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Authors: Francine Pascal

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Contents

Gaia

Bizarro World

The Power

Oliver

Home Sweet Home

Hidden in Shadow

The Beautiful People

All the Freaks

Easy Answers

Love and Hate

Oliver

New Gaia

Jake

Oliver

To Johanna Stokes

GAIA

I
don't have any cold, hard statistics to back this up, but I think it's safe to assume that at one point or another, everyone must become pretty damn sick of themselves.

I mean, honestly, how could this
not
happen? How could people
not
grow dizzyingly, violently sick of themselves after a while? Because what are we really talking about here? We are talking about twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That's how much time we are forced to spend with ourselves, sleeping, eating, talking, fighting, dressing, undressing—it never stops.

I have spent
every waking moment
of my life with me. And the truth is . . . I am sick to death of it.

I can't really fathom who, in their right mind, would
not
be sick of me at this point. My life, after all, never seems to change. Well, it did: Ella died; Mary died; Loki ceased to exist.
But really, it didn't: Natasha appeared; Tatiana appeared; Yuri came back from the dead. My life really just repeats itself over and over in this dismal cycle: tragedy . . . then hope . . . then something very closely resembling actual happiness, and then—without fail—tragedy again. I'm a tragicomic broken record—a study in numbing emotional monotony. I'm one very long sad-ass story that
never
seems to end.

Until now.

Now I am stating it for the record. If I could scream it to this entire pain-in-the-ass city, I would. If I could take out an ad in every piece-of-crap paper in New York, I would do it. Because I want everyone who has ever known me to hear this and to understand it:

I am hereby changing my life.
I am breaking the cycle. I am breaking it here and now and forever, because I can—because for the first time in God knows how long, I think I have a real
chance to do it. I have the pieces of a real life staring me in the face, and I swear to God, I am going to put them together if it kills me.

I have a father. I have an uncle I can trust. My enemies are gone: Yuri, Natasha, Tatiana. . . . I have a
brother
—a
real
brother. And I have this boy . . . Jake. I don't even know what we are yet, but I refuse to screw it up. I have a chance to do it
right
this time. All of it. A chance to be
real
—a real girl with real feelings—no matter how pathetic I might end up looking, no matter how embarrassing my complete emotional ineptitude might be at first.

A new beginning. That is what I have here. That is what this is going to be for me. A new beginning with a new Gaia. A Gaia who doesn't bitch and moan about her existential woes. A Gaia who doesn't repeat the same fatalistic routine over and over again. A Gaia who doesn't have to be nauseatingly sick of herself anymore.

I've already been given my first test.

The Agency has sent my father off on another assignment.

Already.

I had him safe and sound back home for a piddling couple of weeks, and now he's already been called away again to oversee some big hush-hush op in Syria.

Now,
old
Gaia would be ranting about this already—launching into the same old orphan sob story. But I am not going to be that Gaia anymore. I'm not. I'm just going to recognize the facts for what they are: My father is a high-ranking agent in the CIA. This is his job. And if he needs to leave on another mission, so be it. I'm not going to cry about it. And we've already agreed: I'm not going to live in that Seventy-second Street apartment while he's gone. No way. Not without him there. Those kinds of hideously lonely days are over.

So I've agreed to stay in some kind of boardinghouse downtown. I
guess it's some kind of CIA safe house where kids of agents can stay while their parents are on assignment. The only other thing I really know about the place is that it's run by a Japanese governess named Suko Wattanabe. Apparently my father knew her back in his intensive martial arts training days. Whatever. At least I'll be downtown again—free from the horrifically bland shackles of the Upper East Side, back in the real world where there are actually people with ages and incomes under sixty-five.

Jake's going to help me move my stuff into the boardinghouse tonight, and that will be that. No bitching about another foster home or being left with strangers.
No more bitching, period.
Because I am so sick of it. I am sick to death of the half-assed, violent, depressive soap opera that's been shoved down my throat for the last five years. It's not a life. I'm not even sure what you would call
what's been passing for my life. I think you'd call it “God's cruel joke.” And I don't even believe in God.

It doesn't matter. The point is, I'll tell God or the Fates or anyone else who wants to listen:

The joke is officially over. I am pressing reset.
Do over.
I am starting my life again.

bizarro world

No one was going to be scared of that bitch anymore. Now it was her turn to be scared.

Finding God

MALCOLM COULD TASTE THE CITY DIRT
on his tongue. Dry weeds and raw sewage. Disgusting. Another morning after in Washington Square Park . . .

Not morning like those 1
A.M.
Sweaty Egg Mcmuffin mornings, but morning like
real freaking morning.
Dawn. Everything was just starting to light up in sharper and sharper lines, turning from that weird comic-book blue to pasty gray.

Malcolm sat up on the grass and kicked Devin's pale, skinny ass to wake him up.

“Dude,” he uttered, hawking up a night's worth of smokes and spitting at Devin's feet. “Get the hell up, dude, it's five-thirty.” He smacked his watch until it stopped beeping in his ear.
“Goddamn
it, I told you we'd pass out. If we missed him, I'm gonna pound you, I swear.”

