The following short story is based on characters created and/or copyrighted by Glenn Eichler, Susie Lewis Lynn, and MTV. All other characters were created and copyrighted by Roland Lowery.
The author gives full permission to distribute this work freely, as long as no alterations are made and the exchange of monetary units is not involved. Any questions, comments, suggestions, or complaints should be sent to esn1g(at)yahoo(dot)com. Thank you.
"I believe in recovery, and I believe that as a role model I have the responsibility
to let young people know that you can make a mistake and come back from it."
Lawndale Marvels presents:
The Spectacular Spider-Girl
by Roland 'Jim' Lowery
Jane woke up in a complete panic. Just a glance at the clock sitting on her nightstand was enough to tell her that she was already late for school, and even in her sleep-addled state she could remember that one more tardy slip would get her stuck in detention. Or worse.
Black jeans. Red hoodie. Black and white sneakers. Grey backpack. She threw them all on as quickly as possible and burst through her bedroom door too fast, causing her to slam into the wall opposite. Muffled sounds of surprise came from the other side, followed by Trent scrambling out and shouting something from his own doorway. Jane could tell he was concerned by the tone of his voice, but she was already sprinting down the stairs and out the front door by the time it occurred to her to stop and listen.
Her house faded in the distance as she pounded down the sidewalk in a mad dash. Normally she enjoyed running and liked to take a jog at least once every couple of days, but she was forcing herself to her utmost limit, stretching her muscles out to their max and leaning heavily into the run. By the time she reached the halfway point her legs were on fire and her sides were starting to stitch.
And yet still she ran.
Lawndale High School was, fortunate for her, not too far away. She routinely walked the distance and hadn't ridden a bus since the end of eighth grade. At the clip she was keeping, however, she felt as if she'd gone five times the distance by the time she reached the school's main walkway. She slowed to a jog, then finally came to a complete stop at the bottom of the stairs that led to the front entrance.
Coach Morris looked down at Jane unsympathetically from the top of the stairs. She crossed her arms and waited as Jane struggled to catch her breath.
"Well hello there, Miss Lane," the coach said once Jane could manage to stand up straight again. "You know, if you'd ever bothered to come out to the track to show that kind of initiative, I might've been willing to be a little lenient on you."
She pulled out a small pad of paper and started writing on it as she swaggered down the stairs. "As it is," she said, tearing the top sheet away and handing it to Jane, "I'm afraid you're going to be spending a little quality time with Gibson and his rowdy crew of delinquents after school every day for the next week."
Jane stared numbly at the tardy slip in her hand. A retort slowly spiraled in her mind, but her mouth was too dry to give it voice. When she looked up again, Morris had slipped back inside the building. Resigned to her fate, she trudged up the stairs and slowly made her way toward her first period class. She had already been caught, so she figured that taking her time couldn't possibly make things any worse.
She was, as always, completely wrong.
One of Mr. DeMartino eyes was bulging out and seemed to almost be quivering in its socket, but that was perfectly normal for him. He was smiling directly at her the second she stepped through the door, however, and that was never a good sign.
"Ah, Miss LANE!" he exclaimed, disturbingly cheerful. "So nice of you to JOIN us! I'd ask if you'd like to take a SEAT, but since you're already STANDing, perhaps you would rather read all of chapter 12 to the class!"
Jane winced. "Um, not really?" she murmured weakly.
"Don't be SILLY, Miss Lane!" DeMartino told her as he stepped back from his podium and gestured for her to take his place. "Considering how LATE you are, certainly that means you already KNOW all of the MATERial. I can't think of any OTHER reason to be excused from showing up on time, and since I get here EARLY MYSELF, that must mean you MUST be even MORE qualified to teach than I am!"
Several of the students chuckled nastily as Jane slumped her way over to the stand, set down her backpack, and took in a deep breath to start reading aloud.
"'In 1844, President John Ty-'nnfh!"
A small piece of wadded up paper landed on the podium after bouncing off of Jane's forehead. She glared hard at the students sitting in front of her, but as usual none of them seemed at all intimidated. The culprit was easy to spot as Flash Thompson's "Who me?" face quickly degenerated into a triumphant smirk when he noticed she had singled him out with her stare.
She returned to the text and continued reading, occasionally interrupted by more instances of small items finding their way from the front two rows to pelt her in the head, face, shoulders, and chest. At one point, a very large and elaborate paper airplane sailed by just inches from her cheek. She looked over to frown at Mr. DeMartino, but he simply crossed his arms and gave her his most disconcerting grin.
Hateful bastard, she thought, realizing that the only relief from her humiliation was going to be to finish the chapter quickly or tough it out until the bell. Knowing that trying to speed-read her way through would simply cause the history teacher to come up with some else horrible for her to do, she gritted her teeth and kept reading as paper clips and chewed pen caps rained around her.
The bell finally rang, signaling the end of the period and Jane's chance for escape. She stalked over to the door, threw it open, and tried to melt into the crowd that was starting to form in the hallway. She had only made it a short way when she was jostled by somebody heavy thumping their shoulder into her back. After regaining her balance, she twirled around to see Flash and some of his goons standing behind her.
"Oops. Soooorryyyy!" Flash said, neither sounding nor looking sorry at all. He then turned to the thin, athletic boy next to him and said, "Hey look, dude, I think Lazy Lane's gonna cry!"
The other boy, Evan Harris, sneered at Jane. "It's about all she's good for. Won't run, can't get in on time, and can barely even read without stuttering. No wonder everyone calls you 'Lazy'."
Jane felt her hands tighten up into fists. "Screw you," she said under her breath.
Flash was the only one who caught what she had muttered, and he brayed with laughter until an elbow caught him across the midsection, causing him to flinch in pain.
"Ow! What was that for, babe?"
Brittany Taylor glared up at her boyfriend, her hands on her hips and her bottom lip sticking out. "Kevvie, you stop being mean to that poor girl right now!"
"Aw, babe!" he moaned. "I'm 'Flash' now, remember? And we're only having some fun with ol' Lazy Lane, isn't that ri-"
Flash stopped short when he looked around to see that Jane had vanished. Several yards away, she was pushing her way through the crowd and fuming with impotent rage and self-loathing. It was going to be yet another extremely long day.
A reprieve in Jane's day-to-day misery came along in the form of a field trip. Not that it was going to be a full vacation by any means, however, since the trip was being led by Lawndale High's science teacher and resident man-hater Ms. Barch. Though Jane was generally immune from Barch's misandry by virtue of being female, she was still going to have to hear about it the whole way.
It wasn't the best way to spend time during a bus ride, especially considering the poor quality of the school's buses. Jane felt certain that if she sat down hard enough, she might end up getting tetanus from the rusty springs just waiting to shoot up through the threadbare seat fabric.
But she had her camera and they were going to the Lawndale Science Center, and that cheered her up a little. Though science wasn't exactly her favorite subject, she definitely looked forward to the chance to snap some photos of the center's architecture.
As soon as she stepped off the bus, Jane could see that the building wouldn't disappoint. She had seen several pictures of it in the newspaper and a few on the internet, but none of them had been quite high enough quality that she could use them for her painting. She needed much more clarity and better angles than had been provided in order to reproduce its majestic classical styling.
She raised her camera for her very first shot, and naturally she was thrown off balance as her finger came down on the button. Flash, Evan, Mack, and Jodie walked past pretending not to notice her. Only Brittany glanced back briefly with a look of concern, but Flash had his arm around her shoulders, pulling her along with the group.
Jane shook her head and raised her camera again, this time getting a good shot of the science center's facade. After checking it on the display screen, she followed the rest of the class inside.
Though the classical style was still present within the building, it was mixed with a more contemporary look that Jane particularly liked. Earth tones seemed to dominate the space of the entrance hall, streaked through with the whites and greys of the classical. Jane snapped several photos as she moved further in, mentally replacing several of the colors with something a bit more flashy. She did like the more down to earth feel, but the project she was working on in particular required something with a bit more pizazz, something with a few more reds and dark blues.
Ms. Barch and later a tour guide were saying something about something, but Jane mostly ignored them to focus on her own work. It wasn't until they reached one exhibit in particular that she started paying attention.
The room was circular for the most part, and the banks of computers were set up along the curve. Sitting right in the middle of the room was a single giant machine with flatscreen displays showing off images that had been magnified by an extraordinary amount. Jane figured they were the products of an electron microscope, but she couldn't be sure.
The thing that really caught her interest anyway were the clear glass and plastic encasements that dotted the room. She stared intently at the small eight-legged creatures that were crawling around within.
"And as you can see here, we're studying arachnids, specifically those of the order araneae, more commonly known as . . . ?"
"Spiders," several of the students muttered in response to the tour guide's prompt. Jane let go of her camera at this, letting it dangle from the strap around her neck.
"Very good!" the guide said happily. "There are 32,000 known species of spider in the world. The particular arachnids we are studying here all possess varying strengths which help them in their constant search for food. For example, the delena spider, family sparassidae, has the ability to jump to catch its prey."
Jane watched raptly as the spider that the guide was pointing out jumped from one branch in its enclosure to another, almost as if it had been waiting for the chance to show off for an audience. She caught the guide's eye for a second and lifted her camera questioningly. When the guide gave her a nod, she started taking pictures of the delena as it skillfully navigating the twig.
"Next we have the funnel web spider," the guide continued as Evan managed to bump into Jane and ruin her shot. "Family filistatidae, genus kukulcania. It spins an intricate funnel-shaped web whose strands have a tensile strength proportionately equal to the type of high tension wire used in bridge building."
Another attempt at taking a picture was again foiled by Flash, who bumped Jane's elbow as his crew started to snicker. As the rest of the class followed the tour guide around the curve of the room, Jane spun around and glared at the football player.
"What the hell is your problem, 'Flash'?" she growled. "Haven't you and your posse finished proving how childish you are yet? Why don't you just leave me alone?"
"Pfft, or what?" Flash asked.
"Or she'll get her big brother to beat you up," Evan said mockingly. "If she can get him to wake up first."
The two boys high-fived and were about to dig in some more when Mack put a heavy hand on Flash's shoulder. He looked like he had been laughing a little with them, but he said, "Hey, maybe we should back off, man."
Flash slapped his hand away. "No way, Mack Daddy! We-"
"Are these . . . boys giving you trouble, Miss Lane?"
The group turned to see Janet Barch glowering at them. She was a smallish woman, but she was sturdy. Everyone at school knew that she ran a Take Back the Night class for women and wasn't afraid to display her skills when necessary.
"No, ma'am," Jodie quickly interjected, glancing darkly at Flash and Evan. "They were just about to rejoin the rest of the class."
"Riiiight," the science teacher said, obviously not believing a word of it. "The next person who lags behind will fail this course. Is that understood?"
There was a chorus of "yes, ma'am"s and "understood"s as Flash and his crew moved on, but Jane stayed behind and held up her camera.
"Ms. Barch, I was . . . thinking of maybe submitting a few pictures to the school paper," she lied with some effort. "Is it okay if I'm just a little behind? I swear I'll stay within earshot so I won't miss a single second of all this wonderful learning."
Barch appeared doubtful as she mulled the request over, but finally agreed with a simple nod before marching back toward the rest of the class. Relieved to finally have a few teacher-sanctioned moments to herself, Jane let out a cleansing breath and put her eye to the camera's viewfinder as the guide continued her speech.
"This grass spider hunts using a set of reflexes with nerve conduction velocity so fast that some researchers believe it almost borders on precognition, an early awareness of danger. A . . . 'spider-sense'."
The rest of the speech faded into the background as Jane focused all her attention on the spider in front of her. She hit the zoom on her camera so she could look at the beautiful interweaving of silken strands that made up the funnel of the spider's web. The edges of the web were moored to the grass and twigs surrounding it. From there, it stretched down to the small hole in the ground that the little creature had claimed for its home, where it would sit and wait for some tasty prey to come along.
Jane liked spiders. They were so graceful, so fast, and - though she wouldn't admit it to anyone else - so cute. Ever since she was a kid, she loved to watch them move, as the fluid motion of their legs as they glided across their web appealed to her artistic sensibilities.
A few pics of the kukulcania later, Jane noticed that the group had started moving away. She followed at a discreet distance and was happy to note that they stopped just close enough that she would be able to take pictures of the grass spider without any guff from Barch.
The tour guide was babbling on about some sort of genetic work they were doing with the spiders, so once again Jane tuned her out. She didn't care about the science behind the arachnids so much. She just wanted to paint them. Her camera softly clicked as she took picture after picture of her subject.
"-to encode an entirely new genome," the guide was saying, "combining the genetic information from all three spiders into these fifteen genetically designed 'super-spiders'."
Britanny leaned forward and squinted at the spiders in their small, individual enclosures. She stuck her tongue out in concentration as she slowly counted, then waved her hand to get the guide's attention. "There's only fourteen!" she squealed, looking around in sudden fright as if the fifteenth spider might jump out at her from anywhere.
"I beg your pardon?"
"One of them is missing!" Brittany squeaked again. She pointed at the single empty case sitting in the corner of the display. "Ew! Is it crawling on me? I can feel it crawling on me!"
"Nah, you're okay, babe," Flash said, not even bothering to look her over.
The guide stepped over and peered into the enclosure. "Huh," she said. "I . . . guess the researchers are working with that one. Let's continue, shall we?"
The class moved on, Brittany still giving little shrieks every time her twin ponytails brushed against her neck. Jane, meanwhile, was too engrossed in her picture-taking to notice. She knew that she was probably going to end up filling the entire card soon even though she still had several rooms she needed to get snaps of, but the grass spider was just too fascinating. It was in the process of building a new web, and Jane simply had to get as many pictures of that simple, natural act of creation as she could.
She was so involved that she didn't notice the soft tickle across the knuckles of her right hand until two tiny shots of burning pain hit her. Instinctively, she shook her hand and yelped lightly. As she cradled the hurt appendage, she looked down to see a spider scuttle its away across the floor and disappear under a table.
The wound on her hand was definitely a spider bite, but it looked unusually red to her and slightly raised, like a welt. She was just about to stick it in her mouth to try and relieve some of the burning when Ms. Barch suddenly appeared, scowling and tapping her foot.
"Miss Lane," the teacher said testily. "Our agreement?"
"Yah, sorry. I just . . . sorry." Deciding that saying nothing was probably for the best, she ignored the already-abating pain and followed Barch back to the rest of the class.
"Hey, you wanted to see me?"
"Yes, Jane, please come in!"
Manson motioned with her pen to one of the seats sitting in front of her desk. Jane set her backpack next to it and sat down slowly. As Manson finished writing something on her desk calendar, Jane wiped a bit of sweat from her forehead and tried to focus her eyes. After a few moments of effort, she was able to make the letters on Manson's name plate swim into clarity.
Margaret Manson, School Psychologist. Jane almost had to laugh every time she saw that series of words strung together. From the lack of the "Dr." honorific, she had a hard time believing that Manson was a real psychologist, and the way the older woman liked to mix pop psychology with a somewhat gregarious attitude did nothing to dispel the doubt.
"So," Manson said, setting down her pen, "I've been told that you were late for school again this morning."
"Yes, Ms. Manson," Jane replied faintly.
The older woman waved her hand dismissively and said, "Please, just call me 'Doc'. Now, I don't think I have to tell you that your latest instance of tardiness has placed you in detention for the next seven school days."
"No, Coach Morris made that pretty clear." Jane grimaced at the memory.
"I thought as much," Manson said with a nod. "But in light of your- I'm sorry, dear, but are you alright? You look a little pale."
"I'm . . . fine. Just a little under the weather," said Jane, who truthfully felt as if the weather in question was a full force monsoon.
"As I was saying," Manson continued, her concern lessening but not disappearing, "in light of your situation, I was thinking we might try something else."
"And what situation would that be?"
The school psychologist leaned forward and interlaced her fingers. "You're a bit of a loner, aren't you, Jane?" she asked. "You don't reach out to other kids very often, and from what I've gathered, they tend to look down on you. They call you 'Lazy Lane', goad you, and pointedly disinclude you from their activities. And the teachers don't give you a very easy time of it either, do they? Morris in particular. You're chronically late for school, and when you do get here you are often late for several classes throughout the day. Further, your grades tend to hover in the low C to low B range, showing neither any particular promise nor a tendency toward failure.
"I've been studying your case for quite some time, Jane, and I've come to the conclusion that all of your problems at school stem from a single common source."
Jane swallowed hard. "What's that?"
"You have low self-esteem."
Several seconds of silence passed as the two women stared at each other across the desk. Despite how worn down she felt, Jane managed to muster the energy for a wide-eyed glare and slight sneer.
"So you're saying . . . that it's my fault?" she asked incredulously.
Manson put up her hands defensively. "No, not at all!" she said quickly. "But this is an example of what I'm talking about. Other people start giving you a hard time, calling you 'lazy', telling you that you won't amount to anything, and after hearing it so often you naturally begin to believe that it might be true. You think that it must be your fault that they say these things.
"You dropped out of the track team only a week after you joined, everyone treats you like you're a quitter afterward, so you don't try out for any other competitive sports as a consequence. No one expects you to do very well in class, so you tend to coast through tests and homework, only putting in enough effort to pass. You don't even bother to show up on time because you figure, what's the point?
