Chapter Ten

345 Days Ago

For the longest time, I simply stared at the other girl. My brain felt like it was caught in some kind of loop where I just kept replaying her last words over and over again.

“No.” I shook my head, feeling as though I might fall down. “No way. That’s impossible. That’s wrong.”

Gesmine’s voice was tender as she lowered her hand, with a note of what sounded a lot like pride. “It’s true, Sav. We just proved it was. You didn’t think about it, and you were running just like me. Just as fast, just as long.”

Still, my head shook. I was reeling. “That can’t… Are you sure?” I finally asked, rather lamely.

To that, Ges chuckled and raised her right shoulder in a shrug. “Easy way to find out.”

“There is?” I asked, before flushing from the duh. “Oh, right, I should still be able to run without touching you.”

“That’s right.” Gesmine put her hands behind her back demonstratively. “So go for it. Run to that field over there and then back again.” She indicated the weed-filled dirt lot that surrounded the back area of the truck stop, about a hundred yards away. “Just try not to overshoot too much and get lost somewhere in Canada. I can’t tell you how many times that happened to me.”

“A lot?” I asked, raising an eyebrow, not that she could see it.

“I just said I can’t tell you.” Her masked face tilted to the side as she replied dryly. “You’d laugh.”

“Me, laugh at you?” I asked, full of false innocence. “Why, I’m insulted that you think I could be so shallow.”

Gesmine’s response was to lift her gloved hands, settle them on my shoulders, and physically turn me around away from her before leaning in close. Her voice was a vaguely muffled whisper. “Run, then come back.”

“You’re changing the subject.” I informed her, while focusing on the weeds of the field across from us. Could I really do it? Could I possibly actually run that fast without Ges’s help? It was insane, wasn’t it?

“You changed it first.” She pointed out before giving me a light kick in the rear. “Go, Sav.”

I shrugged and started to jog. I took one step, then another. “Okay, fine, but I don’t think this–”

My voice cut off, because I was talking to myself. I was also standing by myself. I had stopped running in mid-sentence, only to look around and see nothing but dry, dead weeds and grass around me. In the distance to the left, there was the beginnings of a housing development. When I looked behind me, I could barely make out the distant shape of the trucks racing along the freeway. It was so far away that I had to strain to see anything.

“Oh… my… god…” I sat down abruptly and heavily, just sort of collapsing down into the dirt as I stared in shock back the way I had come. “How… how… how…” My brain was broken, it was all I could do to simply stare and not pass out. I honestly, truly had not expected it to work.

A blur of motion attracted my attention, and then Gesmine was in front of me. I could tell she was grinning even behind the mask. “See?!” She crowed and grabbed my hands to yank me back to my feet. “I told you that you could do it!”

I wobbled a little, needing Ges to hold me up. My mouth felt dry and my knees were shaking. I felt my stomach turn over and over a few times as a strange feeling bubbled up in my stomach. It was a feeling that I couldn’t quite explain or understand.

The feeling rose through my chest, making me duck my head a little while trying to stand on my own two feet. It continued upward, until it manifested in a tiny little giggle. The softest, lightest little laugh came, and I blinked.

It came again, another little giggle, and I realized that the feeling I had was something that I hadn’t really, truly felt since the death of Paragon. Even running with Ges, while amazing, hadn’t quite felt like this.

I felt happy. I felt free. But this was more than that. This was more like something I didn’t feel. There was something missing, something that had been weighing me down ever since I had seen the world’s most powerful hero cut down. For all this time, even when I had helped Kacey or escaped from Kansas Trude and his boys, or the thing possessing them or whatever, I had felt weak and vulnerable.

Now, in this moment, for the very first time since everything had gone wrong, that feeling had been crushed like it was the dust that was currently lightly blowing around my feet.

Because for the first time since Paragon had fallen, I didn’t feel helpless.

I felt so happy and free, in fact, that I took another quick run, crossing several more football fields in a handful of seconds.

Of course, immediately after that, I had a moment of intense guilt. The only reason that I had this ability at all was because Paragon had died in the first place. He’d died, so now I had his power. He hadn’t even known me. He hadn’t chosen to bequeath his power to me. I just happened to be standing there. Or rather, cowering there. How sick was that?

And yet, Gesmine wasn’t wrong. I hadn’t killed Paragon. The creature that was after him, this Drude thing, would have taken any opportunity. It wasn’t like Paragon had been a recluse. Waiting for him to save someone was a bit like riding a bike and waiting for someone to blare their horn. You couldn’t exactly set your watch by it, but it was bound to happen a couple times a day.

But in all honesty, it still wasn’t that knowledge and understanding that convinced me to at least try to let go of my guilt and accept this gift. It was the fact that I didn’t hold Gesmine responsible for what the Drude had made her do. She’d had no more control over the situation, no more defense against the Drude’s manipulation, than Paragon. She had been a victim as well, and couldn’t possibly have stopped it.

Which meant that I had to let go of that guilt. Because if I held onto it for myself, I was tangentially blaming Gesmine as well, and that wasn’t fair, or right.

I caught sight of a blur of motion out of the corner of my eye, and when I focused on it, everything slowed down again. Now I could see Gesmine coming toward me as though she was running at normal speed.

This was so indescribably awesome.

“Is this indescribably awesome or what?” Ges rocketed to a stop next to me, and I could tell she was grinning. Her head cocked to the side when I laughed. “What?”

My head shook as I continued to giggle. “Nothing, I was just thinking the exact same thing, that’s all.”

“Duh.” Ges smacked her hand off the side of her head to demonstrate the obviousness of my words. “We are best friends. We’re totally in synch. Plus, you know, maybe you’re borrowing my brain as well as my powers.”

“I hope not.” I shot back. “I can’t afford your English Lit grades.”

She leapt for me, and I spun to flee. It was just like when we were kids chasing each other around the backyard. Except in this case, the backyard was the entire state of Oregon. I ran for thirty seconds and crossed over a hundred miles into a wooded area. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the blur of Gesmine approaching, so I cut right and followed the treeline. Branches and bits of debris were flung either way in my wake.

Ten more seconds of running in that direction brought me back toward a residential area. Rather than continue, I leaned right again. A gopher of some kind poked his head up right in front of me, but the amazing reflexes I had acquired let me adjust course, speeding around the little creature in a rush of motion that actually yanked him out of his hole and made him tumble a few feet away.

“Sorry!” I called back to the dazed little gopher, though he was already miles away so it was a symbolic gesture at best.

Then I sensed motion to my left, but by the time I turned that way, Gesmine was there. She collided with me and we went tumbling end over end, rolling through the weeds and dirt. Both of us squealed, but I assure you that it was heroic, impressive girly squealing.

Falling onto my back with Gesmine perched atop me, I squinted at her through the mask lenses. “Best two out of three?”

She laughed, picking herself off me and extending her hand. “Next time. Right now, we should really talk to Kristof.”

I accepted the hand and let her pull me up. “Right, well, where are we going?”

“Back to the truck stop.” Ges was already jogging the way we had come from. “Follow me, if you can keep up.”

“If I can–” I rolled my eyes. “I have your powers, remember? The exact same powers.”

Her answer came in a slow, easy drawl that I’d heard her parents use, but Gesmine only spoke with when she was being exceedingly sarcastic or making a point. “Well yes, ma’am, but you ain’t Gesmine Montana, powers or no. That’s me, one and only.”

She picked up speed, and I chased after her. We blew across the land, terrifying that poor gopher one more time. Gesmine knew exactly where she was going, and I stayed behind her the whole way.

When we made it back to the lot behind the truck stop, I was a bit surprised to see Ges head up to the backdoor. Questions rose, but I bit them back and followed the other girl through the door and into heaven’s own kitchen.

It smelled that way, at least. Between the smells of sausage and bacon sizzling, warm and buttery pancakes, and frying eggs, I was somehow instantaneously and simultaneously content and starving. “Oh my god.”

“I know.” Ges chuckled. “Trust me, we’ll get food. Come on.” She led the way from the empty supply room and toward that smell.

