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Catwoman, Page 2

Sarah J. Maas

  Trash—that was the word that danced in Mrs. Sullivan’s eyes before she slammed shut the door to her apartment and all those locks clicked into place.

  Selina was too sore to bother being pissed off by it. She’d heard worse.

  She freed the last lock and entered the apartment, quickly shutting and locking the door. Lock after lock after lock, then the chain at the very top.

  The apartment was dim, illuminated only by the golden glow of the streetlights in the courtyard outside the two windows of their living room/kitchen. She was pretty sure there were people in Gotham City whose bathrooms were bigger than the entirety of this space, but at least she kept it as clean as she could.

  The tang of tomato sauce and the sweetness of bread lingered in the air. A peek in the fridge revealed that Maggie had indeed eaten the food Selina had bought for her after school. A lot of it.


  Shutting the fridge, Selina opened the freezer and fished out a bag of peas stashed beside a stack of frozen dinners. She pushed it against her throbbing cheek as she counted those frozen dinners—just three. Their meals for the rest of the week, once the Italian ran out.

  Pressing the frozen peas to her face, savoring the cool bite, Selina stashed the bullwhip under the sink, toed off her sneakers, and padded over the dingy green carpet of the living area to the hallway with the bathroom and single bedroom across from it. The tiny bathroom was dark, empty. But to her left, a warm glow leaked from the door left ajar.

  The wad of cash in her back pocket was still not enough. Not between rent and food and Maggie’s tests and copays.

  Her chest tight, she eased open the door with a shoulder, craning her head inside the bedroom. It was the only place of color in the apartment, painted buttercup yellow and plastered with Broadway posters Selina had been lucky enough to find when yet another East End school had been shut down and cleared out its theater department.

  Those posters now watched over the girl in the bed, curled up under some cartoon kids’ comforter that was about two sizes too small and ten years too worn. So was everything in the room—including the glowworm night-light Maggie still insisted be left on.

  Selina didn’t blame her. At thirteen, Maggie had dealt with enough shit to earn the right to do whatever she wanted. The labored, rasping breathing that filled the room was proof enough. Selina silently picked up one of the several inhalers beside Maggie’s bed and checked the gauge. More than enough left if another coughing fit hit her tonight. Not that Selina wouldn’t rush in here from her spot on the living room couch the moment she heard her sister’s hacking coughs.

  After plugging in the humidifier, Selina crept back to the living space and slumped into a cracked vinyl chair at the small table in the middle of the kitchen.

  Everything ached. Everything throbbed and burned and begged her to lie down.

  Selina checked the clock. Two a.m. They had school in…five hours. Well, Maggie had school. Selina certainly couldn’t go with her face like this.

  She fished the cash from her pocket and set it on the plastic table.

  Hauling a small box in the center of the table toward her, Selina looted through it with the hand that hurt only a fraction less than the other. She’d have to be smart at the market—the EBT funds only stretched so far. Certainly not far enough to cover herself and a sister with severe cystic fibrosis. Selina had read up on food-as-medicine on a library computer while waiting for Maggie to finish her after-school theater class. Not a cure-all, but eating healthy could help. Anything was worth a try. If it bought them time. If it brought Maggie any relief.

  Cystic fibrosis—Selina couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t known those words. What they meant: the incurable genetic disease that caused a buildup of mucus in several organs, but especially the lungs. The mucus clogged and blocked airways, where it trapped bacteria that at best led to infections. At worst: lung damage and respiratory failure.

  And then there was the mucus that also built up in the pancreas, blocking the enzymes that helped break down food and absorb nutrients.

  Selina had Googled it once: life expectancy for severe cystic fibrosis.

  She’d closed the web browser and vomited into the library’s toilet for thirty minutes afterward.

  Selina studied the cash on the table and swallowed. The kinds of healthy foods Maggie needed didn’t come cheap. The frozen microwave dinners were emergency meals. Garbage food. The fresh Italian meal Maggie had consumed tonight was a rare treat.

  And perhaps an apology, for the fight Selina had left her sister in order to take part in.

  “Your face.”

  The rasping words had Selina’s head snapping up. “You should be asleep.”

  Maggie’s curly brown hair was half wild, a pillow wrinkle running down her too-thin pale cheek. Only her green eyes—the single trait they shared, despite having two different fathers—were clear. Alert. “Don’t forget to ice your hands. You won’t be able to use them tomorrow if you don’t.”

  Selina gave her sister a half smile, which only made her face hurt more, and obeyed, transferring the peas from her throbbing face to the split, swollen skin of her knuckles. At least the swelling had gone down since the fight finished an hour ago.

  Maggie slowly crossed the room, and Selina tried not to wince at the labored breathing, the quiet clearing of her sister’s throat. The latest lung infection had taken its toll, and the color was gone from her usually pink cheeks. “You should go to the hospital,” Maggie breathed. “Or let me clean you up.”

  Selina ignored both suggestions and asked, “How are you feeling?”

  Maggie pulled the pile of cash toward her, eyes widening as she began counting wrinkled twenties. “Fine.”