"But there is a point, Jane, and I want to help you see that." Manson started shuffling through the papers on her desk until she found the one she wanted and passed it across to Jane. "I talked to the principal about it, and instead of going to detention for the next week, I would like you to attend a self-esteem class that I and Mr. O'Neill have set up instead."
Jane quickly scanned the piece of paper in her hand. It was a permission slip to be signed by a legal guardian, allowing her to stay late at school to attend an extra class for at least four weeks. Just under the text explaining the course sat three rubber-stamped signatures, those of Timothy O'Neill, Angela Li, and Manson herself.
Manson was bad enough, in Jane's opinion. Having to listen to the woman drone on about psychological theory she obviously knew nothing about in between pretending to be just "one of the gang" was a torture best avoided if possible. And Principal Li, at least, would probably never show her face in the classroom if she could help it, since she avoided the undesirables of the student body at all costs. But actually having to attend a second class under Mr. O'Neill?
But, Jane thought as she stared blearily down at the slip, it's better than Gibson and detention. She sighed and looked back up at Manson.
"Can I just . . . take this home and think about it?" she asked.
"Sure, of course," Manson said sympathetically. "Why don't you go on ahead, in fact? You really are looking a little ill, dear. I'll just let them know that you won't be in today and that I gave you permission to leave early. Okay?"
"Okay," Jane confirmed, her voice distant as she stood and gathered her pack on her way out of Doc Manson's office.
The walk home ended up being almost as wearying as the run to school that morning. Jane scratched absently at the spider bite on her hand as she weaved along the sidewalk, concentrating almost exclusively on keeping her balance. The idea that her dizziness and cold sweat might be the product of that bite briefly darted across her consciousness, but she ignored it because it was proving simply too difficult to think.
The cracked yellow paint adorning the facade of Casa Lane gradually filled her vision as she stumbled up the walk and past the strange metal sculpture that adorned the front lawn. She opened the front door, stepped in, and was almost immediately assaulted by an army of smells that drew her into the kitchen.
Trent, his lanky frame clad in a pair of dirty jeans and an even dirtier t-shirt, was standing by the kitchen counter and stuffing a slice of pizza into his mouth. When he saw his sister walk in, he chewed and swallowed as quickly as he could. Which, in Trent's case, wasn't that fast.
"Hey, Janey. You're home late," he said, then scrunched up his face. "Or is it early? Huh. Anyway, seems like I got some pizza or something. Musta been sleep-ordering again, but hey, at least I had enough money in my pockets this time to pay for it. Want some?"
Without a second thought, Jane pounced on the nearest of the three boxes sitting on the counter and flung it open. The scent of mushrooms, onions, and two kinds of meat wafted up to grab her by the brain and force her hands into action. Digging in like a ravenous wolf, she grabbed up two slices and started jamming down bite after humongous bite.
Trent watched her inhale a third slice, then shrugged and went back to chewing thoughtfully on his own. "Figure the money was from that gig me and the guys did down at the Zon the other night," he said after a few minutes. "Still haven't gotten a check from mom or dad yet. Not even a postcard. Maybe they'll be comin' in soon."
"Maybe," Jane mumbled bitterly around a mouthful of food. The greasy pizza seemed to be working some magic on her insides, making her feel a little better, but she still wasn't able to get up any optimism about seeing their parents anytime soon. Their mom and dad both had been incommunicado for three months, and she was starting to get the feeling that they had finally flitted away for good, just like a couple of scatterbrained butterflies.
"Hey, you okay?" Trent asked, breaking her reverie.
Jane scraped up the last bit of errant cheese stuck to the bottom of the otherwise empty pizza box and scarfed it down as she carefully considered the question.
"Think I'm gonna crash," she finally said.
Trent watched her carefully as she turned and headed for the stairs, leaving her backpack behind. "You sure?" he asked, his raspy voice tinged with concern. "I was thinkin' of headin' down to Dega Street. You can come if ya want."
"Yah, no," she wearily called back over her shoulder. "Just gonna sleep it off."
Jane's room was, as usual, covered with art and art supplies. She pushed a handful of paint bottles onto the floor from their perch on her chair, then sat down and took off her hoodie. The mirror that she used to model herself for some of her paintings reflected a young girl that looked almost as bad as she felt. Her eyes were sunken, her skin was even paler than normal and covered in sweat, her black hair hung lank around her temples, and her thin frame looked pitifully fragile as her entire body shivered slightly.
She needed to see a doctor. She needed to call a poison center. But most of all, she needed to shut her eyes and descend into the sweet darkness of sleep. Without bothering to take off the rest of her clothes, she stood up, walked over to her bed, and fell across it, unconscious before she even hit the mattress.
Jane woke up to the sound of a heavy snort. She blinked a few times and had to collect her wildly scattered thoughts before she realized that the snort had been her own. Normally she didn't snore, but she also normally didn't sleep face-down on her bed in a puddle of her own drool.
Turning her head to the side, she peeked over at her bedside clock to see that only fifteen minutes had passed since she had gotten home. Groaning softly, she shifted her arms to pick herself up off the bed gingerly, but to her great surprise she found that she felt just fine. In fact, she nearly flung herself off the mattress like a catapult with the strength of her push and had to stumble for a second to keep her feet under her.
Wow. Pizza Palace pizza, cure all, she thought just before noticing how dark her room was. Confused, she stepped over to the window to see that the sky had gone from a bright mid-afternoon blue to the dim purples of either dusk or dawn in just the space of a few minutes.
Jane's brain took a few moments to make the connection, and when it finally did she ran back over to the clock to verify that the little red dot next to the "PM" marker was no longer lit. She hadn't been asleep for just a few minutes. She had been asleep for just a little over twelve hours.
Shaking her head in wonder, Jane decided to count herself lucky that she had woken up at all, let alone feeling as good as she did. She set her clock down and was moving around the foot of her bed when she happened to catch yet another surprise from the corner of her eye.
The girl reflected in the mirror above the desk was still her, of that she was certain. The same short raven-black hair. Same bright blue eyes set in the same facial features. Red lipstick, a little smudged but still her shade. Three small silver hoop earrings sitting along the edge of her ear. But as she stopped and turned to check out the rest of her body, still bare above the waist save for her bra, she could easily see that some of her other aspects had changed.
Jane had been by no means out of shape. Her recreational jogging habit saw to that, but most of her major muscle had been in her legs and she was otherwise on the thin side. Almost on the scary edge of the thin side, in fact, but she'd never really worried about it since it was a Lane family trait. It seemed that during her twelve hour power nap, however, her body had apparently decided to step out for a twelve hour power gym session.
She didn't look like a female body-builder, but she could see that she was obviously a bit thicker around the arms and torso. Her bra, she finally noticed, was squeezing into her thanks not only to the slight increase in underlying muscle mass but a slight increase in two of her other assets as well. Even though she wasn't a bazooka-toting bombshell like Brittany Taylor by any means, she was definitely going to need to buy a whole new set of undergarments.
An experimental flex and release of her arms showed Jane just how well toned her muscles had become. From the new springiness she could sense in her legs, she could tell that it was the same under her jeans. A smile started to spread across her face as she threw a few more poses at the mirror. She wasn't narcissistic, but she had to admit to herself that she looked good.
But why do I look so good? she asked herself, then immediately canned the question. It was very early morning, she didn't need to get to school for several hours yet, and she was spilling over with energy and a desire to do something with it. A quick shower and change of clothes later, she was out in the brisk dawn air, pelting along the sidewalk in her running shoes.
The sensation was absolutely delicious. She could feel every single muscle in her legs pumping like pistons, driving her forward faster and with far less effort than ever before. If she really had been poisoned or had caught some kind of mutant space virus, she figured that she could use some more of the same if the way she was running was the result.
The short time she had been in track had proven that Jane hadn't been a slouch in the speed department before. Even without any actual training, she had excelled in both sprints and long-distance running, a rare feat. But with the unexplained power currently coursing through her body, she felt as if she were on a completely different level, a higher plane than she had ever experienced in her life.
Then, without warning, everything around her seemed to slow down to a crawl and she felt a strange buzz tingling along the right side of her head. She turned almost instinctively to look that direction and saw a massive truck bearing down on her as she crossed an intersection. Seconds passed by as if soaked in molasses, and Jane cursed herself for not paying more attention to her surroundings. There was no way she could possibly avoid being hit, but she decided to make a last ditch effort with a dive forward anyway. She knew she was probably going to die from the impact, but she didn't intend to go without a fight.
Instead of diving, she propelled herself nearly twenty feet in the air, performed a flip that would have made any Olympic-level gymnast proud, and landed on the far sidewalk in a perfectly balanced crouch. Time snapped back to its normal speed as she jerked around to see the truck swerve through the intersection and continue on, weaving back and forth along the road.
Jane looked around wildly, her breathing rapid from the adrenaline boost, but there was no one around. With the only witness to her spectacular jump being the retreating occupant of the truck, she was frantically wondering if it had actually happened at all.
Once she managed to calm down, she tried a little hop where she was standing and hit five feet in the air with almost no effort.
"No way," she breathed, hardly daring to believe it. "No freakin' way."
When she realized she was scratching idly at her spider bite again, she lifted her hand and looked at it. The redness had faded and the welt was completely gone, but the two little marks in the middle still stood out clearly. Memories of the tour guide's speech the previous day flooded back to her, particularly the parts about the jumping abilities of the delena spider being put into the genetically modified spiders.
And one of the genetically modified spiders had been missing from its cage.
As she stared at her hand, she felt a strange itching sensation start along the edges of her fingertips then spread like wildfire across her palms. The same feeling flared along the bottoms of her toes and feet seconds later, causing her to yelp and pull off her shoes. By the time she had her socks removed, the itching was gone.
Barely understanding why she was doing it, Jane grabbed up her socks and shoes and headed over to the nearest building on the block, a small bookstore. After taking a moment to ensure that she was still alone, she tied her shoelaces together, hung her shoes over her neck, and stuffed her socks inside. She then carefully reached up, placed her right hand flat against the smooth concrete of the bookstore's outside wall, and pulled herself upward.
Without any means of visible support, her hand stayed glued to the wall as she lifted her entire body without feeling the slightest strain on her arm. Smiling widely in delight, she lifted her other hand and placed it slightly higher, pulling herself up even further. She worried for a moment that she might be stuck for good, but her right hand pulled away easily for yet another lift.
Once she got her feet into the act, Jane found herself scaling the sheer wall just as easily as she could walk across flat ground. She hauled herself to the top of the building and turned around to stand poised perfectly on the roof's edge, her toes dangling off the side and her heels propped up into the air. The balls of her feet were the only thing touching solid concrete, but she felt absolutely safe thanks to her sense of balance, which like her jumping ability seemed to be enhanced beyond anything natural.
The sun had just begun to poke its head out from behind the horizon. Jane watched it rise as she flung her arms wide open, crowed in triumph, and exulted in the soft breeze that was winding its way across the Lawndale rooftops.
"Trent? You home?"
Jane slammed the door behind her, hoping that the loud bang would wake her brother up if he was upstairs sleeping. Without bothering to slow down, she grabbed the stair railing and ran up the wall at an angle. Once she had enough speed she let go of the railing and zipped straight up to the top without touching a single step.
"Trent! C'mon! Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey!"
Mentioning food brought her attention to the fact that she was nearly starving, but she pushed the stomach grumbles away and sprinted down the hall to Trent's door. After the barest pretense of knocking, she twisted the knob and flung the door open to find the room beyond dark and unoccupied.
"Treeeeeent! Here boy! Good brother! Got a biscuit for ya!"
Back at the top of the stairs, she hopped down far enough to clear the ceiling then leaped over the railing to land silently on the carpet below. From there she skipped into the kitchen and skidded to a stop when she saw the grocery bags sitting on the table next to a handwritten note.
She looked around but Trent was still nowhere to be seen. A quick check proved that the bags were both quite real and filled with a fair selection of junk food, canned pastas, and other easy-to-fix groceries. She picked up the note and felt her spirits drop as she read it.
Hey, Janey. Used the last of the gig money to get us some food. Can't pay bills if you're starved to death, right? Out practicing at Max's place. Won't be home until whenever. Be good. Trent.
Jane pouted as she crumpled the paper into a ball and tossed it unerringly into the garbage can on the other side of the kitchen. She was bursting at the seams to tell someone - anyone - about what had happened to her, and the only person she figured she could trust with it was gone.
Her belly growled again, drawing her attention even more insistently since food was actually within reach. She dug through one of the bags until she found some halfway decent canned soup and put it in the microwave. As she stood waiting for the ding, she saw the pile of bills and overdue notices sitting on the counter nearby.
She sighed as her good mood continued to evaporate. Electric, gas, water, all of them were clamoring for insane amounts of cash and threatening with impending shut-offs if they didn't get it. And worst of all, somewhere amidst all of that was a foreclosure notice on the house. Trent had tried to hide it from her, but he hadn't done a good enough job. Jane knew all too well that if they didn't get some serious money, they would be out on the streets.
Once her food was ready, she took it back to the table and started spooning up the hot soup as quickly as she could without burning her tongue. As she ate, she thought, and as she thought, her mood grew darker and darker still.
Maybe I shouldn't tell him about these powers. Her brow creased in a frown. Maybe I shouldn't tell anyone. Everyone knows who those Fantastic Four people in the city are, and their home gets attacked all the time. If anyone finds out I've got powers, they'll assume that I'm a superhero or something, and it's bad enough Casa Lane is going to get taken away from us by the regular old bank . . .
Jane shuddered involuntarily as she imagined some random supervillain nutcase coming along and leveling her house. Letting anyone know about what she could do was definitely out of the question. Even Trent, she realized, who would almost certainly blab to someone else in Mystik Spiral, his band.
She shook her head to clear away the gloom that had started to gather around it and finished her impromptu breakfast. School awaited her, and for once she wanted to actually show up on time. She went upstairs to change into her usual jeans and hoodie, then went back to the kitchen briefly to grab her backpack from where she had left it the previous day.
As almost an afterthought, she pulled out the permission slip Doc Manson had given her and forged her mother's signature at the bottom.
School was torture as usual, but strangely enough, Jane found it to be somewhat tolerable. Until she got to PE class, of course.
"Alright, ladies," Coach Morris said, clapping her hand against her clipboard to get everyone's attention. "I'm going to need you to split up into two groups. Since this is 'Focus on Accuracy' month, one group will be grabbing basketballs and shooting a few hoops. The other group will run 20 sets of sprints from the wall to the half-court line and back. Anyone who fails to set their foot directly on the line will have to start over!
"When the second group has finished, both groups will switch. Now let's see some hustle!"
Morris turned and was followed off the bleachers by several grumbling girls. Jane, as usual, kept her seat and watched them all leave. A few turned to give her dirty looks, but she just smiled and waved back. The coach might have banned her from bringing her sketchbook into the gym the previous week, but that just made Jane all the more determined to refrain from participating.
Her respite was short-lived as one of the other girls tugged on Morris' tracksuit sleeve and pointed back toward the bleachers. Morris looked up with absolutely no surprise and stormed up to where Jane was sitting.
"Miss Lane. Why aren't you exercising with the rest of the class?" the coach asked, displeasure evident on her face.
"I am exercising," Jane said nonchalantly. "I'm exercising my right to abstain from basketball practice since I'm not actually on the basketball team."
Morris sneered. "Life's just one big smartass joke, isn't it?" she growled. "Well guess what, princess. I heard about the little deal you cut with that second-rate head shrinker, and I assure you that her pull with Li is nothing compared to mine. If you don't get your skinny butt out on that court right this second, you'll be spending the next year at this school serving real detention. Not with O'Neill. Not with Gibson. With me. Do I make myself clear?"
Jane glared hard at the woman, wishing fervently that spiders had the ability to burn through flesh and bone with their eyes. Unfortunately, it seemed that firing laser beams was not one of her new abilities, leaving Morris standing, alive, and waiting for any excuse to follow through on her threat.
"Fine," Jane snarled back, pushing herself up from her seat and stalking down the bleachers. You want me to play basketball? she thought. Then let's play basketball.
As Jane stepped out onto the floor, the girl who had ratted her out to Morris noticed her and whispered something undoubtedly mean-spirited to one of the other girls. "Hey, Lazy Lane!" the second girl yelled. "Catch!"
The basketball sailed through the air with the grace of a hippo and the speed of a cannonball, aimed directly at Jane's face. The raven-haired girl didn't miss a step as she casually reached out and snatched the ball from the air. All eyes suddenly turned to her as the girl who had thrown the ball gasped and got halfway through a shouted epithet before catching herself.
As she turned to walk out to the half-court line, Jane bounced the basketball from one hand to the other between her swinging legs. Gradually, the girls running sprints slowed their pace and those throwing hoops set their basketballs to rest as they noticed the sudden display of effortless skill. By the time Jane reached the center of the gym, the only sound was her own bouncing ball.
She set herself, tapped the ball against the floor a couple of times, then lined up her shot. With a mere flick of her wrist, she sent the ball flying in a high arc. The entire class held its breath as they watched the orange orb seem to almost hang in the air overhead.
When it came down straight through the metal hoop, the net just barely twitched at the ball's passage. Before it could bounce a second time, Jane was already on the move, weaving between the other girls to grab it out of the air again. Her leg muscles coiled like springs, and when they released she was propelled up to the hoop for a slam dunk. She hung on for a few seconds, swinging back and forth, then dropped to the floor and into a crouch.
