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 Five

Chapter Five

360 Days ago

After taking two more buses, I was regretting leaving the nice SUV behind. Not that our public transportation system isn’t an exciting adventure, but I generally prefer to leave those kinds of scent and danger-laden wild safaris to the Discovery Channel. At least the last time I’d taken the city bus, I’d been on my way to see my idol, so I barely noticed the actual trip. This time I wasn’t so distracted. Well, I was, just not pleasantly so. Thinking about one of your best friends being a psychopathic superhero-killing superhero/villain didn’t do a lot to hide depressing reality of public transit.

Finally leaving the last bus that I had to take to get back to Gesmine’s neighborhood, I stood on the sidewalk and hesitated. Was this actually a good idea, considering what I’d left back there? I’d left two unconscious men on the floor of Ges’s room, and called the cops. Surely the place was swarming with uniformed officers, not to mention the fact that Gesmine herself was bound to be home. My whole idea of searching her place without anyone, especially Ges, knowing, was completely shot. It was pretty much the exact opposite of private by now.

Or maybe it wasn’t. I peeked around the corner of the street to look toward Ges’s house, expecting to see the cop cars lining every available spot. But there was nothing. Everything looked pretty much like it had when I’d driven away in the kidnapper’s vehicle. It was just a normal, average street in the middle of the day. I half expected to see one of the Brady Bunch out mowing a lawn or throwing a Frisbee for whatever that dog’s name was.

Confused, I stood and stared for a moment. Had the police already come and left? Was it possible? I wasn’t exactly an expert in police procedures, but I really doubted the street should be this empty. Even if the majority had collected Mr. Vames and Mr. Thug and left, there should be someone left here. They would have called Gesmine’s father. The news might even have been there if the story about Mr. Vames’s granddaughter broke. That should have been a big enough deal to warrant the attention

So what, exactly, was going on?

The front door of the Ges’s house opened, and she walked out. Eyes widening, I ducked down to hide behind the waist high fence of the corner house whose sidewalk I had been watching from. Taking a breath, I slowly peeked around the fence in time to see my murderous friend start to glance in my direction. Jerking back out of sight, I flattened myself against the fence and tried to hope two things. First, that she hadn’t seen me. And second, that if I could manage to swallow my heart again, it would naturally find its way back to where it belonged.

After catching my breath, I very slowly peeked out one more time. The sidewalk was empty. I blinked, and leaned up a little. Nobody was there. I stood fully and looked around. There was absolutely no one in sight. Well it shouldn’t have surprised me. I knew she was one of the fastest people alive. But somehow, I had still expected–

“What are you doing?”

The voice came from behind me, and I let out a screech of surprise while twisting around. In the process, my leg smacked against the fence, which turned my already embarrassing screech into a pained squeal. Hobbled, eyes bleary from the sudden pain in my leg, I finally managed to turn fully toward the voice, expecting to find Gesmine demanding to know why I was spying on her. Or maybe even why I had broken into her house, knocked out a kidnapping thug, and then gone to rescue her neighbor’s granddaughter. Or even why I had watched her kill Paragon. In that brief moment, I was convinced that she knew everything and was ready to silence me.

It wasn’t Gesmine. It was Eric James, the former gangbanger who had straightened out after his brother’s death. He stood there, all six feet two inches of him. While Aldridge was almost a foot taller, no one would ever mistake him for athletic. Eric, on the other hand, was built like one of those MMA fighters. His skin was some mixture of Black and Asian.

He was also standing uncomfortably close, looming over me as he glared and repeated his question. “I said, what are you doing?” This time there was more menace to his question.

My voice had failed me for a moment. I was used to looking up at Aldridge to talk to him, and Eric was shorter than that by a considerable amount. But Aldridge had never glared at me like he was. And besides, I’d known Aldridge for most of my life. I’d never exchanged more than two words with Eric James. He was five years older than I was. We’d never even gone to the same school together.

His glare deepened, and some survival instinct buried deep inside made me blurt out a response. “Nothing!” My face reddened slightly under his intense gaze. “I mean, I’m not doing anything. Why, what are you doing?” Grace under scrutiny, that’s me.

“Nothing?” He looked as doubtful as my father had the day seven year old me tried to convince him that I hadn’t been the one that got into pancake batter while absolutely covered in the stuff. “Then why are you skulking around outside this place while they aren’t home?” He indicated the house whose fence I had been hiding behind.

“Skulking?” I blinked at the house, and then blanched. “No, I mean, I’m hiding from my friend. She lives–”

“Gesmine Montana.” Eric interrupted bluntly. “I know who she is. She lives down the street.” His eyes narrowed. This was a guy to whom suspicion came easily and had to be dragged out kicking and screaming. “Why are you hiding from her?”

As intense as his gaze was, I was half tempted to blurt out an honest response, about Ges and Paragon and the Vames’s granddaughter, all of it. Actually, it almost would have been funny to imagine what his reaction might have been.

Instead, I shrugged. “We’re having a fight. She said some things, I said some things, there were things said. The saying of things.”

Now his eyebrow rose. I was still not winning any kind of subtlety prizes. “The saying of things.”

“That’s right.” I straightened self-consciously and held my wrists out. “Gonna handcuff me for spying on my friend? Oh, right, not a cop.”

“I don’t have to be a cop to handcuff you.” He pointed out, and I swore the tiniest trace of a smirk played at his mouth before he stepped back. “But no, not this time.”

Breathing a little easier now that he and his muscles had gotten out of my personal space, I frowned at him. “Anyway, what are you doing around here? I thought your ahhh, what do you call it, your beat, your patrol maybe? Your–”

“Patrol is fine.” Eric looked away and a frown creased his forehead. I realized after a moment, with a bit of a start, that he was trying to calm himself. “I had something to do.” He almost stumbled on the words, his frown deepening.

Confused, I glanced the way that he was looking. Two streets down, the very edge of the large wrought iron fence that marked the corner of the cemetery loomed. But why was he looking at the cemetery–oh. His brother. He had been visiting his brother.

Now I really felt like a shit. “I’m sorry.” I tried to think of something better to say than that, but nothing came.

For a second, it looked like he was going to say something else. Instead, he shook his head and turned away. “Whatever, just stop skulking behind fences. It looks bad.”

“I’ll keep that in mind the next time I get the urge to skulk.” I watched him walk away, still confused by what had just happened.

My life had passed surreal some distance back and just kept trucking forward.

“Savvy?”

Yet again, the voice came from behind me. Despite it being the second time in as many minutes, I still Jack-In-The-Boxed my way a solid foot off the ground before twisting around in mid yelp.

A week ago, the fact that the voice had belonged to one of my two best friends in the world would have immediately calmed my newly racing heart. Unfortunately, this happened to be the one of those two that had recently murdered a worldwide icon of justice and heroism. At least, I hoped she was the only one of the two who had done that. If she wasn’t, I was going to retire from society entirely and join a convent or something.

She was there, right in front of me as I turned around. I hadn’t been this close to her since everything had happened, managing to avoid confronting my old friend. Gesmine Montana had always been taller than I was, and normally wore her own raven black hair in a braid rather than leaving it loose like I tended to do with my own lighter brown locks. Now I knew that it was probably because it helped keep the hair out of her face when she ran.

I’d never been intimidated by the other girl before. Then again, I’d never known she was a psychotic murderer before.

“G-geeze, Ges!” I blurted before even considering what was coming out of my mouth. “Don’t do that! Are you crazy?”

Yes, I did just ask the girl who killed Paragon if she was crazy. If a person exists whose survival instinct flat lines at more inopportune moments than myself, I have yet to meet them.

“Umm, Savannah,” Gesmine trailed off for a moment before continuing, “what are you doing here?”

Oh, so she wanted to know the same thing Eric had wanted to know. Somehow I doubted that she’d accept the same non-answer that he’d at least had the courtesy to pretend to accept.

“I was…” For a moment, I drew a blank. You might have thought that Eric asking me that would have made my brain start coming up with an answer to have at the ready. If you do, I direct you to the aforementioned survival instinct flat lining.

Just as I despaired of spitting out some nonsense word that might not even have been English, my brain came up with something coherent. “I was taking a walk. I guess I ended up coming this way. I wasn’t really thinking about where I was going, but yeah, here I am. Am I in your neighborhood? Oh, yeah, guess so. Uhh, hi.”

Hey, I didn’t say that it was a smooth and casual response. But at least it was English and all the words were in the right order. Trust me, I felt like clapping for myself at the time, but I felt like that might have been even less subtle than the epic loads of unsubtle I was already achieving.

Gesmine met my gaze for a long moment, and I thought she knew everything. Then her straight face broke and she embraced me with a choked little gasp that I would have sworn was genuine. “Savvy, I tried to call you a few times after… after it happened. Your parents said you weren’t talking to anyone. Are you all right?”

Was I all right? I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry. I wanted to punch her. I wanted to hug her and beg her to explain everything. I wanted to scream as loud as I could, for as long as I could, until everything went back to the way it had been.

Instead, I continued with what had been normal for my life in the last week. I lied.