“Uhh, Ges?” I hesitated. “Aren’t there people out there?”

She looked over her shoulder at me, expression hidden. “Like I said, trust me. This is why you’ve got the mask. And it’s not really so much people as, well, take a look.”

I did so, stepping past Ges and into the restaurant’s kitchen before stopping short at what I saw. My mouth fell open, and I’m fairly certain that a long, continuous ‘uhhh’ noise emanated from it for the next several moments.

On the bare surface, it looked like any busy diner kitchen. The industrial sinks taking up one side of the room were going full blast as plates were swept through, scrubbed, and deposited on the other side to dry. Papers with the scribbled instructions of people’s orders were brought in and attached in an orderly line to the board near the enormous stove, which itself looked like a particularly ill-disguised Transformer who couldn’t quite get the hang of not looking like a super advanced killer robot. The food frying or grilling all along the stove was swept up and arranged onto plates which were then deposited onto trays, and carried out the door toward the waiting diners.

Except, one thing separated this kitchen from every other one I’d ever seen. Everything that was happening was being done without the benefit of any human assistance. The plates washed themselves, the receipts floated into the room and attached themselves to the board of their own volition, the pancakes flipped over without help, and the trays full of food simply floated back out of the room.

Behind me, I could hear my companion giggling. Once I got my confusion under control, I looked over my shoulder. Sadly, the lenses in the mask I wore tempered the murdering power of my scowl. Actually, given what little I understood about the gifts I had inherited, that wasn’t so much a toss away joke as it was a wise investment idea. I really needed to find out if murder lasers were going to shoot out of my eyes at any point.

I suppose it would be a larger issue if I spent much time around anyone else with such power.

“You could’ve warned me.” I complained before turning back to stare at the automated kitchen once more.

“And miss this reaction?” Ges shook her head and stepped next to me. “Not on your life. Besides, how awesome is this?”

“Not quite as cool as crossing the entire continent in half an hour, but definitely right up at the top.” I took a cautious step further in. “Let me guess, Augurist works here? This is his like, Daily Planet or something?”

“First, you are such a geek.” Gesmine passed me and continued to a door marked ‘manager’. “And second, he doesn’t just work here, he owns the place.”

Before Ges could open the door, I paused. “You know, it occurs to me that this whole concealing my identity thing might not be fair if I get to know his.”

With her hand on the door, Gesmine looked back at me. “Sure, it wouldn’t be fair. That is, if I hadn’t been sending him messages through the com in my mask to make sure that it’s okay.”

I blinked at that, glad that the mask hid my blush. “Oh, well okay then. In that case, can I ask him why the most powerful sorcerer in the world is–”

A deep, baritone voice continued my thought, “–shacked up in some rinky-dink roadside diner?” The door in front of us had opened, to reveal a tall, barrel chested man with a weathered face and long gray-brown hair. He looked old enough to be my grandfather, yet his green eyes were lively and sparked with amusement and power.

I stared up at the man, my voice failing me. Give me a break, it was only my second big hero meeting, and the first one hadn’t ended very well. Third, I suppose, counting Ges. But I had known her forever.

My friend kicked my foot and coughed. “Say something.”

“Something.” I blurted, and was immediately even more grateful for the blush-concealing mask than I had been before.

To his credit, the man didn’t laugh in my face. I don’t know if I could have resisted had it been the other way around. “Well, now that we know she can talk.” Those green eyes sparkled with amusement before he reached his hand out toward me, “My name is Kristof. What shall I call you?”

My mind went blank for a moment, while Ges simply waited patiently. Should I give him my real first name? Should I use a pseudonym and just come up with a random name, like… like… Oh god, I couldn’t remember any other names! That part of my brain that should have contained a whole expansive list of potential fake names was just showing white static.

Finally, I remembered what I had told Kansas Trude. “Fixation.” I said, drawing a clearly curious look from Gesmine. “Let’s just go with Fixation.”

The man’s eyebrow rose curiously. “Ah, is there some meaning behind your choice?”

“Yeah.” I answered the man simply, without going into details.

Once it became clear that I wasn’t going to say anything else about it, Kristof gave a nod of acceptance. “Well, Fixation, your friend tells me that you have had a rather interesting couple of weeks.”

I started to nod, then looked at the autonomously flying dishes all around us. “Is it safe to talk about this stuff? I mean, the dining room is right there, and you seem busy.”

Kristof waved a hand dismissively. “No one sees or hears anything within this building unless I wish them to. Our conversation is quite private, I assure you.”

Deciding that I was going to have to be satisfied with that, after all, the man was supposed to be the most powerful magic-user alive, I started to talk. I told him everything, repeating it for Gesmine. I told them about my stupid plan, which earned me a scowl from Ges. I talked about what had happened, what I’d seen, how I’d gone over to Ges’s house for answers and ended up using skills I shouldn’t have had to rescue Kacey. Then I went over my subsequent abduction and what had happened in the Trude’s basement with the Drude.

When I was done, I hesitated before looking at Kristof. “With all that information, and what you know about Ges, it wouldn’t be very hard for you to figure out who I am just by doing a little bit of research.”

A smile touched the older man’s worn face. “More effort than it would take to learn your identity using magic, dear.” His eyes twinkled with amusement as he shook his head. “I have promised that I will make no effort to learn who you are, until you wish me to. Whether the means be magic or mundane, my word stands.”

He went on after I nodded in satisfaction. “We will send people to this Kansas Trude’s house to learn what they know. You say they knew your name while possessed, but not once the creature had fled. Do you believe that the creature knows who you are, and that you possess what it wants?

“I…” I hesitated. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen it lurking around, haven’t seen anyone acting odd. Actually, I haven’t seen any sign of it at all.”

“That makes sense.” Kristof nodded. “From what little we know, it seems as if the monster must go into hybernation after exerting itself. Possessing Whiplash, then a handful of humans in short succession? I daresay it has exhausted itself for some time.”

“How long is it going to have to sleep for?” I held my gloved hands up with my fingers crossed. “Please say thirty seven centuries. Please say thirty seven centuries.”

A slight chuckle escaped the mage. “I can’t truly begin to say, but I would wager on a matter of weeks, or months.”

“Great.” I slumped a little, feeling the weight from the fear of that thing knowing my name and coming after me to get what it wanted.

Gesmine crossed to where I was, putting a hand on my arm. “We’ll teach you to defend yourself. And to use your power. Won’t we, Kristof?”

He nodded and extended a hand. A glass flew to him from the nearby counter, and he held it on his outstretched palm. “I wish to try something. You know of my power. Telekinesis, that is, moving objects–”

“Dude,” I interrupted, “I know what telekinesis is. It’s like, the most common power in movies and stuff because it’s so easy to fake. Plus Maiden used it before she retired. And when you were fighting Gallant, you used it to manipulate the giant suit of armor that he stole.”

Kristof looked toward Gesmine. “You clearly were not exaggerating your companion’s interest in our doings.”

Ges was giggling behind her mask. “You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait til she really gets going.”

“In any case,” Kristof said with a smile, “I want you to try to use my own power to move this glass. Telekinesis is the most simple, easy to use bits of magic that I know. Just focus on the glass and attempt to move it.”

After Ges gave me an encouraging nod, I focused on the glass. I imagined it flying up out of the wizard’s hand and coming to my own. I pictured Luke Skywalker getting his lightsaber on Hoth. I pictured it spinning around in the air. I focused on pushing it off of Kristof’s outstretched hand, wobbling and falling.

Nothing happened. For almost five minutes, I focused on that glass, and it didn’t react whatsoever.

“As I suspected.” Kristof gave the glass a toss and it floated carefully back to where it had been. “Though you, like Paragon, are capable of using the mundane skills of anyone you have personally met, powers are different. You must have a personal connection with the person whose powers you are attempting to use, and they must be willing. That would explain Paragon’s beginning.”

“His beginning?” I frowned. “But he just came out of nowhere and had all these powers.”

“Not precisely.” Kristof shook his head, and now even Gesmine seemed curious. “What do you remember of the boy called Kid Assist?”

