The sun was just starting to set when the police were wrapping up with us. They’d had to arrive first, of course, the ones who had been on the scene were compromised, victims as much as anything.
Nobody Kingdom Come had affected remembered much of anything. It was as though they’d fallen asleep – they remembered losing awareness, some reported briefly coming to in the middle of things as the building had shook or they had been knocked around, and they hadn’t really processed or understood much of those glimmers.
A few had reported me as a recurring image.
There was some concern that Kingdom Come might have absconded with someone or that not everyone that had been in the crowd was accounted for, but from what I could tell, it had been an all or nothing thing. People remembered coming to, many of them dangerously close to a superhero fight in progress, but the recollections were hazy.
I sat on the sidewalk near the front door of the community center, aware that it was very late in the day. The sky was orange-yellow now, with darkness on the eastern horizon. The thickest parts of the clouds overhead were cast in shadow, zig-zags of darkness through the amber.
The heat of the day was subsiding, helped by the cloud cover. Dust and sweat had left my arms mottled with grime and tracks where sweat had wiped it away. I’d washed my hands after helping Fume Hood, and I’d realized I hadn’t gotten all of Tempera’s paint and the blood on the backs of my hands. I was painfully conscious of the sweat, grime and blood, yet I couldn’t bring myself to go wash up because that would require attention to it.
Paradoxical, I was well aware.
I turned my attention back to the kids. Making sure they were okay. At some point where I had been lost in thought, Gilpatrick had showed up. I watched until he glanced my way. He raised a hand, and I raised mine. Then he turned his attention back to the teenagers. As it should be.
I’d figured I would be working late. I’d just thought it would be paperwork and talking to the students. I’d really liked that part. It was fascinating stuff when it wasn’t so close to home.
I could relax some, seeing Gilpatrick. Not because it meant great things, but because it meant I didn’t have to think about finding Gil after, getting the details, putting off hearing the news or delivering the essential details.
I put my hands behind me where I wouldn’t see the blood or the places where the paint had settled into the cracks, oil-black, and I leaned back, eyes closed, trying to focus on the voices and the sounds, on the breezy wind and the ambient warmth.
“I’m sorry,” Gilpatrick said. He’d approached me.
I kept my eyes closed. I said, “Are the students okay? The others?”
“They’re fine. Some have parents here, I’ve got a bus coming for the others. Psychologically, emotionally, I don’t know. It was scary and it was hard to know what was happening. The staff of the community center are obviously upset about the building, but that’s not on us.”
I opened my eyes.
Gilpatrick wasn’t wearing his vest. A sleeveless undershirt tucked into black pants, a sweatshirt slung over one shoulder. Bald, bushy eyebrows, hairy, hairy arms.
“Jasper filled me in on most of it,” he said. “He’s reliable when it counts, it seems.”
“He’s a good guy,” I agreed. “There’s a reason I wanted him with me.”
“I get it now, I think.”
“If you want this project to be a positive thing, at least at our school, you’ll want more Jaspers. You wanted a verdict on the kids you sent with me? I wouldn’t put them in leadership roles. Not if there are going to be capes on scene. What I heard and saw wasn’t very positive, and if there were any who disagreed, they didn’t feel confident enough to say it out loud.”
Gilpatrick ran his hand over the skin of his head, not giving me a response.
My arms were tired from propping myself up. I leaned forward instead.
“Alright. Thanks. Not good to hear, but I appreciate it,” he said. “I’ll take that under serious advisement.”
“They follow orders, at least.”
“I was really hoping to have more hands to help out,” he said. “Really unfortunate.”
Some parents were joining students who were talking to the police. I watched them. Parent and child side by side, parents concerned as they listened, getting the details at the same time the officers were.
“I am sorry this happened,” Gilpatrick said. “I meant it when I said it. I mean it now.”
“I gave my point-by-point retelling of events to the police,” I said. I stared at my hands. “Including the part where I was hit by a few emotion-affecting attacks. It’ll take some of the responsibility off your shoulders, if anyone asks.”
“It’s not that important,” he said. “Well, it’s important, obviously, thank you, but I don’t want to dwell on that. If people make an issue out of it, I’ll handle it. I knew what I was doing when I brought you on board. That’s not what I want to talk to you about.”
