It started with a bang; not an explosion, but atoms accelerated toward infinity. That was the end of my so-called ‘ordinary’ life. Maybe it was fate that 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 was just my luck the snooze alarm had 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, maybe eat – that part was optional – and be at school.
Despite the rush 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, and 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 the son my family clung to so desperately? They called him ‘handsome’ when he smiled, though it was rare. The figure in family portraits seemed little more than a ghost, no matter how many they took.
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; maybe 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.
My 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 mumbled something about her being at work.
“Late start today,” she said, and rummaged 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 her 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 you needed to be comfortable in the twenty-first century. Maybe they weren’t so available when it came to emotional stuff, but nobody can have it all, can they?
I caught his reflection again while passing the living room, and stopped to search out the person underneath. Maybe, if I could see her, I’d yet survive the day.
* * * *
At 7:35 the beetle pulled to the curb and honked. Seconds later I was in the passenger seat beside the Goddess of Awesome. She turned and grinned from behind those oh-so-ironic sunglasses like out of an 80’s teen comedy.
“You look like crap,” Tanya said. From the backseat was the blaring of trumpets, saxophones, bass, and what had to be a white guy not-singing to the carnival rhythm.
I buckled in, and threw myself against the headrest. “And this sounds like crap. What is it anyway?”
She started the engine, and sneered. “It’s old school ska. Just because you don’t have an ear for the classics-”
“It sounds like an elephant swallowed a tuba and is trying to play reggae.”
She smiled like the Cheshire Cat flashing every tooth, and reached back to crank 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 was cemented in a bygone era.
“You’re just 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 was 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 maybe some candy bars that I got a best friend out of it as well as a bodyguard.
Cruising through the suburbs I stared at the nothing going on. It was like humanity was set on hiding in their corners, away from the sky, and from nature. Not that I was any different; just another cog in the machine, on his way to be processed.
“Stop that,” she said.
Her lips tightened. “You know.”
I forced a smile. “No.”
“You’re… brooding, or whatever it is you do,” she said. “That thing where you just kind of observe and get really 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, as though cut with a literal knife. Her words were bitter as they melted, even if they weren’t meant to be. In reality I knew that very few people lived the lives they wanted, and yet…
We were silent; the brawling horn section in the back seat wasn’t. I reached back and wound the dial down.
“I’m not brooding.”
Tanya had said time and again that I possessed the world’s worst poker face.
“Yeah you were,” she said as 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’d been keeping count.
“See? No wonder you’re going crazy.”
I pulled my knees into my chest. “Why can’t graduation just be over already?”
“Because,” she said, “the passage of time was designed by a cruel and unjust deity to never, ever convenience mere mortals.”
Tanya grinned. “Speak for yourself.”
At 7:52 we pulled into the student parking lot. The school itself was an aging beast with seniors strolling into its maw, its belly holding a crueler fate for some. You can call it ‘trial by fire’, but everyone else just calls Hell by its name.
I looked to Tanya and 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 just ditch?”
She sighed. “Okay, not even three weeks. Break it down into smaller chunks. Just worry about today. Not even that, it’s only six hours, so more like half a day. Then we can relax, maybe 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 by security 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 deep in the black. For that alone he was worth some consideration, surely; from the men and women upstairs, if not the nearsighted troglodytes on the company ethics council.
It had been some months before when Dr. Theodore Fellows appeared before them; ‘Teddy’ to what few friends he had. His was a bold proposition, based on the kind of classified science that would not see print for years. “The introduction and 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, and who were comfortable in it, rarely did, save for that which yielded immediate profit. Those with ‘ethical concerns’ were merely window dressing, though they stirred enough of a panic to leave their bosses concerned.
The CEO’s plastic smile was burned into memory. “Listen, Ted. We appreciate all you’ve done for us, and all you’ll no doubt continue to do in the future, but my people are telling me this project is untenable. Not only can we not guarantee the safety of those involved, but we don’t have the resources at hand.”
By ‘resources’, of course, he meant ‘money’; wasted on insurance and liability when there was history to be made. The means and technology were all within reach, scattered around different parts of the facility, and only needed to be gathered together.
For months Dr. Fellows worked in secret, filling the role of a dozen engineers in a hangar discarded from thirty years past. It was no mean feat to move the larger pieces, nor was it to quietly connect to the city power grid, but nothing would keep him from his task.
In the office, his vision had become a joke. “You hear about Fellows? The guy wants to punch a hole between universes,” they’d said. ‘Science fiction,’ they called it. “His schematics don’t even factor in radiation shielding. No wonder they shut it down.” As though there was any protection from such cosmic force.
Yet he continued to toil, sacrificing progress in one arena for the other, until he was discovered.
“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 at least. 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 then former employer. “This is progress. It cannot be stopped. Destiny is begging us to step forward.”
Of course, his argument fell on deaf ears; not that they’d intended to sway anybody. Only those of a certain quality were receptive to such reason, and that they were so rare was a fact to which Dr. Fellows had long resigned himself.
