Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Decorated Soldier

The last thing Anna did before she left yesterday was tell me to talk to Susan and ask what she thought about my costumed crusade.  Well, the last thing she did was make out with me some more, but that’s not the point.  The point is, Anna kinda sorta owns me and I’ve accumulated a fairly large debt to Susan over the relatively short amount of time I’ve spent under her roof, so the talking to Susan thing is gonna happen today, like it or not. 

And on top of that, the itch has been on me worse than usual today. 

Which is wonderful.  The two things taking up most of my admittedly limited mental capacity are two things that I really want no part of right now.  A serious talk with Susan right on the heels of a serious talk with Anna plus an intense urge to dress up in a cape and mask and punch people in the face. 

That and peeling off all the purple heart stickers Boone stuck to my clothes.  All my clothes.  The only things not stickered are my socks and boxers.  I woke up with a sticker on my forehead somehow. 

There will be hell to pay for that.

But before I can too thoroughly distract myself with thoughts of revenge and peeling stickers, I bookmark my Hellblazer graphic novel (ignoring the desperately nerdy part of me that tells me Staring at the Walls needs to be read in one sitting) and roll outta bed.  My landing’s a bit heavier than normal, but it’s a vast improvement over the last few days.

“No bullshit.”  Anna told me.  “Just ask her.”

Susan’s in the living room, weaving a pair of metallic green knitting needles throught a complex, fragile-looking spider web of purple yarn.  I think she called it lace or something.

I clear my throat before dropping into the big armchair between Susan and the far wall. 

“Whenever you get to a stopping point,” I mutter, rubbing the back of a finger against my chin. 

I need to shave.

After a few seconds, Susan gently sets her knitting down on the cushion next to her.  She folds her hands in her lap.  It doesn’t look particularly casual.  More like she’s trapping them there so they won’t fidget.

Before I can ask the simple, straightforward question Anna told me to, I blurt out “If you guys don’t want me around anymore, I’ll go.”

She cringes, from her face all the way down to her hands, before taking a deep breath.  And then a second.  It reminds me a bit of the first time we met.  A bit graver, but there’s a similar sense of her gathering herself to answer a hard question she’s been expecting me to ask.


It looks like the question hurts her almost as much as it does me.


“Out of the city?”  She continues.  “Out of the state?”

She sighs, pausing for a second to right the ship.

“This isn’t what I want to say.  What I really mean is that you don’t seem to grasp your place within this family.  We want you here.”  She emphasizes each word in the sentence, not letting me break eye contact.  “We want you to feel like you can stay here as long as you’d like.  And then when you’re done staying here to come back and visit when you’ve got the time.  When you first came here, this wasn’t a sure thing.  We could’ve talked to you and then gone our separate ways.  We wanted you to stay.  When you came to live with us, this still wasn’t a sure thing.  Not every family is the right place for every child.  But we let you stay.  We found out what you do at night.  We found out you broke the law and put yourself in danger on a regular basis.”  She smiles a thin smile.  “Admittedly, that was a little more difficult to process, but still.  We let you stay.  None of those decisions were colored by pity or feeling like we were committed to keeping you around, whether we liked it or not.  We let you stay because we want you here.  And to drive that point home, I’m going to spoil a surprise Paul and I were planning.”

She holds up a finger and walks quickly into the hall.  Her footsteps trot up the stairs, stop, and then march back down.  She comes back into the room, holding a thin binder.  Across the front in permanent marker is:  Yard Sale.

She sets the binder in my lap and sits back down.  I thumb through the pages of table layouts and item prices and anything else anyone could conceivable need to run a yard sale.  My mouth’s too dry.  Someone’s filled my insides with molasses.  My lungs and heart labor and my eyes sting.

“We’ve been planning to clean out that other bedroom as soon as it warmed up enough for a yard sale to work.  We wanted it to be a surprise.”

She folds and unfolds her hands a few times.

“We probably should’ve just told you.  I didn’t even think of how you’d see it.  An extra bedroom just sitting around filled with clutter while you had to share a room.”

We sit in silence for a bit.  Susan fidgets and I bury myself in the little binder so I don’t have to confirm or deny anything.  She starts up again.

“I’m sorry if this stupid surprise has made you feel unwanted or, or made you feel temporary, we…we just wanted to give you a proper welcome.”

Don’t say anything.  You suck at words.  Just give the poor woman what she deserves.

