It’s Always Better in the Morning…
I didn’t think I was ever going to get to sleep, but somehow, sleep snuck up on me and the sun was coming up before I knew it. I yawned and stretched and got slowly out of bed, feeling the pain of yesterday’s flight from unknown enemies in my muscles. Rek’s bed was empty, as I had expected, and I stumbled towards the bathroom to wake myself up.
“I wondered when you were going to wake up,” said an unexpected voice.
I spun around and saw Rek sitting nonchalantly in the corner. Two dirty water bottles lay next to him. “I thought you’d have left,” I said.
“Nah. Strength in numbers and all that. Besides, I found enough supplies for both of us.”
“Where are they?” I asked.
“Here,” he said, gesturing at the water bottles. “And all over out there.”
“We’re going to steal?” I asked.
“I like to think of it as salvaging. Dead bodies don’t have much use for food, do they?”
I nodded slowly. It was sound reasoning, but… Stealing wasn’t right. No matter whether the ones you stole from were alive or…
No! Stop it! I told myself. That’s Alex thinking, not Jem. Jem doesn’t care who she steals from. Jem does what’s necessary to survive, even if it’s stealing. Even from... dead people.
Rek was already standing. “C’mon, then, let’s go.”
Jem stood and followed him out of the motel.
I hadn’t noticed the smell last night, or all yesterday, but I noticed it today- a nasty, sharp chemical smell that burned your nostrils. Worse yet were the faint traces of charred meat that clung to some of the surfaces Rek and I scrabbled over. Rek had obviously been through here before, because he knew the places that weren’t too hot and stepped easily over the sharpest shards. He waited for me over every sharp edge or extra-hot spot. I had the feeling that I was slowing him down although there was no possible way to go faster without killing yourself.
Eventually, we got to the place he wanted to go-a mildly flat section surrounded by sharp edges and burning-hot metal. A tarp was heaped in the middle of it, and Rek putted it off to reveal several label-less cans and a single string backpack.
“Breakfast, and lunch, it looks like,” he announced. “You can carry the rest.”
“Hey! Why do I have to carry them?”
“’Cause I found them. Now pick one and open it and we can have breakfast. The rest we’ll save for later.”
I grabbed the largest, heaviest can and waited for Rek to finish using his knife to open his. He looked in eagerly when the tin popped open, then pulled back in disgust. “String beans. See what you got.”
Mine was cherries in a sugary glaze. I enjoyed watching Rek eat his slimy beans while I had delicious cherries.
To tell the truth, they weren’t really that good, but I was still a little angry at Rek for making me carry the backpack, and made sure it looked like they were the best things in the world. He kept looking at the unrealistically red cherries longingly, and I knew I was doing a good job.
That was when his phone rang.
We both jumped about ten feet as the tinny, annoying tune blasted out of the cell phone’s tiny speakers. Rek started to feel through his pockets frantically, searching for our link with the rest of humanity…
“Left back,” I called, and he finally pulled out the cell phone…an instant after it stopped ringing.
Frantically, he flipped it open and punched the talk button. “Hello?” he said, not bringing it up to his ear.
It must have been on speakerphone, because I heard a voice from the other end: “Rek! You’re alive!”
It made me think of a sweet old lady, speaking to a slightly naught young boy she doted on nonetheless.
“Yes, of course. What would you expect?”
The lady on the other end laughed a sincere-sounding laugh that sounded like one reserved for favorites. “What would I expect? Surely nothing else from the invincible Rek?”
“Not quite invincible…”
This voice was completely different- deep and businesslike, with military precision. This was not someone to be taken lightly.
“Did anyone else survive?”
Rek glanced around briefly, as if he had expected someone else to have snuck up while he was talking. “Well, no one you know, but I found this girl….”
“What does she call herself?”
I interrupted. “I call myself Jem, sir, and I’m standing right next to Rek. I can hear you.”
There was a pause, and Rek winced. Then the lady’s voice was on again.
