The smell of milk spilled, spoiled, and waxed forever into the linoleum floor–the grocery store smell–hit me square in the nose as I opened the cooler doors to turn each container of butter to face the glass. A four-note jingle from the front of the store meant a customer, strange for the late hour, but since it was just me and the night manager back in the office doing paperwork, or maybe sleeping, I abandoned my neatening in the dairy and rushed back to my register.
Halfway there I saw him, not a customer after all, but instead a hottie with a sly look on his face and a secret only I knew. I bit my lip so he wouldn’t see me smile and with effort slowed my pace. It was early for Levi, my boyfriend–I was pretty sure I could call him that–to have finished hanging out with his friends and show up here to loiter. Most of the shift was ahead of me.
“Excuse me miss, can you tell me where to find the hot chicks?” And he laughed adorably at his own terrible joke.
“Hot sauce is on aisle two, poultry’s past the dairy.” I answered and was rewarded by a chuckle. I took up the spot on the fatigue mat behind my register, mostly to keep the pretense if my manager decided to notice me.
“What are you doing here already? I’ve got hours left.”
“I was bored. Kinda hoping you would call in.”
I rolled my eyes elaborately. “Hard to call in when I’m already here. You should sleep. I hear it’s what people do at night.”
“I’ll sleep tomorrow afternoon when a certain brunette is available for cuddles.” He leaned over my counter and held his palm out for my hand. I smiled at the little tinge of excitement from my skin on his.
He admitted, more seriously, “I missed you.”
“I left your house two hours ago.”
He toyed with the chunky costume jewelry on my wrist. “Way too long. Come over again tonight? Tomorrow? Whatever.”
“My parents are going to make me move out if I don’t start showing up for family dinner every once in a while.”
He grunted noncommittally and brushed his fingertips over the enamel beads at my wrist, feather light. The air around my wrist distorted, an odd wobble, and one by one the beads changed from green to a deep red. Like a rose bud matured but not quite blossoming.
I gasped and clutched my other hand over the beads, tossing a glance over my shoulder, down the check-out aisle, though of course I knew no one would be there.
He straightened, stuffing his hand into his pocket, and looked at me from under his eyebrows unable to hide his grin and unsure if he ought to try.
My grin mirrored his, conspiratorially, and I said in an unnecessarily hushed voice, “Levi! There are security cameras. What if someone saw?”
His smile grew wider, toothy, and my heart skip-hopped across the inside of my rib cage. He was so beautiful when he really smiled. “They’ll never see. No one comes in here at this hour. It’s like a museum of a grocery store. I don’t know how you stand it. The only way anyone will find out is if you told them and I know you won’t.”
I turned to organizing the gum rack above my register so that he wouldn’t see my satisfaction. No, I wouldn’t be the one to rat him out.
Levi rarely used his super powers and almost never in public. He couldn’t afford the registration fees to sign up with the Conference and he didn’t want to get caught as an unlicensed super. I hadn’t even known that he had powers when we first started dating. I could tell he really cared about me the night he confessed that he had a third-tier illusion ability that could sometimes become permanent.
No one knew, not even his friends, and not just because he was avoiding the Conference. He was shy about it. About having an ability that wasn’t ever going to save the world. He only ever used his power around me. To make me smile.
He hauled himself up to sit cross-legged on the counter facing my register.
“You’re going to get me fired.”
He snorted, “What a tragedy that would be.”
“Hey!” I affected a hurt-tone to hide the real pang I felt at his dismissal. This was the job I’d managed to hold down the longest without screwing it up. So far I had managed to stay awake through every shift, despite the less than stimulating work conditions. And, even better, I had never fainted despite being on my feet all night.
“Seriously, Sam,” and he tilted his head to stare at me in that way that made me forget to breathe, like he was seeing more to me than was really there, “you can’t tell me that this place makes you happy.”
“It’s got seven different types of cheese whiz, what’s not to love?”
“Ha. Ha. No, I mean it. You can’t do this forever.”
“Do what?” I made to restack the gum rack yet again and managed to somehow knock an entire row onto the floor. Typical Sam. I bent to clean the mess.
He plucked the wire gum wrack out of my hand when I straightened. “You can’t hide here like you don’t deserve something better.”
I swallowed hard. That was the thing wasn’t it? “Maybe I don’t?”
It’s not something I could say to my parents or even my sister, Olivia. It wasn’t right to force them into the position of defending me when they were the ones most hurt when I dropped out of University. When it turned out all that high school potential was so much fluff.
That was before I met Levi. He wouldn’t get it. I forced a false smile and a false voice and held out my hand. “Unless you’re planning to make a purchase, sir, I’m going to have to ask for that gum back.”
He slid off the counter, down to my side, forcing me back a step. He caught my wrist to stop my retreat and pulled me in close. Wrapped both arms tight around my shoulders.
I was so overwhelmed by the gesture that my vision went blurry, my head light, it was hard to breathe.
He whispered in my ear, “What do you want, Sam?”
Through the fog of my emotions all I could think to say was, “This.”
I had taken to pressing ignore on my parent’s incoming phone calls years ago, they were easier to appease in person, but I always answered when the number was my sister Olivia. It was kind of a pact we had. Even when one of us couldn’t stomach talking to the family at large, we could rely on each other for mediation. So of course I answered. Especially today.
I braced myself and added a false nonchalance to my voice. “What’s up?”
“Samantha. Your mother just called me, hysterical.”
She always did that like it was cute. When she was annoyed with her kids they were “my” niece and nephew. When she was annoyed with me, dad was granted ownership of “his” daughter. Like she could add another layer between herself and the offending relation.
Mom over-reacting was the bread and butter of our family gossip, so far we were on pace. “Yes,” I said, “She does that.”
“Okay, but are you going somewhere?”
I leaned against the sill of the apartment’s one window and looked out at the street below. The sun was shining on bright green and striped yellow awnings over the shops across the way. Some neighborhood kids on the north corner were deeply engrossed in a game of hopscotch. On the opposite corner from my new apartment the dinner rush was hitting the diner. People were coming and going about their merry lives. I took a deep breath. Plunged off the cliff. “I moved out.”
A pause. “You can afford to move out on your part-time check? Did you get more hours? Do you think you’ll be able to,” she paused searching for a diplomatic way to call me useless before settling on, “handle that?”
I glared at my own reflection in the window. A child’s sticker of the Laudable Ladybug that a previous tenant had stuck in the bottom corner mocked me with its perpetual grin and I wondered idly if Ladybug was the cape for this borough. “I quit actually.”
“But then how. . . ?”
“Levi asked me to move in with him.”
“Wait. Who–The new guy? But you just met. And now you’re moving in together?”
I rolled my eyes from the safety of my phone, where she couldn’t see. Everything was easy for her. She’d married her high school sweetheart. Gone to college on scholarship. Had a pair of perfectly healthy boy/girl twins. She didn’t know what it was like to try and live up to that in our family’s eyes.
“If you’re going to freak out about this, I’m hanging up.”
“I’m not freaking out. I want to make sure you’re safe.”
I ground my teeth against a snarky remark. Why wouldn’t I be safe? Why did she have to assume that me doing something normal and grown-up was dangerous just because I was the one doing it?
“When are you moving? I’ll come help.”
“Yeah. About that. We’re already moved.”
Her voice hiked up an octave and I flinched, “What? You didn’t tell me? Where are you?”
I scrunched up my face and asked more than answered, “Nevils Borough?”
“Where? Nevils–Sam, the city? That’s a three-hour drive from here and you don’t have a car. How could you do that without telling me? How could you just quit your job and leave? No wonder mom is calling me.”
