It started with a bang; not an explosion but atoms accelerated toward infinity. That was the end of my so-called ‘ordinary’ life. Fate guided me into the line of fire the same day a madman sought revenge for his bruised ego.
Once upon a time there was no such thing as Glimmer Girl, or even Kaira Cade. This is my story.
* * * *
It figured that the snooze alarm quit that morning, and 7:08 before I pried my eyes open. Crap! Panic slapped me across the face and out of bed. There was less than an hour to change, eat if I got the chance – that part was optional – and be at school.
There was still time to hate my reflection, and the boy it owned. I tied my hair back, threw on some jeans and a long sleeve tee. I stuffed a mountain of unfinished homework into my backpack. The load was heavy, and school only made it worse.
No matter the number of times I stared him down in the mirror I always failed to see. Where was this son my family clung to? They called him ‘handsome’ when he smiled, though it was rare. The figure in family portraits seemed like a ghost. What they captured was a wiry kid, the kind who never cut their hair, and wore long sleeves in the springtime. The weight of the world wore dark rings under his eyes despite his inexperience.
7:27. So much for breakfast. I could squeeze in a granola bar. I dashed for the pantry in search of something, anything. Even a toaster strudel would do, though there was no time to cook it. My stomach churned like distant thunder.
Mom’s high heels clicked into the kitchen. She poked her head from around a corner. “Shouldn’t you be on your way to school?”
I stuffed the pastry into my mouth and muttered something about her being at work.
“Late start today,” she said while rummaging through her purse. She pushed a twenty into my palm. “Buy yourself something for lunch, but don’t spend it all. We’re on a tight budget, and I want change.”
‘Breakfast’ went down in a single gulp. I pocketed the money. “Okay, Mom.”
She searched her bag for keys and started for the door. “And in case I don’t see you tonight remember to get some sleep. Those rings are so dark they’d make the goth kids blush.”
I leaned to the hall. “What happened to your late start?”
“There are things to do before my late start,” she said, and vanished through the front door.
Say what you will about my parents but they worked hard and they provided. We had a good home, food when I remembered to eat, and all the important things to be comfortable. Even if they weren’t emotionally available nobody could have it all, could they?
I caught his reflection again. I stopped in search of an actual, living person. If I could see her I could survive.
* * * *
At 7:35 the beetle pulled to the curb. Seconds later I was in the passenger seat beside the Goddess of Awesome. She turned and grinned from behind those oh-so-ironic sunglasses out of an 80’s teen comedy.
“You look like crap,” Tanya said. Trumpets blared from the backseat with saxophones, bass, and what had to be a white guy over a carnival track.
I buckled in and threw myself against the headrest. “And this sounds like crap. What is it anyway?”
She started the engine. “It’s old school ska. Just because you don’t have an ear for the classics-”
“It sounds like an elephant swallowed a tuba.”
She smiled like the Cheshire Cat and flashed every tooth. Reached back she cranked the volume. In place of a stereo the beetle had a boom box, as in the kind that had no idea what MP3s were. Like the rest of the car it hailed from a bygone era.
“You’re doing this to annoy me,” I said.
Tanya beamed. “I love you,” she sang, and hit the pedal.
It was forever ago that we’d met, when a ‘fat, freckled, four-eyed tomboy’ came to the rescue of a ‘small, scared little sissy’. Her lion roar burned into my memory like the thud of Adrian Dempsey hitting the dirt. There were no more bruises to take home after that, or at least not as many. It was by luck and some candy bars that I got a best friend as well as a bodyguard.
Cruising through the suburbs I stared at the nothing that unfolded. Humanity hid in the corners, in their phones, away from nature. I frowned. We were all cogs in the machine waiting for processing.
“Stop that,” she said.
Her lips tightened. “You know.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You’re… brooding, or whatever it is you do,” she said. “That thing where you get quiet and dark and… jealous, I guess.”
“Jealous of what?”
She pulled her eyes from the road long enough to glare. “You know exactly what. You think everyone else has what you don’t.”
My arms flinched. Her words tasted bitter. We became silent. The horn section didn’t. I reached between the seats and wound back the volume dial.
“I’m not brooding.”
Tanya had said time and again that I had the world’s worst poker face.
“Yeah you were,” she said. We pulled the intersection. “You always get into a dark-ish mood when you’re stuck in boy mode for too long. What’s it been, four days?”
“Six,” I said, not that I was keeping count.
“See? No wonder you’re going crazy.”
I pulled my knees into my chest. “Why can’t graduation be over already?”
“Because,” she said, “an unjust deity designed things to never convenience mere mortals.”
Tanya grinned. “Speak for yourself.”
