of Jennifer's neck and began to massage it roughly. "Amara," Jennifer sobbed, further streaking her face with mascara and tears. "Don't'don't you know that I love you?"
Amara regarded Amy's former friend with a tender look that was not so much affection as it was pity. She reached down and used her thumb to wipe away the tears from Jennifer's face. "Jennifer, Jennifer," she murmured, and it seemed to Jennifer that somewhere, deep within a facet of those profound emerald wells that were Amara's eyes, was her childhood friend, awkward and sweet'but small, so small. "You can't understand how it is for me now," Amara went on. "You are inferior; all of humankind is inferior; the only one worthy of love and protection is myself. You must understand this. I can suffer no rival." She raised the beaker to Jennifer's face. "Take this." Jennifer reached a trembling hand up, then hesitated. "TAKE IT!" Amara roared. "Or I will snap your spine and pour it down your throat myself!"
The Larger Problem
Amara had gotten Jennifer to wrap her hands around the beaker, but kept her own hands clasped over Jennifer's, sensing that, in her fear, the girl was just as likely to let it drop to the floor. "Please, Amy, please, no," Jennifer continued to blubber, even as Amara moved the beaker upward.
Karen stared in shock along with Josh, but unlike him she understood what was happening, understood it from experience. The formula was warping Amy's mind, causing her to lose her sense of empathy, to forget what it was like to live as an ordinary human. In place of this was a callous sadism. Karen's defense against this feeling last night had been pathetic and woefully inadequate, but Amy couldn't even scrape up that much'she was just too dumb. Of course, the formula had been designed to be used on the battlefield, and on the battlefield such a lust for violence was useful. But in the context of their quiet school, among petty rivals, it was bizarre and frightening.
"Now," Amara urged, pressing the beaker toward Jennifer's mouth, slowly yet irresistibly. "Drink it -"
The beaker pressed to Jennifer's trembling, downturned lips, touching its cold rim to her lower teeth and then tilting upward. A little taste, no more than a quarter of an ounce, slipped over Jennifer's tongue, and then Amara drew the beaker away with one hand, clapping Jennifer's mouth shut with the other. Jennifer swallowed convulsively, then went as white as a raw potato and fell straight to the floor. There her hands went to her throat, and she gagged and writhed.
"Omigod!" Karen blurted in shock, and lunged forward, dropping to her knees at Jennifer's side. It really was poison! "Jennifer, I'm so sorry -"
"Enough of this foolishness!" Amara said from behind her, and then grabbed the back of Karen's sweatshirt and yanked her to her feet like a kitten. She spun Karen around, set the beaker on the lab counter, and folded her arms over her chest with a look of monolithic displeasure. "You will make a second batch, and this time you will make it correctly, or your boyfriend will be the next to perish."
"But Amy, your friend, she's'"
"Her fate does not concern me!" Amara snapped icily. "My patience is at an end, and if you waste any more of my time I will subject you to such agony as will break your mind! Now'"
Amara broke off suddenly, looking down to where Jennifer lay. Karen and Josh followed her gaze. Jennifer was still on the floor, but she wasn't gagging anymore'she was laughing. Then she propped herself up on her elbows and favored Amara with cold smile.
Josh and Karen each took a step away, both chilled by the expression of overwhelming confidence and menace that filled Jennifer's face. Amara, however, leaned over the girl with a look of tranquil curiosity. "Jennifer," she said with unconvincing solicitude. "Is the formula working? Do you feel any'"
"Shut up," Jennifer snapped, and her smile widened.
Amara's eyes went wide, and her huge fists clenched. "WHAT did you say?"
