Tabitha is truly my best friend in the world. If she wasn’t, she wouldn’t be here now watching Monty Python with me for the umpteenth time. She’d be down the road at the dance like the rest of the student body. It doesn’t matter that Russell got too handsy, because she loves dancing and loud music. She would have gone even if everyone else had boycotted, like I’d hoped. But she’s here, watching a movie that stopped being funny to her during middle school and chowing on plain popcorn (because my mother the Philistine doesn’t like buttered popcorn). Absolute BFF.
Ben is downstairs watching some football game with a couple of his band buddies. They aren’t at the Homecoming dance because boys don’t have a reason to go to things like that if they don’t have a date to shell out way too much money on. Every once in a while, I can hear them exclaiming loudly that the ref is blind or something. It’s just noise, really. I don’t really hear it or see the movie playing. I have too much on my mind.
A couple of weeks ago, I would have been ranting to Tabitha about how stupid the dance is while inside I’d really just be more than a little crushed that no one asked me to go with them. That’s me, pretending to be deep and philosophical while inside I’m just as shallow as the rest of them. But now, mundane things like high school politics are just not important. I’m bummed about everything else, I guess. And Tabitha knows I’m bummed because you can’t be BFF’s for as long as we have without picking up on stuff.
I’ve been sitting here the last hour trying to steel my nerves to tell her my secret. Part of me insists that it’s not a big deal and she isn’t going to run screaming from the house when she finds out. And yet I can’t bring myself to start the sentence that could end the only real friendship I have. But if I don’t tell her, I don’t know how I can keep going like this. Peter has been very supportive and helpful, but he’s an old guy and he simply can’t understand what it’s like.
The credits are rolling so I take a deep breath, then another. I have to tell someone and if I can’t tell her, there’s no one else. “Tabitha, I,” but I don’t get to finish. My jerk of a brother bursts in unannounced. “Hey, rude much?” I spit, more angry that he startled me than anything.
“Turn on the news,” he gasps and I realize that his face is red and he’s breathing hard, though it couldn’t be from running up the stairs. Cross country track stars don’t get out of breath over a measly flight of steps. Tabitha and I just sit there so he grabs the remote and flips through the channel until he finds the right station. It takes me a second to recognize what we’re looking at. It’s an aerial view of our school. The woods are pitch black but the whole rest of the building is alit with spot lights and the flashing red and blue lights of emergency vehicles. Whatever the reporter had been saying is cut off by the arrival of Lady Fabulous herself with her side kick. We watch from the helicopter height as the distant, pink-clad figure speaks briskly with one of the police officers. Then she and her side kick are airborne and crashing straight through the main gym doors, causing the doorway to collapse behind them.
“Well that should sort that out, then,” says a voice off camera. Then the picture changes to a pretty brunette woman on the ground positioned so that the broken doors are still visible behind her. “Yes, that should be the end of this hostage situation. Lady Fabulous has entered Hawthorne Senior High School to negotiate with the suspected terrorists who have apparently been holding a gym full of students hostage for the last thirty minutes. Hopefully this will be a happy ending for this harrowing Homecoming evening. Back to you, Bret.”
The scene changes again to a generic newsman at a glass desk who proceeds to assure us that the situation is under control and that the police are asking all family and friends of the students to remain calm. Everything that can be done is being done. Ben drops the remote on the carpeted floor and bolts from my room. In a second, I’m after him, not sure if I’m following to stop him or just to catch up. Before anything like rational thought kicks in, we’re already leaping the back fence and racing along the well-known forest path from our house to the school.
It’s a route I’ve taken a hundred, thousand times in the early fall and late spring, when the weather is pleasant and the days are long enough for the sun to light my way. Now, the path is only dimly lit by a half-moon and the footing is muddy and uncertain from melting snow. The air stings my eyes and burns my lungs but I keep my eyes on the dark form flitting ahead of me. I slip a couple of times on frozen patches of dead leaves and nearly cold-cock myself on a low branch and then I can see the break in the trees that means I’ve reached the practice fields. Ben is waiting at the end of the trail, silent and still.
It only takes a couple of moments to catch my breath and that time is enough for me to get more than a little wary of our surroundings. I can see the distant flashing lights and the beams from the spotlights making me think of a big Hollywood movie premier. Here, though, it’s just the quiet dripping of the forest and the feeling that extreme caution is called for. I start to say something to Ben, I don’t know what, but he shushes me. Twerp. Then he gives me this look which is difficult to translate for non-twins. Basically, it is a “shut up because there’s some serious stuff going on, you should have stayed in the house where you were safe and since you’re here, maybe you should take off those stupid glasses and use your freak power for something useful” kind of look. To emphasize his unspoken point, he points to my glasses, then does the two-fingers-pointed-at-his-eyes universal “Watch” signal and points around the woods. It is tempting to ignore him, it really is. What sister doesn’t relish the opportunity to mess with their little brother, even if she’s only older by a couple of minutes?