“How did you survive the explosions?”
“How close did the bombs get?”
“I don’t know. Close. I can’t really remember.”
There was a long pause, and then the man’s voice: “Are you certain you can’t remember more?”
“Of course I’m sure! It’s my mind, isn’t it?”
There was a longer pause, and I was just starting to wonder if they’d hung up when the man said, “Bring her, Rek. I’ll be at the second point.”
The line went dead, and I turned bemusedly to Rek. “What was that all about?”
“That’s Auntie and Sir. They run a safehouse.”
“For who?” I asked.
“Kids with powers.”
“Like me. And they must think you have powers, too, if they’re inviting you.”
“What do you-“
Before I could even finish my sentence, he had done a quick lap of the clearing and had his hand against my mouth. “That’s what I mean. Now, let’s go.”
I had no time to protest before he picked me up and started running across the wasteland, somehow dodging the debris. My upper back and the backs of my knees were soon chafed red from the jostling and my eyes streaming from the wind as he raced toward some unknown destination at an unknown-but-probably-scary–fast speed.
Soon enough, we came to a little gravel dead–end road which had pretty much escaped the blasts unharmed. Rek began to slow down, slipped on the gravel, flipped around in midair, and landed on his face. I was thrown clear, but still ended up landing hard in the grass by the side of the grassy road.
“I guess you still have to work on those stops, Rek?” I joked. “Rek? Rek?”
He was out cold. A larger rock protruding from the gravel had gotten him hard on the forehead. I rolled him onto his front and dragged him from the road, then sat him up against a tree. If we still had to get somewhere, we were out of luck, because I had no clue where we were…or where we were supposed to go.
Twenty minutes later, at the least, Rek straightened up and shook his head delicately. “Oww.”
“Yeah, I’d be more careful about stopping from now on,” I said.
His eyes widened, and he stood up a little too quickly, holding the tree for support. “We have to go! They’ll be there any minute!”
“I don’t think you can run anywhere with that bump on your head.”
He ran his fingers over it distractedly. “No, I’ll be alright. We have to go!” He ran towards me, and for an instant, I thought he was going to be able to pick me up. But then he faltered, and leaned on the tree I was standing next to.
“Come on, no heroics, we can walk the rest of the way,” I said, draping his arm over my shoulder. He seemed glad for the support and leaned heavily on me as we walked slowly up the road. By the time I had dragged him to the crossroads, it felt like he was leaning all his weight on me. As I stood at the crossroads indecisively, he started to snore, and I gave up. I set him on the ground and sat next to him, rolling my shoulder out to release the cramp that had grown in it. Wherever Auntie and Sir had wanted us to go, we wouldn’t be getting there anytime soon.
We’d been sitting there (well, sitting and sleeping) for less than ten minutes when a white van advertising “Manny’s One-Stop Plumbing Co.” pulled up. A dark-haired, dangerous-looking older–teens boy sat in the driver’s seat, and a bouncy blonde girl who looked, at the oldest, nine years old and wore her hair in tight pink –tipped pigtails sat beside him. The girl beamed down at us, laughing when she saw Rek. “Oh, look, Razo, he’s knocked himself out again!”
The other boy grunted, and the girl said, “Can you get him in the back? I’ve had to load him in before; he’s a lot heavier than he looks.”
“Nah, I practically carried him all the way here,” I assured her, picking Rek up roughly and heaving him into the back of the van, then getting in myself and closing the doors.
As the boy drove off, the girl turned around in her seat, her pink pigtails bouncing, and asked, “What’s your name? I’m Jessplosion, but you can call me Jessi. And that’s Razo the silent. He always keeps to himself, but don’t get him angry. You might not survive it. Don’t make me angry either, ‘cause then I explode.”
“What do you do?” she asked, tilting her head and causing her pigtails to swing again.
“I don’t know yet,” I said honestly.
She smiled even more brightly. “That’s the way I was, too, but don’t worry. Auntie can tell if people have powers, and she wouldn’t have invited you if you were normal.”
