Why did I ever sign up for home ec? What is the point of this class? I glanced around at all the girls in the class, and all the skin their clothes didn’t hide. Ah, right, now I remember. What a glorious time to be a teenage boy.
I could have won one of them over if I was given time to work my magic. However, I wound up stuck at the table with Ferne. The girl was every definition of plain, with medium brown hair, eyes, and skin, and I had more curves. Still, her face was pretty cute, and it’s not like I’d have a lot of competition. Hmm, could be worth a shot.
She caught me looking at her from across the table, so I had to make a comment. “Can you explain why we have to do this? I doubt that anyone on the face of the planet has ever uttered ‘my life is wonderful and it’s all because I learned how to make gingerbread houses’.”
Her slight smile never wavered. “Not a clue. I’m just here for the easy A.”
And she never laughs at anything I say. Oh well, if my genius is going to be unappreciated anyway, I may as well amuse myself by lobbing one over her head. “Yeah, easy A’s are the shared dream of all-” I was cut off mid sentence by a tightening in my chest. Fuck, not now.
“Are you okay?”
I took a slow breath, forcing myself to control my breathing as best I could. Years of practice made it easy enough to lie. “Yeah, just gotta go to the bathroom.”
“Gross.” Even saying that, her neutral voice and smile were constant.
I tried to focus on that, instead of the hot spiced air of the home ec room. Of course this shit school wouldn’t have considered ventilation when designing a kitchen. That’d make far too much sense.
I glanced at the clock; I couldn’t wait the ten minutes for the class to end. Mrs. Schmidt wouldn’t accept the bathroom excuse. That fossil hadn’t had a bowel movement since the mid fifties. I needed something better.
I grabbed the tube of icing and squeezed hard, squirting a fair amount of the stuff on my face. A couple of the girls noticed almost immediately and snickered, prompting others to look. Oh, good, I was afraid I’d have to make a scene.
The Cryptkeeper in drag frowned at the laughter. “Mister Parker, are you aware that you’re disrupting class?”
I offered my best smile, and a bit of frosting dropped into my lap. “Sorry, got a little too enthusiastic and it went off early. These things come with a hair trigger.” Most of the class was trying very hard not to laugh now. Except for Ferne. “I should wash up.”
I got up and rushed out the door before she had a chance to tell me to use the classroom sink. Once in the hallway I fumbled for my inhaler, taking one last glance to make sure no one saw before blasting my lungs with the horrible tasting drugs that kept me alive. The pain in my chest quickly eased itself, and I spared one more glance to make sure no one saw me before slipping the inhaler back into my pocket.
Time to clean up from my stunt. The bathroom wasn’t that far away, but I made sure to walk slow. If at all possible, I’d be back in class a minute before the bell rang. Enough time to grab my books and help Ferne clean up our table, but enough to avoid having to sit back down.
I opened the door and walked into the bathroom. It looked and smelled about the same as all other men’s rooms in Arlington. Which is to say, like shit. The flickering fluorescent lights didn’t do the room any favors, and the janitor still hadn’t replaced the one that had died before we got out for summer.
I pushed that handle on the dispenser before going to wash up, so I had paper for later. No fucking way was I touching that handle after I was clean. I didn’t waste my time checking the soap dispensers; they hadn’t been fixed or replaced in all three years I’d been in this school.
I scrubbed the cream off of my face, gritting my teeth at the itchy sensation of sticky drying sugar on my skin. Resolving that the next time I had an attack in class, I’d just walk out of the room. Detentions were less of a pain in the ass.
Near as I could tell, no one bothered to wash the mirrors since spring, either. Past the streaks of dirt and other stuff I hoped was spit, I got a look at myself. What was I thinking? None of the girls in class would give me the time of day. Even Ferne thought she could do better. The sad part is, she wasn’t wrong.
I was short, skinny, and my hair occupied the least interesting position between blond and brown. Speaking of hair, that gunk just wasn’t coming out. I was beginning to suspect the school tried to save a few bucks by using actual glue instead of frosting. Making it back to class before the bell wasn’t going to happen. I’d be lucky to avoid being tardy to the next class.
“Hey man, what happened to you?”
I looked up from my position leaning over the sink. Alex was standing by the door. Part of me wished I could hate the guy. Tall, that kind of good looking that usually belonged in the movies, and star of both the football team and half the school’s wet dreams. He even had rich parents, at least by the standards of this school. I was none of those things.
“Well, I was gonna take a piss, but then a few guys mistook me for your mother. On the plus side, made twenty bucks.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Fuck you, Zach.”
