Life had never felt more uncertain to Constance than at this very moment. That was saying a lot considering that she had lost both of her parents before age two, and had saved the world three times over by the time she had turned four. The school year at Stonetown University had ended. Tomorrow she was graduating. She had reluctantly agreed to participate in the ceremony only because it was a sure way to get all of her friends home to visit. Kate, Sticky, and Reynie hadn't been back to Stonetown since last Christmas. Now they were all about to embark on another adventure without her.
They were already done with graduate school. They had already held real jobs and now they were all going to become Secret Agents, just like Kate's father, Milligan, had been once upon a time. Somehow, without even consulting with one another, they had all applied to work for the Agency.
It was a foregone conclusion for Kate to join the Agency. Kate had wanted to be a spy just like her dad for nearly half her life. Besides being good at fast getaways, she was clever, resourceful, and the bravest person Constance had ever met.
It even made sense for Reynie, in a way. "I like to solve puzzles," he'd explained to Constance. "I'm good at it, and crimes are one kind of puzzle." He was the best solver-of-puzzles she could imagine, and he was a good, kind human being. It was a rare combination. The Agency was lucky to have him.
But what about Sticky? He didn't enjoy being in danger. He hated it. However, Sticky could read dozens of languages, plus he was a walking encyclopedia. In fact, Sticky had been recruited out of his graduate program in Library Science to work in the Agency's counter-intelligence section as an analyst. Yeah, Sticky would be terrific, too. Whatever.
Constance didn't want to be a spy, of course, far from it. She had had enough of being in mortal danger and chasing after bad guys for several lifetimes. But she hated feeling like she was being left behind. It didn't matter how hard Constance worked, she was never going to catch up. Her life was so unfair.
They'd already completed their basic courses at the Secret Agent Training Academy. Now they were waiting for their first assignments. As junior agents, they were obliged to go wherever the Agency sent them. It could be anywhere in the world! It could be years before they were all together again! What if something bad happened to one of them?
What was wrong with her? She had to stop catastrophizing like this. They were together now and that's what mattered. Her sisters had borrowed a stationwagon and and Reynie and Sticky had driven up with Kate in her camper to help Constance move her belongings home. Everything was already packed and waiting in her dorm room. She just needed a little help moving, loading and unloading the boxes.
Reynie, Sticky, and Pencilla waited with her by the building's elevator. Rhonda had remained outside with the vehicles. Naturally, Kate was taking the stairs. "Oh come on. It's only eight flights," she encouraged.
"That's okay. Go ahead. We'll meet you at her dorm room." Reynie punched the up button again. "816."
"Suit yourself." Kate pulled open the heavy double doors across from the elevator, and headed up the stairwell. Constance still wasn't used to seeing Kate without her omnipresent bucket of tools. Once she started college, Kate had switched to a humungous bucket-shaped cross-body bag. It had at least a dozen pockets, including one for her tablet, plus it converted to a backpack. Today, even the bucket-bag was nowhere in sight. Constance had a sudden thought. Now that Kate was an Agent, was she carrying a gun? Ooh. Maybe all of her friends were toting guns? She made a conscious effort not to read their minds to check. Because that would be rude. Plus, she could just ask Reynie and Sticky since they were standing right here.
Before she had the chance, Reynie cleared his throat. "So, what are your plans now that you've finished up at Stonetown?"
This again. Constance was taking a "gap year." For some reason, her friends and family were flummoxed by the decision. Since her best friends had, one by one, left home to attend various universities, she had been working non-stop toward completing her own degree. She was graduating at 18. Why shouldn't she take a break? She was going to continue the summer pet sitting business she had started to help pay for her schooling. In between walking dogs, scooping litter boxes and feeding one client's exotic fish, she would be studying for the Graduate Record Exam. She had long ago decided to become a veterinarian.