  “You do your homework?”

  A wry, exasperated look. “Yes. And tomorrow’s.”

  “Good girl.”

  Maggie studied her, those green eyes too alert, too aware. “We’ve got the doctor tomorrow after school.”

  “What about it?”

  Maggie finished counting the money and neatly set the stack into the small box with the EBT card. “Mom won’t be there.”

  Neither would Maggie’s father—whoever he was. Selina doubted even her mother knew. Selina’s own father…She only knew what her mother had said during one of her rambling monologues while high: that her mother had met him through a friend at a party. Nothing more. Not even a name.

  Selina moved the frozen peas from her right hand to her left. “No, she won’t. But I will.”

  Maggie scratched at an invisible fleck on the table. “Auditions for the spring play are soon.”

  “You going to try out?”

  A little shrug. “I want to ask the doctor if I can.”

  So responsible, her sister. “What musical is it this year?”


  “Have we watched that one?”

  A shake of the head, those curls bouncing, and a beaming smile.

  Selina smiled back. “But I assume we’re going to watch it tomorrow night?” Friday night—movie night. Courtesy of a DVD player she and the Leopards had taken off the back of a truck, and the library’s extensive movie section.

  Maggie nodded. Broadway musicals: Maggie’s not-so-secret dream and lifelong obsession. Selina had no idea where it had come from. They’d certainly never been able to afford theater tickets, but Maggie’s school had taken plenty of field trips to Gotham City productions. Perhaps she’d picked it up at one of those outings, that undying love. Undimming, even when the cystic fibrosis battered her lungs so brutally that singing, standing on a stage, and dancing were difficult.

  Perhaps a lung transplant might change that, but she was at the bottom of a long, long list. Even as Maggie’s health plummeted with each passing month, she didn’t move any higher. And the drugs that the doctors had hailed
as breakthroughs that would add decades of life for some people with CF…Maggie hadn’t responded to them.

  But Selina wasn’t about to tell her sister any of that. She’d never make her feel like there were limits to what she could do.

  That Maggie was even willing to audition made Selina’s chest unbearably tight.

  “You should go to bed,” Selina said to her sister, setting down the frozen peas.

  “You should, too,” Maggie said tartly.

  Selina huffed a low laugh that made her aching body protest in agony. “We’ll go together.” She winced as she stood, and chucked the peas back in the freezer.

  She’d just turned around when frail arms wrapped carefully around her waist. As if Maggie knew that bruises now bloomed on her ribs. “I love you, Selina,” she said quietly.

  Selina kissed the top of Maggie’s head through the riot of curls and rubbed her sister’s back, even as it made her fingers bark in pain.

  Worth it, though—that pain as she held her sister, the fridge a steady hum around them.

  Worth it.

  * * *


  “I don’t understand how our copay the last time was so much cheaper.”

  It was an effort to keep her voice steady, to keep her hands from curling into fists on the counter of the hospital’s checkout desk.

  The aging woman in pink floral scrubs barely glanced up from her computer. “I can only tell you what the computer tells me.” She pointed with a long purple nail to whatever was on the screen. “And this says you owe five hundred today.”

  Selina clenched her jaw so hard it ached, glancing over a shoulder to where Maggie waited in one of the plastic chairs against the white wall. Reading a book—but her eyes weren’t darting over the page.

  Selina kept her voice down, even though she knew Maggie would just lean forward to eavesdrop. “Last month, it was a hundred.”

  That purple nail tapped against the screen. “Dr. Tasker did tests today. Your insurance doesn’t cover them.”

  “No one told me that.” Even if they had, Maggie needed those tests. Yet the results they’d received…Selina shoved the thought from her mind, along with what the doctor had said moments ago.

  The woman finally looked up from her computer long enough to take in Selina. The swelling had gone down on her face, the bruises concealed with some expert makeup and artful arranging of her curtain of dark hair. The woman’s blue eyes narrowed. “Are you the parent or guardian?”

  Selina just said, “We can’t pay that bill.”

  “Then it’s something to take up with your insurance company.”

  Yes, but Maggie would need more tests like the one she’d had today. The next one in two weeks. The third a month from now. Selina did the math and swallowed the tightness in her throat. “There’s nothing the hospital can do?”

  The woman typed away, keys clacking. “It’s an issue for your insurance company.”

  “Our insurance company will say it’s an issue for you.”

  The clacking on those keys stopped. “Where’s your mother?” The woman glanced around Selina as if she’d find her mother standing a few feet away.

  Selina was half tempted to tell the woman to take a stroll through an East End alley, since that was the only place their mother would be, dead or alive. Instead, she plucked up the insurance card that had been left on the counter and said flatly, “She’s at work.”

  The woman didn’t seem convinced. But she said, “We’ll send the bill to your house.”

  Selina didn’t bother replying as she turned and scooped up her sister’s heavy backpack. Slinging it over a shoulder, she motioned for Maggie to follow her to the elevator bay.

  “We don’t have five hundred dollars,” Maggie murmured while Selina punched the elevator button harder than was necessary.

