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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Texas Hold'em

A Wild Cards novel

Wild Cards (Volume 21)

George R. R. Martin

Tor Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

Bubbles and the Band Trip


Part 1

THE BRAKES GAVE A farty hiss as the bus pulled up in front of the Gunter Hotel. Michelle sighed with relief. Being cooped up with her daughter and the rest of the Xavier Desmond High School Jazz Band for eighteen hours straight was about as much fun as she could stand. The kids sometimes called themselves the Jokertown Mob, but mostly just the Mob to keep it short.

“Ms. Pond!” Peter called from the back of the bus. Peter was the band’s trumpet player. He called himself Segway because his legs were fused together and he moved by rolling around on keratin wheels. “Can we get out now?” Michelle guessed she wasn’t the only one ready for a break from the enforced confinement.

“In a second, Peter,” she said. “Let me see where we’re supposed to check in first, so we don’t have to lug the instruments and suitcases all over the place.”

The driver opened the bifold door and Michelle stepped out into the beautiful, cool San Antonio spring morning.

And discovered she was in a little slice of hell.

Coming at her was a group of about twenty people carrying an array of placards that read: SPAWN OF SATAN! FREAKS! JOKERS ARE SUBHUMANS! JOKERS ARE WICKED ABOMINOTIONS: PROV. 15:9!

Michelle strode toward them. They kept coming at her. At her and the bus full of her kids.

Bastards.

“That’s far enough,” she said in her very best I’m-from-the-Committee-do-not-fuck-with-me voice. They actually stopped.

Okay, so far so good. They’re not complete morons.

“Where exactly do you think you’re going?” Michelle asked. She aimed at the protesters generally. She couldn’t tell if there was a leader or not, but right now she didn’t care. They were going to stay the hell away from her kids. Especially when she saw that a couple of the protesters were carrying sidearms.

Texas, sheesh. Also, compensating much? She wasn’t sure which bugged her more, the open-carry douches or the concealed-carry jerks. There was so much badness waiting to happen. At least if one of those guns went off and hit her, it wouldn’t do a damn thing except give her more fat. And she could totally deal with that.

“You and those freaks are abominations unto the Lord,” said one of the protesters, pointing at the bus. “He will smite them. They are wicked, for the Mark of Satan is on them.” She wore oversize cat’s-eye sunglasses and an electric-blue polyester pantsuit. Her hair looked like pink cotton candy. It rose at least seven inches into the air.

The bigger the hair the closer to God? Michelle thought. Yeesh. Michelle narrowed her green eyes and cocked her head to one side. Wow, toots, big mistake. And not just the ensemble. You just bought yourself a world of hurt.

“The only abomination is your spelling and grammar. ‘ABOMINOTION’? Seriously? Also, your manners are appalling. Yelling at children? Total dick move.”

“You don’t frighten us, Miss Pond,” the woman continued. “For the Lord shall protect me. He will protect all of us.”

A round of “That’s right” and “Praise Jesus” rumbled through the protesters. “You tell her, Betty Virginia. You tell that filthy freak.”

A bubble began forming in Michelle’s hand. After Kazakhstan, her temper was shorter and her desire to bubble was sharper. It wasn’t a good combination. “Yeah, you wanna test that theory,” Michelle replied.

The protesters were an odd bunch. There was a pair of twins in their thirties who wore identical clothing and bore a striking resemblance to Tweedledee and Tweedledum minus the beanies. A woman with greasy hair wearing a muumuu carried a sign with a picture of a dead and horribly deformed joker on it. Off to one side, a pimply-faced teenage girl stood slumped-shouldered, looking as if she were about to cry. The men in the group wore jeans, T-shirts with God Loves Humans written across the chest, and gimme caps. The women seemed to take their sartorial lead from Betty Virginia. There were a lot of big, back-combed bouffants in a variety of shades. These gals loved the blackest of blacks and the reddest of reds. And they had embraced neon-colored pantsuits in the most sincere of ways. The protesters all had the same angry, hateful, self-righteous expressions on their faces.

God’s Weenies, Michelle thought. She knew they were here to protest the Mob playing in the Charlie Parker High School Jazz Competition, as they were the only band playing that had any jokers. Okay, so they had all the jokers.

One of the men in the back had dropped his hand to his holstered piece. Michelle gave him a cold smile. “I’ll be happy to show you my open carry. And you know bullets don’t scare me.”

Betty Virginia turned to see who Michelle was speaking to. He was a plain-looking fellow with cat-shit brown eyes and a comb-over. His sidearm was holstered, but he had the snap lock undone. His denim cowboy shirt was rolled up at the sleeves.

“Now, Earl Walker,” Betty Virginia said with a honeyed tone as she gave her cotton-candy hair a pat. “You just keep that snub nose where it belongs. We don’t advocate violence. You know that.”

“Oh, that’s hi-larious,” Michelle said. “You just rile things up to make sure someone else gets their hands dirty. Stay away from my kids.”

She released her bubbles then. The protesters shrieked. But these bubbles weren’t designed to kill or maim, they just boxed the protesters in, keeping them from moving. A box of iridescent, translucent, and very strong bubbles.

Pretty, Michelle thought with a smile.

And as she was admiring her handiwork, she saw the other chaperones—Wally and Robin—the band, and the music director, Sharon, hustling past the protesters into the Gunter Hotel.

The lobby was packed with teenagers carrying instrument cases and talking excitedly. The adults—chaperones, parents, and music teachers—looked like they were about to lose their minds.

“Gosh, where are the cowboys?” Wally asked, looking around the lobby. He was good-natured and sweet, but his large size, iron skin, and yellow eyes made him look intimidating. His skin would rust, but he’d done a good job at keeping it well-scrubbed on the trip down. It helped that his daughter liked to help him scrub it.

