Saturday, December, 12th, 2015
Sasha’s body sank under his weight. Her bruises flared, angry and purple, and it threatened her sense of balance. She was losing the will to hold herself up. Holding Garrett up was rapidly becoming impossible.
His steps became slower and slower. “Do not stop, now, Garrett. You need to walk.”
“I can’t.” His knees buckled beneath him, sending them both toppling to the ground. Sasha curled into herself, looking around for any hint that those freaks had followed them.
She could barely breathe. Her lungs refused to work around the break in her ribs. She pushed herself up onto her knees, anyway. She could not allow herself to focus on that, she had other things to worry about.
His eyes were falling shut again.
“Do not sleep. I cannot monitor you if you sleep.”
“Sasha,” he begged as she got to her feet and attempted to pull him after her. “We have to stop. I can’t go anymore.”
Sasha could not have agreed more, her legs were shaking beneath her, but the voice of her father in her head strongly opposed it. They could not stop. If they stopped it would only mean that their attackers would catch up, and, in Garrett’s state, that could only carry bad tidings for them.
They had to hide. Conserve their strength so they could move again in a few hours. She could only hope that Garrett would have healed up just a little bit by then.
“Fine,” she said. “Fine. Can you make it up to that bush?”
He did not respond, but Sasha managed to get him there. The bush was large and unkempt, hence Sasha’s preference toward it. As they approached it, she helped him to the ground, freezing when he cried out.
“Shhh,” she hissed, looking around. “You will bring them right to us!”
“I’m sorry,” he gasped. “It burns. It burns so much.”
“I am sure it does. You need to crawl.”
“I can’t move.”
Sasha heaved a long sigh. Of course he could not move, that would be far too easy for her. “You need to crawl under the bush. Can you help me?”
“It feels like it’s getting worse. I feel it on my shoulders.”
“Do not be ridiculous. It was nowhere near your shoulder,” she insisted, peeling his shirt from his back.
She recoiled, gagging. Garrett was right; the burns were crawling up his back, infecting his shoulders and the bicep of one of his arms. Where there was flesh left behind, it was inflamed. Where Contagion had initially struck him, she could see down to the bone. The welts had popped, covering the inside of his shirt with an unusual, yellowish fluid and blood.
“What? What is it?” he said.
“Nothing,” she hastily replied. “You are exaggerating.”
“Yes. I will remove your shirt; that could be what is preventing you from healing.” Sasha tore it from his body and piled it up beneath the bush, just in case they should need a rag to sop up the blood. “Now get under here. They will not see you down here.”
She shoved at his body, covering his mouth so he would not scream. Spurred by her harsh words, he managed to wiggle under the brush on his stomach. “How much further?”
“Until I cannot see you anymore,” she snapped. “Just a little more, and then I will cover you.”
Sasha sidled in after him, pressing her back to his side. She pulled the branches down over herself and drew her knees to her chest so they could not be seen.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“Think nothing of it, just be quiet.”
His arm was warm against her back and she hoped not because it was spreading a corrosive disease onto her skin. Sasha waited for the sound of Garrett’s breaths to become long and even, such as in sleep, but it did not come. He just seemed to be lying there, watching her.
“Daniels,” she whispered, “you will not be given much opportunity to sleep. You should take it.”
Two crooked fingers found a bare portion of the small of her back and caressed her. Sasha jumped.
“What are you doing?” she demanded. She never would have admitted that it felt kind of nice, otherwise she would have swat his hand away already. She was unaccustomed to such simple forms of affection.
“Thank you for helping me.”
She had to snap out of it. This was Garrett, the crazy superhuman who thought she was another, lesser woman. The same one who had broken her ribs. “Yes, you have said that already.” She was displeased to find her voice shook a little. “You are welcome.”
“I was supposed to protect you. Now you’re protecting me,” he said. There was a smile in his voice. His finger still trailed circles on her back.
“You should sleep, Daniels.”
“What about you? Are you going to sleep?”
She bucked her hips away from his touch. She had already let it go on for too long. She should not have enjoyed the feeling.
She amended that thought, I did not enjoy it. “No. Someone has to take the watch.”
“It should be you, then, I can’t sleep.”
“You were falling asleep on my shoulder. Close your eyes and the rest will fall into place.”
He moved closer, wrapping one arm around her waist.
He was so warm. So soft. Something about his blatant admiration was attractive, but she knew she should not think that. Thoughts like that were dangerous. They spelled compromise. She only kept him around so Summit could figure out how to give her his powers, after all. “This is not appropriate.”
“Please, don’t move. It helps, just feeling that you are here with me.”