A security detail nudged him on from either side, and carried a box of selected belongings on his behalf. There wasn’t much to be taken save some personal correspondence, and a thermos; certainly not his flash drives, and the reams of invention he had produced. Those were the property of InfiniTech, as was stipulated in his contract.
“You should be in jail,” the CEO told him on his exit. He’d come to rub it in.
Soon he was in his car, and was ushered to the gate by a golf buggy. It was only as the mechanical arm came down that they peeled away, no doubt assured that their job was done. One more disgruntled scientist was on the street, neutered without a major company to facilitate his research.
Dr. Fellows tightened his frown. His work was only beginning.
* * * *
“Quit staring,” Adrian roared, I think; it was hard to make out over the ringing in my ears.
With one hand he pressed me against the locker. He leaned with all his weight, pinned my shoulders to the metal, and drew close enough to breathe condensation on my cheek.
Puberty had not been kind, insofar that it deemed to change a cruel but insignificant middle school shrimp into the mountain of beef bent on my destruction. With high school came the hope that Adrian would have matured and moved on, but no such luck.
“You were staring first,” I choked.
The torrent of students didn’t stop because of him. Instead they moved around, same way they would if someone had puked in the hall. It was somebody else’s problem, right? At most there were glares or sighs – some even cheered the bully on – but nothing to dissuade him from beating on someone half his size.
He inspected the thinning crowd, and leaned further. “I don’t see your bodyguard around. 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’d laid him out, humiliated, sometimes getting them both suspended in the process. As he grew, so did the shame of losing to a girl, even a tank like Tanya.
Alone in the hall I was fish in a barrel. Putting me in a corner was as good as catching Tanya off guard. The fire in his beady little eyes was going to savour every moment, from that day until graduation.
My fists balled at my sides, for all the good it did. Maybe a cheap shot to the eyes or groin would force him to drop me, if I hit hard enough.
The second bell rang. Every set of feet hurried to class, except for Adrian’s. He continued to loom, and 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.”
“Just get it over with.”
His fist collided with my stomach and wrenched my guts. Fighting for breath was agony, and then he let me drop. While I scrambled on my knees, Adrian thought it the perfect time to dig a running shoe into my side. Pain shot through my torso, leaving me a pathetic ball sliding on the linoleum.
Adrian shook his head, and spat. “Queer,” he said; you know, like it was my fault.
When I could finally breathe again it was like fire. Silence echoed from down the hall as I struggled to my feet. I was late for class, and would probably cop hell for it. Only a handful of teachers accepted ‘falling down’ as an excuse, least of all from a soft boy like me.
“Half a day,” I said.
* * * *
Nobody knew me like Tanya Truman; not my parents, or anyone. One look was all she needed to know something had happened. Her jaw tightened along with every muscle in her body, as steam billowed from her nostrils.
“What did he do?” She seethed, like a rhino preparing to stampede.
I said nothing, because she already knew the answer. The who and what were obvious, along with the how of his getting away with it. Adrian Dempsey was a star athlete, which made him untouchable, even in a school with a supposed ‘zero tolerance’ policy. With only a few weeks until graduation nobody wanted to make it a big deal, and neither did I.
“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, scoop up all the little pieces, and then I’m going to douse them in gasoline, and set what’s left of the little bastard on fire; and that’s just for starters.”
The graphic description didn’t faze me. “That went from zero to dark really fast.”
Tanya pulled me into her arms and scooped them up over my shoulders, just like a big sister would. “Nobody hurts you like that and gets away with it,” she said. “If he ever did something to you, and I wasn’t around…”
I squeezed her back, and sighed. “Everything he’s dished out I’ve walked away from. In a few weeks we won’t even have to think about him anymore.”
She hummed at the thought. Imagine, a world without Adrian Dempsey; without arch-enemies.
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, or if teachers didn’t make a point of inspecting them. Instead we flicked through the collection of thrift store comic books we traded back and forth, and shifted when a beam of sun came too close.
Tanya flicked idly through a book from some long-forgotten indie publisher, and mused. “I hope he lives a long and miserable life.”
“Who do you think?” she said, and flicked the book closed. “I can almost see it, you know. Dropping out of college with a shoulder injury, riding the coattails of his youthful success until it runs dry, when all he has left are a couple of stories for the barflies nobody else remembers.”
The image might have made me laugh if it didn’t seem so cruel.
Tanya continued, “balding, old, divorced at forty, stuck paying alimony for the next decade while he rots away in a one room apartment, with some poor old girl wondering why she even puts up with him. Oh, with 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 was a bag of pretzels and a soda; you know, proper food for future adults that with no time to spend in the cafeteria line. That didn’t stop me wolfing them down like they were my last meal.
After a while Tanya dropped her book and sighed. “You know, superheroes are what you’d get if soap operas had time travel.”
She slid the book to one side, and leaned back to stare at the clouds. “You ever wondered what you’d do if you had super powers?”