Her work with animals had started with learning to feed and exercise Kate's pet falcon, Madge. Next came an adopted rescue cat, Elmer Fudd. She began volunteering at the local animal shelter. Animals could be just as difficult to get along with as people, but at least they didn't lie about their thoughts and feelings. If a dog was hungry, it asked for food. If it was tired, it would lie down and take a nap. An angry cat would hiss. A fearful bird would fly away. A lonely dog would howl or bark or possibly tear apart the sofa. It all depended on the dog. Pets weren't after personal power or world domination. Their needs were simple: they wanted enough food to eat, to be kept out of harm's way, and to be loved.
To gain admittance to veterinary college, she was going to have to study. It was very competitive and Constance's GPA, while well above average, was not a perfect 4.0, thanks to that "C" she had earned in Geology from Professor Payne N. D'Ashe. This meant she would need very high scores. Besides cracking the books, her plans following graduation included working at the Stonetown City Zoo. Its penguin habitat was her favorite place in Stonetown. She had applied for an internship starting in September and still hadn't heard back. It was beginning to worry her.
"My plans haven't changed since the last time I answered this exact same question." Constance said, effectively ending discussion. "This elevator is taking too long." She pushed the UP button several more times.
It was the next-to-last day to move out without a penalty so the dorm was crowded with students carrying boxes and parents taking pictures. At last the elevator door opened. Constance waited with the rest of her party for the last passenger to debark, stepped inside and headed for the back. Reynie, Pencilla, and Sticky filed on board, followed by a tall, skinny guy whom she vaguely recognized from her Cell Biology lab. He waved and smiled and pushed his way past the other passengers to to stand beside her. Oh God.
"Hey," he said, trying to make eye contact.
"Hey," she replied, acutely aware of how her eldest sister, two of her three best friends, and assorted total strangers were all standing there, right in front of them, pretending not to eavesdrop. Constance dropped her shields quickly to check. Yep, they were all listening in, except for Sticky who was thinking about a book he'd just finished about the flora and fauna of the Amazon River. Bless him.
The elevator doors closed. The compartment was full. Everyone shifted to make themselves as small as possible.
"I'm Alex, Alex Bender."
"Bender. As in 'bite my shiny metal ass'," she said, without thinking. Yikes. What was wrong with her anyway? She didn't know this guy. Maybe he didn't even watch Futurama.
To her relief, Alex didn't seem offended. "Yeah, exactly. I like that show, too."
Mindful of her audience, Constance smiled tightly and stared at the shoulder blades of the person in front of her. The elevator arrived at the second floor and the door opened to let two people out. Everyone reshuffled. From where she was standing, she couldn't see how many buttons had been pushed. With her luck, it would be all of them. One down, seven floors to go.
"We'll be sitting next to each other at graduation," Alex said. He was not dissuaded by her lack of response. "Alexander Bender. Constance Benedict," he explained. Like she couldn't have figured that out for herself.
Wait. How did he even know her name? "Are you stalking me?" She had to crane her neck to glare at him. He'd better tell the truth, too. She'd find out soon enough if he wasn't.
Alex didn't seem the least bit fazed. "Of course not. I was the student TA for Cell Biology."
Oh. That's right. She took a longer look at him. He wasn't handsome, exactly but he wasn't awful looking either: his hair was short and wavy, his eyes were wide-set and hazel. His features were average, except for his mouth which had a strangely thin upper lip, compared to the lower. He had a slender build but not in an unhealthy way. At over six feet, he was annoyingly tall, but then who wasn't compared to her?
Skipping past floors three and four, the elevator stopped on floor five to let off six people, then again on six to let off four more.
"I guess I'm not as memorable as you," he said softly.
Surprised, she looked up at him, then just as quickly looked away. Her stomach did a tiny somersault as the elevator stopped on the seventh floor.
"This is my floor." He smiled. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow then." He had a really nice smile, too.
"You will," she managed. Thank God, that's over.
An awkward silence followed. Why wasn't the stupid elevator door opening to let him out? Sticky had ended up next to the control panel. "Sticky? Would you press the open button, please? The door must be stuck," Constance said. Of course it was.
He pressed the button a couple of time and held it down. "Huh. Still not opening."
Alex, Reynie, and Pencilla pulled out their cell phones. "There's no phone service in elevators," Sticky reminded them. He hit the emergency call button, then sat down beside the panel. "We might as well relax. This could take awhile." He pulled a paperback out of his pocket and began reading.