“I stuck around,” I said. “To be something like a guardian for the students who were acting as witnesses, making sure they weren’t pressed too hard or made uncomfortable. I stopped when I realized being there was making some things harder, because they didn’t like being around me, or that it looked like I was trying to protect myself by inserting myself into things and influencing their testimony.”
“Yeah,” Gilpatrick said.
“I backed off, Jasper and Landon took my cues, I think.”
I thought that’d be the time he followed the thread of the conversation and got around to saying what he needed to say. He didn’t.
There was a break in the convo. More cars were pulling into spaces along either side of the ‘square’ of grass, sidewalk, and fountain in front of the community center. Some more parents.
“Did they mention Fume Hood?” I asked.
“Only that she was taken to the hospital and all signs were good when she left. Tempera was staying close to her. Something to do with paint?”
No news then. “Tempera stopped the worst of the blood loss. She poured paint in the wound, shaped it, and solidified it. We might have lost Fume Hood in another way, though. We might not keep her as a hero after this.”
“Did she say that?”
“There was a brief twilight between when the pain meds kicked in and when the meds knocked her out,” I said. I moved my fingers, felt how unlike skin the backs of my hands felt, stiff with the stuff I hadn’t managed to wash off. I’d rushed, because I’d wanted to get back to keeping an eye on the students from the patrol group.
“Are you going to finish that thought?” Gilpatrick asked, his voice soft.
I closed my eyes. “Um. We chatted. She said she was staying with a family member already, so she’d have someone to look after her if she needed it.”
Thinking about family pulled my thoughts in a few different directions. I could have tried picking a safer one, but I wasn’t sure I was that on the ball, being as tired and discouraged as I was.
I went on, “Her brother cut ties with her when she went villain. She was living in that area where all the building foundations were screwed up because they were rushed, and everyone had to leave the homes they’d just settled in, reached out to her brother, and she’s been staying with him, reconnecting. It might give me some hope for her, having that positive influence, but she sounded pretty cynical about it all when we had the conversation right after meeting, before everything happened.”
“Cynicism is understandable, to a degree. That’s where she’s at. Where are you at, Victoria?”
“Similar to Fume Hood, really. I wasn’t evicted because of rushed apartment construction, but I’ve been staying with my dad because it means we each pay half the rent, and I want to keep my options open with things being what they are.”
“I wasn’t talking about living accommodations,” Gilpatrick said. “Your head, your heart. Are there any lingering effects from the emotion effect?”
“For the last two years,” I whispered.
“Sorry? I didn’t catch that,” he said.
“It’s gone. It really sucked while it was in effect, but it’s gone. Right now I’m in that heavyhearted, almost-blameless-but-guilty ‘morning after’ phase, where I’m reflecting on everything I did when I was under the influence,” I said.
“I know that well enough. I’ve been hit a few times by those, back when I was a squaddie and squad leader. And by you, once.”
“You asked me to,” I pointed out, looking up at Gilpatrick, “and this was a bad one. Snag? I read about a thing online, keeping tabs on who was out there. I’m pretty sure he’s part of a new multitrigger cluster. It might have been amplified by the tinkering, if it wasn’t, then something else was in play. That didn’t hit me like it was a minor or secondary power.”
“Sorry,” he said.
He wasn’t a bad guy. I wanted to be angry but I couldn’t justify it.
“I’m sorry it happened like this,” he said. “It wasn’t supposed to be anything like this. I thought it’d get a bit nasty with the civilian protesters but I didn’t think it’d be anything like this. Not the capes, not the gunshot at the end.”
I hadn’t either.
“Jasper said you guessed why I sent those students with you.”
“Yeah,” I said. I climbed to my feet.
“I’m especially sorry for that,” he said. “If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have ever tested you like that. It wasn’t wholly up to me.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Everyone,” he said. “No-one. It’s complicated. Wardens and the hero teams are being pressured to be mindful of who is out there, touching base, and they reached out to some of the other patrol groups with concerns. They wanted to coordinate, so teenagers wouldn’t be out interviewing or exposing themselves to anyone dangerous. School got to talking, and they got into CYA mode.”
“Cover your ass,” I said.
