Chapter Fourteen

Sunday, December, 13th, 2015

Sasha’s feet ached but she put it out of her mind. The thought she could not seem to shake was of those injections. She did not care how much they hurt, as he had said; to be strong and powerful like him would make it all worth it.

How could she get her hands on it?

“That is all it took?”

Garrett raised his head, blinking at her as if waking from a dream. “What do you mean?”

“That seems incredibly easy. They gave you a few shots and you woke up feeling like Superman?”

He stared at her. “What’re you thinking?”

“Exactly what I said.”

“No. You’re thinking of something bad. Tell me, what is it?”

Sasha grinned. “You know me so well, do you? Fine. I was considering how beneficial it would be if you helped me gain your abilities.”

She certainly would not have to worry about being caught by Contagion and the Chameleon. If she had the power he was capable of, she would look for them herself and make them regret every second they spent hunting her down like prey. They would learn to fear her, as they should have.

“What?” He stopped walking, grabbing her by the shoulders.

“We cannot stop—”

“Sasha, are you crazy?” he demanded. “Why the hell would you want that? Do you know what he would get you to do?”

“Nothing I have not already done. And if you gave me your blood and I had your powers, The Chameleon and Contagion would not stand a chance! Please, move.”

“Why could you possibly want to bring this on yourself?” he demanded, shaking her by the shoulders. “Why? Why?”

Sasha shoved him away, but it only served to throw her to the ground. She bristled. It was just another reason that she wanted his abilities; she was sick of feeling weak beside him. “And what is it that is so bad about your life, Garrett? No Poppy? No friends? That seems to be your fault, not my father’s!”

“My head.”

She hesitated. She should have expected he would not make sense. “I’m perfectly aware that there is something wrong in your head. What’s the problem?”

“It hurts.”

“Aww,” she mocked, squeezing his face in her hand, “it hurts?”

“That thing he used hurts my head,” he forced out, though her hand made it difficult. He wrenched himself free.

“I should think you would be used to it by now.”

He shook his head, though she could not imagine the depth of what he was saying. It could not possibly be as awful as he said. It could not possibly be a steep enough price to pay for what he received. He continued, “It doesn’t get better.”

“I would imagine you would be able to put it out of your mind. Think of other things.”

“I wish,” he said. “I can’t put anything out of my mind. And I don’t have anything pleasant to think of, anyway.”

Sasha narrowed her eyes. “What?”

He plopped down on the ground. His fingers grabbed at the grass, pulling it out by the handful. “Whatever they gave me to make me this way has affected my brain just as much as the rest of my body. There’s a lot more space in there these days, and an unfortunate ability to sift through the thoughts I put there like photographs. I can’t forget. I can’t distract myself. There’s just more to think.”

“Is that why you are crazy?” she inquired, stooping into a crouch beside him.

“I’m not crazy,” he was quick to reply. “Not right now.”

Sasha chuckled. “When are you crazy, then?”

“Only sometimes. When I’m alone. It’s hard to keep those bad memories locked up and I don’t know how to function with them. So I can see them. Playing in the dark. I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not, anymore.”

“That does not surprise me. Do you think I am real?”

He nodded fervently. “I know you’re real.”

“What do you see?”

Garrett frowned. “I see a lot of things. Nightmares. Sometimes, though, I see her, too.”

“Who?”

“My wife.”

She made a face. “Is it me?”

“No,” he said. “Not you. This one remembers. She talks to me and I can touch her. If I let myself pretend, it’s like she never left.”

Sasha stood back up to her normal height. “Well, if she can do all that, I wonder why you waste your time talking to me.”

“I’m not crazy enough to forget that she’s a delusion. As much as I want her to be real, she’s not. You are. And I want you back.”

“Not crazy enough, then? I doubt it.” She quirked a reddish brow. “I wish I could see inside your head, Garrett. I’m sure it’s interesting.”

“It’s bottomless. And unnatural.”

“It could not possibly be so bad. If I had the ability to do the things you can, I would love it,” she annunciated. “I would not waste my time mourning a pathetic human life. I would act like the goddess they sought to make.”

“It’s not like that, Sasha. It’s pain. Constant pain. And I can’t see it, so I can’t stop it.”

“Well, obviously I would not be locked up and suffering. I would be out there, forcing the mortals to their knees.”

“They would hate you,” he finished. “How could you want that?”

“They would fear me. As they should.”

Garrett whimpered, “How could you want to be so cruel? You’re a person, just like them. A mortal. Why would you punish them for that?”

“I was never like them!” Sasha exclaimed, stomping her foot. “I was born a God. I decide who lives and who dies, do I not? Then why should I be anything else?”

“Are you insane?” he whispered. “You think you’re God?”

“I’m certainly not as low as those creatures out there,” she continued, running her fingers through her strawberry hair. “Crawling around like bugs, just waiting to be stomped on. If I decided that one of them has lived just a day too long there is no way they could stop me!”

“Did Summit raise you like this? To believe that you are invincible?”

“No one needs to tell me that I am invincible. How could you be such a coward? All of the powers you have and you barely show your face in public. Why would anyone choose you for anything? Especially for God-like strength?!”

“I told you. I chose them. They just knew no one else would be crazy enough to go along with it.”

“I am.”

“You wouldn’t be, Sasha. Not if you knew the things Summit has had me do.”

She shot him a wry smile. “Oh, Garrett. Sweet, innocent, Garrett. If only you knew of the terrible things he has had me do, already.”

“I didn’t regret it until he sent me on my first mission.”

Tuesday, December 24, 1985

A single bar on one of these deserted streets in one of the more questionable areas of the city turned black later than it should have that evening for Christmas Eve, exiling three patrons and a bartender to the frigid air and the snow-capped cars lining the roads. The bartender’s feelings of goodwill drastically sunk with the realization that it was going to take him all night to dig out his car; nevertheless, he pulled himself into the vehicle, started the heat, and debated whether or not to offer the men huddled in the snow a ride home. Selfishness and a desperate need for sleep won out and he averted his gaze from them as he fought to pull his pickup truck out of the snow. By the grace of God and the height of his tires, he pulled away from the curb and drove away as fast as the pained engine would allow, leaving three very inebriated customers behind to freeze. With the mental image of his mother and girlfriend waiting for him at home pressed into the back of his eyelids, he did not allow himself to feel very guilty about what they could be missing at their homes; it could not be very much if they had spent their Christmas Eve on a barstool.

One of the more severely intoxicated men inwardly cursed at being left behind, as the bartender’s car had been his last chance at convenience that night. He had left his phone on his desk, so eager to drown his concerns after work, and would not be calling a car service. The customer’s building was not very far; even he could have made it without much trouble. However, he did not relish the thought of walking the ten blocks in the snow, especially today when he was feeling anything but safe. He should not have been out at all, but the meeting he had been forced to suffer though left him depressed and confused.

James Quint was a drunk, but he was a drunk only because, by trade, he was a business man. And not only that, but somewhere between drinks over the last few decades, he was a self-made businessman. The company he had built from the ground up manufactured weapons, a few of which had been picked up by the military of the United States. Along with the help of his long-time partners, Charles and Avery, he had made quite the name for himself and Quint Enterprises. They had been going on thirty years of uninterrupted success.

Charles pulled out of the company two weeks previously. Giving no warning and no reason, he had called a meeting one morning only to tell the staff that he was stepping down as CFO. James desired nothing more than to question his friend on the decision, but he had practically run from the building. He had not seen him since, and the many emails, voicemails, and text messages he sent had gone unanswered. It was all entirely baffling.

James and Avery had discussed over drinks the evening of the meeting that Charles’s resignation was an act of betrayal. Avery was in no way surprised that Charles had left; he was furious. James wished that he could be furious, too. Instead, he was only disappointed. Disappointed, and confused.

He was not so surprised when Avery did the same only hours ago. His face had been black and blue around both eyes, his lip was swollen, and the old man looked to be on the brink of tears when he stood in the board room, issuing his own resignation. James had skulked around the office while Avery cleaned up his desk, waiting for some kind of explanation. Somehow, he had already assumed what had brought his partner to this: a shakedown.

Someone had threatened him.

Naturally, James had ignored the threat, comforted by his hired bodyguards, both of whom had gotten off of work by ten o’clock.  They had been desperate to run home to their families, pockets full of his money. His begging had done nothing to dissuade them, they had better things to do after all, and taking James with them was not one of them. They had advised him to go home, even offered to call him a taxi, but he had refused. He was not nearly drunk enough to go back to that empty penthouse. Besides, at the time he had been fairly confident in the law’s ability to protect him should this threat pursue the matter any further. At least, he had been fairly confident until he was alone.

Gulping back the bile his body was threatening to heave, the businessman shoved his hands into his thin blazer pockets, the only cover he had troubled himself to bring, and shuffled toward home. His mouth tasted like vomit, which made him feel like vomiting more and the contents of his stomach thrashed like a turbulent sea when he walked. The roundness of his belly protruded from the suit he had finally declared too tight.

He had had too much coke with his scotch. “Merry stupid Christmas,” he mumbled, kicking at the dunes of ice.

His words echoed around him, the rest of the street having emptied out long ago.

“Ah yes,” someone agreed, keeping a few steps behind him. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Quint. I trust you have a great morning planned in combination with this wonderful evening.”

The stranger was blurry and spinning before James’s eyes. He bit his tongue. “Listen, Mister, I don’t have any cash on me.”

Summit laughed, approaching him cautiously. “Are you alright, Mr. Quint? You’re not looking very well.”

Quint nodded. “Super. Just super.”

“If you say so. I’m actually glad to catch you. I have been meaning to discuss something with you these last few days.”

“You can make an appointment with my secretary, Janice.” Quint kept shuffling toward home.

Summit grinned, grasping Quint’s shoulder. “My intentions are a bit less formal than that, Mr. Quint. I’d have to put on a tie to go down to your office and have a meeting, quite undesirable in my opinion. No, I’d much rather talk out here.”

“Well, what is it, then?”

“No need for rudeness. You and I are actually involved in the same business. I have other people make my weapons and I exploit them for my own gain. And I sell them, too.”

“If you’re looking to give me advice, Mister,” Quint slurred, “I’m really not interested.”

“Oh no, not at all. I was actually more interested in making you a little business proposition.”

Quint’s agitation was becoming harder to hide. It was not the first time he had been approached on the street about business propositions and advice and he knew it would not be the last, but remaining polite was something he had never been particularly good at. “Like I said, if you want to make an appointment, you’ll have to call my secretary, Janice. I don’t make deals out on the street.”

