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.”