The ground is trembling beneath me from stampeding feet. I can feel the burning sun on my back, taste the sand coating my mouth. Why the hell am I on the ground?
Someone with large, spidery hands lifts me bodily from the hot cement sidewalk. The bright whiteness of sunlight blinds me, but someone grabs my hand and pulls me along. There’s an explosion somewhere behind me. It shivers up my legs and I clench my jaw to stop my chattering teeth.
Wind whips up the sand, which subverts all attempts at temporizing the climate, painting the palm trees and false green grass in a uniform of beige. My eyes, gradually adjusting to the brightness, feel gritty like sandpaper, my lungs heavy as they try to suck in the dry, thick air. The figure dragging me forward is male, tall, dark clad in a black leather jacket and heavy denim jeans. He is completely out of place among the neon natives who bombard me on either side, running frantically away from the explosion wearing baggy khakis and aloha shirts, cheap flip-flops slipping on bits of rubble and broken glass. Their mouths gape open in screams, teeth artificially whitened and gleaming in orange-tan faces.
Why are we running? I try to focus on their mouths, see what they’re yelling, but it’s too jumbled and confusing. Too bright, too dusty, too many conflicting, jarring motions. Focus. Focus. Focus on the pulse beating against my sweaty palm. Where is he taking me? I try to look up ahead, but the teeming crowd makes that all but impossible. All I see ahead besides the other shopping center stores is a navy blue port-a-john, one of those they set up around the holidays to alleviate the over-crowded bathrooms.
I trip on a fallen shop sign and land heavily, scraping the skin off my palms and bruising my right knee. Pain zips up the metal spike that replaced my hip after that car accident years ago. I feel my vocal chords vibrate gratingly in my throat. Tears spring forth unbidden as the friction burn sears my hands and the tinny ache spikes up my leg. I try to cough up the sand and hurt. Then the man is before my face, trying to get me up while legs buffet us on all sides. I don’t know if I can get up at this point. I look up through curtains of graying auburn hair into an awkward, pale face that gives me the overall impression of a large nose and Dumbo ears. I stare at his mouth, watch the word form on his lips. “Run!” The emphasis is clear by his wide blue eyes and eyebrows nearly reaching his grazing of blonde hair.
I shake my head, using one hand to explain my hip, my age. I can’t just run away. I’m too old and broken and I have to take care of Justin. Justin!
My heart contracts in my chest and I look around wildly for my son. Ignoring my stupid hip, I scramble to my sore feet. I struggle to push people aside, but they ignore me. I try to see over their heads by hopping, feeling ridiculous and frustrated. Belatedly, I recall the whistle habitually kept about my neck, which is gone now, of course. Lost when I fell, presumably. Just my rotten luck.
That large hand grabs mine again and tries to drag me back with the flow of the crowd. I forcefully jerk myself free. Without a backward glance at the stranger, I plunge against the stream, hoping it thins before they trample my brittle bones.
13 Years Earlier –
I stare at the pamphlet in my hand. It is glossy, smooth, filled with pictures of healthy, happy people. My aunt Rose has a bone thin arm draped around my thick shoulders. When the doctor comes in, he speaks to her. I watch his mouth, missing much in his mumbles, obscured by his gray beard. I wish he would look at me directly, yet the thought of those clinical glasses describing my son’s affliction as though explaining how a VCR works makes my fingers itch.
I look down at the pamphlet again, glazing over the long medical words, seeing only smiling, chubby faces. Will my little boy ever stop screaming at me long enough to smile like that?
By the time the doctor is done prattling, the plastic office chair has numbed half of my butt. I feel a change in the air at my back, so turn to see my raspberry-faced son being guided through the office door by a nurse in Ninja Turtle scrubs. His skin is blotchy, probably from a fit, he has so many now for the slightest reasons. His cheeks are wet and his ginger hair is a tousled mess. He looks normal, for him, a calm zone between violent tantrums, except his vibrant emerald eyes are dull, staring without focusing, and his jaw is slack, allowing a small string of toddler drool to escape between his plump, pink lips.