I shift the binder aside, slide out of the armchair, and give Susan a brief, tight hug.  It only makes me slightly uncomfortable.  And I ignore the little voice in the back of my head that tells me things are starting to stack up dangerously high in my favor, that things are gonna topple soon. 


I’ve spent the last three hours lying in bed.  Most of the first two were spent doing various anxiety management exercises.  Deep breathing, stretching, and the like.  Since then I’ve done the absolute worst thing in the world for managing stress:  I’ve obsessed.  And oddly enough, it’s the obsessing that’s helped the most.  People seem hellbent on keeping me around.  Anna, Susan, Paul, Boone…well, at least Boone doesn’t seem to actively want me to leave.  Plus, he’ll be getting his room back soon.  That’ll help.

For the millionth time, I scroll back to Polar Bear Club’s lovesick anthem, “Drifting Thing” and text Anna back during her study hall.  Susan calls up to me to keep feeling better before heading to her shift.  I close my eyes and drift off until someone shakes me awake.  Literally, I wake up to Anna shaking my leg.

Once she sees I’m awake, she steps up onto Boone’s bunk, pulls my head toward hers, and kisses me.  We spend a minute or three like that.

When we separate her eyes look really big.  She’s smiling.

I lick my lips and smile back.  “What did I do to deserve that?”

Maybe it’s the whole near-death experience I had or Anna finally being cool with what I do, but she’s spent an inordinate amount of time shoving her tongue down my throat these last couple days.  Not that I’m complaining—this is pretty much what teenagers live for—just making a note.

She rolls her eyes like I’m slow.  But the adorable kind of slow. 

“That’s one of the hidden perks of being in a relationship, dumbass.  I can make out with you whenever I want for little or no reason at all.  And I dunno, things feel better now.  Like there’s not as much stress and we can just enjoy being us, ya know?”

“And this is what I can expect from us just getting to be us?”

Another eye roll.  “Yes…

I tilt my head to the side and lean toward her.  “Just checking.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bug Out

I wake up at one forty-seven pm trying to cough one or both of my lungs up.  Coughing, being a rather physically engaging activity, reminds me just how bruised, knotted, and abraded my shoulders, head, arms, and back are.  I cough and cough and cough ‘til I can barely push out anymore coughs and they subside into a breathless wheeze.

Fuck everything.

I was in bed for almost eleven hours, but I couldn’t have slept for more than four.  The exhaustion’s let up just enough to keep me from physically having to make a decision between sleeping and collapsing.  Now I’m just tired all the time, in need of rest, and not really getting it.

No, seriously.  Fuck everything.

This is probably what I deserve after staying out so late last night instead of laying around and healing.  I sit up, wincing when I try and prop myself up on a bruised forearm.  Out of the corner of my eye I see my bedside table looking a little more crowded than usual.  On top of my laptop and next to my phone is a paper plate with a peanut butter sandwich and a big Granny Smith apple.  I unlock my phone and skip past the other three text messages, going straight to one from Susan.

Enjoy the food.  Hope you’re feeling better.  Shift doesn’t start ‘til 3.  Come down if you get this before I leave.

God.  Why is she being so nice to me? 

I know she was on the verge of a heart attack when Anna called her from the hospital.  And so tight on the heels of me getting my shit stomped by Sewer Man.  I keep giving her enough time to think I’ll stay outta trouble and then getting into even more trouble than before. 

I lumber to the floor and grab the plate with one hand, carefully rolling the apple off into the other hand.  I haven’t been eating all that well the last couple days, but today’s feeling like the day that’ll change.  The first bite of the apple reminds my body just how hungry it is.  My metabolism is every bit as post-human as the rest of me.  I generally need more food than the average person to get by, so my recent fast is about to end with a pantry-raiding feast that would put a hall of Vikings to shame. 

The apple’s chewed to the core by the time I’m down the stairs.  I awkwardly switch the apple core for the sandwich and almost choke.  Peanut butter doesn’t go down quite as easy as apples do.  My eye-watering coughing catches Susan’s attention.


I manage to stave off one cough long enough to confirm that I am indeed the foster child fuck up she’s looking for.  When she steps into the hall her mouth’s a thin line and her eyes are scrunched, they make contact with me and then flit to the side.

When I finally find myself fit for speech I try to wave off some of her concern.  “Just a ‘took too big a bite’ cough, that’s all.”

