Tuesday morning found me running again, first thing. I woke up at my regular time, apologized to my dad for not having breakfast with him, and headed out the door, hood of my sweatshirt up to hide the mess of my uncombed hair.
There was something appealing about being out and about before the city had woken up. I didn’t usually get out quite this early, so it was a refreshing change. As I headed east at a brisk jog, there were no cars or people on the street. It was six thirty in the morning, and the sun had just finished rising, so the shadows were long. The air was cool enough for my breath to fog. It was like Brockton Bay was a ghost town, in a good way.
My training regimen had me running every morning, and alternating between more running and doing other exercises in the afternoons, depending on which day of the week it was. The primary goal was to build my stamina. In February, Sophia had goaded some boys into trying to catch me, I think the goal had been to duct tape me to a telephone pole. I had escaped, helped mostly by the fact that the boys hadn’t really cared enough to run after me, but I found myself winded after having run just a block. It had been a wake-up call that came about just when I was starting to think about going out in costume. Not long after, I had started training. After a few starts and stops, I had settled into a routine.
I was more fit, now. While I could hardly say I was heavy, before, I’d had the unfortunate combination of a slight bulge for a belly, small breasts and broomstick-thin arms and legs. It had added up to me looking something like a frog forced to stand up on its hind legs. Three and a half months had burned away the body fat, leaving me very lean, and had given me the stamina to run at a steady jog without leaving me panting for breath.
I didn’t aim to just jog, though. I steadily increased my pace with every block I ran as I headed towards the water. By the fifth block, I was running.
My general approach was not to get too worried about counting the miles or measuring the times. That just felt like it was distracting me from my own awareness of my body and its limits. If it felt too easy, I just pushed myself a step further than I had the previous day.
The route I took varied every day, at my father’s insistence, but it usually took me to the same place. In Brockton Bay, going east took you to one of two places. You either ended up at the Docks, or you ended up at the Boardwalk. Because most areas of the Docks were not the sort of place that you just breezed through, given the vagrants, gang members and general crime, I stuck to main roads leading past the Docks and to the Boardwalk. It was usually close to seven by the time I got to the bridge that went over Lord Street. From there, it was a block to the Boardwalk.
I slowed down as the sidewalk ended and the wooden platform began. Though my legs were aching and I was out of breath, I forced myself to keep a low and steady pace rather than just stop.
Along the boardwalk, people were starting their day. Most places were still closed, with the top notch security systems, steel shutters and iron grates protecting all of the expensive stores, but there were cafes and restaurants opening up. Other stores had vans parked in front, and were busy loading in their shipments. There were only a few people out and about, which made it easy to find Brian.
Brian was leaning on the wooden railing, looking over the beach. Balanced on the railing next to him was a paper bag and a cardboard tray with a coffee in each of the four pockets. I stopped beside him, and he greeted me with a broad smile.
“Hey, you’re right on time,” Brian said. He looked different than he had when I saw him on Monday. He was wearing a sweater under a felt jacket, his jeans didn’t have any rips or tears in them, and his boots were shined. On Monday, he had given me the impression of a regular person who lived at the Docks. The fashionable, well fit clothes he wore today made him look like someone who belonged on the Boardwalk alongside the customers who shopped in stores where nothing cost less than a hundred dollars. The contrast and the ease with which he seemed to make the transition was startling. My estimation of Brian rose a notch.
“Hey,” I said, feeling just a touch embarrassed at having taken so long to respond, and feeling painfully under-dressed in his presence. I hadn’t expected him to dress so well. I hoped my being out of breath was enough of an excuse for the delay in response. There was nothing I could do about feeling unfashionable.
He gestured towards the paper bag, “I got donuts and croissants from the cafe over there, and a coffee if you want it.”
“I want,” I said, then I felt dumb for the awkward lapse into caveman speak. I blamed the early hour of the day. To try and save face, I added, “Thanks.”
I fished out a sugar-dusted donut and bit into it. I could tell right away that it wasn’t the kind of donut that was mass produced at some central factory and delivered overnight to the shops for baking in the morning. It was freshly made, probably right at the store a block away, sold right out of the oven.
“So good,” I said, sucking the sugar from my fingertips before reaching for one of the coffees. Seeing the logo, I looked over at the cafe and asked, “Don’t coffees there cost, like, fifteen dollars a cup?”
Brian chuckled a little, “We can afford it, Taylor.”
It took me a second to process the idea, and as I made the connection, I felt like an idiot. These guys were raking in thousands of dollars on a given job, and they had given me two thousand dollars up front. I wasn’t willing to spend the money, knowing where it came from, so it was just sitting in the cubbyhole I kept my costume in, nagging at me. I couldn’t tell Brian that I wasn’t spending it, either, without risking having to explain why.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said, eventually. I leaned my elbows on the wooden railing beside Brian and stared out over the water. There were a few diehard windsurfers just getting ready to start the day. I guess it made sense, since there would be the occasional boat going out on the water, later.
“How’s your arm?” He asked.
I extended my arm, clenched my fist and relaxed it to demonstrate, “Only hurts when I flex it.” I didn’t tell him that it had been hurting badly enough to cost me some sleep last night.