Summit frowned. “Oh, well that’s too bad, Mr. Quint. Your friends were a lot easier to talk to.”

“Friends? I don’t have friends.”

“Really? Charles? Avery? They seemed to think that they were your friends. You disagree?”

James was much too drunk for this conversation. “I don’t know what they are.”

“That’s too bad. They seemed to think I had good ideas.”

The drunk said nothing.

“Really, Mr. Quint, how rude. You’re not even going to ask me about my idea?” Summit demanded, throwing his companion a look of mock disappointment.

“Probably not.”

“Well, I’ll tell you anyway. You see, I have a lot of friends around these parts, friends who’d really like to purchase your products but who don’t really have the credentials. I think if I was your partner I could broaden your market with them.”

It was James’s turn to laugh. “Give guns to criminals? Yeah, like the press wouldn’t crucify me for that! Why would I do that?”

“I didn’t know I was giving you a choice, Mr. Quint.”

“I don’t need a partner.”

Summit hugged him mockingly. “Well, partner, you’ve got one.”

“Or what?” James demanded, shrugging his way out of the embrace. His back struck a wall of flesh, keeping him frozen in place. His eyes climbed up…and up…and up the giant’s chest before they could find the green eyes above.

“Or, I’m afraid my friend Garrett will have to break your legs.”

Chapter Thirteen

Sunday, December, 13th, 2015

Sasha hung her head, leading Garrett onto a different path as they walked. It had been hours since they had left the sanctuary of the bush, but Sasha feared they had not made nearly enough ground toward her father’s house.

Her father.

“Please, Garrett, stop.”

He silenced, looking around. “Did you hear something?”

“No. I need the quiet to think. Something you said…” she trailed off. It could not be the same person. Her father may have had plenty of the money and the staff to procure a super-powered bodyguard, she supposed if he really wanted to, but who would even think of such a thing? How could he make a think like that possible?

“What is it?”

“Tell me more about that man. Summit Freeman.”

“I couldn’t even if I wanted to,” Garrett insisted. A dark look came over her face. “That scum, that monster, destroyed everything for me. Just the mention of his name makes me…”

Sasha felt a rock against her hip. She looked around, only to find that the stones and sticks from the forest floor were rising into the air.

“I can’t even put words to it. If he were here I would snap his neck like one of these twigs,” he finished, breaking the sticks with only his mind’s influence.

“Watch what you say, Daniels,” she growled, shoving him backward.

The things he had been holding in the air fell around her. His confusion showed plainly on his face. “What?”

“You will watch your tongue when you speak of him. Now, tell me, what did this man look like?” she demanded.

“Tall. Dark hair. Umm…I don’t know! It’s been years.”

“I think you are lying. You do not remember every detail of the man who ruined your life, as you put it?”

“During our last meeting, my attention was on something else.”

“What does that mean?” she inquired, searching his face for clues.

He looked skyward. “I don’t even know anymore.”

Sasha rolled her eyes. “Hmm. How cryptic.”

“He did ruin my life.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that he did. I know what he does. What he is capable of.”

Garrett stopped walking. “You know Summit Freeman?”

“I do.”

He waited for her to go on, but she did not. “How? Well, I guess that would make more sense. You would have to have met him if he made you into this.”

“I was born this. Sasha Freeman.”

His sharp intake of breath preluded the string of profanity he released. He stomped in circles, kicking at the objects scattered around the ground. A tree groaned as it was nearly uprooted.

“You will give away our position!” she hissed, standing between him and the next tree he would victimize. “Get a grip!”

“Sasha Freeman. He gave you his name?”

“He is my father.”

“That’s a lie, Sasha. I know your father. He walked you down the aisle and mourned you when you were lost. To think that man stole you and took his place is insulting.”

“My God, Garrett, do you realize how ridiculous you sound?” she hissed. “Are you really so diluted that you cannot see reason?”

“There’s no other way—”

“How is it that you can insist that without proof? There is no basis in reality for what you are implying. I grew up this way. I remember being a child.”

He went through his pockets, producing the picture she had destroyed in the bathroom. It was crumpled up, he seemed to have painstakingly flattened it, and it was stained by droplets of water, but the faces were still visible. “Then how do you explain this?”

“This,” Sasha said, pointing to the bride’s face. “Who is this?”

That’s you. Christ! I wish I could shake you. Make you remember.” Under her withering scowl, he amended, “My wife. Poppy.”

Sasha took it from him gently, squinting at it. “She looks very familiar.”

He said nothing. There was nothing he could say that she would believe.

“She looks like me.”

He nodded. “She does.” Sasha did not look back up for a while, too entranced by her doppelganger in the photo. “Will you show him?”

“Summit?” She caressed the rips in the photo with the back of her index finger and nodded.

“What would he say?”

“He will say the photo is manipulated,” she explained.

When she did not go on, he inquired, “And what do you think?”

“I think,” she dropped the photo, “that there is something going on that I do not yet understand. Something strange. But that does not mean that I believe that I could be Poppy. I could not be Poppy.”

“You can’t trust him. He’s going to hurt you; you should stay away from him.”

Sasha smiled, a pathetic sort she did not usually allow to grace her face. Not as Sasha and definitely not as Poppy. “I trust no one. My father, on the other hand, is the only exception.”

“You mean Summit.”

“Yes,” she replied. “My father.”

“He’s lying to you.”

Sasha’s entire body went even more rigid than usual. “Excuse me.”

“He’s lying to you. He’s not who he says he is.”

She stared him down, burning him with her eyes. “How dare you?”

“Po…Sasha—”

“Stop,” she held up a hand, dropping the picture. “You know nothing about me. Not what I do. Not who I do it with. And definitely not about my father.”

“You don’t think he’s hiding something from you. He’s just an open book nowadays?”

The young woman spoke from experience. “Everyone hides things.”

Garrett turned away to retrieve the photo. “I don’t hide anything from you.”

She laughed at him. “You’re out of your mind.”

“Then why did you ask me to tell you?” She saw his eyes fill with tears before he whipped his head in the opposite direction.

Silence.

“I have questions.”

He did not acknowledge her statement.

It did not matter, she went on anyway. “I want to ask him about you. Your past. Your wife. But, he does not trust me anymore. He will not answer my calls. So I will have to ask you. I want to know more about her. What happened to her?”

“Oh, where to begin? My wife was taken from me.”

“What happened to her?”

Garrett narrowed his eyes. “What you must understand is that Summit has a way of making things happen that you would think is impossible. And he doesn’t care about the cost.”

“Sounds familiar.”

“Has he ever asked you to partake in any of his experiments?”

She shook her head. “As far as I know, he does not have experiments.”

“Of course not, he’d have hired someone new to handle those for him. And he will. When he does, you have to say no.”

She kept very serious. “Why should I?”

“They destroy lives, Sasha. I played into it a long time ago, and I want to warn you. They have you here for a reason. They made you for a reason. And now that they have you, they would not hesitate to pump you full of drugs. Make you more efficient. So you could take my place.”

She laughed again. “Take your place. Mr. Daniels, I have long since surpassed you in every way—” She would have liked to be more efficient. She had yet to hear anything bad in his warnings.

“It wasn’t a jab. It’s because of Summit and one of his doctors that I can do the things you have seen me do. That’s what they’ll do to you if you let them.”

“Hmm,” she pretended to consider it. “Supernatural strength, the ability to heal myself instantaneously…what a world you must live in, Garrett. I apologize if I do not sympathize.”

“They’ve only brought you back to hurt me.”

“Well which is it, Garrett,” she spat. “Are they hoping to keep you around or me? Answer me that.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“What did you mean?”

He sighed. “I know you think I’m crazy. I’m sure you think it’s impossible, but if anyone could find a way to do it, it would be the…the monster you call ‘Father.’”

“I am sure I will not believe it, as well.”

He pleaded with her through his eyes. “I think you’re my wife. I think they found a way to bring you back.”

She grinned. “Oh, Mr. Daniels, I do so enjoy our talks. It’s like listening to a fairytale.”

“I mean it. Please hear me out!”

“I have been hearing you out. Please, go on. When did the horror all start?”

Monday, January 21st, 1985

It took only eight injections.

The first time was agony; they had clearly shot white hot, liquid fire into my brain. Within seconds, it had spread to the rest of my body, filling me with the same pain. They would not give me pain killers or even some of mom’s booze. It could affect your medication, they had said. Medication. That was how they always referred to the shots. My normal, frail body was sick with regularity, and they were fixing me.

After a day, my mind was clearer, able to process more at once. I heard the sound of birds chirping down the block, the slight wheeze in my alarm clock that I realized meant needed replacement batteries soon, and my mother’s snoring downstairs. She had passed out in the living room again, in case I needed the reminder.

The best part was the muscles in my arms, they protruded like throbbing coils. My head ached from the shot, but I did not really care. The muscles, the extra three inches in height. If the kids from high school could see me now.

Summit and Doctor Hartl could not have been anymore thrilled the day I came back for my injections. I was not sure what they had put in the drugs they were pumping into him, all I knew was that it was working. And it was working well.

By the time the eight weeks were up, I was a staggering 6’8”. My shoulders had grown too wide to fit through most doorways, a fact that startled mom, the only one I had seen in the last few weeks. I had been excused by the doctors from school, citing the flu or something.

Doctor Hartl picked up my homework and delivered it to my teachers when it was done while I was told to stay out of sight and eat as often as I liked to keep up with my changing metabolism.

I had not seen Poppy for two weeks. We talked on the phone almost every night, but I missed her face. I missed her smell. I missed her hand brushing mine while we walked side by side down the street toward the pizza parlor. I wondered if she did that on purpose.

The final injection was scheduled for early in the morning. I had not left myself much time to be there, but Summit sent a car after seeing the atrocity I had been driving around in before. The sun was barely rising over the trees when I pulled up to the familiar lab and spoke the same words to the intercom.

“Garrett Daniels, ready to go.” My voice had grown deeper. Sexier. Even Poppy liked it.

Doctor Hartl buzzed me in as usual.

Unlike the first day, no one was there to greet me, but I did not expect them to. They would be standing in Lab 5, tightening the new straps they had needed to replace now that his strength had increased. A pile of chains had been placed in the corner of the room. I tried not to think about them needing to tie me down with those.