“They wanted to be able to say that they’d made a reasonable effort to check that the parahumans the students were exposed to were reasonable and safe, in case anything happened down the line. I could have kept quiet about you, but…”
He trailed off.
“I wouldn’t have asked you to,” I said.
“…I didn’t get the impression you wanted me to, either. You weren’t being secretive. I don’t want to operate that way, either.”
“No. I wouldn’t want you to,” I said.
“You know I can’t keep you on the staff,” he said.
There it was.
I hadn’t been super attached to the job, but… fuck.
“Using power on kids, the contention about possible conflict of interest, undue influence, danger. I think things will stay at that, I don’t think it’ll follow you.”
“There’s a dim chance of a student claiming emotional distress because of your aura and pursuing things in court, I’ve already talked to one officer to get them on board and we’ll get something in writing. I’ll vouch for you and for the events as Jasper described them, one hundred percent, if you end up needing someone to stand for you. None of this was you.”
“Courts are a million years behind as it stands, and getting further behind every day we don’t have an established system of government,” I said. “By the time things get that far it’ll be forgotten.”
“That is a factor,” Gilpatrick said.
I wasn’t worried about that side of things. I was hurt, but I wasn’t worried.
“Do you need a hand getting things cleared out of the office?” he asked.
I shook my head. I didn’t want to think about that.
“Can-” I started. I cleared my throat. “Can I get back to you on that? I’ve- I guess I’ve got a family thing I should go to.”
“For sure,” he said. “Anytime outside of usual school or work hours.”
I might have flinched in a way that he saw, hearing that. I knew why he’d said it, but it still sucked to hear.
I started to walk away.
“Victoria,” he said.
“Any favor you need, reference letter, intel, if you need Jasper or some other trustworthy faces in uniform to lend a hand with something…”
“Thank you,” I said, my voice lighter and more cheerful than I felt. “I’ll be in touch.”
I took off.
There was something very human about the desire to gather around a fire. Power rationing meant every household had only a certain amount, more if there were more people in the house. Conversely, there was a lot of cheap firewood. Streetlights flickered on, and many house lights went off. In back yards there were three other families on the city block that were gathering around fire pits. Two of the families were playing different kinds of music, but it wasn’t too discordant. There were trees in each yard, front and back, and that helped to dampen the sound.
The entire street smelled like burning charcoal, and the light from the streetlights was just a little bit hazy with the ambient smoke.
It was a nice neighborhood, even if it had what I felt was the artificial quality. Houses with character, sufficiently different from one another in style and architecture, but still so new that they looked more like movie sets than lived-in places. Time and clutter would wear at those crisp edges. Paint and attention would turn fences of new wood with the occasional edge still frayed from the saw’s touch into something more personal.
This was the flip side to the hostility and the street-wide gap between protester and community center. Boyfriend and girlfriend sat on an outdoor love seat together, arms around each other, bathed in fire’s warmth. Friends sat and talked, beers in hand. Kids in another yard played with their dog.
With the path I’d taken, I reached the backyard first. The driveway was wider than it was long, crushed gravel, with room for multiple vehicles, and a fence stretched from the house at one corner to the garage at the other. My mom had invited neighbors, so it was a thing, even if things had reached a more relaxed point.
My dad sat on one of the lawn chairs, fire pit in front of him with the fire having burned down to just glowing coals. The barbecue was to his right, lid open, tiny bits of meat clinging to the grill.
He was forty-two but looked younger. The fact that he was as fit as he was played into it- only the white in his beard stubble really gave it away. His hair, too, was short. He was the only one who hadn’t put a sweatshirt or jacket on, owing to the proximity of the two heat sources- he was wearing a t-shirt that was form-fitting in a way that showed off his muscles. Pretty darn gross, given he was a dad, my dad, and he was supposed to dress his age. I would have insisted on clothes that hid any sign of muscle at all, really, had I been given a say.
He looked relaxed though. As relaxed as I’d seen him in a while, really, and I’d seen him passed out on the couch back at the apartment.
I was aware that my mom had seated herself so that two neighbors sat between her and my dad. Where my dad had dressed in a t-shirt and sports pants for the occasion, she had dressed up. Just a bit of lipstick, her hair short and styled, a ruffly sort of white blouse and pencil skirt. She’d kicked off her shoes earlier in the evening, leaving them beneath her chair.