My fingertips bit into the sharp edge of the smartphone my parents had gotten me two Christmases ago. “If I’m old enough to vote I’m old enough to move out without getting your permission.”
She breathed a perfect replica of my dad’s long-suffering sigh into the phone. “This is just so . . . Irresponsible.”
I actually growled at her. “Look. You don’t have to like it. I’m tired of you and mom and dad and every extended family member watching me; waiting to see how I’ll find a new way to fail.”
“No one is–”
“I moved out. I have a boyfriend. I’m happy. Can’t you be happy for me?”
“I just don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Noted. Hanging up now.”
I tapped the big red X on my phone’s display and thumbed the switch on the side to turn the ringer off. There, I had told someone. And she had acted exactly like I knew she would–exactly like Levi warned me they would. It was done and it was fine. Fine. It was fine.
I stomped to the meager pile of boxes from Levi’s last apartment and tore into the one on top, dumping its contents on the small table we’d found at a thrift shop with mismatched chairs. Swatted at my frazzled hair then huffed and yanked it into a pony tail. Unpacked a box from the room at my parent’s house I’d been forced back into when Freshman year of college crashed and burned. I slammed each book or knickknack on the kitchen counter, one by one, enjoying the loud thud every time.
Soon there were no more boxes and all of our stuff was . . . kind of everywhere. I stood with my hands on my hips trying to decide where to start, when Levi walked through the front door, home from his new job; the reason we’d picked Nevils instead of somewhere closer to home.
I was still too angry to conjure up much of a smile, but I tried. It wasn’t his fault. “How was work?”
“Fine. Long. I’m starving.” He cast an amused look at the table and kitchen counter covered in junk. How were we supposed to make dinner if I’d buried the kitchen?
I rubbed both hands over my face, hiding. “I’m sorry.”
I felt him move into my space. Rest a hand on either of my shoulders. His voice carried a hint of laughter that made my cheeks flush hot with embarrassment. “We’ll just . . . Eat sandwiches.”
“Did something happen?”
I shook my head. “Just having a bad hair day.”
He peeled my hands away from my face so that I had to look at him. “You know you’re a terrible liar?”
“My sister called. Freaked out. And my parents keep calling. I just want some space, is that so much to ask?”
He nodded thoughtfully playing with a wispy curl of my hair that had broken free of the ponytail. “That does sound frustrating.”
“They’re going to make me go home and talk to them all in person. It’s impossible to get them to listen over the phone.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “We can take a train when I get paid at the end of the week, but . . .”
“I don’t think it will solve anything.”
I toyed with the hem of his shirt. “You don’t?”
“No. They don’t like me. They don’t respect you. And I hate seeing you like this. You’re going to be depressed for days afterward.”
“I can’t avoid them forever.”
He was focused on the strand of my hair wrapped around his finger. “Why not? If they’re going to treat you like this, why even bother?”
“They’re my family.”
“Only if you decide you want them to be.”
I quirked an eyebrow. “They pay for my cell phone.”
“If you’re only still speaking to them because they pay your bills, you’re not speaking to them for the right reasons. I don’t want you put in that position. I’ll get you a phone if that’s all it takes to make their drama go away.”
“Can we afford that?”
He looked to me then, a little hurt. “If it’s important to you, I’ll make it work.”
I felt a little guilty for mentioning money when it embarrassed him. Said firmly, “You’re the best.”
He smirked mischievously, “You want to see me solve a real problem?”
I couldn’t help but be infected by his smile. “Okay?”
Levi carefully tugged on the ponytail holder and discarded it on the table. Combed his fingers through my thick, tangled locks of dark hair. Squinted in concentration, his lips parting, his brow creasing. I breathed in his scent. Considered leaning in to steal a kiss, but he was so intent on his task that I didn’t want to surprise him.
There was a tremor in my peripheral vision, like the warped air off banked coals. I recognized the trick of the light–his superpower in action. At last he smiled in satisfaction and took a step back. “There. Now you’re perfect.”
I wondered if he was making fun of me. If he’d woven some illusion of tangled hair or some silly style, but when I reached up to feel my familiar curls, they were gone. In their place was a shock of arrow straight hair, longer now that the coils had unfurled. My eyes grew wide, and he took my surprise for excitement. Gestured grandly for me to take a look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror.
The room was too small for him to follow me in so he didn’t see my mouth hang open. See my hands tremble as they hovered over the change. See me tear up.
“Well, what do you think?”
I took a deep, steadying breath. I was just tired from unpacking and arguing with Olivia. It would probably wash out, anyway, right? Levi’s powers didn’t always stick, he was still learning to make his illusions permanent. And nothing I’d ever done to straighten my curls lasted forever. I had always whined about my hair, wanted something sleeker, sexier. But now it all seemed so flat. Unfamiliar. “It looks,” I fumbled, “better than any salon treatment I’ve ever tried.”
“You don’t like it.”
I ducked back into the main room. Levi was standing with his hands shoved in his pockets. His fair skin flushed red along his sharp cheekbones and the high ridge of his nose.
God I was an ass. I knew he was sensitive about his low-rate powers and I never wanted him to feel like a freak, but here I was complaining that he had given me what I’d always asked for. Besides, I didn’t even really understand how to put into words why I was upset.
I forced a smile on my face and crossed the small space to wrap my arms around his chest, to squeeze his ribs too tightly. “It’s amazing.”
“Really?” He sounded so relieved.
I unburied my face to look up at him and this time it wasn’t so hard to put on a smile. “Really.”
I was wearing a hole through the thin carpets. The apartment was unpacked, arranged, rearranged, and spotless. Levi was at his warehouse job pretty much every day. He was even taking a few inventory nightshifts per month to earn a little extra. Those were the worst. He always came home dead tired at the break of dawn. He’d slump into the bed and wrap around me like a vine clinging to a trellis. Like I was the last thing that held him upright. We’d both sleep all day. Still there wasn’t much cash to go around. He had to keep every cent accounted for or else we wouldn’t have enough to make rent.
I had pitched getting a job more than once, Nevil’s Borough had it’s share of retail places and that was the entirety of my skill level. It seemed to embarrass him every time I brought it up so I always ended up dropping the subject.
But damn it was boring being home all day.
There were vocational training sign-ups at the library for some little certificate programs at a college in Meilanville, one borough south. I’d seen the fliers when we went grocery shopping and was still working up the nerve to ask if Levi thought I should take a few applications home. I didn’t want him to think he wasn’t doing a good job taking care of us. And I didn’t exactly have a good track record with college. But new town, no friends, no job, maybe it would work out this time. Maybe if I started with something small.
There was a diner on the corner across the street from the apartment and I had been collecting loose change for a week. He wouldn’t be home for lunch for another couple hours. A cup of coffee. Some time outside the apartment. He’d never know. And I could use the break.
My heart rate picked up as I stepped outside on the sidewalk. It was so silly. Like sneaking out of my parent’s house. I should just talk to him about showing me how to get around Nevils. It was a small district in a huge city and he’d warned me that it would be easy to wander outside of it to someplace more dangerous, get lost. But I had to learn my way around. I wasn’t a child. I could handle it.
A cowbell tied to the glass pane door rang as I entered and sighed in the smell of greasy bacon and waffles. A brunette waitress, her fair cheeks rosy from the kitchen’s heat, called for me to take any seat and she’d be right by. I slid into a booth by the window so I could people watch.
The waitress appeared by my table offering me a smile and a coffee pot, each well-worn and inviting.
