Carmen couldn’t stop staring at the oven clock. 5:55. Director Fukuda- who had sounded very serious- had given a deadline of 6:00. The Fosters’ apartment was close to the PRT building, but it was rush hour, and she wouldn’t get there by 6:00. Frick. Her mom was late. Why was she late? Carmen could have walked herself, but nooo. She wasn’t allowed to walk there by herself. She had to get a ride. From her mom. No one else was getting a ride from their mom! Older kids got to walk, or take a taxi, or may even drive… so unfair.
She was still in her school uniform. The crest of Redline Middle School was emblazoned on the right side of her blue polo, and she wore khakis underneath and a gray puffy jacket on top. As she waited for her mom, Carmen had packed a backpack for the Wards headquarters, too. Hadn’t he mentioned there were beds there? She had the red backpack slung over her shoulders. She had also tidied the house, and packed herself an Uncrustable and some carrot sticks for dinner later. She had been busy. But now, Carmen stood by the door until…
Her mother walked in. Valerie was a short yet imposing woman, wearing a boxy police uniform. She looked similar to her daughter- dark hair, dark skin. “Carmen, come on, go, get in the car, you’re late!” Her mom rushed her out the door and down to the car- a police car. Carmen groaned.
“Seriously? We’re taking the squad car?”
“Jonas has the other car. Get in. I won’t have you getting fired on your first day.”
Carmen resisted the very true rebuttal that she was already late and climbed into the front seat. It was always disorienting to find herself in the front seat of a cop car, and even more disorienting to know she was headed towards her own version of law enforcement. As they pulled out of the driveway, Carmen fiddled with her hair. Had she forgotten to get the hair tie out of her room? Dangit! With a kind of ease, she summoned a purple scrunchie from thin air and used it to put her hair up. It would dissipate later, but she would find a more permanent solution. Her mom’s gaze slid towards her, silently judging.
“You know, Carm,” she started, and Carmen braced herself for whatever she was going to say, “I want you to understand something. These other kids you’ll be working with are trouble. They’re delinquents, criminals. I don’t want you getting mixed up in all their business. Keep your distance and don’t get comfortable.”
Carmen shifted in her seat, eyes on her mom. “How do you know that? I thought our identities were supposed to be secret.”
“They are! Don’t worry. Just… most parahumans are trouble. Something about the… the powers and psychology or something. I don’t know.”
“But I’m a parahuman,” Carmen said. It was something that had taken her a lot of time to come to terms with it. She was pretty sure she still hadn’t come to terms with it. Her power seemed so tiny, but getting it had changed her life. She wasn’t sure if that change was good or bad, but it was change.
“Well, yes, but…” Valerie trailed off, looking resolutely into the street. “You’re different.” She left it at that, and Carmen frowned.
“Jesus, this traffic,” her mom interrupted. There was in fact, a long line of cars trailing through their icy downtown, but Carmen couldn’t see how that was relevant. Although she was going to be late, and that was a terrifying thought. “Hm. Can’t have you be late Let’s fix this.” Without warning, her mom flicked the sirens on and began to speed up, other cars making way for them and their supposed emergency.
Carmen flattened herself against her seat. “MOM!” she screamed.
“Seriously?! This is SO embarrassing!”
Valerie laughed. “But you’re not as late as you would’ve been, are you?” They pulled up to the PRT Headquarters at exactly 6 o’clock. People turned their heads, spooked as the cop car with the sirens pulled up and then turned them off. A few PRT officers turned their heads, making their way over to the car. “Get going, Carm. I’ll see you at home- curfew is 9:30, you understand? Don’t let that Fukuda guy keep you later, or I swear to God he is dead. It’s not a school night but you need your sleep. Oh, and be careful-”
Carmen stepped out of the car, still flushed. “Bye. See you later.” She huffed and headed into the building, red backpack slung over her shoulder. She checked her watch. 6:01. Frick! She sped up, walking to the receptionist’s desk with purpose. What was it that she was supposed to say? Something strange… She thought for a moment as the receptionist stared at her curiously. She had seen a ton of teenagers today and knew what was coming. “Hi, I’m here because, um… my mom got bit by a rat and it turned her into a Herald.” That sounded right.
The receptionist sighed. “You’re the last one, kid.” She buzzed up an officer to escort Carmen down to the Wards headquarters.
A PRT officer showed up in full tactical gear and grabbed Carmen’s shoulder, guiding her to the elevator. She almost immediately felt uncomfortable. “Hi.” No response. The elevator ticked down, level after level, including going beyond the prison sector (which made Carmen’s heart rate pick up- she was not going to jail this was NOT a Scared Straight thing) and eventually stopped on the floor below.
Carmen stepped out of the elevator, looking thoroughly nervous. Just from observations, she could tell she was the shortest, youngest, and most ordinary person in the room. All these people were genuine teenagers. Oh boy! And they were all looking at her. She gave a cheery little wave, flashing a braces-filled smile, and tried to mosey on over to the couch, avoiding attention from the Director. Maybe he’d think she was there the whole time?