Thursday, October 31, 2013

Kuchisake-Onna

“Goddammit.  You don’t even have your fucking suit on.”

Howard ducked under Layne’s arm and pulled him up off the couch.

“You smell like shit, Layne.”



No one shook his hand very firmly at the service, but everyone wished him the best and let him know they had all thought the world of Payton.



“Layne, we’re all terribly sorry for your loss.  We’ve gotten in contact with a sub who’s willing to hold down the fort for you as long as you need.  We all loved Payton, as a teacher and as a person.”

When Layne got back to the car, he twisted the cap on a bottle of Coke that was now half whiskey and started the engine.



Layne ran his thumb over the raised scar tissue under his collarbone.  It was short and straight and tight to the bone and his collarbone shaded it so that even when he was shirtless it was well hidden.  Payton had liked tracing the scar with her fingers at night; its existence was information few were privy to.  He had been nursing the same slice of pizza for almost half an hour and even his glass was relatively full.  The television’s volume was turned down low and other than the hand on his collarbone Layne was entirely still.  Tinnitus keened in his ears, the ceiling creaked as his neighbors milled about their bedroom, and the television murmured softly about the latest flavor of brutal murder but he did not hear her voice again.



“Hey, it’s Howard.  I’m gettin’ the guys together tonight, we’re gonna play cards and get hammered.  You should come.”  Layne pulled the phone away from his ear and brought the keypad up when Howard’s voice came back, small and hesitant.  “You should fucking show up, man.  Really.”  He pressed “7” and deleted the message.



It took Layne a few minutes to find his pocket knife, buried as it was under the detritus of a drunken shut-in, but he eventually laid hands on the composite of the handle.  He pulled the blade out until it clicked open and plopped down on the sofa.  He spun the knife between his fingers exactly the way everyone’s parents taught their kids not to and grabbed the first letter off of the table.  A swig of vodka and a moment of contemplation later Layne slit the envelope open and slid the letter out onto his lap.

Dear Mr. Shepherd,
I think most of the class had forgotten how boring History classes are when their teacher isn’t hopping around the room, swearing, and tossing erasures at their heads.  We’re all looking forward to you getting back to Central.  We’re all also wishing you the best; a lot of us had Mrs. Shepherd too.  She was awesome.
Best,
Naomi Bates

Layne tipped the bottle back and gulped down cheap vodka to sear his throat and start his eyes watering.  He dropped the letter into the waste bin and slit open a new one. 

Shep,
So help me god if you leave me here with this another week with this substitute douche.  He’s corrected pronunciation more than he’s taught history.  I’m about three corrections away from braining him with my textbook.
Seriously if you don’t show up I’m gonna end up a felon,
Derek

Another swig of vodka.  Another slit envelope.  Another letter.  Two more pulls from the bottle.  Another letter.  Three more letters.  Three more inanities.  Layne set Derek’s letter on the sofa next to him and pushed the rest, opened and unopened alike, into his wire-mesh wastebasket.  He stood up and wandered into the kitchen, set the bottle of vodka in the counter and started digging through the bric-a-brac drawer.  Alcohol-clumsy fingers did not sift well through clothespins, twist ties, and coupons but he eventually found a book of matches.  The matches went next to the vodka.  He dragged the wastebasket onto the linoleum floor and took another drink before dousing the contents of the basket with the rest of the vodka.  The first match snapped just below the head, the second and third just above his fingers, but the fourth caught.  Layne could not actually smell the sulfur but it seemed more poetic to imagine he could.  He dropped the match and the flames enveloped the paper.  Had he not disconnected his smoke detectors days ago they would have gone off within seconds. 

Layne turned the empty bottle over in his hands and wished he had used a little less to start the fire.

The fire twisted and writhed, twining itself with the wire-mesh and scorching the linoleum around the basket in a wobbly circle.  Little flecks of fire bobbed away from the basket for seconds before the paper sustaining it crumbled to ash.

Layne leaned against the refrigerator and pulled a dry-erase marker away from its magnetic clip.  He smeared the little whiteboard mostly clean with the side of his hand and scrawled a note across it.

Call school

****

“We’re glad to have you back, Layne.”

Layne smiled.  Awkward and stilted and fake, his face could not seem to support even a small smile.  “Thanks.  Coming back felt like the best way to kick start my life again, so…”  Layne smiled again and held out his hands in a gesture meant to encompass the school. 

Principal Gould smiled and started poking through the metal mesh divider on his desk.  He stopped at a thin blue folder that he pulled out and passed to Layne.  “We got Thom Reynolds to hold down your class for you, he kept notes of what he walked each class through.  Take a minute to catch yourself up.”



Jesusfuck it’s so quiet.

They had all returned his greeting.  Hi.  Hello.  Hey.  Some of them had even seemed quite pleased to see him, but after first contact settled reality set in.  This was awkward.  Plenty of them liked him and he had like plenty of them, but they were his students.  They had often been friendly, but they were not friends and now there was a deeply personal trauma that had dug a trench between them and was watching over the no man’s land like a German machine gunner. 

“So how did Mr. Reynolds take care of you?”

No one spoke at first.  It was a phenomenon that was unique to high school and college; most of the people in the room knew the answer but they were all waiting for someone else to answer lest they be wrong or sound too interested and engaged.  It was also a phenomenon that, at the moment, was like being slowly lowered into a vat of low-grade acid.  Nothing so intense as to actually kill, but Layne could feel a slow burning sensation spreading through him.

Finally, Veronica Knowles spoke up.  “He was fine.  His classes weren’t nearly as fun though—we actually had some people falling asleep.”

He smiled, but it felt like someone had starched the smile to his face.  I need a mirror.  Am I smiling too wide?  Am I smiling for too long?  Does anyone actually believe I’m amused or is it just grotesque?  Gah, fuck.  Say something.

“Heh.  Well at least he didn’t cater to the lazy whims of you little terrorists.  If you’d had it your way not a soul in this room excluding myself would understand the first thing about the Crimean War.”

A wave of chuckles pulsed through the room and a couple kids shifted in their seats.

“Well.  For those of you who didn’t pay a damn bit of attention, I’ve got a short musical review to catch you up.  It’s an old song that most of you will hate, but suck it up.”



It took Daryl and Emily a few seconds to decide whether they were sympathetic to Layne’s loss or happy to see him back on his feet.  Their eyes twitched between each other and they both decided to take the route that entailed more smiling.  Daryl’s was too wide and Emily’s eyes were aimed firmly at Layne’s chest.

“Layne!”  To his credit, Daryl’s voice boomed just the same as it had every other day they had eaten lunch together.  Nerves had never been able to curb his enthusiasm.  “Sit down, you’re just in time to help me change the subject.  Emily is just endlessly fascinated with these recent…”  Daryl’s grimaced.  “Butcherings.”

Emily’s entire right arm twitched.  She had made a point of not swatting or shoving her husband at school.  Principal Gould had reprimanded them for it, saying it was inappropriate behavior in front of students.  “It’s not fascinating, it’s disturbing.”

“And it’s not going to get any less disturbing the more you talk about it, so let’s move on.”

Layne started in on his sandwich and briefly debated asking what they were talking about before deciding that he had no interest in fascinating and/or disturbing butcherings.



Every week without exception for almost a decade, Layne had gone to the grocery store; sometimes with Payton, sometimes without.  Even after Payton had died he had kept making the trip.  It was ingrained in his every muscle and it would have taken him more effort to ignore the habit than to just walk around the corner.  He also needed more alcohol on a regular basis.  More often than not it was whiskey and Coke.  When he had thrown out his alcohol he had kept a half-full two liter bottle of Coke and after three weeks of spiking it with whiskey, Layne took a sip of it without the liquor and realized he hated Coke.  Pure goddamn sugar.

He dug a pad of sticky notes out of his briefcase, wrote “for everyone” on one, and stuck it to the two liter.  If I stick it in the teacher’s lounge refrigerator and just leave it there it’ll be gone soon enough.  Before settling back into the chair he snagged the remote for the television and put the news on.  Volume set close to zero, Layne unpacked his briefcase and started tweaking his lesson plan for the rest of the week.

****

His second day had gone better than the first.  At no point during the day had he broken out in a cold sweat, he had not stammered through any abysmal bastardizations of the English language, and the half-sympathetic/half-awkward looks he had noticed had been reduced by half.  Had it not been for the newspaper article pinned to the bulletin board in his apartment’s lobby, Layne might have made it through the entire day without any overwhelming urges to drink.