The gym erupted into a combination of frantic applause and shrill voices calling BS. Jane stood up straight and looked over at the bleachers where Coach Morris was standing with her arms crossed. Jane stared back, unflinching, but inside she was starting to tremble.
So much for not showing anyone my powers, she thought ruefully.
Jane sat, put her forehead down against the cool surface of the desk, and wondered just what in the hell she had been thinking. Fortunately, no one seemed to think that what she had done had been particularly unusual, or at least not supernatural, though it had obviously been quite a shock. Even more fortunately, Morris hadn't spoken to her again at all for the rest of the period.
But it had still been a stupid move. She didn't doubt for a second that even more pressure would be coming down on her to join this team, or that team, or even the cheerleading squad. In the space of just a few seconds, she had raised the bar dramatically high. She would never hear the end of it.
At least this day is almost over, she tried comforting herself. The fact that her last class was the whole self-esteem rigmarole did not give her much solace, however.
Someone sat down in the seat in front of her, but she couldn't muster the energy to lift up her head. As the sound of the classroom door shutting hit her ears, she could only hope that whoever it was would leave her alone in her misery.
"Esteem," said a wishy-washy voice at the front of the room. "A teen. They don't really rhyme, do they? The sounds don't quite mesh. And that, in fact, is often the case when it comes to a teen and esteem. The two just don't seem to go together. But we are here to begin realizing your actuality, and when we do, each and every one of you will be able to stand proudly and proclaim, 'I am'. Now, before we-"
"Excuse me, I have a question."
Jane nearly jumped out of her skin. The interrupting voice had come from the mystery occupant of the seat ahead of hers. It was a bold move. Deciding that anyone who was willing to interrupt Mr. O'Neill's soppy rhetoric had to be worth a once over, Jane shoved off her apathy long enough to sit up straight in her chair.
"I'm sorry," O'Neill said, his own voice dripping with too much sincerity, "question and answer time is later."
"I want to know what 'realizing your actuality' means," the student insisted. Frowning in confusion, Jane realized that she didn't recognize the other kid. Or, at least, she didn't recognize the back of his head.
O'Neill's expression, which was already pained, dropped into something akin to panic. "It means," he started, then paused as sweat started to form on his brow. "Look, just let me get through this part, okay? Then there'll be a video! So, before we unlock your potential . . . "
Jane blocked out the rest of the speech to instead concentrate on the boy in front of her. She leaned out of her seat to get a better look, and from what she could see of his face, he wasn't very pleased with the answer he had received. She could also tell that she hadn't seen him anywhere around Lawndale High before.
Which, she reflected as she looked him over, was a shame. He was kind of cute in a gangly sort of way.
On an impulse, she reached out and plucked at his sleeve. When he turned in his chair to look back at her, she whispered confidentially, "He doesn't know what it means. That's the erstwhile Mr. Timothy O'Neill, Language Arts teacher notorious for being completely useless without an answer key. He's probably got the speech memorized. Just enjoy the nice man's soothing voice."
"How am I supposed to follow him if I don't know what he's talking about?" the boy asked, frustrated.
Jane shrugged. "The whole course was probably downloaded for free off the internet," she said. "We can look it up together later if you want. I'm Jane Lane, by the way. Always nice to see a fresh face."
"Oh. Uh, thanks." He smiled sheepishly as he shook her proffered hand. "My family just moved here. I'm Harry. Harry Osborn."
"Yes, sir. No, sir. I'm sorry, I just- . . . no, sir. The library. I'm just checking something on the 'net. Yah, I know, but- . . . yes, sir."
Jane leaned her head against her knuckles and studied her new acquaintance as he paced back and forth a few yards away. She was supposed to be watching out for wandering librarians while he held quiet conversation on his cellphone, but her gaze had kept slipping his way. In the few short hours they had known each other, he was already proving to be a bit of an enigma, one that she wanted to figure out.
Lawndale High was a haven for a lot of upper middle class kids, but it was still a public school. And while Harry wore his clothes in an appropriately slovenly manner, his sneakers were big name brand, his slacks were tailored, his button-up shirt was silk, and his sweater vest . . . well, it was a sweater vest. To Jane, he looked like a refugee from Fielding Prep or Grove Hills that was being forced to slum it on a bet.
When she found herself starting to stare at his warm brown eyes and noting the way the light coming in through the windows accentuated the red in his short auburn hair, Jane shook her head and resumed her job as lookout.
"Yah. Yes, sir. Okay. I will. Yes, sir. I'll be home before nine. Promise. Bye." Harry flipped his phone shut and heaved out a sigh of relief.
"Well, that sounded like fun," Jane said with a smirk as he rejoined her at the computer. "Your parole officer?"
"Ah, no," he told her. "My dad. He's . . . a little overprotective."
Sensing that it was a subject he wanted to avoid, she pointed at the screen and said, "So anyway, it says here that after the role-playing, the next class they put the girls and the guys in separate rooms, and a female counselor talks to the girls about body image."
"What do they talk to the guys about?"
Instead of answering, Jane just bit her lip and let Harry read for himself. His eyes scanned the course material, his brow furrowing more and more until he finally jerked back in shock. His face couldn't seem to decide whether to turn red or green as he stammered out, "'N-nocturnal emissions'? Seriously?"
"I know, right?" Jane said, trying to suppress her chuckles and sound sympathetic at the same time. "And this is supposed to help your self-esteem somehow."
"This is some kind of joke, right? You pulled up a fake site while I was on the phone as a joke. God, Jane, please tell me this is a joke!" he cried in mock desperation as he grabbed her arm and shook it.
They both covered their mouths as they tried their best to keep from getting thrown out for making a disturbance with their laughter. Jane lightly punched Harry in the shoulder to try and get him to quit, which only made it harder for him to do so, and his renewed fit caused her to find the situation all the more hilarious.
Finally they managed to calm down before anyone at the nearby terminals decided to complain. They sifted through a few more pages of text, diagrams, and charts before sitting back, brains exhausted from the sheer amount of babbling nonsense it all contained.
"Well, on the bright side, we could definitely memorize the entire course and maybe test out early," said Harry.
"I dunno," Jane returned with a shrug. "I think I'm getting to like having low self-esteem. Makes me feel special."
They both stared off into the distance for a few moments before Harry stood up and turned to help Jane out of her seat. She graciously accepted, then they grabbed their backpacks and checked with the front desk on their way out. The early evening air was still a bit warm, but there was a pleasant bite that promised fall right around the corner.
When they reached the sidewalk, Harry stopped and fidgeted a little, seeming as if he was wanting to look anywhere but directly at Jane. "This may be a little forward of me, but . . . do you mind if I walk you home?" he asked.
"Uh . . . sure! I wouldn't mind!" Jane blurted out before she even fully realized what he had asked. She instinctively steered them in the direction of her house and started walking. He easily fell into step beside her as they entered an awkward silence.
Jane's thoughts raced. She thought Harry was cute, but she hadn't actually imagined before that he might think the same of her. She wondered if he really did or if his offer to walk her home was just a gentlemanly thing. She wondered if she should just ask him about it. She wondered if she should reach out and take his hand. She wondered if they might make out in her room when they got to Casa Lane. She wondered if they'd be boyfriend-girlfriend.
She wondered a hundred different things and then shoved them in a tight little box and tossed them off a mental cliff so she could just enjoy the walk home with him.
"So," she said suddenly, startling him a bit. "How'd a guy like you end up in a self-esteem class anyway?"
Harry rolled his eyes. "Oh, that," he said disparagingly. "They made me take some psychological exam. They called my dad and told him I was a 'borderline case' or something like that. As usual, he decided I'd already crossed the border and insisted I be put in the class."
Oops, Jane thought with a wince. Daddy issues again. "Sorry, didn't mean to bring up a sore subject."
"Nah, it's okay," he dismissed unconvincingly. "He's just used to being in control, and he's been getting worse since we got bumped out here. Not . . . not that Lawndale isn't great or anything! It's just . . . it's not Manhattan, you know?"
"Well, I guess that depends on what you think of Manha-" Jane cut herself short as something started tickling her memory. "Wait, Manhattan? And you said . . . Harry? Is your dad-?"
Harry's eyes went as wide as dinner plates as he saw the pieces start to fit together in Jane's head. "Aw, crap," he said.
They stopped walking as Jane stared at him, mouth agape. "He is!" she exclaimed. "Your dad is Norman Osborn! Of OsCorp?"
"Well, yah, he is. Can we not make a big deal of it?"
Seeing the pained expression on her new friend's face, Jane snapped back to reality. "Oh, jeez, I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "Look at me. I'm totally over it. It's cool. And you can trust me. No one will ever know your secret."
"I'd appreciate that," he told her, relieved. "Anyway," he continued as they started walking again, "now that you know, I guess there's no harm in telling you the rest. After the whole scandal thing, he moved us out here to the suburbs so he could get a fresh start. I think he feels like he's hiding and he hates it, so he keeps pushing me even harder to stand out. Be the best. Hence, self-esteem class."
"Wow," Jane said. Then, after a pause, "My story is way more entertaining than that one."
Harry laughed at the unexpected jab. "Alright, Little Miss Smart Aleck, let's hear it."
By the time they reached Jane's house, she had recounted the basics of her relationship with Lawndale High's malicious populace as well as the events of the past few days, minus the spider bite and its unusual effects. After they consoled each other on their mutual sob stories, Harry called for a cab ride home, and they made small talk as they waited on the front steps.
"And that's me," Harry said as the taxi pulled up to the house. As he was headed down the walk, he turned and told her, "By the way, when dad finds out I've met someo- uh, I've got a new friend, he's gonna want to get to know you. Fair warning!"
"I'll be sure to skip town that day!" she called back cheerfully as they both waved goodbye.
After watching the taxi drive off, Jane stepped inside, closed the door, and leaned back against it. Superpowers, a boy that might actually like her, getting Morris to shut up, groceries in the kitchen . . . all in all, she counted it as being a very strange day. But, she reflected, definitely a good one.
"Seems like a nice guy," a voice emanated from the shadows.
Jane had to restrain herself from jumping all the way up to the ceiling. "Dammit, Trent!" she cursed as she flipped the light switch.
Trent looked over at her from where he was leaning next to the window. "Just sayin'," he said with a shrug. "And he's, like, totally into you."
"Uh-huh. And you could tell that just from watching him through a dirty window like some kind of perv?"
"I'm a musician," he told her as they walked to the kitchen. "I'm sensitive to people's moods."
Jane grumbled but didn't say anything else, not wanting to jinx things any further than her brother already had. As Trent poked his head in the refrigerator, she grabbed a packet of ramen noodles and grabbed a mostly-clean pot from the cupboards. Setting the ramen on the counter, she held the pot under the faucet and turned one of the knobs. A groaning noise rattled up through the pipes below before settling back into silence without providing anything of substance, water or otherwise.
Trent cleared his throat uneasily. "So, uh, turns out the water company shut us off today."
Jane twisted the cold water closed, set the pot aside, and leaned heavily on the counter. Several moments of silence passed, broken only by the soft clinking and rustling of Trent sorting through things in the fridge.
"When were you gonna tell me about the bank trying to take the house away?" she asked quietly.
"I wasn't," he replied after a pause. "Didn't want you to worry."
"And how much less did you think I was gonna worry if getting kicked out of my own home was a surprise, Trent?" The vitriol in her voice surprised even Jane.
Trent closed the refrigerator door and ran a thin hand through his hair. "Didn't really think of that," he said. "Sorry. I shoulda told you."
Jane turned to stare her brother straight in the eyes. "Yes, you should have. Is there anything else you haven't told me? Like where mom and dad are? Why they haven't written or called or anything?"
"No," Trent said, shaking his head. "I haven't heard from 'em at all. Wish I had, Janey. Things're gettin' pretty tight around here, and I know I haven't really helped much. Wish I was a little more responsible. I'm not. But maybe . . . maybe it's time I started lookin' for a job. Like . . . a real one."
Jane laughed despite herself. "Trent Lane, garage musician extraordinaire, working the 9 to 5 shift?" she said incredulously. "It's kinda hard to see that."
"Yah, I know." Trent gave her a self-deprecating smile. "The guys are gonna be pretty disappointed if I gotta skip out on a few practice sessions and all, but . . . with mom and dad gone, I'm responsible for you, the house, alla that. If I got the power to keep it all together, then I gotta, right? You know what I'm trying to say?"
"You gotta do what you gotta do?" Jane suggested, causing Trent to give her an odd expression.
"Man, it sounds pretty damn depressing when you put it like that," he said. "How 'bout, 'with power comes responsibility'? Hmm. I'm re-spon-si-ble, 'cause you give me the power, I'll go get a job, just to buy you some flowers . . . '"
Jane chuckled at Trent's impromptu lyrics then stepped forward to give him a hug. He returned the embrace and gave her a brotherly kiss on the top of her head.
"Better make it great power," Jane told him. "You'll need it to keep from falling asleep right in the middle of talking to a customer."
"Ugh, customers," Trent said as he and Jane broke away from each other. "Even worse than people in the audience."
Jane opened the fridge and started poking around. "At least they don't throw quite as many empty beer bottles at your head. So, what do you say to a chicken, mustard, and baloney salsa wrap?"
"Awesome. So make some up for us!" Jane said, smiling and gesturing at the ingredients. When he gave her a long-suffering look, she playfully added, "Consider it before-the-job training."
"Man, work work work," he laughed.
Lunch period couldn't come fast enough for Jane. Though it wasn't as insistent as it had been the afternoon of the bite, her body was still demanding more fuel for her new abilities. As soon as she and Harry grabbed their trays and got up to the serving trays, she started piling on as much food as the lunch servers would allow. Harry's eyebrows gradually shifted upward as he watched the stack grow, but he refrained from saying anything.
Jane caught the look on his face as she was grabbing two pudding cups. "I run," she told him, pantomiming running with her fingers. "For fun. Burns a lot of calories."
"I didn't say anything," he said just a touch too quickly. "So, where should we sit?"
She turned and pointed to an empty spot just a short way into the cafeteria. They made their way over, but just as she was about to set her tray on the table, someone slammed theirs down in her way. She looked over to find herself almost nose to nose with a slim brunette who's eyes smoldered with fury and haughtiness, looking not unlike twin black coals.
"Like, excuse me," the angry girl said, tossing her long, styled hair over her shoulder, "but this table is reserved for popular people only. Losers and their geeky boyfriends are not allowed."
Jane curled her lip but decided punting the girl through the windows on the other side of the room wouldn't be worth it. She bumped Harry into movement with her hip and they continued on their search.
"Who the heck was that?" Harry whispered while glancing over his shoulder.
Jane sighed. "Sandi Griffin. She and the two that are joining her are in the local Fashion Club. The girl in pigtails is okay and the other is harmless, but Griffin is pure bitch."
"Oh," he responded simply, frowning. "Why doesn't-"
The strange buzzing from when the truck almost hit her the day before returned along the right edge of Jane's jaw. With a tiny hop, she easily cleared the leg that suddenly swept under her, but Harry caught it full across the shins and lurched forward uncontrollably, throwing all of his food into the air in the process.
As soon as Jane's feet hit the floor, she shifted her food tray to one hand so she could grab onto the back of her friend's sweater vest to safely lower him to his hands and knees instead of letting him bash into the floor face-first. With that done, she let go and reached out to snag his tray, then used it to adroitly catch each item of food as it fell.
Harry quickly picked himself up and spun toward the source of the attack. "What the hell was that for?" he demanded to know.
"Aw, look! Lazy Lane got herself a girlfriend!"
Balancing the trays easily in both hands, Jane groaned inwardly at the familiar voice and turned to see Harry leaning menacingly over Flash and Evan, who were both seated and looking very smug. Either might have been the one to try and trip them, but it hardly mattered which. She knew they'd both enjoyed seeing the new kid humiliated either way.
"Harry, c'mon," she said through her teeth, barely containing her own temper. "Let's just leave and let the primates pick through each other's fur in peace."
Reluctantly, Harry turned away from the two jocks as they laughed and made monkey noises. Much to Jane's chagrin, she found that the only available table left was the next in line, right across from Flash and his crew. After a moment of indecision, she finally set both trays down and took a seat. When Harry sat down across from her, he looked nearly apoplectic.
Concerned, Jane tried to catch his eye. "You gonna be okay?"
"That's that Flash guy you were talking about, right?" he asked angrily, ignoring her question. "What's his deal?"
Jane unwrapped a plastic fork and sighed. "Kevin is . . . well, I'm not sure what he is anymore," she said. "We used to be friends."
"What, you and that barbarian?" Harry looked at her disbelievingly.
"Hard to imagine, I know, but true," she admitted. "He was okay when we were kids. A little on the dumb side, but nice. Then we hit high school and he started playing football. After that, it was all about the competition and being popular. No more time for little Jane Lane unless it's to remind her how non-competitive and unpopular she is."
Harry's expression softened as he listened to her story. "What about the other guy?"
"Evan?" Jane snorted. "He was a mistake. I was . . . infatuated with him a couple of years back. Nothing serious, honest! But he was the reason I joined track. As soon as I found out what a jerk he was, I quit the team. Which, incidentally, is right about the time Coach Morris started hating my guts. Good times."
"Sounds like it," Harry returned sympathetically.
With that, they turned to their lunches and ate in silence. Even as much as her body burned for her to scarf down every last bit as quickly as possible, Jane restrained herself to a somewhat reasonable munching rate. She still went a great deal faster than Harry, leading to them getting down to just their desserts at about the same time.
