Tricks for Free – Seanan McGuire

“Woe betide the damned soul who tries to get between me and my children. I’m only the nice one in this family because I don’t care enough to hurt you.” –Evelyn Baker The locker room of Lewis and Clark High School, Portland, Oregon Six years ago CHEERLEADERS FILLED THE ROOM. Most were half-clad; all were getting dressed with the ruthless speed and lack of artifice universal to teenage girls with no one they needed to put on a show for. The show would come later, when the Trailblazers football team took the field with their loyal spirit squad behind them, waving their pom-poms and cheering for victory. A new girl rushed into the room, forcing the others to make room or get knocked over. Her game bag was slung over her shoulder and her auburn hair was pulled into a sloppy ponytail, tied off with a wilted spirit ribbon in Trailblazers blue and gold. A freshman girl straightened from her crouch too slowly; the newcomer placed a hand between her shoulders and used her as an impromptu vault, landing on the other side of her without breaking stride. A diminutive peroxide blonde with the figure of a Tolkien elf and the presence of a pop star dropped her mascara wand and turned away from the mirror, planting her hands on her hips in a classic superhero pose. “Melody West!” she snapped, voice a whip cracking through the room. “You are late!” The new arrival stumbled to a halt, momentum lost in the face of her captain’s disapproval. She turned, spirit bow somehow looking even more wilted. “I’m sorry, Sophie,” she said. “My family—” “Sorry doesn’t stack our pyramid when you don’t show up, Mel,” said Sophie. Then she stopped, eyes going wide.

“Wait, are you—are you bleeding?” Melody West, better known in some circles as Antimony Price, youngest daughter of the Price family and cryptozoologist in training, barely managed to conceal her wince. She’d been hoping to get to her locker and her emergency first aid kit before anyone noticed that her lip was split and her knees were skinned severely enough to impress a six-year-old. “You should see the other guy?” she said weakly. Sophie lowered her arms and moved toward her teammate, irritation forgotten. The other cheerleaders clustered around them as Sophie seized Antimony’s hands. Antimony swallowed another wince. Sophie clearly hadn’t noticed that her palms were almost as raw as her knees. “Who did this to you?” Sophie asked, voice low. A murmur of angry curiosity rose from the rest of the squad, formless and violent. Melody was one of their own.

Melody was part of the team. If they needed to no-show on the game to kick somebody’s ass on her behalf, well, that was a price they were willing to pay to protect a fellow Trailblazer. Antimony dropped her eyes, looking to the side and away. It was a practiced motion, and one she’d been using when people asked about her frequent injuries since the start of high school. It wasn’t fair. Her older sister, Verity, got the skill with makeup to conceal her bruises and scrapes without looking like she was enrolling in clown school. And Alex, her older brother, was a boy: people generally shrugged off anything less severe than a broken bone as long as he looked stoic about it. (She was pretty sure that wasn’t fair either: Alex had as much right to concern and compassion as she did, and being a boy didn’t mean his injuries hurt any less. But he didn’t complain because a bruise ignored was a bruise not reported to Social Services. Under the circumstances, she would have swapped with him in a hot second.

) “Mel, you’ve got to talk to someone. If this is your loser boyfriend . ” There was no loser boyfriend. There had never been a loser boyfriend. Antimony had fabricated him from whole cloth, a rough, slightly disreputable character who went to a different high school and had been portrayed—on the few occasions when he needed to be seen by her classmates, from a safe distance—by her nerdy cousin Artie in what he insisted on calling “jock cosplay,” driving her Uncle Ted’s 1969 Camaro and sneering. Thus far, she’d managed to keep any member of the squad from meeting him face-toface, which was for the best, since Artie’s pheromones tended to scramble the hormones of girls he wasn’t actually related to. “I’m fine,” she said, and that was the truth, at least; all her wounds were the kind that could be handled with Band-Aids and antiseptic and extra foundation. The changelinginfested bear she’d helped her family kill couldn’t say the same. It was dead and downed and probably on fire by now, since her mother had very firm ideas about disposing of hazardous material. If she was being really honest, she was feeling a little smug.

How many people could fight a murderous, technically undead bear and make it to campus in time for the big game? Not many, that was how many. She was crushing it. Sophie sighed. “Okay, we don’t have time to argue about this right now, but will you promise me you’ll at least think about talking to someone? I’m scared for you.” “I promise,” lied Antimony, without a twinge of guilt. She’d been lying to her friends and teammates since kindergarten. What was one more? “Thank you,” said Sophie, and pulled her into a quick hug before turning to the rest of the squad and barking, “Anyone who’s ready to hit the field, get your butt over here and get Mel presentable! What looks bad on one of us looks bad on all of us!” Like a glittering cloud, the cheerleaders descended. If there had ever been a triage team as efficient as cheerleaders helping one of their own get ready, Antimony couldn’t think of it. In a matter of seconds, she was sitting on a bench, stripped from the waist down. One cheerleader bandaged her knees; another covered the gauze in Trailblazer blue athletic tape, making it look more “aesthetic” than “accident.