That threw me. “Uh, he was a sidekick for the Society about twenty years ago. He just kind of hung around a lot and tried to help. He got in trouble sometimes when the bad guys came after him, and finally he just retired and disappeared. Some people thought he died.”

Kristof smiled faintly. “Yes and no. Kid Assist did retire from active duty because things had become too dangerous. But he remained in the Society Headquarters, because he was an orphan and had nowhere else to go. He stayed around the Society members for a decade after his retirement, before beginning to display the ability to use the powers of those he knew well.”

My eyes widened and I did a double-take. “Wait, you’re saying little Kid Assist is actually—I mean was actually Paragon?”

“Indeed.” Kristof nodded. “The years he spent around the Society allowed him to borrow the powers of any of us who were willing to let him. It needn’t even be open agreement. If the person whose powers were being borrowed would have been willing, even if nothing was outright stated or thought, he was able to use their abilities until or unless they consciously or unconsciously withdrew that permission.”

I was still reeling, and had to put a hand out to the counter to stop myself from stumbling. Gesmine came to my side and put an arm around me quickly. Her voice was worried, “Are you all right?”

“I-I’ll be fine.” I swallowed thickly and looked toward the old man. “How did I end up with this power?”

His head shook. “That I do not know. Perhaps Paragon wished you to have them and transferred the power before it could be stolen.”

“So… so now what do I do?” I asked, weakly.

“We will help in case the Drude returns for you.” Kristof answered, his voice soft and reassuring. “But in the meantime, you have a choice to make.”

“A choice?” I felt Ges tighten her hold on me. “What kind of choice?”

“You may simply hold those powers and return to your normal life, allowing us to do what we must to track down this Drude.” Kristof explained. “Or you may use the powers, the skills, to do the things that Paragon can no longer do.”

I stared in shock. “You want me to take his place?”

Kristof’s look was sad as he shook his head. “No, I do not believe that anyone could take Paragon’s place. But he is gone, and you are here. I will not lie and say that it will be easy, or that you won’t lose things that you care about. It will be dangerous, but it is your choice.”

My voice was small and weak. “I’m not a hero. I’m just a stupid little girl with a crush.”

Gesmine started to speak, but Kristof interrupted, his voice firm. “What you have been does not dictate what you may or may not become. Whether you remain a stupid little girl with a crush, or become something better is decided by your actions now and in the future, not the ones from the past. Your life is not guided like a train upon the rails, but by your every step. Forward or backward, wherever you go, it is your choice. If you were a stupid little girl, then so be it. Your act now must be to decide who you will be, not who you were.”

I almost shrank further beneath his gaze, but held my ground. I felt small and insignificant, but his words made me think, made me consider. “I… I want to help. I want to try. I want to be better.”

The man smiled, turning his attention to Ges. “Well then, I believe that means you have some training to do.”

“Yup.” Gesmine nodded, her attention on me. “You ready to become the thing you’ve always loved?”

I was scared, worried that I wouldn’t be good enough, that I would make a mockery of the chance I’d been given. But I lifted my hand to give her a thumbs up. “Where do we start?”

Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

345 Days Ago

“So… you’re Whiplash.” I said, rather unnecessarily as the two of us walked through that empty field. It was all I could think of to say after the several minutes of silence that had followed my decision to believe what she had said about not being in control of herself when Paragon had died.

Gesmine looked at the ground for another moment, watching as both sets of our feet picked their way through the weeds and overgrown grass. “Yeah,” she finally said. “That’s me.” There was another moment of silence, and then she shook her head. “Listen, I knew you’d want me to tell you, but–”

I interrupted, “For my own protection, villains going after the friends of the hero, yada yada, I know. I kinda went through all this in my head a while ago, in between all the freaking about… about Paragon.”

She winced, stooping to pick up a small rock which she chucked ahead of us. “I knew something was up. I thought you saw whoever killed him, and you were just afraid to tell anyone. When I saw you the other day and you were acting weird, I thought you’d come to talk to me about it but changed your mind. I didn’t know how to help you without revealing myself, if you didn’t already know about me. ”

“So you really don’t remember what happened?” I asked slowly. “Any of that?”

Her head shook. “Nothing. I mean, now that I think about it, it’s a blank but when I was thinking about it before, about where I was while he was dying, I just kept thinking that I was looking for him. I was looking for him and then he was dead.” Gesmine hesitated again, and when she finally spoke, her voice was wary. “I… I really killed him?”

“No.” I state flatly. I reached out and took my friend’s hand, squeezing firmly. “It wasn’t you. It was that thing, whatever it is. God, Ges, you have no idea how many questions I have.”

“Yeah, I’ve got a few too.” Ges responded dryly. “Starting with, how did you end up with Paragon’s power?”

“Well, it’s not all his power.” I quickly said. “I mean, I’m not flying around or anything. It’s just sort of… skills that other people know.” I explained what had happened with the knife, what the possessed her had said about Paragon’s power being hers, all of it. Actually, it felt like an enormous relief to actually be able to talk to someone else about all of this.

“He mentioned that.” Gesmine murmured. “That he could use other people’s skills, I mean. I wonder why you only got part of his power.”

“Really?” I raised an eyebrow. “Because I’m still kind of stuck on why I got any of it at all. But it’s good to know one of us has jumped ahead in the line of a thousand and one w t f’s.”

Her shoulders shrugged. “Well of course we have to figure that out too. But my point is, where did the rest of that power go?”

The question made me wince as I offered, “Maybe it went into that oil monster thing that was possessing you? What the hell is that thing?”

Ges let out a long sigh. “That’s kind of a long story. Come on, let’s walk and talk without all that tension between us.”

That reminded me. “I know why I was so nervous, but why were you acting all tense and strange if you didn’t have anything to do with Paragon’s death? You didn’t even remember being there. And why did you mouth that bit about how I was there if you didn’t remember it yourself?”

She turned to walk while answering. “I did remember being there. I mean, to my memory I just ran up and saw him falling. The… creature has a way of adjusting the memories of the people it was in. And I knew my mask was off, so I kind of put it together that you had seen me and that was why you were acting all jumpy and weird. That and I figured you knew something about Paragon and didn’t know who to tell.”

“Well you’ve got that right.” I muttered while falling into step beside her. “Who could I possibly talk to about this?”

Her hip bumped against mine. “You mean besides me?”

“Until you.” I corrected, bumping her back. “But what about your house?” I explained what had happened, that I had called the police and that both the old man and the bad guy had been gone when I got there, with no sign that the cops ever showed up.

Ges sighed a little. “Sorry about that. See, the Society monitors any emergency call involving a member’s home. A clean up team came to take care of things, but you were already gone, and so was that guy you knocked out.”

“And Mr. Vames?” I asked. “Why was he involved in what they were looking for in your house? And for that matter, what were they looking for?”

“I have no idea.” She shrugged. “And Potter Vames, his uhh, he’s sort of the one who introduced me to the Society of Light in the first place. His son was a member and no I’m not going to say which one. That’s his privacy. But he’s sort of an honorary friend of the Society. I guess someone else found out. He was still there when the clean-up team showed up, and he’s been moved now, to a safe place. With his granddaughter, of course.”

I nodded slowly, taking in the answers to things that had bothered me for so long. “Now tell me about this monster.”

Ges was quiet for a moment, until we reached the edge of the field and began to walk along the road that led up behind the mall. We walked in silence, watching a lone car until it had passed us and turned a corner. When she spoke, her voice was a little shaky. “No one knows where it came from. They call it a Drude.”

I blinked and looked at her. “A druid?”

“No.” Her head shook. “A Drude.” She spelled it. “It’s like a German nightmare spirit or something. That’s just what Augurist calls it.”

That time I couldn’t help but laugh incredulously. “You know, it’s gonna take a while to get used to you talking about people like the world’s most powerful wizard like they’re your friends.”

“They are.” She pointed out before going on. “Anyway, he calls it a Drude, so that’s what the rest of us call it.”