It doesn’t seem to help much. 

I honestly don’t wanna know what she has to say right now.  She’s been bottling it up, waiting for me to feel better before dropping it on my head and I know bottling isn’t her thing but I just want her to keep it up.  Hearing how scared she was or how angry she is or whatever just isn’t something I’m up for.  I don’t need her to tell me what a fuck-up I am, I’ve been this way for long enough to know that all by myself.  And if I can keep her from getting going then I can keep her from reaching the end of the conversation.  The point where, spoken straight or insinuated, she tells me I’ve found the line in the sand.  She’s had all the bullshit she’s gonna have from me and maybe more and if I don’t get my head outta my ass this is over.  It’s not her fault I’ve burned through literally every capable foster family in the area and I’ll be shipped somewhere completely new if this doesn’t work out.  I got myself neck deep in shit, it’s up to me to deal with the consequences. 

Or maybe even worse, she’ll tell me there is no line.  That no matter what I do, we’ll just keep butting heads on this and she’ll keep suffering and I’ll keep hating that my crusade is more important than her pain.  Or whatever the less melodramatic version of that may be. 

But not right now.  I really can’t have either of those conversations right now.

“Thanks for the sandwich.”  I raise the plate and avoid eye contact.  “Think I’ll scrounge around for a bit more.  High metabolism and all.”

Everything’s flat and awkward.  I feel like someone’s smashed me into two dimensions.  My voice doesn’t have any life.  My brain can’t seem to do anything but remind me of how much everything sucks, myself included.

My appetite’s soured, but I can’t keep eating light or I’m gonna collapse.  I shuffle into the kitchen and grab a container of leftover chicken casserole from the fridge, plopping most of it onto a real plate.  I feel Susan’s eyes on me, but I’m hoping she’ll just swallow whatever she’s got to say.  I’m only down here for a couple minutes then I’ll be out of her way again.


“Please, not right now.”  My throat’s swollen like I’ve developed a sudden allergy to this conversation.  “Please.”

I keep my back to her on my way to the microwave and try to look like I’m casually crossing my arms and not hugging myself to keep a pathetic emotional outburst from blowing me apart.  Susan either gets the message or just gets her feelings hurt pretty quickly because I hear her footsteps head toward the living room. 

In between all the self-pity and wallowing, part of me’s screaming:  MAN UP!

The part that runs into burning buildings, the part that functions even with loaded guns shoved in my face, the part that managed to win a fight with a super-powered lunatic and do so without hurting him too badly screams at me all the way up to my room. 


I skip past one of Anti-Flag’s lesser songs to one I like more and turn the volume up on my laptop.  I don’t know what it is about two such disparate things that they have the same calming effect on me, but they do.  Angry punk snarls and digging through my bag.  They don’t calm me down so much as they offer a sort of morbid comfort.  Being angry and being mobile, they’re what I know.  So I bury myself in them.

The zipper on my bug out bag is starting to separate from the rest of the bag.  Just a little tear right now and it’ll stay little if the bag stays tucked away under the bed.  But if the bag gets any real use, it’ll be a tattered chasm before too long.  I unzip it, careful not to cause anymore damage, and start sifting. 

A heavy Swiss Army Knife with a notch taken out of the handle.  A black pouch filled with band-aids, disinfectant, and the like.  A flashlight like the one I carry in my costume.  A couple burner phones.  Few pairs of clothes that could carry me through anything short of deep winter.  Other items I’ve deemed necessary over the years. 

At the bottom are a few of my favorite comic books, boarded, double bagged, and kept in a slim padded case I stole when I was twelve.  When it really occurred to me that I was different, comics had taken on a whole new appeal.  I’d scrounged through old used book stores, traded anything I had with other kids at school, and even spent lunch money on them.  At one point I’d even snuck one of my foster parent’s credit cards and ordered a subscription of Ultimate Spider-Man. 

I’m so engrossed in what I’m doing that I don’t hear the footsteps coming up the stairs. 

Anna knocks twice and opens the bedroom door.

“Hey, neither of you idiots is answering your phone.  Is Boone here?  I need him for a project.”

I stiffen and turn around, carefully shielding the bag from Anna.  This is normally the time I would make a joke about waiting before coming in, that I could be naked or worse, playing air guitar.  Instead, I fumble with silence.

Anna makes a face.

“Is this Anti-Flag?”

