Shell 4.1

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“You actually showed up.”

I looked up from my math textbook to see Emma looming over me.  She was wearing an expensive dress that had probably been a gift to her after one of her modeling contracts, and her red hair was up in the kind of complex knot that looked ridiculous on ninety-five percent of the girls that tried to pull it off.  She could make it work, though.  Emma was one of those people who just seemed to ignore the social awkwardness and minor issues that plagued everyone else.  She didn’t get zits, any style she wore her hair or clothes in looked good on her, and she could break pretty much any social code of high school and walk away unscathed.

God, I hated her.

Mr. Quinlan had ended class fifteen minutes early and instructed us to do some self study, before leaving the room.  For most, that was a chance to play cards or talk.  I’d set myself the task of getting all the homework done before class ended, to free up my weekend.  At least, that had been the plan, before Emma interrupted.

“Funny thing is,” I replied, turning my attention back to my notebook, “You’re the only person today who seemed to notice I was gone.  If you aren’t careful, I might actually think you cared.”  I wasn’t being entirely honest there.  My art teacher had noted my absence, but that was only after I’d reminded her I hadn’t turned in my midterm project.

“People didn’t notice you were gone is because you’re a nobody.  The only reason I paid any attention to it is because you bother me.”

I bother you,” I looked up from my work again, “Wow.”

“Every time I see you, it’s this irritating little reminder of time I wasted being your friend.  You know those embarrassing events in your past that make you cringe when you think back on them?  For me, that’s basically every sleepover, every juvenile conversation, every immature game you dragged me into.”

I smiled, then against my better judgement, I told her, “Right.  I love how you’re implying you’re even remotely more mature than you were then.”

Strange as it sounds, I was actually relieved to have Emma here, getting on my case.  If this was all she was able to do to me today, it meant I probably wouldn’t have to deal with any ‘pranks’ in the immediate future.  What really ratcheted up the anxiety levels was when she ignored me and left me alone.  That was, generally speaking, the calm before the storm.

“Really, Taylor?  Tell me, what are you doing with yourself?  You’re not going to school, you have no friends, I doubt you’re working.  Are you really in a position to call me immature, when I’ve got all that going for me and you just… don’t?”

I laughed loud enough that heads around the classroom turned in my direction.  Emma just blinked, bewildered.  As much as I didn’t want the money,  I was technically twenty five thousand dollars richer than I had been thirty six hours ago.  Twenty five thousand dollars were waiting for me, and Emma was saying she was doing better than me, because she got a few hundred dollars every few weeks to have her picture taken for mall catalogs.

“Fuck you, Emma.”  I said it loud enough for others to hear.  “Get a clue before you try to insult people.”

With that said, I grabbed my stuff and strode out of the classroom.

I knew I was going to pay for that.  For standing up to Emma, for laughing in her face.  It was the sort of thing that would push her to get creative and think about how best to get revenge for that small measure of defiance.

I wasn’t that worried about skipping out of class five minutes early.  If history was any precedent, Mr. Quinlan probably wouldn’t be coming back before class ended.  He routinely left class and just didn’t come back.  Popular guesses among my classmates leaned towards Alzheimers, or even that our geriatric teacher with a sagging gut could be a cape.  I was more inclined to suspect that drugs or a drinking problem were at play.

I felt good.  Better than I’d felt for a long, long while.  Admittedly, there were painful stabs of conscience when I thought too much about the fact that I’d actually participated in a felony, or the way I’d terrorized the hostages.  Could I be blamed if I went out of my way not to dwell on it?

I’d slept like a baby last night, more due to sheer exhaustion than sound conscience, and I woke up to a day that kept surprising me with good news.

Brian had met me on my morning run, and he treated me to coffee and the best muffins I had ever tasted, while we sat on the beach.  Together, we had taken ten minutes to go over the morning papers for news about the robbery.

We hadn’t made the front page for any of the major papers, the first bit of good news.  We made page three of the Bulletin, coming behind a one and a half page story on an Amber Alert and a General Motors advertisement.  Part of the reason we hadn’t attracted all that much attention was probably because the bank was hedging about the amount taken.  While we had escaped with more than forty thousand dollars, the paper was reporting losses of only twelve.  All in all, the story had been more focused on the property damage, most of which was caused by Glory Girl and the Wards, and the fact that the darkness we’d used to cover our escape had stopped all traffic downtown for an hour.  I’d been quietly elated by all of that.  Anything that downplayed the magnitude of the crime I’d helped commit was a good point in my book.