"I said shut up, you fuckin bitch!" Jennifer cried deliriously, and then she began to grow, so quickly that her bra went shooting away from her tits like a rubber band. Amara cried out in dismay, then reached across, cracked off one of the octagonal lab station countertops, uprooting a stainless steel sink and a propane nozzle with it'water began to spurt into the air, and propane hissed from the rent pipe'and swung it at Jennifer's neck like a giant ax. Jennifer, smaller than Amara but still swelling in size, swept her hand down and deflected the strike before it could land, shattering the heavy countertop into jagged spears. Laughing wildly, Jennifer sprang up at Amara, arms pistoning into the other superwoman's chest. The impact sounded like a heavybag being struck with a steel girder, and Amara went flying across the room, cutting a huge swath in the acoustic tile of the ceiling and destroying several banks of fluorescent lights with her head as she went. Sparks and metal struts and crumpled acoustic tiles tumbled down in her wake like a blizzard. Amara landed on one of the lab stations, flattening it. In the process she exposed the station's internal propane conduit, and more of the colorless gas began to seep into the room.
The blond Athena came to her feet, still laughing, and Karen and Josh regarded her in awe. Her height topped out around eight feet; but, as before either of them had taken the formula, she was broader and more curvy than her childhood friend, only now that translated into bigger bones, fuller tits, and larger plates and ropes of muscle striating her skin. Amara came to her feet as well, expression warring between fear and rage. She stepped forward, snatched one of the tables over her head, and flung it. Athena slapped it out of the air, cracking the missile in half. "What - what happened?" Amara stammered. Despite two subsequent attempts to kill her new rival, she didn't seem so much angry as confused, clearly having trouble adjusting to the fact that she was no longer the world's most superior life form.
"What's the matter, can't your "almost immeasurable intellect' figure it out?" Athena jeered. "She made the formula more powerful than ever, obviously. She meant to take it herself - but you forced it on me instead, opening the door to my REVENGE!" Amara, remembering that there was plenty of this more potent formula still left, cried out and went running across the room. Athena, grinning, turned around to grab it for herself. Amara realized that she would be too late and detoured. Athena's hand fell over the beaker, but before her fingers could close she was caught in a half-nelson by her rival, and the two nude titans began to grapple with degrees of force that could level mountains, their huge legs flinging tables and chairs in all directions, their feet punching craters in the floor. Amara managed to toss the blonde over her shoulder, right into another lab station, which collapsed and began to release its own plume of propane. Before Amara could even think of going back for the beaker, however, Athena was on her feet, and plowed herself headfirst into Amara and drove her to the far side of the room. The struggling combatants managed to lurch into and wipe out a fourth lab station.
Josh turned away from this cyclopean battle in time to see Karen snatch the beaker and go darting outside. "Hey!" he cried, and then realized that she had the right idea'this was in all likelihood their one chance to get out of here without being killed. At the open doorway he paused, snatched a sheet of paper out of the wastebasket, rolled it into a tube, and lit one end with his lighter. The geeks in his chemistry class were always speculating about what might happen if the 100 building's propane tank went up; it looked like, in the single upshot to this experience, Josh was going to find out. He shot a nervous glance back at the warring superwomen, but they were still completely focused on each other'this was, after all, what the formula had really been designed for. When the paper was flaming, he dropped it back in the wastebasket and then ran for his life.
Karen was nearly down the hill to the far corner of the 300 building, darting glances over her shoulder and running with an odd shuffling gait, apparently trying not to spill anything out of the beaker. Josh went sprinting after her. He lost sight of Karen as she went around the corner, and then he was sent sliding to his belly on the grass by the force of a huge explosion. Heat blanketed him. He turned back, squinting, in time to see a fireball go belching out the open door of the lab, dissipating to black smoke as it rose. Behind that was a glimpse of overturned tables and the teacher's desk, all in flames. Then he got to his feet and ran on. Behind him, booming, crashing sounds continued to echo from the building's interior, and it seemed to him the explosion had affected the conflict between the two superwomen only marginally, if at all.
He hooked around the corner of the 300 building. Karen was nowhere in sight, but it looked like the only place she could have disappeared to that fast was inside the 400 building's blown-open doors. Behind him there was another, much larger explosion that had to be the 100 building's propane tank, and for a moment everything became bathed in a lurid yellow parody of daylight. Josh vaulted down the stairs and ran inside the 400 building. He didn't see Karen, but was just in time to see the door to Mr. Vittor's room clack shut. He dashed to it and went inside.