I nod, still not sure how to speak without giving myself away.

“What’s wrong?  You only listen to them when you’re having a bad day.”

How could she possibly know that?  Who keeps track of that kinda shit?

It’s only now that I’m having my normal, uncomfortable reaction to one person knowing so much about me that I realize how weird it is that I’ve been okay with it for so long.  That I’ve even enjoyed it.

I grunt.  “Haven’t been sleeping well.”

She walks farther into the room and I straighten up, hoping I can stay on the floor and still keep her from seeing the bag over my shoulder.  She kneels down next to me.

“How come?”

I shrug.  “Stress, I guess.”

I don’t make any mention of the fire, but I probably don’t have to.

“Do you wanna talk about it?”

She puts her hand on my knee, running her thumb over it in slow circles.  I’m tempted to tell her the truth.  That even with the shit with Susan, our fight, getting mauled by a sewer man, and getting caught up in a burning building, this has been the best place I’ve ever lived and sooner or later the other shoe’s gonna drop.  I’ll find the line, the line everyone has and I’ll cross it.  At some point I’ll stop amusing Boone or I’ll stop being worth all the effort Susan puts in and it’ll all fall apart.

Or that Anna’s gonna get tired of me and dump me and then I’ll spend what little time I have left here miserably watching her move on.

But instead of opening up and spewing red-hot molten crazy everywhere, I do something much worse:  I lean in for a hug.

And when Anna accepts, resting her chin on my shoulder, she gets a clear look into my open bug out bag.

“What’s that?”



Say something.  It’s my bondage bag.  Everything I need for a night at a BDSM club.  My bank robbing gear.  Supplies for my afterschool job as a clown.  Something!

Anna pulls away and slides past me.  There has to be something I can do to stop her, but I can’t think of anything.  She pulls it onto her lap and starts picking through it and it’s like Susan catching me coming in the kitchen door all over. 

“What’s…”  She runs her hands over my travel toothbrush and deodorant.  Her hand freezes on the little roll of cash I’ve squirreled away.  “What’s with the bag?”

She’s trying to sound reasonable.  Working hard to keep the accusation out of her voice.  Trying to give me a chance.  But she can’t keep from looking heartbroken.  It doesn’t take her long to figure out what the bag means and when that happens I think a little part of me dies. 

“It’s…I’m not planning on…I wasn’t…” 

I try to take a deep breath, to push down the anxiety that scrabbling madly up my chest cavity, but can’t even draw a normal breath.  Anna jumps in. 

“Wasn’t gonna run away?  Wasn’t gonna leave?”  She makes a sound halfway between a scoff and a sob.  “God, I thought we were past this shit.  I get that you’re uncomfortable with this stability or whatever, but I thought you were making progress.”

Breathe.  Breathe as deep as you can.  Breathe and find your words.

“Progress isn’t the same as being better.  It…it takes time.”

I feel like that was the closest thing to profundity I’ll ever manage and what’s more, I expressed it fairly clearly, but even still, I sound whiney.  I sound like I’m making excuses.

The first time Alan set me up with a therapist, I tried to be good.  It was after Henry Campbell and the canings and by that point I’d started identifying the right choices in life and actively making the wrong ones.  It helped and after awhile it started being fun.  But when Alan sent me to therapy, he was so worked up about everything.  He launched an investigation into the Campbells, he started checking in on me more often, and then he suggested I try talking to someone.

Even at my most cynical, I’m not sure I could’ve said no to the face Alan made.  It was guilty and heartbroken and angry and hopeful and everything else in the world.  Way more than any one facial expression should be able to encompass.  So I played along.  No fucking around.

And then I started feeling like a rat trying to navigate a maze.  I wasn’t really allowed to say anything normal, to just talk to my shrink like people.  I’d try and joke about the shit food at the cafeteria and he’d imply I wasn’t eating right.  Just subtly and never accusatorily, but he was like that with everything.  I say something and he turns it a little to the left, poking and prodding me.  It’s not easy talking to someone like that.  Nothing feels safe, nothing’s relaxed.  Nothing gets to be off the record.  He’d say it was, but he was always scribbling on a fucking notepad and I knew he was giving Alan the gist of it afterward.  That was part of our agreement, Doctor Grant and Alan could exchange notes—good communication being the foundation of therapy and all.  But at a certain point it felt less like good communication and more like spying.