“We’ll leave the stitches in for about a week, I think, before we take them out,” Brian said, “You can go to your doctor and have him do it, or drop by and I’ll take care of it.”
I nodded. A turn of the salt-water and seaweed scented wind blew my hood back, and I took a second to push my hair out of my face and pull my hood back up.
“I’m sorry for Rachel and that whole incident last night” Brian said, “I wanted to apologize sooner, but I figured it would be a bad idea to bring it up while she was in earshot.”
“It’s okay,” I said. I wasn’t sure it was, but it wasn’t really his fault. I tried to put my thoughts into words, “I think… well, I guess I expected to have people attack me from the moment I put on a costume, so I shouldn’t be surprised, right?”
Brian nodded, but didn’t say anything, so I added, “It caught me a little off guard that it came from someone that’s supposedly on my team, but I’m dealing.”
“Just so you know,” Brian told me, “Just from what I saw after you left last night and as people were waking up this morning, Rachel seems to have stopped protesting quite as loudly or often about the idea of having someone new join the team. She’s still not happy about it, but I would be surprised if there was a repeat performance.”
I laughed, a little too abruptly and high pitched than I would have liked, “God, I hope not.”
“She’s kind of a special case,” Brian said, “I think that growing up the way she did kind of messed her up. No family, too old and, uh, not really attractive enough to be a good candidate for adoption. I feel bad saying that, but that’s the way those things work, you know?” He glanced over his shoulder at me.
“So she spent a good decade in foster care, no fixed place to live, fighting tooth and nail with the other foster kids for even the most basic luxuries and possessions. My guess? She was screwed up before she got her powers, and with things happening the way they did, her powers pushed her into the deepest end of the antisocial pool.”
“Makes sense,” I said, then I added, “I read her page on the wiki.”
“So you’ve got the gist of it,” Brian said, “She’s a handful to deal with, even for me, and I think she actually considers me a friend… or as much a friend as someone like her can have, anyways. But if you can at least tolerate her, you should see we’ve got a pretty good thing going with the team.”
“Sure,” I said, “We’ll give it a shot, anyways.”
He smiled at me, and I dropped my gaze, embarrassed.
I spotted a crab scuttling across the beach almost directly below us. I reached out with my power and stopped it in its tracks. Though I didn’t need to, I extended my finger and pointed at it, then waved my finger lazily as I made the crab follow where my my index finger was pointing. Since Brian and I were both leaning over the railing, and there was practically nobody on the Boardwalk that wasn’t busy with work or getting their store opened for the day, I was pretty certain nobody else would figure out what I was doing.
Brian saw the crab dancing in circles and figure eights and smiled. Conspiratorially, he leaned closer to me and whispered, “You can control crabs, too?”
I nodded, feeling just a bit of a thrill at how we were huddled like this, sharing secrets while the people around us were totally in the dark. I told him, “I used to think I could control anything with an exoskeleton or shell. But I can control earthworms too, among other things, and they don’t have shells. I think all it takes is that they have to have very simple brains.”
I made it run in circles and figure eights for a short while longer, then released it to go about its business.
“I should bring the others their morning coffee before they come looking for me. Want to come with?” Brian asked.
I shook my head, “I gotta get home and get ready for school.”
“Ah, right,” Brian said, “I forget about stuff like that.”
“You guys don’t go?”
“I take courses online,” Brian said, “My folks think it’s so I can hold a job to pay for my apartment… which is kind of true. Alec dropped out, Rachel never went, and Lisa already applied for and tested for her G.E.D. Cheated using her power, but she has it.”
“Ah,” I said, my focus more or less dwelling on the idea that Brian had an apartment. Not the fact that Grue the successful supervillain had an apartment – Lisa had mentioned that to me – but that Brian the teenager with parents and schoolwork to focus on did. He kept changing my frame of reference for trying to figure him out.
“Here, a gift,” he said, as he reached into his pocket and then extended his hand.
I felt a moment of trepidation at the notion of accepting another gift. The two grand they had given me was a weight on my conscience already. Still, it would look bad if I didn’t accept. I made myself put my hand under his, and he dropped a key with a short beaded chain looped through it into my palm.
“That’s to our place,” he told me, “And I mean that. Ours as in yours too. You’re free to come by any time, even if nobody is there. Kick back and watch TV, eat our food, track mud on our floor, yell at the others for tracking mud on the floor, whatever.”
“Thank you,” I said, surprising myself by actually meaning it.
“You going to come by after school, or should I meet you here again tomorrow morning?”
I thought on it for a second. Last night, not long before I’d left, Brian and I had gotten to talking about our training. When I had mentioned my morning runs, he had suggested meeting me regularly. The idea was to keep me up to date, since I wasn’t living at the group’s hideout like Lisa, Alec and Rachel were. It had made sense, and I’d agreed. It didn’t hurt that I liked Brian the most of anyone in the group. He was easier to relate to, somehow. That wasn’t to say I didn’t like Lisa, but just being around her made me feel like I had the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head.