Pencilla blanched and began rummaging through her coat pockets, looking, Constance assumed, for an energy bar. Her sister's unusual metabolism necessitated frequent snacks. Her search was in vain. "I'll be fine. But maybe I'll sit down, too."
Constance knew firsthand how cranky Pencilla could get if she missed a snack, let alone a full meal. That settled it. "I'll try to send a message to Kate. She can let everyone know we're okay, make sure we get rescued." What is my life. I can't even move out of my dorm without something going wrong. She plopped down next to Sticky, leaned her head back against the wall, and closed her eyes. It had been awhile since she'd tried this.
"Wait." It was Pencilla. "Maybe we should see what happens with emergency services first?"
"Yeah. We're not in any real jeopardy. You know how you are...afterward..." Sticky said.
Constance scowled. "I'm not using mind-control. I'm. Just. Sending. A. Message." They meant well, she reminded herself. But she wasn't a kid anymore. Besides, how would they know if there was anything dangerous going on or not? She was the mind-reader!
"She's right. Mental telepathy never made her sick. Anyway, it's her decision, guys." Reynie looked around the elevator car. "There is a way out if we need it," he said, pointing to the roof.
"Thank you." Constance closed her eyes again and began to clear her thoughts.
"Hold on. Would it be okay if I asked for a time-out? Mental Telepathy? Mind control? What's going on here?"
Alex again. Crap. And she'd nearly forgotten about him, too. She opened up one eye to see Reynie waving him off. Good. Okay, where was I?
The transmission was easy enough. Kate's mind was simple to read as well. "We know. Fire department en route. No sign of trouble." Or something to that effect. She must have passed out shortly thereafter. The next thing she knew, Kate was looming over her, yelling in her face and shaking her.
"Stop it. I'm okay," Constance snapped, batting her arms to push Kate away. She was, except she had a splitting headache. All this—just from sending a message? That had never happened before, but then she'd been so much younger the last time. Putting thoughts in someone's head was for emergency use only. Madame Futurella Blavatsky, the psychic who had taught her how to shield her brain from reading people's thoughts, had emphasized this point, repeatedly.
"Okay good. Connie, listen. The elevator is stuck between the sixth and seventh floors. I'm going to have to fasten this harness around you so we can lift you through the elevator shaft."
Constance looked up. The elevator exit hatch was open, and a rope ladder was dangling through the opening. "Yeah, okay." She lifted up her head to look around. Immediately the room began to spin. She laid back, closed her eyes, and let Kate do her thing. "How did you get in here anyway? You don't have your bucket anymore."
Kate smiled and tested the harness fastenings. "The firefighters pried open up the elevator doors and I took it from there. I don't need my bucket or bucket-bag now, Connie-girl. Sticky found this amazing trench coat for me on the internet. It's got 18 hidden pockets, plus I added two more! "She's all set," Kate called out, then turned back to Constance. "We'll have you out in a jiffy," Kate said, a little too cheerfully.
"What about all my stuff?" Constance groaned as the firefighters hoisted her toward safety.
"No worries. It's already packed up and ready to roll. I carried everything down the stairs myself while we were waiting for the pumper truck to arrive."
At long last, the graduation ceremony had ended. She had listened politely to the most boring speech in the history of boring speeches, and had refrained from using her powers to kill the commencement speaker mid-speech. She had heard the Dean of the Science Division read her name, Constance C. Benedict, and her degree, Bachelor of Science, Biology, magna cum laude. Wearing the tallest Spicegirl platform sneakers she could find on Ebay, she had walked across the stage—without tripping over her robe—and collected her diploma, to the delight of her friends and family. She was justifiably proud of herself.
Not only that, through the entire ceremony, she had sat or stood next to Alex Bender, knowing that he had learned her biggest secret and had seen her at her most vulnerable, and she hadn't tried to read his mind. She had been tempted because, okay, he was kind of cute, and she was kind of interested in him. Before the Elevator Incident, she'd been under the impression that he was interested in her, too. She was dying to know what he thought about her now. Nevertheless, because it was the right thing to do, she had resisted. She was proud of herself for that, too.