” Two more cheerleaders dealt with the damage on her face, expertly layering paint and powder. “Arms up,” commanded Sophie. Antimony put her arms up. The makeup team paused long enough for Antimony’s sweater and bra to be removed. Antimony spared a momentary thanks for the fact that she’d been through this process before, and had no difficult-to-explain weapons concealed on her person. “Arms out.” Antimony stuck her arms out. Sophie produced Antimony’s sports bra and uniform top from the gym bag, pulling them onto the larger cheerleader’s body. Someone hit Antimony in the face with a fistful of glitter. She struggled not to cough.

It might have thrown off the person who was brushing her hair. Then someone else was taping her hands, and her skirt was being fastened around her waist, and she was done: she was dressed. “Good work!” shouted Sophie, clapping her hands and glancing at the clock above the door. “With two minutes to spare! Go Trailblazers!” “Go Trailblazers!” shouted the rest of them, even Antimony, who wasn’t really Antimony anymore: she was Melody West, high school cheerleader, without a care more complex than finally landing that perfect tumbling pass and seeing the world spread out before her in perfect, crystalline simplicity. They moved as one, out of the locker room and across the grass to the glowing rectangle of the football field. The sun was long down, and floodlights lit the bleachers and the green, making it look like a slice of paradise, like something too perfect to be real. There was a cut between the sections of the stands, and the squad ran through it just as the announcer boomed, “Your Trailblazer cheer squad!” Everyone in the bleachers cheered and shouted and waved their pennants and foam fingers in the air. It wasn’t because they loved cheerleaders so much, Antimony knew. It was because the football teams would be out next, and then the game could finally start. That didn’t slow any of them down.

The squad broke into a new formation, the fliers going into an elaborate tumbling pass, the bases hitting their poses and waving their pom-poms high. Antimony hit her mark and froze. It wasn’t safe for any of them to go to the same school. She and her siblings had all been educated separately, using their education as an opportunity to test out their false identities and learn to blend. She’d never set foot on any of Verity’s high school campuses —she’d had three, overachiever that she was—and had only seen Alex’s school once, after he’d graduated, when an away game had taken her to their football field. Family didn’t come to school. That was the rule. That was how they kept things distinct, and prevented future disaster. And there, sitting in the front row, dressed in school colors and clutching school pennants and looking for all the world like students who’d decided to come and see what all the fuss was about, were her dead aunts, Mary and Rose. Rose was wearing a letter jacket, which explained the hot dog in her free hand.

As a hitchhiking ghost, she could become temporarily alive again if she borrowed someone else’s clothes, and she was always, always hungry. Mary just looked like, well, Mary, white hair blowing in the breeze, one fist thrust into the air. Finally, her family had come to see her cheer. Grinning ear to ear, Antimony shook her pom-poms, and chanted, “Do your best to blaze that trail! You know our team never fails!” The other team’s cheerleaders answered, and the crowds roared, and the football players took the field, and everything was perfect. Everything was finally, absolutely, perfect. Antimony never wanted the night to end. But of course, it did. One “Change is good. Change keeps us growing, and growing keeps us living. But don’t ever change so much that you forget who you used to be.

” –Frances Brown The Cast Member Recruitment Office of Lowry Entertainment, Inc., Lakeland, Florida Eight months ago I SAT VERY STRAIGHT IN my uncomfortable plastic chair, trying to look like I wasn’t freaking out. Judging by the way the other applicants kept glancing at me, I wasn’t doing a very good job. Let’s see any of them stay this calm after spending four nights sleeping in the snakefilled bushes next to the Florida highway, waiting to be eaten by the next available alligator, wondering if that might be an improvement over waking up in the morning and resuming their walk. I hadn’t eaten in two days. The only reason I didn’t smell like a dumpster fire was the truck stop half a mile outside of town, which had attached showers available for rent. My last five bucks had gone for hot water and industrial soap, and the prayer of getting this job. There were other jobs. Some of them might be easier to get, especially given my current circumstances, and if I had to resort to them, I would. There’s no shame in flipping burgers or cutting lawns.

But I wanted the anonymity of the crowd, the knowledge that my itchy polyester uniform made me part of a faceless mob. If the Covenant was looking for me, they’d be checking the greasy spoons and car washes. Those are the places people on the run are supposed to go to make a quick buck. This was a whole different league, and I was counting on that to protect me. If I could get through the door. I’d burned most of my fake IDs when I ran away from the carnival. My cousin Artie tracks them for us, making sure the associated credit cards and address information will always ping as valid on government systems. The trouble there was that my cousin Artie tracks them for us. If I used any of those identities, he’d be able to find me, and that would completely undercut the point of running away. But I still had one to fall back on.