I shoved a granola bar into my mouth, almost satiating the sudden starvation that seemed to be a constant in my gut, kind of like my school days at lunch time. I entered the lab.

“Morning, gentlemen,” I flexed my biceps to show him the progress.

“Good morning, Garrett,” Doctor Hartl said.

Summit only nodded. “Let’s get this one over with.”

“I’m with you.” I pulled myself onto the gurney wondering what effects this next treatment would have on me. I could not possibly get bigger, could I? The last cot needed to be replaced the one from before. It had collapsed under my new weight.

Hartl went to work at tying my wrists down. “How are you feeling?”

“To be perfectly honest, I’m hungry,” I grinned.

Hartl laughed. Summit cracked an amused grin. “I’m sure you are. Hartl, do you have anything for him?”

The doctor produced a large muffin from the pocket of his coat. “I wanted to be prepared for the worst. You can have it after the treatment, you’ve got no hands.” He indicated the restraints, now buckled tightly around my wrists.

I tried not to pout and closed my eyes instead, readying myself for the procedure. “All the more reason to finish up.”

“You’re gonna feel a little pressure.”

When the medication was ejected from the syringe, the “pressure” felt like liquid fire burning and raping my flesh. I tried to be quiet but the heat grew intense. . My eyes welled up with tears. “Stop.”

“Just another second, Garrett. It doesn’t last forever.”

“I’ve had enough. Get it out.”

“Almost done,” Hartl sang. The ache would not stop, the burn erupted through my body, forcing sweat from my pores. I stayed perfectly still, trying hard not to disturb the serum coursing through my body. Pins and needles replaced the fire, unpleasantly numbing him. Was I moving? Was I breathing? I could not tell.

“Take it out.”

“I’m trying.”

Tears spilled from my eyes, I couldn’t stop them. The pain was persistent. “I said take it out!”

Hartl sounded near panic. “I can’t, it’s stuck!”

I opened my eyes and found Hartl too close, grabbing at the syringe with one hand and readying a scalpel to cut my temple open with the other. Summit did not seem to care.

“Get off me!” My new muscles pushed against the restraints. They creaked but did not break.

Hartl quaked. The scalpel in his hand shook. “Freeman, the chains!”

Summit did not make a move.

I kept pulling until I could lift my arms, tearing the shackles to pieces, and I pushed Hartl away. I reached up and pulled the syringe from my head, finding barely any resistance. Why couldn’t the doctor pull it out then?

I bent down, holding my head in my hands, waiting out the ache I knew would leave me any second. The room was deadly quiet.

“God, that one hurt,” I wiped the stupid tears and stood up. “That one was the worst one, yet.”

“It’ll be the last one. I think you’re ready,” Summit replied, a smile in his voice.

“Thank God.”

“It was marvelous. Your skin healed around the syringe. And you just pulled it right out.”

I was confused. Did he say my skin healed? The pain was gone. I felt my temple for a raw hole in my skin, but there was nothing. “I didn’t have to think about it. I just did it. I’m starving, can I have that muffin now?”

“Sure,” Summit said. He tossed the muffin at me. I caught it easily.

“Thanks, Hartl, I’m starving.”

“He can’t hear you.”

I laughed, taking a quite bite of the fluffy blueberry muffin. “Why’d he go deaf?”

“In a way.”

I looked up mid-bite. Hartl’s body lay, upside down, against the wall. The upper corner of his skull had collapsed in on itself, spilling red goo down the wall and along the floor. His lab coat was nearly off and stained with the stuff. I looked at my hand and saw that the muffin had just a bit of it staining the wrapper as well.

“Oh my God,” I looked at Summit and dropped the food. “You killed him.”

The older man grinned. I will never forget that evil grin. “No, I didn’t, Garrett. You did.”

“What?” I backed away from the body. “No. I didn’t.”

Summit laughed. “It was brilliant. You pushed him and he flew. Dead on arrival.”

“That’s impossible, I barely touched him.”

“Tell that to Hartl,” Summit snorted. “Don’t beat yourself up about it, Garrett. I heard a little rumor about how he got to this point in his experimentations. It was quite grotesque.”

“No,” I shook my head, not wanting to believe it. Is this why they had done this? To create a monster? A killer? “No, I didn’t kill him. I couldn’t have killed him!”

“Get used to it, Garrett, I’ve got plenty of plans for you.”

Chapter Twelve

Sunday, December, 13th, 2015

Sasha knew something was wrong. She had only intended to sleep for a little while, until noon at the latest, but she had the feeling that she had slept for too long. It was too warm. Too dark. Her eyes jerked open and she flailed, but she was surrounded on all side by walls. They were closing in on her, crushing her.

A hand slapped over her mouth. Her mind flashed with images of the Chameleon and Contagion. They had found them. She would be feeling the agony of poison burning through her flesh in a matter of seconds. Vaguely, she swore she could hear them, close and angry. Her whole body thrashed against the arms holding her back.

“Sasha, Sasha, Sasha,” Garrett hissed in her ear.

She froze. As she adjusted to the waking world, she realized that she had been incorrect. She was still under the bush, pulled tight against Garrett’s chest. One of his arms was wrapped around her waist, the other around her chest. His hand covered her mouth.

The sound of the Chameleon and Contagion’s voices, bickering again, was not as close as she had originally thought. She could not see them from beneath the cover of the leaves, but the sound of the sticks nearby cracking underfoot informed her that they were growing closer.

“They’re coming—” Garrett began.

Sasha squeezed the hand over her mouth, silently urging him to be silent. The footprints would lead them right to the bush and that would be the end of it. If they heard them, it would only bring them faster.

“Wait,” the Chameleon hissed. “What happened?”

Contagion replied. “This is the end.”

“They could not have evaporated into the air, Contagion, they have to go somewhere!”

“If they do, they covered them up.”

Sasha debated running. Hiding could only keep them safe for so long, until their pursuers listened hard enough to hear breathing and checked. They were backed into a corner. Running could at least give them options.

“Garrett,” she whispered under her breath. “Get ready to run.”

He held tighter to her, despite her insistence on getting away.

“What are you doing?”

He released her enough to roll onto her other side, forcing her to face him. He vehemently shook his head, placing a finger to his lips. She stared questioningly back at him, forcing her eyes not to linger on the way his lips molded to his finger.

Get a grip, Sasha.

“They could not have covered all of their tracks. They would have to start up again somewhere,” the Chameleon snapped.

“Have you forgotten who we’re following? I’m sure they could manage to cover up tracks. You know he would have trained her in it.”

She sighed theatrically. “Assuming she can remember it. She seems to have forgotten much. She is careless now. It is really no surprise that—”

“Stop.” Contagion hesitated. “She could be anywhere.”

“Who cares? She will be dead within the hour anyway.”

“You will have to find her first.”

Sasha stopped breathing. It was too quiet and her breaths sounded so loud in the silence. Garrett’s too.

“Try this way. The forest is not big enough for them to hide forever.”

“I have an idea.”

No more words were spoken. The sound of breaking twigs got closer. And closer. And closer. Sasha held tight to Garrett’s hand, rearing back into him as if it would mean not being seen.

The sound of their steps passed, moving further away. Sasha released the breath she had been holding.

Garrett squeezed her, hugging her. “I covered over our prints when I heard them. You’re safe, Sasha.”

Safe. She liked to feel safe. Her axe made her feel safe, her apartment made her feel safe, and her father made her feel safe. Garrett did not make her feel safe.

He made her confused.

“How long have I been asleep?” she demanded.

“Long time. The whole day is gone.”

She pulled away from his embrace and crawled out of the cover of the brush. The sky was black, dotted with stars and a little sliver of moon. The air was cold without the comfort of Garrett surrounding her. She could see her exhales puff into clouds of smoke. “It is dark outside! Why did you not wake me?”

“You seemed really tired,” he replied, pulling himself out after her.

Liar. She knew that he had let her sleep so long because she could not push him away if she was asleep. He could pretend anything he wanted if she was not disputing it in his face. She did not say as much. “We lost too much time. We have to move.”

He nodded. “Okay. Lead the way.”

She stretched as she crawled out from beneath the shrubbery, preparing for the long journey. Garrett watched her, studying her, ogling her. His eyes roved over her body for a long moment. “Let’s go,” she snapped, snapping him out of whatever trance she held over him.

Wordlessly, he followed.

As they started off the path, Sasha chanced a few looks at her silent friend. He was already watching her with the strangest look on his face. A small, smug smile. Heavy-lidded eyes. He walked forward but the top half of his body was turned to face her.

She did not want to ask. It would only bring on a torrent of his proclamations of love. Poppy. Poppy. Poppy. He might even touch her wear her shirt rode up and she would be confused again.

She would not allow such things to happen again. She did not like to feel confused. He opened his mouth to speak, but she beat him to it. “What happened next?”

“What?”

“You were telling the story. What happened next, I want to hear more.”

Monday, November 26th, 1984

We walked down a hallway of closed doors, each as completely nondescript as the last. I swore that I could walk down this hall a million times and still have no idea which door held what. Eventually we stopped at one. There was nothing remarkable about it, only the number 21.

“I will warn you, Garrett,” Hartl began, “he’s not the nicest of men. Speak only when spoken to. Don’t ask too many questions.”

“Aren’t you going to be doing the interview?” Hartl Laboratories did insinuate a certain amount of power in the man himself.

The doctor in question shook his head, jotting something else in his notepad so he would not have to make eye contact. “I’m afraid not.”

Keeping Doctor Hartl’s most recent piece of advice in mind, I did not ask why.

“Ready?”

I only nodded. My nerves were tying my stomach up with knots already. Hartl threw the door open for me; I was glad for it, my history with the steel doors was not a good one. Unlike my first time entering the building, this room was brightly lit, the walls all an iridescent white. A single chair occupied the center of the room. In it sat a middle-aged man with closely shaven salt and pepper hair. His dark eyes pierced me from our very first meeting, making me nervous.

“Mr. Daniels,” the man said, “glad to see you could make it.”

He waited for a response. I managed to mumble back, “Pleasure to meet you.”

My companion laughed lightly. “I rarely find pleasure in anything.”

This time, I did not speak.

“Anyway, my name is Summit Freeman. I put the ad in the paper you’re here for. I suppose my first question is…why are you here?”

I knew the answer very well. “I’m a dedicated worker. I am very proud of my work and would like to be as valuable as possible as soon—”

“No, Garrett,” Freeman interjected. “What’s the real reason? What made you desperate enough for work that you drove all the way out here?”