It got to the point where I was digging my thumb into my thigh, just to keep from strangling him.  And you better believe he took note of that too.

So I stopped telling him things.  If he asked a pointed question or just anything I wasn’t too fond of, I’d ignore it.  Pretend I was hard of hearing.  I stopped initiating anything and when I did answer his questions, it was as sparsely as possible.

Those are not conditions under which therapy flourishes (or so I was told), so I left.  Alan set me up with someone else and I didn’t spend as long trying that time.  By the third shrink I was actively sabotaging things.  Eventually Alan gave up, under the guise of giving me a little more control over my life.  If I ever felt therapy would be beneficial, all I had to do was say so and Alan would hook me up.

Surprisingly though, I told Doctor Grant about the bag.  I’d started planning one before I gave Alan my ultimatum and I started putting it together in earnest as soon as I got to the next house.

Anna runs her hand through her hair and I wonder if she didn’t pick the gesture up from Boone.  She throws her hands up and makes an exasperated huff.

“Why do you keep doing this?  You need to quit pretending that because you’re not normal Susan and Paul are suffering from…buyer’s remorse or something.  This self-pitying bullshit has to stop.”

Who’s pretending?  Just because Susan and Paul want me here, doesn’t mean I should be here.  They’re generosity isn’t an invitation for me to fuck up their lives.”

I’m starting to raise my voice again.  Starting to pick a fight with someone who’s just trying to help.  With Anna.  I need to stop fucking do this.

Suck it up.  Stop being a child and speak.

“I…I need you to be okay with me.”  It actually pains me to say that.  My chest feels like someone’s created a black hole the size of a pinhole inside it and my insides are all being sucked slowly through it.  My ears and cheek must be an impressive shade of red.  “With what I do.  I just…” 

I’m not one of those guys who collect sneakers, but right now I can’t think of anything more interesting than staring at my shoes.

I don’t notice Anna moving toward me until I feel her arm around my shoulders.  She sighs into my neck. 

“I’m sorry I keep yelling at you.  I think what you do is amazing.”  She kisses my cheek.  “Not getting into fights or whatever.  You ran into a burning building to save someone.  The police told you not to.  The fire department had given up.  You knew…things on the home front wouldn’t be much cheerier.”  She turns her head away a little bit as she says the last bit.  “I think I got blinded by the danger.  It’s hard, knowing you’re putting yourself in danger like that all the time.  But it’s…incredible.  Stupid and courageous and incredible and I think you’re the most amazing person I know.”

She goes quiet and I imagine I can feel the heat radiating off of her.

Given all the time in the universe I wouldn’t be able to come up with a proper response to that. 

She jabs the bag with her foot.  “Amazing and infuriating.  In equal measures.”

When I find my voice again, it’s small.

“You can hold onto it if you want.  Keep the bag over at your place so you’d know for sure.”

She shakes her head immediately.  “No.  I don’t want you staying here because you’re not able to leave.  You stay or go because you want to.”

We’re both silent for awhile.  I’m out of gestures and apologies and I guess Anna not sure where to go next either.

Tell her you won’t really leave.  Tell her why!

But then she perks up.  “Go to prom with me.”


“I’ll believe you if you promise you’ll go to prom with me.  You can’t just up and leave if we have plans.  Okay?”

Tell her!

I have to snort, clear a little snot out before I can speak.  It’s gotta be incredibly sexy. 

I laugh.  At my own self-deprecation, at the delusional young woman asking me to prom instead of killing me, at how my luck’s changed since moving in here. 

“No one in their right mind would ever turn down that invitation.”

She smiles a little.  “That doesn’t answer my question.  You’re not actually in your right mind.”

A real smile overtakes my face.  I can’t seem to just blurt out the super romantic thought on the tip of my tongue, so I stick with, “Of course.”

She squeezes me in another hug and kisses my cheek before pulling back, looking semi-serious.

“But if you stand me up, I will kill you.  Superhero or not.  I will find you and kill you.  On prom night.  In my prom dress.”

For the first time today I feel safe to try a joke.

“What if I bail on you tomorrow?  Would you just wait for prom night to come find me?”

“Yes.  I would give you that much of a head start because there is nowhere you could go to run away from me.”

She kisses me again, on the mouth.  Like she means it.

While we’re locked like that, lips pressed together, I mouth three words.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


I shouldn’t be doing this without my costume.