Artie didn’t create “Melody West,” because he’d been too young when I first needed her. She’d been a gift to my parents from Uncle Al, a jink living in Las Vegas who got adopted into the family through the usual complex series of unreasonable events. We don’t have much blood family left in the world, but we make up for it by acquiring honorary family everywhere we go. As far as most people are concerned, “Melody West” disappeared after she graduated from high school, one more boring mystery for a world that’s always been absolutely full of them. I’ve never liked to let anything useful go to waste. I’d been expanding upon and tinkering with her identity ever since, keeping her on the grid just enough to qualify as a real person. She’d never held a steady job, never anything lucrative enough to attract the attention of the IRS, but she’d never applied for benefits either. She moved around a lot. She was unremarkable, unnoticeable, and she was mine. No one else knew her ID was still active.

Antimony Price couldn’t get a job at Lowryland, because Antimony Price wasn’t here. Melody West, though, just might stand a chance. “Melody?” The woman who called my name didn’t look up from her clipboard. I rose. “Here.” She finally glanced up. Her nostrils flared in barely-smothered dismay at the sight of me. There’s only so much a truck stop bathroom can do for a body. I’ll give her this much: she covered her reaction quickly. “This way,” she said, stepping back into the hall.

People had been vanishing through that door all morning long. None of them had come back. There was another door that led to the outside, to keep those of us still waiting from either getting dispirited when we saw happy applicants, or cocky when we saw disappointed ones. Psychologically speaking, it was probably a good design. In practice, it made me feel like everyone who left was being fed into a giant meat grinder somewhere behind the scenes. And now it was my turn. I forced myself to keep smiling and followed the nameless woman out of the room, toward what I hoped would be my future. Children and parents all over the world speak the name of Michael Lowry with only slightly less reverence than the name Walt Disney. They were rivals once, after all, and while Disney proved to have the edge when it came to modern family entertainment, Lowry held his market share with an iron hand, producing innovative pictures and inexpensive alternatives for the family that couldn’t quite afford the golden spires of Disney’s enchanted kingdoms. Not managing to match Disney’s towering successes didn’t take him out of the game.

Like Disney, Lowry dreamed of amusement parks, immersive environments for the whole family to enjoy. Like Disney, Lowry saw California and Florida as the best locations to realize his dreams, since they were the states with the mildest winters and hence the fewest annual closure dates. They weren’t the only ones to flee to America’s vacation destinations, but they were the first to break ground on their great entertainments, and Florida’s Lowryland opened only two years after Disney World. Not that anyone would have known Disney World even existed from walking down the hall of the Lowryland recruitment office. Framed black-and-white photos of Lowryland were placed every few feet, each tastefully accentuated with a plaque or framed award certificate or article extolling the superior virtues of Lowry Entertainment, Inc. over all other children’s entertainment companies. I’d been expecting team spirit from the Lowry folks—no point in being on a team if you can’t find something to cheer about—but this was approaching pep rally levels. My escort led us to a cubicle maze, where she gestured for me to take a seat on the petitioner’s side of an L-shaped desk. She wrinkled her nose, ever so slightly, when my butt hit the chair. I was clearly even dirtier looking than I’d thought.

My heart sank. I could try Lowry again, of course. The nice thing about having a fake ID is that you can always get another one. But fake IDs cost money, and without contacting my family, I’d have to find a way to get that money on my own. Robbing convenience stores might play a big part in my future if I wanted to be able to buy clean clothes, a clean name, and a second shot at all the jobs I was about to not get. “All right, Miss . West, what brings you to the Lowry family? Why should we consider you for the position?” “I’m a hard worker, I’m motivated to meet and exceed any employment requirements, and I have experience working with traveling carnivals, which means I’ve worked with crowds, children, people experiencing ride-related vertigo, and entertainers.” All of that was true. That’s the key to a good lie: build it on a foundation of as much truth as possible, because the truth will shore it up even when the falsehoods begin falling away. I’m getting awfully tired of lying about who I am.

There’s always been a veil of pretense between me and the rest of the world, thanks to my family and what we do, but there’s a big difference between basic subterfuge and this “Bruce Banner on the run from the government goons” bullshit that has consumed my life. The woman flashed me a frozen smile. My heart sank. That wasn’t the sort of smile that came before “you got the job.” It might be the kind of smile that came before “Security is going to escort you off the premises.” All in all, not a good sign. My fingertips grew hot as my anxiety about failing to get the job translated into adrenaline and the adrenaline translated, as it so often does, into my body trying to involuntarily set things on fire. Being an untrained magic-user in the process of manifesting her powers is fun, and by “fun” I mean “only slightly better than being covered in wasps, like, all the goddamn time.” Better yet, there’s no one around to train me. The last magic-user in our family was my grandfather, Thomas Price, and he’s been missing since long before I was born.

My Aunt Mary could get me the lessons I need, but she’s a crossroads ghost, and well . Some prices are still too steep for me to pay, even if it means occasionally charring my clothes.


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