As a special treat for publication week, we've got a VOLTAGE! extract of the most freakychic book of the autumn…Monster High!
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Frankie Stein’s thick lashes fluttered open. Flashes of bright white light strobed before her as she strained to focus, but her eyelids were too heavy to lift all the way. The room went dark.
“Her cerebral cortex has been loaded,” announced a man, his deep voice a blend of satisfaction and fatigue.
“Can she hear us?” asked a woman.
“Hear, see, understand, and identify more than four hundred objects,” he replied, delighted. “If I continue filling her brain with information, in two weeks she’ll have the intelligence and physical capabilities of a typical fifteen-year-old.” He paused. “Okay, maybe a little smarter than that. But she’ll be fifteen.”
“Oh, Viktor, this is the happiest moment of my life.” The woman sniffled. “She’s perfect.”
“I know.” He sniffed too. “Daddy’s perfect little girl.”
They took turns kissing Frankie’s forehead. One of them smelled like chemicals, the other like sweet flowers. Together,
they smelled like love.
Frankie tried to open her eyes again. This time she could barely make them flutter.
“She blinked!” the woman exclaimed. “She’s trying to look at us! Frankie, I’m Viveka, your mommy. Can you see me?”
“She can’t,” Viktor said.
Frankie’s body tensed at the sound of those words. How could someone else decide what she was capable of? It didn’t make sense.
“Why not?” her mother seemed to ask for both of them.
“Her battery pack is almost drained. She needs a charge.”
“So charge her!”
Yeah, charge me! Charge me! Charge me!
More than anything, Frankie wanted to see these four hundred objects. Wanted to study her parents’ faces while they identified each object in their kind voices. Wanted to come to life and explore the world she had just been born into. But she couldn’t move.
“I can’t charge her until her bolts finish setting,” her father explained.
Viveka started to cry, her gentle sobs no longer sounding joyful.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” Viktor cooed. “A few more hours and she’ll be completely stable.”
“It’s not that.” Viveka inhaled sharply.
“She’s so beautiful and full of potential, and it . . .” She sniffed again. “It just breaks my heart that she’ll have to live . . . you know . . . like us.”
“What’s wrong with us?” he asked. Yet something in his voice suggested that he already knew.
She snickered. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Viv, things won’t be like this forever,” Viktor said. “Times will change. You’ll see.”
“How? Who’s going to change them?”
“I don’t know. Someone will . . . eventually.”
“Well, I hope we’re around to see it,” she said, sighing.
“We will be,” Viktor assured her. “We Steins tend to live long lives.”
Viveka giggled softly.
Frankie desperately wanted to know what about these “times” needed to “change.” But asking became unimaginable as her battery drained completely. Feeling both light-headed and impossibly heavy at the same time, Frankie floated deeper into the darkness, settling in a place where she could no longer hear the people around her. She could not recall their conversation or smell their flower- and chemical-scented necks.
All Frankie could do was hope that by the time she woke up, that thing Viveka wanted to be “around to see” would be here. And if it wasn’t, that Frankie herself would have the strength to get it for her.
The fourteen-hour drive from Beverly Hills, California, to Salem, Oregon, had been total Gitmo. It went from road trip to guilt trip in less than a minute. And the torture didn’t let up for nine hundred miles. Faking sleep was Melody Carver’s only escape.
“Welcome to bOre-egon,” her older sister mumbled as they crossed the state line. “Or should I call it snOre-egon? How about abhOre-egon? Or maybe —”
“That’s enough, Candace!” her father snapped from the driver’s seat of their new BMW diesel SUV. Green in both color and fuel efficiency, it was one of the many overtures her parents had taken to show the locals that Beau and Glory Carver were more than just great-looking wealthy transplants from the 90210.
The thirty-six preshipped UPS boxes filled with kayaks, sailboards, fishing poles, canteens, instructional wine-tasting
DVDs, organic trail mix, camping gear, bear traps, walkie-talkies, crampons, ice picks, cobra hammers, adzes, skis, boots, poles, snowboards, helmets, Burton outerwear, and flannel underwear were just a few more.