Unfortunately the article was posted and Layne felt a panicky pressure build up inside of him as he read.

Glasgow Smiles Turn Serial

A third victim of the Glasgow Murderer was found last night, bringing the known total to three.  The police are currently withholding all personal information about the victim, but it has been confirmed that the victim is a woman and does fit the grisly pattern set forth by the previous two murders.  The victim’s body was found in the middle of the street in front of Hillstreet Market around 11:34, stabbed repeatedly.  Her face was also disfigured, her mouth torn open from ear to ear.  One police officer agreed to speak anonymously saying “Leads have been hard to come by, but we do have a couple avenues of inquiry open.”

He closed his eyes tightly and took deep, shuddering breaths. 

In.  Out.  One.
In.  Out.  Two.
In.  Out.  Three.
In.  Out.  Four.
In.  Out.  Five.

He counted to ten.  The blind panic abated.  His insides were still pulled tight enough to strum and he was getting only limited sensory data from his lower extremities, but he felt able to move his feet without running madly into the streets.  Progress.  Layne looked over his shoulder and stumbled backward, slumping down into a chair against the wall.  Eyes squeezed shut, he balled his hands into fists.  Held.  Released.  Rolled his shoulders.  Rolled his ankles.  Rotated his head slowly.  He stretched out every muscle he could.  Then he did it again.  And again.  Twice he heard the lobby door open, heard footsteps stop short of him, and then continue on.  Most of the numbness had abated and his mind felt less like it had been packed with cotton.  He pushed himself up from the chair and ignored the sudden lightheadedness.  Blotches of purple and red and yellow plodded across his vision and his skull felt slightly too tight for his brain, but he had walked up to his apartment hundreds of times.  His path upstairs was not going to suddenly shift on him.  He did not turn back to finish the article.  He already knew who the first victim was and couldn’t honestly care who the second one was.  Why should the third be any different?

****

“Would it look too panicky if I started wearing a surgical mask during class?”  Emily had been considering a small fork-full of pasta salad quite intently since Harold Davies had rattled off four rapid fire sneezes.  “I mean, you’ve both noticed how incredibly unsanitary most high school students are, right?  A few take tissues, but mostly the best we can hope for is that they wipe their nose on their sleeves.  Then anything on their hands gets onto their pens and pencils, which they lend out, and their papers, which they turn in to us.  And that’s not even considering the fact that their hands have to touch their desk sooner or later—a desk they share with five, six, or seven other classes each day.  Would it be so alarmist to want to take precautions?”

Daryl’s lips pressed together over a smile, “Emily, darling.  You know that surgical masks won’t protect you from any of those things, right?  They’re only good for airborne particles…”  He caught his wife’s eye and pulled up a bit short, “like the kids who don’t cover their mouths when they sneeze.  You’ll need hand sanitizer for the rest of that stuff.”

Layne smiled around a mouthful of sandwich.  “Keep tissues and hand sanitizer at the back of the room and remind them that it’s there for them to use.  Plenty of kids in my classes use them when they’re there.”

Emily took a moment to stop staring a black miasma of death at her husband to smile at Layne.  “I’ve worked here for five years and I’ve dreaded this time of year every time it comes around and somehow the most obvious solution never occurred to me.”

Layne shrugged, “Stress isn’t terribly conducive to clarity of thought.  I used to worry about it too, I actually bought a surgical mask one year but when I put it on and looked in the mirror I couldn’t bring myself to walk outside like that.”

The three of them laughed.  Emily exchanged the half-empty Tupperware of pasta salad with Daryl’s bowl of tomato soup.  Layne kept working over his turkey sandwich. 

“So.  Hillstreet Market.”

Daryl winced.  “Emily, not this.”

The silence shifted, melted and re-forged itself into a cage, a strangling thing straining outward under deafening duress.

“Are we just not supposed to talk about it because it’s ugly, Daryl?  That’s Layne’s grocery store and I feel entitled to my concern.”

Daryl pursed his lips, but did not respond.

“Just because it’s my grocery store doesn’t mean it’s my problem.  Anytime any murder takes place in front of almost any building, it’s gotta be someone’s building.  Doesn’t mean anything.”

“Layne.  It’s not just the Market, it’s—”

“It’s always someone’s building; someone’s loved one.”

They finished eating in silence.

****

“Alright, first week back.  How was it, man?”

“I’d forgotten how little most of them care about the actual subject matter.”

Howard smiled, “Forgotten what it was like to be a high schooler already, huh?”

“Fuck me.  I’m plenty content to not remember.  Did you ever get that pool put in?”

“Nah, but it’s prolly for the best.  Diane’s pregnant and I swim about as well as a gut shot house cat.”

“I don’t have the slightest idea how I’m supposed to respond to that mental image…”

Howard leaned back in his chair and smiled again.  Before he could express just how amusing he found himself, Diana walked in.  Short, dark-haired, and six months pregnant Diane was looking only a little less put together than usual, which meant a long strand of hair was not pulled back with the rest and she was looking only as stunning as nature had made her rather than ever so slightly cosmetically complemented.  She smiled and waved, always happy as can be to see a friendly face.

“Layne, hey!  It’s so good to see you!”

Her smile was contagious and Layne quickly found himself a carrier.  “Heya Diane.  Heya fetus.  How goes the labor of love?”

She narrowed her eyes at Howard, “Heavy.”

“And I bet he has a big head.  Howard has a big head.”

“Layne.  I said it was good to see you, not that I wouldn’t hit you over the head with a beer bottle.”  Diane shifted her bag up her shoulder.  “I’m getting the hell out of here before the rest of Howard’s idiot friends show up.”  She started toward the door, swatting the back of Layne’s head along the way.  “I hope you start coming around more often, Layne.  Keep Howard from breaking anything.”



Layne swallowed the last of the cheeseburger slider and wished he had thought to grab a napkin on his way out.  Jeans being the next best option, he rubbed his hands against his thighs.  The sky had been threatening rain all day and now even the air itself felt pregnant.  Layne turned his collar up.  He started walking faster.  He did not quite beat the rain—he had to run the last half block—but he did beat the police.  The first patrol car pulled up across the street from the apartment just as Layne was brushing his teeth, met with the victim’s husband as he was stripping off his pants, and started questioning the tenets as Layne burrowed deeper into his pillow.

****

“Alright.  Ladies and gents,” Layne tilted back something more closely related to jet fuel than coffee, “and teenagers of grade points.”  Another swallow.  “I’m exhausted as shit.  I was kept up until four thirty in the morning by unavoidable personal nonsense and I have to wake up at five thirty to get myself ready to teach you ungrateful bastards, so I’m running on fumes.”  Another swallow.  Layne raised his cup.  “I’ve got another one of these sitting in the teacher’s lounge which is a rather unfortunate way to survive a day because this stuff is so incredibly hyper-caffeinated I can feel it eating away at my esophagus as it goes down and as the day goes on my remaining cup will get more and more stale and, as all of you coffee drinkers out there know, stale coffee is a drink not fit for even the most uncouth of philistines.”  Layne took a longer drink and fought down the urge to wince.  “Who here can guess what this situation means for you?”

Clark Abasi raised his hand.

“Free day?”

“Damn right.  Do homework, play games on your phone, chat with friends, but anybody who gets too loud is getting a zero for the day.  So.  You go about your day and I’ll try to prepare for the rest of mine.”

Layne sat down and wondered if any of his classes would care if he stopped pretending to care.  Probably not, all they would hear was “free day”.  He resisted the urge to fall asleep at his desk and wished he had some more tests to grade, something to keep busy or at least to earn his pay.  Instead he just sat at his desk and felt cold and tired.



“Jesus Christ, Layne, this one happened in your goddamn apartment building.  You can’t pretend this is a coincidence!”

“Emily, leave it alone.”

Goddammit, I will not leave this alone.  Someone is out there fucking murdering people and since Payton was killed the victims have each been killed closer and closer to your home—this is a big fucking deal.”

At some point Emily had stood up and knocked her chair over and even the people who had been pretending not to notice the commotion were now openly staring.  Layne was the only one not paying her any attention.  He stood up and walked away.  Emily started crying.



