Ow. Ow, ow. Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow.
I blindly stab at the tray clipped to the end of my bunk that acts as a makeshift bedside table until I find my phone and stop its incessant bleating.
Rolling over hurts, so I stall for a bit longer, delaying the inevitable trip to the floor (and hoping I won’t be making it face-first).
Wouldn’t it be nice to believe that I’ll never again wake up feeling like someone stuffed me in an oversized duffel bag and rolled me off a cliff?
Another voice chimes in that if I were a little better at not getting my ass kicked I wouldn’t have to pretend to promise myself I won’t chase down any violent sewer-men again. I clamber to the floor, grunting and wincing all the while. The bottom bunk’s empty, thank God. I take advantage of Boone’s absence and lift my shirt up gingerly. Red-purple contusions sprouted up across my ribs and shoulder overnight. Some of them have already started yellowing.
I kinda wish I hadn’t peeked; just looking at the bruises makes them throb painfully. They match the bruises creeping out from under my right sleeve and running down both my forearms. My knuckles are scraped and bruised too. I spend a moment mourning winter’s passing, at least then I could wear gloves.
Now? I’ve got two options: go to school and pass these bruises off as boxing injuries (apparently I’ve graduated to bare-knuckle boxing) or try and fake sick. Or I could just go Goth and start wearing black fingerless gloves around all the time. But I don’t really think I’ve got the bone structure to rock eyeliner.
Oh, shit. Anna and Susan are gonna be on my fucking ass over this. And now someone’s boring into my forehead with a dull drill bit, grinding away at the bone slowly, but surely.
I take a minute to stretch out a little before heading into general population. It’ll hurt now, but hopefully it’ll help get me past the shuffling around hunched over stage of the day. I lace my fingers and extend my arms out in front of me, slowly raising them over head. I get up on my tiptoes and feel my shoulder snarl when I try to engage it. I’m careful not to lengthen my torso too much—no good can come of that. Little shifts. Low-key stretches. Nothing too aggravating. Take it nice and slow. None of it feels good, but I can’t very well go downstairs wincing with every step. A few slow, painful torso rotations and attempted toe touches that burn more than they have any business doing and I call it.
Gotta get moving if I’m actually going to school today.
I knock on the bathroom door and, when no one shouts “occupied”, I let myself in. Start up some hot water and have to double back to my room to grab some clean clothes to change into. I drop the stack of clothes onto the counter and start the arduous, painful process of peeling off my shirt and shorts. I take a minute to give myself a once over in the mirror. Being a post-human with increased strength, speed, and stamina has some perks—like never having to lift weights to look really fit. Plus, now that I’m over the shock of it, I kinda like the way the bruises look. No one with bruises like these could be someone nice and safe. I’d never say it out loud, but I’m kinda digging the whole “dangerous” look they give off. I turn away with a newfound appreciation that lasts all of ten seconds before I reach out to slide the shower curtain out of the way with my bad shoulder. That appreciation dies in an avalanche of teeth-gritting profanities. I’m hoping the shower will help loosen things up, but what I really need is pills and ice and pills and pills. And maybe a heating pad.
I don’t rush the shower. Standing under a sustained barrage of hot water is just about the greatest thing in the world for me right now. It loosens up some of the knots spread across my body and soothes the headache nicely. There’s no forgetting about any of it, but intense physical discomfort no longer dominates my thoughts.
I step out and towel off and try to figure a way out of talking to Susan about the obvious beating I took last night. My thoughts hiccup when I catch another glimpse of myself in the mirror. I’m crazy about Anna, but I really wish she was a little less mature about my superheroing business. She spends way too much time worrying about if I’ll get hurt and not nearly enough time just being a stupid teenager and thinking how awesome it is. Twenty bucks says just about any other girl in school would ooh and aah over my bruises and think how brave I am to go out and do what I do.
I eventually manage to dry myself off—like a big boy—and start the herculean task of dressing myself. I’m three seconds away from calling for an adult when I finally get my jeans up over my thighs. From there it’s a simple—and painful—matter of pulling a t-shirt over my head and sliding my arms through a hoodie. Gingerly, I loop my arms through my backpack’s straps and start downstairs. Anna’s waiting, leaning against the door, arms crossed and wearing a purple and teal striped long-sleeved shirt under a black t-shirt branded with Big Foot’s silhouette over white block letters proclaiming, “I believe”.