The only way I can even come close to justifying jumping from roof to roof like this is that in this particular low-income district of downtown it’s possible for normal people to do it too.  The buildings are only about eight feet apart and the eaves on either side extend out two more feet.  My problem is that I don’t know how to jump like a normal person, so I’m clearing the whole eight feet in one go.

Someone’s tied my intestines into one big knot. 

It’s terrifying to be out doing even quasi-superhero things again, but the exhilaration isn’t lessened by that fact.  And it’s even more intense because of how stupid it is to be doing this without a mask on.  I’d never noticed how jumping around like this cuts through my hair.  It’s hard to ignore how nice the weather’s turned, even at night. 

Not that there’s really any alternative.  I can’t stay in my room not sleeping anymore and I can’t just put the costume back on. 

It’s not just that I’ve started getting bleakly philosophical about costuming, seeing my costumed identity as a jack-o-lantern:  hollow and garish.  That the Sentinel’s crusade for peace, justice, and the hope that one day I won’t feel so small feels like the pathetic pipe dream of a damaged child.  It’s that I’m honestly afraid I’ll piss myself if I step outside in it or that I’ll throw up the second I smell the cloying scent of fire wrapping itself around me. 

A coughing fit rattles my lungs and aggravates all the injuries I got from jumping out of a burning building.  I put my hands on my knees and cough ‘til my lungs are raw (which doesn’t take long considering I’ve been coughing like this all day).

There’s next to no wind tonight, but the smell of the apartment building still carries almost a block.  It stinks like the world’s trashiest bonfire.  Wood, metal, plastic, and concrete all went up and most of those have fairly distinct scents.  There was only one reported death in the fire and even though I can’t possibly smell it, I keep catching phantom whiffs of cooked flesh. 

I jump another roof.

All the construction equipment’s gone quiet for the night, but they’ll probably be working twelve hour days to get it done as quickly as humanly possible.  The neighborhood may be poor, but the slumlords who run it aren’t.  They’ll want tenants back in as quickly as possible. 

Before I jump to the building next to the burnt out husk, I see someone sitting on the roof and I pull up short.  He’s sitting on the edge, letting his legs dangle and swing lightly.  It almost looks like his feet are swaying in time to the caution tape’s fluttering, but then I notice he has headphones in and assume it’s more in time with the music.  Losing my privacy really isn’t worth a slightly better view.

I sit down on the corner of this roof.

It was a little weird.  Blaming myself for something so I can get away with something else, but it’s what I had to do to explain away my injuries. 

I was over at the apartment building visiting a friend when the fire started, that’s why no one in the building would really know me.  I fell down the stairs trying to get out, that’s why my shoulders, arms, and back are bruised and why I’m limping a bit.  I was dazed and in the confusion of that masked vigilante trying to rescue people, the paramedics lost track of me, that’s how I managed to wander off. 

“If those damn Illegals would just leave things to the professionals…” the nurse had grumbled.

I just nodded and kept a death grip on Anna’s hand.  Her fingers were bruised the next day and I must’ve spent more time apologizing than I did breathing.  Apologizing and thanking her for coming up with the lies I gave to the nurses because I was too wrecked to know what to say and too paranoid to assume they wouldn’t grill me about why I was there.  But true to Anna’s word, no one tried to stake me to the wall.

Only bits and pieces of the night really push through the mist.  After getting out of the burning building, it’s all clips and phrases.  I don’t remember a single detail of the doctor I saw.  Height, weight, gender, skin color, nothing.  Could’ve been a janitor dressed up in a lab coat for all I knew.

Could’ve been an orangutan in a doctor costume.  Or a doctor in an orangutan costume.

Back home, everyone made a big fuss about me almost getting burned alive.  Susan wasn’t working when I was brought into the hospital, but she made sure everyone was awake and waiting for me when Anna carted me home.  I still don’t know how Anna convinced Susan to stay home instead of dragging the whole house out to the hospital.  The next morning Paul even went in to work a bit late so he could wait for me to wake up.  Just to check-in, I guess.  Susan insisted I stay home from school and turned a blind eye when Anna ditched to stay with me as well.  Boone stood around and looked painfully awkward before making a bad joke about charbroiling myself and catching the bus.  I kinda got the impression he wanted to stay too, but I dunno.