The lights in the room were off, but in the shaft of light from the hallway he saw Karen, nearly hidden in his own shadow and raising the beaker to her lips. "No!" he shouted, lunging, and got his hands over it only just in time. "Karen!" he scolded, even as she cried, "Josh! Stop it, what are you doing? They'll be here any second!" The door reclosed behind them, sealing them in a near-darkness. Both could hear the crashing sounds like artillery fire'either Josh's ploy had set off a chain reaction that was destroying the whole town, or the two superwomen were literally turning the school upside-down in search of them.
Josh was no fool. He had seen how little of the formula Jennifer had taken in relation to how much Amy had consumed, and realized that this new batch was so much more potent that even the small amount they held between them would make Karen as big as a house. "Karen, I can't let you'"
"Josh!" Karen said again in a panicky voice, and made another compulsive attempt to get the beaker's rim to her mouth, which Josh prevented.
"Karen, stop, stop'"
"Josh, they'll be here, you have to let me'" The beaker was wrenched back and forth between them, and then the formula shot up in a little spume. They both cried out and as one moved the beaker so that the spume would land back inside. A few drops splashed out, running down the side of Josh's fingers and then onto Karen's wrist, and somehow Karen resisted the nearly overwhelming urge to pull her hand away and lick it off. Even that little bit would make her so much stronger than Josh, but by letting go of the beaker she would turn the rest over to him, to drink or discard as he would.
Josh continued his vain effort to force the beaker from Karen's grasp without spilling it. Her foot suddenly swung up, and he only barely managed to back out of its way'she'd actually tried to kick him in the nuts! He supposed that he could just daze her with a quick head butt, but even that wasn't certain'her panic was giving her a ruthlessness that was frightening. Her eyes had taken a manic intensity. He didn't know if it was his own sense of panic or what, but those booming sounds were getting louder. They had to come to a decision. He had a vision of the two superwomen bashing down the door, only to be struck dumb and immobile by the sight of Karen, so tall her head poked through the roof and so powerful that her eyes glowed like arc-watt lamps. She would crush Josh's head between her thumb and forefinger, a token gesture of her vengeance, and then turn her murderous attention to her two suddenly inferior rivals. Then he had a parallel vision, the two superwomen crashing in to find Josh the one grown to twelve feet tall, with demonically glowing eyes and a cock as thick as a telephone pole, eager to give them a taste of true power. Could he trust himself not to hurt anyone in that state? He thought not. He could also, he supposed, just spill the stuff on the carpet - but that would leave him and Karen completely at their mercy. The whole science building was probably leveled by now, but Amara knew how to make more of this new formula, and the one that had been Jennifer could force Karen to tell her as well. At any rate, it would be another hostage situation, and there was no guarantee they would get out of it with their lives this time. Certainly, the two egomaniacal superwomen would be loathe to cooperate with each other, and they would definitely not be happy about Josh's attempt to blow them up.
The booming, crashing sounds became deafening, now seemingly right outside the door. Josh and Karen locked eyes, the beaker of formula jittering between them, the innocuous-looking liquid rippling. They had to make their decision now'Josh had to come to an agreement with Karen, or somehow get the upper hand, or allow her to get the upper hand with him. The four of them might get together and laugh about this tomorrow, Josh thought wildly, but only if they all somehow survived the next few minutes, which seemed unlikely. They had to decide who could be trusted with ultimate power, which one to whom the fates of all four should be cast. The door to the room blew inward. Their time was up.
Peter jumped onto a slash of moist orange carpet that had been, as far as he could tell, the floor of room 405, then leapt up onto a section of roof that was now just two feet above ground level. There was an aluminum-lined tube in it, and it was through this that the arm was extending. Next to it was a head, and despite the tousled, spiky hair and smears of black and gray, Peter recognized it.