“Yeah, I mean, no but I’m getting there.” I said slowly while trying to work out what I should do with my hands as the girl I should have been able to lean on this whole time continued to hug me. After an awkward moment, I slid free and tried not to think about what I had seen Gesmine do. “I don’t think anyone’s okay right now.”

“I know you thought he was perfect.” Ges had the nerve to say with a straight face before amending herself. “I mean, I know you thought he was the only perfect guy out there. But he wasn’t…”

I didn’t look away. What was she about to say? Was she about to say something that only someone close to him could have known? God, was she about to tell me about being Whiplash? How else would she explain inside knowledge about him?

“Our heroes aren’t always what they seem to be.” Gesmine finally settled on. “And there’s someone else out there that actually knows you exist.”

I stared at Ges for a long moment. The resentment, anger, and disbelief that I had felt over the last week boiled up, and thanks to that statement, it had an outlet. “How can you say that?” I demanded, my voice going higher than I meant it to. “How can you say that?” I repeated, wanting to hit her. “He was the best… he was the most important… he was Paragon!” I fairly shrieked. “My having a crush on him has nothing to fucking do with it! There isn’t another person like him! There’s never going to be another person like him! He’s dead! He’s gone! And everyone who dies now, everyone he could have saved? That’s–” I very nearly said ‘your fault’, but stopped myself at the last possible second. “– their fault. Whoever killed him. It’s their fault. Every single death that he could have prevented. They didn’t just kill him. Those worthless pieces of garbage killed all of those people too!”

Through it all, Gesmine didn’t break eye contact. She didn’t even have the courtesy to flinch. She continued to meet my gaze without comment or argument. When I was finished, she bowed her head and said quietly, “I know.” Then she looked up. “I didn’t mean that his death wasn’t a tragedy. But, Savvy, your parents are afraid that you’re shutting down. They’re afraid you don’t care about anything anymore.”

How did I tell her that it wasn’t only Paragon’s death that I was reeling from, but her betrayal as well? This was too complicated. It was too hard.

“Whatever.” I turned away so that she wouldn’t see the tears. I wanted so badly to demand answers from her. The week before, I could have said anything to Ges. Now, I knew the truth. I knew what kind of monster she was. I just couldn’t let her know that I knew, because as much as I had trusted her a week earlier, I did not trust her at all now. And that fact killed me even more than the actual death of my idol had.

But even if I couldn’t ask her, there was someone else I could talk to. I straightened and turned back. “I’m going to start heading home.” I lied to one of my best friends yet again. “I need to think.”

Ges looked like she wanted to argue for a moment, but backed down with a simple, “Kay.”

I left her there, despite so many urges to go back and talk. I couldn’t talk to her until I had some answers. And since she was out, I was going to have to get them from old Potter Vames, if he was home. Which, I realized belatedly as I turned the corner in order to double back through the back alley to get to the old man’s house out of Ges’s sight, he very well might not be. The odds were especially low if the cops had gotten enough of the story out of Kacey.

Even if they hadn’t, I doubted I would have very much time. The old man could be making a run for it, or hell, someone else could have come and grabbed both him and the guy I’d left knocked out on the floor.

That thought slowed me as I reached his back gate. It would explain why they hadn’t been there when I got back, but not why no cops had been around. I had called the police myself and told them where to find Vames and his attacker. That was the part that still perplexed me. What happened to the police?

In any case, even if Vames wasn’t home, I realized, there could be evidence inside. Maybe there would be a hint about what he and his thug escort had been looking for, the thing that his phone was supposed to beep for.

Oh, right, his phone. The phone that I’d held in my hand and called the police from before dropping it on the floor. The phone that probably would have answered some of my questions, considering it apparently had the ability to beep if the thing they were looking for was nearby. I’d had it, and I’d left it behind.

God I was dumb sometimes.

Unlatching the gate, I slipped into Vames’s backyard and made my way from there to his patio. I was hoping that, as much as he puttered around in his garden, the sliding glass door would be open.

I was both lucky and not. The glass door was unlocked, but the screen door behind it wasn’t. I could probably have just kicked out the screen, but that was liable to draw more attention than I wanted. Especially with Gesmine likely still next door. On that thought, I glanced toward her house, half expecting to see her standing in her backyard staring at me. Fortunately, the yard was empty.

Still, kicking the screen door down was a no. Maybe if I’d had a knife or something, I could have cut out enough of the screen to unlock it. As things stood, I was a bit flummoxed.

Yes, the girl who had seemingly effortlessly dispatched an armed thug before stealing his car in order to infiltrate an enemy stronghold and snatched the helpless kidnapped child right from the jaws of danger to safety was being stumped by a sliding screen door. I dearly hope those with potential heart conditions can cope with my thrilling escapades.

For once in the last twenty minutes, I actually heard the noise of someone moving behind me before they spoke. Glory be to my triumphant senses, yes.

Unfortunately, whipping around before the person could speak did nothing to help the surprise I felt at the sight of one of the thugs from the abandoned restaurant. It was the bald smoker I had trapped outside, either Dayle or Zeke, I still didn’t know which.

“Hey, Savannah.” Dayle or Zeke said before holding up my phone. “Drop something?”

With my eyes pulled to my phone with all of my contact information up on the screen, I never saw the punch coming that put me on the ground.

Chapter Six

Chapter Four

Chapter Four

360 Days Ago

Two miles and five minutes later, and I still had no idea how in any hell known to man I was doing any of what I was doing. It should have been impossible. There was adrenaline, of course, but adrenaline couldn’t teach you things you didn’t know. Blind luck didn’t begin to cover it either. I hadn’t been guessing, I’d absolutely known what I was doing. I just didn’t know how I knew.

According to the GPS, I was getting close to where the vehicle had been spending most of its time. As I drove down a one-way street, I kept one eye on the display and the other watching the buildings along the street.

I should call the police. Stop in front of the building and call them. That would be good enough, wouldn’t it? I could make sure that whoever was in there with Potter’s granddaughter didn’t take her anywhere before the police could get there.

But what if whoever it was had orders to kill her if he didn’t report in? Or what if something else happened? Oh my god, what if another one of their people had been watching the house and saw me take off in the first guy’s ride? I hadn’t even thought about it until now, and when the possibility did occur to me, my heart almost stopped. The girl could be dead right now, just because I hadn’t thought it through all the way.

Then I saw what I was looking for. The GPS confirmed it. It was an old, boarded up building that had, a couple of years ago, been one of those family restaurants. There was a single, ancient pick-up truck sitting in the lot with what looked like a load of furniture in the back. Other than that, the place looked deserted.

This had to be it. I parked the SUV across the street and down about a block to stay out of sight. Then, for a couple minutes, I simply watched the building. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate that anyone was there.

Was I wrong? Maybe the GPS was off. Or maybe the SUV had been here for a completely unrelated reason, or gone to one of the other buildings.

But the more I watched the boarded up restaurant, the more convinced I became that I wasn’t wrong. Someone was in there with Potter’s granddaughter, and if I didn’t do something, she was going to be killed.

After another moment of hesitation, I shut off the engine and got out of the vehicle. Closing the door after me, I started to make my way across the street. I took the long way, around the far back side of the lot, rather than approach the restaurant from the front. There was still a risk of being seen, of course, but at least it wasn’t quite as obvious.

Then again, I realized as I approached the rear service entrance of the restaurant, I still had no way of getting inside. The heavy metal door wasn’t going to budge just because I asked it nicely, let alone do so quietly enough that whoever was inside wouldn’t hear it.

Sure enough, the heavy door was locked. It probably didn’t open from the outside at all. As I ran my hands over the edge, I wondered if some super-special door opening skill was going to randomly appear in my brain the way driving the car, using the GPS, or fighting had.

Sadly, nothing jumped into my mind. “Right,” I whispered, “Open sesame.” Hey, it was worth a shot.

However many shots it was worth, my eyes still bulged out of their sockets and I nearly peed myself when the door began to open. I really did have magic door opening powers!

“Yeah yeah, whatever, I need a smoke!” A male voice, decidedly unfriendly, shouted from just on the other side of the door as it froze in mid swing.

Okay, so I didn’t have magic door opening powers. Someone was coming out. Caught between relief and disappointment, I hurriedly ducked aside so that the door would block and cover me when it opened the rest of the way.

From somewhere further back inside the restaurant, I could hear a muffled voice shout for whoever this was to at least remember to prop the door open, because he wasn’t coming out to let him in again.

I wondered which one of these guys was the Dayle that the guy back at the house had mentioned.

“Fuck you.” The man muttered as he emerged. I saw the side of his head as he ducked to grab a crate of bottles and pushed it in front of the door. Then there was the click of a lighter and a long exhale as the man began to enjoy his cigarette. If he’d turned his head any further to the right, he would have seen me cowering back there. Instead, he took a few steps away and muttered something about getting the hell out of this place.

At first, I barely dared breathe. This was so stupid, so very, very stupid. These guys were going to kill me.

And yet, if I did nothing, Mr. Vames’s granddaughter would die. I had done enough damage to the world already. If doing this tiny little bit to help meant risking my life, then I would.