Jane set her fork down and picked up a plastic spoon to play around with one of the pudding cups on her tray. "So, Harry," she said suddenly, "I know we're not really supposed to talk about it, but your family . . . you guys are still rich, right?"
"Uh, sort of," he said as he looked up from his own pudding skeptically. "Why?"
"Oh!" Jane exclaimed, realizing what his guarded look meant. "No, I'm not asking for handouts or anything! I was just thinking, if you happened to know about any job openings for, say, a 16 year old girl or her 21 year old brother so they could help their family pay the bills, you wouldn't mind letting me know, right?"
Harry's gaze grew distant as he considered her request. After mulling it over for a few moments, he said, "Well, don't spread it around or anything, but dad is working on setting up a new business here in Lawndale, and they'll be hiring for just about everything. But it won't be ready to go until . . . oh, at least next year, probably around the end of spring from the way they're talking. I'm not sure if that's any help."
"No, but thanks anyway," she said, smiling and reaching across the table to pat him on the shoulder.
Her face dropped in surprise when she pulled her arm back and found that her fork was stuck along the inside of her wrist. Figuring that it had adhered to the sticky part of her palm, she quickly yanked on it and hoped that Harry hadn't noticed. Instead of peeling away clean like everything else had before, the fork gave her a fight and tried to snap back into place. With mounting panic, she saw that a thin, gluey line of greyish-white material was stretched out between the fork and her wrist, and that further, she could feel the stuff as it was being pulled out of something just under her skin.
The tight snap that sounded out when the fork finally pulled free caused Harry to jerk his head up and around. Seeing that the white stuff had congealed into a ball on her wrist, Jane turned her hand over and slapped it down on her food tray before he could notice anything unusual.
"Is something wrong?" Harry asked. She plastered her best fake grin across her face and shook her head.
"Nope! Everything's fine!" she lied through her teeth.
Harry looked at her funny, but then shrugged and returned to his dessert. When Jane tried to pull her hand back and put it under the table, she was stymied when her tray insisted on coming with it. Desperate, she put her other hand on the tray and tried to free herself, but on the third jerk it broke away from her grip.
Her arm slung back in an arc, carrying the tray and everything on it along for the ride. When the arm and tray stopped, however, everything else continued moving. Pudding cups, fruit rinds, and various other bits of food scraps and empty wrappers sailed through the air until they landed square on top of Flash Thompson's head.
"What the fartknocker?" Flash yelled, holding his hands out as brown pudding and watermelon juice dripped from his fingertips. Brittany shoved a handful of paper napkins in his direction, but all he managed to do with them was push around the detritus that clung to his hair and face.
"I have to go now," Jane told Harry woodenly, horrified shock coursing through her brain. She stood up, turned, and walked as fast as she dared toward the exit as she continued tugging at the tray glued to her arm.
Once she was alone in the hall, Jane felt clear to unleash a bit of her super-strength, twisting the tray nearly in half as she finally wrenched it free. She tossed it in the nearest garbage can she could find, then navigated the hallways until she banged her forehead against her locker door and wondered just what she was going to do. She was still pondering the problem when the bell rang and other students started to swarm around her.
The buzz came from directly behind her, burning in the base of her skull like a wildfire. Everything around her slowed down, even more than it had with the truck. She picked up her head and looked around to find that all of the kids nearby were only just barely moving while she alone seemed to remain completely unimpeded.
Even more amazingly, she could feel things going on around her, even if she couldn't see them in her direct line of sight. Someone several lockers down had just let loose a paper airplane, and she could sense the very air flowing around its flimsy wings. On her other side, a spitball was just exiting the end of a straw, and she swore that she could almost count each and every drop of spittle that was accompanying it.
But the actual danger was still behind her. Feeling like she had all the time in the world, Jane ducked down and leaned to the side. The dulled but easily recognizable sound of a fist slamming into a metal locker reached her ears, and she stood up and turned just as Flash was pulling his fist back and wincing in pain. Time returned to normal speed for her, but all of her nerves were completely jazzed. She felt ready for anything, anything at all.
"Son of a bitch!" Flash yelped as he cradled his hand. He shook it out, quickly recovered, and was about to throw another one when a dark hand landed on his shoulder and pulled him back. Jane looked up to see that the rest of Flash's crew had appeared behind him.
"Hey look, man," Mack admonished his friend, shaking his arm a little, "Jodie and I usually turn a blind eye when you're just picking on people, but you can't go around hitting girls."
Flash slapped Mack's hand away and snarled. "Like, stay out of this, Mack Daddy! We used to hit each other all the time when we were kids! And besides, she totally hit me first this time!"
He pointed at the stray bits of food still clinging to his hair as proof, then turned back to Jane as Evan stepped in Mack's way. With a bellow of anger, Flash threw another punch that flew through thin air as Jane leaned just slightly to the side. Three more tries met the same result, so he decided to let all out with a wild haymaker.
Jane watched the highly telegraphed move with something approaching bemusement. Just as the wide swing was about to touch her, she pulled her body backward until the top of her head nearly scraped the ground. As soon as the space above her was clear, she straightened up and reached out to grab Flash's wrist before he could pull back his fist.
Using only a fraction of her strength, she twisted his arm back, pinching the bones in his wrist together with her thumb and index finger at the same time. He cried out in surprise at the sudden pain, a cry that was cut short when she released him and slammed the heel of her other hand into his chest.
Flash went flying down the hall, hit the ground, and slid to a stop at Ms. Barch's feet. The science teacher smirked as she lifted a foot and placed one of her sharp high heels into the side of his chest.
"Now, Mr. Thompson," she said, exuding massive amounts of smug satisfaction, "am I correct in thinking that I just saw you throw the first punch at one of the nice young ladies of Lawndale High?"
Instead of answering, Flash used the only defense he could come up with under the circumstances.
He pretended to faint.
Back at the lockers, Harry suddenly appeared at Jane's side, grabbed her by the shoulders, and helped her escape in the confusion. Once it seemed that they were a safe distance away, he turned her toward him and started checking her over.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "Did he hit you? Do you need to see the nurse?"
"I'm fine, Harry, I'm fine!" she told him, swatting his hands away. "He didn't hit me, I don't need to see the nurse, and I'm totally fine!"
"Okay! Whew! Wow!" Harry wiped worried sweat from his brow as they resumed walking down the hall. "That was just . . . insane! Amazing! How long have you been studying . . . I don't know, kung fu or whatever?"
"I don't," Jane answered automatically, then shook her head. "I mean, uh . . . I watch a lot of Jackie Chan movies."
"Well, whatever it is you're really doing, keep doing it," he told her. "'Cause it's working."
Setting her middle and ring finger back against her palm, Jane used the small dip between them to carefully aim at the half-filled can of Ultra Cola sitting on the other side of the room. She stuck her tongue out as she concentrated, then flexed the muscles in her arm just so, causing a thin stream of webbing to shoot from the spinneret in her forearm.
The end of the webline globbed onto the side of the can. With an ease born of several days worth of practice, Jane grabbed hold of the line and used it to yank the drink over to her other hand without spilling a single drop. She then took a victory swig, feeling a justified sense of accomplishment. Several fresh splatters of color adorned her bedroom walls and furniture from all the failed attempts with her paint bottles that had led up to her current level of skill.
Though she was starting to get used to it, Jane figured that the whole webbing thing had to definitely be her weirdest power yet. It was a little disgusting, but she was at least happy that it was coming out of her arms and not any other, more intimate or awkward part of her anatomy. When she had taken the time to consider it, the slight increase in her bust size made her shudder at the thought of what might have been.
Her new ability also had some odd but in some cases helpful characteristics. Though most of the webbing was sticky, naturally, there were sections of it that weren't, and the mental buzz that she had started calling "spider-sense" allowed her to instinctively tell which sections were which, further allowing her to handle the weblines without worrying about gluing her own hands together.
While her body seemed to produce the stuff quickly, she had found that it wasn't actually infinite and needed some time to refill. Additionally, on the two occasions she had actually run the spinners dry, she had later become extremely hungry as her body needed more food to make more webbing.
Finished with her drink, Jane stuck a line to the ceiling and used it to pull herself up from her chair. She then went around the room, winding the stray webbing from her practice session up and made sure that the outside was all non-sticky before shoving it in the front pouch of her hoodie. Though she could easily web the broken lock on her door shut while she was inside practicing, she couldn't while she was out, so she had to make sure to dispose of the evidence just in case Trent ever wandered in.
As she tromped down the stairs, she reflected that she was starting to get tired of just shooting webs in her room and the back yard anyway. She wanted to get out and try some fancier stuff, like dangling from overhangs or making a web parachute. Real spiders got to do that sort of thing, so why shouldn't she?
She needed to get out into the actual city, she knew. There were a few tall-ish buildings in Lawndale, but the actual New York metropolitan area was where the big boys were at, the skyscrapers that she could swing from for hours without ever having to touch the ground. Just the thought of being able to glide several hundred feet over a busy street on a webline and a prayer filled Jane with almost palpable excitement.
Trent was in the kitchen, head down on the table and fast asleep. Moving quietly so as not to disturb him - though she doubted that a dump truck filled with nitro glycerin would seriously disturb a sleeping Lane - she stepped over to the sink and ran a glass of water. She wasn't entirely certain how Trent had managed to finagle getting the water turned back on, but she figured that it was a method probably best left to the imagination. She enjoyed the lukewarm, somewhat untasty fluid all the more, however, after having to live a few days without.
Sandwich fixings found their way on to the counter and were gradually assembled into a sizable meal. After putting everything else away, Jane took her dinner over to the table and sat down next to her slumbering brother.
A newspaper sat in the middle of the table. Jane pulled it closer as she took a massive bite of her sandwich and saw that it was open to the help wanted ads. Several of the ads were circled in pen, with some of them hastily scribbled over. Jane felt proud of Trent and yet disheartened at the same time as she read over the various entries. Mystik Spiral was everything to him, his dream of a better tomorrow through musical excellence. The smudged ink circles dotting the newspaper page were tangible evidence that he had started the slow, unhappy process of setting that dream aside.
Gently, she reached out and stroked Trent's hair once, wishing deeply that he didn't have to make such a sacrifice. Her heart ached on his behalf as she imagined having to give up on any of her own artistic aspirations. She sighed and turned the page to find that the other side was a large block of more conventional advertisements for different businesses and shows in the area, including one that caused her to pause mid-chew.
Jane read the gaudily colored ad several times to make sure that she was getting all of the details right. If it was on the level, she could buy at least few months of leeway with the utilities companies and maybe even the bank. The only problem was the timing. The event was in the city, not too far for Trent to drive her there but too far for her to make it in time thanks to her after school self-esteem class.
Checking the date one more time, however, she saw that she still had a week with which to work. Setting her sandwich down, she jumped up to grab the phone from its cradle and was relieved to hear a dial tone. She hit a carefully memorized sequence of numbers and waited impatiently for the pickup.
"Hey, Laney! What's up?"
"Hey, Harry," she replied, trying to keep the excitement out of her voice. "You printed out all the answers to the questions on the self-esteem release test, right?"
"Yah, I've got them in one of my binders."
"What do you say to taking the test tomorrow and getting out of the class once and for all?"
"Hmm, I don't know," Harry said uncertainly. "How would I spend my afternoons?"
"Same way we spend 'em now, ya doof, only not at school and without a bunch of classmates around, listening to O'Neill rattle off syrupy platitudes," Jane told him. "And I have yet to introduce you to the deviant pleasures of Sick, Sad World. So what do you say?"
"Well, if you're going to be twisting my arm about it," he replied good-naturedly. "I can see about heading over there right now if you're in a hurry?"
"Awesome, I'll leave the light on for ya!"
After they said their goodbyes, Jane hung up and returned to her meal, tearing through it as she stared at the ad and started formulating plans in her head. She was hampered by her lack of funds, but years of practice scraping by helped her rapidly figure out ways to bypass that particular hurdle.
Harry would be able to help with parts of it, but for the most part she wanted to keep the whole thing secret from both him and Trent. They would both try to stop her, for one thing, and the only way to convince them not to would be to expose her secret abilities, which she was still reluctant to do.
A mask. She definitely needed a mask.
Polishing off the last of her sandwich, she temporarily set the issue aside so she could concentrate on cleaning up the house in general and her room in particular as best she could in a short amount of time. A great deal of shoving things around corners, under furniture, and into closets was involved. She had just remembered to hide her ball of webbing deep in the kitchen trash can when she heard a knock at the door.
Trent was still nestled deep within his own personal dreamscape, but Jane didn't want to take any chances. When she opened the door to let Harry in, she motioned for him to be quiet. He nodded, pantomimed zipping his mouth shut, and followed her up the stairs to her room.
"Neat," he said as he looked around at the paint splatters on the walls. "Very avant-garde."
"I choose to take that as a compliment rather than an insult," Jane responded wryly.
Harry smiled as he set his binder on the desk and shrugged off his jacket. "It doesn't really look like what you'd think a typical girl's room would look like."
"I'm not really your typical girl," Jane said, arcing an eyebrow.
"I've noticed," he laughed, then pointed at a stack of canvases leaning against the wall. "May I?"
Jane sat on the bed and pulled her knees up under her chin, suddenly subdued. "Sure," she said.
Instead of just flipping through them quickly like she expected he would do, Harry worked through them slowly, seeming to take his time to appreciate each painting individually before moving on to the next. Jane sat in torturous silence, fighting the urge to get up and pace. Of all the things that she would have thought would make her nervous about having a boy in her room for the first time post-pubescence, she hadn't figured having him look through her art would be the most nerve wracking.
He placed the canvases back against the wall and turned to her, nodding appreciatively. "Wow, Laney . . . you're pretty good!"
"You're just saying that 'cause you don't know all the escape routes out of the house yet," she mumbled into her knees.
"No, seriously, there's some great stuff in there," he reassured her. "My dad . . . he's kind of an art buff. Mostly tribal masks and armor, but he's got a lot of original stuff by some pretty famous artists. When he starts going on about it, it's kind of hard not to pick up a thing or two about what's good and what's not, and I'm telling you . . . you're good."
Jane shrugged uncertainly but decided to just take the compliment. "Thanks."
"Thank you for letting me see them. So, are you ready to-"
Both of them jerked their heads up when loud, heavy knocking resounded from downstairs. Harry glanced at Jane, who shook her head in confusion and stood up from the bed. The two teens made their way down to the first floor to find Trent awake and peeking around the curtains by the front door. When he noticed them, he motioned for silence.
"Who is it?" Jane whispered once they had tip-toed over.
"Bank goons," Trent whispered back. "Big ones."
"What do they want?" Harry asked quietly.
Jane looked at him, a mixture of fear and sadness in her eyes. "Foreclosure," she said, her voice close to cracking.
Harry's face darkened and suddenly seemed to be set in stone. "They're here to kick you out?" he asked. A surprising edge of steel had entered his voice.
When Jane nodded, he straightened up to his full height and said, "You two stay here and out of sight."
"No!" Jane nearly shouted as she grabbed his arm.
He gently put his hand on top of hers. "Let me handle this," he told her. "Trust me."
Mad thoughts of gluing Harry's feet to the floor with her webbing raced through Jane's head, but then she felt Trent's hand settle down on her shoulder. When she looked back at him, he nodded almost imperceptibly and glanced meaningfully at Harry. Reluctantly, she let her friend go and joined Trent at the crack in the curtains.
Harry opened the front door and stepped outside confidently. Jane couldn't quite make out what was being said, but she could see the two ham-fisted goons glowering down at the scrawny teenager who had just stepped up to them. After a few moments of conversation, Harry reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and showed them something inside. One of the goons didn't look particularly impressed and seemed to be saying something to that effect, but the other backed away a step and started cutting his eyes to the side.
Jane frowned at this odd behavior as the second goon leaned over to whisper into the first's ear. Goon #1 still didn't seem too convinced but finally allowed himself to be led away, glancing back menacingly every few yards until they reached their car and drove away.
When Harry stepped back inside, all of the manly bravado he had shown outside disappeared in a single huff of air, making him look like a balloon animal suffering from instant deflation. Jane launched herself at him, tears streaming down her face, and enveloped him in a massive bear hug. She thought she could feel a couple of his ribs move under his sweater vest, so she slacked her muscles just enough to keep from crushing him while simultaneously refusing to let him go.
After he took a few moments to recuperate, she could feel him turn to put his hands on her back and pat her reassuringly.
Once Trent managed to peel Jane off the poor boy, he shook Harry's hand. "Good job, man, thanks," he said. "What'd you tell 'em, anyway?"
Harry rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously. "I, uh . . . I told 'em my dad was Norman Osborn and that we had a special interest in this house, so they'd be well-served by backing off and giving you guys some more time to pay," he replied. "They didn't believe me until I showed them my student ID. I wasn't really expecting it to work, but it seems like the Osborn name still has some pull to it."
He then looked at Trent nervously, but the revelation of his parentage either passed completely over the older man's head or simply wasn't of any importance to him whatsoever. Even if Jane hadn't already known herself, she definitely knew that the only thing that mattered was that Harry had just helped save their home.
"Thanks, Harry," she said, smiling and wiping tears from her eyes as Trent squeezed her shoulders lightly. "Thank you. You don't know how much this means to us."