“Turn around,” Razo growled, and Jessi waved once before turning back around front.
I couldn’t see where we were going, given that I was crouched in the back of the van where there were no windows, but judging by the speed the boy was driving, and the frequency with which he paused and/or slowed, the road was pretty much empty. Rek started to wake up about halfway through the trip, and was fully awake by the time the van pulled off to the left and stopped. Razo and Jessi got out and opened the back doors, and I got out, wincing as blood flowed back into the legs I’d been sitting on the whole trip here. Luckily, there was still a bit of a walk to the house, so I got the chance to stretch them while Jessi babbled on. I was still limping a little when I saw the house.
It was huge, with brick on all four sides and a pillared porch that bulged out of the front of the façade. A stone dolphin spouted water into a lake nearby, on the shores of which canoes and paddleboats perched as if waiting for someone to ride them. Jessi ran across the wide and immaculate yard, decorated by relatively small but beautiful statues, calling out, “Auntie! Sir! We’re home!”
The large wooden double doors opened almost immediately, and an older, but not elderly, couple stepped out. The lady looked like a once –athletic mother gone to seed, but the man looked much more proper, even military, with his starched and immaculate black pants and blue shirt. His face was hidden from the sun by a proper–looking hat.
The lady, who could only be Auntie, welcomed Jessi with a hug, but even Jessi seemed to know not to hug the man, and instead threw a sloppy salute and said, “Good evening, Sir.”
I thought I saw the man smile, but it could have been a play of the light. He didn’t seem like one to smile.
“Sooo…” I said, unsure what to ask first.
“Your powers still haven’t become evident?” asked Auntie. “Don’t worry, they’ll appear soon enough. Your aura is really bright.”
“I hope you learn how to use them before you leave my safehouse,” said Sir, and something about the way he said it reminded me of…
“Do I know you?” I asked warily.
“Oh, you know my face and my voice, unquestionably, but you certainly do not know me.”
That was a famous quote…said by…it couldn’t be…
He swept off his hat, and there was the evidence, written all over his face.
Sir was the infamous My/ine. But...his ship crashed. My/ine was dead. He had to be some kind of imposter, doing this to scare me.
“I’m no imposter, I assure you. I am the one and only My/ine.”
“But…you’re dead! And…you killed the heroes! Why are you trying to keep us safe?” I turned to the others. “This is crazy! Why do you trust him? He killed them all!”
“Hear me out,” My/ine said calmly.
“Are you crazy? No way! I’m going now! I’ll take my chances in the rubble!” I screamed, turning and stomping away.
I had made it about ten feet when a strong hand fell on my shoulder. My own momentum spun me around, and I ended up banging my neck on Razo’s other arm, which he was holding across his chest. This was the first time I could see his eyes- he’d always been looking away or gazing through his bangs before. They had a kind of essential hardness in them- something that told you that he would not be afraid of killing you. Strangely, this assured me instead of frightening me- it told me he wouldn’t run when the going got tough, that I could really count on him to be there when I needed him.
Of course, this did worry me a little when it was pointed at me.
I gave him my patented sneer and put as much anger and courage as I could muster into my voice. “So, what’re you going to do? Poison me? Like your dear Sir did to everyone else?”
“Not quite,” he growled, quietly. The seams of his sleeves started to bulge oddly, then pull apart with a nasty ripping sound as five sharp, flat-sided, white blades appeared- three smaller ones on his forearms and two larger ones on his upper arms. I could hear them coming out on his other arm when they ripped through the fabric of his shirt.
I didn’t let any fear show on my face as I glared into his eyes, searching for some kind of uncertainty. I could feel his eyes searching my face for fear, and made doubly sure there was none there. The others had stopped moving and talking, caught up in the tension of the moment, waiting for one of us to stand down. I knew Razo wouldn’t show me superiority, but I refused to show him any weakness of my own.