I was aware of the distinction in how they’d dressed, too. In another time, before everything, there would have been more… connection, I supposed. Each influencing the other, until they matched more.
She was smiling. She folded one knee over the other, then a moment later was undoing the position, both feet on the porch again as she leaned forward, laughing at something someone had said.
The lights were on inside the house, too. The door was open, and people were scattered through the space between the stairs down to the porch, the back hallway, and the kitchen on the other side of the hallway. The room to the left of the hallway was dark. The neighbors kids, I presumed, teens to twenty-somethings. I saw a glimpse of Crystal stepping into the unlit room, tried to catch her eye with a raised hand as she looked toward the window, and failed.
I did get the attention of someone sitting next to my mom, though. She touched my mom’s arm and pointed.
I remained where I was, arms folded on the top of the wooden-slat fence, chin on my hands, while my mom approached.
“You’re hurt,” she said, touching my arm, where the road rash was.
“Did you get the other guy?” she asked. She reached out and touched my hair, fixing it by moving strands to one side.
“No,” I said. “But there were five of them.”
“Do you want to talk about it? I’m interested.”
“Not really,” I said. “Today-”
My breath caught.
“-Kind of not a good day,” I said.
I saw her expression change, even though the light source was behind her.
“What?” I asked. “Don’t tell me you didn’t save me the dessert you promised. Looking forward to that is pretty much the only thing keeping me going right now.”
She smiled, touching my cheek, before kissing me on the forehead. “I saved you dessert with extras to take home, in case you want pie or pastries for breakfast tomorrow.”
“You’ve done your duty then,” I said, with mock seriousness.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve failed a mission,” she said, in the same tone. She put her hand on the side of my head. “You missed Uncle Mike, I’m afraid.”
“Oh shoot,” I said. “I barely remember him. How is he?”
“He’s Uncle Mike. He brought his wife and your cousins, and I haven’t child-proofed at all. It was… something, in the brief time he was here. A whirlwind of chaos and emotion, and then he was gone.”
“Ah, too bad,” I said.
In the background, my dad was trying to get my attention. He’d sat up, and didn’t look relaxed anymore. He offered me a small smile. I acknowledged him by lifting one hand up from where it sat on my elbow, in a mini-wave.
“Thank you for coming,” my mom said. “I know the family stuff is hard, after everything, but it means so much to me. To everyone.”
“I’m here for the desserts,” I said. I amended it to, “…and a bit for family.”
My mom lightly rapped me on the side of the head before stepping away. “Come on in, then. Meet people, I’ll get your pie.”
As she stepped over to the gate by the garage to unlock it, Crystal stepped out into the backyard, joined by a few others in our age group. She glanced in my direction, saw me, and froze like a deer in the headlights.
Her arms folded, defensive, like something was wrong.
She mouthed words at me, and I couldn’t see her face well enough at a distance to know what the words were, but I could draw conclusions from context.
My dad’s posture, still sitting upright now, both feet planted on the ground.
My mom’s earlier change in expression. Even the wording-
I backed away from the fence a few steps. My mom froze, the gate only slightly open.
“You invited her,” I said. I wasn’t talking about Crystal.
In reaction to that, my mother didn’t look confused, she didn’t negate. She looked toward the house, to see what I’d seen that had clued me in.
Whirlwind of fucking chaos and emotion indeed.
“You invited her,” I said, again. More emotional this time. “She’s in the house?”
My mother rallied, composing herself. Now she looked confused. “I told you I invited everyone.”
“She’s actually in the house,” I said.
I backed away again, and my mother threw the gate open, taking several steps on the driveway, stepping on crushed gravel with bare feet.
I raised my hand, indicating for her to stop. She continued forward.
I threw my aura out, one push.
My mother stopped. Crystal stopped in her tracks, already at the fence. People rose from their seats.
“I thought you knew,” she said. “I very clearly said everyone. It was supposed to be a family reunion with everyone getting together again for the first time in… in a really long time.”
“You’re a lawyer,” I said. “You’re too clever with wording to be that fucking stupid.”
“Please,” she said, with a tone like she was the one who needed to exercise patience and restraint here. “Let’s keep things civil.”
I couldn’t even look at her. I trembled as my eyes dropped to the ground.