Harry blushed deep red and suddenly found his feet very interesting. "It was nothing," he said. "Don't worry about it. I couldn't let you get kicked out of your house, could I? And look, I know you said you weren't looking for handouts, but if you guys are having trouble-"
"No." Jane shook her head adamantly.
"She's right, man," Trent said softly. "Gettin' us some extra time was cool and all, but this is somethin' we gotta do ourselves. It's, like, somethin' to do with bein' great and responsible." He turned to Jane and shrugged helplessly. "I guess I shoulda written that part down."
Jane playfully slapped him on the chest, then turned back to Harry. "If you really want to help, then we really need to study that stuff you brought over. I know that doesn't make much sense," she added when he gave her a confused look, "but this time you have to trust me, okay?"
As Harry nodded, Trent took his arm from around Jane's shoulders and looked at his bare wrist. "Hey, speakin' of studyin', I've got practice," he announced. "Gonna be outta the house for at least a few hours. You guys gonna be alright on your own?"
"Yah," Jane said immediately, then nudged Harry with her elbow.
"Oh! Sure, yah, we'll be fine," he said, unsure of the piercing look Trent was giving him.
Trent held Harry's eyes for several more long seconds, then broke away with a light smile. "Alright, don't do anything I woul-" He stopped, tilted his head, then tried again. "Behave yourselves."
With that, he turned and headed toward the basement to grab his guitar and equipment. Harry watched him go, then looked over in surprise when he felt a warm hand slip into his own.
"Let's go study," Jane said, squeezing his fingers lightly.
"Okay," he said simply, a smile slowly spreading across his face as they walked back up the stairs to her room.
"Hiiiiiiii," Mr. O'Neill dragged out blankly. "Did you need clarification on something we covered today?"
From just the barest hint of panic lining O'Neill's features, Jane could tell he had no idea who she and Harry were and was trying to place them without the aid of a seating chart. She had to force herself not to roll her eyes. They had an act to perform if they were going to get out of self-esteem class, so she plastered on her cheeriest fake grin and got into character.
"We feel really good about ourselves!" Harry said, almost failing to open his teeth as he tried to talk and grin at the same time.
"We want to take the graduation test," Jane added brightly.
The panic disappeared from O'Neill's face as if it had never been there. "Well, I'm glad your self-image meter is on the uptick!" he said. "But . . . there's still three more weeks of class left."
"This first week has been a real eye-opener," Harry assured him. "It must be the way you teach."
"Oh, well, thank you very much!" O'Neill looked almost giddy from the flattery.
The iron was hot, so Jane moved in for the strike. "So, can we take the test?"
"Well . . . it's not the way we usually do it, but . . . I guess so!" The teacher turned to shuffle through the papers on his desk. Once he had found the ones he was looking for, he stacked them neatly together and turned back. "Okay, question one. 'Self-esteem is important because-'"
"'It's a quality that will stand us in good stead for the rest of our lives'," Harry quoted.
"Very good!" O'Neill exclaimed, nodding in approval. "Now, 'The next time I start to feel bad about myself-'"
"'Stand before the mirror'," Jane said as seriously as she could manage, "'look myself in the eyes, and say You are special! No one else is like you!'"
O'Neill's delighted smile opened so wide that Jane was half-afraid that the top of his head might topple off. "You two have really been paying attention!" he said. "Okay, 'There's no such thing-'"
"'As the right weight'," Jane interjected.
"'Or the right height'," Harry continued.
"'There's only what's right for me.'"
"'Because me is who I am!'"
Mr. O'Neill dropped the test to scatter across the floor while he clapped his hands together. "I don't think we have to go any farther," he told them. "I am really pleased! I think the whole school needs to hear about this at assembly!"
Panic! Panic! Jane's brain screamed at the mention of an assembly. Abort mission! Abort mission!
She and Harry traded worried glances. She scrambled for something to say, but she knew that even if she could come up with anything, it wouldn't help. Her throat had frozen solid.
Things had been going so well. Ever since their altercation in front of the lockers, Flash had been avoiding her. The situation was basically forced on him since he had been given three weeks detention with the promise that more would be added if he even looked in her direction for too long. Coach Morris had been limiting her personal brand of psychological warfare to the occasional icy glare during PE. Even Evan and the rest of Flash's crew had been giving her and Harry a wide berth.
Having their names announced in front of the entire student body regarding graduating self-esteem class early would ruin all of that. Flash, for one, wouldn't be able to resist getting at least one good dig in, extra week of detention be damned.
"Oh, God, not an assembly!"
Jane and Mr. O'Neill both jumped at Harry's sudden outburst. He stood before them, cringing and grasping the sides of his head in sheer panic.
"Mr. O'Neill, you can't! You just can't!" he insisted.
"Oh, no!" the teacher exclaimed. "He's regressing! Maybe it would be better if you stayed in the class after a-"
Harry shook his head vehemently. "No, no, my self-esteem is just fine, I just can't attend an assembly that's going to be about me! I break out in hives! It's a serious medical condition!"
"That does sound serious! Maybe we can just have Jane-"
"AAAAAAAAAAH!" Harry yelled.
"AAAAAAAAAAH!" O'Neill yelled back.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaah . . . "
Jane stood dumbfounded as she watched Mr. O'Neill run tearfully from the room. Harry stopped yelling himself as soon as O'Neill was out the door. He wiped a bit of drool from the corner of his mouth, turned to Jane, and calmly said, "Well, that should be the end of that."
"That was the most insane thing I've ever seen," Jane said, still trying to scrape her jaw off the floor. "That was like something straight out of a cartoon."
"Dad told me once that if you really want something, sometimes you have to act a little crazy to get it," he told her mock sagely. "This probably wasn't what he meant by that, but Mr. O'Neill seemed like the run-screaming type. I took a chance. Seems I've gotten some confidence about my crazy plans working out lately."
Smiling warmly, Jane slipped her arm around Harry's and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "Just remember, we're going to have to make sure he actually graduates us after this," she said.
"Heh, after this, I don't think we'll have to worry about him wanting us in his self-esteem class ever again," Harry laughed.
Arms still clasped together, they stepped out of the classroom and began the walk back to Jane's house.
True to Trent's request, she and Harry had behaved themselves the previous night. They had studied the course text for most of the evening, memorizing all of the answers for the release test and quizzing each other to make sure they had it down pat. They took infrequent breaks for some heavy make out sessions, but it hadn't progressed any further than that. They hadn't even taken any time to talk about what their relationship had evolved into, merely wanting to enjoy what they had while they had it.
A desire to tell Harry all about her spider-powers welled up inside Jane as they stepped out into the bright blue afternoon. They had only known each other for a little over a week, but he had already stepped up as her personal hero twice and had proven his trustworthiness several times over. But when she tried to open her mouth to speak the words, she realized that she just wasn't ready yet.
No, she had to admit to herself, that wasn't it. She was afraid.
Her powers were still new and, for all she knew, still a work in progress. She wanted to experiment with them more to be sure that she wasn't going to, say, actually change into a giant spider with poisonous fangs, eight hairy legs, and multiple eyes. She was worried enough for herself, and she didn't want Harry to worry, too, not until she was sure there was something to worry about.
But even more than that, she was afraid that she might scare him away. What if he thought that she was one of those mutants the scaremongers on TV liked to harp on and it freaked him out? What if he found her repulsive when he learned she could shoot webs out of her wrists? What if his ego couldn't handle the fact that she could bench press a motorcycle without breaking a sweat?
Whatever it was that was developing between her and Harry, she didn't want to risk destroying it before it could fully blossom. And so she remained silent.
Despite the storm cloud settled around Jane's head, the walk home was remarkably pleasant. Neither she nor Harry said much along the way, but they both enjoyed not having to say anything. It was enough just to hold each other's hand. When they reached Casa Lane, they sat on the steps and watched the sparse traffic pass by until Harry's taxi pulled up to the curb.
He kissed her on the lips and gave her hand one last squeeze before he got into the cab and left for his own home. Jane stayed on the steps for almost half an hour before she could bother rousting herself and heading inside. She could have sat there forever, but she had important work to do.
In her room, she threw her backpack in a corner and picked up one of her sketchpads. She had lucked upon one that had only a few used pages, so she turned to the first clean sheet, flumped back on her bed, and grabbed a thick graphite pencil from her nightstand.
The first thing she needed was an emblem. Something instantly recognizable that would make her stand out to a crowd. The most obvious popped immediately to mind, but she shoved it away before it could seriously take hold. Obvious, she felt, should be her absolute last resort.
After staring at the blank sheet of paper for twenty minutes, she gave up on that train of thought and scribbled down a simple spider silhouette.
"Well, at least it's a start," she grumbled at the tiny doodle.
Several more spiders joined that one on the page, some small and simple, others ridiculously intricate. While many were duds, there were a few that she particularly liked, like the sharp, jagged one with crooked legs. It looked dangerous, as if it was going to jump out of her sketchbook and start shooting venom at everything around it.
The one that really caught her eye, however, was one of the simplest designs. Two slightly elongated body segments sporting four legs pointing up and four pointing down. She circled it and the jagged spider for future reference, then moved on to the actual outfit itself.
The first few designs she threw out surprised her by showing off copious amounts of skin. She wondered at first why she would be drawing what basically amounted to spider-themed stripper outfits until she remembered exactly what her new body looked like underneath her shapeless hoodie. Flustered embarrassment overcame her as she suddenly realized just how much she wanted to show off that physique, and it only became worse when she imagined Harry seeing her wearing any of the suits she had just drawn.
The offending page was quickly torn out, crumpled, and thrown into the corner of the room accompanied by a mental note to burn it to ashes as soon as possible.
Several more pages were filled up with much more conservative fare. Two of them she felt came out especially well. Both were similar in that they covered all of her body except for her hair and her lower face, but beyond that they quite different from each other.
One, which she had used colored pencils to mark in shades of red and yellow, lacked any sort of spider symbol, but it had a short cape made of webbing, and the markings on the front were vaguely hourglass-shaped, like those found on a black widow. The other was completely black and white with shoulder-length gloves and thigh-high boots. A slight variant of the jagged spider adorned both the front and the back with the legs of each meeting on the sides.
While her eyes were covered on both of the outfits, she remembered that part of the whole reason for a costume was to hide her identity, and she felt that the masks still didn't cover quite enough. She tried variations with masks that covered her entire head, but the results were less than satisfactory, causing her to scrap both designs.
Jane rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands, feeling frustrated at her lack of progress. Several halfway decent sketches had been flipped over to the other side of her sketchbook for later perusal, but just as many sat on the floor, either squeezed into paper balls or simply torn to pieces.
Just as she was about to take a break and find something to eat, however, she felt the sudden inspiration to try just one more thing.
Simplicity, she thought as her hand began to move faster and faster across the paper, is the key.
The first thing she did was trace out a few simple female outlines around several quickly sketched body frames, each facing a different direction. No thick boots, no flashy capes, none of the other fancy little additions that she had tried hanging on the other designs. Nothing but a single, full-body outfit that covered her from her neck all the way down. Thin gloves and boots would probably be necessary, she knew, but they could be fitted to blend seamlessly into the rest of the garment when worn. To top it off, she added a mask that covered her entire head and had lenses concealing the eyes.
With both her guilty desire of wanting to show off her hot bod and her need to completely conceal her identity satisfied by the skin-tight outfit, she moved on to the next step. While the suit was simplicity itself, she decided to pour a lion's share of complexity into the markings that would overlay it.
She started by dividing the suit up into a few major areas. The first was the entire torso from the waist up and including the shoulders and head. She drew lines at the edges of the gloves and boots, then set to molding those sections bit by bit. She extended a line along the outside of the arms that connected the shoulders to the gloves, then sliced away a section along the ribs. Moving to the back-facing model, she continued that slice all the way across the back, leaving a small strip across the waist that gave the appearance of a belt. The back ended up looking a little bare as a consequence, so she went back to her spider designs, picked one of the larger, rounder images, and penciled it into the space.
Grabbing up her colored pencils, Jane initially planned to color the suit in with red and black, two of her favorite colors. After much internal debate, she decided that would be a little too menacing and set the black aside for a dark blue. After filling in the legs, back, and arms with blue, she made everything else red. Then, picking up her graphite pencil again, she started filling in the red areas with a webbing design.
As a final touch, she took the simple spider design she had circled earlier and placed it right in the middle of the chest.
Good, she thought. Very good. But still not quite right. It looks like . . . it looks more like something a spider guy would wear, not a girl. Hmm.
Her stomach growled at her, but she ignored it. She was completely caught up in the act of creation, and she wasn't about to let base physical needs get in her way.
Realizing that the ideas that had started percolating in her head needed something more than a mere sketchpad could provide, Jane stood and marched over to her easel. A half-finished painting sat there, waiting for her inspiration to strike again. Unfortunately for it, inspiration had indeed struck, but for something else entirely and Jane was completely out of new canvases.
She grabbed up a tin of base white paint, dipped a wide brush into the liquid, then spread it liberally across the canvas until the almost-painting underneath was completely obliterated. Several weblines sprang forth from Jane's wrists, and in the space of just a minute she had a palette covered with every color she would need.
Sweat poured down Jane's face as she painted furiously. Every once in a while she would reach up and swipe it away, but as long as it didn't get into her eyes she ignored it for the most part. Color danced across the canvas as she, to her surprise, went the extra mile to fill up the entire background for what was supposed to be a simple concept picture.
She wasn't entirely certain how long she had been at it, but by the time she stepped back from the easel she felt completely worn out, as if she'd been running a marathon instead of just painting. She set her brush and palette down, then put a hand over her mouth in wonder as she studied the image before her.
Her costumed self sat crouched in the middle of the canvas. She was perched on the edge of a city rooftop, right next to a massive stone gargoyle. One hand was poised on the flank of the statue while the other was stretched outward, fingers set in position to let loose a webline into the distance. Every muscle under the costume was tense, ready for action at a moment's notice.
Most the basic placements of the red and blue sections on the outfit were still there, but their exact boundaries had shifted somewhat. Instead of covering the gloves entirely, the red and webs only took up the thumbs, index fingers, and pinkie fingers. Further, the lines connecting the shoulders and hands had been removed completely. The outside halves of the boots up to the calves were still red, but the inside halves were all blue.
The line connecting front to back no longer resembled a belt. Instead, it had been curved up and over the hips and sharpened down to a point just under her bellybutton. And though she hadn't painted a back view of the suit, the design she had in her head included a similar look in the back instead of the blue space and big red spider.
The spider on the front remained, but it too had changed. The body segments were somewhat elongated, but the legs had truly been altered. Instead of the thin, closed in look, she had spread them out, lengthened them until they reached all the way to the shoulders and the waist, and made them widen slightly as they went along. And like with the red and web itself, she knew there was going to be a matching spider on the back, its top four legs meeting those of the front-side spider's on her shoulders.
Two silver bands sat on her wrists, a last second addition who's purpose she hadn't quite figured yet, but she had to admit they looked good there.
In fact, the entire thing looked good. Better than good.
"Perfect," she said out loud.
But, unfortunately, entirely impractical for her current needs. Looking at the suit with a more critical eye, she could see that it would require materials she simply didn't have on hand, and even if she did it might take her more than a week to get it all put together properly. It would have to wait, but she swore that it would get made someday if she had anything to say about it.
Feeling a sense of accomplishment only slightly marred by disappointment, she left the painting to dry while she opened her closet door and began to dig around for something more suitable for the interim.
Trent's '73 Plymouth had definitely seen better days, but it still managed to sputter its way into the city without leaving its driver and passenger stranded. Jane could only hope that it would make the trip back, especially after she had scrimped every bit of money she could get her hands on for the past week to fill the gas tank.
"Here we are," Trent said, ducking his head down to look up at the building outside the window. "Sure this place is gonna have what you need?"
"Yes," Jane replied tersely. She gripped the strap of her backpack tightly as she unbuckled her seat belt and prepared to step out.
Reluctantly, she turned to find Trent staring at her, his dark brown eyes searching her face intently. She sat transfixed, a light sweat forming at her hairline.
"You're not in any kinda trouble, are you?" he asked. "'Cause if you are, you know you can tell me, right?"
Jane cleared her throat. "No, I'm not in trouble. I'd tell you if I was."
"Everything okay with Harry? The kids at school buggin' you again?"
"Harry's fine. School's fine. Everything's fine," Jane said, slightly sharper than she'd intended.
Trent continued to watch her thoughtfully, and for a second Jane started to believe what he always said about being able to sense things about people. Not that sensing my mood at the moment would take a mind-reader, she thought ruefully. She had been jumpy ever since they had left the house earlier that afternoon.
Trent nodded. "Okay," he said, turning back to the front of the car. "I just worry about ya sometimes, y'know? After ya met Harry, it seemed like you were happy for the first time since mom and dad were in the house last. But you've been kinda twitchy the last couple of days. Don't wanna see you go back to the way things were before is all. I like seein' ya happy."
Jane sighed and gave him half a smile. "I am happy," she assured him. "I've just been distracted lately with this project. And I've been going through some . . . changes. Not just the going out with Harry thing, but some other stuff. I've just gotta sort it out for myself, and if I can get this project done right, it'll be easier for me to do that. You don't have to worry about me, I promise."
He returned her smile and said, "Gonna anyway."
"I know," she returned as she leaned over and gave him a one-armed hug. "Back here in a few?"
