Watch Thou for the Mutant

"Why am I here, again?" said Angel.

The man beside him---the only other man in the room---winked conspiratorially. "Free sandwiches?"

Angel shrugged. He didn't need food, really. But the sandwiches were pathetically impractical little cucumber things, and someone had cut them into amusing shapes with cookie moulds. Even he could appreciate that.

"You're here because I asked you to come," Cordelia hissed. "Because it's nice for you to have some human contact outside our little group of freaks, and it's even nicer for ME to have human contact. And you're here because Kate Lockley has the flu and cancelled on me. Any more questions?"

He frowned. "I guess not."

"But?"

"But…" he fidgeted, embarrassed. "But I haven't read the book, Cordelia."

She sighed. "So? It's not like we're being graded on this, Angel. And just between you and me, I think half the people in this book club are only here for the free sandwiches. Anyway, the moderator always explains enough of the story so that those of us with lives can play along even if we haven't finished. Here."

She handed him her copy of this month's selection: "The Chrysalids," by John Wyndham. The cover blurb promised "a terrifying story of conformity and deformity in a world paralyzed by genetic mutation." Oh, of course. A charmingly relaxing topic to while away the night dissecting with a bunch of strange people who enjoy cucumber sandwiches. It had to be either a women thing or a human thing, because he certainly didn't understand the appeal of this outing. Where had Cordelia found these people? And why did Angel suddenly feel very much like the odd vampire out?

A frizzy-haired young woman bounced to a makeshift podium, clearing her throat. "If we're ready…" she shouted. "If we're ready…"

Other frizzy-haired women straightened in their chairs. The lone other man reached for the plate of sandwiches, offering one to Angel. It was slightly squashed from its encounter with the cookie cutter, but the shape---cute little kitty cat, was Angel's best guess---was still discernible. He declined.

"…and I realize this month's selection was a bit of a departure for some of you," droned the chief frizzy-hair. "But the story offers some fascinating social commentary and allegorical metafiction…"

Angel shook his head, starting to feel oddly dazed. Then Chief-Frizzy-Hair got to her first question, and Angel felt himself unwittingly perk up: why did the author choose to open the novel with apocalyptic imagery? Finally, something he could understand! He did not know what a metafiction was, but apocalypses…well, those he could relate to.

"He doesn't," protested a frizzy-haired minion. "He opens it with a description of the beautiful city, to foreshadow the redemptive rescue."

Chief-Frizzy-Hair shook her head. "We'll come back to whether the rescue is redemptive or not later, Amanda. But the dream sets up the key premise of the novel, that after an apocalypse they call Tribulation, the world rebuilt itself on a confused foundation of cultural paranoia where anything different was feared. And David, as we know, was different."

Cordelia smiled. "See?" she whispered to Angel. "She just explained the whole plot to you."

"And how about Sophie?" continued Chief-Frizzy-Hair. "The novel is very briskly paced. Within the first few pages, we meet her, then discover that she's a mutant because she has six toes."

Angel tugged on Cordelia's sleeve. "A mutant isn't the same thing as a demon, is it? Heflurgiss demons have six toes, but they also breathe fire, and it doesn't sound like…"

"Shhh!" hissed Cordelia. "Of course she's not a demon. I think she just has six toes is all. I got far enough into the book to know that she is not a demon. I think. Although if she were, it would certainly make the book more interesting…"

Chief-Frizzy-Hair mumbled something about ironic utopian allusion through invocation of pastoral imagery.

"Cordelia?" whispered Angel.

"Hmmm?"

"If Sophie isn't a demon, why are the people afraid of her?"

"An excellent question!" pounced Chief-Frizzy-Hair. "And I don't believe I recognize you, young man. Are you a friend of Cordelia's?

He nodded miserably.

"Well, welcome! Did you get any sandwiches? Here, let me pass that around…" He glanced briefly at the plate of sandwiches before passing them along. There was at least one that suspiciously resembled a racecar.

"Well? Anybody want to answer that question, because I think it's central to the novel. Sophie is seen as a mutant because she doesn't look like them. But David's mutation is even more feared because he DOES look normal. I think we're realizing the fallacy of basing moral virtue on looks alone, aren't we?"