“Fair enough,” I decided before nodding. “Okay, so this ‘Drude’. What do you know about it?”

“Not a lot.” Gesmine admitted. “Augurist is really the one you want to talk to about the details. Mostly I can tell you that we don’t know where it came from. We think it started back when… well, you remember Critter?”

After blinking at the question, I gave a short nod. “Uh, of course. He’s the animal shapeshifter who went nuts a few months ago, pretty much right after he joined the Society of Light. Everyone said that he couldn’t handle the pressure. I don’t–” Then I got it. “Wait, you’re saying he was taken over by this Drude?”

Ges bowed her head and stopped walking. “His real name was Kyle. He wasn’t a bad person, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We think he somehow released the Drude from one of the artifacts that we keep in the Citadel.”

“How could that happen?” I had to ask. “I mean, if you guys, if they had some artifact with this horrible, evil spirit inside it…”

“They didn’t know.” She quickly explained. “They had no idea that the Drude was hiding in one of them, waiting for someone to touch it. And now it’s loose and somehow, it gains the powers of anyone it kills. That’s how Revver and Dynamo died.”

“That’s…” I swallowed. “That’s horrible. I didn’t know anything about that. I didn’t even… wait…” I frowned. “No, it was the knife.”

Ges blinked at that. “The knife? You mean the one that I–that it used…”

I nodded. “I heard you–I mean it–I mean, you-possessed-by-it, saying that the knife it was using was magic, that it would steal his power.”

Frowning thoughtfully, Gesmine finally let out a sigh. “Well maybe that’s what they were looking for in my house…” Her mouth twisted into a frown. “That just proves how little we actually know about it. The others are going to have to know about that. Maybe it’ll give someone an idea.”

“Either way, built in ability or magic blade, how did I end up with the powers instead of this Drude, then?” I had to put voice to the question that had bothered me for a long time now.

Her head shook. “I have no idea. We’re going to have to ask Kristof.” At my blank look, she winced. “I mean Augurist, sorry.”

I shrugged. “It’s okay. He looks like a Kristof.”

Gesmine nodded, a tiny smile playing across her face. “It’s the goatee.”

“Definitely the goatee.” I agreed. We both smiled, and it was one of those moments that seems to last forever. Or at least, that you never want to end.

Eventually, however, I had to speak, and break that brief spell. “I’m not sure I want to let this Kristof know who I am. Which, I know, pretty much redefines unfair since I just called him by his real name. But you know, I… after everything that happened, we still don’t know who we can trust.”

“You can trust Kristof.” Gesmine said before raising a hand. “But I get it, I understand. Believe it or not, we do know something about keeping secret identities. Sometimes even from each other.”

“I guess you do.” I admitted with a slight chuckle. “But you really think we can keep my identity private from someone who uses actual magic?”

Ges’s head shook immediately. “If he tried to learn it, absolutely not.” Her look softened, and she reached out to take my hand. “But he won’t. He won’t try to see past the mask if you ask him not to. You can trust that.”

I let her take my hand, smiling a little before blinking. “Wait, what mask?”

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An hour later, I was staring at myself in the mirror at Gesmine’s house. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into putting this on.”

My friend rolled her eyes. “Oh, listen to this crap. Keep talking like you haven’t been waiting your whole life to put on an actual, real super costume. You forget, Savvy, I know you.”

Her words made me blush and I waved a hand vaguely. “That was… before. I was an idiot. I was stupid, and selfish, and because of me–”

Her hand came out and smacked my shoulder. “Savannah Crest, you knock that off right now. Yes, you made mistakes. Yes, you were obsessed. But what happened to Paragon was not your fault. It wasn’t. If he hadn’t been drawn away by you, something else would have pulled him away. Trust me; the bad guys are bad enough without you blaming yourself. If it wasn’t you, the Drude would have jumped on another opportunity.”

“But it was me.” I replied, my own voice soft. “Don’t hit me again. I know it wasn’t entirely my fault. I know it wasn’t my choice, and I know I’m not the one that killed him. But my choice or not, my action or not, I contributed to what happened, and that’s not something I can just forget about.”

“So don’t forget about it.” She told me, the quiet seriousness of her tone matching my own. “Use it. All of us have reasons that we use to inspire us to greater things, Savvy. Not just vigilantes, but everyone who puts it on the line to help people who don’t have as many advantages. Use it, but don’t let it use you. Don’t let your guilt take over your life.”

“Besides,” Ges added after a moment. “You look good.”

I looked at myself again. Gesmine had given me what she called one of her ‘old speed suits’. To begin with, it was a one piece body suit that zipped up in the back with a tiny, nearly invisible zipper. Once it was zipped all the way up, a second zipper, horizontal this time, wound from the left shoulder all way to the right, sealing the first zipper out of sight behind another piece of the suit and making it impossible to simply grab and rip down.

There was also a mask involved, just as Gesmine had promised. The back of the mask was literally attached to the back collar of the suit, so when it was off, it hung like a hoody. Then it could be pulled up and over the head, all the way down as a full face mask, which itself was secured with another tiny zipper in the front.

In all honesty, it was kind of a pain in the ass to put on correctly, but whoever had made it had definitely gone out of their way to make it difficult to simply have it taken away.

Color wise, the suit had a black and gold scheme going. The base of the suit and mask themselves was black. The mask then had these gold lines that each began on either side of the top of the head and circled down over the eyes before going back, like a C and a, well, backward C. Those lines continued down over the shoulders of the suit itself, one widening to flare out almost like a flickering flame on the right hand side so that the gold took up most of the lower right, with only specks of black in that area until it reached the legs of the suit, where black returned with only small dots of gold, as though the previously stated ‘flames’ were giving off sparks.

Meanwhile, the other gold line stayed thin and small, accenting the black on the opposite side until it reached the other leg, at which point it too flared out into a gold flame that took up most of the leg.

The suit had feet built in like those old kiddy footy pajamas, though standing in them felt as though I was wearing a good, comfortable pair of tennis shoes. They were also black like most of the suit, with gold highlights and soles.

“And you just happened to have this lying around.” I smirked a little, keeping the mask down in hoody form for the moment.

“Like I said,” Ges paced around me as though making certain that it was fitting properly. “I used it for training until it stopped fitting.”

That confused me. “It stopped fitting? Haven’t you been the same height since we were in like, eighth grade?” And yet, she was still taller than me. Gesmine had grown up quickly. She’d practically been a giant to the rest of us for a couple years there before she stopped growing and we caught up. Now we were both around average height, even if she did still have a couple of inches on me.

Gesmine shifted her weight and looked a little embarrassed. “Yes, I stopped getting taller.”

“So what do you mean it stopped fitting?” I started to ask. “You’re just as thin as I am. I mean, in shape, and I guess I know why now, but you’re not…”

My friend gave me a meaningful stare. She was openly blushing now, and spoke through gritted. “You know, something else grew in the last couple years?”

“Something el–” I got it then, and my face grew red. “Oh.” I looked down at myself and groaned. “Ohhh. Right, so I’m wearing your pre-puberty suit. Now I feel great.”

Laughing, Ges shook her head. “You’re fine, Savvy. And you make that suit look better than I did.”

“What I don’t get,” I said in an attempt to change the subject. “Is why I even need to wear the whole thing. I mean, the mask I get, to hide who I am from Augurist so we can talk to him. But the rest of it?”

She shrugged. “Well, you kinda need the protection of the suit if we’re going to run there. Kristof lives across the country, so unless you want your clothes to turn into rags by the time we get there, you’re gonna have to wear something that’s going to be in one piece after we get up to the speed we need.”

That made me blink. “Wait, run there? I don’t know if you noticed, but you’re the only one of us with super speed powers. What, are you gonna carry me?”

Chuckling, Ges shook her head. “No, but if I hold your hand, I can pass my speed powers to you so that you can keep up. It’s like in those old shows or whatever where Superman could make someone fly next to him just by holding their hand.”

