Ashley stepped off the bus and the first thing she saw were the officers at the door. Every time she left home, they were on her. Usually they stopped her before she even got on the bus.
She’d planned ahead. When her supplies ran out, she usually hit a store after hours. She’d pulled a run through a pharmacy a month ago, and on impulse she’d grabbed some hair dye.
On her last failed excursion, she’d overheard the cop giving her appearance. This time around, with the stakes being what they were, she had kept that in mind and changed up her look.
Her hair was gross now, two days without washing, but it was a yellowy sort of blonde. Instead of her usual clothes, she wore a red sweatshirt and a pre-faded shirt with an American flag on it, faded jeans, and sneakers without socks. Sunglasses she’d grabbed from one of the racks in the drug store were on her nose, another thing to change up her look.
The creases of her pits and her eyes stung with fresh sweat, and the clothes had a chemical feel, like some brands got when fresh from the factory. The bus ride had been so uncomfortable she’d nearly lost her mind. She hadn’t been able to move her hands, she couldn’t sleep, and she’d been so restless she could have paced up and down the aisle a thousand times before she got here. She’d said something out loud, a few somethings, and she couldn’t even remember now, but the bus driver had told her to shut it. Now some passengers glared at her.
She smiled. If they only knew.
She loved this. The game of it. She took her time waiting for people to get their bags from the compartment at the side of the bus, one of her legs jiggling. The cops were there and they hadn’t reacted to her yet.
All around her were people, tourists and people going to work. A gaggle of college twits with matching outfits were talking about school. At the end of the station, a group of teens with spraypainted scrawls on dark clothes were pushing and shoving some others. The others included kids as young as ten or so, and the oldest looked maybe eighteen. The group didn’t match like the ones in the spray-painted clothes did.
The scuffle drew the attention of some of the police officers who were watching things. As they departed, she reached down to hook her arm around the bag, reaching over her head to let the strap slide down to her shoulder.
She walked past the lone remaining cop as he stood up straighter, looking over the heads of people to see that things were going okay.
In this game of hers, her against all of the local law enforcement and PRT, with their annoying-as-shit capes that they sicced on her, she could count this as a win.
One point for me.
How long had those police been working there? How much money were they paid, for that amount of time? How much coordination had gone into it? They would be frustrated, realizing that for all their vast resources, they had been trumped by a sixteen year old girl. It would ruin their days, like they had tried to ruin hers so many times.
The restlesness of the bus fled her as she picked up her pace. She walked everywhere, so she was good at it, brisk. She could have chosen another exit, but she chose the one the officers had gone to. They were busy herding the kids out of the station, directing them to different ends of the parking lot. There were more spray painted teenagers outside, with a makeshift booth, and that booth got one of the officer’s attention.
Ashley took a bit of pleasure in walking past the oblivious officers.
Another point for me.
No. She wouldn’t be greedy. Half a point.
She stretched as she walked out into the parking lot. She thought about where to go and who to ask, and she flirted with the idea of trying to talk to an officer. How many points would that be, to pass right under their noses?
No. It didn’t make sense. She was sorely tempted, but there were more wins to be had later. Bigger risks to take, bigger dragons to slay.
Not the spray painted teens. The clothes reeked of a uniform, and conformity disgusted her. If they belonged to a group or if they were serving a gang, then there would be people at the top who weren’t so beholden to a uniform. It made them subservient and it made them already bought and paid for. She couldn’t use that.
They were already packing up their table as she walked away, as if they’d been expecting to be shut down. She had a glimpse of the contents of the table- shitty art of the city on a third of the table, and another two thirds had shitty art of the heroes and villains of the area.
She’d get her information elsewhere.
The other group didn’t have stuff, so they’d moved under a tree in the shade. The older ones were sitting on the backs of cars, or leaning against the bumpers. The youngest were at the noses of the parked cars, picking at the grass and dirt by the concrete separator. One had an ant running up his arm.
The oldest was liable to be the leader, and he looked fit.
“Hey,” she said, making eye contact with him.
“What’s up?” another asked. Skinny, Hispanic, with an earring.
She could remember a rule she’d heard in school, that guy with an earring in their left ear meant they were gay. Or was it the right?
