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Everyone who shifts experiences something different. With me, there is the initial tingle of expectation that runs through my body. I feel it in my fingertips, on my scalp, and down my spine.
The sensation builds as my body stretches and grows dense with muscle. My skin takes on an intense green hue. And then, kaboom!, it’s like being in a volcanic eruption and She-Hulk is the volcano, roaring out, as big and bold and badass as she wants to be.
I’m somewhere inside. I can see what she sees and feel what she feels, but I have limited little no control of her behavior.
She grinned at herself in the mirror and shook out her long waves of hair that were the deep shade of green ink. She grabbed a purple pleather bodysuit and silver boots from the closet, then wiggled into them and sighed with pleasure.
In less than a minute, she’d hit the express button in the private elevator, which dropped so fast it was almost like being in free fall.
The elevator opened to the subbasement, which had access to one of the secret tunnels that crisscross Manhattan. Shulky ran because she’s faster than a car in city traffic. She was happy to be out, happy to stretch her long legs, happy to be wearing clothes she thought made her look hot. Or as she spells it, hawt.
She slipped out of the tunnel at 42nd Street by the Hudson River Greenway. She kept to the shadows as well as a six-foot-seven jade Amazon could keep to the shadows, and then she burst out under the street lamps. A crowd had gathered to watch the action, and they shouted, “She-Hulk! She-Hulk’s here! Shulky!” and she gave a wave while noticing the silver arc of a water sphere shooting like a meteorite across the sky before plummeting down in the direction of Broadway.
A dozen black-and-whites had red lights flashing at the base of the pier. She scoped out the raft bobbing a hundred yards off in the dark water. Centered on the raft was a contraption with a wheeled turret and mantel that supported a long metal cylinder. The white foam churning around the raft indicated an engine below the surface.
Sergeant Patricia Palmieri, our favorite NYPD superhuman liaison, waved She-Hulk over. “Shulky, glad you made it.”
“What’s the scoop, Patty?”
“We can’t tell if the giant peashooter is remote-controlled or not, since anyone who gets close gets blasted. The main target is the goddamn theater district.”
“That’s taking the bad reviews of Spider-Man a little too far,” Shulky snarked. Patty laughed because people think anything Shulky says is hilarious. “Is the ammunition just water?”
“Yes, but you’d have to ask a goddamn physicist how it’s been formed into giant cannonballs. The loading interval seems to take at least twenty-five seconds.”
“That’s long enough for me to get there. Not to worry, Pattycakes.”
Another waterball flew through the sky, and She-Hulk sprinted down the pier, her long legs eating up the distance. Then she extended her arms and dived into the river, setting off waves on either side.
Her legs propelled her quickly to the edge of the raft. Her muscles were so dense that when she hauled her 680 pounds up on the raft, it began to tip over. She rolled to the center of the raft, and as it righted itself, the pea-shooting metal cylinder swung right at her head.
She thought she heard a manic giggle as she reached up, grabbed the cylinder, and crushed it as easily as a normal human would crush an aluminum can.
An engine suddenly roared, and the raft rocked violently in the wake of a silver capsule jetting away on the surface of the water.
He’d left too easily.
When a miscreant departed without a struggle, it was usually because his plan was about to go into Phase II, known among the superheroes as the Let’s-blow-this-mother-up Phase.
Shulky remained poised on the raft for an instant before she hurled herself off and backflipped into the water. She stretched out, using her massive arms to propel her quickly away from the raft. She took a deep breath then ducked under the surface, going as deep and fast as she could.
She was already under the pier when she felt the shock waves as the raft exploded.
She waited until the shrapnel stopped raining on the river before she rose to the surface. She pulled herself out of the river, shook like a dog, and banged on her ear to get the water out. Sergeant Palmieri was soon by her side saying, “You all right?”
“I will be as soon as my hair dries.”
“Did you see the perp?”