Sasha peeled his arm away from her body. “You will have to do it without my help. You are tired. Please, just be quiet. They could be listening to us, right now.” She removed herself from his touch, lying as close to the edge of the bush’s cover as she would allow. “Now, sleep. We will have to move in a few hours.”
“My back hurts.”
Sasha could not voice that she did not blame him, it was not in her nature, but she did not mock as she wanted to. “Then what are we doing here?”
“I need the strength to move. Maybe, I’ll heal…”
Sasha sensed that he would not. “Tell me more.”
“Tell you what?”
“The story. You were telling me about Poppy. If we are going to be sitting here for a while you might as well tell me more.”
“But they’ll hear.”
“Then keep your voice down. I want to know more,” she lied. Truth be told, she wanted to distract him so he would forget about touching her or thanking her or begging her to remember. She wanted to save herself listening to his pathetic voice declare how much pain he was in. While he was regaling his story, she could get some peace.
And some answers.
“I don’t know where to start.”
“How about with those powers of yours. How did they come into your possession?”
“That’s a very long story. I suppose I would have to start with the night Poppy came to visit me at work. It was because of her that I lost my job.”
Monday November 19th, 1984
The Brick House was alive with noise, as it usually was on a Friday night. I did not concern myself with the crowd in the dining room, they were not people I would want to associate myself with anyway. Rather, I strapped my headphones on, turned the CD player up as loud as it would go, and got to work in the kitchen. Within moments of my arrival, I was elbows deep in soapy water. The only way I could assume the place was getting more packed by the hour was by the steady influx of dishes I had to clean.
It was not a particularly nice place, the location on the highway made it a primary hangout for bikers, and it was not a particularly glamorous job, but it paid more than minimum wage and they had been willing to hire me at sixteen. My coworkers were all older by about a decade so I did not really talk to them, but at least they left me alone. Besides, I could pretend I was anywhere else so long as I had that music blaring in my ears. It was work that kept only my hands busy. My mind wandered to my most recent fascination.
I had gone out to lunch with Poppy earlier that day. She was younger so she didn’t have a car and I was too ashamed to show her mine yet, so we had walked. The place had been crowded, the pizza cold, and the soda flat. We’d been forced to stay for detention after school because we had returned late. It was the best day I’d had in years.
Poppy had been enthralled by everything I’d wanted to tell her and always seemed to have something to say in agreement. She had even paid. I was too shocked by the development to feel emasculated. I couldn’t spare the money anyway.
It had been so long since I had a friend. I almost was not sure what to make of her. Frankly, she was a cute kid, despite her original goofiness; she could have found a much more acceptable friend to follow to math class and go out to lunch with, but she still clung loyally to my side. She was pretty, especially given her pleasant demeanor, even with her tight ponytail and her thick glasses. I could not help but be skeptical; why had she chosen me?
Someone’s beefy hand grabbed my shoulder and shook me back to reality. I scrambled to remove my headphones, forgetting my soapy hands. The manager stood behind me, boredom written plainly across his face.
“Sorry, Rick.” I grabbed for a towel to dry my hands. “What’s going on?”
He jerked his head toward the dining room. “Somebody here to see you.”
“Hell if I know, kid. She brought you cookies.”
Well, that ruled out my mother. I started toward the door, followed closely by my boss. “Where is—?”
I did not need to ask anything more because my eyes locked on her immediately. If not for the old-fashioned dress she was wearing, a look I would recognize anywhere, I never would have thought Poppy would grace this crowd with her presence, surrounded by the undesirables my coworkers served. Her hair was down, arranged in strawberry ringlets about her face. Her blue eyes were free of their glass prison for the night and highlighted with makeup. I was not sure, but the light hit her in such a way that I could swear I saw her lips sparkle with gloss.
She was…breathtaking. My heart had either gone into double-time or was not beating at all, but, either way, I enjoyed the feeling. Or, I hated it. It was so hard to tell. I wanted to go to her, but my feet would not carry me there. It was only later that I even noticed she was holding a wrapped plate. For me? She had come out here, braved the bikers sitting around the room, and made herself up to come see me?
I scarcely allowed myself to hope, especially not about girls, but the ache in my chest informed me that it was a little late to hold off those feelings.
She looked dreamily about the room, one arm supporting her against the bar. Finally, she found me too. My eyes were still locked on her, body completely frozen in time, no matter how hard I tried to stop. She raised one delicate hand and waved to me, releasing me from her spell. A huge grin split my face, and, just like that, my legs were carrying me quickly across the room toward her. Sometime between the kitchen and the dining room I had either taken my headphones off or they had fallen off, but they were gone.