The police had acted like it was not a coincidence as well.  They had talked to a lot of people, probably the whole building, but when one of the officers had made the connection between Layne Shepherd, resident of apartment 450, and Layne Shepherd, recent widower of the first Glasgow victim Payton Shepherd, special attention had been paid to him.  First he had been the suspect, the sick bastard who had carved up four beautiful women including his own wife.  They had been careful not to say it out loud, but it’s hard to mistake being interrogated for being questioned.  Thankfully it had not taken them very long to change their approach.  Layne had told them about the binging—a story the grocers could corroborate—and the little ring burnt into the linoleum that he would have to pay for whenever he decided to move out.  He had told them about the times he would have sworn, hand to the Bible, that he had heard Payton’s voice in the apartment.  He had told them everything because once he had told them something there seemed to be no way to stop the rest from bubbling up and out. 

Layne sat alone in the teacher’s lounge, Emily and Daryl both taught seventh period classes, turning his last cup of battery acid coffee around and around.  He had papers to grade, but he was not feeling all that sharp at the moment.  He had not eaten enough lunch to get himself up and running and neither of the previous two cups of coffee had managed to make him anything more than a ragged sort of wired so he just stared at the pile of ungraded papers and turned his coffee cup around and around.



By eighth period he had mustered the strength to at least put an educational movie on in the background while the kids chatted and slacked off.  He was slowly making his way through the papers as well, having finally discarded the childish notion that not feeling well was a good enough reason to not do his job or that a better time was sure to come and so he made that time now.  He was moving too slowly through them, but it was progress and the act of doing something was creating enough inertia to hopefully carry him through the rest of the day.  As he ran his green pen over Manuel de Rosas’ seventh spelling mistake in an otherwise compelling persuasive essay on the merits of Governor Ross’ stance on foreign affairs Layne let his mind wander to Emily.  It would be nice to find a way to lay the issue to rest without having to apologize.  What did she think was going to happen?  What did she think he could do?  He had cooperated fully with the police, they had seen his connection with the case, and as soon as he felt confident in his ability to follow-through he was moving out of the apartment.  Even if he was as concerned as she was buying a new apartment was not a matter of wishing for a new place and then poof being all moved in.  He had to look around, find the right place at the right price, and then work it out with the landlord.  And while he did that he would still be living at his same apartment.  Nothing about living in the apartment where his ex-wife used to live was easy, even before the murders came knocking on his door, but sleeping on someone’s couch because he was not able to sleep in his own apartment would be humiliating.  So he did what adults often do when faced with unpleasant situations:  he sucked it up.  Emily would just have to do that same.

****

Layne got halfway through the stack of papers before mashing the mute button on the remote and letting the pretty Asian reporter mouth soundlessly about the storm rolling through the East coast.  Hand held over the remote, pen perched precariously between two fingers, Layne stayed perfectly still as if the scrap of his shorts on the couch cushion might be enough to drown out the voice he knew he had heard.  It did not matter that there was no one in the apartment but him, that there had never been anyone in the apartment since Payton died other than Howard, it did not matter than Payton was dead and her voice was just a manifestation of his grief.  If he could hear a single word from her, imagined or otherwise, then he could keep pushing forward.

The television anchors signed off.  Some late night talk show host strode victoriously on-stage, fists pumping madly.  Payton’s voice did not come back.  Layne dropped his pen, left the papers out, and killed the television.  He did not brush his teeth, did not wash his face, just stumbled into his bedroom, stripped down, and fell into bed.



“Am I beautiful?”

Layne turns over, dragging the sheets with him and dangling his foot over the edge.  Payton runs her knuckle gently down his cheek and he jerks awake.  Eyes flitting around in the dark, his first thought was that a spider crawled over his cheek until he noticed the shadow standing over his bed.

“Am I beautiful?”

Her voice is soft.  A quiver runs through it as if speaking was costing her a great deal.  Layne’s eyes adjust to the darkness quickly.  Payton is still wearing the beautiful red dress she was buried in, the one they had argued about buying in the first place it was so expensive.  She looked perfect, not a day older than she had been before she died.  The only detail out of place was the surgical mask drawn across her face.
Layne’s answered quivered like her question and he understood just how taxing this conversation would be.  “Yes.”

Payton raised her hand to her mouth, pressed her finger against the mask as though to chew on her knuckle.  She ran her finger along the string tucked around her ear for a moment before flicking it over her ear.  It dangled lopsidedly for a moment, exposing her, before she delicately peeled it away, letting it drift to the floor.  What had once been soft, red lips was now scabbed and ragged.  All of her teeth were exposed and stained red-brown and her gums showed in places, mottled and gouged.  Stroking his cheek gently with a folding knife, Payton looked into his eyes.  Her voice sounded like it might fall apart and just disintegrate into the aether.

“Am I still beautiful?”

“Yes.”

She dug the knife into his face.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

It's Not Easy Being Green

“I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

Shut up.”

“You shut up!  I used to have some fucking dignity.  Never had much else, but I had that.”

“Really?  Where the fuck was your dignity when you were Simonetti’s errand boy?”

“It’s pushing a hundred goddamn degrees in the middle of the night and I’m wearing a fucking Halloween mask while I load stolen shit onto the back of a van for a man—if you can call him that—that would love nothing more than to murder me.  This is rock bottom, man.  I’m telling you the only way to get any lower is to actually rip the boss off and get—I don’t know—drawn and quartered or pulled by horses or fed to orphans as meat substitute in their gruel or whatever nutball bullshit way the boss feels like killing traitors today.”

“So go to fucking Willowwood Cemetery and ask Simonetti for your job back.  They buried him alive so he might still be able to hear you.”

“Fuck you, Mo.  That was inhuman what the boss did to Simonetti.  No one deserves that.”

“Shut up, wouldja?  Jesus Christ, I swear you get dumber every day.  You think if anyone else hears you talking like this they wouldn’t sell your ass out just for a gold star from the boss?  This isn’t the best job we—”

“This is horse shit!  Our line’s never been the easiest, but it’s only getting worse.  Bad enough when the nutjobs started putting on costumes to fight crime or whatever, but once guys on our side of the fence joined in…shit got dark fast.  That’s all I’m sayin’”

“Shut up, Torrance.  You’re always ‘just sayin’’ or ending ten-minute rants with ‘that’s all I’m sayin’’.  It can’t be all you’re sayin’ if you’re saying every goddamn word in the English language.  So just shut the fuck up already.  Boss wants us outta here within the hour.”

Mo goes back to loading the crates and I sweat through my suit for another couple minutes before joining him.  I wonder what the driver’s name is and why he isn’t helping. 

It takes me a minute to ask Mo the sixty-four million dollar question.

“So whadya think of the boss?”

Mo slides another crate onto his pushcart and turns his head toward me.  He got the worst mask of the three.  It looks like it’s got barbed wire writhing out through his eyes and mouth.  Makes me shiver whenever I see it.  I don’t need to see his face to know he’s giving me a look.

“What the fuck d’ya think I think?  He’s a lunatic and a freak, but he pays.”

I wince.  He does this on purpose.  “No, not like that.  He’s a fucking awful boss, I mean…whadya think of him?”

Mo stops loading entirely.  His head twitches left and right a couple times like he’s trying to pretend he’s not paranoid.  I bet Mo thinks the boss is fucking Beetlejuice or something.  Talk about him too much and he’ll appear.  We’ve been talking kinda quiet to keep the driver from overhearing, but apparently that’s still too loud for this conversation because Mo’s even quieter all the sudden.  “I think his body count is higher than my IQ so I try not to give it too much thought.  He can claim whatever the fuck he wants.  Now shut the fuck up, Torrance.”

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

An Origin Story (Because Who Doesn’t Love Flashbacks?) (Part 2)

Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday

I can’t keep the grin off my face.  “Wanna know something cool?”

Boone looks at me blankly for a second, opens his mouth and then closes it.  “Too easy.  Yeah, sure.”

“I sent you a link.  Check it out.”

Boone stares for a little while longer before looking down at his laptop.  A couple clicks and his eyes start flitting across the screen.  He frowns.  “A mugger got mugged.  You mind-blowing son of a bitch, you.  Where ever do you find these things?”

I keep grinning.  “It was me.”

“You mugged a soccer mom?”

“No, you jerk-off, I mugged the mugger!”

Boone blinks a couple times.  It takes him longer than usual to find line up a putdown.  “If you wanna cookie, you’d have better luck with Anna.”

I’m too giddy to care that Boone’s an asshole.

Christened on Tuesday

I tuck the ski mask into my hoodie and pull the hood up with a flourish.  Voila!  I present to you, the amazing Ski Mask Man!