“So… I’ll be able to move as fast as you…” I tried to take that in. The idea was amazing, and made me realize just how many questions I had for her. “You know I have to ask how all this happened. How you got to be so fast, I mean. And all the rest of the stuff about you being a… a hero.”

Gesmine’s smile grew. “And I’ll answer your questions. All of them. But right now, let’s find out what Kristof knows.”

She led me into the backyard, and we passed the spot where we had carved the initials of our crushes into the wood. “So, MFH, one of these heroes you hang out with?”

She blushed once more. “That, right there, is one question I’m not answering now.”

“Ooh, now I’m even more curious.” I teased. It felt good.

Gesmine changed the subject. “We’re running. Here’s how this’ll work. We hold hands. I’m going to start at a jog, just a normal human jog, and then gradually work up. Eventually you’ll be going faster than any jet. It’s sort of like letting a frog boil. Just, with less horrible death involved. Trust me.”

This time, I didn’t hesitate. “I do.”

She pulled her own green and black mask up and on, securing it carefully, and then I did the same with the one she had loaned me. Rather than simple holes for the eyes, the mask had a couple of lenses, colored gold to go with the accompanying accent lines, which Ges had told me both amplified low light and dampened intense brightness.

We looked at each other for a moment like that, and I couldn’t help but remember the time we had both gone trick or treating as Ninja Turtles. Clearly, life had taken a turn into the absurd since then.

“Okay, Raph.” Gesmine said, clearly thinking of the same memory. “Let’s do this.” She held her hand up and I took it.

As promised, we started by trotting at an easy pace. I held my friend’s hand tightly, not wanting to lose my grip and end up plummeting back down to normal human pace once we got up into the kind of speeds Ges was capable of.

That trot slowly turned into a jog, then a run as we headed from Ges’s backyard into the alley behind her house, scaring a couple of stray cats on the way.

By the time we reached the road, the two of us were moving so fast, my legs pumping beneath me to keep up with the other girl’s, that we passed a car that was doing forty like it was standing still.

Actually, at that point, everything looked like it was standing still. I saw people start to turn as though to look at us, but we were going so quickly by then that it was as though they were moving in slow motion. We were there, then past them and gone by the time they started to react.

Faster, even faster, we kept moving. We were running so quickly that, as Gesmine hung a left and took us up onto a freeway, the two of us were able to run around and between the cars exactly as though they were standing still, in spite of the fact that most were nearing triple digit speed numbers.

And yet, our speed kept increasing. Within a minute of reaching the freeway, I saw a sign announcing that the exit for a town that was an hour’s drive in good traffic was coming up.

We blew past the exit and kept gaining speed. We ran around a traffic jam that had built up around an accident, Ges slowing just enough to assure herself that everything was in hand, then kicked it up another notch.

I could see a cup of soda that someone was tossing out of their car. It was clearly tumbling end over end and spraying liquid as it fell, but from my point of view, it looked like a frozen explosion of cola in midair. Somehow, I was both moving faster than anything possibly should have been able to, while still seeing and comprehending everything else as though they were actually moving slowly.

It was, singularly, the most amazing experience I had ever had up to that point, and, to this day, remains a highlight of my life.

When Ges finally signaled a slowdown, we stopped just behind an old truck stop. I bent over to grab my knees, panting. “That, that was amazing. That was… incredible. That was… that was awesome.” I managed to get out while panting. “Where are we?”

“Near Kristof’s house.” She answered. “You know, in Oregon.”

My eyes widened, and I sputtered, “Oregon?” Then I looked at the time that was displayed on the nearby freeway sign. It was… I took a moment to do the mental math. If we had started out in the Eastern time zone, and we were now on the Pacific time zone, it was… roughly an hour later. It had taken an hour to cross from one side of the country to the opposite side. I didn’t even know what kind of speed that was. That was something like two thousand miles an hour.

“That’s amazing!” I repeated my earlier statement, shouting it this time.

Gesmine laughed and covered my mouth through the mask with her hand. “Shh, yeah, you’re pretty damn awesome already.”

“Me?” I shook my head. “Sorry, Ges, that was all you. I was just along for the ride.”

My friend’s smile turned sly. “Nah, it really wasn’t.”

I frowned at that, confused. “What are you talking about?”

She shrugged. “I was kind of lying.”

“About… what?” I asked, uncertainly.

“I can’t really share my speed just by holding your hand, Savannah.” She said softly. “I just wanted you to think that I could so that you wouldn’t realize what you were you doing, so that you’d do it without overthinking it. You were borrowing my speed yourself, just like you do when you borrow someone’s skill. You were using my superpower.”

“You were wrong. You can use other people’s powers, just like Paragon.”

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight

345 Days Ago

I don’t think it’s too much for me to say I nearly peed myself. In fact, the nearly qualifier might be a vast overestimation of my coolness under pressure.

Yes, had my stupid, obsessive act not drawn Paragon into a private place so he could be killed, you might be reading another blog article about the several hundred people he saved this week. Instead, you’re hearing about my bladder control problems when confronted with his killer, the girl who I thought had been my friend, figuring out I had been there.

“Savvy?” Aldridge had clearly been saying my name a few times as I privately lost every single ounce of my mind. Was brainpower measured in ounces?

As my mind inexplicably drifted, he repeated himself, “I said, you hungry? We could go get some pizza or something. Or we could get a cheeseburger, if you feel carnivorous.”

I wasn’t looking at him. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Gesmine, who was still standing over there just staring at me. She said nothing, mouthed nothing else, but she had made it clear already. She knew. And the fact that she knew wasn’t going to go away, no matter how much I wished it would.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t known this confrontation was coming. I just hadn’t expected it to be this soon. I needed more time to plan out what I was going to say, how I was going to confront her. This was all wrong. And yet, she just kept standing there, clearly waiting.

And Aldridge still needed an answer.

“No.” I said, trying to stop the tremor in my voice. I couldn’t run off to get food with him, as much as a part of me wanted to keep Aldridge right next to me for the next three hundred and seventy meals, at least, just on the assumption that Gesmine wouldn’t try anything while I was with company.

But I couldn’t take that kind of risk. Whatever was going to happen now that she knew that I’d seen what she did, it had to be between her and me. No matter how terrified that made me.

You know what? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that being afraid that the person that should be one of your two best friends in the world is going to kill you or your family is one of the absolutely worst feelings that I will ever experience. Not that I haven’t felt some pretty bad stuff, but emotionally, that was something in a completely different league.

“I’ve got plans with Ges.” I said quietly. “We have… girl things to talk about.” Oh god, I hoped she wouldn’t kill me. Please let me survive the next few minutes.

Something in my voice made Aldridge frown. “Sav, you okay? Is something going on between you two?”

“No.” My voice broke and I had to cough. “No, it’s just personal stuff. Trust me; you don’t want to know about it. But I’ll catch you later.” I tried to sound confident about that. “Like I said, it’s girl stuff. Icky, icky girl stuff. Run, flee while you can before we mention things you don’t want to hear.”

“Uh huh. Okay then.” Aldridge finally shrugged. It was clear that he still thought something screwy was going on, but he backed off. “Give me a call, and try picking up your pudding once in a while so stuff like this doesn’t happen.” He tugged at the sleeve of the letter jacket. “You used up all of your luck for the next century getting this thing. Now you’re all out.”

If I hadn’t been so distracted, I might have made a remark about how clearly all of that had to be my fault. Then he would have said something else that made me laugh. Instead, I stayed quiet until he walked away, all while I stared at Gesmine and tried to force myself not to faint.

To this day, I have no idea how I did what came next. It was the most difficult, terrifying thing I had ever done up to that point. Going into that restaurant with those thugs and rescuing Kacey was cake compared to this.

I took a step forward. Then I took another, and then a third. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, closing the distance between the two of us. The physical distance, at least. The vast gulf that stood where the trust between us had once been might as well have been an impassable expanse.

Sooner than I expected, we were standing face to face. Her expression hadn’t changed. She still watched me with that calculating look, like there were things she still wasn’t sure about, even if a large question had been answered.

“Ges,” I started to speak with no idea of where the sentence was going to end, “we should talk.”