It had been three years since she’d been in school, now that she thought about it. Grade seven felt so long ago.
Whatever. If that was his thing, that was his thing.
“What was that?” she asked, her head jerking in the direction of the other group.
“Shit, I don’t know,” the earring guy said. “Randoms have been showing up all over. This used to be a hangout spot, there’s an ice cream place inside, but since they showed up and started causing trouble and trying to make money off of tourists, it’s different.”
They were locals, then, and the teens with the spray-painted clothes were visitors or recruits of the newbies. Good to know.
“Only two kids allowed in the ice cream place at a time,” one of the younger members of the group said. “So fucking stupid.”
“I heard something’s going down,” Ashley said.
“Has been for the last few weeks,” a girl said. Her hair was plaited into a braid that ran from the center-front of her hairline over her head. Two more plaits were at the side of her head. Ashley liked the makeup. “They went after the criminals, but they didn’t do anything about the gangs. They went after the ones with powers.”
The guy with the earring added, “The local gangs are running scared, new gangs are showing up, cops are cracking down.”
“You can’t even keep track of it all,” the oldest boy said. He was the one she’d first talked to and he was answering for the first time. The first thing he said was to admit a weakness like that? She was less interested in him now. Not so useful.
“What places are trouble?” she asked.
“First time in Boston? You alone?”
“Not my first time,” she said. She ignored the second question. “I know neighborhoods, but not where to go or not to go.”
“Dorchester, Mattapan, Mission Hill.” the guy with the earring said. “Places to stay away from.”
The girl standing next to him said “Deathchester, Murderpan, Mission Hell.”
The guy with the earring said, “I hear Hyde Park is a warzone, and there’s the dead stop near Boylston, you can’t go there without someone starting shit.”
The girl said, “You hear bad things about East Boston, but only from people who think brown or black skin is a reason to be scared.”
“I don’t scare easy,” Ashley said.
“If you’re looking for a place to stay, you’re going to be shit out of luck. Most places are booked,” the girl said.
“I’ll manage,” she said.
“You don’t scare easy, you’ll manage,” the guy with the earring said. “You’re tough, huh?”
“Been on my own for three years now. Ran away. Fending for myself,” she said, smiling.
“That’s so sad,” the girl with the braids said.
The smile fell from Ashley’s face. Another member of the group who hadn’t won her over, now.
“I manage,” Ashley said. “I like the sound of Deathchester. Rubs me the right way.”
“Huh?” the oldest boy almost grunted the word. “You want to go to these places?”
“One of them,” she said. She raised her foot without bending over, and reached for her shoe, being careful with how she moved her hand. Some movements were safer than others, and some minimized movement. In a similar way, she was careful with how she stowed her money. Some in every pocket, some in between her sneaker and her foot. It made it harder to destroy too much of it if her power was in a mood. She caught a bill between index and middle finger, then held it out. “For the info. Buy some ice cream, I guess.”
“Yes!” one of the younger kids hooted.
Earring boy reached out. Ashley pulled her hand back at the last second.
He kept his hand out.
“Can any of you drive? I’ll give you this and what I’d pay a cab driver.”
A few glanced at the oldest boy.
“Ed,” Earring boy said. When Ed looked at him, Earring boy gave a little nod.
“Sure,” Ed said. “Doesn’t seem smart, getting in cars with boys you don’t know.”
“I’m smarter than most,” Ashley said. The negative comments were annoying her now. They didn’t know anything. Things were going right so far, and she didn’t need people dragging her down. “Which car?”
“It’s parked across the street. You pay to park here.”
She didn’t tend to make a point of learning the names of people without powers, but there was a chance she could keep these people on. Earring boy was Matias. Braid girl was Xi, short for Ximena, and Ed was Ed.
This was going to be the time it all came together. Ashley smiled as the door was held for her, happy she didn’t have to open it. She settled in, bag at her feet, and stared out the window, studying the city.
There were times she struggled, her power worked against her, and nothing went right. Those were the times she worked on surviving. She took up residence in abandoned apartments or vacant apartments that were looking for rent, and she waited out the days, keeping an ear out for the radio and an eye on the news. The overlapping sounds of each were constant from the time she woke up until the time she fell asleep, playing throughout any naps she took. The radio she’d been using for the last few months had a stiff set of knobs, and it was dangerous to try to work them and risk destroying the thing. The television was an old style that she could turn off and on with her toes, but she tended to leave it on. When she got tired of being cooped up, she went for walks, usually at night, or she raided stores for things.