The next mood booster was the fact that I’d gone to school.  It sounded dumb, rating that as an accomplishment when others did it every day, but I had been very close to just not going again.  Having skipped a week of afternoon classes and three days of morning classes, it was dangerously easy to convince myself to just skip one more.  The problem was, that just made the prospect of going to class again that much more stressful, perpetuating the problem.  I’d broken that pattern, and I felt damn good about it.

Okay, so I had to admit things weren’t a hundred percent perfect as far as school went.  I’d talked to my art teacher, and she was giving me until Tuesday to hand my midterm project in, with a 10% deduction to my mark.  I’d also probably lost a few marks in various classes for being absent or not handing in homework assignments.  One or two percent, here and there.

But all in all?  It was a huge relief.  I felt good.

I caught the bus to the Docks, but I didn’t head to the loft.  I made my way up the length of the Boardwalk, until the shops began thinning out and there were longer stretches of beach.  The usual route people took was driving in through a side road outside of town, but for anyone hiking there, you had to take a shortcut through a series of very similar looking fields.  My destination was just far enough away that you’d think you’d maybe missed it.

Officially, it was the Lord Street Market.  But if you lived in Brockton Bay, it was just ‘the market’.

The market was open all week, but most people just rented the stalls on the weekends.  It was fairly cheap, since you could get a stall for fifty to a hundred dollars on a weekday and two hundred and fifty to three hundred on weekends, depending on how busy things were.  The stalls showcased everything from knick-knacks handicrafts put together by crazy cat ladies to overstock from the most expensive shops on the Boardwalk, marked down to ten or twenty five percent of the usual price.  There were ice cream vendors and people selling puppies, there was tourism kitsch and there was a mess of merchandise relating to the local capes.  There were racks of clothing, books, computer stuff and food.  If you lived in the north end of Brockton Bay, you didn’t have a garage sale.  You got a stall at the market.  If you just wanted to go shopping, it was as good as any mall.

I met up with the others at the entrance.  Brian was looking sharp in a dark green sweater and faded jeans.  Lisa was dressed up in a dusky rose dress with gray tights, her hair in a bun with loose strands framing her face.  Alec was wearing a long sleeved shirt and slim fit black denim jeans that really showed how lanky he was.

“You weren’t waiting long?” I asked.

“Forever,” was Alec’s laconic response.

“Five minutes at most,” Brian smiled, “Shall we?”

We ventured into the market, where the best the north end of Brockton Bay had to offer was on display.  The worst of the north end was kept at bay by the same uniformed enforcers that you saw at the Boardwalk.

While Alec stopped at an isolated stall featuring cape merchandise, I commented, “I guess Rachel can’t exactly hang out with us, huh?”

Brian shook his head, “No.  Not in a place like this.  She’s well known enough that she’d catch someone’s eye, and from there, it’s only a short leap to figuring out who the people she’s hanging with are.”

“And if she saw that, she’d go ballistic.”  Lisa pointed to a rotund old woman carrying a fluffy dog in her arms.   It was wearing a teal and pink sweater, and was trembling nervously.  I didn’t know my dog breeds well enough to name it specifically, but it was similar to a miniature poodle.

“What?  The sweater?” I asked.

“The sweater.  The dog being carried.  Rachel would be up in her face, telling that woman it’s not the way a dog should be treated.  Screaming at her, maybe threatening violence, if one of us didn’t step in to handle things.”

“It doesn’t take much, does it?”

“To set her off?  No it doesn’t,” Brian agreed, “But you gradually learn how she thinks, what pushes her buttons, and you can intervene before a situation happens.”

Lisa added, “The big trigger for Rache is mistreatment of dogs.  I think you could kick a toddler in the face, and she wouldn’t flinch.  But if you kicked a dog in front of her, she’d probably kill you on the spot.”

“I’ll, uh, keep that in mind,” I said.  Then, double checking that nobody was in a position to overhear, I figured it was as good a time to ask as any, “Has she killed anyone?”

“She’s wanted for serial murder,” Brian sighed, “It’s inconvenient.”