Slowly, carefully, I took a single step out from behind the door. The smoker wasn’t tall, standing barely an inch over me, and was fairly hefty. He was also bald, his pale skin heavily covered in tattoos. He took another drag from the cigarette, oblivious to my presence only a couple of feet behind him. Eyes riveted to the back of the man’s head, I inched to the left. Gradually, I moved further and further until I was in front of the door opening. Risking a quick glance over my shoulder, I saw an empty supply room and a hallway further in. Great, one potential crisis averted, the guy’s partner wasn’t standing there in plain sight.

If I kicked the crate to make it stop blocking the door, the guy would hear it. Instead, I leaned down ever so slowly, heart hammering its paranoid drumbeat as I watched the man for any sign that he was about to turn around. Slowly, carefully, I put both hands on the crate and gave it the slightest, gentlest push I could while lifting it just a little so that it wouldn’t scrape as much on the ground. The crate moved, and the man continued to smoke. All I had to do was push it a little bit more, and then the door was free. I caught the door with my foot and carefully eased my way backward. I didn’t dare look away from the man while I was still potentially in his sight.

Once I was inside the store room, I stepped behind the doorway, using a hand to keep the door open. When I peeked one more time at the back of the smoker’s head, I saw him toss the cigarette on the ground and stub it out with his foot. It was now or never. Releasing the breath I had been holding, I took my hand off the door and ducked back. The door swung closed, and I heard the man shout a curse just as it clanked shut.

Great, now I was inside the building and one of the thugs was trapped outside, for now at least. I didn’t know if he’d go around and break in through one of the boarded up front doors or windows, or wait for his partner to let him in, but either way I needed to move quickly.

There was a muffled bang against the door, so for the moment at least, the guy seemed to be waiting for his partner. Good. Stay lazy, Mister Tattooed Thug. Stay lazy.

The store room led to a hallway with a broken tile floor and stained walls with the piping partially exposed. At the end of the hall I could see what was obviously the front dining area. Normally there would be a door to block the sight of the service hall, but it was missing. To the right was a pair of doorways, one of which led to a tiny closet, while the other was clearly a manager’s office of some kind.

There was another doorway to the left, this one midway between the other two. From the gleaming metal sink I could see from my position, it was clearly the kitchen. And if the sound of televised football was a clue, the other guy was somewhere in there.

Of course, the question now became, was the girl I was looking for in there? It made sense; they’d want to keep a constant eye on her, wouldn’t they? Unless they had her locked up somewhere else like a basement or something. Did restaurants have basements?

Biting my lip, I risked a quick peek around the corner of the doorway. As I’d already figured out, I was looking at the kitchen. Long metal counters, lots of sinks, stoves, the lot. Naturally, anything that wasn’t nailed down or too heavy to move had been taken out a long time ago.

The kitchen itself was empty, but there was an open doorway at the back. Two doorways, really, but the other just led to what looked like had been the bar in the front. It was the other doorway that interested me, because the television sounds were coming from there.

I’d barely taken three careful and paranoid steps into the kitchen when there was another loud bang from the back door. It sounded like Tattooed Maybe-Dayle had found something to hit it with other than his fist or foot. I jumped, but not nearly as much as I did when the voice from the direction of the television shouted, “Okay, okay, I’m fucking coming!”

There were footsteps, and I had half a second to react. The fact that I practically fainted in that moment was almost a boon, because it helped me duck behind the long metal counter in the middle of the kitchen quicker.

I heard the man stomp through the room, and I quickly crawled around to the opposite side of the island. Turning over to crabwalk backwards so that I could see the other door, I watched as the blond man, who was several inches taller and noticeably thinner than his tattooed partner and wore a brown tweed suit, moved into the hallway, cursing the whole way.

Now, I had to move now. Scrambling to my feet, I ran through the doorway the guy had come through.

This had quite clearly been a staff room of some kind. There were two ugly wooden tables in the middle, a chalkboard that still had a few notes about time off and safety written on it, and a row of lockers to the side. On one of the tables was an old television that was the source of the noise.

And sitting on the floor in the corner was a little girl, maybe seven years old, who had been handcuffed to one of the exposed pipes. There was also some kind of ball in her mouth, held in place by a few strips of duct tape.

As soon as she saw me, the girl’s eyes widened and she started to try to talk. Quickly, I held a finger to my lips, glancing over my shoulder. I heard the big metal door squeak open, followed by loud arguing. Good, keep bitching at each other.

My eyes swept over the tables. Key, key, please have the key here and not in one of your pockets, guys. I could see candy wrappers, a fast food bag, a couple of half empty soda cups, as well as the television, but no key. At least I was able to flip the TV off. It’s harder to think about escaping these situations with loud mouthed announcers rambling about sweaty guys hitting each other. And the arguing voices were drawing closer as the men approached. In near panic (to be honest, I submit the fact that it was not complete and total screaming panic as evidence of my growing insanity), I glanced at the side of the room and saw a large metal filing cabinet a few feet back from the door. Would it work? The louder voices reminded me that I didn’t really have time to think it through.

Quickly, I moved to the doorway. The two men stopped in mid argument to stare at me for a second as if they had no idea what they were seeing. To be fair, in the course of Kidnapping Thug 101, evading wannabe Nancy Drew was probably an oft-overlooked elective.

Before they could recover, I slammed the door shut and twisted the lock. A second later there was a heavy thud as the men slammed into it and began to scream at me to open the door before they yada yada lots of threats that made me want to pee myself, but really did nothing to convince me that I’d be better off with the door open.

Moving to the filing cabinet, I tested it. Yeah, I didn’t know what was in it, but it was definitely heavy. Taking a breath, I shoved against it once, then again, and the big metal thing tipped over. It fell toward the door with a terrible crash as the drawers fell open and scattered several folders and other random junk over the floor. It worked though. The cabinet wedged itself against it about halfway down to act as a brace.

And now I had successfully trapped myself inside a small room with a terrified little girl and no way out, while two furious men kicked and slammed at the door. Yay me.

The girl was sobbing and, to be honest, I felt like joining her. Sure the men were trapped outside, but that wouldn’t last forever. I needed a better plan, or at least one that didn’t involve getting killed and coming back as a vengeful ghost. We’d keep that one as Plan Z.

Plan A had to be… my phone! Quickly, I reached for it in my pocket. I could call the police, and then try to wait these guys out. Sure I’d have a lot of explaining to do, but it’d still be better than what those guys would do.

Except when I felt for my phone, it wasn’t there. Shit. Shit, I must’ve dropped it. Just perfect.

Without much else I could do, I hurried over to crouch in front of the girl and carefully undid the gag, wincing as the girl yelped from the tape yanking her hair. Finally, I took the ball from her mouth. “Are you all right?”

The kid looked at me, looked at the door, then looked back at me and shook her head. “I’m scared.”

“That makes two of us.” I informed her before looking around the room one more time, as if something would magically present itself.

“You’re scared?” The girl whispered. “But you’re rescuing me.”

“I guess that’s what I’m trying to do,” I admitted, “but it doesn’t mean I’m not scared. Sorry, kid, you got the girl who has no idea what she’s doing.”

“What about the window?” The girl lifted her free hand to point in the top left corner.

My eyes followed her finger and I stared for a moment at the glass opening. It was high, but with the help of one of the tables, we should be able to reach it. And, small as it was, we could probably both squeeze through.

“Hey, good eyes, kid.” I praised. “You know where the key is for these?”

When her head bobbed, I was almost ready to fist pump before she said, “In Zeke’s pocket.”

“Zeke’s one of those guys, isn’t he?” I waited for her nod and then sighed. “Okay, well, I doubt they’ll trade us for the rest of that bag of M&M’s over there.”

There was another loud crash as the men slammed into the door, and I flinched. We didn’t have time to waste. I needed to get this kid out. Again I scanned the room. Something glinted on the floor by the door, under the cabinet. Frowning, I crawled that way and looked down.

At first I was disappointed. It was just a couple quarters, a few bent pieces of metal, several employee name badges, and three small bobby pins.

Well those would be obscenely useful, if I had any idea of how to use them. As it was I might as well have found a stealth bomber parked in the corner for all the actual good they did me.

Another thud against the door reminded me that I had to do something. Frowning, I picked up one of the pins and looked at it.

Back at the house, I had taken care of that guy without breaking much of a sweat, despite never having thrown a punch in my life. I had just known what to do. Then there had been the GPS, and driving the manual. Maybe I could have given the fight over to luck, but not the rest. No, I had known exactly what to do.

And yet, staring at this pin and then at the handcuffs, nothing sprang to mind. I needed to unlock them. “Come on,” I said to myself, “learn how to do it. Spontaneous knowledge, ho. Activate knowledge download. Upload? Cypher? Wait, crap, he was a traitor. Go away, Cypher.”

“Ummmm….” If it was possible, the girl’s voice was even more scared now that she knew she was trapped in the room with a gibbering psychopath. “Who are you talking to?”

“Nobody.” I shook my head. “Never mind, I’ve got this.” But did I? As impossible as it had sounded that I could just suddenly learn things, I was just as confused by why it wasn’t working now. What was I doing differently? Every time it had happened before, I hadn’t done anything different.

Or had I? What had I been doing when the fight happened? I had thought about Eric James and the fights he would get into. After that I had thought about Aldridge with the GPS, and then my dad with the manual transmission.