A lot of that day was spent sleeping.  Not very deeply or restfully, but sleeping nonetheless.  Either Susan or Anna were in my room for almost every second of the day.  They stepped outside long enough to let me change when I sleep-sweated through my pajamas, but that was about it.  I’m a little surprised neither of them tried to follow me into the bathroom. 

It wasn’t until that night that I actually slept deeply enough to dream.  Supposedly if you’re not dreaming, you won’t be fully rested when you wake up, but I think that only goes for people who aren’t having bizarre dreams full of melting children’s toys and bones falling through the ceiling and turning to ash.  Every time I got deep enough for dreams, I was quickly and violently jerked back into the land of the living.  If my body hadn’t been so desperate for sleep, I probably would’ve kept myself awake after the first nightmare.  But as it was, I doubt I would’ve been able to delay sleep for more than a few minutes even with the nightmare adrenaline.

Tonight, however, my need for sleep isn’t quite so intense.  So here I am.  Standing on the roof of a building that’s little more than a tenement and staring at the twisted remains of another tenement.

I’m so caught up in my own shit that I barely notice when the guy sitting on the other roof gets up and turns around.  The roof access stairwell is on the other side of the building and there’s nowhere else I can run off to, so I take a deep breath against the mounting anxiety.  Not like exchanging awkward nods with a stranger is gonna kill me.

But instead of pursing his lips and nodding briefly as the Guy Code mandates, he twitches when he sees me and drops his headphones around his neck before offering a sheepish smile.

“Guess I’m not the only one who finds it kinda…fascinating.”

I shrug and hope he’ll leave me alone.

“Like, hypnotic.  I dunno.  There’s something about it that’s hard to look away from.  Even when it gets really kinda depressing to look at.  I put headphones on to block the silence, but I couldn’t walk away.  I didn’t know anyone that lived there or anything…did you?”  He blurts the question out like he’s worried about striking a nerve.

I shake my head.  “No.”

He exhales heavily.  “Good.  Bad enough that it happened at all.”  His eyes roll around the roof, like he’s looking for something that’ll spur further conversation.  “You heard that Sentinel guy busted in mid-blaze trying to save people?”

My intestines untie and retie themselves.  “Yeah.” 

My voice doesn’t sound right, it’s thin and tight, but my new friend doesn’t seem to notice.

“Fucking psycho.  The fire department was making their last sweep when he busted in.  It was getting too hot and they couldn’t risk any of their people even if there was a kid stuck inside.”  He smiles and shakes his head.  “The damn fire department wasn’t willing to risk it and he goes in there just to save one person.  Shit.”

I swallow a few times.  “Yeah?”

“Ten ton balls, man.  Shame he couldn’t save the kid, but just going in there…shit, ya know?”

I guess I’d know better than anyone.

“Shame, yeah.”  My voice is still an awkward croak.

Apparently he’s noticing I don’t sound right now because he’s got this odd look on his face.  “You said you didn’t know anyone that got hurt in the fire, right?”

For a minute, it’s pretty clear how badly I’m losing my mind because I debate actually talking to this guy.  Telling him, no I didn’t know anyone in the building, but it was my fault the kid died.  That I was the Illegal costumed vigilante who barreled into the building half-cocked and was spat back out shortly after. 

It feels like my brain is pulsing and throbbing inside my skull, desperately trying to purge itself.  I don’t know exactly what time it is, but I know Alan won’t be awake.  I’m tempted to call him anyway, tell him to set me up with a shrink first thing tomorrow.  I know it’d mean revealing my costumed escapades because I don’t think patient confidentiality covers that, but it might be worth it.

My chest feels too small; it’s not letting my lungs expand all the way.  I start my deep breathing exercises, but it’s sounding more and more like hyperventilating.  I hunch over and put my hands on my knees.

“Hey, hey, hey…”  I lost track of him for a minute and now he’s less than a foot away from me holding his hands out and looking thoroughly freaked out.  “What’s happening?”

Panic attack, you fucking idiot.

But even as I tell myself what’s happening, which should be the first step toward overcoming it, I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do next.

“Seriously, I’m calling an ambulance.”

I reach out and swat at him for a second until I find his forearm.  I grab hold and shake my head.  Between the recent smoke inhalation and the current panic attack my voice is more of a wheeze than anything else.

No.  I’m fine.”

His forearm tenses up, but he doesn’t pull away. 