“Just coffee please.”
She produced a coffee cup and said, “Let me know if you change your mind.”
A TV mounted on the wall over the dessert counter was turned to the local news. A couple boroughs over some Jerry’s Jessamy Jewelers had been robbed. The police were going to turn it over to the Conference for the capes to deal with. A reporter interviewed an older gentleman, presumably Jerry, in front of an Old Town brick and mortar storefront that was blasted open. The glass and some of the masonry had melted in a ripple of purple and silver scorch marks. No established super had taken credit yet.
The cowbell rang again and my eyes snapped to the door. For a split second, even though I knew it was completely irrational, I thought it was Levi. That he was looking for me. That he was angry.
The man who entered wasn’t Levi. He was tall and square-shouldered with short-cropped hair and rust brown skin. The waitress didn’t call to him from behind the counter like she had to me, but the affectionate look they shared removed any doubt that they knew each other. She drew near before saying, “If you have time, I’ll clock out for lunch.”
His handsome smile curved up playfully and he said low, so only someone watching would notice, “I’ve got nowhere else to be, Remy.”
The waitress shot him a look, but it was all mirth. Her name tag said Clare. Was it a shared joke? His pet name for her?
I don’t know why, but in that moment, I imaged it was me and Levi. That he would ever look at me the way this man looked at the waitress. There was something they had, something I couldn’t put my finger on, that we were missing.
Maybe it was that the waitress could take a joke. He was teasing her, sure, but the waitress didn’t slump her shoulders or duck her head or flush in hot embarrassment like I did when Levi said I was clumsy. No, the waitress smiled. Raised an eyebrow. Sauntered away like she might decide to have better things to do and not to come have lunch with him after all.
I sighed. They looked a few years older than Olivia. Maybe it just took time.
I sipped my coffee. Watched the little dramas unfold on the street. Drank too many cups and had to switch to decaf. Until my phone buzzed angrily against the table.
I had programmed a few contacts in when Levi bought me the phone, but only he had my new number. I had meant to give it out to my sister and a few friends, but he was worried it would eventually get back to my parents. That they would be calling at all hours and upsetting me when he wasn’t home.
“Where are you?” Were his first words. He was angry.
“I’m just down at that diner on the corner havin–”
“What are you doing?”
“I was just–”
He breathed a heavy sigh into the phone and whatever excuse I had been about to produce lodged in my throat. “I was worried about you. I came home and the lights were off and I didn’t know where you were.”
I bit my lip. Felt like everyone was watching me, but when I glanced around, everyone was going about their business except for the waitress’s boyfriend. He was sipping his coffee, but he watched me from over the rim of his mug, his brow creased ever so slightly.
My face burned. I hated making a scene. I whispered into the phone, “I didn’t know you were coming home early for lunch.”
His voice was louder now, on the edge of screaming, “Why are you whispering. Are you there with someone else?”
My voice broke, how could he think that? “Of course not.”
“Why else would you be sneaking away when you think I won’t be home?”
“I’m not with anyone. I love you. I’ll—I’ll come right home.” I wedged the phone between my cheek and shoulder, fumbled the change onto table, heading for the door.
“I don’t believe you. If you’re going to cheat on me at least tell me to my face.”
“I’m on way back right now. It’s just across the street.”
Silence. He’d hung up on me.
When I opened the door to our apartment, I braced myself, head down, shoulders hunched. I wondered how loud we were going to get and I thought of our neighbors. The walls were so paper-thin, everyone would hear.
He waited in the tiny kitchenette opposite the front door. Leaning against the sink. Arms crossed over his chest in tee shirt and jeans. His long muscles were tight, strained, like it took all his effort to hold himself together. His pretty blue eyes were liquid. When he spoke, his voice wavered, “Come to get your things?”
My mouth hung open.
He uncrossed his arms and I saw that his hands were shaking. He turned his face away from me just as the anger there melted into grief. Ducked his head like he could hide from me. Like I wouldn’t see how upset he was.
“Levi,” I said, “I wasn’t with anyone.” I flung the door closed as I crossed to him. Tentatively touched his shoulder. He looked at me like it was too much to hope. Searching my face. His lips twisted like he might reply, but he didn’t say anything. I carefully wrapped him in a hug.
It was a moment before his arms encircled me. Before he sighed and relaxed at my touch. He said, the fire all gone out of his voice, “You weren’t home.”
“I thought something had happened to you. I thought your parents had found us and taken you. Or someone had broken in or something. I was afraid you were lost and alone somewhere in the city.”
I shifted to look up at him, to rest my chin on his chest. “I’m twenty. My parents can’t take me anywhere.”
“They’re your parents and I’m not even your husband. All they have to do is convince some judge that you’re incompetent and they can take you away from me. It wouldn’t even be that hard to do given your track record.”
Was it that bad? I did okay in high school. After that . . . College just wasn’t for me. I couldn’t keep up. Never got enough sleep. Had a few fainting spells. Missed class and failed out. Maybe he was right. My thoughts flickered to the flyer from the grocery store. I should just throw it out, it was a stupid idea anyway.
I tried to assure him. “They don’t know where we are.”
“You haven’t spoken to them?” He sounded surprised.
“No,” I found it hard to work the word out of my chest and couldn’t find anything else to add. I missed them, but . . . Calling home wasn’t worth the disappointment in their voices.
I buried my face in the hollow of his collarbone. Felt his strong embrace and waited for the sudden silence to pass. He was content to stroke my hair. To breathe in my scent. I was so glad we weren’t fighting any more, but I felt dead on my feet. The coffee high a distant memory. I swayed under his touch.
He pulled back to look me in the eye, his hands on my shoulders again steady. “See? You’re so fragile. This is why I worry. Why don’t you lay down and take a nap.”
“No, I’ll make you lunch,” I mumbled, and slipped out of his arms. I wavered on my feet. I was so exhausted, but still eager to put the argument and my mistake behind us, so I opened the cupboard to find some bread. I’d make his lunch, a nice sandwich, like the act of putting a meal together would force time forward in the too still apartment.
I pulled a plate from another cabinet and it slipped. Fell to the floor. Shattered into three uneven portions. I sucked down a breath between clenched teeth.
“I’m sorry.” I stooped to pick up the pieces, but my vision was blurry. There was a hitch in my throat that stopped me from saying more.
I saw Levi kneel in my peripheral vision, but I didn’t dare look over to his face. To see how angry he would be now.
His hands caught mine. His voice was light, teasing, “Hey, Clumsy. It’s fine. I’ve got this.”
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled again and this time I looked up to see his thin lips twisted up in a smile. He wasn’t mad.
“It’s not your fault.”
I tried to smile in return, but was pretty sure my face would break.
“It’s these stumpy hands of yours.” And he laughed at his own joke, the smile infecting his every feature. He clasped both his hands over mine, holding my gaze. Pulled me to standing. Led me around the broken stoneware without letting go of my hands like we were two washed-up stars in a dance-off.
“I can make my own sandwiches. I don’t want my lady falling out in the middle of the apartment.” He kissed the top of my head and nudged me toward the bedroom door. As I gripped the handle he called my name and I turned to faced him.
“Promise me you won’t go out alone again.”
“Of course not.” And I tried to smile.
I collapsed on the bed. Rubbed my fingers over my eyes, but something was off, wrong. I scratched the inside of my brow bone with one sharp finger nail. My eyes snapped open and I held up my hand. My fingers, which had always been a little short, where now long and willowy. Thin. Spindly. He had changed me. I was too tired to do more than swallow back the wetness in my throat. What did it matter? Really? He couldn’t help it. And at least we weren’t fighting.