At 7:52 we pulled into the student parking lot. The school was a beast with seniors strolling into its maw. You could call it ‘trial by fire’, but everyone else calls Hell by its name.
I pulled my smile tight. “Yeah,” I lied.
“Three more weeks and we never have to see this place again,” Tanya said.
“You sure we can’t ditch?”
She sighed. “Okay, not even three weeks. Break it down into smaller chunks. Only worry about today. Not even that, it’s only six hours, so more like half a day. Then we can relax, hit up the Lovin’ Spoonful, sip lattes, and tell stupid jokes.”
“Half a day,” I echoed. Anyone could survive that.
* * * *
To be strong-armed through the gates was below a filing clerk, let alone an asset such as himself. The years he’d toiled for InfiniTech had borne as many patents, and an annual bottom line rested in the black. That alone was worth consideration. It was the troglodytes on the ethics council who lacked vision.
It had been some months before when Dr. Theodore Fellows appeared before them. His was a bold proposition, based on classified science that would not see print for years. “The application of these ideas will change the course of human history,” he’d said with no hint of hyperbole.
But they did not listen. Those in power only did so when it yielded immediate profit. Those with ‘ethical concerns’ were nothing more than window dressing. Regardless, they stirred enough panic among their bosses.
The CEO’s plastic smile burned into memory. “Listen, Ted. We appreciate all you’ve done for us, and all you’ll do in the future. But my people say this project is untenable. We can’t guarantee the safety of those involved, and we don’t have the resources.”
By ‘resources’, of course, he meant ‘money’. They wasted it on insurance and liability when there was history to make. The means were within reach, scattered throughout the complex. They only needed assembly.
For months Dr. Fellows worked in secret. He filled the role of a dozen engineers in a hangar discarded over the past thirty years. It was no mean feat to move the larger pieces, nor was it to connect to the city power grid under their notice. Nothing could keep him from his task.
In the office his vision became a joke. “You hear about Fellows? The guy wants to punch a hole between universes,” they said. ‘Science fiction,’ they called it. “His schematics don’t even factor radiation shielding. No wonder they terminated the project.” As though there was any protection from such cosmic force.
Yet he continued to toil, sacrificing progress in one arena for the other, until discovery.
“It’s not just unethical, Teddy, it’s illegal!” The CEO’s face was pink and on the verge of bursting. “And the misappropriation of resources! There’s going to be an investigation! We’re going to have the government breathing down our necks, because of your… your… grandiose ego!”
“Ego has nothing to do with it,” he told his former employer. “This is progress. You cannot stop it. Destiny begs us to step forward.”
Of course his argument fell on deaf ears, not that he intended to sway anybody. Only those of a certain quality were receptive to reason. That they were so rare was a fact to which Dr. Fellows had resigned himself.
A security detail nudged him from either side. They carried a box of selected belongings on his behalf. There wasn’t much to take save some personal correspondence and a thermos. They confiscated his flash drives and the reams of invention he’d produced. Those were the property of InfiniTech, as stipulated in his contract.
“You should be in jail,” the CEO told him at the exit. He’d come to rub salt in the wounds.
Soon he was in his car, ushered to the gate by a golf buggy. It was only as the mechanical arm came down that they peeled away. One more disgruntled scientist was on the street, neutered without a major company to help his research.
Dr. Fellows tightened his frown. His work had only begun.
* * * *
“Quit staring,” Adrian said, I think. It was hard to make out over the ringing in my ears. With one hand he pressed me against the locker. Hot breath condensed on my cheek.
Puberty had not been kind. Once he was an insignificant middle school shrimp. The next he’d become a mountain of beef bent on my destruction. With high school came the hope that Adrian would mature and move on, but no such luck.
“You were staring first,” I said.
The torrent of students didn’t stop because of him. Instead they moved around, same way they would if someone puked in the hall. It was somebody else’s problem. There were glares and sighs. Some even cheered for the bully. Nobody was game to stop him.
He inspected the thinning crowd. “I don’t see your bodyguard. There’s nothing to stop me from kicking your ass.”
If there was anyone he hated as much as me, it was Tanya. At least with her he had a good reason. Time and again she laid him out, humiliated. As he grew so did the shame of losing to a girl, even a tank like Tanya.
My fists balled at my sides. A cheap shot to the eyes or groin would force him to drop me if I hit hard enough.
Second bell rang. Every set of feet hurried to class, except for Adrian’s. He pressed me hard against the locker. The tiny door buckled with a metallic pop. I wrestled against him, but was powerless under his weight.
“Nowhere to run,” he said. “And no witnesses.”