I hesitated. “I need the money.”

“A young man like you?” he went on. “What could you possibly need money for so badly?”

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “My mom,” I replied, cracking my knuckles. “She can’t work.” She won’t work.

“Surely there are other, closer places that could fill that need.”

“No one would hire me.”

Summit’s stern face displayed the slightest bit of curiosity. “Oh? Why?”

I bit my lip, wondering whether I should give away my record. My guilt ate at me. “I…I was arrested fairly recently.”

“Hmm, do tell.”

“I was involved in a fight at my last job. The other guy was taken to the hospital.”

The older man perked up. “Really? What did you do to him?”

Encouraged by his obvious interest, I went on. “I threw a few punches. When he didn’t go down, I hit him with a bottle.”

“Can’t say it was wise for you to do it at work,” Summit chuckled. “Why’d you do it?”

Poppy’s face surfaced in my mind. No glasses. Hair down. Halo completely visible. “He was bothering my friend.”

“A protector. I must say, Garrett, you’re so much better than I could’ve hoped for.”

Forgetting the instructions I had been given by the doctor to not try this man’s patience, I asked, “For what?”

“I’m trying to do an experiment, and I’d like your help. I think the two of us can be very beneficial for each other. You need money. I just so happen to have it in spades. I need a willing subject, and you’re perfectly willing to help. Do you see where I’m going with this?”

I nodded. “What’s the experiment?”

Summit stood, offering me the chair. I took it gladly.

“I’m a very important man, Garrett,” he paced the small room. “I require protection. Naturally, with the kind of people I face, I need someone strong, someone smart, someone who can scare my enemies into staying away.”

I looked down at myself. In the smarts department I was average at best, and much less so when it came to strength. I should be the last person to be considered for a security position.

“I’m looking to make this kind of person. With the help of Doctor Hartl, I think we’ve found a way to manipulate the human body into becoming bigger, stronger, and faster than would be naturally possible.”

What? I had assumed working in a lab would consist of some time as a lab rat, but this was a bit more than I had bargained for. Bigger? I had always wanted a better body. If what he said was true, I could not believe he would be paying for it, “What does that mean for me?”

“Just a short series of injections into your head,”—Summit stilled, probably because of the look of horror on my face— “it’s the control panel for your entire body. We can do anything there, change anything there. Over a period of a few weeks, you’ll get between ten and twelve injections, depending on the results, and we’ll closely monitor you. Eventually, once you’ve been trained and prepared, I’ll take you on as a bodyguard.”

I quirked a brow. Well, the man was out of his mind, but the promise of money was too good to pass up.  “Okay. Just assuming that this works, what’s in it for me?”

“It will work,” Summit leaned in. “Once we’ve manipulated your body into forming muscles and producing enough adrenaline to constantly flow on its own, no human will be able to stand up to you.”

To be strong. Intimidating. Powerful. It was more than I could have hoped for. “I’ll believe it when I see it. What am I getting out of it, though?”

“Exactly what you wanted. As long as you’re under my employment, I will pay every bill you could possibly have. You will have more than enough for anything you could possibly desire. My riches are completely at your disposal.”

Chapter Eleven

Saturday, December, 12th, 2015

Garrett’s body shook behind her. “It hurts so bad, Sasha.”

“You have already told me as such, Daniels.” As his hands began to caress her back again, she slapped him away. “Remove yourself from my person.”

“Sorry. It’s not getting better.”

The sun had risen over an hour ago. Leaving the bush was not in their best interest, but Sasha knew that sooner or later she would need to check his wounds. If she did not, she worried that it very well might have been a corpse that she would be carrying into her father’s home. And if he was dead there would not be any evidence of the things she had seen. Without him, they would not get to the bottom of where all of these super-powered freaks were coming from.

And how she could get her hands on those powers.

“I will take a look. We just have to be fast.” Surveying the woods around them for signs of pursuit, she maneuvered her way out from under the bush and crawled to her knees. “I am going to pull you out. Bite your tongue.”

He grunted out a cry when he was pulled through the dirt and grass but it was short lived. Sasha winced, suppressing a gasp. He whispered, “How does it look?”

Garrett was beginning to resemble a melted candle. His back was entirely bare of flesh. The…disease had encroached on other parts of his body, from the wrist of one arm to the elbow of another. Sasha did not dare look under the waistband of his pants, but she assumed it had crawled down onto his legs. Bubbles sprouted from his throat. There was not a doubt in her mind that it would reach his face soon, and, when it did, there could be only death to follow.

She debated lying to him, it would be only too easy, but she did not. “You are dying, Garrett.”

“What?” he hissed, trying in vain to look up at her. “How is that possible?”

“It is spreading to your legs now. If I cannot find a way to stop it, I imagine it will eat the rest of your healthy tissue until you are dead.”

“But you’re not sure. You haven’t seen anything like this?”

She scoffed, “Of course not. I doubt I know of anyone who has seen anything like this. But I have seen plenty of dying people and I can tell you that you will not make it much longer with wounds such as these.”

Garrett tried to push himself up onto his hands and knees, but he was flattened within seconds. “What do we do?”

“We? What makes you think that you will be receiving help from me?” she inquired.

“Please, Sasha. Even if you don’t have any feelings for me, you and I both know I’m no good to you dead.”

He was right, but she could not relinquish her power to him. It would give him hope. “You were never any good to me, Daniels.”

She swore she could see tears falling from his face and onto the dirt. “I must be. Somewhere in there, you have to remember me. You have to love me.”

“Love you?” she chuckled. She had almost forgotten. Her companion was unbalanced. “Of course.”

She looked around the forest floor in search of something sharp. Something that she could use to strip him of the afflicted tissue. Garrett could heal himself, she knew that well enough, it was Contagion’s poison that would not allow him to regenerate. But if Sasha could cut away the poisoned skin, leaving behind only the healthy parts, then she ventured it was possible for him to heal again. “If I saved you, Garrett, believe me it is not for romantic reasons.”

“Why then? Why not?”

“I have never felt a romantic feeling for anyone, Daniels. Try not to be offended.”

“Can’t help it. You married me. I like to think that when a person promises to love you forever, they mean it.”

She narrowed her gaze at a stick that was not quite as dirty as the ones it was surrounded by. “If it is all the same, I would prefer to leave this conversation for a later time.”

“If I’m going to die—” he began.

“Oh please give up the theatrics. You will not die.”

“But…you said—”

“Contrary to what I have said, Mr. Daniels, your powers are quiet useful to me. You are of great value to me, and I assume to my father as well. And I am opposed to dragging a corpse with me while those two chase me. I will help you.”

“How?”

“Once I have figured it out, I will let you know.”

She did not have much left in the way of resources. Everything she owned was back in the car and her shoes, the only means she ordinarily would have had to sharpen the stick to something usable, were long gone in some nondescript part of the woods. She would need to think of another way.

“Any ideas?”

“Nothing that you will find pleasant. I suggest putting your mind on other things.”

“I’m dying and my wife doesn’t remember me. I don’t really have a happy place to go to from here.”

She tapped the slightly pointed end of the stick. It was not nearly enough to do the job, not without something to wash the poison out. “Suit yourself. It is no skin off my back.”

“Was that a pun?”

Ideally, she would have used a scalpel. Ironically, she knew there was one in the car. “I have to go back to my things.”

“No! They’ll be waiting for you there.”

“I doubt it. They will be looking for us here and the car is useless so far as they know. I have some things that could help you.”

“I won’t let you put yourself in danger for me, Sasha.”

It was a strange feeling to know that someone cared for her wellbeing. Even her father, the light of her life and only family, had never expressed much of a concern. She thought it might have even felt…nice.

It had been years since she had entertained the idea of meeting a man that she could see as a companion. Men were scarce in her life, all being far too old to be considered anything worth liking, or even loving. Besides, she was near positive that even if such a man existed around her, pursuing him in any way would have been strictly forbidden.

Sasha wondered what it would be like, though, to be half of a couple who understood each other deeply enough to stay together forever. To have another person in the world that would not base her value on whatever job she was employed with completing at the time. To have a person in the world she would not mind having around her all the time; who she would enjoy disrupting the quiet with.

Someone even Sasha could hold feelings for.

“I will go to the car.”

Her own words shocked her. It was not at all in her best interest to leave the cover of the brush. It would have been in her best interest to leave him behind and run for Summit’s home on her own, only to go back in search of him later. Somewhere between her training and her morals, and lack thereof, her mind told her that it would be unacceptable.

“No—”

“You cannot tell me what to do, Garrett. I will save your life and you cannot stop me.” He opened his mouth to speak, but she silenced him by raising her hand. “The longer I wait, the less of a chance you have of surviving. If you stay in the bush, you should be fine. Just stay quiet.”

Sasha did not wait for his reply. She shoved him back into place beneath the brush.

They had left footprints. Sasha was aghast to see the clear imprints of her own bare feet in the mud. How had they not found them?

She remained cautious as she followed the tracks back the way they had come, constantly listening for them. Still, she was not so worried for herself. She worried for Garrett.

Sasha was trained for situations such as this, barring acid-spitting men and talking lizards, but Garrett seemed unprepared without the use of his powers. If they were to find him, and those tracks could bring them to him easily, he would be completely useless.

A shriek pierced the otherwise silent forest air.

Sasha froze in midstride and dropped to the ground. It was too close.

After a long moment, after she deduced that she was not walking into a trap, Sasha raised herself from the dirt. She continued slowly. Silently. When another scream made her jump, she realized that she was coming closer to its source. Within a few yards, she could even make out words.

“Kim, it won’t do any good.”

“Well, it isn’t going to help us if we just sit here waiting for it to go away!” a familiar, lizard-like­ voice retorted. She knew that lizard.

The man she deduced to be Contagion countered. “What would you have me do that we haven’t tried yet?”

“Spit acid at it.”

“Spit it at what? There’s nothing there.”

The Chameleon heaved another frustrated scream. “Oh, when I find that girl I’m going to rip off her skin and wear it!”

“You can do that already.”

Through the leaves, they came into focus. Sasha could tell they had not yet moved because her shoes lay scattered around them. Puddles of Garrett’s blood had collected amongst the leaves. The Chameleon pounded her fists against an invisible barrier.

Sasha kept low to the floor. Garrett would not last much longer, certainly not long enough for her to chance another fight with monsters. They could not be permitted to see her, even if she was raring for a rematch.