“If the courts actually gave her a fair trial, if she had a good lawyer, I think she’d get manslaughter at worst, maybe reckless endangerment.  At least for the events that happened then.” Lisa said, her voice pitched low enough that nobody else in the crowd would pick it up, “It happened just after her powers manifested.  She didn’t know how to use her abilities, or what to expect of them, so the dog that she had with her grew into the sort of creature you’ve seen the others become, and because it wasn’t trained, because it had been abused, it went out of control.  Cue the bloodbath.  In the time since then?  Maybe.  I know she’s seriously hurt a lot of people.  But nobody’s died at her hands since we’ve been with her.”

“Makes sense,” I said, distractedly.  So that’s one.  Who was the other murderer in the group?

Alec returned from the stall wearing a Kid Win shirt.

“I like it,” Lisa grinned, “Ironic.”

We continued our roundabout walk through the market.  We were still on the outskirts, so there weren’t many people around us.  Those that were around us weren’t likely to overhear, unless we used words, names or phrases that would catch their attention.

“Where do we go from here?” I asked.

“It’s just a matter of handing the cash over to the boss later tonight.” Brian picked up a pair of sunglasses and tried them on, “He takes it, does what he needs to with the papers, and gets back to us with our pay.  Clean, untraceable.  Once we’ve picked up our share, we kick back for a little while, plan our next job or wait for him to offer us another one.”

I frowned, “We’re putting a lot of trust in him.  We’re giving him a pretty big amount of money, and we’re expecting him to come back and pay us three times that amount?  Plus whatever he feels the papers are worth?  How do we know he’ll follow through?”

“Precedent,” Brian said as he tried on another pair of sunglasses, lowering his head to examine himself in the mirror that was hanging from the side of the stall. “He hasn’t screwed with us yet.  It doesn’t make sense for him to to pull a fast one, when he’s already invested more than that in us.  If we were failing most of our jobs, maybe he’d keep the money to recoup his losses, but we’ve done well.”

“Okay,” I nodded, “I can buy that.”

I felt kind of conflicted about the ‘take it easy and wait’ plan.  On the one hand, taking a break sounded awesome.  The last week had been intense, to put it lightly.  On the other hand, it sort of sucked that we wouldn’t be out there on another job, since I’d be waiting that much longer for a chance on getting more details on the boss.  I’d just have to hope I could find something out tonight.

“Come on,” Tattletale grinned at me, grabbing my wrist, “I’m stealing you.”

“Huh?”

“We’re going shopping,” she told me.  Turning to Brian and Alec, she said, “We’ll split up, meet up with you two for dinner?  Unless you want to come with and stand around holding our purses while we try on clothes.”

“You don’t have any purses,” Alec pointed out.

“Figure of speech.  You want to do your own thing or not?”

“Whatever,” Alec said.

“You’re a jerk, Lise,” Brian frowned, “Hogging the new girl to yourself.”

“You get your morning meetings with her, I want to go shopping, cope,” Lisa stuck out her tongue at Brian.

“Alright,” Brian shrugged, “Fugly Bob’s for dinner?”

“Sounds good,” Lisa agreed.  She turned to me, eyebrows quirked.

“I’m down for Fugly Bob’s,” I conceded.

“Don’t spend so much you draw attention,” Brian warned.

We parted ways with the boys, Lisa wrapping her arm around my shoulders and going on about what she wanted to get.  Her enthusiasm was catching, and I found myself smiling.

Murderer.  I had to remind myself.  One of these three was a murderer.

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Insinuation 2.4

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“Nobody likes her.  Nobody wants her here,” Julia said.

“Such a loser.  She didn’t even turn in the major project for art, last Friday,” Sophia responded.

“If she’s not going to try, then why is she even coming to school?”

Despite the way the conversation sounded, they were talking to me.  They were just pretending to talk to one another.  It was both calculating in how they were managing plausible deniability while at the same time they were acting totally juvenile by pretending I wasn’t there.  A blend of immaturity mixed with craftiness in a way only high schoolers could manage.  I would have laughed at the ridiculousness of it, if it hadn’t been at my expense.

The moment I had left the classroom, Emma, Madison and Sophia had crowded me into a corner, with another six girls backing them up.  I was unable to squeeze past them without getting pushed or elbowed back, so I couldn’t do much more than lean against the window, listening while eight of the girls were rattling off an endless series of taunts and jibes.  Before one girl was even finished, another started up.  All the while, Emma stayed back and stayed quiet, the slightest of smiles on her face.  I couldn’t meet the eyes of any of the other girls without them barking a fresh torrent of insults directly to my face, so I just glared at Emma.

“Ugliest girl in our grade.”