“That costs extra.”
He waited a couple seconds, then the smile faded. “But seriously, are you okay? If there’s anyone giving you or anyone else trouble, I’ll make sure they stop.”
I turned back to the mirror and sink, my futile attempts to get this shit out of my hair were now my excuse avoid this conversation. I looked at him through the mirror as I kept working on the problem.
It was true; if there was a problem, he’d be the person to go to first around here. The teachers in this place didn’t give a fuck about most of us, but Alex got the Raptors to State last year as a Sophomore, and they were talking Championships this time. If he asked the right way, Coach Murray would hire a guy from the mob to disappear someone. But my problems weren’t that easy to fix.
I offered a lopside smile. “Dude, I don’t know what the rumor mill puked up this week, but I promise you I’m only gay for pay.”
“Well, that saves me a trip to the office for one of those outreach pamphlets.”
As if all that wasn’t enough, he has a sense of humor. Did I mention how much I wished I could hate this guy? “Pick some up, anyway. They’re better toilet paper than the actual toilet paper around here. Think you can fix that?”
“Sorry, some things are just impossible. Not unless you have powers or something. Of course, if you asked me what superpower I would like to have, I think I could do better than ‘summon toilet paper’. Never see that one in those movies about people becoming heroes despite having stupid powers.” He turned and left, apparently content that I was okay.
Yeah, powers. That’d be something. I could think of a few I’d like. Anima, for example, summoned cartoon monsters and magic armor. I never could understand why she wasted all that power on making props for plays.
I would even take summoning toilet paper, because when you need it, you need it bad.
At least I got that shit out of my hair, and then the class bell rang. God damn it. I walked back to the home ec room as fast as I could going against the other students. There were some classes I could coast through without a book, but not history.
I found myself waiting at the doorway as the other kids filed out. There was no way I was going to push through that mess, so I’d have to wait until they were gone, and then hoped I could snag my stuff before the inbound rush cut me off and made me late for history.
I almost didn’t even see Ferne as she stepped out. “Oh, good, you’re here.” She extended her arms, and I noticed that my books were sitting on top of hers.
I accepted them, while formulating the proper excuse. “Sorry, I figured we only had a few minutes left and I could use the vacation. Thanks for having my back.”
She shrugged and started walking. “Even the easiest ‘A’ requires showing up.”
Did… did she just make a joke? I had no idea what was going on in that girl’s head. By the time I came up with a quip to throw back at her, it was too late to use it. Something I’d have to wait until Tuesday to sort out.
For now, I would spend my time looking forward to the three day weekend. Columbus may have been an asshole, but thanks to him I got to sleep in on a Monday once a year, so he had my seal of approval.
I managed to get to class and get my book open well before the bell rang. History was one of the few subjects I enjoyed, and Miss Harmon was part of the reason. She was hot, fresh out of college, and had a voice I would listen to reading the phone book. Which was good, because this was still history class.
On the down side, she was still passionate about the whole teaching and learning thing. So she was all about group projects and finding ways to make us think about history on the theory that it would make us remember the details better. Funny thing was, it worked.
Miss Harmon’s usual exuberance was missing when I got into the classroom. She looked like she was about to cry, but waited for us to all sit down before speaking. “Well, I was going to have us do a project on the significance of the Lewis and Clarke expedition and colonization of the American West, but something more immediate has come up. She reached up to the TV hanging from the ceiling on… whatever they called that thing they used to hang TVs from ceilings.
It was a recording of a news program, one I bet Miss Harmon made herself. An amateur job, didn’t even catch the newscaster at the beginning of the report. Some older lady I didn’t recognize.
I recognized the emblem in the little box they used to show pictures next to the people speaking. A red shield with a stylized flower on front. It was one of the most recognizable symbols in the United States that wasn’t stars or an eagle: the sigil of the Rose Knight.
Oh. Fuck. Judging by the gasps and murmurs, others were coming to the same conclusion. The last Pope’s death wasn’t this big. Then again, the Pope didn’t have twelve movies based on his life, or a national holiday in his honor. The newscaster carried on, telling us all the things we already knew.
“Solomon Brown, also known as the Rose Knight, retired from the public view five years ago, citing that his growing health concerns were outpacing his powers.”
Meanwhile, the screen had gone through several iterations of the hero’s image. His early costumes were full body concealing steel. According to legend, he built his first out of the scraps of a demolished tank. By the time the World War Two had rolled around, his armor was on a whole other level, with technology that allowed him to, at least to some degree, manipulate energy.“Rose Knight was one of the last remaining of what are now known as the ‘first modern superheroes’, those Imbued humans who started the tradition of masked samaritanism that has become synonymous with superheroes over the last century. He served the United States during both World Wars before retiring from the military to fight a different sort of battle. That for racial equality in the United States, and the world at large.”