From there, it was simple to find the car. They had not made it far earlier that morning when they had run from the Chameleon. The doors were open and Sasha’s bag rested in the backseat. She threw it over her shoulder, debating whether she should sabotage the truck parked a short ways behind her car. The image of Garrett’s wounds behind her eyelids made the decision for her.

She sprinted through the woods, taking a different path from the one she and Garrett had used in the hopes that they could confuse which one to take. Her feet sank into the soft mud with every step.

Sasha fell into the clearing where her shoes and Garrett’s blood still rested. She did not know which would have been worse: being attacked by Contagion and the Chameleon while on her own or finding them gone.

Because they were gone.

“Shit,” she muttered under her breath. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”

She threw herself further with all of the speed she could muster. If Garrett had not yet been found, it would be a miracle. She followed her tracks from earlier to find him. The woods all looked the same down to every tree and bush. Which one had she shoved him under.

A hand on her ankle threw her to the floor.

“What—”

“Sorry,” a quiet voice retorted.

“Garrett?” she demanded, reaching for him through the branches. He hissed, informing her that she had hit her mark. “We will have to do this quickly.”

“Do what?”

She said nothing. Fishing for the scalpel in the front compartment of her bag, she removed the rest of his clothes. Garrett was unable to put up much resistance. Sasha wondered if he knew what was going on.

He could definitely tell what was going on when she got to work at sawing off the poisoned portions of his body. “What’re you doing?” he yelled.

“Quiet! You will bring them to us.”

He did not quiet. With every new slice of her blade into his skin, his cries grew louder. Once she had moved onto his arms, his cries of pain turned to moans and his eyes questioned her. His back was healing.

“Is…is it working?”

“I am sure you can feel it. Your back is doing fine.”

He haphazardly pushed himself onto his haunches, despite her harsh orders to remain on the floor. “You saved me.”

Sasha averted her eyes when she first glimpsed his naked body. With a gulp, he pulled his pants back into place. “I am in the process of saving you. Get down.”

He reached for her, pulling her into a tight embrace. “Thank you! I can’t—”

Garrett was truly a beautiful specimen. Sasha felt dirty looking at him, given how perfectly sculpted his body was. She felt strange. Uncomfortable. And he was touching her. “Get off of me!”

He did not seem to be very put out by her words. “I can’t believe you did that. You risked your life for me!”

“Yes. Please be quiet. The last thing I need right now is for those two to find us. I will not heal like you. Just let me finish or it will grow back.”

“I could kiss you!”

“Please refrain from doing so.”

He watched in awe as his arm replaced itself with fresh, pink skin. That look quickly turned to disgust as he looked around at the mounds of toxic flesh piled up around him. “You’re leaving a big mess.”

She wished she carried men’s shirts. His old one was quickly disintegrating, but she desperately needed some distraction from his stone-like body. She attached her gaze to a specific blade of grass. “After I get some sleep I would be happy to relocate.”

“Of course! Of course you must be tired. You crawl under the bush. I’ll put your stuff away and I’ll keep watch.”

Sasha saw no reason to disagree.

Monday, November 26th, 1984

“Why do you think you’ll make a good contribution to our establishment?”

I forced myself not to answer too fast, but the words were already on the tip of my tongue. “I’m a dedicated worker. I am very proud of my work and would like to be as valuable as possible as soon as possible. I’m very excited to have the chance to grow with the business.”

The manager of the local diner nodded appreciatively, just as I knew he would. I had used the same statement in every interview I had done this week. I had long ago lost count of how many that had been, but the end was always the same, just as this one would undoubtedly become in the next few seconds. The man would flip the pages of his application, find the criminal record portion and freeze. He will ask about the night in the bar. I will answer truthfully, but the manager will not believe me. I will be turned away…again.

“Please, sir,” I begged while I was ushered out, “I need this job.”

The manager shook his head, holding the door open. “I’m sorry, Garrett, you seem like a nice kid, but I can’t have someone so volatile hanging around my customers.”

“I need the money. No one will hire me.”

“Sorry, kid. It’s not my problem.”

Not my problem. It had been made abundantly clear to me that the problem was only mine. I had lost both jobs when the police had come and arrested me for the fight in the bar. I could not consider turning over Poppy for doing the damage, she could not handle that place: cold, hard, unpleasant. I had only been there for the night (my mother had not answered the phone) while Poppy collected the money to get me, but I could safely assume it was the worst of my life. I could only imagine how much worse it would have been if it were that little girl in my place. Being hollered at by the criminals on either side of her, crying herself to sleep…

I had done the right thing.

Head hung, I left the diner. I waited until I was sure the manager had left me alone out there before I sighed, pulling the job listings I had seen in the newspaper from the pocket of my khakis. From the other, I grabbed a marker and crossed out my most recent failure from the near-bottom of the page.

“Where to next?” I muttered to myself.

The final line was one I had been reluctant to try: Hartl Laboratory. There was no specific amount of pay written there, or a job description, only those two words and a phone number. I hoped I had the necessary change to use a payphone; I could not bear to go home and try our own to find it disconnected. With no money coming in, it would be the first to go. If my mother was not going to get a job, I would be choosing the sacrifices, even if she would lament its absence for me to hear over and over again.

It took a few moments of searching, but a few quarters could be found in the crevices of my car’s seat. I did not let myself think I would be lucky in the rest of my ventures for the day. I trudged over to the payphone at the edge of the parking lot, coins in hand, and dialed the number the paper listed for me. It only rang once.

“Dr. Hartl speaking.”

I coughed and cleared my throat. “Hello, I’m calling in reference to your newspaper ad.”

“Name?” the older man asked.

“Garrett Daniels.”

There was silence on the other end for a moment. “How soon can you be here for a consultation?”

Consultation? “Umm, as soon as possible?”

“Perfect. Do you have a pen?”

“Yes!” I exclaimed, putting the tip of the marker to the back of my left hand. Doctor Hartl gave me the address, inputting some basic directions on the hidden path to the lab and hung up without so much as a goodbye. I did not mind; I was thrilled to even have the chance at another job. I barely managed to put the phone back on the hook before I was running for the car, straightening my shirt and my recently washed hair.

Chapter Ten

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.”

“I am?”

“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.”

“What? Who?”

“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.”

 

Chapter Nine

Saturday, December, 12th, 2015

“Tampered with? How would they even know it’s your car?”

“I do not know! But we are losing gas,” she enthused, looking into the rearview mirror again. There should not have been anyone on the roads so early in the morning, but there was. The headlights were too bright for her to distinguish a model, they were coming too close, but she could see that it was a truck. From what she could see, she figured it was a black pickup and it was occupied by two people.

“They’re awful close.”

“They are following us.”

He jerked around to face her. “What? What do you mean? How do you know that?”

Up ahead, the light was turning yellow. Sasha knew she would not make it through before it changed, but she stomped on the gas nevertheless. They lurched forward, speeding through the intersection long after the light had turned red.

Garrett screamed, clutching at the sides of his seat even though he was the only one in the car who could not be hurt if they crashed. Sasha’s eyes remained fixed on the rearview mirror. That truck sped through the light after her.

“They are following us.”

The gas gauge was dropping, inching closer to a quarter of a tank. Soon, they would be left helpless on the side of the road with no way of getting to Summit’s home other than their feet. She supposed it could be worse, she did not usually have the help of a super-powered juggernaut when she fought on missions. Still, it was not at all according to her plan.

She hated changing the plan.

“What’re we going to do?”

“We are going to wait until the car gives out. Fight them if it comes down to it.”

“You think it’s the lizard?”

“I know it is the lizard. It has to be the lizard. She knows that we will be running out of gas in a few minutes, tops, and she is waiting to pick us off.”

Sasha’s knuckles turned white over the steering wheel. Her pursuer’s high beams were on, blinding her, but there was still a chance she could lose them on the highway, assuming there were enough civilians heading to work at this time to hide her. As she merged into the “high volume” she realized that would not be the case. For as far as she could see, there was no one around to hide with. The occupants of the truck seemed to realize that, too, because they rammed her bumper.

Garrett’s face struck the dashboard, splitting his forehead. “Shit!” he poked at it until the wound sealed up on its own.

“Try not to cry about it, Daniels. There are worse things.”

“It hurts!”

“It will hurt a lot more if they shove us off the road, just hold on. Put on your seatbelt.”

He did as he was told, strapping himself in, and looked over his shoulder at the pickup truck moving to strike them again. “They’re coming back!”

“I know,” she countered. She could not make herself move any faster, not without risking their last bit of gas. “I am going to run them off.”

“Off the road? Are you out of your mind? That truck’s got double the weight on us. There’s no way we’ll run them off—”

“What other suggestions do you have?”

“Drive faster! We’ll speed it up, turn off up ahead, and make a run for it in the woods. By the time they catch up, we could have a good amount of ground on our side.”

Sasha smashed her fist against the steering wheel. “There is somebody with her this time! What do we do if they have those powers, too?”

“I can protect you.”

“I do not run,” she snapped. Quietly, she continued. “I cannot run. My ribs are injured. I will not make it far.”

He placed a hand on her shoulder. “I will protect you.”

The meter was nearly at empty. “You are going to have to.” She floored the gas, putting space between them and the truck. Almost immediately, the gas light came on. “We are empty. What is the plan?”

“Pull over.”

She wanted to be the boss again, but she decided to do as the superman asked. She pulled over to the side of the road, partially hiding the car in the brush. By the time Sasha had put the vehicle in park, Garrett had thrown open his door, rounded the car, and pulled open her door as well. He lifted her into his arms and ran.

“Wait!” she cried. “My bag.”

“It isn’t worth your life, Sasha,” he snapped.

It was true, but she had already lost so much that she did not feel ready to part herself from the last of her possessions. “Fine!”

Garrett dove through the trees, dodging branches and ducking through the wilderness. The forest was dense and dark, surrounding them like walls. A natural trail parted behind them as he stomped down the grass and crushed fallen sticks. He would give them away. “Do you know the way around here?”

“Keep your voice down. If they hear us, this was for nothing.”

Garrett screamed.

Sasha fell from his arms, grunting as she hit the ground. “What are you…?”

She silenced as she looked up. There were two of them: a man and a woman. The woman was brunette and statuesque, like someone you would see on the cover of a magazine. Her eyes were vivid amber.

The man was bald. His eyes were black. As Sasha appraised him, she noted that his mouth was open and his tongue was an abnormal shade of grey.