The main event over, they were all standing around, talking and taking pictures, waiting for someone to suggest heading back to the house for the big party. Sticky, Kate, and Reynie were arguing about the best way to MacGyver a selfie stick for a group photo. Constance had been given the task of assembling the adults—the rest of the adults. They were all grownups now—even her, even if she was still the youngest.
Getting this bunch to follow directions was worse than herding cats—been there, done that. Mrs. Ethel Singleterry had owned seven of them, plus a dog who thought he was a cat, the year Constance had been her pet sitter. Eventually, she had everyone lined up in three rows, tallest to smallest. She would be standing in the front row even if she wasn't the guest of honor.
"Why don't you allow me to take the photograph?" Moocho Brazos offered from the second row. "I'm not a member of your family." This was soundly rejected by the group.
"I can do it," said Alex Bender.
Him again. Alex must have sneaked up behind her when she wasn't paying attention. That never should have happened. She should have heard his footsteps. Well, since he was here, he might as well make himself useful. "Fine. Thank you." She handed Kate's phone to him and took her place between Rhonda, who gave her a quick hug, and Sticky's mom, Mrs. Washington, who took her hand and gave it pat.
Alex took three pictures. Constance gave her approval to the second shot, took the phone back, and the group broke apart.
"Thanks, Alex." That was Sticky. He was always polite.
"Good to see you again, Alex." So was Reynie.
"Connie-girl, I need my phone back," Kate said.
As soon as Constance handed it over, Kate held it up and snapped a picture of her and Alex! "Hey!" Constance tried to grab the phone back, without success. Kate laughed and darted off. Reynie and Sticky followed after her. The nerve.
"It must be nice, coming from such a big family," Alex offered. "You're the youngest, right? I'm an only child myself."
Constance was still fuming. "I am and it is. Usually." She forced her attention away from Kate and back to Alex. "Sorry. I shouldn't let her get to me."
"That's what big sisters are for, or so I've been told." He shrugged. "Okay, I have to ask. According to your friends, reading minds is your superpower. Can you tell what I'm thinking right now?"
Constance was nonplussed. What else had they talked about while she was passed out on the floor of the elevator? Her friends were going to have some explaining to do. "Yes. I guess I could, but I don't do it anymore, not if I can help it. It's rude and wrong." She was sticking to that rule, starting today. "What's your superpower, if you don't mind my asking?"
He didn't hesitate. "I can finish the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle. It sometimes takes me until the following week, but I'm nothing if not persistent. What if I gave you permission to read my mind, just this once?"
"Why would you do that?" She would never do that for him—or anyone else, for that matter.
"Maybe I don't believe in mental telepathy. Maybe I don't think you can do it. I'm a scientist, at least I plan to be. Maybe I need proof."
She didn't have to prove anything to him.
She had spotted a middle-aged couple standing about thirty feet away, watching them. "Those people are waiting for you. Why don't you just say what you want to say?"
"I know. They're my parents." He hesitated. "Okay. Sorry. Obviously I got off on the wrong foot here. My scientific curiosity got the better of me." He took a deep breath. "I like you. I was wondering if maybe we might hang out together, over the summer. I'll be staying with my parents in Liddlehowe Town until I leave for grad school in August."
He's leaving, too? "You mean like a date?" She wasn't opposed, exactly, despite his skepticism about her abilities, but why now? Why not last year?
"Well, yeah. I just want to get to know you better. Have a little fun along the way. I mean, if that's what you want, too. What do you think?" He looked even more attractive when he was squirming just a little bit.
It would be a summer romance. No strings attached. At least he didn't live far from Stonetown. It would be something to do in between pet sitting and studying for her entrance exam, and moping about her friends leaving again. "Okay."
He looked perplexed. "You don't sound exactly enthusiastic. I'm not trying to put any pressure on you."
"Why not? Do you think I can't handle it? If you were so interested in me, why did you wait this long to say anything?" Suddenly she knew why. "You thought I was too young. You still do." It was all she could do to keep from stamping her foot. Instead, she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him.