"Josh!" Peter cried, and dropped to his knees. Josh looked up at him with an expression of total incomprehension, but when Peter grabbed the outstretched hand, it gripped him with suprising strength. "I heard - voices," Josh rasped. All over the section of roofing were chunks of brick and wood, plus crushed pop cans, dirty wadded napkins, half-eaten burritos, french fries, candy wrappers, chip bags, and other garbage that Josh had apparently pushed out of the way in his climb upward. Rhoan arrived alongside him, then Tayt, both looking wildly from Josh to Peter.
"Yeah," Peter said, wondering what he should do. He remembered from health class that you weren't supposed to move accident victims, in case they had spinal injuries. But then Josh worked his other hand out, put both hands on the rim of the hole, and began to wriggle himself upward. He was bare-chested. Peter and Rhoan each slung an arm under Josh's shoulders and began to pull him.
Then the cops swarmed around the section of roofing, two of them stepping up onto it. Peter fully expected them to tear him and Rhoan away and tend to Josh themselves, but they only hunkered down to watch. "Careful with him," one warned, but that was all.
"Got to - got to help her," Josh grunted as his waist emerged, his head lolling. One of the cops took Josh's legs, but Josh kicked away and managed to stand on his own two feet, albeit shakily. He was completely naked and there were dark crimson cuts and gashes all over him, but otherwise he seemed all right. Peter and Rhoan continued to support him under his arms.
"There's someone else down here!" the other cop shouted, and Peter looked down the tube to see a mass of gray-streaked hair, with a hand rising above it. And something else, something that his adolescent male brain was hard-wired to focus on to the exclusion of all else: bare breasts. He remembered that Karen Duvay and Amy Raibe had been listed among the missing, and wondered if this were one of them.
"Here! Hand him to us!" one of the cops on the ground called, and Peter and Rhoan led Josh to the edge, even as Josh kept looking anxiously at the hole. Peter and Rhoan lifted him over, and three of the cops took him by the legs and waist, easing him to the ground. At that moment the roofing under Rhoan's feet cracked away. "Woah!" he yelled, falling with his arms splayed, but managed to land on his feet, rather than go sprawling on his face.
"Watch it!" called one cop on the ground.
"Get down from there, guys!" boomed another, and Tayt obediently hopped down. Peter, meanwhile, turned back to the hole.
The cops were handling this one themselves. The girl'Peter eventually recognized her as the one who'd been crowned queen at the homecoming assembly last week, Jennifer something-or-other'was thicker through the middle than Josh, and they were having a hard time working her out through the narrow tube, which had apparently been an air duct, topped by one of the bubble-shaped fans that made Peter think of steel Brussels sprouts. The cops on the ground were poking around the base of the mound, looking for another opening in the rubble, but they didn't seem hopeful. Some of the other cops were wondering aloud if they could use their nightsticks to break the hole wider, but then Jennifer popped out all at once. She was just as naked as Josh, just as covered with cuts and dried blood, and wore a low belt of fresh pink abrasions around her hips where the tube's wall had scraped against her. The carpet matches the drapes, Peter thought uncontrollably, then made himself look away. The cops handed her off to their fellows on the ground. By this time the paramedics had arrived with blankets, and the two naked teens were quickly covered up. Once Jennifer and Josh worked their way to each other through the policemen and paramedics, they embraced tightly as though they'd swum away from the Titanic together, swaying unsteadily, Josh murmuring, "We made it, we made it, we made it," over and over again. Tears made clean streaks down Jennifer's grimed face. Peter heard people cheering, and realized they'd been cheering him along all the time. Now they began applauding and whistling like he'd scored the winning touchdown at homecoming. Peter saw his own girlfriend, Laura Sweeney, waving and blowing kisses at him from behind the yellow tape. "All right, Campbell, allrightallrightALLRIGHT!" Mark Osborne hollered. A flashpak popped from the direction of the crowd, and the photo of Josh and Jennifer embracing with Peter looking on bemusedly would appear on the front page of the Courier the next morning. "Thank god, thank god," went the caption, a quote from Jennifer's mother.