“I’ve made mistakes, as your sister has,” my mother said. “She’s been doing so well. I want to make up for past wrongs and be a mother to both of you, like I should have been from the beginning.”
I looked up, staring at her.
The lipstick, the composed outfit, the words, the everything about this all seemed so false now, so forced. I didn’t even recognize her.
“You’re kind of fucking it up,” I said, in the kind of whisper that was the only tone I could manage that wasn’t outright screaming at her. My hands were clenched at their sides.
“That’s not fair.”
“You’re kind of really fucking it up,” I said, in the same strangled whisper.
“You’re fucking it up, mother,” I said. “You’re fucking- you’re fucking- did dad play along with this?”
“I told him everyone was coming. You, your sister, Crystal, Uncle Mike. He was surprised, but… pleasantly surprised.”
Dad too, then. There was that heart-wrenched-out feeling again. I screwed my eyes shut, inadvertently squeezing out tears. I was aware her neighbors were seeing.
“Don’t- don’t get emotional, Victoria,” my mom said. “Please, I didn’t do this to hurt you. The furthest thing from it.”
“You fucked that up too,” I whispered.
“Stop saying that. Please,” my mother said. “It’s the age of second chances, she’s worked very hard to get to this point. I’ve talked to people who worked with her and she’s getting back into her routine in a good way. I want all of us to have a second shot at this, and do it right this time.”
I shook my head.
“Leaving things as unresolved as they are is doing more harm than good. To both you and to her.”
“So you thought you’d invite me to dinner and surprise me with her, and you thought there was nothing I could say or do because people are here?”
“You’re putting thoughts and conspiracy in my head,” she said. “I want you to be sisters again. I want us to be a family again.”
“That’s not for you to decide,” I said. “Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit.”
“Please, don’t wind yourself up. You’re getting out of breath. Let’s communicate. Please.”
I was getting out of breath. I gulped in a breath of air. “You’re aware I can’t set foot in that house again, right? I’ll see her looming in the shadows, potentially another surprise invite.”
“I want you to find reconciliation, so you wouldn’t feel upset even if she did appear by surprise.”
“I can’t accept any invites from you,” I said. My face started to contort, and I forced it back into something more normal before I lost the ability to see my mother or focus on her altogether. “I can’t grab dessert from you or do anything with you again because she might be there, surprise. I can’t trust you. How can I trust you again?”
“I’m sorry you feel that way. I did not realize that was where things stood. You’ve been doing so well, and she’s been doing well.”
“How-” I started. I gulped in another breath of air. My voice was a whisper again when I managed to speak again. “How do you not realize when you saw me at the hospital? How do you even think rec- how do you think this is ever possible? How does-”
I closed my eyes. More tears.
“How does Dad? How could you see me then, how could you- how- how-”
My chest hurt.
“Crystal-” I said, I looked toward the house.
Crystal was still on the porch. Standing guard by the back door, red shield up. She watched me talking with my mom over one shoulder.
“I told Crystal the same thing I told your father. She was skeptical but she agreed it was for the best.”
I didn’t trust my mom’s version of events on that. Crystal at least had my back in this moment.
I tried to find words, and I didn’t have the oxygen.
“Catch your breath. We can talk this out.”
I worked at it, swallowing air.
“I’ll wait,” she said.
The sound of her voice made it harder, not easier.
When I spoke, my voice was very small. It gained more strength as I went.
“How can you have not been there, missed visits, or come to the visit and spend more time talking to doctors than to me because it was hard to be around me? How can you have come to see me then, and have had to avert your eyes mid-conversation with me, and found that hard, and not realize that I had to live it for two years, and had that be a million times harder for me?”
“I know it was hard, honey. I get it, I really do. But you can’t dwell in the past. It’s not good for you. You can’t carry that.”
“You say that, when you still sleep with the lights on,” I said.
It was her turn to not have words.
“That’s different,” she said, finally. She didn’t say how it was different.
I stared at her.
“I want all of us to conquer our demons,” she said. “I think you want that too.”
I continued to stare.
Finally, I said, “I want that too.”
“We can talk this out. We can find things we all want,” she said. “We can make inroads on this.”
She looked nearly as upset as I felt, even as composed as she was.