Things were great after that. Like we had never fought in the first place. Levi surprised me by declaring that I should make grocery shopping part of my regular routine while he was at work. Something I could handle to keep me occupied. He was so sorry for yelling before and time flew by.
He changed his schedule so he could get a day off every now and then. We spent that time sight-seeing. Visited the bay. Found a farmer’s market and bought too many tomatoes. I made perfectly crisp sopapaillas. He preferred plum pie, but that was okay. I could learn to make pie. I’d look up some recipes before the holidays rolled around.
“In the meantime,” I said, “I think the diner has pie. I could go grab you a slice.”
He leveled me with an annoyed stare. “It’ll be dark soon.”
“It’s just across the street.”
“If you want to eat out, I’ll take you,” he flipped open his wallet and counted the few bills inside.
“No, it’s fine.”
“My lady wants to eat out,” he gave me a half smile, “so we’re eating out.”
The same waitress, Clare, was working the afternoon shift and she smiled when she saw me like we were best friends, rather than some stranger she’d only spoken to once. “Hey there. Welcome back. I see you finally managed to convince handsome here to give us a chance.”
Levi’s eye grew wide with alarm, but he recovered easily. “Oh are you two friends?”
She laughed, a pleasant sound. “No, but I see you two love birds,” she gestured to the diner’s giant windows, “all the time.”
His grip on my hand had tightened, but I only noticed now that he relaxed his hold.
She led us to a table. It was dinner rush but we only ordered desserts and coffee, since we had already eaten. Once she was off to get our pie slices, Levi said under the sound of near-by conversations and clinking dishes, “What a busy body.”
I cocked my head to one side. “You think so? She seems nice.”
“What is she like stalking us?”
I played with the silverware. “Maybe she just works a lot. You can see most of the block from anywhere in here.”
“She needs a hobby.”
We quieted when she returned with two pie plates and steaming mugs. “Let me know if you need anything.” She winked at me and I smiled.
When I turned back to Levi, he was staring a hole in the back of her head.
The only pie they had left was cherry and it was okay, if a little too sweet. I sipped my coffee. Levi tapped the table between us to draw my attention, his lips curved up in mischief. “I think I finally have this worked out.”
I couldn’t help but smile, relieved he was in a better mood. “What?”
He gestured for me to slide my plate to him then glanced at me from under his eyebrows to be sure I was watching. One hand hovered over the half-eaten slice.
The air seemed to shimmer, like heat off pavement in July, and the magenta syrup oozing out of the pie changed just slightly. More of a purple. When he was done he held up both hands like a magician, “Ta-da.”
I squinted at the pie and then at him.
I scooped up my fork and popped a bite in my mouth. My eyebrows rose high in surprise. I held up my other hand to hide the half-chewed food and said, “Plum!”
His smile was infectious. “I’m getting better. Thanks to you.”
“What did I do?”
He caught my hand, holding it lightly. “You’re my inspiration.”
It wasn’t really a fair assessment. I didn’t do anything. Just sat around the house all day. Couldn’t even finish school. I’d still be living with my parents if he hadn’t decided to take me with him. He was the one with a power. I felt a little light-headed, whether from the sugary food or the caffeine I couldn’t say, but I tried to hold the smile just the same.
I was so out of it that I jumped when the waitress appeared, refilling my mug.
“Sorry,” she patted my shoulder, “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
But when I met her eyes her brow furrowed. Her hand patting my shoulder lingered. Her palm against my skin.
The diner came into sharp focus. I felt suddenly awake, the smell of sirloin steak, vivid and real. The sizzling on the flat grill behind the counter, crisp.
“Are you all right?” She swayed, balancing herself on my shoulder and with a thigh against our table. She set the coffee pot down and swallowed hard. Her eyes turned back to me, knowing. Accusing. “Are you hurt?”
It was so odd I looked to Levi. His eyes were wide. His nostrils flared. He swiped across the table to wrench her hand off my shoulder. “Hey back off, lady.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled, shaking her head and blinking too quickly, “I didn’t mean to–”
“Whatever.” Levi tossed some bills on the table and stood. He turned his full glare on me. What had I done to make him so angry? “Let’s go.” And he stalked toward the door.
I stood, but the waitress raised a hand between us, not touching, just hovering in the air. “You don’t have to go with him.”
It was such a strange, foreign thing for her to say that I couldn’t process it, let alone think of a response. If I didn’t get up and hurry, he’d be even angrier. I couldn’t stay here. It occurred to me that perhaps she was saying I could go somewhere else? But there was nowhere else. He’s all I had. Who else would want me? It had been months since I’d even spoken to Olivia over the phone, let alone my parents, and the longer I waited to give out my new number the more awkward it seemed.
His voice came again, breaking me out of my thoughts, “What the fuck is taking so long? Get over here. Let’s go.”
The waitress shifted suddenly, dangerously. Her open hand balled into a white-knuckled fist and she squared her shoulders at Levi. Positioned herself between me and the door as she glared at him.
I worried she would try to stop us. That Levi would be angry and use his powers. That he would be found out and then the Conference would come for him and it would all be my fault for being so damn slow.
I grabbed my bag and ducked past the waitress, scurrying after Levi. He didn’t wait for me outside, but stalked away on his long legs so that I had to jog to keep up. I was across the street, turning the corner to the apartment building’s entrance before I dared a glance back. The waitress stood in the diner doorway. Her long brown hair lifting lightly in the breeze. She didn’t chase us, but she lingered there as though I might decide to come back.
I wondered what she would do if I had.
Levi made me promise not to eat at “that diner with the psycho waitress” ever. I promised him over and over, a dozen times over two days, before he finally seemed to believe me. Before he pulled me close and nuzzled into my hair and I knew we were done fighting about it. I was so exhausted I couldn’t even remember why exactly we had fought in the first place, but I was glad it was over. Slept a lot. He had to do the grocery shopping more than once. I couldn’t muster the energy to do even this one simple thing.
But things were good again. He didn’t mind taking care of me. He kept talking about a bonus. I was excited that he was excited.
It meant working the night-shift though, and I knew he’d be beat when he came home. I wanted to have a nice breakfast waiting for him. Something special. It took most of the day to get myself together so that it was almost dark when I started home from the store, a backpack full of turkey sausage and orange juice.
The streetlights came on and the evening traffic thinned-out as people made it home for dinner. The crisp air felt good, on my face, in my–still a little weird–straight hair. It was nice to be awake and out. Still, I had to hurry home. Levi would be worried if he knew I was out late.
About two blocks from the apartment a shadow materialized a little ways down the street. Someone stepped onto the sidewalk. Started toward me. A man in a costume? He stayed were I could see him, but I still spared a glance over either of my shoulders. No one was around, which meant he didn’t have an accomplice, but also that we were alone.
I edged backwards. I wasn’t one of those safety nuts who had all the supers memorized. I knew the big names you saw on TV and The Significant Force, but only because she had been our local cape and had literally saved my grandmother’s house by redirecting flood waters with her cyclone powers.
This guy’s suit was all mesh-textured black and covered him from head to foot. A single red letter G was centered on his chest, but otherwise there wasn’t much to identify him.
“Are you all right?”
His voice wasn’t what I’d expected. It sounded somewhere between dad and my Uncle Joe. Deep but not menacing. Soft but matter of fact. I felt an odd pang of guilt. When had it become so easy to forget how much I missed them? Why did we always fight?