The video spent some time showing off the telltale soft red glow of the energy fields that gave him his name and made him the force to be feared during the war. They switched to his last suit, timed for when the woman talked about race rights. This final suit showed parts of his face and hands. Despite being terribly scarred from burns that he received in the first world war, he was quite clearly a black man. A detail not lost on the last series of movies dedicated to his life story.“Awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1953-“
Miss Harmon turned off the TV and hit the stop button on the player underneath, then looked back toward us. “I want you to get into teams of four, and remember you can’t work with any of the same people as you worked with for your last two projects. I would like us to honor Mister Brown’s legacy by examining the World Wars and the civil rights movement, and how different modern history would be without Imbued involvement. Once you have your group, please select two decades from the twentieth century that you’d like to make a report on and place them on my desk before you leave. Other than that, consider this a free period.”
The shuffle for partners was a pain in the ass, but this was a class a convenient thirty two people in it, so one way or another we’d all end up somewhere. I found myself in a team with Eddie, Cassie and Amber. Didn’t know Amber enough to have an opinion, but she was kinda cute as far as black girls go. Eddie was without a doubt the brains of our operation. Cassie… was eye candy, and she knew it. The blonde looked more like twenty than sixteen, and flaunted as much as possible without being trashy. By high school standards, anyway, so still pretty trashy. She’d be trading pouts and glances at cleavage in exchange for getting us guys to do her work for her.
We spent most of the hour talking about which periods we wanted. Amber went for the obvious route, advocating the fifties and the civil rights movement. Eddie opted for Prohibition, and I backed him with my vote. Back in the era when people still believed mad science was science, and the villains practiced bizarre codes of honor and class alongside their brutality. Cassie seemed to have no opinion, so we agreed on presenting those two decades. I didn’t have the heart to tell Amber that almost everyone was going to take the fifties and sixties, so the odds were good that we’d get the twenties.
The bus trip home was what you’d expect of a yellow tube full of loud children. I ignored the stink of pot from the back and the stink of freshmen from the front as best I could. Followed by the stink of exhaust after I got off my stop. From there, it was a walk in the brisk autumn air to my house.
I noticed my sister’s dark blue car in the driveway. That was strange, she almost never came over.
I opened the door to find her sitting on the couch. Her makeup was a mess, and it was obvious she was crying despite her metallic blue dyed bangs covering her face. She hadn’t even noticed me coming in the door, instead clutching a ratty newspaper.
Dread spread out from my stomach. “Laura? What’s wrong?” I was hoping against hope that I was wrong, but I already knew.
“I-it’s Erica,” she sobbed, holding the paper out to me. “They f-found her b-body.”
The pain in my stomach climbed up to my chest. I was reading the newspaper before I even realized I was holding it. I can’t quite remember what it said, and Laura’s abuse of the paper made some parts impossible to read. But the words ‘nude’, ‘sexual assault’ and ‘mutilated’ told me more than I ever wanted to know.
I clenched my eyes shut and tried not to let those words mar my memories of her. Her laugh, her smile, the feelings I never dared tell her I had. It’s all gone. Why? It’s so fucking unfair.
Then I realized that the pain in my chest was sharpening. I couldn’t breathe. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about. Then, out of nowhere, I didn’t. The pain subsided, if only for a moment; a sample of the things that could be mine.
I couldn’t explain how I knew, but I understood I could have power, if I wanted it. I didn’t doubt. I accepted the offer, and everything that came with it.
Energy coursed through me, and I could feel everything it was doing. Repairing the damage to my lungs, clearing inflammation, the allergens that caused that inflammation, the causes of those allergies. Removing, replacing, changing, fixing, everything. Laura stared at me, and I could see the glow of my skin reflected through her green eyes. My power even cleaned the acne off of my face.
“Zach! You got powers?”
Yes. I did. “Good ones. Really good.” It didn’t get much better than unkillable, now did it? “You still talking to Rex?”
The dude was a scum piece of work, but he was scum I could use right now.
Her eyes narrowed, possibly confused by the sudden change of topic. Or maybe just defensive that I’d tell her he was scum again. “He comes by the shop sometimes. Why?” She meant the tattoo parlor she worked at. As neutral an answer as she could give.
“Because if anyone we know can find Erica’s killer for me, it’s him.”
My sister’s smile mirrored my own.