But Candace’s comments became even louder when it started to rain. “Ahhhhhh, August in pOre-egon!” Candace sniffed. “Ain’t it grand?” An eye roll followed. Melody didn’t have to see it to know. Still, she peeked out through barely opened lids to confirm.
“Ugggggh!” Candace kicked the back of her mother’s seat indignantly. Then she blew her nose and whipped the moist tissue at Melody’s shoulder. Melody’s heart beat faster, but she managed to hold still. It was easier than fighting back.
“I don’t get it,” Candace continued. “Melody survived fifteen years breathing smog. One more won’t kill her. She could wear a mask. People could sign it, like they sign casts. Maybe it would inspire a whole line of accessories for asthmatics. Like inhalers on necklaces and —”
“Enough, Candi.” Glory sighed, obviously exhausted from the monthlong debate.
“But next September I’ll be in college,” Candace pressed, not used to losing an argument. She was blond, perfectly proportioned, and used to getting what she wanted. “You couldn’t wait one more year to move?”
“This move will be good for all of us. It’s not just about your sister’s asthma. Merston High is one of Oregon’s top schools. Plus, it’s about connecting with nature and getting away from all that Beverly Hills superficiality.”
Melody smiled to herself. Her father, Beau, was a celebrated plastic surgeon, and her mother had been a personal shopper to the stars. Superficiality was their master. They were its zombies. Still, Melody appreciated her mother’s ongoing effort to keep Candace from blaming her for the move. Even though it kind of was her fault.
In a family of genetically perfect human beings, Melody Carver was an anomaly. A rarity. An oddity. Abnormal. Beau had been blessed with Italian good looks despite his SoCal roots. The flicker in his black eyes was like sunshine on a lake. His smile warmed like cashmere, and his perma-tan had done zero damage to his forty-six-year-old skin. With just the right stubble-to-hair-gel ratio, he had as many male patients as female ones. Each one hoped to peel off the bandages and look ageless . . . just like Beau.
Glory was forty-two but, thanks to her husband, her blemishfree skin had been nipped and tucked long before she needed the procedures. She seemed to have one pedicured foot off the human development chart and into the next stage of evolution — a stage that defied gravity and ceased to age her past thirty-four. With wavy shoulder-length auburn hair, aqua blue eyes, and lips so naturally puffed they needed no collagen, Glory could have modeled had she not been so petite. Everyone said so. At any rate, she swore personal shopping always would have been her career choice, even if Beau had given her calf extensions.
Lucky Candace was a combination of both her parents. Like an alpha predator, she had filled up on the good stuff, leaving scraps for the next offspring in line. While the petite frame she inherited from her mother hurt her potential modeling career, it did wonders for her wardrobe, which was bursting with hand-me-downs that included everything from Gap to Gucci (but mostly Gucci).
She had Glory’s blue-green eyes and Beau’s sunny sparkle, Beau’s tan and Glory’s airbrushed complexion. Her cheekbones ascended like marble banisters. And her long hair, which happily assumed the texture of straight or wavy, was the color of butter drizzled with melted toffee. Candi’s friends (and their mothers) would snap photos of her square jaw, strong chin, or straight nose and give them to Beau with the hopes that his hands could work the same
miracles his DNA once did. And, of course, they did.
Even with Melody.
Convinced the wrong family had taken her home from the hospital, Melody placed little value on physical appearance. What was the point? Her chin was scant, her teeth were fanglike, and her hair was a flat black. No highlights. No lowlights. No butter or toffee drizzle. Just flat black. Her eyes, while fully functional, were as steel gray and narrow as a skeptical cat’s. Not that anyone noticed her eyes. Her nose took center stage. Composed of two bumps and a sharp drop-off, it looked like a camel in downward-facing dog.
Not that it mattered. As far as Melody was concerned, the ability to sing was her best asset. Music teachers had gushed over her pitch-perfect voice. Clear, angelic, and haunting, it had a mesmerizing effect on everyone who heard it, and teary audiences would spring to their feet after every recital. Unfortunately, by the time she turned eight, asthma had taken center stage and stolen the show.
Once Melody started middle school, Beau offered to operate. But Melody refused. A new nose wouldn’t cure her asthma, so why bother? All she had to do was hold out until high school, and things would change. Girls would be less superficial. Boys would be more mature. And academia would reign supreme.
Things got worse when Melody started at Beverly Hills High. Girls called her Smellody because of her giant nose — and boys didn’t call her anything at all. They didn’t even look at her. By Thanksgiving she was practically invisible. If it weren’t for her incessant wheezing and inhaler sucking, no one would have known she was alive.
Beau couldn’t stand to see his daughter — who was “full of symmetric potential” — suffer any further. That Christmas, he told Melody that Santa got a new form of rhinoplasty approved, promising to open up airways and alleviate asthma. Maybe she’d be able to sing again.
“How wonderful!” Glory placed her small hands together in prayer and then lifted her eyes toward the skylight in gratitude.
“No more Rudolph the big-nosed reindeer,” Candace joked.
“This is about her health, not her looks, Candace,” scolded Beau, obviously trying to meet Melody halfway.
“Wow! Amazing.” Melody hugged her father in thanks, even though she wasn’t sure noses had anything to do with restricted bronchi. But pretending to believe his explanation gave her some hope. And it was easier than admitting that her family was embarrassed by her face.
Over Christmas break, Melody underwent the surgery. She woke up to find she had a thin, pert Jessica Biel nose, and dental veneers instead of almost-fangs. By the end of the recovery period, she had lost five pounds and gained access to her mother’s Gap to Gucci (but mostly Gucci) hand-me-downs. Unfortunately, she still couldn’t sing.
Back at Beverly Hills High, the girls were welcoming, the boys were gawking, and hummingbirds seemed to fly a little closer. She found a level of acceptance she had never dreamed possible. But none of this newfound fabulousness made Melody any happier. Instead of flaunting and flirting, she spent her free time buried under the covers feeling like her sister’s metallic Tory Burch tote — beautiful and shiny on the surface but a terrible mess on the inside. How dare they act nice just because I’m pretty! I’m the same person I’ve always been!
By summer, Melody had completely withdrawn. She dressed in baggy clothes, never brushed her hair, and accessorized solely by clipping an inhaler to her belt loops. During the Carvers’ annual Fourth of July barbecue (where she used to sing the national anthem), Melody had a severe asthma attack that landed her in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. In the waiting room, Glory anxiously flipped through a travel magazine and stopped at a lush photograph of Oregon, claiming she could smell the fresh air just by looking at it. When Melody was released, her parents told her they were moving. And for the first time ever, a smile spread across her perfectly symmetrical face.
“Helloooooo, adOre-egon!” she said to herself as the green BMW forged ahead.
Then, lulled by the rhythmic swish of the windshield wipers and the tapping of falling rain, Melody drifted off to sleep.
This time for real.
LIFE’S A STITCH
The sun was finally up. Robins and sparrows were chirping their usual morning playlists. Outside Frankie’s frosted bedroom window, kids on bikes began ringing their bells and circling the Radcliffe Way cul-de-sac. The neighborhood was awake. She could finally blast Lady Gaga.
“I can see myself in the movies, with my picture in the city lights . . .”
More than anything, Frankie wanted to bop her head to “The Fame.” No. Wait. That wasn’t entirely true. What she really wanted to do was jump up on her metal bed, kick the fleececoated electromagnetic blankets to the polished concrete, swing her hair, wave her arms, shake her booty, and bop her head to “The Fame.” But disrupting the flow of electricity before the charge was complete could lead to memory loss, fainting spells, or even a coma. The plus side, however, was never needing to plug in her iPod touch. As long as it was near Frankie’s body, the device’s battery had more juice than Tropicana.
Luxuriating in her morning infusion, she lay supine with a tangle of black and red wires clamped to her neck bolts. While the last electric currents ricocheted through Frankie’s body, she leafed through the latest issue of Seventeen magazine. Careful not to smudge her hardening In the Navy nail polish, she searched the models’ smooth, odd-colored necks for metal rivets, wondering how they managed to “amp” without them.
As soon as Carmen Electra (the name she’d given the amp machine, because its technical name was too hard to pronounce) shut down, Frankie delighted in the itchy tingle of her thimblesize neck bolts when they started to cool. Feeling invigorated, she pressed her pert nose into the magazine and took a long sniff of the enclosed Miss Dior Cherie perfume sample.
“You like?” she asked, waving it in front of the Glitterati. Five white rats stood on their pink hind feet and scratched the glass wall of their cage. A flurry of nontoxic multicolored glitter slid off their backs like snow from an awning.
Frankie took one more sniff. “Me too.” She waved the folded paper through the cold formaldehyde-laced air and got up to light her vanilla-scented candles. The vinegary chemical odor of the solution was seeping into her hair and dominating the floral notes in her Pantene conditioner.
“Do I smell vanilla?” her dad asked as he rapped on the closed door.
Frankie shut off her music. “Yesssss!” she trilled, ignoring his pretending-to-be-annoyed tone — a tone he’d been using since Frankie transformed his lab into a “Fab.” She heard it when she glammed up the laboratory rats, began storing lip gloss and hair accessories in his beakers, and glued Justin Bieber’s face to the skeleton (because, how voltage is that poster where he’s sitting on the skateboard?). But she knows her dad didn’t really mind. It was her bedroom now too. And besides, if he really cared, he wouldn’t refer to her as —
“How is Daddy’s perfect little girl?” Viktor Stein knocked again and then opened the door. Frankie’s mother followed Viktor into the room.
Viktor was swinging a leather duffel and wearing a black Adidas tracksuit and his favorite brown UGG slippers with a hole in one toe.
“Worn and old, just like Viv,” he’d say when Frankie made fun of them, and then his wife would swat him on the arm. But Frankie knew he was just joking, because Viveka was the type of woman you wished was in a magazine just so you could stare at her violet-colored eyes and shiny black hair without being called a stalker or a freak.
Her father, however, had more of an Arnold Schwarzenegger thing going on, as if his chiseled features had been stretched to cover his square head. People probably wanted to stare at him too but were afraid of his six-foot-four frame and super-squinty expression. But his squints didn’t mean he was angry. They meant he was thinking. And being a mad scientist, he was always thinking. . . . At least that’s how Viveka explained it.
“Can we talk to you for a minute, sweetie?” Viveka asked in a singsong way that mimicked the swooshing hem of her black crepe sundress. Her voice was so delicate that people were shocked when they heard it coming from a six-foot-tall woman.
Viv and Vik walked across the polished concrete floor holding hands, a united front, as always. But this time, traces of concern lay beneath their proud grins.
“Have a seat, dear.” Viveka gestured to the pillow-covered rubyred Moroccan chaise Frankie had ordered online from Ikea. In the far corner of the Fab, along with her sticker-covered desk, her flatscreen Sony, and a rainbow of colorful wardrobes stuffed with Internet buys, the lounge faced the only window in the room. Even though that window had been frosted for privacy, it gave Frankie a glimpse into the real world — or at least the promise of one.
Frankie padded across the fluffy pink sheepskin path from her bed to the lounge, silently fearing that her parents had seen her latest charges from iTunes. Nervous, she pulled on the track of fine black stitches that held her head in place.
“Don’t pull,” Viktor insisted, lowering himself onto the chaise. The birch frame creaked in protest. “There’s nothing to be nervous about. We just want to talk to you.” He placed the leather duffel by his feet.
Viveka tapped the empty cushion beside her, then fussed with her signature black muslin scarf. But Frankie, fearing a lecture on the value of a dollar, tightened her silky black Harajuku Lovers robe and chose to sit on the pink rug instead.
“What’s up?” she asked, smiling and trying to sound as if she hadn’t just spent $59.99 for a season pass of Gossip Girl.
“Change is in the air.” Viktor rubbed his hands together and inhaled deeply, as if gearing up to tackle a hike up Mount Hood.
No more credit cards? Frankie speculated with dread.
Viveka nodded and forced another smile, her dark purple painted lips holding tight to each other. She looked at her husband, urging him to continue, but he widened his dark eyes to communicate that he didn’t know what to say.