I take off my glasses and give them to him to pocket since they won’t fit in any of my pockets. I gaze around at the darkness and See no change so I shake my head at him. He nods and then sets off toward the school by following the tree line. It is a less direct route, but it is also less visible. I follow in his steps, silently thanking God that we’d had such a warm week. The melted snow means that our steps make little noise on the wet leaves. On that thought, I decide to break one of my rules and draw out my necklace. The little wooden fish is comforting in my palm.
As we approach the back of the school, the adrenaline starts to wear off. I feel shaky and my stomach seems to be urgently telling me that the popcorn had been a poor choice. Just breathe through your nose, Bernie. There’s no boogeymen out there wanting to get you. I think these and other not-so-comforting thoughts while I glance furtively at the tall, dark trees. They have never seemed so menacing before and it occurs to me that I am in the middle of the wrong place at the wrong time. What are we doing? We are sneaking up on the secret skip door that has been used for hundreds of students to sneak out for a smoke between classes. In the dark. Alone. Without any plan or weapons or any idea if this is maybe the only escape route for the kidnappers, er, ransomers, um, terrorists (whatever!) and they are headed out this way now with bombs and guns and irradiated lizards and stuff.
Now the dripping trees sound like stealthy footsteps. The large brick wall, covered in ivy that conceals the long forgotten (by the faculty) door, has become a great, lurking beast that is merely waiting for its prey to walk into its open maw. At first, I chide myself for letting my imagination get away with me. Then I recall that Ben’s the one with the over-active imagination. I’m the one that Sees the truth. I can smell the overwhelming odor of old, wet cigarettes, a sure sign that we’ve reached the smoker’s pit. On instinct, I grab Ben’s arm and then try not to laugh when he nearly jumps out of his skin.
“Fuck, Bernie,” he whisper-yells. “You trying to give me a fucking heart attack?” I decide that now was not the time to lecture him about his language.
“What’s the plan?” I had assumed that he had one and judging by what little I can see of his face in the poor light, I’d assumed wrong.
“We go in the back door and see if we can help,” he hisses back after a few seconds of obviously frantic thought. I let him see my incredulity and in response, his face darkens with anger and embarrassment. He hasn’t thought that far ahead. He simply needed to get to the school, just like I did. Now we are at a loss. We both want to go through that door and pull off some kind of daring rescue and we both know it is absolutely ridiculous. The only skill we have that would be of any use is running and that won’t save anybody. And besides, the heroes are already doing the saving. We’ve both seen what happens when civilians try to help super heroes. Bad things, that’s what. “Alright, I don’t know what I’m gonna do, but I can’t just, just do nothing. You may not have any friends in there, freak, but I do.”
It shouldn’t hurt when he says it because he’s been saying stuff like that to me ever since that day and every time I know he doesn’t mean it and that he will get over it. I know it. This time, though, I See him say it and I know his soul, I know that he means every word. I wish I could slap him. I wish I could do something instead of standing there with my mouth half-open like some kind of idiot.
There is a loud bang that interrupts this warm Kodak moment. The rusted old secret door is imbedded in a tree just a few feet from us, still quivering from being thoroughly kicked off its hinges. Out of the dark doorway strides a dark-clad figure with a limp figure in his arms and giant wings protruding from his shoulders. They are so solid-looking that I almost think they are real even when I can See that they aren’t. Ben and I both instinctively crouch down into the shadows.
I know three things quite suddenly about this strange apparition. First, it is definitely the Shield, Lady Fabulous’ reclusive sidekick and the normally white uniform looks so dark because it is drenched in blood. Second, he is a she of about my age, though I can’t precisely say how I know. To all appearances she is masculine in build and costume but it is definitely a female vibe I am getting from my Sight. Third, the limp form is the same girl who had been dying on my couch less than a month ago and she is definitely dead now. Before I have time to relay any of this information to Ben, or at least think about relaying the info and remember that it’s possible I hate his guts and say nothing, another figure exits the doorway. It’s Peter.
“Give her to me,” he says in his usual calm voice, though I think I hear a hint of sadness in his tone. Shield looks at him from behind her blood spattered face mask and wordlessly passes the body over.
“There’s no use,” she says. Her voice, I realize, was being altered to sound lower, probably by the helmet. I hadn’t noticed it when she had been at career day but now I can definitely detect something off about it, something computerized. While Peter lays the body on the ground and does whatever he is doing, I study Shield with new clarity. I can’t tell who she is exactly, though I am certain that if I ever See her out of uniform there will be no mistaking those wings. She is actually the first person I’ve seen with a pair, insubstantial though they may be. I’d read in a book about how there used to be more chimeras in the older days, heroes that had animal attributes like wings or gills or fur. But the Council decided it was too risky for them so they were genetically “fixed.”