She was here to see me. Why? Why had she come all the way out here, without a car, to visit me at work? What could she possibly hope to gain from it? Did she make those cookies, herself?
My view of her was suddenly obstructed. One of the bikers circled her, eyes roving hungrily over every curve I was suddenly feeling very possessive of. Poppy stared up at the intruder in obvious fear, eyes large and round. She held the plate to herself, backing into the bar when she tried to retreat. The man’s hands reached for Poppy’s body, groping for the behind she hid beneath layers of fabric.
I unconsciously strode faster, smacking tables and patrons with my arms when the pathway became too narrow. “Hey,” I called, though my voice was drowned out by the others in the room. Poppy looked to me, silently pleading for help. Her lip quivered.
“Garrett,” I could hear her mumble, trying unsuccessfully to push passed the brute and meet me. The brute in question threw his arm out beside her, pinning her between him and the bar. I couldn’t see her.
“Hey!” I repeated, louder this time, before I grabbed for the man’s shoulder.
The biker looked over his shoulder, only slightly perturbed. “Go back to your mommy kid, I’m busy.” He returned to eating Poppy up with his eyes, leaning in closer to fan his disgusting, cigarette-flavored breath across her face. He was talking, Poppy was wincing, and I was only glad I couldn’t hear what was being said. To her credit, Poppy was sinking, falling slowly to the floor like she would crawl away if it became necessary.
It just might.
I was long passed the point of feeling insulted by the man’s retort. Rather, I poked his finger obnoxiously into the man’s dirty side. “Leave her alone, asshole.”
The talking abruptly ceased. I scowled up, up, up into the face of the biker as he turned to confront me. Poppy took a breath, obviously reveling in the somewhat fresh air while it was available.
“What did you just say to me?”
I was flying high on the adrenaline coursing through my veins. My competition was obviously so much bigger and would most certainly be stronger, but I could not care. I refused to lose my nerve. “Asshole.”
The biker chuckled, shaking his head, and pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “Look, kid, I’m gonna give you a chance to walk away. You’re obviously not right up there. So just turn around, walk away, and stay the—”
I did not allow him to finish. My fist flew forward and up, connecting with the unsuspecting man’s jaw. Spit spilled from his mouth, his head shot to the side, and his body collapsed back against the wooden tabletop of the bar, crushing Poppy. “Get off!” she cried, smacking him with her free hand.
The room had gone silent, everyone focused intently on the fight unfolding before them.
“I said leave her alone,” I grunted, ignoring the sudden, intense ache I felt in my knuckles.
The man poked at his lip, withdrawing his fingers only to find them bloodied. “Little punk,” he spat, meeting my scowl with one I knew was much more impressive. “I’ll kill you!”
I struck out again, barely knocking him over. The man was braced for it, and, this time, returned the favor with a hard punch to the chin. My much smaller form went flying backward, falling on a table that had, only seconds ago, been occupied by bottles and dishes. Something had broken under me and it was stabbing me in the back. I convulsed, arching my back away from the danger. Thankfully, the table had not broken.
My assailant was above me only seconds later, wrapping his hands around my throat. I kicked out, fruitlessly.
“No!” Poppy yelled, appearing over the man’s shoulder. The cookies were gone; instead she used both hands to pry the biker’s hands from my throat. “Get off of him! Get off! Please!”
I couldn’t breathe. My head was spinning. Blackness flashed before my eyes, threatening me with unconsciousness.
A crash interrupted my anticipation of death, followed by the rush of air I was coughing for. As the seconds ticked on, my vision returned, revealing the ceiling I was still facing. The biker, however, was missing. I rushed to sit up, coming very close to hitting Poppy in my haste.
She held half of a glass bottle awkwardly between her hands, away from her body like she was disgusted by it. Her hair and dress were unkempt, pairing with the disturbed look on her face. The biker lay at her feet in a crumpled heap. She breathed heavily while she watched the man on the floor.
“Poppy?” I forced from my hoarse throat. “What did you do?”
“I…” she shook her head to clear it. “I hit him. On the head. He was killing you, I had to!”
I stood, though I was unsteady on my feet. I reached for the broken bottle, which she surrendered without complaint, and dropped it on the floor. “Are you okay?”
She chuckled darkly, finally meeting my gaze softly. “Am I okay? Are you okay?”
I nodded, rubbing the bruises out of my throat. “I think so.”
“Good,” she said. Turning uneasily, she uncovered the plate of now crushed up dessert and offered it to me. “I brought you cookies.”