Okay the very thought was insane. How? How was that even possible?

Bang went the door, and the filing cabinet slid a little. Okay, never mind my doubts. I had absolutely no other option except to believe in the unbelievable. Giving the corner one last glance in case that stealth bomber had ever shown up, I focused on the bobby pin again.

I did know one person who knew how to pick locks. Gesmine. She had shown me that she could do it back when we had gone to summer camp together a few years earlier. She’d offered to teach me, but I had asked when I’d ever need to know that stuff.

“Real smooth, Savvy.” I muttered to myself with a sigh before returning my focus to thinking about Gesmine picking those handcuffs back in the cabin, under the flashlight.

My eyes opened, and I bent the bobby pin into the right shape and took the plastic tip off before moving to where the girl was. “Hold still.” I told her and gently took her hand. Carefully, I slid the pin halfway in and did the work to bend it into the proper shape. A little more work and the handcuffs clicked open.

“Wow!” The girl gushed, rubbing her wrist. “How’d you do that?”

“I wish I knew.” I informed her before moving to slide the table over to the window. “Come on, let’s go.”

Climbing up on the table, I reached down and picked the little girl up with me. She was a little heavy for such a little thing (or maybe I just wasn’t used to picking up anything that weighed more than my backpack), but I doubted asking her to go on a diet would have an appreciable effect in the next thirty seconds.

“Okay,” I told her, “Let me get the window open.” It was a narrow window that simply pushed up and out. Or it should have. I had to strain and pry and push and shove, all while the filing cabinet inched with every few blows. Any second it was going to fall entirely and that would be the end of our great escape. Finally, I managed to shove hard enough that the window pushed up and open.

“Come on, kid.” I boosted the little girl up and gave her a push through the window. I heard a thump on the ground outside, followed by a yelp.

The door banged again, and this time the filing cabinet did crash. They began to shove the door open, even as I pulled myself up to the window. Now their shouts were inside the room, and I was halfway through the window and into the sunlight when one of them grabbed my leg. Desperately, I kicked out hard. My foot hit something fleshy, and I was released to fall the rest of the way through the window.

Now we both yelped, because I had fallen half on the cement and half on the girl I was saving. Okay, so this wasn’t the most graceful of rescues, but at least we were still alive.

And, in the interest of keeping that record going, I scrambled to my feet. “Come on!” I yanked the girl up and started to run.

We crossed the street, all the while expecting bullets to start chewing up the ground around us. Or I was at least. I wasn’t sure what the kid was thinking about. Ponies, maybe.

Fortunately, we reached the SUV without being shot, or suffering any heart attacks. We also didn’t see any ponies, so, you know, win some and lose some. “Great,” I said to myself before boosting the girl inside, “now let’s get out of here.”

Grumbling, I got in and started it up. We could see both of the men down the road, clearly looking for us. They could go right on looking, however. I had the girl and I was getting the hell out with her. When the traffic was clear, I pulled onto the road and U-Turned to drive away.

Ten minutes later, we parked in front of the police building. “Okay, what’s your name?” I asked the girl.

“Kacey.” She informed me. “Are we going to see the police now?”

“You are.” I told her, while using my shirt to wipe off the steering wheel, the GPS unit, and anything else that I thought I’d touched. I couldn’t explain what was happening to me, but I knew I didn’t want to suddenly be in the news. Not until I knew what the hell was going on with both myself, and with Gesmine.

I pointed out the window. “See that building there? That’s where the police are. You run right in there and tell them what happened to you.”

“You’re not coming?” She sounded even more scared at that prospect.

Swallowing, I shook my head. “I have to… I have to do something else. You go.”

She gave me one last doubtful look, and then bolted for the police station. The second she was gone, I slid out the other side and began to walk away from the SUV.

I had gone to Gesmine’s house for answers, and ended up getting a lot more questions instead. One thing I did know for certain though, as I glanced over my shoulder to see the little girl running into the arms of a policeman that had just stepped out.

I had done at least one good thing today.

Chapter Five

Chapter Three

Chapter Three

360 Days Ago

I couldn’t honestly, rightly say how the rest of that day went. It was mostly a blur of confusion and denial. I had to wait for Whiplash–I mean, Gesmine, one of my best friends, to walk away from where she had murdered Paragon. Then I had to escape that rooftop, hiding in one of the offices while policemen hustled past me. On my way out, I was seen by one of the other cops who was ushering people out of the building. He didn’t stop me, however. Why would he? Paragon, the most powerful and amazing superhero in the world, had not been killed by a teenaged girl.

Except he had been. It just hadn’t been this particular teenaged girl.

I didn’t go back to school. I took the bus back home, walking the last few blocks. Then I locked myself in my room and ignored everyone and everything. My parents eventually gave up on trying to get me to talk, dismissing it as the same horror that everyone else was feeling. The death of a hero.

That was how the next few days went. School was cancelled for a couple of them, and I pretended to be sick for the other. My parents knew I wasn’t, but they didn’t press the issue. They were worried, because I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t talking on the phone. I wasn’t… doing anything. I was just lying in my room, sometimes in bed and sometimes not. I watched the ceiling, I watched the walls, I watched everything and nothing. And mostly, I thought about what had happened, about what I had seen.

Part of me wanted to go to the police. Another part wanted to tell my parents. Still another part wanted to confront Gesmine. I chickened out of all three options. Hell, I didn’t even talk to Aldridge despite the twenty messages per day he kept leaving. He was worried that I had seen Paragon fall.

If he only knew.

Finally, on the day of Paragon’s big funeral, I stepped out of the house for the first time. My parents thought I was going to the funeral. And why wouldn’t they? As far as they knew, I’d been completely shell shocked and inconsolable for days following his death. They thought the funeral would give me closure.

I was going to get closure, but it wasn’t from any funeral.

Gesmine. I was going to Gesmine’s house. Not to talk to her, no. I wasn’t that stupid. Not anymore anyway. I was going to her house because this was the one day that I knew for a fact that Gesmine, as Whiplash, was going to be busy, and for how long. Paragon’s funeral was a huge deal. The President of the United States was going to be there, along with every hero, both costumed and otherwise, that could be brought in. There was absolutely no way that she would miss it.

Which meant that I could search her house for… what, for that knife she had used? For evidence? Because as silly of a child as I had been, I knew that I couldn’t just accuse one of the world’s great superheroes of murdering another. It would be my word against that of a girl who had saved millions over the two years she had been an active hero.

No, I needed proof. If Paragon was going to get any justice, and he deserved that, then I had to go about this carefully. Because as fast as she was, the very second that Gesmine knew that I knew what she’d done… well, I wasn’t naïve enough to think our friendship would stand in the way after what she had already done.

It took ten minutes for me to reach Gesmine’s house, cutting through alleys and a small park. The route was as familiar to me as the walk from my bedroom to the kitchen. I’d known Gesmine Montana for years. At least, I thought I had. I’d thought she was a friend.

Now she was a superhero.

Now she was a murderer.

Now she was a champion of justice and right.

Now she had murdered the world’s greatest hero in cold blood.

I stopped in the alley behind the other girl’s home. Resting my sweatshirt-clad arms on the chainlink fence, I watched the house for a few minutes. As much as I was positive that the girl I’d thought I knew was gone, I had to make certain that Vick, her father, was gone as well. Her mother had been neither in the situation, nor mentioned, in all the time that I’d known Gesmine.

For all I knew, she’d killed her too.

After moments of assurance that stretched into minutes of stalling, I opened the latch of the gate and stepped into the Montana’s backyard. A wind chime tinkled nearby, and I very nearly screamed. One of the pathway stones shifted just a little under my feet, and I nearly twisted my ankle trying to get off what my mind said was some kind of landmine.

I may have been slightly high strung, is what I’m trying to say.

After what had to be thirty seconds but felt more like that many hours, I stepped up on the wooden patio, passing the spot where, years ago, Gesmine and I had carved our initials into the railing along with the initials of the boys we wanted to marry.

S.C. next to the single letter P. Savannah Crest and Paragon. And slightly to the right of that was Gesmine’s own wedding pledge, G. M. next to M. F. H. Gesmine Montana and… I had no idea. I’d never been able to get her to tell me whose initials were M.F.H. Years later and I still didn’t have a clue.

Once I reached the sliding glass door, I tried it on a whim. It didn’t budge. That was okay though. That wasn’t the way I expected to get inside. Instead, I continued around the patio to the short steps that led around to the front of the house.

After checking the driveway, I jogged across to the side of the garage and flipped up the panel that hid a keypad. The code to make the garage door open was the same as Gesmine’s birthday, 1127. I’d known it since the day she sent me into the garage to get a better shovel so that I could help her bury a time capsule. We’d done the same thing for school, but Gesmine wanted to bury, in her words, a better one.

Oh Ges, please tell me what happened to you.

I input the code, and the garage door began to rumble up. I waited just long enough to be able to duck under the rising door and then quickly moved to hit the button on the wall that would stop it. I pushed the button again to make the door go back down, then breathed out and turned the knob on the simple wooden door that led from the garage into the house itself.