“This is them?” he inquired, squinting at Garrett’s body while he writhed in the dirt. “I thought he was strong?”

The woman smiled. “Apparently, you are stronger.”

“Unsurprising,” he said. He stooped low and lifted Garrett over his shoulder. Garrett screamed but did not move.

Sasha gasped, seeing the state of the back of his shirt. The material had melted down to his flesh. Huge welts grew and burst on his skin, spewing blood along the ground. The woman whistled, following Sasha’s line of sight.

“Wow,” she said. “Contagion, look. You did quite a number on him.”

“I usually do. What do we do with her?”

“He made it quite clear what we were to do with her. Just…spit on her. Do what you do best,” she laughed.

Sasha pulled herself onto her hands and knees, keeping a steady eye on the threats. “What do you want?”

“Do not concern yourself,” the woman countered. Sasha noted that there seemed to be some kind of accent in her voice. Something quite similar to her own. “We already have it.”

Contagion opened his mouth again and spit at Sasha, who threw herself away from them. She jumped to her feet, winding herself when her ribs ached. Damn Garrett.

Contagion spit at her again. Sasha stepped to the side, just out of reach.

She spared a look at the ground when a hiss reached her ear. The spit he had sent in her direction was eating through the ground, carving a hole in the forest floor. “My God,” she grunted, dodging another bout of the acid he sent in her direction. “What are you people?”

“I believe that is none of your concern,” the woman laughed, stepping closer. “Get to the car, Contagion, I think I can handle her.”

There was a bright light and, like scales, her flesh transformed, becoming porcelain white. Her hair fell shorter and became a lighter, strawberry blonde. Her face mirrored Sasha’s, albeit without her mask. Her clothes mirrored Sasha’s. Only the eyes, bright amber, gave away what she truly was.

“This is a good look for me, I think,” she said. Sasha wondered how she knew her face. Her mask had been covering her identity every time she had the displeasure of seeing the Chameleon.

The vision of a little girl with yellow eyes in the parking lot came to mind.

“I do not share.”

Sasha held her side with one arm and cartwheeled on the other, preparing to kick the lizard…the Chameleon with all of the strength in her body. Her legs never made it. The doppelganger grabbed her around both ankles, crumpling her to the ground. Sasha scowled up.

“That is a very impressive move,” Sasha added. “Something I would do, myself.”

“Well, I guess you could say I am a better you.”

Contagion turned on them, carrying Garrett along with him. “You might as well bring him back, I will have you both dead at my feet in just a minute,” Sasha joked.

Contagion spat at her over his shoulder, landing a torrent of acid on the toe of her shoe. It splashed up and into her face. “Shit!” she hissed, kicking it off as quickly as she could. Luckily, it had not touched her skin, but the boot melted before her eyes. Her mask hissed, evaporating into ash. She threw it far away.

Good riddance.

“It is not looking so good for you, little girl,” he replied.

Sasha punched the Chameleon while she laughed with her partner, knocking her on her back. “Garrett, get up!” she ordered.

The Chameleon grabbed her ankle, dragging her onto the ground along with her. Sasha landed a kick to her face, morphing it back into the brown creature she was familiar with. “Bitch!”

“No need for name calling,” Sasha sang.

Contagion yelped, dropping Garrett. His body did not touch the ground, held only an inch or two above the earth by the unseen force he manipulated. After a second, it dropped him, eliciting a moan from its master.

“What are you doing?” the Chameleon demanded, clawing at Sasha’s chest.

“He hit me.”

“He can hardly move, what do you mean he hit you?”

Sasha felt her back lift off the ground, but no one touched her. “What are you doing?” she crowed, scowling at Garrett.

He tried to sit up, but he barely made it into a sitting position. “Run.”

“We do not run!”

Contagion spit at her foot, barely splashing the other shoe. She was not going to take the chance. She kicked it off along with the other. Running was looking a little bit better, aside from the two hundred pounds of dead weight she would need to drag along with her.

“I will hold them back,” he grunted. Sasha looked around for a split second, running her options through her head. “Run.”

She ground her teeth and turned for him. “Get up,” she snapped, grabbing at Garrett’s shoulders.

“No!” the Chameleon shrieked, reaching for her. With a thud, her head struck an invisible wall, throwing her back to the ground.

Contagion flattened his palms against a similar wall. “What is this?”

“Come on, Daniels, time to go,” Sasha repeated. He gasped as she peeled him off the dirt.

“Careful!”

“Why are you still wounded? You are not healing,” she said. Sasha pulled his arm over her shoulder and forced him to stand. He swayed, eyes closed. “You will not fall asleep!”

Garrett jerked back to reality. He gasped, “I’m sorry, Sasha. There’s something wrong.”

“Do not apologize. Just stay awake.”

She did not want to know what would happen to the force field he had put up to save them if he fell asleep. She dragged him further into the woods, relishing in the sound of their attackers’ voices growing softer and softer.

Garrett’s eyes would not lift.

“Daniels! Open your eyes.”

“I can’t,” he moaned.

“Talk to me, then. Keep yourself awake.” He did not answer and his body weighed even heavier on her shoulder. She shook him back to his senses. “Hey!”

It was not working. Sasha was not a doctor, but she had been taught enough about trauma to worry for what would happen if he slept like this. Would he wake up? Would he die?

“Garrett!”

When all the answer she received was a moan, she floundered for an idea. Something to keep him awake. Something he liked to do.

“Hey!” she slapped at his face. He tripped over a rock, nearly bringing her to her knees. “Hey! Talk to me. Tell me about Poppy.”

He hesitated. “Poppy…”

Bingo. “Tell me about her. You wanted to convince me, right?”

He nodded a little bit. “Yes. I do.”

“What was she like? Besides the face like an angel,” she managed a chuckle.

He did not miss a beat. “She was perfect. She started at my school during my senior year of high school.”

 

 

Monday, September 10th, 1984

The day had started off just as any other for me: the alarm clock had woken me from another night of insufficient sleep, I had shoveled a watery mess of stale oatmeal down my throat, and I was running late for school. I had risen before the only other occupant of the house, my mother, but that was to be expected. She had a headache. She always had a headache. She would undoubtedly wake at noon, after I was long gone, and call me at the school to demand the location of the bottle I had taken from her the previous night and she would still have a headache.

She had passed out early the night before, the ungodly thing still clutched in her hand.

I stood in the kitchen, scrambling to shove everything I needed for school, my sketchpad, textbooks, and a singular, five-subject notebook, into my backpack. There was a hole in the bottom. Above all, I hoped this would not be the day that the cheap thing gave out, spilling my belongings all over the floor to be trampled on. It would be the last thing I needed, and the last thing I would be wasting money on replacing.

I packed a few extra pencils, needing the time with my drawings to keep me sane.

“Hey, Gar-bear,” she said as she entered the room, startling me. Mary Daniels’ hair was a mess, but that was nothing strange. I was not sure when she had last showered, at least a week though. She had better things to do, like follow whatever television show she had chosen to obsess over this week while she lost herself in a new bottle of booze.

I kept my gaze pointed at the bag in my hands, resenting the sight of her more and more by the day. “Morning, Mom.”

“Working today?” she inquired.

“Yeah.” I worked every day. She had to have known I worked every day.

The woman took a seat at the kitchen table, fumbling to pull the box of cigarettes from her bathrobe’s pocket. “Aren’t you tired?”

I watched her light the damn thing and puff on it in our house, staining the walls with grey. “What does it matter? I have to go.”

“I just think you work too much—”

I shot her a scathing look. “Work too much?”

“Yeah. Like don’t you have friends that you want to spend time with?”

I grunted, “No.”

“Oh. That’s okay. I’m your friend.”

I bit my lip. “Yeah.”

She laughed a little. “It wouldn’t hurt you to spend some time with me.”

“Would you like to do it, then Mom? Do you want to take one of the jobs off my hands?”

The laughing died and she said nothing.

“That’s what I thought.” I threw the bag over my shoulder, making a beeline for the door.

The kitchen chair screeched when she stood to follow me. “Bye, Garrett! Have a good day at school!” she yelled after me.

I did not look back. “You too.”

“I love you!”

“I love you, too.”

I arrived at the school at 8 a.m. exactly, dressed in the uniform I would need for work in the afternoon. My hair was not combed, the shirt had not been washed, and I smelled funky, even to me. Still, I would take an unpleasant day in school, taunted by my peers for my homeliness, over the suffering of staying home and coughing up smoke with my mother any day.

I parked far away from the rest of the student body, hoping no one would notice me or the state of the car I drove. It was my mom’s, and it was just as rusted out and old as she was.

I was an awkward boy, barely eighteen and struggling with my not-so-newfound responsibility. My hair was golden at one point, but the thick grease that had accumulated in it these last few days had turned it nearly brown; I would have enjoyed a shower this week, but, as I knew only too well, there just were not enough hours in the day. I was tallish but thin in the extreme. My face was marred by hollowed out cheeks and sallow skin, which I scrutinized in my rearview mirror.

It’ll get better. It was a mantra I had lived by for years now, but things had yet to actually get better. My father was still gone. My mother was still drunk. I was still ugly.

The parking lot was long, separating my car from the school by hundreds of feet, but I did not care. I rushed toward the entrance of the school, bag tucked under my arm. I shoved my key into the pocket of my slacks, wishing I had had time to wear something a little less dressy. They would certainly have a field day over this.

At first, approaching the crowds of people waiting to enter the building was bearable. It was a Monday, and everyone had plenty to talk about in regard to how their weekends had gone. No one spared me a glance. But, as usual, it only lasted a moment. Then, they began to part like the red sea, moving away from me like I was a plague. I said nothing.

I did not have many friends. Well, as I thought about it, I realized that was not exactly true. I did not have any friends. Balancing two jobs and babysitting the drunk at home did not leave me much time to socialize. It had been many years, since middle school, that I allowed myself to be ostracized in such a way. Ever since my dad left.

“Hey, Daniels, go to any parties Saturday?” someone called, laughing. A few others laughed alongside him.

My face burned. I kept my head down, refusing to dignify them with an answer.

“Hey!” the same boy yelled, breaking away from his clique to approach me. “I’m talking to you.” I readied myself for the confrontation, curling into myself, but was saved by the ringing bell. My classmate shoved me back a few feet anyway before we both fell back into step with the crowd flooding into the school. I took a deep breath, preparing myself for another day of hell.