But in the end, and I’d known this from very early on, seeing her with- with her, she wasn’t a whole and complete person. She tried, she put on a good face, but my mother had been broken long, long ago, and with the way she’d put herself together, she retained only sufficient compassion, understanding, and empathy for a very small number of people. For one daughter, at most.
Second chances. Second go-around, and I wasn’t that daughter, this time.
“In the interest of putting my demons to rest,” I said. “I’m going to keep my distance. Don’t call, because I can’t trust a thing you say. I’ll figure out what I’ll do about Dad later.”
“Don’t,” she said. “Nothing gets better if you close off communication.”
There were things I wanted to say to that.
It wasn’t worth it.
I turned to go.
I heard the gravel under her feet as she gave chase, and I pushed out with my aura, hard.
“Do not use your power on me, Victoria Dallon. That has never been okay, and it doesn’t work anyway.”
I drew in a deep breath. There were things I wanted to say to that, too.
I settled for, “Let me go. If you follow me, I’m liable to hit you with something harder than my aura. I’m pretty sure that would work.”
It might have been a good line, if I hadn’t been choking back emotion as I said it.
I walked away. I didn’t trust myself to fly when I couldn’t see straight. Having a panic attack in the air made for an embarrassing moment.
People stood in rows at the fences that bounded their yards, staring and watching. I wiped away my tears once, then resolved not to shed more, not where people could see. I set my jaw.
In the background, I could hear my father’s raised voice.
Breathe. Center yourself. Move forward. Plan.
I thought about what I’d need to do next. I couldn’t go back to the apartment I shared with my dad.
For the time being, I only walked, out in the general direction of the water. Streetlights lit up in advance of imminent cars and as I stepped onto the streets, turning off otherwise. Here and there they would turn on for wildlife, illuminating a lost deer or raccoon mid-scurry down the road. We’d set ourselves up so abruptly that the animals were still confused.
It was getting cooler. I wore my skirt, my clothes from earlier. My forcefield shielded against the wind, which kept it from lowering the temperature even further, but it didn’t do a lot to shield me from the ambient heat or lack thereof.
I tensed as I heard running footsteps behind me. I stopped in my tracks.
Not Crystal. She would have flown, and she would have set down well in front of me. She wouldn’t have chased, maybe.
I didn’t want to look. I didn’t want to speak to her.
I pushed out with my aura, instead.
Another footstep, closer.
Our mother’s daughter.
I threw my arm back and to the side, a backhand swipe. I tore through lawn, through slabs of sidewalk, and the edge of the road. Dirt flew across the street alongside clumps of grass and chunks of sidewalk.
A long pause, and then I heard the footsteps again, running. This time the other way.
Gilpatrick jumped as I appeared in the doorway of his office, nearly knocking over a paper container of noodles in red sauce that rested on a stack of paper. Paperwork I would have been helping him with, had the day gone differently.
“Victoria? What’s wrong?” he asked.
So it was that obvious something was wrong.
“I need to call in a favor,” I said.
Okay, hearing my voice, I could get why he’d known. I sounded like another person entirely.
“If it’s okay,” I said.
“Of course it’s okay,” he said. “What’s wrong? Are you cold? The temperature dropped steeply tonight. What can I get you? Sit.”
He stood, circling around his desk. I backed away a little as he did, which was his cue to stop.
I wasn’t sure how to respond, how to ask.
“By the way,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s no need to count. I consider you a friend, and I feel like a piece of shit for setting you up to fail like that.”
“It’s not that,” I said. “I just need a place to stay tonight. While I figure some things out. I’ll be gone before the students arrive first thing.”
I noted the hesitation before he responded.
“Sure,” he said.
“Only because it’s not really a great place for staying overnight. You could come to my apartment, but that’s-”
“I kind of want space to think,” I said. “Offer’s appreciated.”
“There’s an issue with power rations and temperature is supposed to drop a few more degrees, and this place isn’t insulated well. It was a bitch last winter.”
“I remember,” I said.
“Of course,” Gilpatrick said.
He kept giving me very deeply concerned looks. Almost pity.
I really hated those. I’d had a lifetime’s fill and then some.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ve got a space heater right by my desk here. You’ll want to be careful if you’re leaving it running for a while, fire hazard.”