I look like a hobo was inspired to turn superhero.  My jeans are spattered with various colors of paint, stained with dirt, and worn through in more places than one.  My hoodie’s a size too big and it still has a couple thin blue chalk lines crisscrossing the battered front.  At least the mask is new.  Not that it improves my appearance at all, now I look like a hobo and a thief.  Whatever.  Fuck it.

I step into the hall and listen for a minute.  The wind chime clink, clink, clinks, but the rest of the house is silent.  It’s two in the morning, even Boone’s sound asleep.  I poke my head out the back door and hope the neighbors are too.  The last thing I need now is for some well-meaning soul thinking they’re seeing a burglar and calling the cops while I’m out of bed.  Susan’d probably think it was a kidnapping. 

I hesitate.

Do it or don’t.  No more time to sit and wring your hands.

One deep breath pushes me out the back door and into the night.

Married on Wednesday

“Two more encounters with that idiot in the red hoodie made the news last night.”

Boone stares pointedly, but I keep myself immersed in writing.  This paper on Harry Truman won’t write itself.  He keeps going.

“He dolled himself up a bit, though everyone seemed to recognize him well enough anyway.  Apparently he has a tough time shutting up, bantering and making bad jokes like an idiot twelve year-old.  Plus, putting a jacket over that ratty hoodie doesn’t make the guy look any less homeless.  Kinda stands out among the superhero crowd.”

Boone looks up again.

“What would his mother say if she saw him out in public dressed that shabbily?  Shameful.”

I can’t stop my ears from going a bit red.  I really do look like shit. 

Boone must’ve been waiting for some kind of reaction because he snorts softly.

“Someone’s even given him a name.  Which is weird, you know?  The media usually treats these costumes like people in the olden times treated their kids, don’t name them ‘til you know they’re actually gonna survive.”

We sit quietly for a minute, mouse clicks and keyboard clacking drift between us.

“You’re gonna get killed, you know that right?”

I look up and Boone’s smiling his best shit-eating grin.  He’s particularly gifted.  I’m not on his level, so I settle for a small smile.

“Yeah, probably.  So what?”  I look back down at my paper and it occurs to me that I’m forgetting something.  “So what name did they give me?”

“The Sentinel.”  He gives a small shrug.  “Not a bad one, as far as names for costumed nutballs go.  It’s a little…” he puffs out his chest, lifts his chin, and plants his fits on his hips.  “But hey, you’ve gotta be a bit pretentious to think you’re gonna play dress up and save the world.”

“A little pretentious.  A little cracked.  But a whole helluva lot more fun than everyone else.”

Oddly enough, Boone doesn’t shoot me down.

Took ill on Thursday

I yawn long enough to make my eyes water and drop my forehead onto my textbook unceremoniously.  Something bounces off the back of my head and Boone doesn’t bother stifling his snort.

“D’ya know what’s wrong with kids these days?”

I lift my head, one glossy page stuck to my forehead.  “Is it you?  Because it seems to me like you’re what’s wrong with everything.”

He continues as if I didn’t say anything, “No work ethic.  Lazy good for nothings, the lot of you.”

It takes me a while to finish off a second yawn before speaking again.  “You know you’re one of those kids these days, right?  And you take pride in being a lazy good for nothing.” 

I pick the pen he threw at me up off the floor.

“True enough, that’s why I threw my pen at you.  Can’t do my homework without a writing utensil.”

I flick the pen back at Boone who ducks, letting it sail over his head.  It bounces off the wall and lands less than a foot away.  He stares at his fallen pen for a moment before sighing melodramatically and ripping a page out of his notebook.

“Well, there’s no saving it now.  Best to just cut my losses.”  He rolls off his chair and onto his bunk.  “Speaking of cutting losses, you look like shit.”

Boone folds the paper over and back, over and back a few times and then licks his fingers before making the last fold.  He sets the airplane on his palm and pinches the back of it for a minute.  The second he lets go, the place his fingers were billows a thin pillar of black smoke and rumbles across his palm, taking off just as it reaches his finger tips.  The plane soars through the air, banks, loops, and nose dives into the trash can where it burns to nothing in less than a second like flash paper.

I raise an eyebrow in his direction, but Boone’s already tucked in behind his laptop, ignoring the obvious question.  One of these days I’m gonna have to figure out what’s up with his powers.

Grew worse on Friday,

Climbing up to the top bunk makes my ribs twinge.  I might have to talk to Boone about trading bunks if this getting my ass kicked thing starts to crop up with any frequency.  Ow, ow, ow, ow.  For future reference:  don’t let the bad guys get you on the ground.

I plop down on the bed too hard and wince.  You know your life is sad when even your mattress hurts.  It’s even sadder when your winces hurt too.  I’m gonna have to figure out how to explain why my face is purpling so spectacularly. 

Maybe I joined a boxing club or something.  And I’m really, really shitty at it.

Owwww…boxing club hurts.

Died on Saturday,

Anna’s trying to keep her voice casual, but it’s not working all that well.  It’s kinda like watching a thinly-iced pond starting to crack under the weight of some idiot teenager.

“Wes, what happened to your face?”

I start to say something about not being born with her natural good looks and wishing she’d have the good graces not to mention it, but the line dies in my throat.

 “Got myself punched a couple times.”  I smile and feel strained and more than a little fake.  I really need to get better at lying.

Major fissures cut across the pond.  “Any particular reason or just because you’re a smartass?”

“Way I saw it, I’d get hit either way, but I think he might’ve hit me a bit harder than was entirely necessary because of the smartass thing.”

The fissures widen and large plates of ice drop into an abyssal plane of fire.  “So what you’re saying it that you wanna get punched in the face again?”

I’m almost half a foot taller than her.  I outweigh her by who knows how many tens of pounds.  I’m a post-human with better than average strength, stamina, quickness, and a good tolerance for pain.  My face is bruised because a group of wannabe gangsters took offense to it and expressed that distaste with fists, boots, and a baseball bat.  I took that beating and made jokes while I did.  I even managed to disarm one of them cleanly and whomp him with his own bat.  I look at Anna and have to work very hard not to step back.  I don’t know what kind of feminine voodoo she’s pulling, but it has to be cheating. 

“And in case you’re thinking of explaining this away like you did with Susan, I’m not all that inclined to believe that our school has a fucking boxing club.  I also know that Boone doesn’t believe that you box either.  He’s actually under the impression that—you’re gonna love this—” she doesn’t say it like I’m gonna love it at all, “That you’re going out on the town dressed up in a ratty hoodie and jeans and a ski mask, playing superhero.”

Oh.  This is somewhat less than ideal.

“Right now, I’m not sure if I appreciate your silence because it means you’re not lying to me or if I’m even angrier because you’re still not telling me the truth.”

Yeah, this is probably the part where normal, emotionally-healthy human beings come clean and beg for forgiveness.  Not that there are too many “normal” or “emotionally-healthy” costumed crime fighters out there.  Still.  I’m feeling particularly ill at ease here.

“Yeah…so I, uh, kinda suck at this, don’t I?”

Nothing.  Not a smile, not a nod.  This might be the most painfully uncomfortable moment in my life.  I have nothing to say that’s good enough, but I open my mouth to try anyway.

“I, uh—”

“This isn’t some random fucking foster home, Wes.”  She shoves me.  “You aren’t here on a temporary basis.  This isn’t a layover that lasts until you do something stupid or they change their minds and ship you back.  You’re part of their family, you asshole.  That means a lot to them.  The people here care about you.  That means you don’t get to keep secrets like this.  You keep secrets like ‘oops, I didn’t study for my test’ or ‘I’m going to a friend’s place to drink or smoke and watch movies that don’t make sense if you’re sober’.  It also means that if you pull any shit like this again, I will smother you in your sleep.”

I have absolutely no idea how I’m supposed to respond to that.

She takes a deep breath.  “And you’re going to tell Susan and Paul about this.  They deserve to know.”

I open my mouth, but she cuts me off again, a little softer this time.

“I know it won’t be fun, so you can take a little time to figure out how to say it.  Don’t take advantage of that.”

Wow.  Anna’s kind of the best.  Ever.  Of all-time.  Who needs to know how to express yourself when there’s someone who just gets you?

“Can I play the emotionally damaged orphan card here?” 

She gives me a sour look. 

“Fair.  Can I plead idiocy on a monumental scale?”

That seems to make a better impression on her.  I can’t tell if I see a smile on her face or if it’s a desperate desert-traveler seeing a mirage, but I jump on it.

“Woefully stupid and unbelievably unworthy?  I could grovel if that’d help.  Seriously, I bet I’m really good at groveling.”

This time I definitely see a smile.  She wipes it away quickly, but I know what I saw.

“You can start by telling me what you’re actually doing out there.”  Her words warm up a bit at the end.  “Boone says you’re helping people.”

Buried on Sunday,

I’ve gotta find a proper phone booth to change in.  There are only so many times the Sentinel can sneak in and out of the Rhodes’ house in full-costume before someone notices.  It’d take way too long to get to the industrial district, find an abandoned warehouse, change, start patrolling the city, fight crime, get back to the district, change back, and then get home.  I’d be walking in the back door just in time to walk out the front door and catch the bus.  I need to think up another idea.

I unlatch the fence and pull my bag out from under the old plastic jungle gym.  I unzip it enough to stuff my mask into it, pleased that I’ve finally managed to get my mask off without having to pull my hood down first.  I’d rather not be seen in full-costume and sans mask, but I really hate wearing that stupid fucking ski mask.  It doesn’t breathe all that well.

I turn the key and unlock the backdoor, letting myself into the kitchen.  It takes me a second to realize that it’s a bit too bright in here and another second after that to notice that the light’s coming from the open refrigerator that Susan’s standing in front of, wide-eyed and rigid.

Fuck.

She lunges away from the refrigerator and pulls a rather large bread knife from the block, holding it out between us.  Her hand’s shaking, but her grip’s firm.

Shit.  My hood’s still up.

“Get the—”

I flip my hood back and keep my hands up, “Susan, Susan, Susan!  It’s me!  It’s Wes!”

I can’t tell what she’s thinking, but she stays rigid for a few seconds before letting out a slow, rattling breath and lowering the knife.  She still looks like she might stab me.  I flick on the lights.

“Wesley,” her voice has an edge to it that I’m not really loving.  “Why the hell are you sneaking in through the back door at four o’clock in the morning?”

She’s not yelling, but there’s a difference between volume and anger.  One doesn’t necessarily need the other.

I open my mouth to lie or stall or make a bad joke, but my mind’s boiling over with Susan-related observations.  She’s put the knife down, but she’s giving me a look that more than makes up for it.  She’s twitching a little; a shoulder tic here, a restless hand there.  She’s also looking me up and down, trying to make sense of how I look.  I wonder if she’s already made the connection and is trying to ignore it or if she hasn’t noticed the recent news reports on me. 

“Wesley, I’d like to take a look at your bag, please.”

This time I don’t even consider trying to lie or stall, I just hand her the bag and resign myself to the depths of Davy Jones’ locker.  She unzips the main pocket and starts fishing around inside.  Out come my blue athletic shorts, my gray t-shirt, and my black ski mask.  She lingers on the mask, not letting it fall to the counter with the rest of my stuff.

Her voice gets quieter still.  “What are they calling you?  In the news?”

I have to swallow and clear my throat three times before I can say anything.  “The, uh, the Sentinel.  B-but Boone, Boone calls me the Homeless Hero…”  I can’t force a smile; my face is made of wet concrete.

Her anger abates for a moment, replaced by something harder to look at.

“Boone?  Boone knows?  Boone knows, but you weren’t going to tell me?”

That one hits hard enough to make me flinch.

“It—you just worry about me—I don’t—” I can’t seem to pick one train of thought to stick with, my mind keeps shifting gears without asking my permission first.  “I didn’t, wasn’t trying—”

“So the fact that I’m a caring person somehow means that I can’t be let into your life?”

The anger’s rising now.  I’ve had fistfights with criminals that have gone better than this.  Honestly, I don’t think I’ve had any that have gone worse.  I open my mouth to say—I don’t know, something, but Susan cuts me off.

“Go to bed.  Take your stuff upstairs and go to bed.  It’s late and I don’t think either of us are in any condition to talk about this tonight.”

I blink a few times and open my mouth soundlessly before just grabbing my stuff and leaving the room.

That was the end,
Of Solomon Grundy

Anna knocks and pokes her head in the room.  “Whatcha working on?”

I stare at the pages for a few seconds before crumpling them up and tossing them at the garbage can.  Only one actually hits the mark.


“Nothing.  Some stupid fucking English assignment.  Connecting my life to a poem.  It’s not going too terribly well.”  I stretch my arms up over my head.  “I find myself surprisingly unwilling to talk about my life to a poem.”

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

An Origin Story (Because Who Doesn't Love Flashbacks?) (Part 1)

Alan walks me up to the front door of a house that looks way too nice for me. 

“Impressive.  You’ve managed to pass me off to another foster family with surprising rapidity.  So, what poor, well-meaning folks have won the troubled child lotto this time?”

He frowns for a moment.  “You know, I think you might actually like this one if you let yourself.”  His smile crops back up.  “They’re great people.  Susan’s the head nurse at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital and Paul’s a very good lawyer at a firm whose name seems to escape me every time I try to pin it down.  They have a kid around your age, Gabriel—although I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone call him that more than once, he just goes by Boone.  Boone was brought into their home,” he gives it a moment’s thought, “nine years ago and they adopted him about a year after that.  I’ve been his caseworker for the last five years.  He's gifted as well.”

That might be the first interesting thing Alan’s ever said.

“Gifted how?”

Alan smiles, appreciating having my full and less-than-sarcastic attention.

“You’ll have to ask.  I imagine it might make for a good conversation starter.”

I make a face and Alan pokes the doorbell.  We aren’t left waiting very long before a short woman in bright purple scrubs answers the door with a smile.  She looks like she's in her late thirties.  She hugs Alan and they exchange quick pleasantries.  How do you do?  Oh, splendid, Susan!  And yourself?  Fine, fine.  This heat’s almost unbearable, isn’t it?  Awful, just awful.

I notice both Alan and Susan are looking expectantly at me and I realize I’ve missed some sort of conversational cue.  Whoops.

“Uh, fine.”

“Well, fine’s better than not.”  Susan says with a smile, offering me her hand.  I guess I answered the right question.  Go me.  I shake her hand.  “I’m sure Alan’s mentioned it already, but my name’s Susan.”

I offer a thin smile.  “I’m sure Alan’s mentioned it already, but my name’s Wesley.”

I wonder what all Alan’s already mentioned.  She seems far too enthusiastic about meeting some bastard teen who’s chewed through eight foster families in fourteen years.  Maybe she’s just got a thing for delinquents.  Wonder what Boone’s deal is. 

“Well, let’s get the two of you inside, just standing out here’s got me feeling a bit soggy.”  Susan gestures inside, closing the door behind us.  “Paul’s spent the morning shut away in his office and he’ll barricade himself right back in there after this meeting, I’m sure.  Not the best time for him to take the day off, but I imagine they’ll be able to make do without him for one day.”  I can’t see her, but she’s got the sunshiny sound to her voice that just screams I can’t stop smiling!  Guess she enjoys putting on airs, regardless of the quality of the present company.  I wonder how long she actually expects I’ll be here.  She sounds even more optimistic than Alan.  I wonder if she knows this is my last chance.

“Alan, just head into the kitchen, Anna and Boone are waiting there.  I’ll go drag Paul out into the sunlight.”

We turn left at the end of the hall into a kitchen that seems torn between old and new.  White wood and black countertops offset by lots of stainless steel.  The refrigerator door’s open and someone’s rummaging around inside.  Past the kitchen, a dark-haired guy who has to be Boone is sitting at a rectangular table.  His chin’s resting on his palm and he’s staring out the three windows that look onto the backyard.  He grunts when Alan greets him.

Alan turns to the refrigerator.  “And is that Anna, hiding over there?”

“Not hiding…trying not to drop the bean dip…Boone will you come here and help me, dammit!”

Before Boone can do anything, Alan’s doing that awkward jogging-in-the-house run toward Anna.  He opens the door a little wider and starts fiddling with something.  It takes them a second, but they rectify whatever mess was being made.  Anna spins away from the refrigerator, a sizeable Tupperware of what looks like a multi-layer bean dip in hand.  She’s far more interesting than Boone or Susan. 

Bean dip aside, she’s kinda hot.  I feel my head tilt a little to the side, but I can’t seem to care enough to straighten up.  Her hair’s wavy and reddish and accents her face extraordinarily well.  Her eyes are blue…or green…or…I dunno.  And then she smiles and my brain goes into vapor lock.  Huh.  This is a rather unexpected twist. 

She laughs and the hair on the back of my neck stands up.  “Wesley?”

I think I missed another cue.

“Hey, uh, call me Wes.”

She sets the bean dip on the table and bounces over to what I guess is a walk-in pantry and comes out with a bag of chips.  “Well, help yourself to some chips and dip, Wes.  You too, Alan.”

I blink.  Alan’s still here, isn’t he?

Alan pats my shoulder.  "Anna lives nearby.  Her family's been friends with the Rhodeses since time immemorial.  She's here all the time, I'm sure you'll get along well."  He leans over a little and whispers, "She's gifted too," and with a wink he wanders over to the table.

I stare awkwardly as Alan, Anna, and Boone pick at the dip and chat to pass the time.  Anna looks up and squints at me for a second, before waving.

“Sitting in a chair is prolly more comfortable than leaning against the counter.  Plus,” she holds up a chip that looks like it’s shaking under the strain of holding up all that dip, “we have delicious bean dip over here.”

Boone flicks a few pieces of chip into Anna’s hair.  She punches him in the chest. 

That’s hot.

I pull up a chair.  Anna slides the dip toward me, nearly dislodging a chip Boone was in the process of loading up.  He makes a face at the back of her head and hurries to retrieve his chip.  I wiggle a chip gingerly through the layers.  Anna rolls her eyes.

“Don’t be so polite about it; take as much as you want.  There’s plenty of dip.”

She overloads another chip and holds it up like she’s teaching a child and smiles.  I dig in and am immediately rewarded.  Holy hell, that’s fucking delicious.  None of the layers are thick enough to overwhelm the others, just melding flavors together.  Beans, cheese, sour cream, tomato, black olives, jalapeño, green onion, and ground beef.  It’s sweet and savory and salty and sporting a little heat.  I might stick around this house just for the dip.

“Who made this?  It’s fucking amazing.”

Anna smiles and nods graciously.  “Glad you enjoy it.”

Hot and she cooks.  I feel like it’s probably a little sexist to judge a woman based on those qualities alone, but who the hell cares?  So far, this Anna chick is kicking my ass.  

She looks up over my head and smiles.  I turn around and see Susan standing in the doorway watching us with a tall, bearded guy who must be Paul.  Stealth blown, they wander over to the table.  Susan sits, but Paul pulls up short.  He puts his hand out.

“I’m Paul.”

I’m about to shake his hand when I realize I’ve misread the situation.  Pinched between his thumb and middle finger is a little sour gummy.  I wave him off.

“Bean dip and sour gummies sounds like a dangerous combination.”

He shrugs and eats it himself before wiping the sour crystals onto his pants and extending his hands for an actual handshake.  I triple check that he’s not holding anything in it this time before shaking.  He pats me on the shoulder before finding himself an open seat.

“Nice to meet you, Wesley.”

Alan hurriedly tilts a chip into his mouth and claps his hands as he finishes chewing. 

“Well, now that everyone’s been properly introduced,” his eyes flit over to Boone, who still hasn’t actually said anything to me, “and we’ve gorged ourselves on a truly delicious snack, I think it’s time to talk about why we’re here.”

I don’t make eye contact with anyone, but I can feel all their eyes on me for a few seconds.

“I really think this is going to be a wonderful match.  The Rhodeses,” he gestures toward Susan and Paul, “have a great track record.  But, before I start gushing too much, I figured I’d do well to open up the floor to the people who are actually participating in all this.”  Alan laughs like he said something particularly clever and glances around the table before stopping meaningfully on me. 

When I don’t say anything, Susan speaks up.  “Is there anything about us you want to know?  I don’t know how much Alan’s told you, but feel free to ask us anything.”

“I was actually kinda curious about what Alan told you about me.”

Alan gives me a frustrated look, but it’s Susan’s reaction that I’m really interested in.  Boone keeps looking bored, but he’s looking at me out of the corner of his eye now.  Paul’s pulling another gummy out of his t-shirt breast pocket.  Anna looks at me like she doesn’t know where I’m going with this.  Susan, on the other hand, is smiling like she’s been looking forward to this very question all day.

Huh.

“He said you’re going to be a pain in the ass and that you take quite a bit of pride in doing so.”

I blink.  Um.  Okay.  Not what I was expecting.  People don’t usually give an honest answer to that question.  Color me caught-off-fucking-guard. 

“So, uh, where am I gonna be going to high school now?”

“Anna and Boone go to Malcolm McDowell so we thought we’d send you there with them.”

Paul perks up.  “Makes sure you don’t go into school without knowing anyone.”

“I, uh, what are my sleeping arrangements gonna be?”

Boone frowns and Anna smiles and before Susan says anything, I know I’m horning in on his turf.

“We don’t have enough rooms for everyone, but each room is plenty big so we picked up a lofted bed to put in with Boone in his room.”

“Sounds like you’ve, uh…got everything covered, huh?”

Susan smiles brilliant rays of sunshine at me.

****

“I don’t wanna drag our new student up to the front of the class like a sideshow attraction, but I would like to take a second to introduce him.  In the back there, mind raising your hand for the class?”

I debate ignoring him.  It’s not hard for all the people who were here last year to notice the one person who wasn’t, raised hand or not.  Then again, it’s probably a bit too early in the semester to be getting on my teacher’s bad side.  I raise my hand to head-height.

“Thanks.  Class, that’s Wesley Jacobs.  Be nice, help him out if he needs it, and introduce yourselves outside of class.  Make him feel welcome.  You know the drill.”

I get through three classes before one of my teachers stands me up in front of her indifferent class and asks them to say “hello”.  I really wish she’d just leave it be.

I get all the way to the passing period before lunch before I figure out this school’s alpha douche.  There’s always someone who’s got something to say about the new kid.  This one bears a striking resemblance to every other one I’ve met.  Broad shoulders, dark clothes, and a thing for pet names.  He’s picked out “Foster Kid” for me.  His dazzling wit is familiar as well.

Word always gets around that I’m a foster kid, but I’m never sure how it starts.  It’s like I’m followed from school to school by a disembodied voice that just can’t help itself.  Not that it really matters, I’m new.  If someone wants to start shit, they’ll find a reason. 

I turn and give him a smile.

“Here, lemme save you some trouble and get the ball rolling.  How’s your first day been?  Blah, blah, blah, liking your classes?  Blah, blah, tell you how things work around here.  Blah, blah, blah, you got a smart mouth, huh?  Blah, blah, I’ll see you after school in the guys’ locker room, bitch.  And don’t even think about trying to sneak off on me!”

I turn away while surprise and confusion duke it out for facial expression supremacy.  He gets it together quickly enough, all things consider and calls after me.  “Hope you don’t get lost on the way, Foster Kid.”

I’m tempted to turn back to him so he can see me roll my eyes, but I’d rather not be late to lunch.  Good food or bad, lunch tends to be the best part of the day no matter what school I’m at.  Most people just leave me well enough alone.  Whatever, at least I’m getting this bully bullshit out of the way early.  That’s a plus, right?

Sixth, seventh, and eighth period move along pretty quickly.  Anna’s in my seventh period Lit class and waves me down to sit behind her, tells me I should find her in the cafeteria tomorrow if I want someone to sit with.  “Maybe if you can avoid saying anything, you might even socialize without offending anyone,” she says. 

I don’t hold out much hope, but no straight high school guy turns down an invitation to sit at a hot girl’s lunch table.  It’s simply not done. 

I’m halfway through putting in my locker combo when I notice someone walking down the hall with a purpose.  Tall, blond hair shaved close, hood up—the guy looks like a fucking mugger.  He’s probably one of what’s his face’s buddies so I open my locker just as he gets here, letting him feel all kinds of clever when he slams it shut a second later.

I smile.  “That's okay, I didn't need anything from my locker anyway.”

Some people get confused when the victim mouths off, but to this guy’s credit he just sneers.  He grabs my arm, stares at me for a second, and then shoves me a bit.  I stumble toward the door like a good boy.

The locker room’s by the gym, up a level and past the lobby. 

A fair few people have turned out for the prize fight.  Some are leaning against lockers, others are sitting on top of them, and some people are just standing with their arms crossed.  Most of them are talking.  Big Man’s standing between three other future-muggers and carjackers.  My escort joins him and whispers something to him.  Some of the conversations around the room start tapering off.

Alright.  Now’s the fun part.  Getting him off my ass without actually hurting him.  I love changing schools.

Big Guy takes a step forward and everyone quiets down even more.