They were barely thinking about what they were saying and a lot of the insults were wildly off the mark or contradictory.  One would say I was a slut, for example, then another might say a guy would puke before he touched me.  The point wasn’t being witty, being smart or being on target.  It was more about delivering the feeling behind the words over and over, hammering it in.  If I’d had just a moment to butt in, maybe I could have come up with retorts.  If I could just kill their momentum, they probably wouldn’t get back into the easy rhythm again.  That said, I couldn’t find the words, and there weren’t any openings in the conversation where I wouldn’t just be talked over.

While this particular tactic was new to me, I’d been putting up with stuff like this for a year and a half, now.  At a certain point, I’d come to the conclusion that it was easier to sit back and take it, when it came to most things.  They wanted me to fight back, because everything was stacked in their favor.  If I stood up for myself and they still ‘won’, then it only served to feed their egos.  If I came out ahead in some way, then they got more persistent and mean for the next time.  So for much the same reason I hadn’t fought Madison for the homework she had taken from me, I just leaned against the wall next to the window and waited for them to get bored with their game or get hungry enough to leave and go have their lunches.

“What does she use to wash her face?  A Brillo pad?”

“She should!  She’d look better!”

“Never talks to anybody.  Maybe she knows she sounds like a retard and keeps her mouth shut.”

“No, she’s not that smart.”

No more than three feet behind Emma, I could see Mr. Gladly leaving his classroom.  The tirade didn’t stop as I watched him tuck a stack of folders under one arm, find his keys and lock the door.

“If I were her, I’d kill myself,” one of the girls announced.

Mr. Gladly turned to look me in the eyes.

“So glad we don’t have gym with her.  Can you imagine seeing her in the locker room?  Gag me with a spoon.”

I don’t know what expression I had on my face, but I know I didn’t look happy.  No less than five minutes ago, Mr. Gladly had been trying to convince me to go with him to the office and tell the principal about the bullying.  I watched him as he gave me a sad look, shifted the file folders to his free hand and then walked away.

I was stunned.  I just couldn’t wrap my head around how he could just ignore this.  When he had been trying to help me, had he just been covering his own ass, doing what was required of him in the face of a situation he couldn’t ignore?  Had he just given up on me?  After trying to help, in his own completely ineffective way, after I turned his offer for help down twice, he just decided I just wasn’t worth the effort?

“You should have seen her group fail in class just now.  It was painful to watch.”

I clenched my fist, then forced myself to relax it.  If we were all guys, this scenario would be totally different.  I was in the best shape of my life.  I could have swung a few punches from the very start, caused a bloody nose or two, maybe.  I know I would have lost the fight in the end, getting shoved to the ground by force of numbers and kicked while I was down, but things would have ended there, instead of dragging on like they were here.  I’d hurt physically for days afterwards, but I’d at least have had the satisfaction of knowing some of the others were hurting too, and I wouldn’t have to sit through this barrage of insults.  If there was enough damage done, the school would have to take notice, and they wouldn’t be able to ignore the circumstances of a one-against-nine fight.  Violence gets attention.

But things didn’t work that way here.  Girls played dirty.  If I decked Emma, she would run to the office with some fabricated story, her friends backing up her version of events.  For most, ratting to the faculty was social suicide, but Emma was more or less top dog.  If she went to the principal, people would only take things more seriously.  By the time I got back to school, they would have spread the story through the grapevine in a way that made me look like a total psycho.  Things would get worse.  Emma would be seen as the victim and girls who had previously ignored the bullying would join in on Emma’s behalf.

“And she smells,” one girl said, lamely.

“Like expired grape and orange juice,” Madison cut in with a little laugh.  Again, bringing up the juice?  I suspected that one had been her idea.

It seemed like they were running out of steam.  I figured it was just a minute or two before they got bored and walked away.

It seemed Emma got the same impression, because she stepped forward.  The group parted to give her room.

“What’s the matter, Taylor?”  Emma said, “You look upset.”

Her words didn’t seem to fit the situation.  I had maintained my composure for however long they had been at it.  What I’d been feeling was more a mixture of frustration and boredom than anything else.  I opened my mouth to say something.  A graceless “Fuck you” would have sufficed.

“So upset you’re going to cry yourself to sleep for a straight week?” she asked.

My words died in my throat as I processed her words.

Almost a year before we had started high school, I had been at her house, the both of us eating breakfast and playing music way too loud.  Emma’s older sister had come downstairs with the phone.  We’d turned down the music, and my dad had been on the other end, waiting to tell me in a broken voice that my mom had died in a car accident.

