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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.