Then there were these times. She was in the zone. It was so rare that she’d be both in the zone and have an actual opportunity. Just about every time, she was thwarted. Thwarted. It was such a good word. Heroes got in the way, something critical went wrong at the last moment, and it all went to pieces.
They tried to watch her. The cops at the bus were only one instance. Each time, though, she learned.
This time would be something special.
Her eyes scanned the city, looking at stores, at the houses, at the bigger buildings of obscure purpose. She studied the people, who acted like nothing was happening, and she looked at the graffiti, reading it like the zig-zagging letters and scrawls were the guts of a bird splayed out for augury.
She’d always liked that image. The Romans had done a lot of really neat things. The documentary channel was one of the only interesting things that were on between one and two in the afternoon, and she’d seen the three parts of the Roman documentary six times each.
The one about myth and the one about Caligula had been the drop-everything, skip napping sorts.
“Ashley?” Xi asked, from the front seat.
“Mm?” Ashley was stirred from her thoughts. She turned her eyes away from the window. Matias was at the other end of the back seat, watching her.
“You want to come over for dinner? My mama always makes too much, and she loves it when people like her food. It wouldn’t take much convincing for me to have you over, and we’re not far from Dorchester.”
“I’m busy tonight,” Ashley said.
“Sure,” Xi said. “I thought I’d ask.”
Ashley shrugged. She looked at the city, trying to strategize. Run-down buildings were good. Areas without cars. There were stores she could target, too, if she needed to raid some place at night. If she got hungry, or if she wound up with no clothes. Things disappeared so easily, when the wrong movement of her hands could destroy it all.
The thought was dark, and it darkened further when she thought- no, not even thought. The idea that she could destroy the car and everyone in it in an instant passed through her mind.
The idea of the press of family and a dinner table with a lot of food bothered her. She didn’t know how to handle that sort of thing anymore.
“What are you doing for food?” Matias asked.
She was annoyed at the question, annoyed that her observation of the city was being interrupted, and annoyed that she hadn’t been observing the city, and that she’d been thinking about useless stuff. It was this kind of thing that dragged her down when she was in the zone.
“I’ve got stuff to do,” she said. “I don’t waste time with sleep or food until I’m set.”
“Sure,” he said.
Spidery red scrawls covered surfaces on a couple of blocks, with some paint on a door.
A little while after, she saw a group of people that weren’t wearing any red, but who were all sitting outside, trying to be intimidating.
The houses in the area they passed into were more and more run down, here. It reminded her of home. Not the home she’d been born in, but the home she had now. Stafford. The apartment with the radio and television, with the holes in the walls, her clothes hanging up to dry, and the little modifications she’d made to make life easier.
The thoughts bothered her. She wanted to slap her cheeks, wake herself up. This was the sort of thinking that had gnawed at her on the bus. It dragged her down, and she wanted out of the car, now, so she could do something, haul herself up, salvage her focus and stay in the zone.
She would thrive here, she would succeed, gather allies, make and defeat enemies, and she would make a new home.
She had to. Stafford would be a dim memory.
“This is Dorchester,” Ed said.
Her focus narrowed, her eyes tracking the surroundings. Red brick buildings, not a lot of grass, a bridge with a wooden bottom and rusty rails on the sides, only wide enough for one car to cross over. There were row houses in one area. Past the buildings to the east, she could see the water.
“Deathchester, you called it?”
“Yeah,” Xi said. “It doesn’t feel right, dropping you off here.”
She had an idea. Lifting her mood. “I’ll be fine. Come with, and I’ll show you.”
Xi made eye contact with Matias. They tried to communicate without speaking, with one or two gestures. Ashley didn’t care enough to follow. She looked out the window and said, “Anywhere near here is good.”
Ed pulled to a stop. Ashley felt tension in her hands as she pulled on the door handle, but nothing broke. She dragged her bag behind her, jerking her arm to bounce the strap to her shoulder.