Emma’s sister had given me a ride to my place, and I bawled the entire way there.  I remember Emma crying too, out of sympathy, maybe.  It could have been the fact that she thought my mom was the coolest adult in the world.  Or perhaps it was because we really were best friends and she had no idea how to help me.

I didn’t want to think about the month that had followed, but fragments came to mind without my asking.  I could remember overhearing my dad berating my mother’s body, because she’d been texting while driving, and she was the only one to blame.  At one point, I barely ate for five straight days, because my dad was such a wreck that I wasn’t on his radar. I’d eventually turned to Emma for help, asking to eat at her place for a few days.  I think Emma’s mom figured things out, and gave my dad a talking to, because he started pulling things together.  We’d established our routine, so we wouldn’t fall apart as a family again.

It was a month after my mom had died that Emma and I had found ourselves sitting on the bridge of a kid’s play structure in the park, our rear ends cold from the damp wood, sipping coffee we’d bought from the Donut Hole.  We didn’t have anything to do, so we had just been walking around and talking about whatever.  Our wandering had taken us to the playground, and we were resting our heels.

“You know, I admire you,” she had said, abruptly.

“Why?” I had responded, completely mystified about the fact that someone gorgeous and amazing and popular like her could find something to admire in me.

“You’re so resilient.  After your mom died, you were totally in pieces, but you’re so together after a month.  I couldn’t do that.”

I could remember my admission, “I’m not resilient.  I can hold it together during the day, but I’ve cried myself to sleep for a straight week.”

That had been enough to open the floodgates, right there.  She gave me her shoulder to cry on, and our coffee was cold before I was done.

Now, as I gaped at Emma, wordless, her smile widened.  She remembered what I had said, then.  She knew the memories it would evoke.  At some point, that recollection had crossed her mind, and she had decided to weaponize it.  She’d been waiting to drop it on me.

Fuck me, it worked.  I felt the trail of a tear on my cheek.  My power roared at the edges of my consciousness, buzzing, pressuring me.  I suppressed it.

“She is!  She’s crying!”  Madison laughed.

Angry at myself, I rubbed my hand over my cheek to brush the tear away.  More were already welling up, ready to take its place.

“It’s like you have a superpower, Emma!” one of the girls tittered.

I had taken off my backpack so I could lean against the wall.  I reached to pick it up, but before I could, a foot hooked through the strap and dragged it away from me. I looked up and saw the owner of the foot – dark skinned, willowy Sophia – smirking at me.

“Oh em gee!  What’s she doing?” one of the girls said.

Sophia was leaning against the wall, one foot casually resting on top of my backpack.  I didn’t think it was worth fighting her over, if it gave her an opportunity to continue her game of keep-away.  I left the bag where it was and shoved my way through the gathered girls, bumping an onlooker with my shoulder hard enough to make him stumble.  I ran into the stairwell and out the doors on the ground floor.

I fled.  I didn’t check, but chances were they were watching from the window at the end of the hallway.  It didn’t really matter.  The fact that I had just promised to pay thirty five bucks of my own money for a World Issues textbook to replace the one that had been soaked with grape juice wasn’t my top concern.  Even if it was pretty much all the money I had left after buying the pieces for my costume.  My art midterm was in my bag as well, newly repaired.  I knew I wouldn’t get any of it back in one piece, if at all.

No, my primary concern was getting out of there.  I wasn’t going to break the promise I had made to myself.  No using powers on them.  That was the line I wasn’t crossing.  Even if I did something utterly innocuous, like give them all lice, I didn’t trust myself to stop there.  I didn’t trust myself to keep from offering blatant hints that I had powers or spoiling my secret identity just to see the looks on their faces when they realized the girl they had been tormenting was a bona-fide superhero.  It was something I couldn’t help but daydream about, but I knew the long term ramifications would spoil that.

Perhaps most important, I rationalized, was keeping the two worlds separate.  What use was escapism, if the world I was escaping to was muddled with the people and things I was trying to avoid?

Before the thought of going back to school had even crossed my mind, I found myself wondering what I was going to do to fill my afternoon.

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Gestation 1.1

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Brief note from the author:  This story isn’t intended for young or sensitive readers.  Readers who are on the lookout for trigger warnings are advised to give Worm a pass.

Class ended in five minutes and all I could think was, an hour is too long for lunch.