My/ine or Sir’s calm voice seemed to fill the whole yard. Razo held my gaze a second longer before turning smartly and walking away as if nothing had happened. I noticed that he still kept half an eye on me, ready to get me should I decide to run. I decided not to, as it would obviously get me nowhere.
“So,” I said, “I guess I’ll have to hear whatever crazy excuse you’ve cooked up.”
He smiled. “I’m glad you chose that. Now, I’m going to start where it all began for me-getting rejected by the committee of superheroes. Many do not know this, but I am a post-human ‘super’- I can think at many time the rate of an ordinary person. The heroes had plenty of brains (or so they thought) and didn’t need me. I was given a very fancy-but-generic letter that they had no doubt given to thousands of other hopefuls like me. But unlike many, my life was not crushed by this. I’m not saying I wasn’t disappointed –trust me, I was –but I saw another way. If the heroes didn’t want me, I would still be a villain, and prove to them once and for all that brains were greater than brawn. And so started my career. I’ve never truly been angry at the heroes– after all, they led me to greatness by refusing me a life as a sidekick. In many ways, I am in still awe of them –they are all so unique! How is it possible that man could evolve so quickly that he changes, in a number of decades, from a single, generic race to such a diverse population? In fact, that was the question I was pursuing when I discovered the toxin for which I am blamed for the destruction of the heroes.
“Now, you already know much of my career –from my attack on the Statue of Liberty to my theft of the Mona Lisa –and you know everything I have done has been intended to gain capital. In other words, I was an ordinary thief on a much larger scale. In my prime, everything that went missing, from socks in the dryer to the statue of Abraham Lincoln, was blamed on me, but I always eluded the government. I was constantly one step ahead of them- they might raid one of my storehouses, but I would have already moved on. Sometimes, I would even leave clues –in the form of riddles or materials –but even if they got them right, they would never lead to me. Maybe I’d let them discover a rival with a similar agenda, but I was never so arrogant as to presume that no one would figure them out.
“One day, when I was hiding in my refuge to the north, studying samples of my own cells, I discovered a self-destruct trigger hidden deep within them. Now, this was very important. If I could discover a way remove this defect, I could hold the whole post-human community hostage when it activated and gain both massive amounts of money and, if I bargained carefully, a clear name.
“Now I realize that simply developing the cure would have been futile –in a normal, natural situation, the destruct gene never activates. But I was taken up with this idea, and disappeared to an even more remote location in order to develop this magical cure. I was gone for longer than I expected –a year, at least –but in the end, I was certain that I had discovered it. I would have tested it on myself if my dear wife hadn’t stepped in and suggested that I try it on another, in case it started an immense allergic reaction or set off other unsavory reactions. So I put out an advertisement for volunteers, and soon had more than enough. I led them into a room one by one and flooded it with the chemical. Ninety-nine of them died out of a hundred, and the last one may or may not have held his breath.
“I had never intended for this to happen, but it was still valuable information. I had discovered the activating agent, and although it was too fast-acting for what I intended, it would be sufficient to hold anybody hostage, should I so wish. But it was now imperative that I remain hidden, below the most powerful post human’s league, as any attention on the subject would reveal its inherent weakness-it did not affect normal humans. So, in order for it to be of any true effect in my plan, I had to both discover a way to slow down its process and cure or immunize the affected.
“By the time I had discovered the cure and the way to slow down the process, I was in semi-retirement. This was young for a villain, but I figured that if my plan worked out (which it could only do), I would be set for life. My wife and I were immunized, and we had enough of the serum to cover most of the heroes and villains, which was what we intended. More of the villains would die than the heroes, but that was also part of our long-term plans: a safer world for the children we only dreamed of having.
“Then the unthinkable happened- the toxins were stolen. Not the watered–down toxins, but the pure vials I was keeping as a safeguard. And my flagship was stolen as well– which assured me that whoever was going to spread the toxins intended to frame me. Before we even had a chance to get an investigation underway, the thief had spread the toxins and crashed my ship. His –or her– body was never found.”