I thought about it, and frowned. “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 what it would be like.”
I mulled the thought on my tongue, and wondered. All of the books and the stories in them were so far away, just like their ideas. Strength, freedom, justice; they were part of another world, and not my corner of Milestone Heights.
The bell for final period rang, and saved me having to answer. “Half a day,” I whispered.
“Less than a quarter now,” Tanya said.
Escape was so close I could taste it.
* * * *
Of all my classes, Mr Fletcher’s was among the most tolerable. He was a good teacher, if a bit grouchy, and was all that was standing between me and the outside world. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I wasn’t stuck in the same rom as Adrian.
Everyone else had taken their seat by the time I appeared in the door. Before I could knock Mr. Fletcher addressed me; he 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, or maybe it was just Adrian as I shuffled to the corner. He was in the second row on the opposite side of the room, at least four seats away; though it wasn’t near far enough to escape the toxic aura he blasted in my direction.
The lesson started. Mr. Fletcher talked on minerals and heavier elements 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.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door. From the other side appeared a short woman in a brown dress; one of the office administrators. “Excuse me, Mr. Fletcher? I’m sorry to interrupt, but you have an important phone call.”
He tightened his expression, and 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. Others protested on my behalf, but he was quick to laugh them off.
“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 ached as they gripped the desk. There was arguing from students coming to my defense, but I was frozen. The clock was painstakingly slow.
“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 the seconds between breaths. Nothing else existed.
Suddenly the door flew open, and a red-faced Mr. Fletcher came down on Adrian like a hurricane. “I heard you from all the way down the hall, Mr. Dempsey. I don’t tolerate that sort of talk in my class. You just 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 maybe your parents while we’re at it.” Mr. Fletcher scowled and loomed over his desk. “Now, unless we have any more business you’d like to discuss…”
Adrian was mercifully silent, and the lesson soon regained its momentum. He whipped a layer of hatred the moment the teacher wasn’t looking, whatever it was worth. What did he expect? He was the one acting out. This, I thought, was the least of what he deserved.
I looked back to the clock. Time started back to normal. The claw wrenching my chest eased slightly.
* * * *
3:15 rang out like a shot, and I was a runner flying down the track. A sea of students flooded the halls, but none were as eager to taste the afternoon sun.
I burst through the doors, sprinted across the yard, and jumped the chain fence at the parking lot. Tanya had yet to reach the beetle, so there I bounced until she caught up. Nervous energy wound in my legs, hungry for a reason to cut loose.
Minutes scraped for what seemed like hours before Tanya meandered through the gates. She raised a curious brow, and smirked. “I see you survived science class in one piece,” she said.
“Adrian landed detention, and I want to get out before they open his cage.”
Tanya blinked, and pulled the keys from her pocket. “You’re kidding.” She climbed inside the beetle, and reached across to let me inside.
The engine turned like the undead, and with the same long groan. I opened the passenger door opened with a typical whine of the hinges, and slammed it three times before it closed properly.
“So,” she grinned, “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? There were no words needed for her to guess 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, but nobody who came did so to be seen. A handful of customers stooped over the bar, or squirreled away in the booths with a drink, and made the most of the lull before happy hour. The air was heavy, seemingly in spite of the ‘no smoking’ sign, though lacked the bitter taste of tobacco.
Of all the people to have ever come and gone from the dive, Dr. Theodore Fellows was distinct from the others. He had the worn hands of a tradesman, but there was another quality that set him apart; perhaps in the clothes that he wore, pressed and washed, the square spectacles that were impractical for life by the docks, or perhaps it was just his gait and the manner he lifted himself.
Across the room and slumped in a wooden chair was a blond haired man in an open, khaki shirt. He smiled crookedly, nodded to the stranger, and beckoned him over. A chair slid from the table as he approached.
Dr. Fellows inhaled. “You’re McVeigh?”
He shrugged, and 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 very… insistent.”
The scientist sat forward in his chair, and placed his hands on the table. “Mr. ‘Paulie’ used to handle sensitive materials for me,” he said. “I would have preferred his assistance, but he assures me that you and your people are infinitely more qualified for this job.”
“Qualified is exactly the word,” the stranger grinned. All the while his eyes were 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. I will rendezvous with you at this address. Acceptable?”
McVeigh looked around the bar, and smirked. “Yeah, that’s fine.”
Dr. Theodore Fellows remained unblinking as he stood. “I cannot emphasize enough the invaluable nature of my work.”
“Perhaps I should have asked for more.”
“I should have anticipated your greed,” he said in an undulating tone, “but, as promised; whatever your price…”
The blond man scratched his five o’clock shadow, and listened to the scientist’s boots clomp toward the exit. Six men, two vans, guns, and a million dollars to split between them, all for some disgruntled engineer’s pet projects.
When Dr. Fellows was gone he reached for his phone, and scrolled his contact list. It was time to put the team back together.
To be continued…