“You’re late,” she mutters. “Bus’s gonna be here in a couple minutes.”
I growl and check my phone. Guess I’m missing breakfast today. Dammit.
Just as I’m thinking that, Anna nods at the little table next to the door. There’s a plastic baggie filled with granola and a shiny red apple sitting there next to the key basket.
She smiles a little and fingers a strand of hair out of her face. “You get bitchy when you’re hungry.”
I squeeze her hand and open the front door.
“I assume Boone didn’t feel the need to wait up?”
Anna just snorts and walks outside. Fair enough.
We don’t even get to the end of the driveway before I tap Anna’s shoulder.
“Can we slow down a bit?”
She arches an eyebrow at me, but slows.
“Since when do you drag ass?”
It takes me a minute to swallow the lies that come bubbling up to my lips. All the while, Anna’s looking me up and down.
“I may or may not have gotten into a physical altercation with a crazy, super-powered sewer-man last night.”
She stops walking.
“Are you okay? Should we go back and talk to Susan?”
“No, I’m fine. Nothing broken or situated where it shouldn’t be—unless you count the generally unappealing structure of my face.” When she doesn’t start walking again, I put my hand behind her elbow. “We’re gonna miss the bus.”
“Yeah, sorry. So, what happened? What the hell is a sewer-man?”
I give her a brief recap, leaving out the part about how my amazing knockout punch was something I saw on YouTube. I don’t think anyone really needs to know about that.
“So your thought process was that chasing the crazy sewer-man down into the sewer was a good idea?”
“Well, I didn’t know he was a sewer-man at the time. Or that he was powered. Or that he was crazy. Really, I didn’t know anything about him other than that he tried to attack someone. But even if I did, I couldn’t very well just let a violent criminal escape. I’d lose my union membership. And I don’t do this shit ‘cuz it seems smart, I do it for all the sweet perks.”
The bus rounds the corner a block and half ahead of us. I shrug and start shambling a bit faster, wincing as I go.
“Let’s talk about this later, okay? We’re about to miss the bus.”
Anna jogs up ahead of me, hopefully asking the driver to wait for the pathetic soul stumbling along behind her and not telling him to floor it while she laughs at me through the window.
“You can’t tell Susan about this, okay?”
Anna just sits on her bed and stares at me, lips pressed together, arms wrapped tightly around her stomach. I let myself sink down into her beanbag chair and have to actively suppress a groan. Nothing’s been this physically comfortable all day.
“Seriously, Anna. I’ll tell her as much as she needs to know. She doesn’t need all the gory details about this anymore than she needs to know about Boone’s sex life. We’re barely on solid ground as it is and she’d just freak the fuck out over this.”
“No shit she’ll freak out, it looks like it hurts to breathe.”
“Only the inhaling part, and really, who needs to inhale?”
Her hand twitches like she wants to smack me, but decides on mercy at the last minute. I sigh. I probably owe it to her to not be a childish douche.
“What good would it do anyone to tell her everything all the time? There’s nothing she can do to protect me out there and sooner or later she’d try and tell me to stop.” It comes out a little more impatient than I intended.
“And why can’t you stop? Why is this so important to you? What is it about getting the shit kicked out of you that’s so appealing? Most people would take this as a sign to knock it the hell off, but you’re acting like it’s just a normal hazard of teenage life like fender-benders or mono.”
“Everyone talks about doing something important with their life.” I can feel the sadistic revolution of that drill bit starting up again, boring and boring into my skull. “They spend their lives dreaming of doing something important or—or wishing more people would do something good, but no one ever does. So why is it that when someone does something important, tries to do something good, they get fucking bent over for it?”
At some point during my ramblings, I started yelling.
“I start trying to do something and Susan gets on my ass. Susan gets on my ass and then you -two start talking about me behind my back and suddenly Boone’s the only person on my side!”