His fist collided with my stomach and wrenched my guts. Fighting for breath was agony, and then he let me drop. While scrambling on my knees Adrian planted his running shoe into my side. Pain shot through my torso. I was a pathetic ball sliding on the linoleum.
Adrian spat. “Queer.” You know, like it was my fault.
When I could finally breathe it was like fire. Silence echoed from down the hall as I struggled to find my feet. I was late for class, and would cop hell for it. Only a handful of teachers took ‘falling’ as an excuse, at least from a ‘soft boy’ like myself.
“Half a day,” I said.
* * * *
Nobody knew me like Tanya Truman; not my parents, or anyone. One look was all she needed to know what happened. Her jaw tightened. Steam billowed from her nostrils. She was a rhino ready to stampede.
“What did he do?”
I said nothing. The who and what were obvious, along with the how of getting away with it. Adrian Dempsey was a star athlete. That made him untouchable. And with only a few weeks until graduation nobody wanted to make a big deal.
“You know I’m going to kill him,” she said. “I’m going to run him over with my car, throw him off a bridge, and scoop up all the little pieces. Then I’m going to douse them in gasoline, and set what’s left of the little bastard on fire. That’s just for starters.”
The graphic description didn’t faze me. “That went from zero to dark fast.”
Tanya pulled me into her arms like a big sister would. “Nobody hurts you like that and gets away with it,” she said. “If he did something to you, and I wasn’t around…”
I squeezed her back. “I’ve walked away from everything he’s dished. In a few weeks we won’t have to think about him anymore.”
We hid under the bleachers by the football field. It would have been an ideal make-out spot if we were into that sort of thing. Instead we flicked through a collection of thrift store comic books. We traded back and forth, and shifted when the sunbeams came too close.
Tanya flicked through a book from some long-forgotten indie publisher. “I hope he lives a long and miserable life.”
“Who do you think?” she said, and closed the book. “I can see it. Dropping out of college with a shoulder injury, riding the coattails of his youth until it runs dry. All that’s left are the couple of barfly stories nobody else remembers.”
The image might have made me laugh if it wasn’t so cruel.
“Balding, old, divorced at forty. He’s stuck paying alimony for the next decade while he rots away in a one room apartment. Some poor old girl wonders why she puts up with him. Oh, and he has a skin condition no doctor can explain! It’s not even revenge. It’d be like karma.”
“You know for a guy you hate you sure talk about him a lot.”
“You’re right. No man is worth this level of thought,” she said. “So long as he leaves you alone he can drop off the face of the Earth for all I care.”
I grinned. “You’d be the one to push him.”
In my backpack were pretzels and a soda; you know, proper food for future adults. There was no time for the cafeteria line. I wolfed them down like they were my last meal.
After a while Tanya dropped another book. “You know, superheroes are what you’d get if soap operas had time travel.”
She leaned back to stare at the clouds. “You ever wondered what you’d do if you had super powers?”
“Don’t know. What would you do?”
Tanya smirked and rolled closer. “Come on, that’s a no-brainer. Smash the patriarchy! Now it’s your turn.”
“Seriously, I’ve got no idea,” I said.
Her expression tightened. “So you’ve been reading these books as long as I have, and you’ve never daydreamed about having powers of your own.”
I rolled the thought along my tongue. The books and the stories in them were as far gone as their ideals. Strength, freedom, justice. They were part of another world. Those things didn’t exist in my corner of Milestone Heights.
The bell for final period rang and saved me having to answer. “Half a day,” I said.
“Less than a quarter now,” Tanya said.
Escape was so close I could taste it.
* * * *
Of all my classes Mr Fletcher’s was the most tolerable. He was a good teacher, though grouchy, and he was all that stood between me and the outside world. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Adrian weren’t in the same room.
Everyone else had taken their seat by the time I arrived. I was late, again. Mr. Fletcher addressed me, but didn’t lift his head from the roll sheet. “Sit down, Mr. Cade, and count yourself lucky. If this were college you’d already be marked absent and risk failing the course.”
All eyes turned. Adrian sat in the second row on the opposite side of the room. That was at least four seats away. It wasn’t far enough to escape the toxic aura radiating in my direction.
The lesson started. Mr. Fletcher talked on minerals with more enthusiasm than I’d ever heard on the subject. As much as I wanted to listen Adrian made sure my attention was elsewhere.
I looked to the clock. 2:11, an hour to freedom.
There was a knock at the door. From the other side appeared one of the office administrators. “Excuse me, Mr. Fletcher? I’m sorry to interrupt, but you have an important phone call.”
He all but stomped into the hall. “Excuse me, class. I’ll only be a moment.”
The second he was gone Adrian started with an endless barrage. Paper bombs flew with maximum prejudice, with no regard for those who sat between us. He ripped another page from his notebook and rolled it onto a ball.