Alex sighed. "That was fast. We haven't started dating and already we're having our first fight. Fine then. You're right. I thought you were too young last year. You were only seventeen, for pete's sake. And I was your TA, remember? Granted, you can run rings around me intellectually, even leaving aside the Jedi mind-tricks, but I'm still four years older than you. Ten years from now, when you're 28 and I'm 32, it wouldn't matter, but that's not the case here."
Jedi-mind tricks. She narrowed her eyes. A Star Wars fan. "Why are you even bothering with me then? Especially since you think I'm a liar and a fake." She might as well face the facts: she was a freak and she would never have any friends, not apart from her family. She was not going to cry. She was not.
"No. It's not that. I want to believe you. Why not prove me wrong? You want to know why I want to go out with you? Read my mind."
He was as stubborn as she was. "Fine. Be sure to let me know if I'm getting this wrong." She let down her shields. "'Smart is sexy'? Really?" He swallowed hard and nodded. She rolled her eyes. Wait. That couldn't be right. "You are 'fatally attracted' to my 'blonde, blue-eyed, mini-dominatrix in platform sneakers persona.'?" It had to be a hit because Alex looked as though he might pass out. She grabbed his arm. "Are you okay?"
Before Alex could reply, Reynie showed up out of nowhere. "Hey. How's everything going?" he said, trying to look cool and failing utterly. What was wrong with her? She should have heard him coming long before he got a chance to butt in. She was completely off her game.
"Do you mind? This is a private conversation," she said in as polite a tone as she could manage.
"No problem." Reynie put up his hands and backed away.
She turned back to Alex. "Sorry. Where were we?"
"You just blew my mind, actually," he admitted.
"Yes. Sorry about that." She let go of his arm and lifted up her chin. "I don't usually mention it, not until the third date." Actually, she had never been on a real date, but he didn't need to know that, at least not yet.
"I'm the one who owes you an apology. I don't have to worry about you being able to take care of yourself, do I?" Alex sounded impressed, even a little intimidated. He should be. She had taken on one of the most evil minds of the century when she was only three years old, and she'd won.
"You do not." She wasn't sure if this dating business was a good idea but nothing ventured, nothing gained. "Our timing is not ideal," she said carefully, "but I don't see why we can't become better acquainted and, how did you put it? 'Have a little fun' along the way."
"Great. That's great," he said, looking relieved. "I was worried you might have been put off by the mini-dominatrix visual."
"Not at all." It had...potential.
His expression turned thoughtful. "You could say it's bad timing but looked at in a different way, it could be seen as serendipitous. If I'd arrived a few seconds later, I wouldn't have run into you again in the elevator. The elevator might have worked perfectly and let me out on the seventh floor. We might have sat next to each other at graduation and not spoken a word. We could have gone our separate ways and..."
There was something familiar about what he was saying. Everything has been bittersweet. That was the phrase. It was from a discussion the Mysterious Benedict Society members had had a long time ago, shortly after her father's evil twin had been defeated and sent to prison. Sticky had put it best but it was Kate who'd first pointed it out. It meant everything good was connected somehow to something bad. Reynie had agreed with them and added something else, something about how they should learn to appreciate the bittersweet in life, that they would be happier if they did. She had vehemently disagreed, but she'd been only four years old at the time. Maybe Reynie was right all along. Life wasn't perfect. It was never going to be perfect. True, Kate, Reynie, and Sticky were all heading off in different directions again, but they were amazing people who were going to lead extraordinary lives. No matter what happened, they would always be her best friends. Nothing could change that. If she spent all her time moping about her friends, worrying about her internship application and her test scores, and generally feeling sorry for herself, she could miss out on having her own adventures.
"Constance. Where'd you go? You zoned out there for a second."
"Did I?" She stared at Alex. Suddenly her summer looked ripe with possibility. He was cute and reasonably intelligent; he could probably be trained to talk less. Maybe he could be her first summer fling (and hopefully not her last). Now, where would be a good place to go on a first date in Stonetown? Of course. What a perfect choice!
"I was just thinking. Have you ever been to the Stonetown City Zoo?"