“So you’re saying a thief stole from the master thief and killed the people you intended to kill anyways?” I interpreted.
“Yes, if you wish to see it that way,” he replied. “I did not account for someone committing suicide in my calculations. But then, the post-human breed never ceases to amaze. For example, Jessi’s older half-brother was born just five years after the toxins were released and was completely immune. He has… moved on, now, but that post-humans were able to evolve enough in five years to become completely immune to the toxins is truly amazing.”
“And I’m supposed to trust you after you admitted that you were going to kill thousands of partially innocent people?”
“That’s up to you,” he said, shrugging. “Of course, there’s always the rubble, and the soldiers who would be just too happy to kill you.”
This guy only had one emotion –calm. I could have ran and chosen to tell the soldiers, taken my chances that they’d be happy enough to hear where My/ine was that they wouldn’t kill me, but he knew me already. I wouldn’t do that, not since they killed Nick.
He knew me, and I’d said a total of five sentences to him. That…that was overly creepy. I looked like I still had to work on the little shell I was building around my true self.
“Fine. I’ll stay. But only…”
The others looked at me, each suspicious and scared of what I might say. I flashed them all a quick smile.
“Only if the food’s free.”
Rek started to laugh, and Jessi ran over and hugged me. Razo wandered off as if he had never been involved at all. I was getting used to him already, though, and I knew this didn’t mean anything and that he would have done exactly that even if he’d killed me, or if I’d somehow walked away.
“I’ll show you your bedroom when Jessi lets you go,” Auntie offered. Jessi immediately let go and squealed.
“Wait till you see it, Jem! Oh, they’re so awesome…They’re amazing!”
She started to jump up and down, and Auntie led me away rather quickly. As the large double doors closed behind me, there was a sound like the bombs from…just yesterday, could it be?...followed quickly by the tinkling sound of glass breaking somewhere within the house.
Auntie stuck her head back out the window. “A little further next time, Jessi!” She looked back at me and shook her head. “She’s a good girl, really, but she gets overexcited too easily.”
She turned, and I followed her up a set of sweeping, beautiful wooden steps with a hand rail wide enough to slide down and a beautiful, luxurious rug placed in the middle. Your feet relaxed as soon as you stepped onto it. I was instantly wary of it, remembering something I’d read about pressure pads in thick carpets, and moved to the solid wood part of the stairs. Auntie either didn’t notice or pretended not to. “Your room’s the last one on the left. Jessi’s your only neighbor- I had the boys sleep on another level.”
The corridor was wide, long, and thickly carpeted. At the opposite end was a large window with a window seat that would have a perfect view of the sunrise. There were at least ten doors down the hallway, each one a different shade of wood that blended into its neighbor but was also distinctly unique. The walls were stone, which, combined with the large window and dark green carpet, gave the illusion that you were outside, at some posh cabin resort.
“Well, go on,” Auntie urged. “You can do anything to your room that you want, although I’m afraid that right now it’s a bit bare.”
I tiptoed across the carpet to my door, opposite one which had ‘Jessi’ written on it in large brassy letters, and opened the door.
Bare was not the word I would have used to describe the room.
A four-poster, canopied bed stood near another window, which was also outfitted with a window seat. A mahogany desk on which the newest computer sat and a swivel chair stood next to were opposite, and a large, plump armchair was half-hidden behind a bookcase practically bursting at the seams. Behind these was a more average-looking door which hid a walk-in closet filled from top to bottom with more clothing than anyone could possibly wear. Another door led to a bathroom with a personal shower and a marble sink on which all the toiletries I could ever need were arranged.
“Don’t worry about messing anything up, the room is yours to decorate and reorganize. Money is not a problem, understand? I’ll leave you alone now, to let you get used to your new room.”
As the door shut behind me, I ran a hand through my newly-cut hair and looked at the shower. I could definitely use one…
I spent an hour in the steaming hot water.