“You’re just going to pick a place?” Matias asked.
“A place for now, where I can put my things. I don’t need much, but running water is good. Power.”
There were places with boarded up windows. A last resort. She walked down the block until she saw a sign in a window. Black, with orange letters spelling out, ‘For Rent’. There was another sign for an open house the next weekend.
Her pace quickened as she circled the property. The others lagged behind, talking among one another.
She used her power to destroy the doorknob.
“What was that?” Matias asked. The three hadn’t rounded the corner.
Ashley smiled, pushing her way inside.
Everything was clean, swept. There was a fridge, appliances, shitty cheap things, but they would do.
She opened the fridge, and found it dark and warm.
She went to the tap, opening it with her wrist, and turned on the water.
Running water, at least.
“Changing,” she said, dropping her bag and kicking it across the floor as she entered the bathroom that was adjacent to the kitchen. It skidded to a stop at the base of the toilet. She still smiled. “I’ll be back.”
“You said you’d pay us for the ride,” Xi said. Ashley leaned around the door, and saw Xi standing with her back to the kitchen.
Ashley pulled off her sweatshirt, glad her power hadn’t destroyed it. She dropped it and kicked it across the floor. “In the pockets. You can come in if you want. We’re both girls.”
“Uh,” Xi said. She picked up the sweatshirt and looked up just in time to see Ashley with her back to her, undoing her jeans. She turned around again. “How do I put it? That doesn’t rule anything out.”
“You’ve got like, forty dollars and change in the pockets.”
The last of the pharmacy raid. “Take it all. I’ll make way more than that tonight.”
“Oh. You have other options,” Xi said.
“I don’t want other options,” Ashley said. “Believe me.”
She pulled her gritty American flag shirt up, and her power flickered. It tore apart the shirt, the noise of it joining Xi’s yelp of surprise.
A loss. It had been a nice shirt, and it felt wrong to destroy a depiction of the flag, but… Ashley ripped the remains off her upper body. If such a time came that she had a flag of her own, she would want it treated with respect. Still, the damage had been done.
She used her power, aiming at her own body. The shirt, still in her hand, was destroyed in the curls and waves of energy. As her power bucked and kicked, hurling her arm one way and the other, she was jerked into the sink. She didn’t have much padding, so the impact was sharp.
She hid the pain, which wasn’t hard, because she she was caught up in the moment. Her power washed over her body, destroying everything that wasn’t her. Sweat, dirt, lint, dust.
It washed over her face and her head, and she thought and saw white.
The hair that fell across her face was no longer dyed. The hair had been preserved, and the dye hadn’t.
The boys had come, and Xi kept them from entering or rounding the corner. The girl’s eyes were wide, and she clutched the sweatshirt with both hands, and then she was gone, out of the room and around behind the door.
To preserve the moment, Ashley reached for black fabric near the top of her bag. A dress. She pulled it over her head.
There were other things in the bag. Twisted bits of black matter, not dissimilar to charcoal.
Her power twisted, it annihilated. There was more to it, though. It made things swell and burst into nothing, and it made them wither. It decayed by making paint peel and wood fade and splinter. The passage of time. Halting time.
Her mask was a twist of what had been part of an engine block. She’d used her power on it, to erase it from existence, and all her power had done was to kick it around and warp it slightly.
The leftovers were rare to show up, needing a good combination of condensing of already dense material and some time-warping to make them work, but she collected them every time she spotted one. Many were so small she could close her hand around them, and now they littered the bottom of her bag. Two more were like stakes or knives without edges. A third find had been used and twisted around her mask to actually make it fit around her eyes, instead of leaving one eyebrow uncovered. A triple-loop of wire served as a belt, with the two spikes dangling off of Ashley’s left hip.
Ashley stepped out of the room, facing the three teenagers. She liked the looks on their faces. The realization. They’d looked down on her and now they knew.
“Like I said,” she told them. “I manage. Now tell me. Are you interested in making more money?”
Wide eyes. Ed offered a shake of his head.
With wide eyes and a shaken head, Kenzie smiled.
Ashley felt uncomfortable. She didn’t have much experience with people, and her experiences with the kinds of people who could be around someone like her and smile like that hadn’t been good ones.