I ignored him. Nobody came to my defense.
“How many guys have you been with, Cade? Come on, I’m curious.” Balled up sheets bounced off my head. “How many other queers go to this school? Tell me, I want to know. How am I supposed to be tolerant if you don’t educate me, huh?”
My fingers gripped the desk. Seconds ground against the clock.
“Hey, I’m talking to you!” Adrian slammed his palms on the desk. “Are you gay because someone touched you?”
I closed my eyes and counted between breaths. Nothing else existed.
The door flew open, and a red-faced Mr. Fletcher came down like a hurricane. “I heard you all the way down the hall, Mr. Dempsey. I don’t tolerate that sort of talk in my class. You’ve earned yourself an hour of detention.”
“What did I do?”
Mr. Fletcher lowered his glasses. “Don’t play dumb. I saw it all. I heard it all. You don’t behave, you do time.”
“I’ve got basketball,” Adrian said.
“If you don’t like it we can always talk to the principal, and your parents while we’re at it.” Mr. Fletcher loomed over his desk. “Now, unless we have anything else you’d like to discuss…”
For once Adrian was silent, and the lesson regained momentum. He whipped a layer of hatred the moment the teacher look away. What did he expect? He acted like an ass. This, I thought, was the least he deserved.
I looked to the clock. Time started back to normal.
* * * *
3:15 rang like a shot, and I flew toward freedom. A sea of students flooded the halls, but none were as eager to taste the afternoon sun as I.
I burst through the doors, sprinted across the yard, and jumped the chain fence into the parking lot. I bounced until Tanya reached the beetle. Nervous energy wound in my legs, hungry for a reason to cut loose.
“I see you survived,” she said.
“Adrian landed detention, and I want to get out before they open his cage.”
Tanya pulled the keys from her pocket. “You’re kidding.” She climbed inside the beetle, and reached across to open the passenger lock. The engine turned like the undead. The passenger door opened with a whine. It slammed three times before it closed.
“So,” she said, “want to come to my house and let Kaira out of her box?”
Six days of boyhood, going on seven. How could anybody stand it? She knew my answer. I reached back, and cranked the boom box. Nothing, even 80’s weirdness, could kill this high.
* * * *
It was a quiet afternoon, with motes of dust dancing in the sun. There was only the one window, and a door on either end. The house lights seemed dimmer in the daytime. A handful of customers stooped over the bar. Some squirreled away in the booths with a drink. They made the most of the lull before happy hour. The air was heavy in spite of the ‘no smoking’ sign, though lacked the bitter taste of tobacco.
Of all the people to ever come to this dive Dr. Theodore Fellows was distinct from the rest. He had the worn hands of a tradesman, but there were other qualities. He wore pressed clothes and square spectacles not practical for life on the docks. The manner he lifted himself was not that of a laborer.
Across the room slumped in a wooden chair was a blond haired man. He wore an open, khaki shirt. He smiled a crooked smile, and beckoned the newcomer to approach. A chair slid from the table as he did.
Dr. Fellows inhaled. “You’re McVeigh?”
He gestured for him to sit. “Paulie tells me you’ve got some work going,” he said. “I don’t usually take jobs from strangers, but I owe him one, and the way he tells it you’ve been… insistent.”
The scientist sat forward and placed his hands on the table. “Mr. ‘Paulie’ used to handle sensitive materials for me,” he said. “I would have preferred his assistance, yes. He assures me that you and your people are more qualified for this job.”
“Qualified is exactly the word,” the stranger said. His eyes trained on the doctor and the stern cloud he dragged with him. “Fast, effective, discreet. No questions. The only issue some customers have is with the cost.”
Dr. Fellows didn’t waver. “Money’s no object. Whatever your price, I’ll meet it.”
McVeigh’s smile faded. “Five hundred.”
“Thousand,” Fellows confirmed.
“Up front. Then another five upon completion.”
He reached into his pocket, removed an envelope, and passed it across the tabletop. “I’ll have the money transferred to your account within the hour. Here are the details of the operation. We’ll negotiate further detail in the near future. Acceptable?”
McVeigh looked around the bar, and smirked. “Yeah, that’s fine.”
Dr. Theodore Fellows remained unblinking as he stood. “I cannot overemphasize the invaluable nature of my work.”
“I should have asked for more.”
“And I should have anticipated your greed,” he said. “But, as promised, whatever your price…”
The blond man scratched his five o’clock shadow. Six men, two vans, guns, and a million dollars to split between them. All for some disgruntled engineer’s pet projects.
When Dr. Fellows left he reached for his phone and scrolled his contacts. It was time to put the team together.
To be continued…