“Why is he like that?” I ask Rose, drawing her attention away from the doctor. She relays my question and the obdurate old man plunks a bottle of pills down at the edge of his desk, not even bothering to stand up. Rose grabs them and passes them to me, while he blathers on. The little blue pills have a long, complicated name, nothing I recognize. I roll the bottle to the list of side-effects, feeling the pills rattle and click through the thick plastic. The side-effects read like a roll call of everything one might go to the doctor to have alleviated: nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, depression, muscle spasms, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, confusion, diarrhea, and, based on his face now, a tendency to turn into some kind of mindless zombie. I squirm in my seat as I take in the consequences of making my son less volatile.
I control the urge to fling the offensive bottle at the doctor’s head, only by gripping it in my hand until my fingers hurt. I redirect my anger into shoving the pills into my purse and getting Rose’s attention again. When I ask her my last question, she shakes her head, wrinkled eyes wide and eyebrows contracted. I slam my fist on my open palm hard enough to bruise and ask her again. “Is this my fault?” My fingers are shaking, the tendons standing out against my freckled skin.
She turns back to the doctor and asks him. I can’t read his expression. The bastard has learned to hide behind a mask of unconcerned professionalism. This time, I catch his response. “We don’t know what causes this condition, so there is no way to be sure where fault can be placed.” Bull shit. Trembling with rage and hurt and fear, I clumsily wrench my purse from under the chair, knocking over a few medical diagrams on a small table behind me. It isn’t until I have the thin, black, pleather strap over my head and resting on my shoulder that I see that Rose is still seated and the doctor is motioning for me to sit again, like a dog. The air moves again and I glance back to see who has entered the office.
By hugging the faux-brick walls that give the shopping center the appearance of an old-fashioned Main Street I make progress through the herd, which thankfully thins out long before I regain the square. I bustle along, checking shop windows, many of which are inexplicably broken. I will not cry, I will not. I venture into a few likely stores, hoping that he is waiting for me to save him. Even with an impending emotional breakdown clamping onto my chest, I have the presence of mind to snatch a cheap plastic whistle from a dollar bin. It’s transparent, neon yellow and feels flimsy compared to my stainless-steel, monogrammed version, lost forever now. No time to mourn for that when Justin might need me. I take a deep breath and fill the whistle, the rattle fluttering against the sides. He doesn’t come running so I keep moving, conscientiously leaving a dollar on the store counter as I leave.
13 Years Earlier –
The new arrival has shoulders wider than I am tall. He has to duck his head under the top of the door. He is wearing a leaden suit with a silk, onyx tie bearing a crossed shepherd’s crook and a flail stitched in fine gold thread. The royal blue domino mask that obscures part of his dark-tanned face is all the confirmation I need. He is the super hero known as Osiris, now retired. I can’t imagine why he is here, but my fingers twitch and I suddenly regret not taking one of the doctor’s proffered lollipops.
I snatch Justin from the nurse’s custody and draw him onto my lap when I sit. He comes docilely, which makes me clench my teeth. The weight of him in my lap is still surprising, only three and he’s almost too big for me. Osiris steps passed the chairs and around the desk, patting the doctor’s shoulder, who immediately relinquishes his plush office chair to the hero. Osiris smiles, perfect white teeth seeming to glow in his dark face, and sits. He then adopts a serious demeanor, placing his forearms on the desk while clasping his hands and dropping all memory of a smile from his leathery visage.
He looks directly at me and begins speaking, pronouncing every word carefully so I can catch it. “Ms. Isfet, I understand that this is a difficult time for you.”
I manage not to snort in derision, but only because his dark eyes are drilling into me.
“As you know, it is the policy of this medical facility to send blood samples to the Council to check for signs of potential genetic markers.”
I didn’t know. Justin lets out a squeak and I’m aware of how tightly I’m suddenly holding him. Potential genetic markers? They can test for super powers with blood samples?
“The Council has sent me over to discuss your options.”
Rose puts an arm around me again and it takes all my will power not to shake her off and run for the door with Justin in tow. Instead, I clasp my hands tightly together around Justin’s pudgy stomach and focus on his warmth and his little heartbeat. Mom always used her heartbeat to calm me when I was a child and long after her death it is still one of the few things that can help me focus.
Osiris tells me that Justin has the potential to develop powers of an undefined nature someday, probably in adolescence. The Council has no way of knowing if or when his powers will manifest, no more than they can tell what kind of powers they might be.
He says that in all likelihood, it will be something minor, like being good with animals or having exceptional skill with specific types of rough materials. Nothing dangerous, really. Real super powers are very rare.