Wally had insisted that he come along as a chaperone on the trip. His daughter, Ghost, was the sax and clarinet player for the band. She was ten years old and had only recently started playing with them. Though she was an ace—and still in elementary school—the band members had embraced her. And not just for her smoking sax solos. Her indifference to them being jokers had won them over. And, after all, her father was a joker, as was her best friend, Michelle’s daughter, Adesina.

“Wally!” Ghost said, tugging on his sleeve and pointing across the lobby. “There’s the clarinet player from the Modesto Melody Makers. She’s awesome!”

Michelle smiled at Ghost’s enthusiasm. Ghost and Adesina had hung out at Michelle’s apartment watching YouTube videos of all the other bands in the competition. By now, the girls knew the band members from the other bands by sight. Michelle surveyed the room, wondering how the girls could keep this many players straight.

A young girl, tiny compared to Michelle’s six-foot height, came up to her. “I’m sorry to bother you,” the girl said. She had long chestnut-colored hair, and was wearing a floaty floral print dress with black Converse sneakers. “But aren’t you Michelle Pond?”

Michelle gave the girl a wan smile. She wasn’t feeling up to a fan encounter, but she felt a strong obligation to not be a jerk when someone just wanted a moment of her time. She’d had her own fangirl moments in the past and knew how much it meant to have contact with someone you admired.

At least Michelle assumed she was being admired. Sometimes it was difficult to be sure. “Yep, that’s me,” she replied.

The girl beamed at her. “So, that’s the Mob?” she said with a nod to the joker kids grouped by the door. The door to the hotel opened and the bleating of “Jokers are abominations!” and “Spawns of Hell!” floated in. Michelle thought about going outside and introducing them to less gentle bubbles.

The girl followed Michelle’s gaze. “They’re from the Purity Baptist Church. They’re awful.”

“Yep,” Michelle replied tersely. “I’ve already had a super-special moment with them.”

“I’m Kimmie,” the girl said, reaching out her hand. Michelle took it and gave it a quick shake. “Would you mind if I met the band? I don’t know any jokers. But from their YouTube videos, they sure can wail. I play flute in the Plano Originals.” She blurted this all out while tucking a stray hair behind her ear nervously. “This is our third year in a row being invited. But we haven’t won yet.”

Michelle looked at Kimmie suspiciously. Most nats would be freaking out about seeing a pack of jokers, but the only thing she saw on the girl’s face was clear and honest curiosity.

“Sure,” Michelle said. She led Kimmie over to the Mob. “Guys, this young lady would like to meet you. She’s in the Plano Originals band.”

Adesina came forward immediately. “Hey there,” she said. Her wings spread out, then snapped shut. She’d been having trouble controlling them of late. “OMG, your band is awesome! I loved that video you guys posted playing ‘The “In” Crowd’ in last year’s competition. Your flute solo was hella kewl.”

Kimmie looked down and her cheeks got red. “Thanks. I’m pretty proud of it. I like your wings. And your dreads. And your bass is awesome! I’ve never seen a bass tricked out like that. I mean, someone using one in a jazz band.”

“Thanks,” Adesina said, a smile blooming across her face. “I figured, I already look like this”—she gestured to her body—“so I might as well go big or go home. And who doesn’t like purple sparkles, ya know?”

Kimmie laughed. She leaned forward conspiratorially. “I never would have had the guts to do something like that.”

Michelle decided she liked Kimmie a lot. Her daughter may have been a joker, but Michelle had always thought she was beautiful. Adesina’s skin was leathery and the color of obsidian; her eyes and dreads were coppery. She did have four vestigial insect legs, but they were small. Antennae sprouted from her forehead. Adesina and Michelle agreed the physical part of her latest transformation was filled with awesome sauce.

“Who’s that?” Kimmie asked, gesturing toward Peter. Instead of pants, he wore a kilt. Michelle was pretty sure he wore it in the traditional way, and that brought up a lot of other questions she decided weren’t really her business. But then she saw him grin at Kimmie and Kimmie smile back, and Michelle realized that Peter was also a cute boy and Kimmie was intrigued by him—joker or not.

Peter rolled over to Kimmie and bowed at the waist in front of her. That he could easily keep his balance always amazed Michelle. “O beautiful maiden,” he said with a slight British accent that was totally put on. “How may I serve you?”

Michelle rolled her eyes. Peter was a gamer and especially into role-playing.

Kimmie laughed and held out her hand. He took it and made much of kissing it.

“Oh, for the love of Mike,” Michelle said with a groan, “I cannot believe … hand kissing!”

“Mom’s a monster when she’s annoyed,” Adesina said, laughing. She posed then, standing with her hands raised palms up, her feet firmly planted, and her face set in a stern expression. It was a perfect imitation of Michelle’s usual “fight mode.” Michelle glared at her.

Adesina smiled. “Yeah, that is so not working, Mom.” She turned back to Kimmie. “Antonia is our drummer.” She gestured at the girl with tentacles for hands. Antonia nodded at Kimmie. “And Marissa plays keyboards.

“This is Sean, our other sax player.” Kimmie smiled and gave him a small wave. Colors began rippling across his skin until they ended in bright neon shades.

Adesina leaned in close. “He likes you and he’s also totes embarrassed,” she whispered.

“Am not,” Sean cried.

“Are too,” Adesina retorted.

“Oh, here’s Asti—” She pointed at the boy holding a guitar case. “He plays guitar, obvs. And he’s totes cute with that peach fuzz all over. Now don’t be embarrassed, dude. And those bubbles coming off his head? They smell like peaches. So yummy.” Her voice dropped and she leaned in to whisper in Kimmie’s ear, “And OMG, you should see his abs.”


Copyright © 2018 by George R. R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust