The Mutants Men Don't See
by James Alan Gardner
At 10:04 a.m. on a Thursday in November, Jason Foote slipped something into Matthew Stein’s beaker during Grade 10 chemistry. No one ever figured out what the substance was, but the result was an earsplitting bang.
At the next lab table, Julia Boudreau was startled enough to drop a test tube. It hit the floor and shattered, spreading glass and dilute acid over the tiles. Other students shrieked or swore, but the most extreme reaction came from Tamara-Lynn Eubanks: she grew nine feet tall, sprouted tree-bark all over her body, and smashed a hole through the wall of the classroom. She ran through the hole at the speed of a sports car and was not seen again until two years later, when she was caught on video fighting Blue Mechathons during the Rainbow Invasion.
Everyone in the class understood what had happened: Tamara-Lynn’s DNA must have included the so-called “Spark gene.” The shock of hearing the bang had pumped the girl full of fight-or-flight hormones. The adrenaline flood in Tamara-Lynn’s bloodstream had combined with the glandular turmoil of being a teenager, and had “sparked” the gene out of dormancy. Every cell in the girl’s body underwent spontaneous mutation; in the blink of an eye, Tamara-Lynn Eubanks joined the ranks of Earth’s superhumans.
She was the fourth teen in Canada to transform so publicly. Many more were assumed to have “supered up” in private, but under similar circumstances—a girl or boy on the metabolic roller-coaster of adolescence got propelled even higher by a jolting moment of stress. Result: sometimes unmistakable traits like Tamara-Lynn’s; sometimes a kid who looked completely normal but could juggle Buicks, read minds, or turn to steam.
Sparking up never happened in children—the gene couldn’t activate until puberty established the basic biochemical conditions. And spontaneous transformation had never been observed in anyone older than sixteen; after that, either you didn’t have the Spark gene at all, or else your glands had settled down from Peak Crazy, thereby losing the chaotic strength to kick the gene awake. Conventional wisdom said that from age seventeen on, you could only acquire superpowers through supreme flukes of luck . . . like falling into a vat that contained exactly the right combination of weird chemicals, or getting hit by the right glowing meteor.
What were the chances of ridiculous things like that? One in a hundred million. But spontaneous Spark mutation happened to teens exactly like you.
* * *
Liam Lee attended the same school as Tamara-Lynn Eubanks. He hadn’t known her, except as a face in the crowd—Liam was in Grade 12 and his life didn’t intersect with Grade 10s. As it happened, however, Liam was in the classroom next door when Tamara-Lynn crashed through the wall. He was sitting by the window, so he had a clear view of Tamara-Lynn’s tree-like body as she raced into the distance.
Liam had never seen anything so beautiful.
And Liam was no stranger to Sparks. Like 90 percent of young males in the civilized world, he had that poster of Tigresse taped up in his bedroom. He watched the Spark channel . . . followed a dozen Spark-oriented tumblrs . . . befriended Facebook pages that tracked superbattles, superscandals, supertech. Once, he had stood on the beach near his house and watched as five superheroes fought a gigantic monster far off in Toronto harbor.
But Tamara-Lynn Eubanks was the first Spark he’d seen for real, up close. She was awesome. She was like magic. She was everything Liam wanted to be.
On the day Liam Lee saw Tamara-Lynn change, he was a week away from his seventeenth birthday.
Almost too late.
* * *
Like all mothers of teenage boys, Ellie Lee feared her son would do something stupid. He might drink and drive; he might plagiarize an essay; he might try one of the increasingly strange drugs that the Toronto Sun claimed were running rampant in city high schools. But more than anything else, Ellie feared that Liam would hurt himself trying to get superpowers.
He was almost seventeen: the magical cut-off date. Of course it wasn’t magic at all—hormones didn’t rigidly follow the calendar. Liam’s metabolism had likely quieted down already . . . and of course, that was assuming he carried the Spark gene at all. What were the odds of that? Not high. But common sense arguments never seemed to dissuade kids from being idiots.
Every week, newspapers reported some teenager Sparking up during a crisis—like that boy in Argentina who was chased by a vicious dog and suddenly found he could leap huge distances and see radio waves. For weeks after that, the papers were full of dumb kids throwing themselves at Rottweilers in the hope of becoming super. It wasn’t very different from tying a towel around your neck and jumping off the roof in the belief that you could fly . . . which was something Liam did when he was five (except luckily he couldn’t figure out how to get to the roof, so he only jumped off the porch railing and landed in the junipers).
Getting scratched up had cured five-year-old Liam of trying crazy stunts; but Ellie was terrified this business with Tamara-Lynn Eubanks would send Liam back to the towel.
This time, Liam wouldn’t just jump off the porch. More likely, he’d copy one of the many known “origins” that had turned teens into Sparks. You could find exhaustive descriptions on the Internet, and chatrooms where people discussed the pros and cons of stepping in front of cars or shouting insults at biker gangs.
Somehow, those discussions never mentioned the many many people who got injured or killed without gaining powers. Failure only happened to losers.
Sometimes, Ellie lay awake wondering which would be worse: Liam breaking his leg in a car crash, or Liam actually turning into a Spark. Sparks were constantly fighting, and being blown up, and turning evil, and going to other galaxies, and becoming radioactive, and having extravagant love affairs with totally the wrong kind of people. If instead Liam got a little bit hurt, it might not be so bad.
But Ellie knew her son: he never did things halfway. If he set his sights on Sparking up, he wouldn’t try something only slightly dangerous. He’d go too far.
* * *
Ellie booked time off work: two weeks vacation, even though it was November. (“Going someplace warm, Ellie? Florida? Jamaica?” “No, I’m just going to lie on the couch and have hot flashes.”) She bought a bicycle, over the protests of a man at the store. (“There’ll be snow any day now; I really don’t recommend riding around when there’s ice.”) The man didn’t understand the lengths to which a mother would go when it came to stalking her son and trying to protect him.
The riding helmet she bought was more for motorcycles than bikes—it completely hid her face. She also bought a black tracksuit unlike anything she’d ever worn in her life. Ellie intended to follow Liam without being seen, but if he did occasionally spot her, she was confident he’d never recognize her from a quick glimpse.
(Ellie thought, “I’m a sitcom cliché.” Then she thought, “I’m a mother.”)
Copyright © 2016. The Mutants Men Don't See by James Alan Gardner