Issue #61 – Higher Education

This entry is part 1 of 16 in the series The Descendants Vol 6: Returns and Departures
Part 2
“I should feel embarrassed; you had to travel three thousand miles and I only needed to take an elevator, yet you still beat me here.” Kareem greeted Melissa in a quiet corner of the cafe in his building.
The redhead was mildly startled from what she was doing on her tablet, but smiled at him. A real smile, in real life. Between them, mental smiles weren’t so rare, but it was a special day indeed to actually see her lips curl into an expression of happiness and well-being. At least not with the help of her own mood altering powers.
“It wasn’t that far. We got in this morning. You’re actually the first one I’ve seen now that I’m officially back. With the packing frenzy, I’d only be in the way at Freeland House.”
“You’re never in the way at your own home.” Kareem took the seat across from her and folded his hands in front of him.
“Do I still get to call it that?” Melissa wondered, “I haven’t spent more than a few days there all summer and in a week, I’ll be moving into the dorms at Emerald. Plus, it doesn’t seem right to call it home with my family in town.”
Kareem shrugged and took out his palmtop to order lunch via the cafe’s wireless menu system. “Home isn’t any one place, I believe. It is a feeling between people and place.” He chuckled, “Or perhaps all of my experience with the Astral Plane are giving me a ‘rosy’ outlook.”
The terrible pun bought Melissa close to laughter. That was still something she didn’t do often.
Reading upside down, he saw that she was downloading her class reading materials. “Biochemistry? I thought you were aiming for an English major?”
She shrugged, “I still need a science credit. I figured I might as well make it useful. I feel like I’m far behind everyone else with my…” glancing around she saw that there was no one to hear. “My powers.”
No looking was needed for Kareem. A brief scan od surface thoughts revealed that no one was focused on them at all. “I would say you’ve been doing very well. Every session we have, you improve.”
“Except I think we might have been looking at it wrong.” Melissa said.
Kareem’s eyebrows raised. “Oh? How so?”
“A lot of small things. Things like the fact that I don’t sense things. I can’t feel shifts in the astral, I can’t read thoughts—I can’t even tell when I’ve affected someone until they do something to prove it. I never thought about this, mostly because I didn’t want to.
“But a few weeks ago, we were watching a documentary on the Frontier Network. They had this research group that were working with cats. And one of the things they were doing as this chemical trigger that would switch the cat’s fight of flight response on or off. And there was another group that hooked electrodes into a newt and were able to turn off it’s ability to regenerate.”
He leaned forward, intrigued. “So you believe that your powers are… chemical instead of mental?”
“I don’t know enough about it to say. I should probably talk to Laurel. But yeah. I think it makes more sense that I control things about how the body works instead of me having a mental power and the power to heal. How many descendants have you ever heard of that had two completely separate powers without having two parents that are carriers? My dad got tested; he doesn’t have any of the known genes.”
Kareem waved her to temporary silence as one of the clerks bought over his lunch: turkey on whole wheat toast a small bag of chips, a bottle of iced tea and an apple. He picked up the apple and waited for the waiter to leave earshot to speak.
“Explaining it as you have, you’ve convinced me. It’s really quite brilliant.” Contemplating the apple a moment, he smiled. “Even after knowing you all this time, I’m still finding interesting hidden facets to you.”
Melissa tried to hide the reddening of her face by rubbing it with her hands in what she hopped looked like an empty gesture. “Thank you.” Then, more to remind herself then him, because she knew he was just being a good friend, “So I didn’t get to ask when I was here last: how are things with you and Desiree?”
He took a bite of the apple and chewed thoughtfully as he looked up toward the ceiling as if he could see the clouds through it. “We share many of the same interests, have deeply engaging conversations, and without going into detail, she is a very attentive and giving young woman. Objectively, things could hardly get better. But there is one thing that keeps bothering me.”
“What’s that?” Melissa switched over to checking the menu herself.
“Her parents.”
“They don’t like you?”
“I’ve never met them.”
“And that’s bad?”
He shook his head. “I’m not certain. I’ve only dated two girls before in my life and only Desiree since I returned to the land of the living as it were. But I am fairly sure that I should have met them over the course of almost a year. It’s almost as if she’s scheduling our dates to avoid them. We only go to her apartment when he father is on business, when we’re to meet, we never meet at her home first. Should I be concerned?”