Since the start of the semester, I had been looking forward to the part of Mr. Gladly’s World Issues class where we’d start discussing capes.  Now that it had finally arrived, I couldn’t focus.  I fidgeted, my pen moving from hand to hand, tapping, or absently drawing some figure in the corner of the page to join the other doodles.  My eyes were restless too, darting from the clock above the door to Mr. Gladly and back to the clock.  I wasn’t picking up enough of his lesson to follow along.  Twenty minutes to twelve; five minutes left before class ended.

He was animated, clearly excited about what he was talking about, and for once, the class was listening.  He was the sort of teacher who tried to be friends with his students, the sort who went by “Mr. G” instead of Mr. Gladly.  He liked to end class a little earlier than usual and chat with the popular kids, gave lots of group work so others could hang out with their friends in class, and had ‘fun’ assignments like mock trials.

He struck me as one of the ‘popular’ kids who had become a teacher.  He probably thought he was everyone’s favorite.  I wondered how he’d react if he heard my opinion on the subject.  Would it shatter his self image or would he shrug it off as an anomaly from the gloomy girl that never spoke up in class?

I glanced over my shoulder.  Madison Clements sat two rows to my left and two seats back.  She saw me looking and smirked, her eyes narrowing, and I lowered my eyes to my notebook.  I tried to ignore the ugly, sour feeling that stewed in my stomach.  I glanced up at the clock.  Eleven-forty-three.

“Let me wrap up here,” Mr. Gladly said, “Sorry, guys, but there is homework for the weekend.  Think about capes and how they’ve impacted the world around you.  Make a list if you want, but it’s not mandatory.  On Monday we’ll break up into groups of four and see what group has the best list.  I’ll buy the winning group treats from the vending machine.”

There were a series of cheers, followed by the classroom devolving into noisy chaos.  The room was filled with sounds of binders snapping shut, textbooks and notebooks being slammed closed, chairs screeching on cheap tile and the dull roar of emerging conversation.  A bunch of the more social members of the class gathered around Mr. Gladly to chat.

Me?  I just put my books away and kept quiet.  I’d written down almost nothing in the way of notes; there were collections of doodles spreading across the page and numbers in the margins where I’d counted down the minutes to lunch as if I was keeping track of the timer on a bomb.

Madison was talking with her friends.  She was popular, but not gorgeous in the way the stereotypical popular girls on TV were.  She was ‘adorable’, instead.  Petite.  She played up the image with sky blue pins in her shoulder length brown hair and a cutesy attitude. Madison wore a strapless top and denim skirt, which seemed absolutely moronic to me given the fact that it was still early enough in the spring that we could see our breath in the mornings.

I wasn’t exactly in a position to criticize her.  Boys liked her and she had friends, while the same was hardly true for me.  The only feminine feature I had going for me was my dark curly hair, which I’d grown long.  The clothes I wore didn’t show skin, and I didn’t deck myself out in bright colors like a bird showing off its plumage.

Guys liked her, I think, because she was appealing without being intimidating.

If they only knew.

The bell rang with a lilting ding-dong, and I was the first one out the door.  I didn’t run, but I moved at a decent clip as I headed up the stairwell to the third floor and made my way to the girl’s washroom.

There were a half dozen girls there already, which meant I had to wait for a stall to open up.  I nervously watched the door of the bathroom, feeling my heart drop every time someone entered the room.

As soon as there was a free stall, I let myself in and locked the door.   I leaned against the wall and exhaled slowly.  It wasn’t quite a sigh of relief.  Relief implied you felt better.  I wouldn’t feel better until I got home.  No, I just felt less uneasy.

It took maybe five minutes before the noise of others in the washroom stopped.  A peek below the partitions showed that there was nobody else in the other stalls.  I sat on the lid of the toilet and got my brown bag lunch to begin eating.

Lunch on the toilet was routine now.  Every school day, I would finish off my brown bag lunch, then I’d do homework or read a book until lunch hour was over.  The only book in my bag that I hadn’t already read was called ‘Triumvirate’, a biography of the leading three members of the Protectorate.  I was thinking I would spend as long as I could on Mr. Gladly’s assignment before reading, because I wasn’t enjoying the book.  Biographies weren’t my thing, and they were especially not my thing when I was suspicious it was all made up.

Whatever my plan, I didn’t even have a chance to finish my pita wrap.  The door of the bathroom banged open.  I froze.  I didn’t want to rustle the bag and clue anyone into what I was doing, so I kept still and listened.