Kenzie looked between the members of the group. “No response. I hope I didn’t overshare.”
She looked at Jessica. Jessica answered the look, “That’s not for me to say. I’d encourage the group to share its feelings on oversharing, sharing, or how you feel about Kenzie’s background.”
“I think it’s partially up to you to define whether you overshared,” Sveta said. “Don’t feel you have to share if you don’t want to.”
“Oh. If you’re talking about boundaries, I don’t think I have any,” Kenzie said. “I’m broken. Tell me to stop when I feel like it? I’m going to put my foot on the gas and vreeeeeee. That’s my thing, it’s what I’m working on.”
“Byron and I have a similar background, actually. But… kind of not. That was your life. Okay. I had one incident and that was my trigger,” Tristan said. “It wasn’t an easy story to hear.”
Kenzie nodded. “Sorry. I like to put myself out there one hundred percent. If people like me then they can have me.”
“Wording,” Chris said. He leaned back. One of his eyes was black from corner to corner, and he had a set of medieval braces on, wire and clamps. The eyepatch he’d worn on his way to the session dangled from his fingers, swinging as his hand moved.
He was interesting. Ashley was paying close attention to him. She’d almost marked him as the only person of interest in this group, but… now she was paying attention to Kenzie.
She could understand Kenzie. She already had suspicions about what was going on there.
“Keep in mind, being too forward will scare people off,” Sveta said.
“Oh, shucks,” Kenzie said. She smiled and joked, “Guess I’m going to die alone.”
“Don’t say that,” Sveta said. “I found someone, and I never thought that would be possible.”
“Even the worst scumbags have someone who gravitates toward them,” Ashley said. “If they have any decency, they turn those people away and stay alone.”
“Gee, awesome,” Kenzie said.
“I don’t like how close that statement was to me saying how I found someone,” Sveta said.
“I didn’t mean you,” Ashley said, to Sveta. And to Kenzie, she said, “and I don’t think you’re a scumbag. I’m saying- people find people. Sometimes they shouldn’t, but I don’t think you shouldn’t. You should find someone. A lot of someones, from what I’ve seen and heard.”
Kenzie digested that. Then she smiled and said, “Thanks, but I’ve done some scumbag stuff. I wasn’t considerate, I hurt a lot of people along the way.”
“You’re eleven,” Chris said. “Hate to break it to you, but you get a pass.”
“Actually no,” Kenzie said. “I don’t think the people who I hurt would look me in the eye or give me a hug or let me into their homes, if I showed up in front of them. They don’t give me any pass.”
“The amnesty is supposed to give everyone a pass,” Tristan said.
“It doesn’t work that way in practice,” Ashley said. She looked down at her hands. “There are people being kept on short leashes, staying in places that are prisons in everything but name.”
“Do you want a pass, Kenzie?” Jessica asked. “Do you want the past to be the past? Do you want forgiveness?”
“A good question,” Tristan said. “I do, for sure.”
“Yeah,” Rain said. “Yeah.”
“Our inaugural session is winding down,” Jessica said. “I’ve talked to each of you about goals. We outlined some goals and expectations before and after you decided to try this group. It would be good to think about where you stand on that.”
Ashley thought of all the people she had killed.
The idea of asking, begging for absolution, it bothered her.
“When we discuss goals,” Jessica said. “We think about change. What do we need or want to change? Very commonly, in my experience, it’s something we raise during first sessions or something we leave as homework. Let me build on that, though. Change. Do you want to change?”
“That’s not such a hard question,” Rain said.
Ashley was silent.
“Do you want change or do you want to change,” Tristan said. “Those are very different things. But yeah, I do want to change. It’s part of wanting to move past my past mistakes.”
“My power makes me change,” Chris said. “Super easy question, I get it whether I want to or not. I answer with an N-slash-A.”
“Ha ha,” Tristan said.
“I want to change,” Kenzie said. “That’s pretty obvious, I guess.”
“I’m in a good place,” Sveta said. “Change isn’t what I’m after, exactly. I want to make sure I don’t lose this place I’m at.”
“Okay,” Jessica said. “These are all good answers. It’s interesting to hear the immediate responses. Think on it. Come to the next session with your thoughts. If you find the answer is easy, then explain it. Think of a way to say what that change looks like.”