It’s a mild spring night, but I’m sweating.  I’m wearing sweats and a hoodie, but I’m cold.  Either this came on way faster than usual or I was really suppressing my anxiety for awhile.

Let it pass.  It’s going to end.  It’s going to end without killing you.  Let it pass, idiot.

I keep telling myself that over and over.  My mantra.  At some point I all but fall over backwards.  I cross my arms over my knees and rest my head on my forearms.

I don’t know how long it takes, but I start to level out.  The tide rolls back out and the crushing weight of an ocean of anxiety rushes off my chest with one great inhale.  Each following breath eases the weight, steadily expanding my lungs back to their normal size. 

“I’m fine.”

He didn’t ask, but he was not asking far too loudly. 

“Looks like it.”

I turn my head away from my arms and glare weakly.  “No one likes a smartass.”

I speak from experience.

I drop my head onto my forearms again.  We sit in silence for a second.  He breaks it fairly quickly.

“You live around here?”

“No.”  I debate lying about where I live for a moment, before realizing I don’t actually care all that much.  What’s he gonna do with some stranger’s address?  “I live over in Willowwood.”

“Sounds like some fancy gated community or something.”

“Just a middle class neighborhood with illusions of grandeur.  Not all that far away, really.”

He grunts.  “I’m Brandon, by the way.”

I’m starting to feel like a child, curled up on the ground beneath him so I stand up.  When I’m on my feet I offer my hand.  “Wes.”  Smalltalk not being one of my superpowers, I offer up this little gem:  “So where do you go to school?”

“I’m a senior at South.”

South Bluffs.  Is that my school’s rival?  If I had more school spirit, I’d probably know for sure.  Not that it really matters.  “So which building is yours?”

And with that, this is officially the worst first impression I’ve ever made.  And that’s counting the times I was actively trying to make a bad one.

He taps his foot lightly on the roof.

“This one, actually.”

I nod like that’s interesting information and wish I had a question worth asking.

He breaks this silence too.

“Supposed to rain tonight.  Wondered if it’s laying off to let people like us take in the view.”

“Just waiting for the most dramatic moment to loose a downpour on us, I’m sure.”

Brandon snorts.  “Probably.”

Another pause.

I fill it with a few coughs before Brandon breaks it again, with a small smile this time.

“You’re not gonna spaz out on me again, are you?”

“I didn’t spaz.”

“You kinda spazzed.  There was hyperventilating.”

I scowl.  “You should be careful about insulting strangers.  Hitchhikers could be escaped mental patients and all that.”

That earns me a good laugh.  “Guess I assumed if you were gonna strangle me with your straightjacket you’d have done so before I fanboyed all over the Sentinel.”

“True.  Damn…missed my opening…”

“So I never asked what school you went to?”

“East.  Go Flying Badgers…or whatever our mascot is…”

Is this actually how normal people make friends?  Am I actually making a friend or is this guy just too polite to tell me to fuck off?

Probably both.

“Your school spirit blows.”

“That’s because I’m not showing my midriff, three quarters of my thigh, and there aren’t any pompoms on hand.  It’s a package deal.  And when it all comes together…”  I make an exploding motion with my hands.

He sighs dramatically.  “Shame I’m straight or that’d be a sight to see.”

I consider giving him my number, telling him to hit me up.  I have next to no friends, so whenever he wants to chill, I’ll be free.  However, my usual social ineptitude (multiplied by my current state of skullfucked) is telling me that it’d be weird considering our present circumstances.  All of four minutes ago he was trying to call an ambulance to cart me away for a panic attack. 

So, instead of doing something social, I look around a bit and wave.  “Alright, I think I’ve had my fill for tonight.  Plenty of other tragic sites to hit on my sightseeing tour.”

Before jumping the first roof, Brandon shouts after me.  “Brandon Tate.  Hit me up on Facebook if you get bored of all the sightseeing.”

I look over my shoulder.  “Tate.  Got it.”

I start jumping the gaps in what I hope is a more normal-looking way and debate just waiting for Brandon to go back inside before coming back, but I’ve already had more than my fill.  Clearly, I’m a masochist, but everyone’s got a line and apparently my line stops me shy of two embarrassingly pathetic panic attacks per day. 

Probably for the best.  Just jumping around like this is starting to give me the shakes.  Anxiety sucks.  Ejecting myself out of a third story window sucks.  Smoke inhalation sucks. 

Fuck this, I’m going home.