"Can do. G'luck with your thing."
After Jane shut the door and they waved at each other through the window, Trent carefully pulled out into traffic as his car threatened multiple times to backfire. Jane watched him go as she slowly made her way up the steps to public library, then as soon as he disappeared around a corner she turned and headed for the nearest alleyway.
Convincing Trent to take her to a library in one of the boroughs had been easy enough, even though she'd fretted the entire time that he'd ask what she needed there that she couldn't get at one of the Lawndale libraries. She really needed nothing, however, except to get within short distance of her true destination.
Once inside an alley half a block away, Jane checked to make sure she was alone. She was far enough from the entrance to be sure no one on the street could see her, but she had to ensure that no muggers, murderers, rapists, or regular old homeless people would interrupt her as she prepared herself. When she had verified that she was indeed the only person in the alley, she unzipped her backpack and started pulling out a small bundle of clothes.
First was a black hoodie, which she pulled on over her t-shirt. It was a little old and smelled vaguely of mold from sitting unused in her closet since she'd gotten her red hoodie, but it worked well as the base for the jagged spider emblem she'd drawn on the front and back with a white fabric marker. She didn't bother changing out her jeans or sneakers, but she added a pair of black gloves and a black ski mask to her outfit. The mask didn't cover her eyes, which concerned her a little, but she figured it would still work well enough for what she was doing.
Grabbing up her backpack, Jane took in a deep breath and then expelled it before making a standing jump up into the air. Just as she was about to reach the apex of her jump, she sent a stream of webbing shooting from between her sleeve and gloves to splat against the edge of one of the rooftops above. As she came back down, she could feel the webline stretch taut until it checked her fall and caused her to go into a swing.
She set her legs to absorb the impact against the wall, then pushed herself back out while the webline snapped her upward like a massive rubber band. She flew up and up and up until she shot past the roofline, twisted her body in a flip, and gracefully landed on top of the building.
A wide grin spread underneath the mask.
Her practice over the week with the low-lying building in Lawndale paid off as she leisurely swung her way around the surrounding structures. She still felt a little wobbly on occasion, but looking down to see the streets and alleyways rush along underneath her no longer caused her heart to seize in fear that she was falling. Instead, the excitement she had expected at swinging from webline to webline gripped her, and she began to push herself, putting her legs together and swiveling them forward at the low ends of her swings to make herself go faster and faster.
While making a right hand turn at an intersection, she attached her webline to the corner of a building and then pulled herself up into a cannonball position. The speed she had accumulated caused her to fly out almost horizontally the entire way, and when she was going the right direction on the new street she let go to spin free in the breeze for a few seconds before sending out a new safety line.
She misjudged her trajectory a little and ended up scraping several feet along the side of a building before she could grab hold of the wall with her hands. Fortunately her gloves were thin enough not to impede the adhesiveness of her palms, but as she hung there and tried to catch her breath, she felt the lesson about getting cocky had been learned.
The rest of the trip was uneventful as she swung along more conservatively until she reached her destination, a local sporting arena with huge signs out front advertising the evening's event. Jane dropped down into a nearby alleyway, emerged, and walked through the parking lot and into the building.
Several long lines of people were at the inner doors, waiting to get in and get seated, but Jane bypassed those until she found the winding line of contestants waiting to sign up for the bout. As she stepped to the end of the queue, she was somewhat surprised to see that she wasn't wearing the strangest outfit by far. Spandex, sequins, gaudy colors, and even things like feathers and lit LEDs blinking in sequence could be seen in all sorts of unusual designs.
As Jane scanned the rest of the competition, she noticed that the strangest outfits were being worn by the few men in the line, funnily enough. These were weeded out as they reached the sign-up table, however, as the rules explicitly stated women only.
"Name?" the officiator asked when Jane finally stepped to the front of the line.
Having to force herself not to blurt out her real name, Jane announced in a slightly altered voice, "Spider-Girl!"
The woman behind the table looked up with bored eyes and curled her lip a bit. "Another luchador?" she asked in a tone that suggested she really didn't care about the answer. "Alright. You are aware that both the owners of this establishment and the operators of this event take absolutely no responsibility for any bodily harm - up to and including death - that you may and probably will have visited upon your skinny ass?"
"Uh . . . yah. And if I win, I get the money, right? Three thousand dollars, just like in the ad?"
"Sure, honey. If you win." She pushed a pen and a piece of paper across the table. "Please sign this waiver and go on over to the preparation area there."
Jane quickly scribbled Jamey Rhodes on the indicated line before walking over to the double doors that the officiator had indicated. She knew how much trouble she could get into if she got hurt and it was found that the name she had provided was fake, but with her powers she didn't except that to be a problem.
What was that about not being cocky? a small voice popped into her head, but she squashed it down as she entered a small room filled with other contestants. A small buffet had been set along one wall, so Jane fought her way through the crowd so she could stuff a few morsels under her mask to munch on. Along with filling her ever-hungry stomach, she found that keeping her mouth stuffed saved her from having to make tedious small talk with the people around her.
Each contestant was called one by one. The interval between each call out varied, but none of them exceeded two minutes. Considering the sizes and physical shape that many of the women were in, Jane had to admit being impressed at how quickly they had to be going down.
It took a few seconds for Jane to remember that was her. She wended her way through the thinning crowd until she reached the inner door. "Yah, uh, that should be 'Spider-Girl', actually," she said.
"Spider-Girl, huh?" the man with the clipboard asked disinterestedly. "Not Spider-Woman?"
"Eh, no. That makes me sound like somebody's mother."
"Whatever, kid," he said dismissively. "You're up next. You ready for this?"
Jane pounded a fist into her palm. "Heck yah!"
The man motioned her to follow him, then led her out to a set of curtains where he picked up a microphone and started talking into it. Though his tired expression never changed, his voice became loud and animated, stirring up the cheering crowd that could be heard through the curtains to greater heights of bloodthirst.
"Aaaaaaand now, ladies and gentlemen, straight from Mexico's world famous all-female lucha circuit, we proudly present . . . El Spectacularo SPIIIIIIIIIDEEEEEER-GIIIIIIIIIIIRL!"
"I . . . don't think that's actually Spa-" Jane started saying just before the announcer put a meaty hand on her back and shoved her through the curtains and into the deadly maw of the audience.
As she stumbled her way down the ramp leading to the wrestling ring in the center of the room, Jane found herself assaulted from all sides. Bright lights swinging back and forth nearly blinded her as the jeers and insults being bellowed from the crowd around her pounded in her ears. Her spider-sense screamed out from multiple directions, but she was too dazzled to dodge all of the candy bars, crumpled up fliers, popcorn, and other bits of trash that were being thrown her way.
Despite all of that, she managed to make it up to the ring unharmed. A little sticky, but unharmed. With the swinging lights finally at bay, she was able to look across the way and clearly see her opponent.
Holy crap, she thought. I may have miscalculated a little.
The woman in the other corner was absolutely enormous, standing somewhere between six and seven feet tall. Exactly where between Jane couldn't tell, since it looked like she was slouching heavily forward. But even more daunting than her height was the woman's girth, her weight resting easily somewhere over 500 pounds, though Jane figured it might even reach the 600 or 700 mark, all poured into a massive set of dark blue tights. A messy bob-cut of black hair framed a heavy, sweaty brow and a wide, scowling mouth. Two beady eyes glared at Jane as if she were a chocolate-stuffed turkey sitting in the middle of a Roman orgy platter.
"Will El Spectacularo Spider-Girl finally be the one? Will she be the contender who brings down the biggest of the mamas, the bustiest of the behemoths, the prima donna of the four-sided ring? Will she be able to stand toe-to-toe for three whole minutes against Fredrika Johanssen Dukes, The Immovable Blob?"
"NOOOOOOOOO!" the audience cried out as they shook their fists and stomped their feet.
"And for this round only, a special treat for all you wrestling fanatics! A good, old-fashioned . . . CAAAAAAAAAGE MAAAAAAAAATCH!"
On all four walls of the arena, displays lit up to show a three minute countdown. Then, to Jane's horror, there was a heavy clanking noise as bars suddenly descended and slammed into place around the ring, effectively blocking off any escape.
"Hey, wait!" Jane called out, her voice rising in panic. "I didn't agree to this!"
She was ignored as the countdown initiated. A heavy roar came from the opposite corner as her opponent charged forward, sheer bloody murder burning deep within her sunken eyes.
The sight of that much human being barreling toward her caused Jane to freeze up momentarily, but the massive buzz of her spider-sense snapped her out of it. With only moments to spare, she leaped up and back to land just shy of the top of the cage. When she gripped the bars and propped her sneakers back against them, she found that they weren't actually stiff but had a fair bit of give to them.
On the mat below, the Blob came to a stop that seemed just a little too sudden to Jane. The wrestler grunted noisily as she searched left and right before finally looking up to where the young girl was perched.
"Y'know," Jane called down conversationally, "for being 'immovable', you're pretty light on your feet!"
"You'll get down here right now, little lady, if ya know what's good for ya!" the Blob yelled angrily, her voice deep, rough, and laden with a heavy dose of southern accent.
"And get smothered to death by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Woman? I don't think soooooooaaaaaaAAAAAH!"
Jane's retort turned into a surprised yelp as her opponent grabbed the bars she was clinging to and began to shake them back and forth, sending heavy shockwaves her way. She jumped before she could be shaken off and hit the middle of the mat rolling. Sensing the Blob coming up behind her, Jane stopped her roll, laid her hands flat against the mat, and kicked back with both legs.
Instead of the heavy impact she had been expecting, she felt her feet hit and then slowly come to a stop. Looking down along her body, she could see that she had sunk halfway up her shins in the Blob's massive belly, which had completely absorbed the blow. The giantess chuckled darkly and snatched up Jane's trapped legs before she could extract them.
The ring spun around Jane, and she could only catch bare glimpses of the cheering audience due to the speed blur effect. With a bellow of triumph, the Blob released her, letting her fly free toward one of the cage walls face first. As the time-slowing effect of her enhanced reflexes kicked in, Jane grinned.
The Blob was just about to raise her arms and yell out to the crowd when two small, sticky somethings hit her shoulders with twin thwaps. She was looking at the thin stream of webbing on her right shoulder Jane's feet plowed into her again, this time right into the side of her head.
Pain shot through the bones in Jane's legs from the impact with the Blob's super-hard skull, but as she pushed herself back she had the satisfaction of seeing her opponent's face twist up in obvious discomfort. She landed in a crouch and waited patiently while the Blob tore away the sticky weblines and discarded them.
Once she was finished, the Blob moved in to crush Jane in a bear hug, but Jane simply sprang up between the woman's swinging arms. She then landed on the back of the Blob's head and used it as a springboard to propel herself at high speed to the other side of the ring. Reaching out, she grabbed the two bars in front of her, held on until they had stretched out as far as they could go, and then rode them until they shot her back in the Blob's direction.
The Blob, however, moved at a speed that belied her size and was ready for Jane upon her return. She easily snatched Jane out of the air, lifted her up, and slammed her down to the mat, dazing and knocking the wind out of her.
Before Jane could get up, one of the Blob's giant feet settled down across her head. The smell of the bare sole was exactly like what Jane would have imagined the bottom of a pro wrestler's foot would smell like, only a hundred times more pungent, even though the ski mask. She gagged on the stench as she tried desperately to push herself up or the foot off, but all of her struggles were to no avail.
She was trapped.
"Hah! Best quit your squirmin', little missy! Nuthin' moves the Blob!" the wrestler said, her voice and the noise of the crowd muffled by her flabby foot. "As long as I got one foot on the ground, you ain't goin' anywhere!"
The Blob's laughter grew louder as Jane tried ineffectually to reach the woman's other foot. No matter how she stretched around to grab or kick at it, all she managed to do was twist her neck uncomfortably. Consciousness slowly began to fade, as did any hope of winning the money and saving her home.
I'm sorry, Trent, she thought feebly as she pounded a fist into the mat in frustration. I tried . . .
The sound of her strike reverberated through the mat, vibrating pins and needles into Jane's squished cheek. Her eyes slowly closed as she mentally threw in the towel, but then snapped right back open as an idea struck her brain like lightning. If she couldn't get the foot up from the floor . . .
Lifting her arm up, Jane struck the mat again with as much force as she could at that angle, and given that she was pouring all of her enhanced strength into it, it was enough force to tear the padding and crack the wooden planks underneath. She followed it up with another quick bash that went all the way through, tearing a hole in the platform.
She could hear the confused snorts of the Blob as she repeated the feat with her other arm, so she knew she had to work fast. With both hands dangling down into the space beneath the ring, she searched around until she found one of the larger support beams running along beneath her. She gripped the beam with both hands and squeezed, crushing and splintering the wood until it snapped under the weight of the several hundred pounds worth of wrestler standing on her head.
The crowd went completely mental when the middle of the wrestling ring collapsed inward. Jane disappeared completely while the Blob sat in the middle of the destruction, a dazed look on her face. She shook her head and looked like she was about to stand back up and climb out of the hole when there was a long, low creeeeeeaaaaak followed by a loud CRACK!
An astonished look of terror crossed The Blob's wide face as she sank suddenly out of sight when the floor under the mat gave way.
Everyone in the audience stood, and for a few seconds, utter silence reigned. Necks craned to get a good look down the hole, and a few of the braver members of the event staff started edging toward it. The control room was frantic as the techs scrambled to get the cage lifted up from around the ring.
Then, the sound of someone yelling strained obscenities came from deep within the pit, followed by one last snarling shout of massive effort. The crowd gasped collectively as the blue tights-clad form of the Blob flew into view, sailed over the bowed ropes of the ring, and landed heavily on the thin padding between the ring and the front row seats. Thick, slimy strings of drool spooled from her mouth as she lay there, obviously unconscious.
A webline shot out of the hole and attached itself to the display hub sitting over the ring. Slowly, carefully, Jane crawled up along the line until she was sitting right in the middle. Her chest heaved from exertion, and it looked like she was only moments away from passing out and falling back down the hole. She hung there, collecting herself, then with a flourish, she spread her arms out in a dangling victory pose.
And the crowd went wild.
"This is it?"
The slimy looking individual behind the desk shrugged his shoulders and puffed his cigar nonchalantly as he shuffled through an enormous stack of twenties, hundreds, and credit slips. "That's it, sweetheart," he said. "'Course, if you don't want it, I'll gladly take it back . . . "
Jane glanced down in disgust at the three crumpled bills sitting in her hand and contemplated giving them back in a way the event manager wouldn't have liked at all. "Oh, I'm keeping this," she said angrily, "but I'm taking another twenty-seven just like 'em! That was the deal from the ad! Three thousand, not three hundred!"
"Look, sweetheart, there's nothing I can do here. My hands are tied. Maybe if you hadn't gone and torn up a perfectly good ring, a perfectly good floor, and the perfectly good storage area beneath 'em, we could deal. But you did, so we can't. Capiche?"
"Look, honey," the manager cut her off, "I want you to take a second and think about a couple of things. First, I want you to think about how nobody checked your age or asked for any other kind of identification when you came in. Lookin' at you, I'd say you're . . . what? Sixteen? Maybe seventeen? And 'Jamey Rhodes' sure as hell ain't gonna be your real name, am I right? And we still let you on, so I want you to just think about what kind of operation you're dealin' with here."
Jane felt a chill sink into her guts, a feeling that the man could apparently read in her eyes.
"I see you're gettin' the picture," he continued. "Smart girl. Now, all the damage you caused on top of the fact that you got no legal recourse whatsoever? I mean, hey, you put on a good show, gave the crowd a little something extra, and that tickles me pink, but I figure you oughta count yourself lucky I'm generous enough to let you leave here with anything! Now scat! Some of us got work to do!"
Jane leaned over the desk, desperate. "But I need that money!" she pleaded.
The man leaned in as well, looked her straight in the eye, and told her with cold indifference, "I missed the part where that's my problem."
Her brain burning and stomach roiling with anger, Jane snarled and turned away from the man before she did something she would regret. Stuffing the three hundreds into her pocket, she stormed out of the office and down the hallway outside. Focusing only on getting to the elevator on the other end and getting out of the building, she didn't notice that there was anyone else in the hall until she bumped shoulders with them.
"Sorry," she mumbled indistinctly to the man as he quickly passed her by.
When she reached the elevator and pressed the call button, she was still fuming. Three hundred dollars. That was it. She would be able to pay a little on a few of the bills or maybe pay just a single one completely, but like Trent's occasional band gig money it would only delay the inevitable for one more month at most.
"HEY! HEY! STOP!"
Jane was broken out of her dismal thoughts by the shouts coming from behind her. She turned to see the man she had bumped into running back down the hall, a revolver in one hand and a duffel bag trailing money in the other. The event manager was standing in the office doorway, holding a bloody spot on his head and still shouting.
"STOP HIM! HE'S GOT MY MONEY!"
The elevator dinged as the doors slid open with a soft swish. Jane's eyebrows came together under her mask as she watched the thief bearing down on her. When he was just a couple of yards away, she swiftly stepped to the side and put out a hand to hold the elevator doors open.
The thief rushed past her and turned to press a floor button with his gun hand. As the doors slipped closed, he grinned at Jane and said, "Thanks!"
A few moments later, she heard the manager's running steps come up behind her. "What the hell were you thinking?" he yelled at her. "With your moves you coulda taken him apart! Now he's gonna get away with my money!"