It opened, and I stepped through into a kitchen that was as familiar as my own. I had spent so many days at this house, coming through this very door. I had sat at the kitchen table for dinner so often, at least once every couple of weeks, that I had a regular seat.

I knew Gesmine. I’d known her forever, or at least long enough that she would have told me if she was a superhero. She knew my obsession with them.

Yeah, and look where that got you. The guilty portion of my brain pointed out. Trying to kill yourself to get Paragon’s attention.

But I wasn’t trying to kill myself. I knew he’d save me. I just wanted to get close to him. I just wanted him to notice me. That’s all I wanted, his attention for just five minutes. I wanted to be more than just a silly, nothing little girl. I wanted to touch greatness. I’d had this argument with my own brain over and over again. It always ended the same way.

I was an idiot.

But, idiot that I was, I was not going to stop until I knew what had happened to my friend. If Gesmine was evil, whatever that word meant anymore, I wanted to know why. I was going to find out the truth, everything she had hidden from me, and everything that had brought her to what she did on that roof. I needed answers. And Paragon deserved justice. No one else was going to get it for him. I owed him that much, no matter what it cost me.

From the kitchen I made my way upstairs to Gesmine’s bedroom. Another place I knew by heart. Her bed sat in the back left corner just past the closet. Unlike my own bed, hers was neatly made. Her entire room was always spotless.

I guess it’s easy to be tidy when you can clean the entire house in the time it takes someone to finish asking you to pick up that sock.

I wasn’t sure what I expected to find. A journal, maybe? Something that said, ‘Dear Diary, here is a succinct summary of how I became a superhero, why I never told my best friend, what turned me evil, and why I killed the world’s greatest superhero. P.S. Also, here is my super-secret weakness that takes away my powers so that I don’t stab whoever reads this fifty bazillion times. Love, Bizzaro Ges.’

Yeah, fat chance. But maybe there would be something that told me what I should do.

Unfortunately, before I had time to do more than gaze around the room and realize I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do, the front door slammed with the force of a dozen angry mothers.

I froze. Was Gesmine back? No, she wouldn’t leave the funeral and that would still be going on for hours. But who was it, then?

Footsteps on the stairs. I had to move. Looking around frantically as the heavy thumping came closer, I finally threw myself under the neatly made bed, cursing my inability to escape cliché the entire way.

“Where the hell is it?” The furious demand made me frown as I lay on my stomach. I didn’t recognize the voice. There were only two people who were supposed to be in this house, and this angry male was not Ges’s father. He sounded younger, maybe a few years older than I was.

“I swear, she brought it inside.” Another voice protested. This one I did recognize. Potter Vames, an old man that lived next door. His name wasn’t really Potter, but he was always working in his flower pots, so Gesmine, Aldridge, and I had started calling him Potter as kids. He hadn’t minded, and often gave us a handful of those little butterscotch candies.

I heard a disturbing crack, and then the floor shook as the old man fell onto his side with a cry of pain that made me flinch. What the hell was going on? I hugged the floor and bit back a whimper of confusion.

The younger man spoke again and I saw his foot come down on Potter’s hand. “Now, you were told what would happen if I didn’t receive exactly what I asked for.”

“Please,” the old man’s voice shook, “she’s only a child. My granddaughter–”

His tormenter interrupted, stepping down harder on the man’s fingers to draw a pained cry from him once more. “Your granddaughter was going to be just fine and dandy, until you started to play games with us.”

I could barely make out the old man’s head as it shook back and forth rapidly. “Not playing games. I swear. I swear she had it in here.”

The younger man’s voice was suddenly much closer, as he leaned down almost to his victim’s ear, and I jumped. “Then why is my scanner not detecting it? See this?” I saw the edge of what looked like an oversized smart phone. “It should be going ‘beep beep beep’. It’s not. You know what it’s detecting, hmmm? Bupkis. I think it’s time to call Dayle and tell him to put the kid in the ground.”

“No!” Potter’s weakness seemed forgotten, as he bellowed his denial and started to rise. His resistance didn’t last long, however, as a sickening crack filled the room and then the man fell face first to the floor and lay still, clearly unconscious as he bled from a wound in the back of his head.

“Idiot.” The younger man spoke distastefully. “I was going to let you say goodbye to her. Oh well.”

I hadn’t even known that Potter had a granddaughter. Now she was going to die, unless I did something.

But what? What could I possibly do? I wasn’t a fighter. I’d never thrown a punch in my life. I could use my phone to call the police, but what good would that do? The guy would be gone long before they got here, and it sounded like all he had to do was make a phone call to have the poor girl killed. The cops wouldn’t be able to stop that either.

No one could stop it. No one was here. No one but me.

My eyes closed as I heard the guy grumble while digging his phone out of his pocket. I spent a moment wishing with all of my heart that instead of me being here, it was someone like Eric James, the guy that lived down the street from me. Eric had been a bad kid when he was my age. He’d run with gangs, gotten into trouble with the cops, and in general fulfilled every cliché of the ‘bad boy’.

Then Eric’s little brother had been killed in a drive-by shooting, and that had apparently woken Eric up. He’d gone into the military for a couple of years before coming back. He’d tried to join the police, but they wouldn’t take him with his record, in spite of his military service. He hadn’t let that stop him though. Despite not being a cop, Eric was a familiar sight, walking up and down the streets he used to terrorize, keeping the peace. He wasn’t exactly a superhero, because he didn’t wear a mask or a costume or anything, and if anyone tried to call him one, the best he’d do is glare at them. But he did help people that needed it, and beat the crap out of the people who needed that.

If only he was here, instead of me. Or at the very least, if only someone was here who could fight like he did. Someone who could actually stop this.

My eyes opened.

I knew what to do.

Turning my head, I heard the guy start to dial as his pacing brought him closer. I saw him near the edge of the bed. I had to stop him before he finished making that call.

My foot lifted nearer to my chest as I lay on my side, waiting another heartbeat before lashing out. I kicked as hard as I could, straight at the guy’s knee. My kick connected solidly, and this time the crack was a welcome sound. Also welcome was the sound of the guy’s sudden scream of pain, as well as the sight of his phone tumbling to the floor.

I was out from under the bed an instant later. The guy was down to one knee, facing away from me as he howled in agony. When I came up behind him, he started to push himself up on his one good leg and turn. There was a gun in his hand, a gun that had been used to bash the back of Potter’s head in, from the sight of the blood on it.

There was no conscious thought. My hand went out and caught his. He was stronger than I was, but my fingers found the pressure points at his wrist, twisting here and jamming my thumb there. Then the gun was falling to the floor as the guy yelped from the pain coursing through his hand.

The guy still couldn’t stand, and I took advantage of that. My right arm snaked around his neck and I bent my elbow just enough to place the crook of it against his Adam’s apple. Then I used that hand to grab my other arm, holding onto it as tight as I could while my free hand shoved against the back of his head.

He fought. He fought hard and as long as possible. If I hadn’t taken him by surprise, if I hadn’t disabled his leg immediately, if anything else had gone wrong, he would have escaped. And then he probably would have killed me.

But nothing went wrong. Not for me anyway. I waited until I was certain he was unconscious before releasing him. Then, as his body fell to the floor, I slowly straightened.

My heart hammered as confusion engulfed me in that moment. How? How had I done that? I’d never fought anyone before. I’d never done anything like that before, ever.

My eyes found the poor old man bleeding on the floor, and I grabbed for my phone. Then I paused, frowning in thought. Instead of using my own phone, I knelt and picked up the psycho’s with a glance toward his unconscious form. Carefully, I dialed 911 using that phone.

When the operator picked up and asked what sort of emergency it was, I deepened my voice as much as possible and gave a twenty second summary of the situation. I told her where the men were, that the younger one was the bad guy and that he’d taken the older man’s granddaughter, and not to let him near a phone. Then I hung up.

Before the cops could get there, I wiped off the phone I had borrowed and then dropped it on the floor. I took a moment to search through Mr. Psycho’s pockets until I found a set of keys along with a remote unlock button.

What was I doing? The police could find Mr. Vames’s granddaughter. It wasn’t my business. I should just stay and tell them everything I knew.

And yet, my feet were already carrying me down the stairs and to the front door. I half-careened through the door, raising the remote while thumbing it a few times.

A dark green, almost brand new SUV beeped in acknowledgement as I pointed the remote toward it. That was the one. I jogged that way, glancing over my shoulder with the paranoid thought that Crazypants might have woken up and chased after me. But the sidewalk was empty except for myself.

Pulling the door open, I stepped inside and then looked around. “Please, please, please…” I was looking for something, anything that might give me an indication of where the bad guys were holed up. Because after my selfish actions had ended with Paragon’s death, I was not going to sit around and do nothing while Potter Vames’s granddaughter was killed. All thought of finding out the truth about Gesmine had vanished. All I cared about was stopping this murder.

My eyes found a GPS in the dashboard. I closed my eyes and sighed. If Aldridge had been here, he could have used that to find out where the car had been. That was his thing, not mine.