“I wish I could help, but every single guy I dated except for Terry was under the influence of my powers and Terry never met my parents for obvious reasons.” She sat back in her seat and scowled. “But maybe you should get used to it. We’re not teenagers anymore, we don’t need to introduce our dates to our parents, we can wait until it’s serious.”
Kareem’s shoulders sank. “Then you believe it isn’t serious then?”
“No! I didn’t mean it like that. Believe me, I’ve seen the two of you together and you look pretty serious to me.” She cringed the second she said that. “Oh god, I sound like Alexis.”
“You mean Cyn?”
“Cyn was nowhere near as bad as Alexis when she was Cyn’s age.” Melissa shook her head, then sighed. “Now I feel old. My birth certificate says I’m twenty-seven, did you know that?”
“You don’t look a day over twenty five.” Kareem mused before taking a bite out of his apple.
Melissa almost laughed again. He always wondered why she avoided it. “But I wouldn’t worry. Maybe it’s about them and not you. They might be embarrassing, or over protective, or they just might not approve of her dating at all.”
“Or of her dating me.” He sat the apple down.
“There’s nothing wrong with you.”
“Not to most people.” Kareem agreed, “But it wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve run into this kind of thing. People think that the prejudice against Middle Eastern men ended decades ago, but it’s still there. Hatred dies slowly. It is one of the things I fear: being rejected for something that I am inherently.”
Melissa bit her lip and fidgeted in her seat before coming up with something to say. “Even if they turn out to be bigots, that doesn’t change things. Desiree still likes you just fine.”
Kareem forced himself to eat, opening the bag of chips and putting a few in his mouth to chew slowly. “You know me well enough to know that isn’t the end all and be all for me. Family means a great deal to me and I’m not sure I feel right forcing the issue if her parents truly object to me.”
“Well I think you should.” Melissa stared down at the menu. “If you really care about her, it’s… just you two and no one else matters.”
With a slight nod, Kareem took another bite of the apple. “Again, very wise words, even if I’m not sure I can follow their advise.”
“Don’t be too impressed.” She smiled awkwardly. “My brother’s into the same kind of sugary animated movies Juniper’s into. I’ve spent more hours than I can count this summer watching them.”
A minor ruckus arose at the entrance to the cafe as the atmosphere is quiet and calm was shattered by a number of female voices talking over one another.
“It took long enough.”
“What do you expect? It’s custom work. From England no less.”
“England? I thought it was being made in France?”
“France doesn’t even have superheroes.”
“The designer is Italian. The shop that actually does the work is in Wales.”
“What does that have to do with France?”
Both Kareem and Melissa looked back toward the entrance to see Lily Goldenmeyer stepping down into the sunken dining area of the place along with her friends; Kim Wayne, Alice Rankin, and bringing up the rear, carrying a heavy looking box, was Callie Kreiger.
Lily was playing with her palmtop and didn’t notice anyone right away. “Only that we’re not talking about a dress here, Kim. It can’t just look shiny, it’s got to actually protect her. Alright, this stupid thing finally synched—cheap wireless in this place—so that’s four cappuccinos, all low fat, one with extra froth and cherry syrup, one with two shots of hazelnut and one of chocolate, and one with orange crème, right? Of course I’m right.”
The other girls didn’t bother to correct her if there was a problem. Kim pointed to a table near the false fireplace at the far end of the cafe. “Let’s sit over there and shoot Callie unboxing it next to the wall. The freplace is tacky, but I think we can just get the bricks and not the fake logs.”
Only after her order was placed did Lily notice that there were other people in the cafe. Her face lit up in a wholly avaricious manner. “Oh Kareem! I didn’t see you there. Hi!” She left her friends to traipse over, though Callie looked like she wanted to come too, but was hindered by the box.
It didn’t escape Kareem’s notice that she pointedly ignored Melissa.
“Good afternoon, Lily. I believe you know Melissa.”
Of course she did, because for a brief time, Melissa had been part of her inner circle of friends. And she caught the recrimination in his voice. She made a sour face, which she directed at Melissa. “Well I thought I did, but then she suddenly abandoned us right when we were in the middle of planning a trip. “Those tickets were non-refundable, you know? And we had a big ugly hole in the seating arrangements the entire time.”
