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.
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.”
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?
“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.