Devin kicked him back in the leg and then dragged himself up to a sitting position, rubbing his bony fingers over his stubbly shaved head. “We didn't miss him,” he said. “Five-thirty. You can only find him at five-thirty.”

Last night's stink was pouring off of them both, penetrating Malcolm's pierced nostrils with the rank odor: spilled beer on his jeans from his last forty, the burnt taste of the crappy weed they'd smoked. He remembered about a quarter of the night. They'd ripped off some NYU bitches in the park. He'd beaten
the crap out of some Chelsea asshole at CB's who'd had a problem with his swastika earring, and then they'd spent the rest of the night just looking for some decent E. All they'd gotten was crap. Total bunk. Children's aspirin and some Tylenol Cold with a smiley face punched into it. He'd been just about ready to cram his knife right through the last dealer's gut when they ran into Max.

And that's when Max told them about
him.

Max swore that he'd met the guy. For real. He swore that it wasn't just a rumor being spread around by the brotherhood and every other skeevy lowlife in the park.

“I'm telling you, dude, this is no bull,” Max had promised. “He'll be there. At five-thirty. He'll be sitting on the bench by the MacDougal Street entrance. He's got spiky blue hair. Blue shades. Real cold and calm. Like a ghost or something. But don't get spooked. Here's what you gotta say to him: You gotta say, ‘Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I want to pray.' Then you gotta say, ‘I don't want to be afraid anymore.' And if you do it right, he'll hook you up. And it's
cheap,
yo. Five doses of Invince for fifty bucks.”

“You're so full of crap,” Malcolm had argued. “Invince is such a lie.”

“No, dude. This is for real. This is realer than real. Five-thirty
A.M
. Western entrance. That's the only time he's there. That's the only time you can find God.”

Malcolm would have laughed right in Max's face except the truth was, he had seen what the stuff could
do—at least what everyone was saying it could do. He and Dev had both seen it. It was like E times ten. It was like super-E or something. Only it was better than that. It was more than a high. He'd seen a few of the other skinheads trip out on the stuff like they were goddamn superheroes, like they were bullet-proof or something.

Mal had to get a taste of IV. He had to. And not just for the rush. No, he had another reason.
Revenge.
Revenge for what she had done to his cousin and to half the other brothers, too. He knew they would all back him up on his plan.

But first things first. It was all just a fantasy until he and Devin could find him. It was time to find God.

Malcolm shook the grass and dirt off the T-shirt he'd used as a pillow and stretched it over his tattooed chest. “Come on,” he said, flicking the back of Devin's neck to get him moving.

They strode through the park, their combat boots crunching the dead grass and then clomping on the barely sunlit pavement. Mal kept an eye out for cops, but there was really no need. Everybody knew they didn't sweep the park for assholes until six.

They started to close in on the MacDougal Street entrance, nearing the third bench on the path. . . .

And goddamn if he wasn't sitting right there. Malcolm could still only see him from the back, but that was all he needed to see.

This was the guy. The one and only “God.” His shock of spiky blue hair reflected the grayness of the morning. His long arms were spread out like an eagle's wings across the back of the bench, a thick silver bracelet on each wrist. He sat completely still, like a washed-out photograph or a painting. It was just like Max had said. He was like a ghost. . . .

Malcolm and Devin both held up about six feet away, though Malcolm didn't know why. No, that wasn't true. He knew why. He was scared. At least he could admit it to himself, even if he'd never say it out loud to Dev. Even from six feet away, God was freaking creepy. There was just no denying it.

But that was exactly why Malcolm wanted the stuff, wasn't it? He wanted to kill that feeling. He wanted to feel totally invincible. Even if only for a couple of hours. That was the plan. That was how he'd finally get his revenge—how they would all get their revenge on that blond bitch.

They stood there staring at the back of God's head.

“Is that him?” Devin whispered.

“Of course it's him.” Malcolm rolled his eyes and lit the last bent cigarette from the crumpled pack in his pocket. “Who the hell else could it be?”

“Hey! Are you God?” Devin called out.

Malcolm jabbed him hard in the ribs. “Shut the
hell
up, asshole!” he whispered.

“What?”

“That's not what you
say.
Don't screw this up. I want that
stuff.

“Well, so do I—”

“Then
shut up.

Malcolm shoved Devin back two steps. He stubbed out his cigarette with his boot and then gazed at the back of God's head. He took a deep breath and then he forced out the words. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. . . . I—I want to pray. . . . ”

God's head did not move, nor did his arms.

“Dude, this is total bull—”

“Wait,” Malcolm snapped, shutting Devin up. He turned back to face God's deadly still body. “I, uh . . . I don't want to be afraid anymore. . . . ”

Silence filled the edge of the park. And then God's head finally began to turn. He turned his head about fifteen degrees, and he spoke. He spoke in a hushed and measured baritone.

“Sit with me,” God said calmly.

Malcolm and Devin began to approach, but God stopped them.

“Just the one,” he insisted.

They froze in place. Malcolm glimpsed Devin and then began his solo approach, moving even more slowly this time. The closer he got, the farther away he wanted to be. But finally he managed to sit down at the end of the bench, trying not to stare too long at God's profile or his blue shades, which were just starting
to pick up the first real glints of orange sunlight.

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