I couldn’t make out the voices.  The noise of the conversation was obscured by giggling and the sound of water from the sinks.  There was a knock on the door, making me jump.  I ignored it, but the person on the other side just repeated the knock.

“Occupied,” I called out, hesitantly.

“Oh my god, it’s Taylor!” one of the girls on the outside exclaimed with glee, then in response to something another girl whispered, I barely heard her add, “Yeah, do it!”

I stood up abruptly, letting the brown bag with the last mouthful of my lunch fall to the tiled floor.  Rushing for the door, I popped the lock open and pushed.  The door didn’t budge.

There were noises from the stalls on either side of me, then a sound above me.  I looked up to see what it was, only to get splashed in the face.  My eyes started burning, and I was momentarily blinded by the stinging fluid in my eyes and my blurring of my glasses.  I could taste it as it ran down to my nose and mouth.  Cranberry juice.

They didn’t stop there.  I managed to pull my glasses off just in time to see Madison and Sophia leaning over the top of the stall, each of them with plastic bottles at the ready.  I bent over with my hands shielding my head just before they emptied the contents over me.

It ran down the back of my neck, soaked my clothes, fizzed as it ran through my hair.  I pushed against the door again, but the girl on the other side was braced against it with her body.

If the girls pouring juice and soda on me were Madison and Sophia, that meant the girl on the other side of the door was Emma, leader of the trio.  Feeling a flare of anger at the realization, I shoved on the door, the full weight of my body slamming against it.  I didn’t accomplish anything, and my shoes lost traction on the juice-slick floor.  I fell to my knees in the puddling juice.

Empty plastic bottles with labels for grape and cranberry juice fell to the ground around me.  A bottle of orange soda bounced off my shoulder to splash into the puddle before rolling under the partition and into the next stall.  The smell of the fruity drinks and sodas was sickly sweet.

The door swung open, and I glared up at the three girls.  Madison, Sophia and Emma.  Where Madison was cute, a late bloomer, Sophia and Emma were the types of girls that fit the ‘prom queen’ image.  Sophia was dark skinned, with a slender, athletic build she’d developed as a runner on the school track team.  Red-headed Emma, by contrast, had all the curves the guys wanted.  She was good looking enough to get occasional jobs as a amateur model for the catalogs that the local department stores and malls put out.  The three of them were laughing like it was the funniest thing in the world, but the sounds of their amusement barely registered with me.  My attention was on the faint roar of blood pumping in my ears and an urgent, ominous crackling ‘sound’ that wouldn’t get any quieter or less persistent if I covered my ears with my hands.  I could feel dribbles running down my arms and back, still chilled from the refrigerated vending machines.

I didn’t trust myself to say something that wouldn’t give them fodder to taunt me with, so I kept silent.

Carefully, I climbed to my feet and turned my back on them to get my backpack off the top of the toilet.  Seeing it gave me pause.  It had been a khaki green, before, but now dark purple blotches covered it, most of the contents of a bottle of grape juice.  Pulling the straps around my shoulders, I turned around.  The girls weren’t there.  I heard the bathroom door bang shut, cutting off the sounds of their glee, leaving me alone in the bathroom, drenched.

I approached the sink and stared at myself in the scratched, stained mirror that was bolted above it.  I had inherited a thin lipped, wide, expressive mouth from my mother, but my large eyes and my gawky figure made me look a lot more like my dad.  My dark hair was soaked enough that it clung to my scalp, neck and shoulders.  I was wearing a brown hooded sweatshirt over a green t-shirt, but colored blotches of purple, red and orange streaked both.  My glasses were beaded with the multicolored droplets of juice and soda.  A drip ran down my nose and fell from the tip to land in the sink.

Using a paper towel from the dispenser, I wiped my glasses off and put them on again.  The residual streaks made it just as hard to see, if not worse than it had been.

Deep breaths, Taylor, I told myself.

I pulled the glasses off to clean them again with a wet towel, and found the streaks were still there.

An inarticulate scream of fury and frustration escaped my lips, and I kicked the plastic bucket that sat just beneath the sink, sending it and the toilet brush inside flying into the wall.  When that wasn’t enough, I pulled off my backpack and used a two-handed grip to hurl it.  I wasn’t using my locker anymore: certain individuals had vandalized or broken into it on four different occasions.  My bag was heavy, loaded down with everything I’d anticipated needing for the day’s classes.  It crunched audibly on impact with the wall.