Still it was weird. I wasn’t being mugged. I was just walking home. I made a show of looking around. “Uh. Who wants to know?”
“My name’s Glint. I’m one of the Conference heroes for this area.”
Okay. Patrol super introducing themselves not completely unheard of. But, again, why did he think I needed help? “Oh. I’m just going home.”
He took a hesitant step toward me. The long shadows cast by street-lamps seemed to bend themselves to follow and he never quite came fully into view. He said, “Is that safe?”
He shrugged one shoulder. “Do you feel safe at home?”
When he said “home” it made me think of my parent’s living room. Of my dad’s truly terrible ceramic dog collection. It would be my nibblings’ fourth birthday soon. I wondered if they would notice I was missing. There was no way Levi would want to attend a kids’ birthday party and I couldn’t go without him.
I swallowed away the tension in my throat. “Why are you asking me this?”
“It just seemed like maybe . . . You needed a place to stay?”
I said flatly, “A place to stay.”
He rolled his hand like he was trying to draw meaning out of the air and present it to me. “If there were someone that made you feel unsafe.”
It was so random, so absurd I almost laughed. Did all heroes arbitrarily stop people on the street and ask them to move? Did I look like a menace? I didn’t want to start a fight with a cape, so I said instead, “Are you coming on to me?”
He laughed, his hand coming up to his face, despite the mask, like even he was caught off guard by the sound. “No,” he said, laughter still tinging his voice, “sorry if it came off that way. I’ve seen your boyfriend around and it seemed like maybe he isn’t so . . .”
My heart caught in my throat, was the Conference looking for Levi? Knew he was an unregistered super? Think he was a villain they needed to . . . What? Arrest? I wasn’t even sure what the consequences would be.
“He isn’t so what?”
Glint tilted his head to one side. “Like he might not be so nice in private.”
I froze. If he had somehow casually seen Levi and I together and we were fighting it might come off that way. Sure. Couples fought. But when we fought it was because he was stressed. Because he had powers. Because he was terrified he’d lose me. But I couldn’t say any of that. Everything I could think to say would give away that Levi was a super.
“Has he ever hurt you?”
I was shaking my head no before I had even processed the question. But the answer was no. He would never hit me. He was so gentle. He loved me so much. Why were we having this conversation? “Is this like a neighborhood-wide initiative or something?”
“Well look, uh, Glint, I don’t need any help and my orange juice is getting warm so unless I’m under arrest. . . ?”
“No, it’s just . . . If you need help, all you have to do is say the word.” He inclined his head toward me. “There are people who will believe you.”
I plastered a fake smile on my face and nodded. He didn’t try to stop me when I ducked my head and continued on. I glanced back and he was gone, but I kept glancing over my shoulder the whole way home, even in the stairwell of the apartment building.
I checked the locks on the front door twice. Scattered the groceries from my backpack onto the counter, my heart still beating a little too quickly and then dug out the ancient laptop I’d bought with high school graduation gift cards. Back when I thought I’d need it for college. Before my fatigue and clumsiness had gotten so bad.
I pulled up the Conference’s roster and skimmed through the public profiles. Glint was there, affiliate for Nevils, listed as having light manipulation powers. Another super was listed along with him, a woman healer–but that didn’t seem like a useful power for a cape?–named Bitter Remedy. Okay. So he was legit. And there were two of them. Not great.
I noticed a link in the footer of the page. Register an Imbuement. The page had technical details and international laws outlining rights for people with powers and contact information to apply for protections. It didn’t seem too difficult, even to me, maybe I could talk to Levi about it. The registration fees weren’t listed, but maybe his bonus would cover it? He’d be disappointed to lose it all, but if he was registered it wouldn’t matter what Glint and Bitter Remedy were looking into. Poof. Problem solved.
There was another link at the bottom: File a Complaint. A form to report misconduct anonymously.
I sat for a long moment, staring at the web form. The next-door neighbors had kids and their footfalls were heavy and fast. Laughter broke through the thin apartment walls and leaked into my space, the happy sound out of place.
Maybe the complaint was all I needed to do. Maybe Levi would never know. Maybe Glint would get transferred. Then we wouldn’t have to have the registration talk and things could just stay the way they were.
I filled out the complaint and hit send. Wondered if Glint would get in trouble. I felt a little guilty about that. He hadn’t really done anything wrong. But I needed this to all blow over. The Conference didn’t know about Levi. They didn’t. If they had, Glint wouldn’t have been fishing for information on the street. No. Everything was fine. I didn’t need to tell Levi. It would only make him mad.
I had hours before Levi’s new shift would be over and nothing else to think about which left me too jittery to get anything done. It was all I could do to putter around the apartment and get the food cooked by the time I heard Levi’s key turning in the lock. It was still a bit before dawn and the one window in the apartment glowed with the tinge of streetlights below.
He looked dead-tired. His fair complexion sallow and gray. There were purple splotches under his eyes and he didn’t walk in so much as shuffle. But there was a grin etched into his features.
I met him halfway with a hug and he leaned heavily on me for support. It hit me how tired I was too; I shouldn’t have stayed up all night. Should have slept and got up early. Typical of me to do it the hard way.
I pulled away to look him in the eye, to ask how it went, but then I saw a small gash on his forehead, hidden in his hairline. “What happened?”
His smile widened. “Nothing much. Just hit my head. Your clumsiness is rubbing off on me.” He breathed a laugh at his joke.
I traced around the bruising skin with a finger, careful not to touch it. “You need to go to a doctor.” I looked again at the purple under his eyes that I had thought was exhaustion and wondered if he had actually been in a fight.
He pushed away my hands and concern with the same dismissive gesture. “Don’t be a downer. Things went great. This bonus is going to be enough to get us out of this dump.”
I glanced furtively at the apartment. It was small, but I thought we had done okay making it homey. It didn’t matter. Not really. If it made him happy, we’d move. He rubbed his hands over my bare shoulders, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. When he opened them he said, “I’m starving and something smells delicious.”
I beamed at him. “I made you breakfast.”
He sat down and I served up the food. I wasn’t as hungry as before, but I was looking forward to cuddling up together and sleeping the day away.
The two plates plus orange juice glasses took up the whole surface of the table. I sat heavily in my chair across from him. “So how did it go? This was a big outsourced inventory thing, right? For the city?” I wondered if he could get a permanent position with the city. Then he could get insurance. Which I couldn’t be on of course unless . . . Maybe if we got married . . .
I smiled up at him, but he was staring at his plate like I had served him a platter of snakes.
“I thought we were out of sausage.”
I sipped my juice. “We were. I went to the store earlier, er later? Yesterday evening. While you were at work.”
“By yourself?” There was an odd edge to his voice and I felt a pressure in my chest rising. I didn’t want to fight. Not now. I was so tired. And everything was going so well.
I shrugged one shoulder. Said like it didn’t matter, “Yeah. I wasn’t gone long. Nothing happened.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted to surprise you. And I thought we agreed it would be good if I did the shopping while you were at work?”
“Right, but only if I knew where you were going. What if I had come home and you weren’t here? What if I had needed you? And you’re off–” he flicked his hand at the door, “sight-seeing while I’m working my ass off.”
“I just went to the grocery store. Nothing happened.”
His eyes narrowed and his voice was suddenly low. “You keep saying that. ‘Nothing happened.’ Makes me think something did happen.”
I felt my face flush.
The muscles of his jaw flexed as he ground his teeth. Finally said, “Well? Were you meeting someone else?”
“What? No! I didn’t even speak to anyone, except–” I snapped my mouth shut.