My homeroom was upstairs, all the way in the furthermost corner. I made my way there in a hurry, while everyone was still bothering with their lockers. I stared at the floor. I had learned long ago that people did not usually go out of their way to bother you if you did not make eye contact. Some laughed, though, mocking my attire, but I was used to it, and I told myself that I did not care.

“Excuse me?”

Initially, I did not stop. It would be another joke, I figured, and I would not give them the satisfaction of having my attention. But the sweet voice was persistent.

“I’m sorry, sir, excuse me!”

I slowed to a halt, raising my eyes to find the source of the request. A girl struggled to catch up with my long strides, flushing her pale face with color. She was dressed too nice, I wished I could have warned her, and the thick glasses I wore would make her a target for sure. Her strawberry blonde hair was smooth, but pulled up and away from her face in a ponytail that was far too tight. The last thing she needed was to be standing next to me.

“Yeah?” I asked, voice breaking from lack of use.

“Sorry, sir, I was just wondering if you could show me how to get to room 282?” she inquired sheepishly.

I nodded, still unsure of her intentions. “Yeah. That’s where I’m going.”

Her face lit up like a Christmas tree. “Oh, thank goodness! Can I tag along with you?”

“Sure.”

She stayed close to me the whole way there, grinning in silence. I did not allow myself to think of her, walking quickly on stick-thin legs, grabbing at the hem of her knee-length dress. I only allowed myself to look forward toward our destination, waiting for the taunts that would undoubtedly come our way. For the most part, it was uneventful, the other students continued to move away from us, too preoccupied to pester me. The girl beside me either did not notice their aversion or did not care.

“So, how long have you been here?” she finally asked.

I could not help but be confused by her question. “Since freshman year?”

Her smile fell the smallest bit. “Oh. That’s nice.”

We returned to silence. Eventually it was my own curiosity that got the best of me. “Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” she replied, too hastily.

“No, please, tell me.”

She bit her lip. “I’m sorry, it’s just…I thought you were a teacher. I didn’t know—”

“It’s fine,” I said, walking just a little bit faster. No wonder she’d been so eager to get my attention, I mused, surprised by how disappointed I felt.

She was not to be left behind. “I really didn’t mean anything by it, you’re just dressed so much better—”

“It’s really fine.”

The girl’s eyes went glassy. “I’m really sorry.”

“I just said it’s fine—”

“It doesn’t sound fine,” she whimpered. “I don’t believe you.”

I shrugged. “It’s not a big deal.”

Her lips pursed as she looked around the hallway. Searching for a way out, I figured. “I know I’m weird, but would it be okay if I sat with you?”

My eyebrows disappeared into my hairline. “You’re weird?”

Tears appeared imminent. “I was scared to talk to a student. They always think I’m weird. ”

“I don’t think you’re weird,” I assured her, trying hard to find my own way out. “You can sit with me.”

She took a deep breath. “Thank you.”

I entered the classroom first, taking my usual seat in the back corner, out of sight. True to her word, my new companion took a seat beside me, squinting through her glasses to get a glimpse of the board up front. I said, “You can sit closer if you can’t see.”

“I’m used to it.”

“Don’t your eyes hurt?”

She sat back in her chair, curling into herself to look smaller. “I always sit in the back. I like it better.”

I nodded, countering, “It’s always better when they can’t see you.”

The girl looked at me like I was a shooting star. Her mouth fell just the slightest bit open. “What’s your name?”

“Garrett. Yours?”

She thrust her tiny hand out at me. “Poppy.”

I thought I might have been let off the hook when I sat down in fourth period to find that my new friend did not share the class. The reprieve did not last long, though, since, when the bell rang, and I was unleashed into the hall, I found the girl. She was waiting for me outside the door, hands folded neatly in front of her, eyes as wide as saucers. The idea briefly crossed my mind that I could run before I saw him, but I did not hold much confidence in it. She found me instantly and waved, drawing more than just my attention. The others snickered.

“Hey, Daniels, finally found a girlfriend as ugly as you?”

The nuisance’s friend elbowed him in the ribs. “Shut up, Brian, there’s someone for everyone.”

“Aw, loser love.”

I hunched over, hiding myself, but Poppy could not have cared less. Her back was still completely straight, her eyes just as wide, and her head was held high. She shifted her collection of books to the crook of one elbow so she could, gallantly, offer me her arm. I masked my chuckle with a cough. I would not want to encourage her to stay.

She let the arm droop until it was back at her side. Crestfallen, she followed me to the cafeteria. “Sorry.”

I peered down at her. “For what?”

“I embarrassed you and I’m sorry. Really sorry.”

“You didn’t embarrass me,” I muttered, rolling my eyes. “They would do that anyway, it’s not your fault.”

Those blue eyes pleaded with me. The look made me sick to my stomach, but for the life of me I could not figure out why. “Then why don’t you like me, Garrett?”

“I don’t know you!”

She went quiet. I swung one leg over the bench of the table I shared with the other outcasts, homely boys and girls from the freshman to senior grades. They had never spoken to me before, whether that be because of their own anxiety or my less than friendly expression. Poppy took a seat beside me. I pulled a sketchpad from my backpack, something I had taken from an art class freshman year, and began to draw.

Every inch of the book was filled. Holes marred the pages occasionally when my frustration had spilled over, and ink seeped from picture to picture, but that was to be expected with age. I would never waste money on something as frivolous as a hobby, so I would not replace it. The one I held in my hands was the only one I would have for a long time, so I drew smaller.

Today, I drew a cloud. Raining on a tulip.

Poppy pulled a brown paper bag from her backpack. While she spilled the contents onto the table, a turkey sandwich, a wrapped brownie, and a can of cream soda, she looked over my shoulder. “Wow,” she murmured. “That’s really good.”

Despite my aversion to new people, I grinned, smug. “Thanks.”

“Kind of sad though, don’t you think?”

I shrugged. “I draw what I feel.”

Her face fell. “You’re sad? Why are you sad?”

“I have a lot of reasons to be sad.”

I left it at that.

“Like what?”

“That’s a little personal.”

“Yeah. And?”

I stared her down. “And I don’t really want to tell you. Okay?”

Poppy bit her lip. She nodded. “Fine. Aren’t you hungry?”

“No.”

It was a lie. I felt a grumble of disagreement from my gut, but I still did not confess. I did not buy lunch here, especially not at this time of the month. The mortgage payment was due in a week. If I bought lunch, I sure as hell would not be buying groceries any time soon. No, I could skip a meal a day if it meant I could keep my mother fed for another couple of days.

She narrowed her eyes. “Okay.”

And that was how we sat for most of the period. She ate slowly, too slowly; it made me hungry. Still, I never said anything, just continued to draw that dark storm cloud crying on the lone flower below. The plant bowed under the weight of the water, just like I bowed under the weight of the world. She watched me the entire time, silently judging my sketch, I assumed. I pushed myself to do better, draw faster, add more detail. The pencil in my hand forced itself harder against the paper until it snapped.

“Crap,” I muttered, wiping the dust from the tip off my hands. A new pencil was hastily thrust in my face. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Garrett,” she said. “But if it’s all the same to you, would you mind a few notes?”

Silence. “Okay?”

She pulled a sketchpad from her bag. Hers was fancy and new, lined with gold along the edges of the paper. The cover was leather and embossed with a dragon. It had obviously been expensive, unlike the beaten one before me on the table. “Why draw sad things when you’re sad. When you can draw things that make you happy!”

Her chipper tone only made me resent her further. I hissed. “What do you know about being sad? What could you possibly have to feel sad about?”

She reeled back. “I know a lot about being sad.”

“Why? Did the jeweler give you white gold instead of yellow?”

She frowned at me. “Because my parents have money means I can’t have problems? Everyone has problems.”

“Yeah,” I snorted. “Some people just have more problems than others.”

Poppy shook her head. “You’re not being very nice, Garrett.”

“When did I ever say I was nice? Maybe, I’m just not nice!”

She scowled. Wordlessly, she dropped the pad onto the table, opening it to the first page. A field of violets covered the stylishly antique paper, colored in by expert hands with oil pastels I would not have dreamed of possessing for myself. The sun over the field glowed from the page like an actual star, illuminating my face. Beside it, a girl stood among the flowers, smiling softly. Serenely.

Her hair was gold, like the sun she seemed fond of and her eyes were a cool blue, much like Poppy’s. She wore a pink dress, held up and around her neck with a red ribbon. A matching one held her hair up and out of her face. I could not stop the drop of my jaw, nor the amazed gasp my lungs forced out of me. “Wow.”

“Thank you.” Poppy did not smile. “It’s pretty isn’t it?”

“It’s gorgeous. You did that on your own?”

“Oh yes.” She flipped to the next page, where a large, elegant violent was drawn into reality. I reached out to touch it this time, nearly expecting the art to feel like velvet. Like petals. “It’s something to do.”

I said, “Something to do? You could make money on this!”

“No.”

“Well, of course you obviously don’t need it, but I only mean it’s—”

She held her hand up, silencing me. “No. They’re for me.”

“Okay.”

She went back to her turkey sandwich, and, this time, it was me who was becoming curious. “Who is she?”

“Who?”

“The girl in the picture.”

“Oh,” she took a bite of her sandwich. “My sister. Violet.”

Makes sense, I thought with a silent laugh. “Poppy and Violet.”

“Yeah. I know. My parents liked flowers.”

“Clearly.” I flipped through the pages of her sketchpad, finding each occupied with pristine violets. Some included perfect depictions of her younger sister, all wearing that same pleasant smile. I could not draw people. I was in too much awe to feel jealous, but I was nearing it. “How do you do it?”

“Do what?” she grumbled through a mouthful of food.

“Draw her. You use such perfect detail. How?”

She shrugged. “I just close my eyes.”

“What?” I inquired, laughing at what I thought was a joke.

She gulped down the remnants of the sandwich. “When I’m sad, I close my eyes, and I imagine what I want to draw. Sometimes it’s hard to picture, but that’s why I do it, to keep the memory fresh in my head. And when I can see what I want to draw, it’s easy to recreate every line the way I want to.”

“Why her though?”

“She makes me sad.”

I continued to flip through the pages. “That bad, huh?”

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

“No,” I replied. “I guess I should feel lucky for that.”

She nodded. “I guess.”

“How old is she?”

“She was seven.”

I stopped flipping the pages. I raised my gaze to meet hers. “Was? What happened to her?”