She stared at him icily for a moment, then leaned forward menacingly to snarl, "I missed the part where that's my problem."
The man sneered as he shook his head and started walking back to his office. Jane turned away, pressed the lift call button again, and waited, a feeling of grim satisfaction stealing over her heart.
Back outside, Jane had to force herself not to throw a tantrum complete with tossed vehicles and uprooted lampposts. All that preparation and work, and what did she have to show for it? Three hundred measly dollars, a slew of bruises, and a nasty headache that was growing nastier by the minute. The money was more than she'd had when she started, but it was still a bitter disappointment and, in her mind, hardly worth the effort that had been put into getting it.
Webslinging, which had been so exciting before, had become a nuisance. Her arms and legs ached as they went through the necessary motions. The wind blowing across her mask dislodged more of the sweaty foot smell that the Blob had ground into her mask. It was cheaper than a cab and faster than walking, but it was also a reminder that she had so many wonderful powers and yet she had still failed in her mission.
As Jane swung high above the streets, she kept looking down to see people walking and driving along on their evening business, neither knowing nor caring that she and her brother would probably soon be living in one of the gutters they were casually strolling past.
After lowering herself into the alleyway near the library and checking it again for witnesses, Jane removed her mask, gloves, and hoodie then stashed them in her backpack. With as cheerful an air as she could muster, she stepped out onto the sidewalk and started making her way back to where Trent was supposed to pick her up.
Out in front of the library, a small crowd had formed, around ten to fifteen people by Jane's count. She slowed down for a moment out of curiosity and was about to keep going up the stairs to the main building when she noticed a familiar pair of shoes almost but not quite obscured by the legs of the crowd. They were sitting with the toes pointing upward rather than sitting flush on the ground, causing her heart to skip a beat.
"'Scuse me," she said as she pushed her way through, worry driving her forward. "'Scuse me. 'Scuse m-"
All of the blood drained from Jane's face as she looked down at a man laying flat on the concrete, a ragged, bloody hole torn through one side of his chest and a pool of red slowly collecting beneath him.
"Trent," she breathed in surprise. Then louder, as she roughly pushed the last couple of people aside and knelt down beside him, "Trent! Oh God, oh God, Trent!"
Trent's eyes flickered open as he turned his head to look in her direction. Recognition slowly dawned, bringing a crooked smile to his face.
"Oh," he said as if absolutely nothing in the world was wrong. "Hey, Janey. Got back a little early from job huntin'. Hope ya don't mind."
"Did somebody call an ambulance?" Jane asked as she looked around at the crowd frantically. "Did anybody call a damn ambulance?"
"Yah, they should be here any-"
The woman trailed off as Trent let out a series of hacking coughs, each one spraying his balled up fist with flecks of bloody spittle. In the back of her mind, Jane knew that moving him was the probably worst thing she could do under the circumstances, but she couldn't help herself as she grabbed his convulsing form and held him until the fit had settled.
"How did this happen?" she asked, trying to hold back tears and failing miserably.
"Hnnn," he groaned, seeming to lose focus for a second. "S'a guy," he finally said, looking up into her eyes. "Wanted the car or somethin'. Was gonna give it to 'im, but I guess I wasn't movin' outta the way fast enough. Shot me. Hurts pretty bad."
"I know. I'm so sorry, Trent. The ambulance is on its way. They'll get here and they'll fix you up. It's gonna be okay."
With a great deal of effort, Trent lifted his hand up to place it along Jane's cheek and began to wipe at her tears with his thumb. "M'sorry, Janey. Tried to take care of ya. Did the best I could. Sorry m'not gonna be here ta help ya anymore. Sorry m'not gonna be around to see ya grow up. You gotta be the responsible one now. Jus' promise me you'll take care of y'self. 'Kay?"
"I promise! Just, don't leave me!" she cried. "Please!"
"Love ya, Janey. I . . . "
Trent's hand fell to his chest as he rattled out his last breath.
Jane stared down at him, disbelieving, feeling as if her entire body had been dipped in ice water. Her muscles flexed and released almost at random, and she couldn't tell at first if she was going to explode or simply shut down completely. But just before she reached the point of no return, she looked down at the gaping bullet wound sitting just under the torn t-shirt and her focus became perfectly clear.
Someone had shot Trent. She was going to find them, she was going take their little pistol away, and then she was going to tear their goddamned head right off their goddamned shoulders.
Sirens wailed noisily behind her as she gently set Trent's body back on the sidewalk and stood up. One set stopped right by the sidewalk and shut down as EMTs jumped out of the ambulance and rushed over. Two more sets continued on down the street at high speed, police cars in pursuit of Trent's killer.
Jane pushed her way back out of the crowd, no longer bothering with polite apologies. She bolted along the sidewalk, following the cruisers as fast as her legs could carry her. As she ran, she pulled her backpack around to her front, opened it, and started pulling the clothes inside back on, not caring who saw her doing it. When she finished, she discarded the empty backpack and leaped several yards into the air.
As she swung from web to web at top speed, she followed the sound of sirens in the distance. Rather than try to actively control her movements, she allowed her spider-sense and instinctual reflexes full reign as she rushed headlong through the concrete jungle. She made several daredevil moves between narrowly spaced buildings, around sharp corners, and through small spaces, pushing herself faster and faster regardless of the danger posed to herself.
She caught up with and finally passed the police cars just as they were pulling up behind the familiar blue Plymouth. The killer behind the wheel swerved dangerously around traffic as he tried desperately to avoid the cops gaining on him, but Jane was able to land on the roof of the car as easily as if it had been in park.
Her spider-sense flared, causing her to move slightly to the left as a bullet hole appeared next to her hand. She dodged twice more as the shooter fired aimlessly, then pushed her hand down into the roof and started peeling it back bit by bit.
Another loud bang caught her attention, but the lack of a head tingle confused her until she looked back to see black smoke pouring out of the tailpipe. Almost immediately the car started slowing down as it lost power, some part or parts inside of its various worn down systems having finally given up the ghost. A string of curses came from inside the vehicle as it pulled a hard turn into a nearby parking lot.
Jane tried to lean with the turn, but it ended up being too much for even her enhanced balance, tossing her off to roll painfully along the ground. When she finally came to a stop and picked herself up, shaking her head to clear it, she saw that the killer had abandoned the car and was running into a nearby abandoned warehouse.
The police weren't far behind. Jane growled in frustration as they pulled into the lot, spotlights flaring and beginning to swivel around. She had to be fast. She couldn't let them interfere. Pulling her bruised self together, she sprinted for the door that the killer had run through. Once on the other side, she webbed it shut so they wouldn't be disturbed anytime soon.
The interior of the building was dark, lit only by the sporadic red and blue lights coming in through the windows. Jane creeped forward, both ears straining to catch even the slightest noise, her eyes wide for the tiniest movement. It didn't take long before she heard glass being smashed on the level above her, followed quickly by three gunshots.
Jane swiftly but silently made her way over to one of the second level's support beams and crawled up its side. As she hauled herself up onto the wide platform on top, she could hear the soft clinking of ejected shells and muttered obscenities as fresh bullets were being loaded in their place. The dark outline of the killer could be seen by one of the wide windows, silhouetted by the police spotlights.
Not wanting to chance the most-likely squeaky floorboards between her and her prey, Jane used a webline to crawl up to a rafter overhead, then crawled along it until she was right over him. As she slowly lowered herself on another line, he shot twice out the window then ducked for cover when the cops returned fire.
His head and gun both spun around when Jane dropped to the floor with a thump. She leaned out of the way as two of the revolver's four remaining bullets sailed through the space she had been occupying. Before the killer could pull the trigger a third time, she caught the gun with a web, yanked it out of his hand, and sent it sailing all the way to the other side of the warehouse.
"Wait! Wait!" the man cried out as she advanced on him, but she wasn't interested in hearing anything he had to say.
"You killed a man today," she snarled. "A good man."
"I didn't mean it! I-it was an accident! I swear!"
"LIAR! You killed him! And now . . . you're going to pay."
"Look, I'll split the money with you, just doAGGHH!"
Jane grabbed him by the throat and lifted him into the light. Her fingers started to clamp shut, squeezing off the man's windpipe as he struggled futilely to pull them away. She looked up at him, face etched with fury behind her mask, then froze in horror as she realized that she recognized him.
It was the thief from the sporting arena.
He dropped to the floor as her grip became nerveless. She stumbled back in shock, recoiling both mentally and physically from her sudden realization. She'd had the chance to stop him. She'd possessed the ability and the opportunity to do so, and she had let him pass her by just to inflict some petty revenge on a man she would never meet again. And Trent had paid the price for her moment of weakness.
Trent was dead, and it was all her fault.
She turned away from the thief and stared at her gloved hands, small stains of her brother's blood still visible on the bare skin of her wrists. Her surroundings receded into the background, becoming muted, indistinct. Her brain slowed to a crawl. She couldn't process anything properly, her thoughts flaring briefly, sputtering, and finally fading into nothingness. It was just too big for her to handle.
Her spider-sense screamed, thrumming almost painfully in her head. Snapping out of her stupor, she twisted around to see the thief holding a brick in his hand, a brick that he was aiming directly at the top of her skull. She reached up and grabbed his wrist before he could connect, twisted it back until he dropped his makeshift weapon with a cry of pain, and then pulled him face-to-face with her by the front of his jacket.
"You're a thief," she said, "and a murderer. You will get what you deserve . . . "
She pushed him into a spin, then encircled him at the arms and legs with webbing. His momentum carried him all the way to the broken window, which he smashed through with a scream of fright. Jane followed quickly to lean out and throw one last webline at his rapidly departing feet.
He arced out and swung back in to slam against the side of the building. As he squirmed in his bonds and started shouting for help, Jane firmly anchored the other end of the line and turned away.
" . . . but you won't be getting it from me," she finished.
By the time the police came up to reel the terrified criminal in, Jane was long gone.
"Laney? What're you doing here?"
Jane lifted her head and looked up at Harry, who gasped in surprise. Her face was filthy, covered in grime mingled with still-flowing tears. Patches of what looked like dried blood were smeared across her hands and arms, and her clothes were dirty, rumpled, and torn in a few spots.
"Oh my God, what happened?" Harry asked as he crouched down and looked her over more carefully. "Are you okay?"
Her expression screwed up as a fresh flood of tears poured down her cheeks. She reached up and pulled him into a tight embrace, burying her face in his chest. Worried but not knowing what else to do, he put one hand on her back and gently stroked her hair with the other, holding her close as she wept.
"Of course, yes. I'll tell her. Thank you for your help in this matter."
Jane barely registered the sound of the phone settling back into its cradle. She continued staring down at the plush carpet of the home office without actually seeing it. A blanket was settled around her shoulders and Harry's arm was settled around that, but what little comfort she managed to glean from them was cold. Harry had been a big help in keeping her sane, holding her through her grief-stricken sobbing, but with that over she simply felt drained both physically and emotionally. All attachment to anything around her was tenuous at best.
Not that she wouldn't completely break down again if his arm moved even a fraction of an inch away from her, of course. The thread was tenuous, but she still felt it was the only thing keeping her in one piece.
Norman Osborn's feet appeared in Jane's view followed by the rest of him as he crouched down before her. In many ways he appeared to simply be an older version of Harry. The same short, wavy auburn hair. The same slightly jutting chin. His body was a bit thicker, muscular, but it was still hung on the same sort of lanky frame. And though his eyes were a little more worldly, they could still convey a great deal of warmth, which they were doing as he tried gently to get her attention.
"That was the police department," he said, his voice soft but resonating deeply. "They have your brother, but they're going to need you to come in at some point for positive identification of the body. It seems that someone must have taken his wallet, either the man who-"
Jane shook her head fractionally. "It's probably still in his sock drawer," she said bleakly. "He hardly ever remembers to take it with him when he goes out."
Norman nodded. "We can stop by your house on the way to the police station," he said. "We don't have to go immediately, however, if you would like some more time to recuperate."
She shrugged indifferently, but when she tilted her head up to look him in the eye, a bit of her old self seemed to be falling back into place.
"Thank you, Mr. Osborn," she told him. "I appreciate everything you're doing for me. I'm sorry if I've caused you any trouble."
"Not in the slightest, Jane, I assure you. Any friend of Harry's is a friend of the family, though I can't understand why he decided to keep you a secret from me for so long."
"Still, what's done is done," Norman continued, holding up his hand to forestall any further outbursts from his son, "and he did finally tell me a great deal about you yesterday. If even half of it is true, then you deserve every courtesy we can extend, especially considering today's tragedy. I simply wish our first meeting might have occurred under better circumstances."
Jane nodded in numb agreement and leaned in closer to Harry, who laid his head against hers. The subtle implications of the move were apparently not lost on Norman, who stood up and took a step back.
"When you're feeling up to it, I'll drive you out to the station for the identification," he said. "It shouldn't take too long, and Harry will set up the guest room for you while we're gone. In the morning I'll see what I can do about pushing along the search for your parents. If you don't feel like going to school, then you are free to stay here. Harry can do the same if he wishes, and I'll call in to get both of you excused for the day."
"Thank you, Mr. Osborn."
Norman gave them a slight smile and a nod, then silently stepped out of the room. Once they were alone, Jane turned to Harry and put one weary arm around him. He drew her in, held her tight, and kissed her on the top of the head. They stayed that way for several minutes while Jane gathered up her strength.
Finally feeling somewhat human again, she stood up and set the blanket down on the couch. "Right," she said. "Guess I better get this over with."
"Are you gonna be okay going by yourself?" Harry asked, concerned. "I can-"
Jane shook her head. "No, it's okay," she told him. "Just . . . be here when I get back?"
"Yah. I think I can do that." He smiled and rubbed the back of his head self-consciously.
Norman was waiting patiently just outside the door. After speaking briefly with Harry, he led her out through the kitchen to the garage where they settled into his BMW. It was fancier than any other vehicle Jane had ever been in before, but she wasn't really in any mood to appreciate it.
Norman pulled the car out and checked out at the front gate. The Osborns, like many of the wealthier inhabitants of Lawndale, lived in Crewe Neck, a gated community near the seaboard. Jane had only been inside twice before, both times to attend birthday parties for Brittany back before she started dating Flash. While Harry had mentioned living there, he hadn't said which house he lived in, which had led to her wandering around aimlessly until thankfully he had found her.
The drive to Casa Lane didn't take very long. It wasn't a difficult stretch in the first place, and traffic happened to be light. Norman pulled up to the fading yellow house, walked Jane up to the front door, and waited there while she went inside.
The painting of her planned costume still sat on the easel in her room, hidden under a paint-stained dropcloth. On an impulse, she pulled the cover away and ran her fingers across the dried paint. The image and the textures combined had a strangely calming effect on her, thawing a little more of the shock from around her heart.
But it was painful as well, a reminder of plans made that had to be put on hold, perhaps indefinitely. If her parents could be found, if they managed to keep the house, if she could even figure out all the logistics of a secret identity, if it was even a viable idea in the first place, if she was even sure she wanted to go down that road at all anymore . . .
In a single night, her life had become nothing more than one giant if.
She picked the painting up, carried it over to one of her stacks of canvases, and randomly placed it in the middle. She then gathered up all the alternate designs that she had kept and stuffed the loose ones deep in one of her sketchbooks. The sketchbooks themselves were then sorted randomly, which she realized should probably bother her even though she had never really tried to keep them organized in the first place. One way or the other, if she did end up following through with her plans, it was more important that those plans stayed hidden for the time being.
With the designs safely out of sight, she firmly pushed all thoughts of the future away. It was hard enough just focusing on the present. She quickly stripped out of her torn, dirty clothes and tossed them in a corner, the resulting pile momentarily reminding her of the hoodie, mask, and gloves that she had abandoned in a garbage can just outside Crewe Neck.
Looking down at herself, she was surprised to see that all the nicks and cuts and bruises she had accumulated over the night weren't nearly as bad as she had guessed they would be. Though she didn't want to make Mr. Osborn wait while she took a full shower, she grabbed a fresh set of clothes and stepped into the bathroom to at least wash the blood off her arms and the dirt from her face in the sink.
Moderately freshened up and fully dressed, she went into Trent's room and dug the wallet out of the disorganized dresser. She had intended to stay there for a few moments, soaking in the unique Trent atmosphere, but the memories that came flooding in were simply to painful. Shoving the wallet in her back pocket, she fled the room and ran down the stairs.
"Is everything alright?"
Jane snapped her head around at Norman's voice and rubbed a hand across her face. "Yah," she said distantly. "Sorry. I'll be okay. I've got the wallet."
Moments later they were back in the BMW and on the road. Jane stared out the window, watching the scenery pass by. Homes, businesses, and the almost omnipresent verdant trees that helped give Lawndale its name all seemed to be muted by the still darkness of the night.
Shortly after they had passed over the bridge to move deeper into the borough, Norman cleared his throat.
"I know this is a difficult time for you, Jane," he said, looking straight ahead the whole while, "but if you are going to be staying in my house, even if only for one night, I need to ask you a question. A person doesn't make it to my position without cultivating a healthy sense of paranoia, and given the circumstances that led to Harry and myself moving to Lawndale in the first place, I feel that I need to be extra careful about certain matters.
"In this particular case, I have to ask you . . . what are your intentions toward my son?"
Jane's mind boggled as she tried to grasp the sudden surreality of her situation. "I'm . . . sorry?" she said, confused. "I don't understand what you mean."