He says if Justin develops strong or dangerous powers, the Council will take over his upbringing, training him to control his abilities. At least, that is what they’d do with a normal child. Justin isn’t normal. Justin has a condition that makes him violent and unpredictable. He may never develop the mental capacity to control his powers without heavy medication.
Tears leak down my cheeks because I know where this is going. They want to take him away, to put a collar on him so that his powers can’t manifest, just like they do with super villains. I stop looking at his face and plant my face in the meaty shoulder of my little boy so I don’t have to see him say they don’t trust me to be able to handle him if something happens. Justin, bless his heart, doesn’t pull away from the wetness of my tears or my shuddering gasps. Rose just grips my shoulder tighter, her fragile fingers pressing support into me.
When I lift up my face, I know they are waiting for my response. I can’t unclench my hands, can barely stay on my chair. I ignore the memory of mocking brothers and speak out loud, “I need time.” Osiris, to his credit, does not react to how strange my voice must sound. He just nods, fluorescent light reflecting off his smooth, bald scalp. I stare at the bowl of lollipops mocking me from the corner of the desk. If you relax your hands, you can snatch one so that everyone can see what a big baby you are. Shut up, shut up.
I do manage to relax my hands and let Justin slump to the floor. Then I stand and nod to Rose. She’ll get all the pertinent information. It’s why she’s here, to speak for me, to help me deal with everything. She still thinks of me as the thirteen-year-old girl she took in when her sister finally succumbed to that brain tumor. But that girl is from thirteen years ago, before she fell in love with a wolf who took everything from her and gave her Justin and an A- for her sacrifice.
I gather Justin up from the floor and lead him out of the office, blood pumping in my ears uncomfortably. My smile is wan and forced as I pass nurses’ stations and security guards. Out the automatic front doors and into the brisk chill of autumn. The air gives me pause, the scents of damp earth and car exhaust mingle with the pervasive antiseptic hospital smell that has followed us out the door. I pull my scarf closer around my throat against the breeze and notice a nondescript beige sedan parked in the queue of other cars waiting to drop-off or pick-up patients. There are two people inside, both wearing masks, completely negating the anonymity of the vehicle. I squeeze the tiny, thick hand in my power and cross the drop-off lane to get to the main parking lot, leaves dancing around our feet.
My car, a yellow station wagon from 1985 complete with wooden paneling down the side, takes a few tries to rumble to life. The plastic steering wheel receives a grateful pat for faithful service. Justin is slouched in his toddler seat, staring blankly out the window at nothing at all. He isn’t pointing out the birds or the scarlet leaves of the giant maple just over the parking lot fence. He isn’t struggling against the constraints of the seat straps or crying for a snack. He isn’t kicking the bejeezus out of the back of the passenger seat. I watch him do nothing for a second in the rearview mirror. Then I pull out my phone and send Rose a text. “I’ll see you at home. Must pack.” Then I carefully pull out of the hospital parking lot and drive away. We don’t stop driving for three thousand miles.
The fall has slowed me down. I usually favor my left side because of my hip, but my right knee is badly swollen and becoming stiffer with each labored step. I feel more and more like a penguin wobbling along the fake cobblestone street.
I don’t know why I keep looking in the shops. He hasn’t answered my whistle. I know where he is, I knew the moment I realized he wasn’t right next to me.
There is a large statue commemorating some great super hero in the center of the square, glowering down at shoppers as a not-so-subtle reminder that shoplifters will be prosecuted. There’s always something like that in these places. Superstition follows that having an icon of the hero will magically protect the market from villains, like magic water will protect babies from evil spirits or some other nonsense. When I told Justin to stay by the statue while I went to buy his solstice gift, he readily agreed. He loves super heroes. It was years before he would leave the house without his own cape tied about his rounded shoulders. He gave the cape up for good when he started high school and no powers manifested. He was heartbroken. I was relieved. Maybe my bad luck wouldn’t ruin his life, too.
There’s a lot of black smoke circling the caped effigy, which appears to be shorter than I remember it. Ah, the head is lying several feet away in an ornamental koi pond. The oily smoke insinuates itself into my nostrils and down my throat causing a coughing fit that ends in tears. A blessed gust of desert wind sweeps through the square and clears the smoke enough for me to see my boy standing with his back to me on the other side of the statue. His white shirt is smudged with black streaks, but he’s standing so he must be okay.