Looking at those wings, it occurs to me that even were there still chimeras wandering around, those wings would be unique. They are vast, so vast that they really could bear the weight of a human in flight if they were more than just a shadowy representation of her powers. Mostly, they look like a hybrid of bat and bird wings. From where they attach to her back between her shoulder blades to about a third of the way down the wings, they are covered in fluffy white feathers. The rest of them are dark and leathery. They remind me of a picture I once saw of a pterodactyl evolving into a bird. Staring at them I feel awed and deeply disturbed, though I don’t know why. I’m still working on understanding what truth my Sight is trying to tell me.
I am startled out of my reverie by a great gasp of air. Peter sits back on the hard ground looking exhausted. Joan, who had been dead (I know because that’s what I Saw), is now trying to sit up. Peter wordlessly gathers her up in his arms again and I see his shoulders shaking with what my brother calls, “Nothing, I have something in my eye.” I feel sympathetic tears welling up. “Hey!” Shield shouts suddenly, her face mask pointed right at us. “Who’s up there?”
Ben gives me a dark “don’t you dare” look, but I don’t see a better option. I stand up with my hands visible, certain that Peter will vouch for me and maybe this way we can learn what has happened at the dance. To my utter shock, Shield draws out her foot-long extendable staff from its sheath at her hip, points it directly at me and presses a button that shoots the tip of it seemingly toward my face. It whips passed my head so close that it ruffles my hair, the line it is hooked to whirring with the speed. Then there is a wet thunk close behind me. Another button is pressed and the line retracts at a surprising speed. Something collides into my shoulder as it is dragged forward and knocks me heavily to the ground. The next thing I hear is a heavy grunt and then a sickeningly wet crack.
Ben grabs me and tries to pull me away. I can’t understand what he’s stammering but it is something along the lines of “don’t look.” Which I do, of course. Shield has one knee on the ground amid a dark stain where the head of a man used to be. He had apparently been caught by the grappling line and dragged to the spot where Shield’s knee had easily crushed his head with that noise that guarantees that I will never eat walnuts again. And that certainly would have been quite bad enough, thank you very much, without my Seeing the dark, lizard-like thing that briefly shows itself clawing its way out of the dead man’s back and then evaporating with a silent shriek.
When I come to my senses, I am aware of Peter’s soothing voice calling me back followed by a voice that sounds like me whining that “I only want five more minutes, mommy.” The only reason I decide consciousness is a good idea is that the ground is really cold and wet. Shield is gone and has apparently taken Joan with her. Ben, too, is missing. Peter is just telling me that my dumb brother had decided it was time to find out what was going on in the school when I see said dumby rush back out the back doorway and proceed to vomit all over the cigarette pit. Deciding to ignore the snickering voice in the back of my head that remembers what a jerk he’d been, I manage to find my feet again and head over to find out what his deal is.
“What is it? Did you find the secret porn room?” I ask snidely, still a little giddy from my episode. The back of the school is a labyrinth of incomplete classrooms leftover from when the school district had the money to expand the over-crowded school. Or, at least, they thought they’d had the money. Something happened (i.e. someone decided to siphon the money off into a bigger football stadium) all those years ago and the construction was never completed. They’d had enough money to finish the exterior and to seal off the dangerous parts from the rest of the school, though inquisitive and power tool happy students had reopened the area. That’s why the back door is the chief escape route for delinquent students. The faculty is under the impression that that section of the school is safely sealed away. The door itself, concealed behind all that ivy, is impossible to find if you don’t already know where it is and the nearness of the woods makes it an ideal place to sneak away. A couple of the more complete rooms have been given over completely to special purposes, like the secret porn room. It is a way for students to thumb their noses at “The Man.” I have never seen most of those rooms because I am not a delinquent student but I have heard enough to know that they aren’t something I want to see anyway. I wonder what the smokers are going to do about the broken door.
Ben doesn’t reply to my half-hearted gibe, unless you call blowing chunks a reply. Normally, I would have tried to comfort him. For some reason, I can’t think why, I have no inclination to do so. I am now very aware that Peter is hovering between me and the, the body, probably hoping to shield me from what made me pass out. I decide to give in to the sudden urge to increase the distance between me and that, um, thing and run through my only escape route: the gaping back doorway. I know. Very dumb. Teenage girl runs from newly danger-free area into the dark, maze-like confines of a creepy building alone. Part of me must be thinking that it would be safe because Lady Fabulous is at the end of this maze. A lot of me isn’t thinking at all beyond getting away from that horrific sight outside and finding out what has brought us here in the first place.
The back route is dark but short and I am soon sprinting quietly through the familiar hallways dimly lit by emergency lighting and exit signs. It is enough to see where I am going. It’s weird seeing the school like this. It’s dark and cool, peaceful even, not the normal hustle and stress I always see it as during the day. In no time at all I am at the door to the gym and out of pure habit I yank the door open and step inside.