“I’ll be careful,” I said.
“There are blankets we stowed in the locker rooms that you can use if you want to sleep. You could get something serviceable if you gather a bunch. I laundered them not too long ago, too.”
“I know where to find them.”
“There are candles too, in case the power runs out. But again, fire hazard.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’ll be careful.”
“Okay,” he said. “You sure you don’t want company? We can talk it out, if you haven’t eaten I can go grab something, or…”
I was already shaking my head.
“Sure,” he said. “I was needing an excuse to go home, this will do. Unless maybe I should stay around? You could settle in upstairs, and I’ll be all the way down here, you can have your space to think and you can still have me to talk to in case you decide you need it.”
“No,” I said. “Don’t let me keep you. Go home. You’ll have angry parents to talk to first thing tomorrow, once they’ve figured out what happened and had time to get angry.”
He frowned. “Yeah.”
“Please,” I said. “I know where everything is.”
“Yeah,” he said. “You sure you’re okay? You’re not going to…”
He trailed off.
“If I was going to do anything, I’d take someone out with me.”
He scrutinized me.
“I’m worried here, for the record,” he said.
“I’ll manage,” I said. “I’ve managed this far.”
“You have my number,” he said.
“You call if you need anything.”
“And you… be here in the morning when I show up. Which will be well before the kids do.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
He gathered up his paper container, a stack of his papers. He was trying to pick up the remainder when I approached, picking it up myself.
Silent, I walked him to his car, handing over the papers when it was time. I walked inside and locked the door behind me. The place was big and it was dark, with the open gymnasium space unlit.
I carted the space heater upstairs, and then I got the blankets. I got the candles and the matches, and then I found the file boxes, collapsed and gathered in piles.
I situated myself in my office, which wasn’t technically my office anymore, and I set to making the boxes, pulling my things off the shelves, and getting them stowed away.
The space heater hummed and the computer monitor clicked, as I periodically checked something or followed up on something I’d seen on a file.
I made a stack of the things I wanted to read, the files that intrigued or that I’d forgotten about, the magazines I liked. I was a third of the way through my shelves, twelve boxes filled, when I finally settled down in my chair, pulling blankets over me, and started to read.
I got about two pages read before deciding I didn’t have it in me to read more.
I didn’t have it in me to sit still, when my anxieties were churning.
I stood, dropping blankets on the floor, and walked over to the window. With the cold, the space heater, and the imperfect seal, moisture and fog had collected on it.
I reached out toward the window, a foot away from touching it. I turned on my forcefield.
Then a handprint on the window, in the condensation. Then another.
A circular smudge that streaked, a naked breast pressed against the glass, moving.
Then the mark that couldn’t be anything but one half of a face, beneath the circular smudge.
They moved, and I wasn’t asking them to move. The window rattled a bit as it was pushed against. The prints smudged.
A fingernail dragged against the glass, and produced a high pitched squeal, almost ear-splitting.
I dropped the forcefield. I sank back into my seat, and it protested the landing.
Not a second trigger. I was well aware of that. When I’d first had my forcefield, it hadn’t protected my costume. I had two theories as to why.
The first theory was that I’d grown, and the boundaries that the forcefield used to define ‘me’ had changed. I’d breathe out, breathe in, gain a pound here, lose a pound there, and it would adjust for the maximum bounds. It didn’t explain how my skirt was often protected, but I’d mused on that too, that my legs moved, my hair had been long at one point, I’d been shorter…
I’d been that, the forcefield had adjusted, and that was the new upper bound of what I was, forever with me.
It felt thin, as theories went.
The second theory was that it was the Manton effect, that broad-as-bells term for the built in protections and limitations of the power. The theory was that the built-in protections of the power only protected what I saw as a part of me, and it had taken some time before the costume was that much a part of my identity.
That that was me, now, as much as the costume I wore.
I couldn’t be that. I couldn’t sit still and be crushed under the weight of that thing.
I needed to do something, and taking books off the shelves felt like it was moving backward, not forward.
I spun around in my seat, and I loaded up the webpage. Something to do. Methodically filling out details on the group I’d seen, researching, filling myself in, and letting others know what they were up against.
Something constructive to keep me occupied until the power ran out, or until I was so tired I had no choice but to sleep.