He pushed his plate away and leaned back in his chair to glare at me. “Now what have you done?”
It was nothing. Probably. A superhero from the Conference had just stopped me on the sidewalk to ask about him specifically. Okay. It was definitely something. But if they knew anything they wouldn’t be asking me. And we were moving now. “It doesn’t matter.” I hated how feeble my voice sounded, how child-like.
I expected him to yell. To be angry. But he didn’t say anything. I squirmed under his stare. I should tell him. He would know how best to handle it. But I didn’t want to make it worse. My shoulders were hunched, I gripped the chair with both hands.
“Just say it.”
I looked up from under my eyebrows to find him studying me carefully. In that way he had that made me feel so interesting the first night we met. Like I was a puzzle-box and he’d give anything to figure me out. Like I was worth his time. Maybe he would understand. Maybe we could get back to the way it was before. Maybe when we moved we could be closer to Olivia. Closer to home.
I swallowed. “There was someone I spoke to.”
His voice was still quiet, even. “Who?”
My head tilted to one side and my brow bunched up, pleading, “It was some super.”
He might’ve been less surprised if I’d stabbed him in the back outright. He breathed, “What?”
“He doesn’t know about you. I don’t think. Not exactly. He mentioned you–but didn’t say anything about your powers.”
His eyes touched on everything in the room. Everything except me.
“Levi? He, uh, he’s on the affiliate roster. You know from the Conference.”
He stood. Dazed. “You sold me out?”
I was on my feet too. “No. He doesn’t know. I don’t think. And when you get the paycheck from tonight we’re moving anyway, right?”
“No.” He marched into the bedroom.
I twinned my hands as I waited to the sound of drawers being flung open and closed.
He emerged with his old duffel bag full, zipped closed. “We’re leaving. Right now.”
“What? But the lease? Our stuff?”
He crossed the space to grab me by the wrist, tugged me toward the door. “It doesn’t matter. We have to get out of here.”
“But you haven’t gotten paid yet and–”
He rounded on me, his voice raised. “None of that matters. We are leaving now. I don’t have to explain myself.”
I laid my hand on his, “Levi it’s going to be okay. You don’t have to be afraid. Glint, the super I spoke to . . . He seemed okay. Maybe we could get you registered.”
“It doesn’t matter what he seemed like. I’m not talking to anyone and I’m not going to let them take you away from me.”
“No one is going to take me.”
“So,” he swallowed and I caught the undercurrent of how fragile he had become, “you’ll come with me?”
I squeezed his hand. “Of course.” We could talk about it later. When he wasn’t so rattled. He was just tired. Why did I start this now? After he had worked so hard all night?
We took the stairs down to the street and left through the back lobby. No one was out at this hour, aside from a few stray cars here and there. People with early commutes. He appraised every passing noise like it would materialize out of the dawn to attack us.
We made it maybe three blocks before I noticed a familiar shape in between two street-lamps ahead. I stopped short and Levi turned to me, an angry whisper, “What are you–”
But he cut off when I pointed to Glint.
Levi stood up, tall. Dropped his duffel bag on the sidewalk with a heavy thud that didn’t sound like clothes. Squeezed my hand painfully tight. I gasped as the world spun around me. The air whooshed out of my lungs and I found myself on my knees.
Levi let go of my hand and I gasped down a breath. He moved off the sidewalk. Stepped like a challenge into the middle of the street, Glint a few yards ahead.
Levi offered a smile that was more of a sneer. “We don’t have to do this. You could just let me go.”
Glint countered, “Leave her and I’ll let you.”
“Not a chance.”
Glint raised a hand, fingers splayed, and a dozen pinpoints of light erupted in mid-air. Lasers.
Five blue lights stabbed at Levi in a precise row, but he raised his hands toward the hero. The air warped between them like heat off a stove. The lasers split into thinner strands, like strings on a guitar snapping and roiling, then scattered in a dozen directions. They sliced a street-lamp in half. Carved up the brickwork of the buildings to either side, scattering stone dust and the scent of burning pavement into the air.
My hands shook. They were going to take him. The Conference had found him somehow. I knew it was my fault. Something I had done wrong. I wanted to stand. To convince them to leave us alone, but I was still out of breath.
Footsteps scraped the pavement from behind and I turned to look back the way we’d come. I was so woozy, I tilted forward, on my hands and knees, sinking my head almost to the sidewalk. A hand grabbed my upper arms. Pulled me upright. A wave of dizziness and nausea swept over me at the sudden movement. A woman in a gold and black superhero suit was a blurry specter in my vision. Her gloved hands found my skin, one bare palm to my forehead, the other took my hand.
My spinning vision slowed, stilled. My stomach settled back into place. I felt, once again, solid in my own body. The gold and black costume. Long brown hair. Gold mask covering the better part of her face. I knew this person from the Conference roster. Bitter Remedy.
Her eyelids fluttered, but she shook her head and then stared me down. “What’s your name?”
I heard a twisting metal sound as a car in the distance crunched sideways across the street, toward Glint, like it was pulled by an invisible thread.
“Look at me.” And I felt her power crash over me. Felt exhaustion melt away. “Your name?”
“Good,” she said, “Samantha, I need you to cut your little boyfriend off before someone gets hurt.”
“You need to reign in your power or this is going to escalate.”
I was clear-headed, my exhaustion and dizziness gone, and I still couldn’t make sense of what she said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! Make them stop before someone gets hurt.”
Levi’s face twisted in an unrecognizable snarl as he flicked his hand toward the row of streetlights, causing them to flare blindingly bright then explode and I wasn’t sure who I was more afraid for: the superheroes or Levi.
“You’re the only one here who can stop this. You’re augmenting his power. Like you did mine. But it’s time to stop.”
Angular shapes, too dark to be true shadows in a city’s light pollution scattered up and down the street, like a deck of cards dealt by a magician, obscuring Glint’s location.
“Listen to me,” her voice was urgent, fast, but not cruel, pulling my attention back to her, “He’s using you to make his illusion powers material. You need to cut him off.”
She shook her head. “No, no. Think back to the diner. You touched me and activated my healing powers.”
I squinted at her blue eyes, visible through the gold mask. Breathed, “The waitress?”
She didn’t waste a beat to answer, cut right to the chase. “I can absorb physical damage–that’s my power–but I’ve never been able to take on someone else’s emotional damage. Never. It’s outside my ability. But you changed how my power worked. With your own.”
I shook my head, more to clear my thoughts than respond. “I don’t have powers.”
Her jaw set.
I stared at her in open fear.
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you: You do.
“I think it’s an enhancement ability. That’s rare. And very, very useful. Valuable. The few who have it are normally amplifiers. The type who can make other supers stronger. But your power is something different. Something unique.”
There was a metal on concrete grinding sound and the choking scent of hot road tar, but I didn’t look. I was so tired, felt the energy drain right out of me. The ground was suddenly uneven beneath me.
Then all at once my head cleared again.
Bitter Remedy’s grip on my hand tightened as she leaned on me for support and she made a low keening sound in her chest. “How long have you been living like this?”
I should have let go of her hand. I was hurting her–draining her–just like I always did to my parents, Olivia, to Levi. Here was someone trying to help me and all I could do was respond by taking more. Unable to stand on my own. That was me.
“This has to stop,” she said shaking her head.
“I’m sorry.” I tried to slip my hand from hers.
She held me fast. “You didn’t do anything wrong. None of this is your fault.”
“But I’m hurting you.”
“You are hurting. This is your pain. And he’s the one who did it to you.”