The group session wrapped up. Ashley stood from her seat. Tristan talked to Sveta- they were both familiar with Weld, and Weld had dropped Sveta off. Kenzie talked to Chris.
Ashley remained lost in thought. She couldn’t begin to answer the the second question, what the change might look like, when the first was so far beyond her.
She had no recruits from among the locals. Matias, Ximena and Ed weren’t the kind to be henchmen.
She was alone as she made her approach to the moot. A bonfire blazed on the beach, with some pieces of furniture as part of the wood stack. Villains ringed it, divided into their individual groups. Everything was painted in reds and oranges, and the effect- she loved the effect.
Fire, smoke, the dark sky. The assembled factions. This was only the groups from the South-End, South Boston, Roxbury and part of the Dorchester area.
She’d asked the three teenagers, offering future payment. They had named some of the players here, declining the payment when payment would have meant interactions at a later date.
The Four. Two men and two women with white clothes trimmed in black. Their clothes had odd cuts, like a shirt that cut from the left hip to the right shoulder, where it became a collar so wide and draping it was almost a cape, folding over one shoulder. Their masks were horizontal white bars at the eyebrow, across their eyeline, and across the cheekbones. One of the men was displaying his power, holding onto a weapon that had the general shape of a rifle, if the pieces were formed of bits from a coral reef. The barrel was flexible and floppy. The entire thing was covered in brightly colored pustules, with the densest concentration hiding his hands. A woman had similar pustules across the side of her face, neck, and ear.
There were three capes with a plant theme. A guy with frizzy brown hair sticking out over the top and sides of a mask that looked like it was made of the softest rubber, all in oval-shaped nodules. More mushroom-like nodules stood out diagonally from his shoulders. A man sat on a rock beside him, foot propped up on a creature that looked like it was made of driftwood, a snake with two forelimbs and no rear legs. A woman stood in the shadows behind them. She had no name for them.
There were the Mullen Brothers. Both wore armor that looked like it had been made from scrap metal. They weren’t tinkers- they were just strong, tough, and tenacious enough that they could make really shitty armor that any ordinary man would have struggled with, razor edges cutting in flesh, ungainly and heavy, and they endured it. Each had a glow that emanated from their chest and heated up the metal closest to their hearts. In the dark, the metal was a faint pink-orange.
The Clockwork Dogs were a partnership. Masterminds, apparently. The pair were a man of average height, skinny but for a protruding belly, and a short man, both with fine masks that looked tinker-made, glinting as they moved and adjusted in the firelight. Men and women that looked anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five stood behind them. Four people in clothes that looked more suited for a cocktail party with the rich and famous.
There were bikers, obvious enough. There were others who stood too far into shadow to be seen- and they probably stood in the shadow because they weren’t tough enough to stand among those in the light.
Orchard was one named group, but they seemed to be absent. Slave peddlers, they were a pair who used the ability to mutate others and the ability to alter others’ minds to turn mundane slaves into custom orders. Their ‘fruit’. Ashley surmised they stayed away because that kind of behavior drew the attention of the authorities in an unforgiving way.
There were others who walked finer lines. Heroes were out there, their teams flocking to the city.
This was only one area of the city. There would be other meetings like this in the center-north area, and there would be more to the south and southwest. They would happen at villain bars, or where trucks and cars pulled together into a ring, the masked individuals gathering in the center.
Her heart was pounding, and she couldn’t stop smiling as she walked on the beach, sand worming its way between her toes. She paced around the perimeter, taking stock.
If the heroes came for her, she would make them regret it.
She wouldn’t concern herself with other areas. She liked the sound of ‘Deathchester’. She wanted it.
It meant she needed allies. There were lone villains at the periphery. There would be others. She would have her henchmen within a day or two. She kept an eye out for anyone who might serve. People who looked strong or put together.
For now, she wasn’t so insane as to step into the light. Better to stay with the faceless, the nondescript, so she could surprise her enemies. To put herself on the map, and to take her place at that inner ring, where she had that respect, she would have to unseat one of the major players.
She would remove them from the picture.
A flicker of power crackled at her hand at the thought.