Poppy did not look sad. Solemn, yes, but she kept herself together. “Car accident. She really wanted to sit in the front with my mom, but she was too little.” The young woman lifted her mane of hair to display the stitches at her hairline, closing a long cut. “The airbag deployed and hit her. I hit the window. Mom got out with a few bruises and a concussion. Violet didn’t make it to the hospital.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Was it a long time ago.”

“No. That’s why we moved here. My mom couldn’t take the way people looked at her. Looked at all of us. Like we were going to explode.”

The bell rang.

Poppy stood from the table, gathering the sketchpad and the empty paper bag. I hastily through my book into my bag. “Then why do you draw her. I thought you didn’t draw sad things.”

“I’m sad that she had to die, but it makes me happy to think that she’s in a nice place. I have to go to Chemistry, I’ll see you tomorrow, Garrett.”

Just like that, she escaped me. Running from the cafeteria. I walked alone to class, but, unlike every other day when I did just that, I felt the empty space beside me. I wished that I had had more time with her.

It was not until I was pulling my textbook from my bag for my ninth period class that I noticed the brownie and cream soda she had left for me.

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

Saturday, December, 12th, 2015

“The number you are trying to reach is no longer in service…”

Sasha cursed as she threw her phone onto the asphalt, watching it shatter into a hundred tiny plastic shards. What was the point in having it if the only person she called did not answer?

No. Even worse. The man had changed his number in order to avoid her. Her! His own flesh and blood.

Somewhere beneath the pain of his rebuff, Sasha felt something akin to relief. Telling him that she had seen creatures of inhuman ability, only to serve him no proof, could only deepen the hole she had made for herself. She was sloppy. She was careless. Still, she refused to think herself worthless, as he did.

She would have to make him believe what she had seen.

The sun had yet to rise and Sasha’s fatigue weighed heavily on her, but she still stood in the parking lot, looking dumbly in the direction she assumed Garrett and the lizard had gone. She should have gone after him, but she did not know how. He was too strong. Too fast. A frontal assault had so far been proven useless against him, but, if she were going to track him down, she had very few other options.

She needed help.

She needed to go after Garrett, find him, and take him to Summit’s home. If he could see evidence of the powers she spoke of, he would have to believe her. It could even mean his being so intrigued…so grateful, that he would invite her back to work for him. Sasha only needed to find a way to get Garrett to come with her…

“Sasha!” she heard his voice cry. Sasha could not see him until he rounded the corner of the motel’s furthermost wall.

As Garrett approached her, of his own free will, no less, she could not help but think, that was easy.

“It’s gone!” he continued, reaching for her.

Sasha’s tongue felt stuck, almost as if she could not form words. The behemoth looked bigger than she remembered when he was not bound to the floor. As she dragged her eyes up to meet his face, she noticed that he looked far too attractive for someone who had just been put through what he had. His blonde curls had come free of its tie and hung, damp, about him. His emerald orbs were crazed.

Sasha had seen many men in her life. Weak beings, bugs, hardly worth her time. Her gaze roved over the body before her, and the bulges of thick brawn pressing against his clothes. She chalked her attention up to sizing up the enemy, she would be bringing him to her father for dissection if she had to, but even she knew it was not true. Garrett Daniels was far from a weak being. She was intrigued.

He smelled awful.

When he grasped her shoulders, she managed to unfreeze and smack him away. Sasha did not know which question to ask first, so it spilled out without her mind’s permission. “How did you get out of the tub?”

“Who was that on the phone?”

“I do not negotiate,” she spat through her teeth. “How did you get out of the tub?”

Garrett sighed. “Does it really matter? Did you see that thing in there? What was it? What did it want?”

A lizard with a human voice. A creature that masked itself in someone else’s skin. She only wished that she knew what it was. “I do not know. But I plan on finding out.”

Sasha stalked back toward the open motel room. Garrett trotted after her without direction “What’re you doing?”

“Fix that door and get in here before someone sees.”

She did not know why he did it, or why he did anything she asked, but he obliged. While she pulled her meager belongings from the dresser, he set the door to rights. He looked her over as she threw herself around the room like the wrath of God, stuffing her clothes into a single bag. “Where are you going?”

We are going to see my father.”

“Your father?” he repeated, staring at her strangely. As he shook his head, he continued, “Is he some scientist or something?”

“No,” she replied, throwing her belongings over her shoulder. “He is a man with a lot of guns and a lot of resources. I am sure he has a few on the payroll who could figure out what we are dealing with.”

“Why am I going?”

She did not have to think long to come up with a lie, they slipped off her tongue so easily now. “You have that picture. I am sure you want that question answered as much as I do.”

With the help of a few professionals, she hoped to find the origin of his supernatural powers. Where he got them from, how to replicate them, and how she could get her hands on them.

He followed her into the bathroom, handing her the first aid equipment that had somehow fallen onto the floor so she could stuff that, too, into her bag. “I could tell you that.”

“Tell me, then. How did you get out of the tub?”

“I have one for you, first.” He grabbed her arm as she passed, probing at her mask with his free hand. “Why do you wear this?”

“The same reason everyone wears a mask. Now mine.”

He shrugged. “I broke the rod.”

How did you break the rod?”

“With my hands. If you haven’t noticed, it doesn’t take much effort for me.”

She dropped the bag, rounding on him with her arms crossed. “If that is true, why did you not escape earlier? I am sure you did not enjoy my questioning so why did you stay?”

“I wanted to talk to you. I wanted you to trust me.”

“I trust no one.”

“I could’ve left at any time,” he insisted. “I just didn’t want to.”

Sasha yanked at her hair. It seemed she had been wrong all those nights when she thought that things could not possibly get any worse. Her father was not answering, she was being chased by a lizard, and she was in the presence of a lunatic. “What is your story? What are you?”

“I haven’t been anything for a long time. Just Garrett Daniels. And I’m sure you knew that, you stole my license.”

“I did know that. What I do not know is why Mr. Garrett Daniels has this nifty little ability to heal himself no matter what I do to him. And lift things over his head like no human I have ever seen before,” she growled. “Would you care to explain that, Mr. Daniels?”

“That’s not all I can do.”

Sasha saw out of the corner of her eye that the red water she had left in the tub was climbing out of it. Puddles rose into the air, floating, twisting, and bending in her direction. Bubbles caressed her cheek. Some unseen force dangled them overhead, as if from strings. “Yes,” she said, eyes wide. “That, too.”

“I have powers.”

“Amazing,” she mocked. “I had no idea.”

“Well, what do you want to know about them?”

“I guess what anyone else would want to know about it. How did you get it? Why did you get it? Let us begin with that.”

“They were given to me. You have to know the rest.”

What did that mean? The sound of passing drunks made Sasha jump, despite how common that occurrence was in Rahway, where she had taken up residence. She looked toward the door, nearly expecting it to be knocked over by a new intruder. It was not.

She turned back to Garrett. “You will have to explain in the car. That thing will come back and we cannot sit here waiting for it. I do not know what it can do.”

“Good idea. You have a car?”

It was the only possession of value she was allowed to keep after the falling out with her father. It was a sleek, black number that she kept in the parking space closest to her room to ward off potential thieves. The gas tank was full, she always kept it full just in case of emergencies, though not quite as…unique as this. “It is out front.”

He took her bag. “Is this all?”

The water he had been manipulating over her head splashed against the floor. “That is all. I do not keep much.”

“You used to.”

“Jesus,” she snapped, “what is your problem, Daniels? Why is it that everything you say has to come to that?”

“I’m just trying to understand! Same as you.”

“Understand what? If I am your wife? I swear to you, I am not. I think I would remember it. I will prove it to you the moment we arrive at my father’s home.”

He shook his head. “You have to be. There’s no way you aren’t; you look just like her!”

“Get in the car.”

“Hear me out, please.”

Sasha did not have time to hear him out. She took her bag from his shoulder and started toward the door. “You will have to fix this on our way out.”

“You’re not going to listen to me?”

“I would rather not, but if you are going to insist then at least tell me in the car.”

She had to fish for her keys beneath the mattress of the bed, but she was glad to have them in hand again. It had been months since she had last used them. She missed them. They reminded her of better times.

“How far is it?”

“Just a couple of hours, then we are home free. Just lay low. Go straight to the car and lock the door.”

“I don’t think a lock is going to hinder that thing all that much—”

“I know! I know, just do as I say. Hopefully, it will be enough.”

“Alright. Are you ready?”

Sasha clutched the doorknob. “Prop it back up on your way out.”

“Why?”

“So they will not notice we are gone. We need to keep ourselves as far from the cops as we can. There is blood everywhere, do you think they will not come after us for this? We are safe with my father, but, until then, we are just criminals.”

You are a criminal. I was a victim.”

“And if that thing dresses up like a cop again, do you think she will say the same thing? By all means, Daniels, if you want to run, I will not stop you.”

She would cut him into pieces and drag him there if she had to.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Sasha could not help but wonder if this could turn out in her favor. She did not know anything about this psycho’s wife or what happened to her, but it could not hurt to have the loyalty of a superhuman. She nodded, smiling. “Good.”

“I’m ready.”

She opened the door and sprinted for the car. Her head whipped in every direction, searching for those amber eyes. That child. That cop. There was no doubt in her mind that there was no coincidence in seeing those same eyes in three faces on the same night.

What was it?

She threw herself into the driver’s seat and started the car. By the time the engine roared to life, Garrett was pulling himself into the passenger’s seat and locking the door behind him. She did not bother to look around as she peeled out of the parking lot, leaving her home of two months behind.

“Why’d you stay there, anyway? Doesn’t look like a great place.”

“It is not. It is better than being homeless.”

The highway was a five minute drive away. Once she was there, she doubted their new friend would be able to find them even if she followed them. As she grew closer to the on-ramp, she surveyed the car she loved so much and froze. “What the hell?” she whispered.

Sasha’s glare flickered between her passenger and the gauge on the dashboard, telling her that her gas tank was nearing the halfway mark. She frowned. She had filled the car with gas months ago, but she knew that it had been full the last time she used it. Garrett shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “What’s wrong?”

Sasha frantically looked into the rearview mirror. The long stretch of road behind her was marred by a long line of shiny, black fluid and she knew immediately what it was. The gauge was dropping with every passing second. Soon, they would be out of gas and vulnerable to the lizard creature she knew had sabotaged her car. “We are out of gas.”

“We can’t be that far from a gas station—”

“We will not make it.”

His eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“That thing tampered with my car. I will have to pull over.”