Rather than speak, her head dipped into a simple nod. Then Gesmine turned and began to walk away. She was heading for the field behind the school, the one we used to cut through to get to the mall more easily. We went all the time, a couple of months and a couple of lifetimes ago.

I stood still, a not insignificant part of me wanting nothing more than to run as far as I could in the opposite direction. Maybe never stop running. It would be easier than what I was about to do.

Instead, I followed her. Maybe it was stupid, but in spite of everything, I wanted to see what she said. I had to hear it from her. And, to be honest, I didn’t see the benefit of running away from a girl who could break the sound barrier with a brisk jog. If she wanted me there, I was going. I’d rather just do it under my own power. Call it stupid pride.

For a few minutes, we walked in silence through the overgrown field. We were parallel, but not quite side by side. I deliberately left a couple of feet of space between us. Not that it would have mattered, considering Gesmine’s speed, but it made me feel marginally better.

Even standing that close to the girl who had been my friend for so long made me feel sick, betrayed, and angry. How could she have done this? How could she have become this person? Had she always been this sick and I was just too blind to notice?

It was she who finally spoke up, breaking the silence. “We have a lot to talk about.”

Bile twisting in my mouth, I took three quick steps ahead and pivoted to face her. “Is that right?” I was angry now, my worry and fear and disgust with her transforming into fury. “What would you like to talk about, Whiplash?”

She winced, just a little, but didn’t look away. Her gaze continued to meet my own. “We need to talk about what happened to you.” She kept her voice steady. “And about what you’ve done since then.”

“Or?” I couldn’t keep the slightly high pitched tone out of my voice. “Or what? Let me guess, I tell you everything you want to know, or you do to me what you did to him? No, wait, you still might need me. What, you’ll threaten my parents? Or Aldridge? Where’s the line, Ges? How low are you willing to go? How fucking twisted are you?”

After getting all of that out, I finally forced myself to look at her once more. I expected anger, or maybe amusement that she had upset me so much.

Instead, I saw confusion. Gesmine stared at me, her mouth open partway. “You… think I would hurt you?”

“I think you’d kill me!” My voice went up into a squeal, but I didn’t care. “Just like you killed him! Just like you killed Paragon for his power.”

She was still staring as if she had no idea what I was talking about. I couldn’t believe she was going to play it this way. I didn’t understand it. “Savannah,” she started.

I didn’t let her finish. “I saw you!” I stepped forward and, heedless of every possible risk, gave her a hard shove. All of the confusion I’d felt since I’d realized who was under that mask boiled up and I shoved her so hard she stumbled backward. “I saw you stab him! I saw you stab him over and over and over! I heard you talking about taking his power! I was there! I heard every sick word! You’re sick! How dare you!? And now you’re gonna what, gonna kill me to shut me up? We were friends! You just–You’re–” My hand lashed out to punch her, the anger completely overwhelming my common sense.

She could have avoided it. I knew that. I expected that. Avoided it, or blocked it, or punched me six times before my punch came near her. What happened was the one thing I did not expect: she took it. My punch knocked her head to the side, and I felt an immediate pain shoot through my fist. Turns out punching someone like that hurt, a lot. Especially when I’m not borrowing a master martial artist’s skills at the time.

There was a red mark on Gesmine’s face where I had punched her. Blood played over her split lip, and she continued to stare at the ground, face turned away from me from the force of the blow. She didn’t even bother to touch her lip, even though I knew it had to hurt. Maybe even hurt as much as my hand did.

“You believe that.” Her voice sounded hollow. “You believe that I would do that. You think I’m going to hurt you, that I… could hurt you.”

“What?” I rubbed my sore hand, unable to stop the tears that came forth unbidden. “I saw you do it, Ges! I saw it! You’re Whiplash, you killed Paragon!” Even in the empty field, I kept my accusation to a hissed stage-whisper.

The expression on Gesmine’s face when she turned back to me was not that of someone guilty at being caught. It was not even anger. It was despair. She looked completely broken that I believed that about her, as if my believing she had murdered Paragon was the worst thing that had ever happened to her.

“Savannah,” she spoke in a halting, pleading voice. “Listen to me. I know this is a lot to take in, I know. But you have to listen for just a second. There’s something out there, something that’s been infected people. It makes them act different, makes them do evil things and they don’t even remember doing them. I know, it’s… you don’t believe me. You can’t believe me, but–”

My throat caught. “The shadow thing.” I said, and her eyes rose to meet mine. “You mean the oil creature.”

“How do you–” Ges started to ask before she realized. “You’ve seen it. You know about it.”

My mouth opened and then shut. I closed my eyes before opening them. “You’re saying you were possessed. That it wasn’t you.” I had to blink away tears then, staring at the other girl. “How can I believe that? You could be lying. You could know all about the girl who saw that creature, if you’re working with it, and now you’re using it to make yourself look innocent.”

I wanted her to have an answer I could believe. I had never wanted anything more in my life, but I didn’t dare hope. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

For a long moment, Gesmine stood silently in front of me. I saw a torrent of emotions cross her face. There were words she wanted to say, pleas she wanted to make. When she finally spoke, it was in a low, quiet voice and she never broke my gaze. “You don’t. You don’t know, Savannah. I can tell you that I could never, ever hurt you. Not you. I could tell you that I… that you are incredibly important to me. I could tell you that I would rather die than have you look at me like you’re looking at me now. But I can’t prove it. I can do a lot of things, Savvy, but I can’t make you magically trust me again.”

“I can’t prove it. Some things you have to take on faith.”

We stared at one another, the silence that fell after her last words stretching out. Her eyes were locked onto mine, and she made no move, made no sound. She was waiting for my choice.

Paragon was never coming back. Superheroes or not, this wasn’t a comic book. Dead meant dead. But worse than the death of my hero, my obsession, had been the betrayal of my best friend. Not just a personal betrayal, but a betrayal of everything and everyone. She hadn’t hurt me, she had destroyed my faith in her and thus in everything. Yes, I had begun to move on, had even done some good. But the betrayal, the evil that I had seen in her and thus in everyone, had become a knot of depression deep in my soul. It had whispered to me at night for weeks now. If my best friend could do this, then what good was anyone else?

And now she’d asked me to choose whether I believed that what happened wasn’t really her. I had to choose to believe, or choose not to. There was really no way of testing, or of being certain. Ges was right, I had to act, had to choose, based on faith.

Then I realized that the choice wasn’t hard at all. Not when I thought about it, because this was one of two worlds. Either it was a world in which my best friend was still a person I could trust, or it was a world in which she had killed before and would kill me. One world I would have my friend back, and in the other, I would die.

But I only wanted to live in one of those worlds anyway.

My arms were around Gesmine before I knew what I was doing. A gasp of surprise escaped her, escaped my friend, and then she was hugging me in return. The sick feeling in my stomach that I’d been holding onto for so long dissolved and I clung tighter, closing my eyes against the tears.

I’d made my choice. Maybe it would be the wrong one. Maybe I would regret it. But it was the only choice I could possibly make and still be able to live with myself afterward. It was the choice that I had to make, the one that the real heroes make every time they put on their mask and go out to risk their lives just to help other people, just to make the world a tiny bit better in spite of everything. Because belief isn’t always a matter of measuring evidence. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of choosing between two possible outcomes.

I chose to believe my friend.

Chapter Nine

Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven

345 Days Ago

I was in less trouble than I had thought I would be when I finally got home after all of that. It had been almost two in the morning by that point, and my parents were still up waiting for me. There were some tears and words about not knowing if I had run away after the way I’d been acting. I told them that I just needed to be alone for a while and then I promised not to disappear like that again.

Eric had wanted answers even more than my parents, which wasn’t surprising considering the parts that he did know. I brushed him off, claiming I didn’t know enough to tell him anything. It was really only half a lie. The things I did know wouldn’t have answered much for him, and he had already done enough to help me without getting involved in something this big.