"Nice work, son," one of the cops next to Peter said, clapping him roughly on the shoulder, but he hardly noticed. Now that they were safe, he was starting to wonder about the significance of this: what Josh and Jennifer were doing on campus, how they'd survived, and why they were naked. He'd read somewhere that, through pure blind luck, a person could survive a bomb detonating next to them, emerging from the explosion naked and deaf. But they didn't seem hurt that badly. He looked down into the tube, seeing how small the little womb-like space they'd spent the night in actually was. It was too shadowy to see much, but he made out several full sacks of garbage and part of a big Rubatino container, makeshift padding that had apparently kept them somewhat protected'much better than the bricks and wood and glass that lay everywhere else would have. And it was so small that they must have been crammed together without an inch to spare. If they had indeed been on an illicit sexual liason, Peter supposed, they'd certainly paid for it.
There was a commotion from the direction of the 100 building. Peter looked over. His friend Matt, who'd stayed behind, was now edging toward a relatively intact bank of lockers that lay on its back, one door of which was rattling like the lid of a vampire's coffin. He opened it, and'presto!'out jumped Amy Raibe, naked as a jaybird but otherwise looking quite normal. She jumped into Matt's arms, molding her slender-sexy body to his so closely that the only risqu# thing Peter could see was the crack of her tight little ass. Another paramedic was rushing at her with a blanket, but Matt got his jacket around her first. "Whooooooo! YeeeaaaAAAH!" Osborne howled deliriously. The cop next to Peter, the only one who hadn't rushed off to try and drive back the encroaching crowd, began chuckling, and Peter found himself laughing out loud. He looked around, and sure enough he spotted Squirt, climbing out of a mound of white towels and sports equipment among the wreckage of the gym, her naked body very cherubic and really not all that hard on the eyes. Peter laughed harder. He looked around, fully expecting to see Mr. Falstaff emerging from a pile of something. But he never did.
Actually, the genial life science teacher was dead, as would be reported in the Courier a week later when his body was finally found moldering in the woods outside Linville. Peter's fellow students'who, as he'd suspected, were integrated into classes at various nearby high schools before that first week was out'were mostly of the theory that Mr. Falstaff had happened upon and tried to foil whomever had blown up the the school, and had been killed and dumped in the woods for his bravery. A few speculated that he was actually an accomplice in the plot who had been double-crossed, though no one ever found out the truth. The FBI called in and questioned three of the the four survivors of the disaster, who said nothing more interesting than that they had been on school grounds that afternoon, minding their own beeswax, and had then woken up the next morning to find themselves naked and buried. The federal prosecutor overseeing the case, too, had heard of people surviving horrendous explosions sans clothing, but four people surviving in three different spots, walking away with nothing more serious than a few cuts and scratches, was too outrageous to even consider. But while he supposed that he could have the kids charged with trespass, it would have been a purely petty move, and there was absolutely nothing to indicate that they had participated in whatever had brought the school falling down on their heads. The FBI also questioned several students who fit so-called post-Columbine profiles, but this likewise turned up nothing.
The only survivor not questioned was Karen Duvay. This was because she and her father had moved out of town almost immediately after the incident, with no forwarding address, all traces of Mr. Duvay wiped away just as cleanly as if he'd never existed in the first place, and even the most determined official inquiries could not find him. This infuriated the federal prosecutor, who was aware that Mr. Duvay had ties to the Pentagon and smelled the reek of a military cover-up. But there was nothing he could do about it. Mr. Duvay and his daughter were never heard from by anyone in Cougar Falls again.