  No, between the food and rent and today’s tests, the money from the fight wouldn’t stretch far enough.

  “Don’t worry about it,” Selina said, watching the elevator floors light up one by one.

  Maggie wrapped her arms around herself. Not good—the news had not been good.

  That crushing tunnel vision again crept up on Selina. Those five hundred dollars and those stupid tests and that bland-faced doctor saying, There’s no cure for CF, but let’s try another route or two.

  She’d almost asked, Before what?

  As Maggie continued to hold herself, her blunted, rounded fingertips—their shape another screw you from the disease—dug into her thin arms hard enough to make Selina wince.

  Selina pried one of her sister’s hands free and interlaced their fingers.

  Squeezing tightly, neither sister let go the entire trek home.

  * * *


  The neighbors were really at each other’s throats.

  Barely five minutes after Selina had turned on the movie, the shouting and screeching had begun filtering in through the wall behind them. Curled up on the sagging, stained couch that also served as Selina’s bed, her sister tucked against one end with her feet in Selina’s lap, Selina half listened to the drunken fight unfurling next door and the musical on the ancient TV in front of them.

  Carousel. The music was fine, even if everyone was a bit too judgey and smiley and the dude was a total controlling loser-douchebag. Still, Maggie’s head swayed and bobbed along.

  The aroma of cheap mac and cheese clung to the air. Selina had offered to buy Maggie a real dinner out, but Maggie had wanted to just go home—tired, she’d said. She hadn’t lost that grim-faced expression since the hospital. And there was enough of a nip in the air that Selina hadn’t tried to convince her.

  Not that they had the money. But after the doctor’s not-so-sunny prognosis, what difference did thirty bucks make?

  Selina eyed her flip phone sitting on the coffee table she’d propped her feet on. Mika and the other Leopards knew not to call on Fridays. Knew tonight was the only night Selina wouldn’t show up, no matter the job or the threat.

  But if Mika called right then, saying Falcone was hosting another fight and it’d pay big, she’d take it. She’d take three fights in a row.

  Yet—no. She had to be smart about it. If she was hurt badly, the hospital social workers would come sniffing. Ask where their mother was, and likely recognize the tattoos inked down Selina’s arms. Tattoos she kept covered year-round with long sleeves. Even with Maggie, she made sure to dress in the bathroom and never to roll her sleeves up too high while washing her hands.

  But in the ring…those tattoos were on full display for her opponents. Look how many have fallen, they snarled at all who saw them. You’re next.

  The wall behind them thudded, rattling the two framed pictures. The bigger one: a photo of her and Maggie from two years ago—the frame stolen, the photo a cheap printout off the school library printer. They’d been sitting on a bench in the park on a glorious fall day, the trees bright as jewels around them, and Maggie had asked a passing businesswoman to take the picture on her phone. The quality of the image wasn’t great, but the light shining from Maggie’s face was still undeniable.

  And the second: a photo of Selina five years ago, midair as she executed a perfect backflip on a balance beam. One of many gymnastics competitions she’d participated in. And won. Her instructor at the Y had tried to convince her to keep going after those initial three years, claiming that she was remarkably gifted. But Maggie’s illness had been getting worse, their mom had just bailed, and the time and money it would take to train and compete…Not an option. So Selina had stopped going to gymnastics class, had stopped picking up the coach’s calls. Even if she still used everything she’d learned in her fights.

  The crowds loved it, too. Perhaps more than the bullwhip. Their favorite: a back handspring into a backflip—right onto her opponent’s shoulders. Where gravity and a sq
ueeze of her legs around the throat did the work in bringing a man to his knees.

  A string of curses shot through the apartment, and Maggie leaned forward to grab the remote off the table and punch up the volume. “This is the big number,” her sister explained, eyes fixed on the screen. “The most famous song in the musical.”

  The controlling douchebag had indeed launched into a seemingly endless monologue.

  “He’s just found out that his wife is pregnant, and he’s having a total freak-out.”

  “I’m watching,” Selina said, brows lifting.

  Maggie smiled, shaking her head. “You were listening to the neighbors.”

  Guilty. Selina gave her sister a wince of apology, and focused again on the musical.

  Musing and brooding and gloating about the son he’d have, utter macho nonsense. “They’re really putting this on at your school?”

  Maggie hushed her with a waved hand. The song shifted, the jerk now mulling over what it’d be like with a daughter, more macho nonsense and misogynistic crap.

  Selina slid her attention over to Maggie as the music shifted, rising. Her sister’s beautiful green eyes were wide and bright. “This is the part,” she whispered.

  The music exploded, and her sister’s lips moved, mouthing every word.

  Mouthing, because those failing lungs couldn’t hold enough air to make the sounds, and the latest infection in them had ripped away any chance of holding a note in key.

  Maggie silently sang on, not missing a word.

  Selina looked to the screen. To the crashing ocean and the man belting out every note, every dream to shelter and clothe and keep food on the table for his child. To attain money in any way he could, whether by theft or by making it honestly. His only alternative: die trying.

  And for a moment, it seemed that even the neighbors quieted to hear it. The entire complex. All of the East End.