“I only heard him. He giggled like a kid, a crazy kid. The peashooter, that’s like something a kid would build. Maybe your team will find out more from the wreckage, but it was almost like a prank — except for the explosion. That’s attempted murder.”
“So you don’t think there’s superhuman involvement?”
“If I had to guess, I’d say no. Superhuman evildoers are more goal-oriented. This was merely mayhem.”
“For all of our sakes, I hope you’re right.”
She-Hulk looked at the bright lights of the city. “Patty, do you mind sending a copy of your report to the Mansion? Cuz I hear a party calling my name.”
Back at my place I jammed the stolen sweaters into my duffel bag, along with some other clothes. Then I stood on my bed and untacked my map, folded it neatly, slipped it inside, and zipped the whole thing shut. I locked the door behind me, having left just enough behind so that maybe it would look like I planned on coming back.
Outside I had one decision left to make: which car to steal. It had to be something that the whole world wouldn’t notice as I drove by. And it ought to be an American-made car, because that’s the kind Cody had the most experience fixing. In a weird way this was just the teensiest bit exciting. All these months I’d known, courtesy of Cody’s memories, how to start a car with nothing but a screwdriver.
My heart skipped three beats as a car puttering up the road backfired. I got to the corner of North State and Magnolia and was looking wildly up and down for a likely prospect when the same car honked at me. Just great. The car looked as sorry as it sounded, with dents and rust spots and a convertible top with threads hanging down from it. And as it pulled up beside me, who should I see behind the wheel but James, wearing his long black leather jacket, plus thick black leather gloves that looked like they had sheepskin lining.
“Anna Marie,” he said. “Hop in!” His voice sounded bright and cheerful, like he was inviting me to go to the movies or a dance or something. I didn’t get into the car just yet, but I poked my head in.
“How far you going?” I asked.
“How far do you want to go?”
If he’d racked his whole brain for a million years, he couldn’t have come up with a better answer. The car had a bench seat. I threw my duffel bag in first so it could be a buffer between us. Then I hunkered down in the front seat and set to searching for a decent radio station. It was going to be a long, long ride.
The car was hotter than hell. Not only did James have the windows rolled up, he had the heat cranked. “You gotta be kidding me,” I said. He glanced over like he had no clue what I was talking about.
“You think we could use the air-conditioning instead of the heat?” I said.
“Sure,” James said. He sounded so calm, that same kind of elegant, almost musical voice. “Please do whatever you like. I’m still trying to figure everything out.”
“Yeah,” I said, giving him a little leeway. “It’s an old car, for sure.” I leaned over and switched the dial from red to blue. The chances that the air conditioner in this old jalopy worked were slim. Luckily Cody knew just how to fix the air-conditioning in an old Camaro, so even if it didn’t work now, I could repair it on up the road.
“What does that do?” James asked, as I fiddled with the dial. “Clean up the oxygen?”
“The oxygen? What’re you talking about?”
“You called it an air conditioner. So is the air going to get a little cleaner? Easier to breathe?”
“You don’t know what an air conditioner is?”
He paused, like he knew he’d made a mistake. Then — hallelujah — cold air started flowing from the dashboard, and he set into shivering. I rolled my eyes and clicked it off.
“Here,” I said. “A compromise. We’ll turn off the heat, which makes the car hotter, and also turn off the air conditioner. Which makes the air colder. Not easier to breathe. Do you want to tell me why you’re the only person in the world who doesn’t know that?”
James nodded at the windshield. Up ahead there was a big highway sign, giving us the choice between 220 South or 55 North.
“Do you want to talk about my knowledge of automotive terms?” he said. “Or do you want to tell me which way we’re going?”
“North,” I said, feeling a little guilty for wanting to head to cooler climates. “Definitely north.” I waited for him to complain, say he wanted to head where it was hotter, but he didn’t. He just eased the car onto Interstate 55. I listened for sirens blaring behind us and didn’t hear anything. A sign by the road said it was 544 miles to Winona, Tennessee. I asked James, “How do you feel about driving straight through the night?”
“Works for me.”
“In that case, we don’t have to talk about a doggone thing, if you don’t want to.”
James smiled to himself, and nodded. He reached out like he planned on patting my hand, and I pulled it back. I had on tea gloves underneath the fingerless gloves of my sweater, but still. Best not to get into the habit. He winced a little, like I’d hurt his feelings again, but he kept his eyes on the road. This gave me the chance to study him for a bit. At first glance, with the long hair and all the leather, he might seem scary. Luckily I’d learned that most people can’t afford much more than a first glance. So they wouldn’t see the things I did, such as the barest little bump on his nose, like maybe it had been broken a time or two, or the way his big hands gripped the wheel, looking strong, like they could do anything at all in this world.
The light in the car changed in patterns, depending on the streetlights rushing by and the headlights from the opposite side of the highway. I didn’t take my eyes off James, and he didn’t seem to mind. It had been so long since I’d just sat next to somebody. So long since I’d been along for the ride, and not just purely on my own.
I blushed something fierce all the way to Canton. Luckily it was dark and James didn’t seem to notice. You’d think the two of us would’ve been talking a blue streak, what with all the questions between us that needed working out. In my head I tried to figure on what I would tell James when he asked why I wanted to leave Jackson in such a hurry. But he didn’t ask, just kept his eyes on the road, driving.
“You want me to drive awhile?” I asked, after three quiet hours had passed.
“No,” he said. “This is fun for me.”
“You mind if I go to sleep then?”
“No,” he said. He smiled that little smile he had, the one that made me think of the word “kind.” “You go ahead and get some rest.”
I wriggled out of my jacket and folded it into a fat square so I could use it as a pillow. Just as I leaned it against the window, I thought of that kind way James had. I could just imagine, once I’d fallen asleep, he’d be the sort of person who’d reach over and stroke my hair, or give my cheek a little pat.
Don’t forget I used to be a regular girl. I knew the things that passed between people like they were nothing at all. My girlfriends back in Caldecott County used to touch me all the time with their fluttery fingers. Even Aunt Carrie sometimes tiptoed into my room and kissed me on the forehead when she thought I was sleeping. That was the only time she ever seemed to like me, when I slept.
“Listen. James,” I said.
“Yes, Anna Marie?” He talked so proper I had to smile to myself.
“I’m going to say something kinda strange right now,” I warned him. He looked away from his driving for just a second and smiled encouragement at me, like I was allowed to say any old strange thing I wanted. I took a deep breath. “You can’t touch me,” I said. “Not when I’m awake and not when I’m asleep. It’s nothing personal against you. And I’m not saying you even want to touch me. But I just need you to promise me that you won’t. Touch me, that is.”
“OK,” he said.
“I promise,” he said. It surprised me that he didn’t ask any questions, but then I figured he was just returning the favor about me not interrogating him. I settled my head against the window, with my jacket underneath it, and started to close my eyes. But still it rankled me a little bit, and I never had learned to keep my mouth shut.
“James?” I said.
“Yes, Anna Marie?”
“Don’t you want to know why you can’t touch me?”
“Well,” he said, “I do want to know. But I suspect it’s a little bit like me not knowing what an air conditioner is. Isn’t it?”
A little rush of fear, mixed together with excitement, rushed into my heart. “Yes,” I whispered. “I suppose it is.” I leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes. Another of Wendy Lee’s memories came over me, this one a damn sight more wholesome, of her leaning against a car window to doze in just this manner. The man driving was different, much younger, her ex-husband before he became an ex. His name was Joe Wheeler. In this memory he reached out real sweetly and stroked her hair as she fell fast asleep. “Thanks, Jo Jo,” I muttered, which couldn’t have made much sense to James, but I couldn’t see his reaction, because I dozed right off.
Both exceprts Copyright TM & © 2013 Marvel and Subs. Published by Hyperion.