A series of articles ran in the Courier detailing the investigation. The final article concerned the official report of the FBI forensics specialist. He stated flat-out that the notion of a chemical explosion, at least one outside the science building, was patently ridiculous. The damage was more consistent with a team of men with sledgehammers, jackhammers, and a wrecking ball. Actually, his personal opinion was that the Jolly Green Giant and Ultra Man going ten rounds on the school would've been the most consistent explanation of all, but this did not make it to print. If it had, Peter would've been reminded of the giant fist-imprint in that sheet of aluminum siding, an image that was sometimes featured prominently in deep and unrecoverable dreams.
The FBI coroner, meanwhile, was of the opinion that the injuries of Mr. James Falstaff were more consistent with having fallen out of a plane'or, more precisely, having been shot out of a long-range catapult'than having been beaten to death, as was originally supposed, but this was not published in the paper either.
That was the end of it, for most people. No one's questions had ever really been answered, but there wasn't really anyone they could ask. A new high school was eventually built on a plot of forested land a quarter mile east of the remains of the old one, students attended it, and life went on.
It was well known that Amy Raibe and Jennifer Nevitt had been good friends since elementary school, and therefore it was looked upon with discomfort and confusion by their mutual friends when it became clear that the two girls were friends no longer. Amy and Jennifer never even made eye contact any more, much less spoke, a situation alleviated greatly by the fact that they had been assigned to different schools while the new high school was built. Amy dated Matt, the guy who had rescued her from a locker, for a few weeks after the incident, but otherwise she kept pretty much to herself for the remainder of her senior year, and soon after graduation she moved to the East Coast.
As for Josh and Jennifer, they proved just as inseparable as the newspaper photo of them embracing amid the debris implied. Peter was famous friends with Josh from the day he'd pulled him out of the wreckage on, and though he thought it funny that Josh had been found along with his past, present, and future girlfriends (most people never knew that Josh and Amy were an item at all, but, among the cross-country team, the fact that Josh was banging Amy had been common knowledge for nearly two weeks before Squirt learned of it), he didn't know how this might fit into the whole mystery of what exactly had happened that night. Peter, who was thoughtful and often discerned patterns where others missed them, noted that Josh had started off the year with a super-intelligent girlfriend, gone to a super-sexy one, and then settled on one that was a mixture of both extremes. But this, too, did not seem to fit anywhere. And Josh certainly wasn't going to explain anything for him. Everyone assumed that Peter must be privy to some great secret, but in fact, as close as he became to Josh, the subject of CFHS's destruction was a complete dead end with him. After a while Peter began to believe that his friend really didn't know how he'd ended up naked in that hole with Jennifer.
Josh and Jennifer graduated that year, applied to the UW, and were accepted. A year later, Peter also applied and was accepted. He considered moving into the dorms for his freshman year, but then Josh mentioned that he had found a nice two-bedroom apartment in the U-District, noting that if the two of them split the rent, it would work out to be considerably less than Peter would pay to share a single room in the dorms. Peter accepted the offer gratefully.
September arrived, school began, and Peter accustomed himself to the rhythms of both attending college and living more-or-less on his own. He continued to see Jennifer, though not as much as he would have expected. She and Josh spent an inordinate amount of time in the gym, not always together, and while Josh had always been in shape, Jennifer began to sculpt a tighter bod of her own, taking herself in Peter's mind from a cute yet unassuming seven to an impressive, pursuit-worthy eight. Peter heard the two of them doing the bed-bounce in Josh's room every week or so, but Jennifer wasn't around much more than that. When Peter and Josh were deep in the cups, drinking the beer that Peter's older brother occasionally helped them buy, Josh would get maudlin, lamenting things like, "She's so cold."
Peter could see what he meant. Karen could've been called cold, in the sense that she was always wrapped up in her studies; the same with Amy, in the sense that her sensuality was so practiced and jaded it was nearly professional. But with Jennifer there was something different, an aura of self-possession, of self-containment, that was more personal, more intrinsic. "She never introduces me to her friends," Josh said. "She never invites me over to her apartment."