Opening my eyes, I looked down at the GPS once more. I put the key in the ignition and turned it just enough to get the car battery to turn on so that I could get power to the GPS. Then my fingers fairly flew over the buttons, bypassing what looked like a security lock feature and then accessed the history faster than I was normally able to get into my own e-mail. While I stared in astonishment, I was bringing the GPS history up, eliminating single routes, and settling into the one route the vehicle had taken the most recently and most often.

The route was on the map, and the GPS was telling me to pull away from the curb and make a U-turn.

Okay, this was crazy. But even as I thought it, I was closing the car door. My eyes fell on the manual shifter and I flinched. I couldn’t drive a manual. My father could, he never drove an automatic, calling it the lazy way. But I’d never even started to learn. If he was here…

My foot pressed the clutch down, and my hand shifted the SUV to neutral. I kept the clutch pressed firmly down while turning the key the rest of the way in the ignition until it started. Then my hand moved the shifter from neutral into first gear.

I pulled away from the curb smoothly, taking the U-turn the GPS requested, and then began to follow its instructions.

Not only did I have no idea what I was doing, I had even less idea of how I was doing it. I had never fought in my life, and yet I had knocked that man out without much trouble. I was not a computer person, and yet I had made the GPS sing and dance for me. I had never driven a manual, and yet here I was.

What the hell was happening to me?

Chapter Four

Chapter Two

Chapter Two

365 Days Ago

In my dreams, in my plans, in my childish little imagination, I had pictured the moment that I fell from the building only to be swept into the powerful, strong arms of the world’s most powerful superhero. After all, the movies made it look easy. Some screaming, and who wouldn’t scream at that point, and then you were nestled perfectly safely against a perfectly sculpted chest. Surely that was worth a couple seconds of terror, right? There was more potential danger just by going onto some amusement park rides. The Colossus of Fear rollercoaster didn’t come equipped with a man that could fly up and catch you if anything went wrong.

Or so I kept telling myself when I came up with this brilliant scheme. No problem. Fall for a few seconds and then sweet, blessed relief.

In reality, I’m sure I didn’t fall for that long. Maybe a few seconds. But here’s the thing. You can fall a long way in only a few seconds. Pick up a ball and hold it above your head, high as you can. Then drop it in front of yourself. See how long it took that ball to hit the ground? Most likely less than a second. So round up to one second to fall roughly six feet from a dead stop. Physics majors out there are already sharpening their knives to cut out my liver, so I should probably add that this is not a scientific method by any stretch of the imagination. That’s something like nine point eight meters per second squared or some such. I just want to give you the right general idea. In four seconds, I fell a lot further than I had thought about.

I also screamed a lot more than I’d planned on. In my daydreams, a single cry of my hero’s name had brought a rush of wind and then his arms around me. Crisis over, he would hold me a bit longer than he strictly had to. His eyes would find mine…

But that was a sick, childish fantasy. This was reality, and as I fell, I realized for the first time that I might die. I might never see Aldridge or Gesmine again, or my parents. I could really, truly die.

My screams tangled in my throat, caught in the rush of my sobs. I didn’t want to die. Please. Oh god please don’t let me die. I’d never do something that stupid again. I’d take any punishment they wanted to give me. I’d pay a fine, go to some correctional school, anything. I’d do anything, just don’t let me die.

It would not be the last time, nor the worst, that I wished for a time machine. Sadly, I remained DeLoreanless.

My mistake, my idiocy, would be etched upon the pavement, for an eternity in my soul, for a few hours until the street cleaners hosed my moronic self down the gutter in reality.

I was going to die.

At least, I would have, had the very man that I had been so stupidly obsessed with that I nearly killed myself simply to get close to him not caught me just as I gave up all hope. Paragon was just as heroic, just as fast, and just as gentle as I had imagined. Not that his being what I dreamed excused my own stupidity, of course, but props where they belonged on his part.

The arms of the most powerful man in the world slipped around me, and we continued to fall for several seconds until he had slowed our momentum gently enough that my neck wouldn’t instantly snap. We did a sort of loop like you might find on a rollercoaster, rising higher to the top of the building I had just fallen from. I honestly think that he was trying to see what or who had pushed me off the building to begin with.

The man was saying something, but my brain had completely shut off when his arms had closed around me. Not that there’s overwhelming evidence that it had been working prior to that moment either, to be honest.

We landed on the roof, and he turned me to face him. His deep, forest green eyes were full of concern as he repeated his question, “Are you all right? Can you tell me what happened?”

I wanted to answer. Really, I did. But all I could think about was that for the first and probably only time in my life (God do I know the truth of that now), Paragon was looking at me. He was focused on me. He was worried about me. His broad shoulders, that shoulder length blonde hair, the beautiful green eyes, I was able to see all of it right up close and in person.

“I…” That was as far as I got before my throat closed up and I felt sick. The world spun around me and I nearly collapsed. I would have collapsed, if his hands hadn’t quickly caught my shoulders.

Paragon was holding me up. The look of concern in his eyes had doubled, and he lifted me off the ground. He just lifted me up like I was little more than a doll. “You’re going to be okay,” he assured me, clearly having decided that I was in shock. “Here, sit down for a minute and catch your breath. Don’t try to stand yet.”

Before I realized what was happening, the great man had set me down, as gently as possible, on a couple of wooden pallets that had been stacked up. My back was to the air conditioning unit. He smiled reassuringly while I gaped up at him like the grand fool that I was. “Can you tell me your name?”

“Paragon!”

No, I wasn’t quite that stupid at the time. The voice wasn’t mine, and nor was it his. I recognized the voice, but I couldn’t place where from at first. There was a slightly muffled component to it.

“Whiplash.” Paragon said with clear surprise. “What are you doing up here?”

Finally I knew who had joined us on the roof. It was Whiplash, the masked girl that happened to be the fastest person on the planet. Some part of me had always suspected that she was my main rival for Paragon’s affections. Don’t ask, in the mind of the obsessed, such things make sense. For all I knew, underneath that green and black mask, she was Paragon’s daughter. Okay, maybe sister. He wasn’t quite that old, obviously.

“I wanted to make sure everything was okay.” The voice came again, from slightly closer. “It is okay, right? What happened? Where’s the girl?” Apparently she hadn’t seen me as I sat behind the air conditioner to my idol’s left. “The police want to talk to her.”

As with everything about the man, Paragon’s peripheral vision was perfect. He clearly saw the look of absolute panic in my eyes, though he never looked my way. “Do they?” His voice was the picture of innocence. “I’m sorry; I put her down in the alley. I didn’t think it would be a good idea to bring her all the way back up to the place she fell off of.”

Understandable enough. But I was still about to speak up, not wanting my perfect Paragon to sully himself by lying for me, when the girl spoke again. “Oh, thank god. I didn’t want even more blood on my hands.”

As perfect as he was, it still took even the world’s greatest superhero a moment to comprehend that. His voice was tinged with confusion as he blinked, “What?”

Whiplash isn’t called the fastest person, not just the fastest girl, but the fastest person on the planet just as hyperbole. In spite of all of his powers, even though he was looking right at her the entire time, Paragon never had a chance. Maybe if he’d seen her for the enemy that she was instead of the trusted ally that he thought her to be, he could have done something. Even then, I’m not positive that he could have stopped her.

The knife that plunged into Paragon’s chest seemed to materialize out of thin air. The blade was violet tinged with white, and the dark green gloved hand attached to the bone hilt clearly belonged to the girl who had been his teenaged ally for years.

For just a moment, life was frozen that way. Paragon’s eyes were as wide and shocked as I’m sure mine were, and the gloved hand that held the knife, attached to a thin arm that was all I could see from my vantage point, remained firmly on the knife.

As with all things, Whiplash was the first to act after the moment of still silence. Her arm was a blur that no human eye had a chance of following, as she stabbed the great man again, and again, and again. All told, the media reported that Paragon had been stabbed thirty seven times. The reporters that analyzed those secret moments in the weeks following this tragedy all claimed that the attack must have taken between ten and fifteen seconds. I can tell you right now that it took only two.

Paragon’s once crisp white uniform, a testament to the civility and perfection that he stood for, was soaked through with his own blood. He’d barely had a chance to realize that he was under attack before it was too late. Completely and utterly too late. Betrayed by one of his own, by another hero.

This was wrong. This was all completely wrong. It couldn’t be happening. Only my utter disbelief, combined with my shock, saved my life then. Paragon was the most powerful, most amazing, strongest superhero the world had ever known. He couldn’t simply be stabbed to death. Bullets, hell, rockets and missiles did nothing to the man. His biggest worry upon being shot at was whether the round would ricochet away and hurt someone else. A knife? No. Never. He could never be hurt, let alone killed, by a simple knife.

My hand had covered my mouth as I stared in horror. The bile that rose in my throat was almost pushed aside by my scream. It was only through some miracle that I do not understand to this day that I managed to remain silent.

“Confused?” The mask-muffled voice asked with more than a hint of smug superiority as the great man fell to his knees before her. For a horrible, terrifying moment, I thought she was speaking to me. But her focus was fully and completely on the man, the legend, that she was in the middle of murdering. “Magic. Yeah I know, cliché. Anytime something doesn’t make sense, explain it away with magic.” That purple blade was drawn back and then thrust one more time, drawing a horrible, pained grunt from the already blood-soaked man. “This time it’s true. The knife is magic. Should I tell you how it’s magic?”