“Got anything else smart to say?”

I shrug.  “Would it be pretentious to quote Custer ironically here or just stupid?”

He laughs and shifts into what’s universally known as the schoolyard fighting stance.  A bit lower and more prepared, but not so low as to look like it’s being taken too seriously.  I mean, come on.  Trying too hard is so weak.  When I don’t follow suit or start quivering, he takes a step to the right.  I shift my eyes to the left to follow him but don’t move otherwise.  He takes another step and when I still don’t move he charges at me.  Why does every high school idiot go for the tackle?  Does it actually work on anyone?

I don’t spend much time pondering the effectiveness of tackling non-post-humans in a high school brawl.  Instead, I inch to the left and raise my knee.  I don’t give myself too much credit and say I actually kneed him in the head or anything, I just sort of gently pushed my knee into his path.  I hop aside to avoid the human missile he’s turned into.  He hits the ground with a solid thunk and slides into the lockers.  I roll him onto his back and crouch next to him.

Hey.  Look at me.  How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Three?”

He doesn’t seem to understand exactly what’s happening or why I’m asking him this, but he’s got the right answer.  I show him two fingers and then five.  He gets ‘em both right.

“What’s your name?”

“Trent.” 

Doesn’t usually take much to flip the power structure around.  I look up at my old escort.

“Is that right?”

He looks around, like he’s hoping someone else will tell him if he should be answering my question and then nods.  I pat Trent’s cheek.

“Good boy.”

I stand up and grab my escort by his arm the same way he grabbed me.

“Doesn’t seem like he has a concussion but take him to the nurse anyway.  He slipped on a wet spot and smacked his head on the floor, okay?”  He nods.  “Good.  Now fuck off and leave me alone.  I’m tired of this shit.”

People are murmuring and milling around.  They got their fight, but I don’t think they really know what to do with it.

I have to trek halfway across the school just to find out that I missed my bus.  I’m standing in the cold rattling off a string of silent profanities when someone taps me on the shoulder.  I jump a little, turn, and backpedal a step all in the same motion.  Anna looks as surprised as I probably do, her mittened hand still hovering where my shoulder was.  She looks a little concerned.

“Bad first day?”

Well, I look like a spaz now.

“Let’s call it setting a foundation for a better second day.”

She smiles.  Her cheeks are rosy from the cold.  “Sounds dramatic.  You also missed the bus.  I should warn you, our bus drivers don’t wait for students no matter how important the foundation they’re laying.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.  So what dramatic-sounding endeavor kept you from making the bus?”

“My new idiot neighbor wasn’t on the bus so I had to get off and make sure he wasn’t lost and wandering around a bathroom in some distant corner of the school.”

I smile and hang my head.  “It’s a cold, hard world out there.  I would’ve left the idiot to fend for himself.”

“Well, I guess that just makes me the bigger man.  Now come on, idiot.  We’ve got a long walk home.”

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

One Foot Before the Other

The whole "being a part of a writing workshop that's filled with people that like my story and are looking for more each week" thing has kinda done wonders for my productivity.  Not only do I have another story this week, I have another story that fits chronologically.  Weird.

I've also continued last weeks trend of making minor, but significant, detail-oriented changes to previous stories.  While the core concepts of the stories have remained constant, there are some ideas that are still in-flux and I keep trying to make them work at least a little bit better.

Golden Age Wesley

Oh, hey there. 

Looks like I’ve got a car thief tonight.  That’ll break up the monotony of purse-snatchers and muggers nicely.  Hopefully without all the unnecessary hassle of post-human powers.  I don’t need my monotony broken up quite that much.  I’m cool with beating up normal criminally-inclined folks. You know, just doing the whole Golden Age Batman thing, but without all the forcible exposure to mind-altering substances and the freaky costume.  My dialogue’s also cheesier.

I’ve had ska-punk stuck in my head all day and it’s hard not to hum Streetlight Manifesto as I scale the side of the building (we’re going down, down, down to Mephisto’s Café, we’re going down. Right?  Right!).  This particular apartment building has deep window ledges that my hands and feet fit into nicely and none of the bricks come loose.  People underestimate the value of not getting splattered across the sidewalk, but I’ve developed a certain appreciation for it since I started parading around town in a makeshift costume.  I’ve also grown to appreciate Spiderman’s web shooters and Batman’s grappling hook.  Climbing down buildings is a major pain in the ass.  Seriously, try it and see.

My feet hit the pavement and I still can’t get that damn song out of my head (And I knew you when you were you, before they twisted all your views.  Before you came unglued).  It’s just so damn bouncy.

This guy must not be a particularly gifted car thief because by the time he’s cracked open that god awful beige beater I’m two cars away from him.  He leaves the door open and gets half-into the car, leaving one leg dangling out while he starts working on the wiring under the steering wheel.  I get a sudden, childishly spiteful urge to close the door on his leg.  But, being the good guy of this story, I take a more diplomatic approach.

“Hey, asshole!”

He shouts and jumps, smacking the back of his head against the steering wheel.  I stop short of actually laughing but allow myself a happy snort.  He stumbles out of the car and clumsily pulls a switchblade from his pocket.  It takes him another full second to actually open the knife.  I groan.  Goodie.  I guess now’s the time to figure out how slash-resistance my jacket is.

“Who the fuck are you?”

My heart’s all atwitter, but he sounds genuinely panicked.  It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside knowing that at least one criminal scumbag finds me intimidating. 

I roll my eyes with as much melodrama as I can muster and mutter to no one in particular.  “No one seems to understand the mask.  I’m the meter maid and I’ve—”

Car Thief lunges at me, knife-first.  This is neither an unexpected turn of events nor a particularly impressive plan of attack.  One of the perks of being a post-human is that, minimal though my powers may be, I’m a teensy bit quicker than the average ne’er-do-well.  I sidestep and shove him, stepping back a bit.  Hmm.  Maybe I don’t really know what diplomacy means.  I try again.

“Chill, chill, chill.  You haven’t actually hurt anyone yet—”

He steps toward me and swings his knife at my stomach like he’s trying to open me up from end-to-end.  I step back and step back again when he brings the knife back across.  I grab his knife-wrist before he can start swinging again and try something more tactful than diplomacy.  Maybe I’ll even manage to avoid violence.

“Seriously, it’s not too late to just pay whoever owns this car for the damages and walk—”

Rather than peacefully surrender, he slams his knee into my side, just above my hip.

Ow.

I wrench his arm down, slamming it against the trunk of the car.  The knife comes free and I kick the back of his knee.  He hits the ground and swings a wild backhand at me, like he thinks blindly flailing limbs are his ticket to freedom.  I turn my hip a bit to make sure he doesn’t catch me somewhere delicate and tip him over with my foot.  I kick the knife away to keep him and temptation from becoming any better acquainted.

“Okay, one of these days you’re gonna look back on this and feel bad that you tried to stab someone who just wanted to help.”  He’s on his back, looking around for a way to escape or something to hit me with.  “You’ve really only got two options here.  One, you chill the fuck out, let me call the police and tell them that you’ve seen the error of your ways and that you cooperated.  I imagine they might go a little easier on you if that’s the case.  Or two, you do something stupid like—” He’s tensing up like he’s about to launch himself at me or something.  “Try and tackle a true-blue post-human crime fighter, in which case I will bounce your head around this parking lot like a damn basketball until the cops arrive and tell them to add assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder to the whole cracking a car open thing.”

He stops readying himself to jump me, but he still looks like a ferret juiced up on speed.  I crouch down to put myself at eye-level with him and hope it comes across more as reassuring and peaceful than condescending.

“I really think door number one’s gonna turn out best for everyone.”

Whether he believes that I actually want the best for him or that I’ll actually use him like a sports ball, I don’t know, but he lies down on his stomach and mutters something compliant.  I toss him a cable tie and give him my winningest smile before remembering that everything below my eyes is covered and that even my eyes are shaded by my hoodie.  How the hell do comic book artists make characters look so damn expressive even with their masks on?  It’s one of life’s greatest mysteries.

****

Susan keeps looking over at me like her eyes are magnetically drawn to the ice pack I’m holding against my side.  Round-cheeked and starting to put on a few “middle-age pounds”, as she calls it, Susan’s short and her strawberry blonde hair is cut in a neat page-style.  I don’t say anything about why I’m icing and she doesn’t ask.  Don’t think she’s not a caring, concerned mother or that I don’t merit her attention because I’m adopted, we’ve just been experiencing some…tension, lately.  It’s hard to imagine, really:  a protective, loving woman who takes a bitchy teenager into her home and then doesn’t want him to go out and risk his life wearing a costume and breaking the law.  It’s a topsy-turvy world we live in, I know.