"Maybe you should break up with her," Peter suggested once, but Josh glared at him like he was going to take a swing at him, and Peter wisely abandoned the idea.
It could've been that she was getting sick of Josh, but Peter didn't think that was the case; that was how he was beginning to feel toward Laura, now a senior at the new Cougar Falls High School, and if Jennifer had the same attitude toward Josh he thought he would've recognized it. No, he believed that Jennifer loved and was devoted to Josh, in her own way; it was just that she had assigned him a certain compartmentalized space in her life, which she would allow to spread only so far and then no farther.
Born from a grave, Peter would think, savoring the irony. He wondered why Josh loved Jennifer so helplessly, wondered what had been forged in that little trash-lined pit, and how. He imagined, with more than a touch of romanticism, the huge explosion thundering over and around them, sweeping away their clothes, their adolescent identities, everything, leaving only two souls, melded together in the heat and the fear and the excitement. That explanation satisfied him when he was a teenager, but in later years he began to think that it was simply that some men want what they cannot have, want it so badly that they feel they're dying, but dying sweetly. And, for a while anyway, that sweet dying is reward enough.
Postscript: A Meditation on Themes
There are a lot of stories on this site I find fascinating, but none more so than Gribble's. In part it's the gleeful absurdity'the more they take (or, in some cases, just the more they flex), the bigger they get, without logic or consequence. But the theme of his I like the most is that, no matter how docile and sweet and well-meaning his female characters are at the outset, once they grow, they go completely berserk, thinking only of amassing more power and crushing all opposition'it's like watching Florence Nightingale turn into Genghis Khan. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but in Gribble's world, a woman scorned hath no fury like a woman who suddenly finds herself with huge muscles. He renders in a very simple yet effective format the element most charming about these stories: the cusp between have-not and have, when the weak becomes the strong and the strong becomes the weak. The bigger the contrast, the bigger the thrill in seeing it happen. I guess it's a variation on the madonna-whore complex, this clash between delicate domesticity and iron-fisted aggression. In the face of that, the stock situations that occur afterward'doing one-arm presses with ludicrously massive weights, arm-wrestling men, turning the tables on bullies and muggers and rapists, a Rampage-style slugfest in the streets of the beleaguered city'are pretty much inconsequential.
The other author I find most fascinating is Mark "von Sacher-Masoch" Newman. He is one of the more inventive and technically competent writers on this site, and produces something a little more accomplished than the usual junior high-level masturbation-fodder found here. That is not to say, however, that I like his stories. On the contrary, he illustrates what I like least about this genre: the way his hapless, dimwitted male characters are continually duped and humiliated by his conniving, conspiring females is disempowering and even a little creepy, like having a girlfriend you're sick to death of but somehow can't escape. "The Transfer Student," in particular, freaks me out so much that it makes me want to run right out and campaign as many Republicans into office as I can, in the hopes that society will revert to a state in which women are helpless chattel and thus unable to build orbital devices that will suck the muscles from men. Irregardless of whether or not Newman's male protagonists invite their fates through their own hubris (granted, they usually do), there is a cosmic sense of helplessness in the proceedings, and as a result his stories are as claustrophobic as a slaughter chute.
Which brings me to "Power Juice." Karen goes from weak to strong, yes, but does not go on to become overlord of the universe or to get destroyed by a still more powerful superwoman; instead she wakes up the next morning to find that she's gone from strong to weak, and has to deal with the repercussions of her actions. And that's what tickles me most about the She-Hulk mythos, the sense of flux, the superwoman's fear that her dominance will be overturned and she'll be left as her vulnerable old self again. The more serendipitous reversals of fortune, the better. But Gribble's writing style'essentially, a comic book without pictures'is perhaps not the best vehicle for such psychodramatic explorations, something I have tried to amend with the above. The point, obviously, is that the most insidious form of female domination is not necessarily physical at all. I could only take the analysis so far, however; as everyone who visits this site must know, these stories really aren't much more than a big wank-o-rama.