"In the past, there have been girls who have tried to take advantage of Harry. While our financial status isn't quite what it once was, it is still not unsubstantial, and I have noted how wealth-conscious many people in this area seem to be. I am sorry for your loss, but if you were previously planning on trying to fleece my son or have any plans to do so in the future, then I'm afraid that my hospitality will have to be cut short."
Anger flushed Jane's face as she stared down at her hands, which slowly began to clench. With effort, she straightened them back out and tried to convince herself not to yell, not to scream, not to attack him. She had to admit to herself that from an outside perspective, a poverty-stricken girl hooking up with a boy that was looking at inheriting a nice chunk of change might be a bit suspect. She worked at calming herself down, and gradually she succeeded.
"With great power comes great responsibility," she said quietly.
Norman looked over at her and quirked an eyebrow. "Pardon?"
"It's something me and Trent were talking about a while back," she explained. "If you have the power to do something yourself, then you have the responsibility to actually do it yourself. You can't sit back and hope someone else will do it for you. You can't just sit on your ass while others are depending on you. And you damn well can't just use someone and then ditch 'em. I almost hope they can't find my parents, because they never seemed to get that."
Despite her attempts otherwise, a slight edge was still forming in her voice. "Harry already tried to offer us money, Mr. Osborn," she continued. "We told him no. He has helped in other ways, and I'm glad you're helping me now, but the biggest thing that Harry has done for me since we first met was to simply be there for me. And if you're gonna try and stop that, then to hell with you, Mr. Osborn. You can keep your money, you can keep your guest room, and you can let me off right here right now."
A heavy pause fell over the conversation. Part of Jane was still steamed, but another part felt certain that Norman was going to stop the car any second and shove her out onto the sidewalk. She wasn't particularly worried about how she'd get back home, but she was definitely worried about how basically telling off Harry's dad might affect things with Harry.
"I'm sorry," Norman finally apologized, sounding like he truly meant it. "That was inappropriate of me, and I can see now that you are every bit the woman Harry said you were."
Jane found her anger suddenly tempered by surprise and relief. Accepting the apology as gracefully as she could, she lapsed into silence and went back to looking through the window while softly pondering exactly what Harry had said about her.
They arrived at the police station shortly thereafter and were eventually admitted through to the morgue. The night outside had taken on the sharp chill of early fall, but it was nothing compared to the frosty bite of that room, a cold that had as much if not more to do with the nature of the occupants than with their refrigerated storage spaces.
Jane stepped in alone. Norman had offered to accompany her, but she insisted that she handle it herself. On the other side of the room, a technician stood reading something on a clipboard. She cleared her throat softly.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't hear you come in," the morgue tech said as he set his board down. "You aaaaare . . . Jane Lane, yes?"
"Yah," she confirmed, her throat suddenly dry. "I was told my brother is here."
"Well, that's what we're going to find out. Right over here, please."
Motioning her over, he stepped up to one of the sliding drawers, checked the label next to the handle, and then pulled it open. Inside, a corpse lay underneath a sheet that momentarily roiled with white vapors. They dissipated quickly, and the tech took hold of the outermost corners of the sheet.
"Are you ready for this?" he asked solemnly. "We can wait a few seconds if-"
"No," Jane interrupted. "I'm ready." She had already seen him dead once. She knew it would be painful to do so again, but at least it wouldn't be a complete shock like the last time.
The tech pulled the sheet down to chest level on the body, conspicuously keeping the bullet wound in the chest covered. Jane looked down at the still face devoid of color and felt her own face also drain of blood as tears began to form once again.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she had continued to hold out some hope that the paramedics had been able to revive him, stop his bleeding, and get him back to the hospital for emergency surgery. She had imagined walking into the morgue only to find that the corpse they showed her belonged to a complete stranger. That she wouldn't see the tousled black hair, the small tuft of goatee on his chin, the Maori tattoos encircling his arm.
But the dead body sitting in front of her was undoubtedly her brother Trent. Even with only holes in his chilled skin to show where his various piercings had been, she could tell.
Reaching into the back pocket of her jeans, she pulled out his wallet and handed it across to the tech. "Thank you," he said. "I have to make copies of his ID for our records. Would you like a moment alone?"
Jane nodded. "Yes, please."
Without another word, the man left. Jane remained behind and stared down at Trent. After a few moment, she reached out and gently pushed the sheet down so that the hole in his chest could be seen. She noted that the wound had already been cleaned out but apparently not sewn shut.
She had thought that she would feel completely devastated yet again upon viewing absolute proof of Trent's passing, and she had indeed begun crying anew. But rather than the tempest of fear, hurt, and sadness she had felt back in his room at Casa Lane, she was instead strangely hollow. A piece of her had been irrevocably taken away. So many people in her family had disappeared out of her life, some temporarily and others seemingly for good, but never before had she felt so empty because of it. Never before had she felt so utterly helpless.
It had been all her fault.
With great power comes great responsibility.
She placed her hand on Trent's cold cheek. It had been all her fault, and she could never bring him back. But she finally knew what she had to do.
Goodbye, Trent, she thought as she pulled the sheet back into place. I'll never forget you. And I'll never let what happened to you happen to anyone else because of me.
The trial was short. Jane had been questioned by both lawyers, but since all she told them was that she had come across Trent after the shooting had occurred then ran away in shock without ever seeing the killer, neither asked her to testify.
It hardly mattered in the end, since there were other witnesses who had seen the carjacking and shooting as they had happened. The bullet fragment had definitively come from the revolver that they had eventually found in the warehouse. Even the crooked manager of the sporting arena had stepped forward to identify the defendant as the thief that had assaulted him.
Jane's testimony wasn't required to get a conviction, but she was still allowed to sit in on the trial. She sat between Harry and Norman in the crowd and watched dispassionately as sentence was passed. Based on the overwhelming evidence against the defendant, the prosecution had fought against a plea bargain and successfully stuck him with assault, robbery, motor vehicle theft, and second degree murder.
Though Jane felt no sense of triumph as they led her brother's killer out of the courtroom, no feeling of righteous vengeance, she did feel some small, cold satisfaction that her words to him on that night had indeed come true. He had finally gotten what he deserved.
He was going away for a very, very long time.
"Are you sure you're ready for this?"
Jane sucked in a huge breath, tried to loosen a few anxious muscles, and exhaled explosively. "Yah, I think so," she said, trepidation making her voice waver a bit.
"You don't have to do this if you don't want to," Harry assured her. "You could just stay here with me and dad."
"Ha, sure," Jane laughed. "Your dad could adopt me. Then I'd be your sister, and that might make things a little awkward."
Harry suddenly stiffened and blushed slightly. "Does it . . . does it make me a horrible person if I think that sounds kinda hot?"
"Yes," Jane said with a smirk as she leaned in to give him a quick kiss. "But seriously, you know I couldn't stay here for good. You guys have been great, but your dad works all the time, so I'd be more like the maid and gardener's foster kid than his. It's not like he needs the government check anyway. And it's been pretty cool hanging out with you every day, but I'm just not sure shacking up with my boyfriend at sixteen is really appropriate for either of us, even if your dad is keeping us on constant Anti-Preggers Watch."
The tension that had been wound tightly around Jane melted away as she and Harry shared a laugh.
"I can go in with you, if you want," he offered as he reached out to run a hand across her shoulder and upper arm comfortingly.
"Thanks," she said, putting her hand on his, "but I should probably do this myself."
He reluctantly nodded acquiescence, then drew her to him. They held the hug for several moments before Jane broke away, smiled at him, and stepped into the next room before her nerve could leave her.
Like the rest of the house, the Osborn's living room was a lushly appointed affair with thick, comfortable carpet and beautiful furniture. Several small objets d'art were meticulously placed here and there, accentuating without being vulgar about it. There was a heavy feeling of opulence in the room, and though she'd never tell Harry, one of the minor reasons Jane wanted out of the house was because she was afraid of breaking or staining something and owing Mr. Osborn several thousand dollars.
When Jane entered, a man and a woman in the small sitting area stood up and turned toward her. The man she recognized as Sam Wilson, the social worker that had been handling her case over the past several weeks. Sitting on his suit lapel, as always, was a small, bird-shaped pin that almost served like his personal calling card. His deep voice seemed to fit very well in the rich surroundings when he called her over, motioning at the couch next to him with a dark chocolate-colored hand.
"Jane, I'd like you to meet Amy Barksdale," Sam said as everyone took their seats. "Ms. Barksdale, this is Jane Lane."
"Hi," Jane returned with a smile and a small wave as she studied the woman on the couch across from her.
Amy Barksdale, Jane thought, certainly looked like a nice person at first glance. She had an earnest, somewhat knowing look in her brown eyes, the kind that Jane had seen in some of the cooler adults she'd met. The edges of Amy's mouth held just a hint of smile lines, and as she sat and studied Jane in turn, she was showing the smile that caused them, slight and mysterious like that of Leonardo's Mona Lisa. Her hair was the same golden brown as her eyes and fell in wavy locks to just past her shoulders. Her clothing was well-made and rather pretty but also understated and sensible, and she was wearing a pair of rectangle-lens wire-frame glasses with a smokey tint to them.
All in all, she looked like somebody's cool aunt.
"Now, both of you know most of what I'm about to say, but I'm going to repeat it just for the record," Sam told them as he shuffled through a few papers on the coffee table. "Jane's case is somewhat special in that her biological parents are thought to be still alive but are currently missing. A search was underway for them until just recently, and during that time Jane was allowed to stay with the Osborn family.
"Now that the search has been called off and no other suitable caregivers have been found within the Lane family, she is about to become a ward of the state and will either have to be placed with a foster family or remanded to state-run institutional boarding until foster care can be provided or until she turns eighteen. However, should Vincent and Amanda Lane resurface at any point before Jane turns eighteen, there will have to be a determination made regarding their right to custody over their daughter. If the determination is in their favor, Jane will be returned to their care."
Sam's tone made it clear what he thought of the possibility of the elder Lanes coming back for Jane. Having visited Casa Lane himself on a few occasions and after hearing a few of Jane's disparaging remarks regarding her parents, he had once confided to her that he thought they should be put up on charges of parental abandonment, regardless of how old Trent had been when they'd left.
"Are there any questions regarding the situation as I have explained it?" When both women shook their heads, Sam smiled brightly. "Excellent," he said. "The reason we are all here, of course, is that Miss Barksdale is looking to foster a child just as Miss Lane is looking for a new place to stay for the next couple of years, and it's my personal hope that the two of you might be able to help each other out with that. So, if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to go see if Mr. Osborn has some ice water laying around while you ladies get to know each other."
After getting a nod from each of them, Sam excused himself and left. Silence, expected but still awkward, took his place.
"So," Amy finally said, "Mr. Wilson tells me that you're an artist."
"Yup." Jane nodded, paused, then decided to add, "Painter, mostly. Though I've been trying to branch out into sculpture. Y'know, gluing things to other things that aren't supposed to be glued together. So . . . you're here on your own. No husband? Boyfriend? Other kids? Pets?"
Amy laughed. "No husband," she confirmed. "Plenty of young men who would like to think they're my boyfriend. No kids, and though I'm sure it's strange to hear from someone looking into foster care, I'm not planning on having any of my own. No pets, but I was thinking about getting a cat if this didn't work out. Maybe lots of cats. Cat ladies are still fashionable, right?"
"I can't really say I'm part of the 'in' crowd, but as far as I know cat ladies aren't either," Jane replied with a smile. "So it would just be you and me?"
"Yes, but don't worry, I've been certified capable of handling the heavy burden of housing and feeding a teenager all by my lonesome. I make good money as a journalist for The Daily Bugle, and I can work from home most of the time. And since it would be just you and me and my house is pretty roomy, you don't have to worry about me getting in your hair a lot."
"You have a house?" Jane asked, surprised. "I thought the jetsetting reporter on the go always had an upscale apartment deep in the heart of the city, somehow magically overlooking every important landmark on the New York skyline!"
"I'm afraid the movies have lied to you, kiddo," Amy said mock sadly. "Mine is an honest to goodness house right here in Lawndale, so you won't have to change schools, move away from your friends, or anything else. I inherited it a while back, and I found that it kind of suits me. But sometimes it seems to fit a little too big, with a little too much space to go around, and I'm looking to change that."
"I think I know the feeling," Jane said quietly. The sudden change in the mood of the room caused her to shift uncomfortably in her seat.
Amy frowned down at her hands as she seemed to weigh her next words carefully. "Sam also told me about your brother," she said. "I'm sorry for your loss."
Jane swallowed hard, her throat suddenly dry. "Thanks."
"I'm sorry," Amy said, shaking her head. "This is making you uncomfortable. I shouldn't have brought it up."
"No, it's okay," the younger girl protested, just a touch too fast.
Amy smiled sadly and searched Jane's eyes for a few moments. "No," she said softly. "It's not okay. I know. Losing a loved one . . . it hurts. You don't know if you'll ever get over it, and all you can try to do is shove the pain down, deal with it a little at a time, and eventually move on. Mr. Wilson specifically requested that you and I meet. Did he tell you why?"
The sudden change in gears threw Jane off for a second. "Um . . . you just happened to be first in line to meet Horror Lane?" she said. She had meant it to sound like a joke, but the delivery came out flat and upon thinking about it, she wasn't sure what it was even supposed to mean.
"I lost my family, too," said Amy. "I'm the only one left. It's been almost three years, but it still hurts and I think it always will. So I know what you're going through, Jane. I know what the past couple of months must have been like, and Sam . . . he thinks that we might be able to help each other come to terms with what's happened."
"What do you think?" Jane asked after a pause.
"I'm not sure what to think," Amy replied slowly. "But . . . I hope he's right."
"Hmm," Jane murmured. Then, "Yah. He probably is. Mr. Wilson's pretty on the ball about this stuff."
Jane smiled at the older woman, and Amy returned it with her own subtle radiance.
Jane set the box of canvases on the floor and looked around, mouth open in wonder.
"You like it?"
She nodded wordlessly, completely taken in by the room. Amy had told her that before her family had owned the house, it had been the domicile of an elderly woman and her mentally disturbed sister. The sister's bedroom had been decorated accordingly.
Greyish-white padding lined the walls all around except for the section right near the door. A stainless steel handicap bar ran waist-high between the door itself and the bed area in the back. In the far corner, a small television set sat mounted near the ceiling, much like the sets found in hospital rooms. The windows had obviously been barred at one point, but only a few small remnants of the bars remained from where they had been haphazardly cut away. The main eye-catcher, however, was the carpet, which was a hideous shade of salmon pink.
"I love it," Jane finally said after twirling around to take it all in. "This is the best place ever."
"Well, I'm glad I'm bucking the 'evil foster parent' stereotype already," Amy laughed. "My room is at the end of the hall. The bathroom is just across the way, and the door we passed is a room I've been using for storage. Kind of like a low-flying attic of sorts. I've tried to cover up all the searing bright pink wallpaper in there with big stacks of boring brown boxes, but I still wouldn't recommend going in there if you're used to being able to see."
"I'll keep that in mind," Jane said. "I guess the only thing left to figure out is . . . now that everything's official, what should I call you? Ms. Barksdale? Amy? Hey, You?"
"Well, let's see. 'Ms. Barksdale' makes it sound like we're business partners or something. It's a little early for 'mom', which to be honest would kind of skeeve me out anyway, I don't know about you." She and Jane shared creeped out expressions. "You're almost an adult, really, so you can just call me 'Amy' if you want. It's cool."
Jane nodded, mulling it over, then suddenly remembered her very first impression of the other woman and grinned. "How about . . . 'Aunt Amy'?" she suggested.
Amy's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "I think I can work with that," she said agreeably. "I guess you've got yourself an aunt. So, ready to go grab some more stuff from the car?"
"Uh, yah. I'll be down in just a minute. Just gonna check the room out if that's okay."
"Sure thing, kiddo. Don't get lost in the closet!"
Amy's footsteps retreated down the stairs, and the front door slammed shut a few moments later.
Alone in her new home for the first time, Jane walked along the edges of the room, running her hands along the padding as she did so. When she reached the TV set in the corner, she reached up to press the power button, but nothing happened. The closet next to it was, as Amy had indicated, quite spacious, and Jane immediately started planning out how much of her painting supplies would fit in the floorspace and on the overhead shelf.
Once she had completed her circuit of the room, Jane listened carefully for any signs of movement in the rest of the house. She hadn't heard the front door again, but she wanted to be safe. Once she had ascertained that she was still alone, she reached into the box of paintings that she had lugged up the stairs and pulled one from the middle of the stack.
Seeing the red and dark blue outfit with its silver bracelets awakened buried feelings within her. She traced her fingers along its contours, feeling almost as if she was greeting an old friend. Only a handful of months had passed since she had first laid that paint to canvas, but for Jane it felt like a lifetime ago.
A new year had recently dawned, and Jane was finally feeling ready to face it. She had a home again and, she hoped, a heaping helping of stability with it. Aunt Amy wasn't Osborn-rich by any means, but she was comfortable enough that Jane would be able to get everything she needed to make her painting a reality. And above all, she was more than ready to start using her powers to help make things better.
Her plans were back on track at last, and soon the entire city would know the name Spider-Girl.
NEXT: Rise of the Green Goblin!
Roland 'Jim' Lowery
October 28, 2010