I still can’t tell if she’s told Paul about my alter-ego or not, although it’s hard to imagine her keeping it from her husband.  Either way, Paul’s kept himself completely neutral.  Just think of him as Switzerland.  He digs peace, cheese, and chocolate.  Paul tosses a Milk Dud up in the air and catches it in his mouth, looking far too pleased with himself for a forty-seven year-old man who’s playing with candy.

I like Paul.  He’s good for Susan.  Counterbalances some of her insane worrying.  Paul’s tall.  Taller than me and Boone and a whole lot taller than Susan.  His face is long and slightly angular and he’s got a neatly trimmed beard that has recently started showing the gray march of age.  When Susan isn’t around to hear him, he calls it a traitorous bastard that’s betrayed his otherwise youthful appearance, but seems rather proud of his decision not to color the gray hairs.  Paul’s a weird dude.

Anna’s camped out in Paul's study doing homework and Boone’s over at Devon Ringer’s house tutoring him, according to Susan.  It’s nice that Susan looks for the best in him, but I know better.  If Boone’s teaching anyone anything, it’s guerilla warfare adapted for the suburban high school environment.  Guerilla warfare sounds like fun and homework sounds even better, but I decided that feeling awkward around Susan while Paul chills out and watching a TV rendition of The Matrix in which Carrie-Anne Moss says “shucks” takes the cake.  Sometimes I question my decision making. 

We get to the part of the movie where Cipher starts killing members of the crew when Anna comes in and plops down on the other side of the sofa from me.  Paul holds a Milk Dud up and gestures to Anna to catch it.  She holds her hands out.  Paul looks a little disappointed that she’s not catching it with her mouth, but he tosses it anyway.  Anna doesn’t have great hands, but she does have pretty good reflexes.  The chocolate bounces off her wrist and stops a couple inches from the floor.  Anna’s holding her hand palm-out at the Milk Dud.  Paul rolls his eyes and smiles.

“Is there a five second rule on force fields?”

Anna makes a face.  “Calling it a force field makes you sound like a cartoon scientist from the eighties.”

“Well, what do you call your invisible projections of force field-like energy?”

“I try not to call them anything.  It’s like giving yourself your own superhero name—kinda weird.”

Susan looks over at my side again.  Anna picks the Milk Dud up off her not-a-force field and relaxes her hand.

“I like ‘barriers’.”  I offer.  “Sounds grounded, but still pretty cool.”

Susan frowns slightly.  Paul seems to like it though.

“You know, that’s pretty good.”  He throws a Milk Dud to me.  “Have a candy.”

I’ll hate myself three minutes from now when I can’t unglue my jaw, but Milk Dud’s are too damn delicious to turn down.

Paul and Susan say their goodnights when Neo and Agent Smith start charging across the subway platform, emptying their clips into air instead of each other.    

“You’ll miss the best part.”

Paul looks back at me, “I already know how it ends.  Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.”

I like Paul, but he’s an odd duck.

Anna and I sit on opposite ends of the couch, watching squid-bots crack open the Nebuchadnezzar like a can of tuna.  I ponder the vaguely cannibalistic overtones and remember the car thief I left for the police.

“I stopped some douche bag from stealing someone’s shitty car today.”

Anna waves her hand at the sad-looking ice pack passed out on the floor next to my feet.  “I was wondering what that was for.”

I tilt my head from side to side.  “He wasn’t entirely cooperative.”

“Despite your assuredly polite requests that he cease and desist immediately?”

“Hey!” I stick my lower lip out and feign hurt feelings.  “What makes you think that I can’t solve problems with words?”

Anna gives me a look.  “Future results may not be predicated entirely on past performance, but it does give a pretty good impression.”

“Ouch.  Logic and truth hurt.”

She snorts.  “Poor baby.  Am I ruining your moment?”

“Yeah!  I mean, he wasn’t immediately open to the idea or anything, but I managed to convince him without going all Punisher on his ass.  I was so—freaking—impressive.”

She looks at me for a minute, scooches over a bit, and slouches, resting her head on my shoulder.  “Well, look at you, crusading for world peace and brotherly love and whatnot.”

She mocks, but over the slowly rising thud of my heart I hear pride.  Score.

And then the front door opens and Boone kills the moment.  Anna sits up and turns her head to the foyer.  Dammit all.

Anna calls out, “How’d it go?”

Dark, menacing muttering drifts in before Boone answers.  “Watching that kid try to comprehend trig might’ve been the dumbest damn thing I have ever been a part of.  And I was there when Wes was starting out his career as a C-list crime fighter.  At least Wes showed a bit of enthusiasm and spunk, Ringer just sat there and stared at me with big, blank eyes, mouth hanging open.  I swear to God, I expected a bit of drool to roll down his chin at any second.”

The thought of tutoring anyone in trig sounds appalling.  Hell, the thought of taking trig at all sounds pretty terrible.  What with all the douche baggery and all the time spent looking bored, it’s pretty easy to forget that Boone’s not a complete idiot.

“I’m gonna go lie in bed and weep for humanity a bit.  Try not to wake me when you come up, Wes.”

Anna leans back into the cushions, leaving an exaggerated feeling of cold in my shoulder.  Neo’s making a phone call to the machines, but I can’t really focus on what he’s saying.

Make a move, dumb ass!  Do something!

Either my arm weighs way too much all of the sudden or I’ve come down with a premature and incredibly intense case of Parkinson’s because my arm is shaking as I pick it up and put it around Anna’s shoulder.  She turns to me, looks at my arm and then up at my face, but doesn’t move away.  I can actually feel all the blood in my face draining like a cold waterfall cascading down my neck and into my chest.

I’m reading this right, aren’t I?  This isn’t some grand delusion I’ve concocted, right?  Has she always been this intimidatingly attractive?  When did her eyes get so bright?  Oh God, why am I still talking to myself?

I chew my lip and struggle to keep my eyes on her.  “Do me a favor.  Close your eyes for a second.”

She gives me a small smile and squints a little.  “Why?”

I look down.  “It’ll make life easier for me.  Please?”

She tilts her head and then closes her eyes.  For a second I almost call the whole thing off.  A second after that I stall and tell myself I’m admiring how beautiful she is (don’t judge me).  My stomach twists and turns and I half-lunge at her to get myself moving.  I gently put my hands on her waist and she leans forward slightly.  Even I can read what that means.  I kiss her.  She’s soft and warm and smells like vanilla and honey.  Her hands squeeze my shoulders and we stay locked like that for some time.  I don’t count the seconds or anything; I’ve got better things to do. 

We separate and the world comes back into focus.  I didn’t even realize how intensely I was tunnel visioning until I realize that the television’s been on this entire time and I didn’t even notice.

My heart’s beating too fast, like it’s about to rip free of the arteries and go bouncing around my chest cavity like a nuclear-reactor driven Mexican jumping bean.  Her eyes can’t seem to stay focused on any one part of me, but rather flit from place to place, face to chest to shoulder to knee back to face.  She presses her lips together and keeps them that way for a moment.

“This seems like a bad idea...”

I nod, my mouth too dry to actually form words, and kiss her again.  This one’s much shorter and less all-encompassing than the first, but it still leaves me tingling.

Anna breaks the silence after a moment.  “Boone bet me ten bucks you didn’t have the balls to do that.”

It takes me a couple tries to get the words out, but I manage.   “Did you take him up on that?”

She nods, regaining her composure faster than I can.  Maybe women are more advanced at this age.  “Seemed an affront to your honor that I could not abide.”

My smile widens and I wish I could say something clever, maybe something about chivalry but my mind’s a little floaty and my mouth isn’t quite working right.  I open and close it but nothing comes out.  I think it’s gone a little numb.

Anna laughs, leans in, and kisses my cheek.

“Well, now that I have you good and flustered, I’m heading home.  Sleep well.”

I nod.  I don't stop nodding until Anna closes the front door and snaps the bolt home behind her.  Yeah.  Sleep.  That’s what I’m supposed to do now, right?  Sleep comes after Anna which comes after foiling car theft.  Yeah, that makes sense, doesn’t it?


Brain scrambled, lips numb, stomach twitching, and heart pounding, I stand up (and add my legs to the list of things not working quite right) and head for the stairs.