Paragon brought his hand up. I think he was trying to punch the girl, or at least shove her. But by that point, he could barely lift his arm. He was kneeling there, every last ounce of his strength relegated to keeping himself conscious and upright. The punch, if that’s what it was, missed by a mile and Whiplash just laughed. She continued to speak as if nothing had happened. “It’s magic because it can steal your power, you pathetic stain…” Withdrawing the blade, she shook it out to the side.

Some of the blood, some of his blood, sprayed off the knife as she shook it demonstratively. The wet, sticky liquid splattered across the side of my face. I hadn’t lost my mind and started shrieking like a banshee when Paragon was first stabbed, but this nearly broke me entirely. My eyes were full of tears that half blinded me, and the man’s blood was on my face.

I wanted to stop her. I swear, to all that has ever existed or been said to exist, I wanted to. I wanted to scream for her to stop. I wanted to run into her and knock her off that building. I wanted to save the man that I idolized. More than anything, I wanted to stop this from happening.

But I was too afraid.

“It steals your power.” the smug voice repeated as Whiplash brought the blade up between them once more, “and makes you weak.” I could see her better by then. She looked just the same as always. There was nothing to give away her complete and total betrayal. The full face mask that obscured all of her features was dark green, highlighted with black accents, along with black eye concealing lenses, looked the same as it did in all the photographs and footage that I had ever seen of the girl working side by side with the man she had just fatally wounded.

“I had a friend make it for me,” that muffled voice bragged, content in her superiority over the great man. “It took a little convincing, but I can be very persuasive. Now, your power is going to be mine. I’ll be the one that everyone loves. I’ll be the one they adore. I’ll be the one that stupid, silly little children have crushes on.”

Okay, one, that was a low blow. Not that I didn’t deserve it at the time, but still. Ouch. And two, why in the world would she use idiots like me having crushes as a positive? Was Whiplash, who clearly had a massive following all of her own if the things I’d heard boys say about her were any indication, really jealous of Paragon? Jealous enough to spawn a betrayal like this? This was insane. She was insane.

“And you can die an insignificant footnote.” She snarled and shoved him backwards.

The last thing that Paragon said was, “Hide.”

“Oh I’ll have nothing to hide from anymore. Not after this.” The one-time superhero boasted. “I’ll have your power. Nothing is ever going to hurt me now.”

But I knew the truth. I knew that the man hadn’t been talking to her. He had been talking to me, warning me. He was dying. He had no hope, and was losing the last little bit of strength that he had still been clinging to. And yet, it was still so important to him to save others that he had prompted me to hide, to get out of her sight. Because all this crazy bitch had to do was turn her head slightly and I’d be in her view. He was still trying to save me.

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I managed to make myself move. As silently as possible, feeling like the worst human being who has ever lived, I slid around to the other side of the air conditioning unit.

I hid. I hid myself away and watched while the greatest superhero in the world was dying. I was a coward, a pathetic, useless coward. I’m sorry that this story that I tell is not one of the true hero, but of the girl who survived by hiding while the hero died. All of the things I’ve done in this year, everything I’ve tried to do to make up for that day, are nothing. I will never, ever erase my mistakes and my cowardice.

The truth of that was cemented forever into my mind as the girl lifted her leg. Resting her foot against the man’s shoulder, she gave him an utterly contemptuous snort before shoving hard. Weak as he was in that moment, the man who once had the strength to lift a tanker truck with one hand was pitched over backwards into thin air. His powers had been stolen, and he was about to fall to his death, the very same fall that he had just minutes earlier saved me from.

He fell out of sight. He was gone. My hero. My idol. I couldn’t hear the screams from up where we were, but I could easily imagine them. I knew the scene even before I saw it repeated over and over on the news for so many weeks afterward as the media latched onto the tragedy and proceeded to suck any real meaning out of it. I saw it play out in my own mind behind closed eyes as I drew back into a ball and shook violently, fighting the urge to throw up. My revulsion and my terror were physical things by then, each nearly giving me away. I hugged myself and tried not to sob, as the girl I had once seen as a hero looked impassively over the side of the building.

“Good enough.” She said to herself, before lifting the knife. “Now, let’s get you home, shall we?” I could hear the smile in her voice as she lifted the bloodied blade to examine it. Reaching up, the girl tugged the green mask off and kissed the blood on the blade before turning to walk back toward the roof entrance.

She only walked for three steps before vanishing from sight, running so quickly that all I saw was a blur of motion.

But those three steps had been enough to change my life even more than the long, torturous moments before that had. Because they brought her unmasked profile into view. Those three steps exposed the murderer of the world’s most beloved superhero and champion to my view, unmasked and exposed.

The view at that distance was good enough that I could have picked her out of a lineup for the authorities.

Or I simply could have taken out my phone and texted her.

Gesmine. My second best friend after Aldridge.

At least now I knew why she’d said she’d be late to study.

Chapter Three

Chapter One

Chapter One

365 Days Ago

“I hate my name.” Someone had told me that it was always good to start out the day with a positive statement. I forget who it was, but they were pretty smart, so I took the advice. I was positive that I hated my name.

“What’s wrong with it, Savvy?” That was my best friend, Aldridge Ken. He of the reversed first and last names, and don’t think that hasn’t confused every teacher who has ever seen the name written down. It was doubly fun to watch a gym teacher, who typically called everyone by their last names, try to sort out which one he should refer to Aldridge as.

Exceedingly tall and lanky, Aldridge didn’t tend to get along very well with any of the gym teachers anyway. They kept expecting him to be good at basketball because he was so much closer to the net than anyone else in school. At only seventeen, he’s just a hair under seven feet tall. He could walk to the basket with the ball in his outstretched hand and no one could ever take it from him. But here’s the problem, the rules don’t exactly allow you to do that. At some point that ball has to touch the ground. Then, after it hits the ground, it has to make it back to his hand before once more hitting the ground. I’m told this is called dribbling. I have seen children as young as five do this to some extent with little trouble. But in Aldridge’s case, this is where it all falls apart. Because at some point between the ball hitting the ground and reaching his hand once more, he would have found a way to make it smack him in the face, rebound off his foot, bowl over a group of nuns, and knock a pile of stereos into a swimming pool of orphans.

He is not the most coordinated teenager on the planet, is what I’m saying.

At the moment, as we walked toward school, Aldridge was peering at me through a thick and unruly mane of blond hair that kept falling into his eyes. When I say he was peering at me, I mean down at me. Very, very down. Even though I’m fairly average in height, at just about the exact midpoint between five and six feet, his incredible height meant that he was still a solid foot and a half above me.

“I like the name Savannah,” he said then, pushing a hand back through his wild blond hair. The hairs obscuring his face scattered through his long fingers, regrouped, and instantly fell right back where they’d been. I know rabid cannibal badgers that are easier to tame than that mop. Actually, taming the rabid cannibal badgers is a good story, but it doesn’t happen for a long time yet. So just be patient.

“Not Savannah,” I answered, taking the time to shoot a text message to Gesmine, another friend. I had to ask her if we were still studying after school. “My last name. I hate it. Crest? Can you even comprehend how many people have given me toothpaste and thought they were being clever? Or quoted those stupid commercials? Or asked if my parents are dentists? There’s no end to it! I want to change it.”

“Okay, so what would you change it to?” Aldridge asked, before yelping as he walked right through the extended branches of a tree, no doubt startling a family of birds into thinking a random giraffe had gotten lost and migrated across continents. He spat several leaves and twigs aside before waving a hand as he continued, “If you could.”

“Given the choice?” My own light brown eyes, a match to my hair, moved away from him as a blush touched my face. “You know what I’d change it to.” My phone gave the short, sharp tingling bell noise for the incoming message from Gesmine. Apparently we were still meeting up at the library, though she was going to be half an hour late. That was okay, I had plans.

“Yeah,” Aldridge’s tone was lightly teasing. “But I don’t think ‘Mrs. Paragon’ has a very good ring to it. Besides, it’s probably not his legal name. He looks like a Grant, or a Roddenberry.”

Still blushing, I had to squint at that. “Roddenberry?”

“Hey, he was a great man too. A visionary.” Aldridge was a big sci-fi fan.

“He’s not a Roddenberry,” I argued. “He’s got to have a good, strong last name. Like Dyson or Ford. Maybe Grant. But definitely not Roddenberry.”

“Lucas?” He offered with a goofy little smile. “He could be a Lucas, that’s a pretty strong last name. Savannah Lucas. Hey that one even sounds good.” The boy grinned, proud of himself. “You could totally pull off Savannah Lucas.”

“It’s not bad,” I admitted. “Still, I’m not sure it’s exactly right. I want it to be his name. Because he has to notice me. He has to see me and not look through me. I want to be special.” When the boy opened his mouth, I shot him a glare. “If what you’re about to say can be summarized by an after school special, don’t even think about it.” Aldridge obediently closed his mouth, and I kept going, “I want to be his kind of important. I want to be special to him.”