“No. No, I’m the one that messed everything up. I’m the clumsy one. The one who breaks things. I made the mistake.”
“The only mistake you made was trusting the wrong person.” Bitter Remedy dragged us both, still on our knees, further away from the street, her eyes wide and locked on Levi as the ground began to rumble beneath us.
Levi was poised with one long arm, every muscle tense and straight. He swept his hand over his head in a dramatic gesture and the asphalt rippled. Like a giant had taken the end of the street in hand as though it was no more than a hallway carpet, and in one fluid motion whipped it, sending a shock-wave down its length. The street roiled end to end, knocking Glint out of the shadows he had vanished into.
With a hiss and a plume of hot vapor the road settled. The wave of pavement solidified into a sculpted crest, silver and purple streaks of char marking its apex in long lines just like . . .
I recognized that precise shimmering char. I had seen it in the news. On the storefront reported robbed by some unknown super.
I whispered, to myself more than Bitter Remedy, “But he said he had a new job . . .”
Levi turned his attention to me. The sidewalk warped, rising up between me and Bitter Remedy, tearing our clutched hands apart and tossing her halfway up the block.
I heard Glint yell her name but without looking Levi gestured with both arms wide and the long shadows of buildings at dawn crash over Glint like so much saltwater taffy. The molten shadow swallowed him whole and then he was gone.
I stood on wobbly legs as Levi stalked to me. Stopped an arm’s length in front of me.
“This whole time?” My voice sounded distant to my own ears.
“I never hid my powers from you.”
I ran one hand through my too-straight hair. “That’s not what I meant. You knew I had powers? And this whole time, you . . .” I gestured meekly. I couldn’t admit it out loud.
He snickered, unamused, “I spent the last eight months looking after your lazy ass and after a two-minute conversation with some random super you don’t even know you’re ready to bail on me?”
Did he always twist my words like that? Change the meaning of what I said to something completely irrelevant? To be about him? It didn’t matter. The only question I really wanted an answer to, I couldn’t bring myself to ask outright: “You said you loved me.”
“I do. I need you. I’ve mastered abilities that no one can defend against. Proven I can handle the big jobs. I’m a Prime level super now. Don’t you see how important that makes you?”
Bile climbed into the back of my throat. “Big jobs? Like robbing jewelry stores?” I didn’t know what was worse, that he had used me this whole time or that he was so unimaginative.
My sarcasm only made him that much angrier. “Jewelry stores, yeah, to start with. And what would you be without me? You were too stupid to know you even had powers! There you were oblivious. Lending your strength to whoever happened to be lucky enough to bump into you in a crowd.
“You’d be a lonely cat lady living with your parents. Never knowing the power you radiate. Forever. If I hadn’t met you. If I hadn’t given you a purpose.”
It was stupid but all I could think about was that day at the diner. The way the waitress had smiled at her boyfriend. The way he had looked at her. It was everything I wanted and nothing like this. “That isn’t love. Needing me and loving me are not the same thing.”
He laughed, not the loud carefree sound I adored. It was a snicker, his face twisted in disgust. “You just don’t understand how the world works.” He nodded to himself and the expression on his face shifted to a cool concentration. “But I do know how things work and you know that I will take care of you. I’ll pay your bills and keep you safe. We can be happy again. If you stop fighting me.
“I don’t want to hurt you. Come with me now and we can forget all of this.” He held out his hand, palm up. His pretty blue eyes bore a hole through me. It would be so easy to go with him. So easy to be the way it was before. But now I knew. We were never happy. And I couldn’t make myself unknow that.
He didn’t move a muscle, but I felt the wind kick out of my lungs. After being healed by Bitter Remedy, I was starting to feel the ebb and flow of my power. Whatever it was, Levi had his hooks into it. Into me.
“You don’t get to tell me no. You can come with me or I’ll see you in a ditch. You don’t get a third option.”
I gasped as the world started to spin. Maybe he was right. I hadn’t been much before him. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be much after.
What had they said? The capes? That I didn’t have to go with him. That there were people who would believe me. That I needed to cut him off.
I squeezed my eyes shut. What did I want, again? Right at that moment all I wanted was to not be so tired. To not fall down.
I planted my feet against the warped concrete. I wasn’t going to fall down. No fainting. Not again. I slumped but stayed on my feet and hugged my arms over my chest. Imagined a shield there. Wrapped myself in an imaginary bubble. Pictured Levi’s words and dreamed that nothing he said could get through. That I wouldn’t listen. Not until I’d had time to think on my own.
I felt myself waver on my feet and then stand tall, firm. Like I had been rocked by an undertow at the beach, but dug my toes into the sand and rode it out. I opened my eyes.
The road collapsed back into place. A shadow of the way it had twisted into the air remained. A flat, lifeless caricature of the power he had controlled only moments before hovering over restored reality. All around us the damage to the street, the purple scorch marks, and twisted sidewalk, lingered in places but the majority of his fearsomeness was now only a mirage.
The color drained from his face. His fists balled at his sides. He shook as he stared me down, as I looked him in the eye. He looked spent, sallow. “Samantha.” He must have seen the pity on my face because his voice pitched up a sad octave, “Sam, please?”
Honestly, I didn’t know what was next, but I knew it wouldn’t ever be the way it had been. “No.”
He stumbled forward, I thought, but no–he was lunging for me. Fists balled and face twisted in rage. A shock of breath whooshed into my lungs.
Bitter Remedy appeared between us, shielding me, her hands outstretched.
Levi’s fist flew at her and she caught his arm at the wrist. Twisted Levi’s weight against him, so that he was on his knees before me with his arm wrenched behind his back, before I registered what had happened.
He didn’t strain against her. His illusions shimmered and puffed out of existence as a deep moan rumbled from his chest. His head lolled forward and he slumped in Bitter Remedy’s grasp so that she had to hunch over him to maintain her hold.
It took all my willpower to stay rooted in place. The urge to take back everything I’d said, everything I’d done overwhelming at the sight of him in pain. He’d been my lifeline. At least, I’d thought he had.
Glint materialized at my side. His touch tentative on my shoulder. “Are you all right?”
I just stared at him. Nothing was broken. Nothing on the outside at least. Finally, I gave a helpless shrug, my palms open at my sides.
Bitter Remedy said through clenched teeth, not to me, but to Levi, “How do you like it?”
He whimpered in response.
“What is happening to him?”
Glint said, “Bitter Remedy’s healing powers work in reverse too. Anything she’s absorbed that hasn’t healed yet she can inflict on another person.”
My mouth hung open dumbly as I processed this. As I came to understand that it was my hurt she was channeling into him. Then I was stumbling forward, my hands shaking. “No. No, please don’t do that to him.”
She didn’t look up at me. “He did it to you.”
That was true wasn’t it? There was about a million horrible things I could’ve said to her in that moment that would’ve fueled her anger, justified her action. I swallowed them all back and brushed a stray lock of her silken hair away from her mask with my too-long fingers.
She looked up sharply, her clear blue eyes unfocused and a little wild. Angry. Hurting. “Please. I don’t want him to suffer.” I shrugged like I was asking to bum a soda, to borrow her jacket, like it was a simple thing for her to let him go. “I just want it to be over. I just want to be myself again.”
I wasn’t sure what being myself would mean and I don’t think I had ever wanted that before, but I meant it. I meant it so strongly, so clearly, that she glanced back over Levi’s slumped body. At her own hands pinning him down. Shook her head like she was just waking up. Eased back a step. Released him.