Cordelia rolled her eyes as Angel nodded righteously. Judging on looks alone…people would be afraid of him. But he had a soul, and it was that soul that led him to do all sorts of unexpected things---accompanying Cordelia to this little meeting being among them…

Angel felt himself sympathizing with this imaginary David. He had never had much luck with agrarian societies either.

"And let's talk about David's ability for a moment," continued Chief-Frizzy- Hair. "David can mentally share thoughts and feelings with others. The gift remains almost benign until his sister Petra develops it too, and her inability to understand her own power puts the others in perpetual danger."

Beside him, Angel felt Cordelia stiffen.

"Petra's inability to control the ability is an important point," said frizzy-haired Amanda. "And I think it proves why David could never be accepted as normal. Because lack of control has physical ramifications. Think of how the others react when Petra and her horse are injured. It's like they SEE her pain in their mind's eye. They hear her screams. They are compelled to run to her aid, powerless to soothe her but unable to ignore her pain. It's like they can't function until she stops sending to them."

Cordelia clasped Angel's hand, fidgeting nervously.

"Yes," said Chief-Frizzy-Hair. "That's a very good point, Amanda. Petra's gift puts the others in danger because they never know when it's coming. Her thought-shapes are so powerful they hurt, and the sudden pain is conspicuous."

Cordelia's fingers tightened around Angel's palm, her breathing quickening.

"And so they lose everything," continued the oblivious moderator, "Before, David and Petra were children of the wealthiest man in town. They had the best education, the best house, servants…and because they were different, because of their power, they lost it all. Doesn't that imply that however special and useful their gift might be, it's better not to have it?"

"Maybe they could use their gift to help people," muttered Cordelia under her breath. "Not so 'better not to have it' if it's your life they save…"

Frizzy-haired Amanda addressed the moderator thoughtfully. "So you're leaning toward a Marxist interpretation? David's family was the town's equivalent to bourgeoisie. And after he gets the thought-shapes, he loses his money, loses his status…we're all assuming the whole town is a bunch of quacko intolerants. But what if they were right and the mutation really IS divine punishment?"

Cordelia jumped to her feet. "I need a break," she muttered through gritted teeth.

Angel followed her into the hallway. "Are you…not having fun?" he asked innocently.

She breathed slowly and cautiously, trying to keep calm. "I was," she seethed. "I just…I know it's only pretend, Angel, but did you hear that last bit? They're saying…"

"They're saying a lot of things Cordelia, most of which are utter nonsense. I mean, metafiction? Come on! This is a fantasy story, Cordelia. It's not about us."

"Isn't it? Angel, there are some who would tell you that ALL stories are about us. Face it, Angel. Even if every single one of those people felt sorry for David, fact is that they DO think he's a mutant."

"So?"

"So? So if David is a mutant, what does that make me?"

Ahhh, he got it now. "Cordelia…"

"I mean, look at me, Angel. I was the richest kid in town. And I lost it all. Is my 'mutation' some kind of punishment? Am I a…"

"No," he soothed. "Cordelia…"

"And I don't think we can say society would be better off without my visions, but I certainly would be. Wouldn't I?"

He offered his hand. "Hey," he said gently. "It wasn't supposed to be like this. This was supposed to be a fun night out, take our mind off things."

"I know," she sniffled. "But Angel…"

"It can't be all bad," he said softly. "Why don't we see how it ends before we decide?"

He took the paperback from her hands. "I'm beginning to believe it's real and true at last," he read. "She turned her head. The under-Rosalind was in her face, smiling, shiny-eyed. The armor was gone. She let me look beneath it. It was like a flower opening…"

He felt Cordelia relax against his shoulders.

"Then she was blotted out. We staggered, put our hands to our heads…"

Cordelia winced in sympathy.

"Oh sorry, Petra apologized…but it IS awfully exciting…"

Living in a world you never thought existed. With people who understand you, special gift and all. With a chance to rebuild all you've lost…

He felt her head turn, looking over his shoulder as she read Rosalind's final lines with a resigned smile: "This time, darling, we'll forgive you. It is."