For the next two weeks, I gradually started going back to school. I still wanted answers from Gesmine, but considering how my last attempt to get them had gone, I wanted to keep my distance for a little while. Eric had tried to talk to me a few times, and I had seen him watching both me and my house when he thought I didn’t know about it, but I didn’t know what I could say to him.

I had no idea what that shadow oil black… creature had been. And more importantly, I had absolutely no idea who I could ask about it. I had the feeling that if I showed my face around Kansas Trude’s house to find out if they knew anything about how they’d been possessed, the first thing they’d do would be call the police. No, there had to be a way to get answers without freaking them out even more. The problem was, I didn’t have a single clue what that could be.

I was also starting to practice this newfound ability I had developed. After those two weeks, I had a fair handle on how it worked. I could borrow the skills of anybody that I had met in person. So an Olympic gymnast that I had seen on television was out of bounds, but meeting a pro sports star would allow me to borrow their skill and become just as good as they were.

To be honest, it was really, really awesome. Not a fair trade for the damage I had helped to cause, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it at all.

I practiced by myself, because even I wasn’t dumb enough to think that I could suddenly start showing off all these new skills in school without people noticing something was different. Even then, it was all I could do not to borrow the knowledge of some of the brilliant kids to bring my grades up a bit. But tempting as it was, it felt like something Paragon never would have done.

I’d been thinking about Paragon a lot, of course. This newfound ability to borrow other people’s skills, it had to have something to do with him. I wasn’t stupid, I recognized the coincidence. He was the best at everything he did, and now I had the ability to use the skills developed by anyone that I had met.

That had to have been Paragon had done. That why he had been so good at everything. It hadn’t been his skill, it was everyone else’s.

Some part of me felt a little bit betrayed by that, like it hadn’t been him at all. But really, he’d used the skills he borrowed to do so much good, and was it really any different than someone using the power of flight they were born with to save people? He had an ability, and he’d used it to do good things. Did the semantics of it really matter? Was some alien who had special powers because of a physical reaction to our sun somehow more worthy than someone who had skills that were borrowed from others if both used them to do good?

And what was it that Gesmine had said? Killing him would give her his abilities. Yet somehow at least some of those abilities had come to me instead. I needed to find out how, and what exactly the extent of that was. And more importantly, what kind of target I had made myself into for things like that shadow creature.

None of those questions were nearly as pressing as the ongoing psychological torture I was putting myself through over what was wrong with Gesmine. I had mostly come to a peace with the minor fact that she hadn’t told me that she was Whiplash, considering I had no intention of telling Aldridge about what had happened to me. It kept him safer, and as soon as I came to that decision on my own, forgiving my other best friend for not telling me about her secret life was easier.

It was the murder that was a tiny bit harder to either forgive or understand. Why? Why had she done it? She hadn’t even sounded like herself. She had sounded like some kind of psychotic power-hungry maniac. How could I ever even stand to look at her again? And yet, did I dare let her even think that I knew something about her secret? Would she hesitate to handle me the way she had handled Paragon?

You know what? Seeing one of your best friends as a murderer really, really sucks beyond the telling. I had to do something to find out exactly what was wrong with her. But my first attempt hadn’t exactly gone well, and I still wasn’t sure how the stooges and their great grandfather had avoided having the police alerted when I had personally called 911. Not that I was any more likely to get answers from them either, considering their brains had been subcontracted out by Mr. Oil Monster.

Basically, I had a ton of questions and absolutely no answers. And as far as I knew, every moment of every day there could have been a black goo creature waiting to jump into my body and start controlling me. That or one of my best friends might stick a knife in my back a hundred and forty three times before I noticed the pain.

What I’m saying is, I was not sleeping very well.

It must have been noticeable, because Aldridge came up to me while I was putting my books away in my locker after school a couple weeks after my little adventure. Putting one hand on top of the rows of lockers, he started off easily, “Okay, so, you know how my mom puts those nasty pudding cups in my lunch?”

The question was just out of the ordinary enough to make me blink as I closed my locker. “Nope, but I do know the delicious tapioca goodness that you always give to me because you have no taste, and are also potentially the devil. Satan would find ambrosia repulsive, right?”

“You’re mixing your mythologies again.” Aldridge replied. “And anyway, you mean you used to eat them. But now you keep running off before I can give it to you.”

I’d been excusing myself to practice with my newfound power.

He went on, “You know what I’ve been doing with those evil little bird droppings now?”

I paused to make a face. “Great, now I don’t want tapioca either. What?” I started to walk, putting my hands in the pockets of my jacket.

“Keeping them in my gym locker.” Aldridge tried to walk slowly, but I still had to break into a light jog to keep up with his long strides. I was used to it. “I thought you’d want them later, so I had nine of them just stacked up on the top shelf.”

“Okay, for future reference,” I had to put in, “I will never want to eat anything that has been in your gym locker for days. Actually, make that ever. Just a good rule to follow. If it’s been in the same small, enclosed area that you keep your jockstrap in, I do not want it.”

“Wuss.” He replied before opening the door. He held it, and I passed through while he continued to explain. “Anyway, I’ve been keeping those puddings in my gym locker, and today, they actually came in handy.”

“What,” I asked while walking across the grass of the yard behind the school, “did nine of your gym buddies suddenly get a really weird craving?”

“First of all,” Aldridge corrected me, “I don’t have nine gym buddies. Especially not after today.”

I closed my eyes and winced inwardly before turning around to walk backwards in front of him so that I could see his face. “Aldridge Ken, what did you do?”

His expression was an unconvincing mask of innocence. “Jeez, you’re like my mom, always so convinced I did something wrong. Where’s the faith? Where’s the trust? Where’s the bonding spirit of camaraderie and friendship that says ‘you know what, I believe in you’?”

“So, uhhh…” I replied, utterly unconvinced. “We’re talking three days worth of detention if you got caught?”

“Oh, four.” He admitted with a grin. “At least.”

“Uh huh.” I rolled my eyes, turning back away from him so he wouldn’t see the smile. I liked the idea of normalcy. “Okay, so what did you do?”

“Elk and his creeps were talking about Laine again.” He was referring to Walden Elkanroot, whom everyone had always called Elk for reasons of survival. He’d kill you if you called him Walden, and he was built like an Elk anyway. Okay, to be perfectly honest, he was built like a giant grizzly bear, but we worked with what his name gave us.

“Again?” I looked back at him and squinted. Laine Gavin was the track star that Aldridge had been crushing on forever, and as hot as she was, it was no surprise that she was the subject of locker room chat.

“Oh, that’s right.” Aldridge couldn’t keep all of the confusion and hurt for my flakiness out of his voice. “You haven’t been around for me to vent at. They wouldn’t shut up about her. You know the stupid, ridiculous crap that guys say in locker rooms.”

I shook my head. “I can safely and proudly say that I have absolutely no idea what guys say about girls in locker rooms. Nor–” I held up my hand to stop him. “–do I want to.”

He looked down at my hand, which was a good distance shy of reaching his mouth. Curse his absurd tallness. Still, he took pity on me. “Okay, okay. Suffice to say, not nice things. I wanted them to stop.”

“Why do I think that not a single part of this story includes you actually telling them to stop?” I asked, dryly.

“Like they would have listened.” He scoffed at my naivety. “No, you have to teach someone like that with negative reinforcement. Bad behavior is met with bad consequences. I read that in a book somewhere. Someone does something bad, so you smack them with a stick to make them equate the bad thing with the pain.”

“And what do you do when they do a good thing?” I asked while we passed the basketball court.

“Uh,” he paused for a moment before shrugging, “I’m not sure. I didn’t get that far. I was distracted by the idea of hitting Elk with a stick.”

“Of course you were.” I snorted to myself. “Okay, then what did you do instead?”

“Well, obviously you weren’t going to eat those puddings that were just sitting there doing nothing, going to waste. So I decided to give them purpose, give them meaning. I enlisted those puddings in the ongoing war against misogynistic riff raff.” His chest swelled slightly with pride as he worked overtime to make it sound better than it was. “I waited until Elk and his idiot posse were in the showers, then I opened each pudding cup and filled their towels with it, spread it around a little and covered it up with part of the towel. That way, when they picked up the towel and went to dry off…”

I covered my mouth as a snicker escaped. “No no no, tell me you didn’t do that. You made Elk and his cronies rub tapioca pudding over their hair?”