“I’ll come by later,” I decided aloud, knowing I might chicken out if I didn’t commit somehow. Before we could get caught in another thread of conversation, I gave him a quick wave and started my run back, the key to their place clenched in my hand.
Heading back home and preparing for school left me with a gradually increasing feeling of dread, like a weight sitting on my chest. I’d been trying not to think of Emma’s taunting and my fleeing from the school with tears on my face. I had spent an hour or two tossing and turning in bed, the event replaying over my head while the throbbing of my wrist jarred me awake every time I started to drift off. Beyond that, I had been pretty successful in avoiding thinking about it. Now that the prospect of going back was looming, though, it was impossible not to dwell on the subject as I headed home, got ready and caught the bus.
I couldn’t help but dwell on the coming day. I still had to face the consequences of missing two afternoons. That was a biggie, especially since I had missed the due date for handing in my art project. I realized my art project had been in my bag, and the last time I had seen my bag had been when Sophia was standing on it, smirking at me.
There was also the issue of going to Mr. Gladly’s class. That usually sucked enough, what with Madison being in that class and my having to do group work with the likes of Sparky and Greg. Knowing that I had to sit there and listen to Mr. Gladly teach when I’d seen him blatantly turn his back to me when I was being bullied… that sucked more.
This wasn’t the first time I’d needed to psych myself up to going to school. Deceive myself into going and staying. The worst days had been back in my first year at high school, when the wounds of Emma’s betrayal were still fresh and I wasn’t yet experienced enough to anticipate the variety of things they could come up with. Back then, it had been terrifying, because I hadn’t yet known what to expect, didn’t know where, when or if they would draw the line. It had been hard, too, to go back in January. I’d spent a week in the hospital under psychiatric observation, and I’d known that everyone else had heard the story.
I stared out the window of the bus, watching the people and the cars. On days like this, after being publicly humiliated, getting myself to the point where I was willing to walk through the door was about making deals with myself and trying to look past the school day. I told myself that I would go to Mrs. Knott’s computer class. None of the Trio would be there, it was usually pretty easygoing, and I could take the time to browse the web. From there, it was just a matter of convincing myself to walk down the hall to Mr. Gladly’s class.
If I just made myself do that, I promised myself, I would give myself a treat. A lunch break spent reading one of the books I’d been saving, or a rare snack bought from the store after school. For the afternoon classes, I’d inevitably come up with something else to look forward to, like watching a TV show I liked or working on my costume. Or, I thought, maybe I could just look forward to hanging out with Lisa, Alec and Brian. Outside of the part where I nearly got mauled by Bitch’s dogs, it had been a nice night. Thai food, five of us lounging on two couches, watching an action movie on a huge entertainment system with surround sound. I wasn’t forgetting what they were, but I rationalized that I had no reason to feel bad about spending time with them when we were – for all intents and purposes – just a group of teenagers hanging out. Besides, it was for a good cause, if it meant they relaxed around me and maybe revealed secrets. Right?
As I got off the bus, a pair of old notebooks in one hand, I just kept all that in mind. I could relax in Mrs. Knott’s class, and then I just had to sit through three 90 minute classes. Maybe, it occurred to me, I could try and find and talk to my art teacher over the lunch break. It would mean staying out of the trio’s way, and I could maybe work something out as far as doing another project or at least not getting a zero. My marks were okay enough that I could probably manage a passing grade with a zero on the midterm project, but still, it would help. I wanted to do more than just pass, especially with all this crap I had to put up with.
Mrs. Knott arrived at the classroom around the same time I did, and unlocked the room to let us file in. As one of the last of fortyish students to arrive, I’d wound up at the back of the crowd. While I waited for enough space to open up at the door, I saw Sophia talking to three of the girls from the class. It looked like she had just come from her track practice. Sophia was dark skinned with black hair normally long enough to reach to the small of her back, though she currently had it in a ponytail. I couldn’t help but resent the fact that even with her being sweaty, dusty, and a notorious bitch, pretty much every guy in the school would still pick her over me.
She said something, and all of the girls laughed. Even though I knew, rationally, that I probably wasn’t on the list of their top five things to talk about and that they likely weren’t talking about me, I felt my heart sink. I moved up towards the jam of students waiting to get into the door, to break the line of sight between myself and the girls. It didn’t quite work. As a group of students entered the room, I saw Sophia looking at me. She made an exaggerated pouting expression, drawing one fingertip in a line from the corner of her eye down her cheek like a mock tear. One of the other girls noticed and chuckled, leaned closer to Sophia as Sophia whispered something in her ear, then they both laughed. My cheeks flushed with humiliation. Sophia gave me a final smirk and turned to saunter away while the other girls filed into the classroom.
Kicking myself even as I did it, I turned away and walked back down the hall towards the front doors of the school. I knew it would be that much harder to go back tomorrow. For one and three-quarter school years, I had been putting up with this shit. I’d been going against the current for a long time, and even though I was aware of the consequences I’d face if I kept missing school like this, it was so much easier to stop pushing so hard against the current and just step in the other direction.
My hands jammed into my pockets, already feeling an ambivalent sort of relief, I caught the bus back to the docks.