“What the fuck!?” I screamed to nobody in particular, my voice echoing in the bathroom.  There were tears in the corners of my eyes.

“The hell am I supposed to do!?”  I wanted to hit something, break something.  To retaliate against the unfairness of the world.  I almost struck the mirror, but I held back.  It was such a small thing that it felt like it would make me feel more insignificant instead of venting my frustration.

I’d been enduring this from the very first day of high school, a year and a half ago.  The bathroom had been the closest thing I could find to refuge.  It had been lonely and undignified, but it had been a place I could retreat to, a place where I was off their radar.  Now I didn’t even have that.

I didn’t even know what I was supposed to do for my afternoon classes.  Our midterm project for art was due, and I couldn’t go to class like this.  Sophia would be there, and I could just imagine her smug smile of satisfaction as I showed up looking like I’d botched an attempt to tie-dye everything I owned.

Besides, I’d just thrown my bag against the wall and I doubted my project was still in one piece.

The buzzing at the edge of my consciousness was getting worse.  My hands shook as I bent over and gripped the edge of the sink, let out a long, slow breath, and let my defenses drop.  For three months, I’d held back.  Right now?  I didn’t care anymore.

I shut my eyes and felt the buzzing crystallize into concrete information.  As numerous as stars in the night sky, tiny knots of intricate data filled the area around me.  I could focus on each one in turn, pick out details.  The clusters of data had been reflexively drifting towards me since I was first splashed in the face.  They responded to my subconscious thoughts and emotions, as much of a reflection of my frustration, my anger, my hatred for those three girls as my pounding heart and trembling hands were.  I could make them stop or direct them to move almost without thinking about it, the same way I could raise an arm or twitch a finger.

I opened my eyes.  I could feel adrenaline thrumming through my body, blood coursing in my veins.  I shivered in response to the chilled soft drinks and juices the trio had poured over me, with anticipation and with just a little fear.  On every surface of the bathroom were bugs; Flies, ants, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, earwigs, beetles, wasps and bees.  With every passing second, more streamed in through the open window and the various openings in the bathroom, moving with surprising speed.  Some crawled in through a gap where the sink drain entered the wall while others emerged from the triangular hole in the ceiling where a section of foam tile had broken off, or from the opened window with peeling paint and cigarette butts squished out in the recesses.  They gathered around me and spread out over every available surface; primitive bundles of signals and responses, waiting for further instruction.

My practice sessions, conducted away from prying eyes, told me I could direct a single insect to move an antennae, or command the gathered horde to move in formation.  With one thought, I could single out a particular group, maturity or species from this jumble and direct them as I wished.  An army of soldiers under my complete control.

It would be so easy, so easy to just go Carrie on the school.  To give the trio their just desserts and make them regret what they had put me through: the vicious e-mails, the trash they’d upended over my desk, the flute –my mother’s flute– they’d stolen from my locker.  It wasn’t just them either.  Other girls and a small handful of boys had joined in, ‘accidentally’ skipping over me when passing out assignment handouts, adding their own voices to the taunts and the flood of nasty emails, to get the favor and attention of three of the prettier and more popular girls in our grade.

I was all too aware that I’d get caught and arrested if I attacked my fellow students.  There were three teams of superheroes and any number of solo heroes in the city.  I didn’t really care.  The thought of my father seeing the aftermath on the news, his disappointment in me, his shame?  That was more daunting, but it still didn’t outweigh the anger and frustration.

Except I was better than that.

With a sigh, I sent an instruction to the gathered swarm.   Disperse.  The word wasn’t as important  as the idea behind it.  They began to exit the room, disappearing into the cracks in the tile and through the open window.  I walked over to the door and stood with my back to it so nobody could stumble onto the scene before the bugs were all gone.

However much I wanted to, I couldn’t really follow through.  Even as I trembled with humiliation, I managed to convince myself to pick up my backpack and head down the hall.  I made my way out of the school, ignoring the stares and giggles from everyone I walked past, and caught the first bus that headed in the general direction of home.  The chill of early spring compounded the discomfort of my soaked hair and clothes, making me shiver.

I was going to be a superhero.  That was the goal I used to calm myself down at moments like these.  It was what I used to make myself get out of bed on a school day.  It was a crazy dream that made things tolerable.  It was something to look forward to, something to work towards.  It made it possible to keep from dwelling on the fact that Emma Barnes, leader of the trio, had once been my best friend.

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