Frankie shifted uncomfortably on the rug. She had never seen her parents at such a loss for words. She fast-forwarded through her recent purchases, hoping to figure out which item had tipped them over the edge. Season pass of Gossip Girl — orange blossom room spray — striped Hot Sox with the cute toe holes — magazine subscriptions for Us Weekly, Seventeen, Teen Vogue, Cosmo-Girl — horoscope app — numerology app — dream interpreter app — Morrocanoil hair de-frizzer — Current/Elliott boyfriend jeans . . .
Nothing too major. Still, the anticipation was making her neck bolts spark.
“Relax, dear.” Viveka leaned forward and smoothed her hand over Frankie’s long black hair. The soothing gesture stopped the energy leak but did nothing for her insides. They were still popping and hissing like the Fourth of July. Her parents were the only people Frankie knew. They were her best friends and mentors. Disappointing them meant disappointing the entire world.
Viktor took another deep breath, then exhaled as he made his announcement. “The summer is over. Your mother and I have to go back to teaching science and anatomy at the university. We can’t home school you anymore.” He jiggled his ankle restlessly.
“Huh?” Frankie knit her perfectly sculpted eyebrows. What can this possibly have to do with shopping?
Viveka placed an I’ll-take-it-from-here hand on Viktor’s knee, then cleared her throat. “What your father is trying to say is that you are fifteen days old. On each of those days, he implanted a year’s worth of knowledge into your brain: math, science, history, geography, languages, technology, art, music, movies, songs, trends, expressions, social conventions, manners, emotional depth, maturity, discipline, free will, muscle coordination, speech coordination, sense recognition, depth perception, ambition, and even a small appetite. You have it all!”
Frankie nodded her head, wondering when the shopping part was coming.
“So, now that you’re a beautiful, smart teenage girl, you’re ready for . . .” Viveka sniffed back a tear. She looked over at Viktor, who nodded, urging her to continue. Licking her lips and exhaling, she managed to work up one last smile, then —
Frankie sparked. This was taking longer than ground shipping.
Finally Viveka blurted, “Normie school.” She said it like nor-mee.
“What’s ‘normie’?” Frankie asked, fearing the answer. Is that some kind of rehab program for shopoholics?
“A normie is someone with common physical traits,” Viktor explained.
“Like . . .” Viveka picked up an issue of Teen Vogue from the orange-lacquered side table and opened it to a random page. “Like them.”
She tapped an H&M ad featuring three girls in bras and hot pants — a blond, a brunette, and a redhead. They all had curly hair.
“Am I a normie?” Frankie asked, feeling just as proud as the beaming models.
Viveka shook her head from side to side.
“Why? Because my hair is straight?” Frankie asked. This was the most confusing lesson of all.
“No, not because your hair is straight,” Viktor said through a frustrated smirk. “Because I built you.”
“Didn’t everyone’s parents ‘build’ them?” Frankie made air quotes. “You know, technically speaking.”
Viveka raised a dark eyebrow. Her daughter had a point. “Yes, but I built you in the literal way,” Viktor explained. “In this lab. From perfect body parts that I made with my hands. I programmed your brain full of information, stitched you together, and put bolts on the sides of your neck so you could get charged. You have no real need for food, other than enjoyment. And, Frankie, because you have no blood, well, your skin, it’s . . . it’s green.”
Frankie looked at her hands as if for the first time. They were the color of mint chocolate chip ice cream, just like the rest of her. “I know,” she giggled. “Isn’t it voltage?”
“It is.” Viktor chuckled. “That’s why you’re so special. No other student at your new school was made like that. Just you.”
“You mean the school will have other people in it?” Frankie looked around the Fab, the only room she’d ever truly known.
Viktor and Viveka nodded, guilt and trepidation wrinkling their foreheads.
Frankie searched their moist eyes, wondering if this was really happening. Were they really going to just cut her loose? Drop her in a school full of curly-haired normies and expect her to fend for herself? Did they really have the heart to walk away from her education so they could teach lecture halls full of perfect strangers instead?
Despite their quivering lips and salt-stained cheeks, it seemed that they actually were. Suddenly, a feeling that could only be measured on the Richter scale rumbled through Frankie’s belly. It climbed up her chest, shot through her throat, and exploded right out of her mouth:
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