Melissa fought the urge to roll her eyes. “Lily, I’ve already been over this. I was going through… things. I wasn’t myself, and when I got over it, I realized I wasn’t going to be much fun for you guys to be around.”
Lily made a sound that started out like a surprised chicken and turned into huff. “So we were like rebound friends to you? Kareem, now do you understand why I can’t just forgive and forget?”
Dragged into the matter against his will, Kareem massaged his temples and tried to think fast. “It wasn’t like that either, Lily. She… suffered a bad reaction between two of her medications and it affected her personality.”
That seemed to diminish some of the wet hen aspect of Lily’s mood. “Oh. That happened to Alice once. She was a real bitch for about two weeks.”
“Imagine that.” said Melissa, counting on Lily to miss the sarcasm.
Kareem stepped in before that theory could be tested. “What is it that Callie was carrying?”
Whatever affronts and frustrations Lily had been feeling were washed away by pride. “Oh, you totally have to see.” She gestured for her to follow her over to where Callie was working the packing tape off the box while Kim shot the scene with the camera in her palmtop.
“This is only the best thing to happen to Mayfield since ConquesTech—especially the prelate community. I guess the Descendants are fine, if you’re into reckless and completely without style,” Kareem and Melissa exchanged a look while Lily stepped into the shot beside Callie.
“But soon, Mayfield is going to have a hero they’ll want to put on the tourist brochures. See, Callie just turned eighteen, and the good people at the Juan Manuel Reyes brewing company were just too happy to learn that Vamanos is now drinking age. They want to be her official sponsor.”
Callie blushed. “It’s a lot of money, and I’d really like to get my parents out of our little apartment…”
“Of course you do, sweetie.” said Lily, “And we’re going to make it happen because we’re your best friends.”
Melissa looked from on woman to the next. “And how are you three going to do that if you don’t have powers yourselves?”
Lily laughed a high, noblewoman’s laugh. “Oh, really, Melissa. We have the best superpowers a person can have: money, connections and a sense of image. That’s why we’ll be acting as her managers, PR, and once we figure out how to install the software for the camera drone, her eyes and ears.”
Just as Callie got the last flap of the box open, Lily took over. “And it all starts with this.” Flipping over the lid of the box, she revealed a neatly folded outfit that proved to be far heavier than it looked when she lifted it out. It consisted of something that looked like a wetsuit, soft boots with heavy treads, gloves, and a cowl. The whole thing was gray and perfectly smooth.
“That’s it?” Alice asked, almost disgusted.
Kim looked mortified. “It’s just a gray blob!”
“Girls.” Lily silenced them with a raised hand. “Do you not trust me? Do you not think I know what I’m doing? Of course it’s boring now. My daddy paid science guys to make it all kinds of protective and good for speed and stuff so Callie can do what she does at her best. Are we going to trust the kind of people who spend all day in a lab with making her look good while she’s doing that? Absolutely not! There’s where we come in. And this is perfect: we have a total clean slate.”
Alice still looked upon the suit like it was a festering piece of roadkill. “Alright, fine I guess. What colors are we making it?”
“I really liked my yellow and red.” Callie offered.
Alice made a face at that. “Well I didn’t. Yellow and red doesn’t scream ‘speed’. They’re the two colors on a traffic light that tell you to stop for god’s sake.”
“Please don’t make me wear green.”
“How about red and gold.” Kim interjected. “Gold is always a good color.”
“Isn’t that one of the Descendants’ costumes?” Lily asked. “The one that doesn’t show up often. With the weird squiggles on his chest?”
Kareem bit his tongue.
“Ephemeral and it’s Indian or something.” said Kim. “Mmm. He’s yummy looking with those shoulders. Too bad about those baggy pants. I always hoped prelates would dress like the guys in the comics, you know, all skin tight.”
“What does it matter if it’s the same color as his?” Alice asked, “We’re not copying his style. Besides, if it really matters, we can play with the shades. He’s got dark red and really metallic gold; we’ll go bright red, maybe kiss-me-clueless lipstick red, and not so much gold as goldenrod.”
Callie wisely chose not to point out that that was very, very close to her red and yellow.
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Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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