We were almost to school, and Aldridge stopped at the next corner. “That’s a pretty tall order,” He reluctantly cautioned. “I mean, he’s the most powerful superhero on the planet. The guy can shot-put tanks, Savvy. You know I love you but…” He paused to examine his words. “But I just think you might be a little too focused on this.” His hands came up quickly. “I’m not saying don’t reach high. You want to be the kind of person that Paragon notices, that’s great. But don’t be in such a rush to become someone else, that you completely abandon everything that’s you.” That same quirky little smile then. “I kinda like the you we already have.”

Both of us were blushing then. Aldridge and I have been friends since the fourth grade, back when he was only around the height I am now. We’ve never had any kind of romantic thoughts about each other. I can say that with one hundred percent certainty on my end and almost the same amount on his, considering we told each other everything. Obviously, he knew about my incredibly stupid but unrelenting crush on Paragon, and I knew about his crush on Laine Gavin, the school’s resident track and swim star. Say what you want about his crush at least being our age, but I’ve seen Laine in a bikini, and we’re both reaching far beyond our means. But just because we aren’t about to start pining after each other doesn’t mean we don’t both occasionally say something to make both of us blush. It’s complicated.

“Yeah yeah,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “Shut up and go already. You know you want to get there in time to see Laine get in from the morning run.”

His face brightened at the thought, and then he frowned. “Savvy, you don’t have to go into town today. Just because he’s speaking at that opening…” Trailing off, the boy heaved a sigh. “But you aren’t going to listen to logic, are you?” He asked, mournfully.

“Would you listen to logic if Laine asked you to take her to the next swim meet in her own stupidly expensive Porsche just because someone pointed out that you still can’t drive?” I shot back.

“Hey, I resent that.” Aldridge sniffed. “Just because I’ve never driven before doesn’t mean I’m incapable of it. Maybe I’m a hidden prodigy. I could be the next Dominic Toretto.”

“He’s imaginary.” I noted.

“The next Speed Racer.”

“Even more imaginary.”

“The next Optimus Prime.”

“I really think you’re failing to understand the concept here.”

“Nah,” He said with a grin. “I just think it’d be really cool to be Optimus Prime.”

“Goof.” I shoved him, trying not to laugh. “But I’m going. I have to. It’s my chance to get him to notice me. I mean, how often do we know exactly where he’s going to be? I have to go.”

Giving me a long look, I was afraid that, somehow, Aldridge would figure out what I was planning. He’d stop me, if he had any idea. Sometimes, a lot of the time, I wish he had figured it out. I wish he had forced me to go to school with him that day. But even as good of friends as we always were, even he couldn’t read my mind. “Okay,” he said with a sigh. “But just be careful. I hope you get an autograph or something, Savvy. Let me know how it goes.”

“I will.” I smiled and leaned up to kiss the highest point I could reach, somewhere around the middle of his chest. I guess Laine has a step ladder in his imaginary make-out sessions, because she’s at least an inch shorter than me. “Now go to class and cover for me.” I gave him a push once more before stepping back. “I’ve got a bus to catch and a superhero to whoo.”

“Why do people always say things like that?” He wondered. “Cover for you? What am I supposed to do, crochet a hand puppet and pretend you’re sitting in my lap? Arrange your books on your desk and inform the teachers that you’re invisible and mute for the day? Rent a monkey and tell everyone you had a terrible allergic reaction to your new vitamin supplement?”

“Uhhh, pick one.” I waved before turning to run down the street. “Gotta catch that bus!”

“But I don’t even know how to crochet!” His shout echoed after me.

****************************************************************************

An hour and three buses later, I was downtown. The great Paragon, he of such incredible strength, power, and kindness that my heart tripped all over itself whenever I saw so much as his name in print, was scheduled to appear at the opening of the new hospital that had been named after him. I had to be there. Well, more to the point, I had to be near there. I had to be within what I knew to be his earshot. Because I had a plan. A stupid, selfish, horrible plan, to get the man to notice me.

I was such a moron.

After leaving the last bus, rather than pressing in with the thousands of people gathered around the hospital, I made my way instead to a nearby building. Housing the offices of one of the nation’s biggest insurance empires, the building was fifty three stories tall. Fifty three stories at about ten feet per story was about five hundred and thirty feet. Plenty of time for what I had in mind to work. And if it didn’t… Well, it would. I had absolute faith in Paragon.

It should have been harder to sneak past security in the building, but everyone was watching the side windows to see the moment the man himself arrived. I was able to just walk past the desk that the guard should have been sitting at, hit the up button at the elevator, and then step on when it arrived. All without being noticed. I felt like a super spy. Really, I was just a stupid little girl who was about to make the biggest mistake of her life.

The entire ride up to the top floor, I was psyching myself up. “You can do it. He’s right there. He’s going to be amazing. You know he can hear that far. Hell, he’ll probably see it from there. No problem. This is like taking an old lady across the street for him.”

Moving off the elevator once the doors opened, I looked around the empty corridor. To the right was a plainly labeled door. Roof access. That’s just what I wanted. Quickly, before anyone could notice me, or before I could lose my nerve, I ran to the door and pushed through. Finding the stairs, I made my way up and out the door there onto the roof of the building. There was a piece of concrete next to the door that I guessed people used to prop it open so they could go out here for their smoke breaks. No one was here currently. Thank god. I’d hate to have my monumental idiocy prevented.

God I wish someone had been out there.

Stepping to the edge of the roof, I looked down to where the hospital courtyard was. So many people had gathered around the place to see the great hero that I had thought that the central area would be hard to see. But the people planning the event had cleared a large area around the grass in front of the new hospital for him, where they had set up a podium. Everyone eagerly awaited his arrival.

I didn’t have to wait long. A shout went up, and then another, as a bright blue and white blur shot over the heads of the gathered crowd. A second later, he set down. Paragon. The crisp white of his uniform with its blue accents and his symbol. That glorious blonde hair, amazing smile. No I couldn’t see it from where I was, but I knew he was smiling. He really was an example of perfection, just like his name.

With both feet on the edge of the roof, I watched for a moment as the great man moved toward the podium, giving everyone a friendly wave. I didn’t want to wait too long. As certain as I was that he’d be there for me, and that he’d save me, I didn’t want to push my luck by letting him be distracted in his speech.

“You can do this, Sacvanah. Do it, Savvy.” I told myself, looking down at the ground to see how high up I was. That was a mistake. Vertigo swelled in me and I nearly toppled over right then. I felt a violent burst of nausea and tried to keep it down. “Do it.” I repeated. “Just do it.” Taking a breath, I shook in fear and shot a glance toward the man I thought I loved only because I had only a pathetic little child’s understanding of love. A schoolgirl crush.

Seeing the man that I knew would save me steeled my resolve just enough. Still nearly throwing up, I stuck one foot out over the open air. Almost crying in fear already, I rocked forward on my remaining foot. Swaying a little like that in hesitation, I finally let go. Pushing off the rest of the way, I let myself fall. And I screamed. I don’t even think I said his name, though I had planned to. I just screamed, incoherently and in absolute terror.

Yeah, it’s me.

I’m the girl that Paragon caught that day. The day he died. I’m the girl they never found afterward. The last one that saw him alive.

More importantly, I saw who was responsible for his death. Who besides me was on that roof. I saw which of his supposed friends and allies was there that day.

I saw who betrayed and murdered the greatest superhero in the world.

Chapter Two

Prologue

“The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example.” – Benjamin Disraeli

In all of my life, I will never erase the single greatest stain of my existence. A great man is dead because of my actions. And because he is gone, many, many more have died.

My name is Savannah Crest, and because of me, the world’s mightiest defender, our once-living definition of a champion of humanity, a true superhero, is dead.

I know you saw the news when it happened. It was exactly one year ago, and the media spoke of little else for days afterward. Even the disasters and devastation that the great man could have prevented took a back seat to yet another interview with Random Analyst Number 327 about how the loss of the amazing hero, Paragon, would affect the world at large. Honestly I don’t even think they understood the absurdness of what they were doing, trying to analyze what the effect would be while ignoring the actual effects. There’s a tragic humor there.

But you still know all this.  You’ve read all of the accounts, heard the analysts, and watched the gathered Society of Light mourning their fallen leader. Maybe you even visited the monument they put up where he fell for the last time. The death of Paragon rocked not only the nation, but the world itself. The mightiest man of the planet, killed in battle.

You’re asking, how can I possibly claim responsibility for the great man’s destruction? After all, everyone knows how he died. Everyone knows how he was killed by that robot. The entire scenario has been debated, reenacted, painted, written, hell I think someone even accounted the events through interpretive dance.

I won’t argue that. Everyone knows how he died.

What you don’t know, what no one else knows, is why he died.

I have to tell this story. Because someone else should know the truth. I don’t know if I’m looking for absolution or condemnation. All I know is that I can’t lie anymore. As far as I’ve come, as much as I’ve done, I have to take this next step. As I stand here now, I have to tell you what really happened. Not just that day, though you could hear only those events and pronounce your judgment. I would accept it. But I believe that I must tell you everything. Not only my great sin, but how it affected me. My triumphs and failures in the last year have all come as a result of that day. I will explain them all, and then you may choose my fate.

Then, once you understand the entire truth, you may choose how I die.

Chapter One