Levi fell forward on his hands and gulped the crisp morning air to catch his breath. He seemed dazed and his illusions didn’t reappear. Bitter Remedy’s hands were shaking, but she nodded to me once. It was done.
Levi’s voice was gruff, slurred, “Samantha.” His head tilted up and he almost fell over as he searched for my face. “You have to–”
I pressed my lips into a frown, turned on my heel, and walked away. I didn’t know where I was going. Down the street is where. Away from here. Away from him.
He screamed after me, my name echoing off the buildings.
A hand caught my forearm. I jerked away, spun around, after so long feeling like I was trapped in a fog I was itching for a fight.
But it was only Glint. “Hey, don’t run off. We’ve got him. You’re safe.”
I glanced past him, to the hero strapping restraints on my ex-boyfriend. Bitter Remedy sat Levi, bound hand and foot, roughly on a crumbly bit of sidewalk that was worse for his wear. The air about his restraints shimmered in that way that indicated he was starting an illusion, but Bitter Remedy smacked him on the back of the head and growled something at him in a low voice. He couldn’t really alter the restraints. Not anymore. Not without me.
A few long strides and Bitter Remedy had left Levi to run her fingers over the near-imperceptible seams at the wrist of Glint’s costume. He captured her hand and said, “I’m okay. You need to rest anyway.”
Their clasped hands lingered together longer than necessary and he bent down at the same instant she rose up to gently rest their foreheads together. It was only an instant, but they were distracted enough that I eased back a step. Maybe I should just bolt for it. But I had nowhere to go.
I heard myself saying, almost babbling, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–”
Glint carefully took my shoulder in hand to stop my backpedaling and said, “Whoa there. It’s okay.”
I burst into tears. All the pieces of myself that I had so carefully pinned in place since I met Levi, all the ways I had pretended to be okay when I really wasn’t, seemed to fray and come unspooled. “I didn’t know.”
He said, “Hey, hey. That’s okay. You did just fine.”
Bitter Remedy’s movements were slow, dulled with exhaustion, but she still took up my hand and pressed the skin of her palm to mine. I felt the now-familiar surge of her power, repaying fatigue Levi had caused. The wave of her healing ability tingled over me and the tightness in my throat, my chest, evaporated.
I pressed my lips into a tight line and tugged my hand back, shrugged away from Glint’s touch to stand on my own. “Thank you.”
Bitter Remedy smiled. “Any time.”
Sirens echoed in the distance. Police.
“What happens now?” I wondered if I would get a phone call once they arrested me. If my parents would accept the charges. Irrationally, even though he was tied up behind the heroes, I thought maybe Levi would accept my call. It was such a habit to rely on him to take care of me that I came up short when I remembered everything had changed.
Glint said, “The police will help escort him to the detention center and bring charges against him for the robberies and any other illegal activity their investigation turns up.”
Bitter Remedy added, “You might consider filing a domestic abuse complaint too.”
“I can’t,” I said.
Bitter Remedy answered, “We can help you with that if you’d like.”
“No, I mean. I don’t have any money for an attorney.”
Glint waved away the idea. “The Conference has a legal fund for that sort of thing.”
“But. I’m not in the Conference.”
They both fell silent. It was Bitter Remedy who spoke first. “Obviously, you don’t have to join if you don’t want to. But there are advantages. You don’t have to take on a position. It’s a safe place for people like us to learn to use powers.”
I looked from one masked face to the other. There was something unsettling about discussing my legal future with people who wouldn’t even show me their faces.
“They would take me,” I had to pause to regain control of the tremor in my voice, “after all of this?” I gestured to the destruction from the fight and Levi’s duffel up the sidewalk which I now suspected was full of either jewelry or cash. Though I didn’t mean for them to, my eyes lingered on Levi’s profile. His slumped posture. His defeated expression. The idea that anyone would want me ever again seemed so far-fetched.
Bitter Remedy said, in the perfect pitch of a mother comforting a child, “Of course they’ll take you. Why wouldn’t they?”
Glint was a little more nuanced. “A lot has happened tonight. But none of it was your fault. You’re not alone. Remy and I will vouch for you. Will you talk to the Conference’s rep before you make any decisions?”
I tried to imagine running from the Conference like Levi had. I wasn’t sure what life I wanted, but that wasn’t it. “Okay.”
Bitter Remedy nodded in approval. “Smart girl.”
The sirens were louder now, echoing off buildings, making their exact location hard to pinpoint, though it was clear they would be on scene any moment.
“We should get you out of here,” Glint said.
“I don’t need to stay and give a statement or something?”
He said, “You’re a new super. There are privacy laws in place to protect your identity so you can submit testimony anonymously. You and your family are more vulnerable if people learn who you are and what you can do.”
“Glint can take care of this for now,” Bitter Remedy added. “Why don’t you and I get off the street?”
She led me along a circuitous route back toward the apartment. I didn’t want to go home, but she was actually taking me to the diner. She popped open the back door and let us inside without anyone seeing. Changed clothes in the employee locker room and I got the impression she had done this hundreds of times. Every night even? If she and Glint were the capes for the neighborhood, the diner would make a great stake out. She got us settled in the dining area with coffees and biscuits.
The diner’s TV showed a report of Levi being taken to the detention center. His greatest fear. Mine too for a long time. I was feeling clear-headed for the first time in a long while, but the reality of everything that had happened seemed distant. Creeping up on me slowly. I couldn’t keep living at our apartment, even if I could’ve found a way to make rent, too much Levi there. When would Levi get out of jail? Where would I be when he did?
Clare reached across the table and took my hand. I felt her steady me in a way that I had never realized I’d needed. In a way that protected me from over-extending my powers.
After all the fighting and healing I felt the vague aura of them radiating along my skin. The strength pouring out of me. If I was ever going to make it on my own, I had to learn to control my ability without help. I imagined the bubble again—the one in my mind’s eye. The one I’d used to shut Levi out. And took my hand back.
She hmm’ed to herself and nodded once. Asked, “Is there anyone you’d like to call?”
I pressed my lips into a tight line to stop myself from answering. I couldn’t call my parents. Not yet. I was still to wobbly to face them. She didn’t ask again. Slid her cell phone across to me and excused herself to see about some manufactured concern in the backroom.
I took a deep breath and dialed my sister’s number. Stared at the digits for the longest moment, until I had almost convinced myself I had the number wrong. Pressed send. My heart fluttered in my chest like a caged bird as it rang and rang and rang.
Where could I start this story? How to begin? With how I had super powers or how my boyfriend–ex-boyfriend–was actually a super villain? I realized I had never given her our new address. She wouldn’t know where to pick me up even if she wanted to. He hadn’t wanted them to know. After all of that, would she even answer? When she found it was me, would she just hang up?
“Olivia?” My voice cracked.
Her tone shifted from the one she used on telemarketers to the one she had always used when I’d skinned my knee on the playground. “Sam? Is that you? Are you alright?”
“I’m okay. I’m fine.” My vision blurred. I ran my too-long fingers through my too-straight hair. I wasn’t the sister she knew before and I was exhausted of pretending to be someone I wasn’t. “No. I’m not fine. Ollie, so much has changed and Levi he . . . Wasn’t what I thought and now I don’t know where to go and I . . . think I have to move?” I breathed a bitter laugh.
I heard her fumbling on the other end. Her car keys jangled. “Tell me where you are. I’ll come help.”
Krystal Claxton (she/her) is a Systems Engineer I with unfortunate aspirations involving fiction, words, and publishing. You can find her short fiction in Cast of Wonders, Daily Science Fiction, Fireside Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, Nature: Futures, and Podcastle.