“On your side?” Anna bolts up and the hair falling in her face isn’t so cute this time. “Boone’s the only one on your side? Like Susan and Paul and I are just sitting around every time you go out, crossing our fingers and hoping you’ll fuck up? Like every day we don’t worry that you’ll go out and get hurt—really hurt—and we’ll be to blame because we were the ones who supported your decision? Is that what you mean?”
“Support?” I laugh. “Yeah, I’m really fucking feeling the support. Susan’s constant disapproval, Paul’s unwillingness to do anything one way or the other, and you going behind my back—it’s all just too much. What have I done to deserve such love and support?”
“Oh get off your fucking cross, we both know this is the best goddamn place you’ve ever lived. Those people care about you. They want what’s best for you. Most people would consider themselves lucky to have parents like them and we both know you’ve never had a more loving family.”
Anna’s temper dies the second the words are out of her mouth. The defiance and the anger vanish like they were never there. Her face goes watery and her eyes are bright and panicky. Fuck that, my anger’s not nearly spent. I’m just catching my second wind.
“Really? Little orphan boy’s never had a loving family before?”
“No, I meant—”
“See, ‘cuz I thought the nice guy with the cane was part of a loving family. He was such a sweetheart when his knee wasn’t acting up. When it was though, he’d have a drink to calm it down since the doctors stopped giving him pain pills. But one little drink never calmed anything down. Couple drinks later, he’d finally start forgetting about his knee and that’d free his mind up to think about other things. Most days he’d figure out his cane was good for more than just limping along. He was generous with his newfound insight. His wife couldn’t give him a kid and I was literally the son he couldn’t have, but that was all okay because I thought that was love, right?”
I don’t tell my legs to take a step forward, but they do anyway.
“Or the apathetic folks who wanted a foster kid to keep up with the Joneses, so they could parade around, telling everyone how wonderfully charitable they were. Or the ones who just got fed up with the snarky fuck with the filthy mouth who snuck out after curfew and came home from school bloody all the time. Although, really, I never expected anything more wonderful than my birth parents, they really spoiled me. All I know about them is that they loved me so much they couldn’t stand it another minute.”
I’m dimly aware that I really am playing the martyr card harder than I ever wanted to but I cannot give any fewer fucks about that right now. Anna’s not looking so puffed up anymore. I look down at her for a second (ignoring her shining eyes and shaking shoulders) before stomping out and slamming the door behind me.
Fuck this, I’ve got better things to do.
My phone vibrates in my pocket for the fourth time since I left and I regret having given Anna the number to my burner cell. I don’t know if she kept calling my real phone after I changed into my vigilante getup, but it didn’t take her very long to figure out I’d changed. I don’t care what she has to say right now, I’m not ready to let go of my anger. My blood feels thick and heavy, roaring through my veins like a little kid shooting through the world’s most violent waterslide. I don’t care that I was being an asshole too. I don’t care that she just lost her temper, that she didn’t really mean it. I don’t care that she probably wants to take it all back. All I care about is the anger that swiftly saturated every inch of my consciousness, overwhelming what little rationality I possess. The pain helps. Trying to move around the city like I usually do in costume is an exercise in masochism. My shoulder howls in protest when I lift myself up the first fire escape like I’m doing a pull-up, my ribs tweak and twinge every time I change directions, and my brain throbs inside my skull like a beating heart. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.
My phone vibrates again.
Vrrrm. Vrrrm. Vrrrm.
Vrrrm. Vrrrm. Vrrrm.
Let her stew.
I look across the rooftops, not sure where to go. It’s always a crapshoot, but tonight I don’t even wanna be out helping people, I just wanna be away from whatever it is that broke in my brain. Whatever it is that made me freak out, that stopped me from not caring, that kept me from not getting invested.
I’m out a little early, so the city’s more lively than usual. Cars rumble around below me, most windows are still alive with light, and, despite the after dark crime rate, laughter and chit-chat drifts up from the sidewalks. Everything’s below me or across the street or above me. Far away.
And then the roof access door opens and I duck down behind a chimney.
Whoever just walked out turns and screams back through the doorway.
“Fuck you! It was just a goddamn fish, Jesus!”
She slams the door, but I can still hear the muffled response echoing up the stairwell. Something about bitch and knowing the first thing and some other things I can’t make out. I peek out around the chimney. She looks younger than me, hands shaking so hard her lighter falls onto the roof.