As I circle around the square to come at him from the side, I am aware that Justin is shaking, the muscles in his gorilla arms are tensed to the point of the veins popping out of his sun-burned flesh. Then I see his face. His eyes are bulging, mouth wide, but teeth clamped together in a rictus grimace. There is a thin trickle of red coming from his nose. I can see every tendon in his bull neck standing out like a collar made of Twizzlers. Then I spot the two nearly invisible wires stuck to his broad chest and leading to a Taser gun in the hands of a super hero ten feet away.
The only thing that saves my life is that the hero, a grown man dressed as a Gila monster with his cape taking the place of the striped tail, isn’t expecting a short, fat, crippled, old woman to make a run at him like a linebacker. I catch him in his midriff, nearly dislocating my shoulder on his steely abs. He loses his balance on the lone survivor of the smoking Shoe Fiesta store, a spike-heeled maroon stiletto, and falls heavily with an ominous jolt when his unguarded skull smacks against the pavement.
With 50,000 volts no longer shooting through his body, Justin collapses to his knees, and then to his hands and knees. When I reach him, he’s still breathing heavily and wiping the blood from his face with the back of his size-of-my-face hand. “Are you okay?” I ask when he looks at me, fingers almost too adrenaline-jazzed to make out the signs. He shakes his head, looking around the ruined square with a dazed expression. The Shoe Fiesta took the brunt of whatever happened. Taking in the burned stripes on the buildings and sidewalks, the broken windows, his eyes fill with tears. It’s not that bad, I think. It’s okay.
Oh, but it’s not okay, is it. The whites are visible all around his emerald irises. His plump cheeks are flushed and his mouth is gaping as though he’s a fish out of water struggling to breath. Tears stream down his face and he can’t seem to stop scanning the damage. He’s looking for bodies. He’s realizing he could have hurt someone. This was the first violent fit he’s had in nearly a year. We thought he was finally getting control over his condition. But something must have set him off here, a rude shopper, a loud noise, and his power decided to manifest at that moment. I can see his mouth working like he wants to say something. He swallows and tries again. But sobs come out instead and he can’t speak through them. He signs to me instead, hands moving slowly as he carefully spells out every word. “I didn’t mean to.” Even on his knees his face is almost level with mine. I can see pain in every wrinkle of his brow. With both hands on his warm cheeks, I force his gaze to settle on mine. Focus. We breathe together, big breath in, big breath out. Repeat. His pinprick pupils grow larger and the panic recedes from his face.
“My fault,” I say out loud, so he knows I’m serious. “I left you. My fault.” His breathing deepens and he looks about to argue when his head suddenly jerks upright and he looks around wildly.
When I question him, he says, “Sirens.” He’s still scared, I can feel it in his quickened pulse, but he can speak again and is back in control of his emotions.
Shit. Shit, shit, shit, double shit, shit. I look around. The parking lot with our car, his car since he passed his driver’s test, is nearby. “If we start running now, we might look like all the other people running from the explosion.” I remind myself to slow down my hands so he can catch everything I’m saying. Then his one hand engulfs both of mine, essentially shutting me up. I look back and see the muscles in his face relax. He gives me a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes and shakes his head, then wraps me in a hug made of titanium with an ear flattened against my sternum, listening to my heartbeat. Because it makes him calm. My little boy is braver than I am, willing to face the consequences. I wrap my arms around his globe of a skull and run my fingers over his peach-fuzz hair. I want to argue with him. To drag him away from here to someplace where he’ll be safe. My scrutiny falls on the decapitated statue. Where would he ever be safe from himself, stupid?
When the police enter the square, they are led by three formidable heroes, their capes tangled by the gusty winds. One breaks off to check on the Gila-guy, who stirs soon after. The other two approach us, me standing guard before my little boy with my back pressed against his round stomach. The heroes look beyond me to the behemoth I raised. Justin’s chest vibrates as he addresses the heroes, then he places a gentle hand on my shoulder, and pushes me aside so he can walk into captivity. I watch them clasp a pencil-thin iron collar around his throat and take him away from me without a second glance. Then I fall painfully to my knees and squeeze my right wrist until I can feel my heartbeat throbbing through my palm.