“Hair, face, neck, chest…” Aldridge started before pausing as he considered. “Come to think of it though, ‘hair’ really covers all those areas.”

“Eww eww eww.” I made a face. “Gah, Aldridge, I know I haven’t been the best friend lately, but please don’t make me think about that.” My pleading tone at least brought a smile to him before I looked up at the sound of voices. “Oh boy. Uh, speak of the giant, hormonal devil.”

Like most non-buildings, Elk was shorter than Aldridge. But he was built like a rhino whereas the first animal that came to mind when one looked at Aldridge was a flamingo, of the lawn ornament variety. A very tall lawn flamingo, don’t get me wrong. But still.

“I know it was you, Ken!” Elk stomped his way up to us and glowered from under his heavy caveman-like brow. “You think you’re real funny, don’t you?”

“Occasionally I’m sidesplittingly hilarious.” Aldridge replied with a perfectly straight face and monotone voice. “But you’ll have to be more specific. Which of my many, many uproarious jokes are you talking about?”

The glare that Elk shot my friend could have melted steel. “The vanilla pudding, you stupid shit!”

“It was tapioca.” Aldridge replied automatically. It took him a second to wince. “I ah, I mean, I don’t think vanilla would be as funny.”

Elk’s nostrils practically blew smoke as he moved to lunge at Aldridge, but I put myself between them. Yeah, you read that sentence correctly. Clearly my sense of self-preservation has yet to be resuscitated.

“Whoa, whoa!” I held up my hands. “I don’t think you want to start throwing punches, big guy. Not so soon after your last suspension. Besides, didn’t the police say they’d charge you the next time?”

He glared at me, but I held my ground. After facing the smoke monster and his possessed creep family, the local school thug didn’t exactly make me quiver as much as he used to. “Back off, Elk.” I said to him firmly. “You don’t want a fight right now.”

“What makes you think you have any idea what I want, little girl?” He asked, while glowering impressively. I had to give him that, he may not have much as far as people skills went, but he could glower with the best of them.

“I know you’ve got better things to do than worry about some stupid joke.”

Aldridge chose to interrupt. “Hey, I thought it was a pretty good–”

“Shut up, Aldridge.” I hissed while stepping hard on his foot.

“Ya know what…” Elk smiled as an idea clearly came to his mule brain. “I’ll make you a deal.” His head jerked back toward the basketball court. “You beat me at Horse, and your boyfriend’s off the hook.”

“Okay, one, he is not and never will be my boyfriend.” I cut in. “I mean, boy that is a friend, yes. Boyfriend, never. Not in a million years. Not if the entire species of the planet was down to just the two of us and the future of humanity depended on it. Not if–”

“Don’t mind me.” Aldridge muttered. “I’ll just be back here trying to duct tape the remains of my ego back together.”

I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean. Not a boyfriend. And Horse, really? You want to play basketball to leave Aldridge alone? Do you have any idea how… stupid that sounds? I mean seriously, I watch a lot of bad movies with a lot of bad clichés, and I still think you’re reaching some kind of red alert trope limit here.”

“Aww,” the big thug stuck his lower lip out, “the poor little girl’s afraid she can’t beat me.” In the background, I could hear his cronies snickering, which only encouraged Elk to play up the mock pouting even more.

An annoyed sigh escaped me. “Fine, you know what, fine. But I beat you, then you leave Aldridge alone from now on, period.”

He laughed out loud. “Yeah whatever, babe. You beat me and I’ll leave the dork alone. Actually, you know what, I’ll do you one better. You beat me, and I’ll give him my team jacket.” His shoulders shrugged up and down, emphasizing his letterman jacket that all those jock types were so obsessed with.

“And the trashy movie essentials just keep rolling on. Fine.” I repeated, walking past him toward the court. “Let’s get this over with.”

Aldridge caught my arm. “I should do this, not you. Besides, did I miss the part where you even know which end of the basketball goes in the net?”

“It’s a ball, Aldridge.” I pulled my arm free. “By definition, it doesn’t really have an end. And I think we just defined exactly why I’m doing it and not you. It’ll be fine, trust me.”

I walked to the court with the boys, thinking as I walked. I needed someone who was good at basketball, and, unfortunately I’d never really paid that much attention.

“Mind if I take a couple of warm up shots?” I asked Elk as his other friends started to pass money back and forth. I was pretty sure they were betting on how much I was going to lose by, not whether I was going to win. But that was okay, I had an idea.

The big guy chuckled before tossing the ball to me. “Take all you want, won’t help you that much.”

I rolled the ball over in my hand and looked at the first of Elk’s fellow players. Kevin Rivera. He was a Hispanic kid that seemed pretty quick on his feet. Focusing on his basketball skill, I rose and took the shot from where I stood at the free throw line.

The ball hit the rim and bounced off, as did the next one. Okay, so Kevin wasn’t much of a shooter. I scratched him off my mental list while the boys all chuckled, except for Aldridge, who just looked worried.

Next in line was Benny Hope. He was better than Kevin, getting one of the practice shots in, but something about his skill didn’t seem quite good enough.

Then I tried Gregg Wells. As soon as the ball left my hand on the first shot, I knew I’d found the right one. The ball dropped through the net, and I easily repeated the move with the next shot. Gregg was definitely the best shooter in their group.

“All right.” I tossed the ball to Elk. “You wanna start?”

You might wonder why I hadn’t just copied Elk’s skill to begin with. The problem with that was that I wanted to beat him, not tie him. If I wanted to shoot better than him, copying his exact skill was the wrong way to go.

“Right, the way Horse works is–” Elk started to explain, his tone making it sound like he was talking to a four year old.

“I know how it works.” I interrupted, injecting my tone with as much annoyance as I could, considering I’d barely had the basic gist before borrowing this basketball skill to get the full idea.

“Whatever.” He took a few steps back past the foul line and took a simple shot. Apparently he thought he wasn’t going to have to try very hard.

I disavowed him of that right away, making the same shot as well to a chorus of catcalls from the other boys.

Elk’s next shot was a bit more difficult, but I still managed it. Then he missed his third one when he tried to get too fancy with a one handed shot that was supposed to bounce the ball off the middle of the court, and then up into the net. That made it my turn to choose the shot.

Right, might as well go for the one I knew he missed. I picked my spot, judged the angle, then took the ball in one hand and hooked it up and over toward the ground. It bounced off the pavement, then up and off the rim before falling into the net.

The boys just stared at me in confusion. It was kind of wonderful. I smiled and stepped back, gesturing. “I think that’s your shot.”

He tried, he really did. One after another, each of his attempts to match that shot either bounced off the rim or the backboard, or missed entirely. The more he missed, the more frustrated he got. By the end, he threw the ball at the ground so hard it simply bounced off in a random direction and one of the other boys had to run and get it.

“How the hell did you do that?” Elk demanded, whirling on me. “I’ve never even seen you hold a ball before! That’s the cheating shit Gregg pulls off.”

I simply continued to smile and shrugged. “Lucky, I guess. But now you leave Aldridge alone. That’s the deal. Oh and…” I held my hand out and waited expectantly.

Glaring at me, Elk stripped out of his jacket. If looks could kill, I would have been dust on the ground. He thrust his jacket out to me, holding it so tightly that it took me a few pulls to take it from him.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I pulled the jacket on. At least I was until I turned around.

Standing next to Aldridge, watching all of this, was Gesmine. She met my gaze, having seen what I had just done. Her expression was that of someone who had just found the answer to something that had been bugging them for a very long time, of someone who had just had an important piece of a frustrating puzzle handed to them unexpectedly.

Everything seemed to go silent, as time itself stood still in my head. Gesmine lifted her chin, her gaze on mine, and she mouthed the words I had dreaded for so long.

“You were there.”

Chapter Eight