She picks it up and finally gets her cigarette lit. It’s not winter anymore, but it’s still a bit cool for sweats and a t-shirt, and I suspect she’s shivering as much as shaking. Hands clamped across her elbows, turning in circles, muttering to herself around her cigarette, eyes jumping between the ground and aimless points across the city, I recognize her. Not that I’ve ever met her before or even seen her, it’s what she’s doing. I was too much of a pussy to get over how harsh cigarettes taste, but I’ve done the same thing myself. It’s feeling everything inside of you bouncing around, slamming against your insides, crawling up your throat, storming, raging, trying to find a weak point. Trying to escape and if you hold yourself really tight and keep moving on the outside it’ll somehow counteract all the pressure and movement inside you. I don’t know what the looking around is about—trying to find a place where this might not happen to you? I dunno.
I can practically see Anna standing in front of me, looking up and maybe feeling these same abstract things that don’t make any sense and wondering what just happened. Panicking, knowing something had just gone wrong, but not really sure what’s going to happen next or what she should do next. Something in my chest sinks. It’s like having a piece of rotten fruit inside my chest just as part of it caves in on itself.
And then the moment’s gone and I’m just some douche bag who freaked out at his girlfriend because he’s insecure.
I fucking hate myself.
I sit down in the gravel, grimacing as the impact rattles up my body. Leaning against the brick chimney, I pull my phone out of my pocket and hold 1 for voicemail. A scratchy, robotic voice tells me I have one new message.
Wes, I’ll leave you alone after this, but I, uh, I’m home alone right now. Parents don’t get home ‘til late tonight, so if you wanna come talk to me, I’ll leave the basement door unlocked. I—I don’t know what to say to make this better, but I am really sorry. She pauses for a second to take a deep breath. I just think we actually need to talk about all this, ‘cuz we’re really not on the same page. I, uh, I’m just trying to—I fucked up and I wanna make it right, okay? Just…call me back.
I delete the message and hang-up the phone.
I’m not that far from our street yet. It hurt changing and it hurt running and it hurt climbing, so I’m barely out of the suburbs. I could be back at her place in less than an hour. I don’t know why I wouldn’t. All the anger and adrenaline’s gone now, I don’t really want to be out anymore.
So get up. Get up, stupid. Stand up and walk back. This is pointless, I can’t actually do anything worthwhile like this and Anna’s trying to be an adult here. Just go back.
One last surge of spite pulses through my brain and tells me to keep sitting. Just sit and let Anna feel guilty, it’d serve her right. But I’m past the point where that particular voice in my head is in control. I don’t want to be that asshole. It takes me a minute to get up without throwing anything out of whack. Along with the anger went my appreciation for physical discomfort. I just wanna lie down somewhere soft and comfortable. Going down the fire escape is a little easier than going up; as long as I don’t let my momentum hurl me down the metal stairs I can let it help me down. Getting from the bottom of the fire escape to the ground is still uncomfortable as hell, but I lower the ladder and manage to avoid any further injury.
I dig my phone out of my bag when I get to the forest, scroll down to Anna, and stare at an empty text block for a minute. Two minutes. Three. Five.
I want this to be over.
I’m not angry anymore—I don’t know exactly what I am, but it’s not angry.
What am I supposed to say in this situation? What can I say in a text to start making all this better?
Sorry! Say you’re sorry!
Even as I tell myself, I know I won’t say it. I don’t know why I’m too emotionally retarded to say it, but I won’t just cave. I’m sure she’d say it back—she’s already said it—but some part of me won’t let me go back to her to get things started. I’m of two minds and each is firmly opposed to the other.
When I climb the stairs to my room without having texted Anna, I feel like there was never any other way this could turn out. It’s just what I do—nothing and hope it’ll work itself out. I’m such a fucking coward.
I clamber up to the top bunk as quietly as I can and hope Anna can let go of this soon. Stop worrying about me and really think about this. It might be time she figured out she can do better than me. Someone less emotionally inept, less obstinately difficult, someone less damaged. I know I’ll feel different tomorrow, that once this stupid cloud passes over me I’ll be desperate to keep her, but right now all I can think is that she would be so much happier with someone else. Less, less, less.