“Excuse me, sir, are you ready to order?” Someone else might have accused the waitress of invading their personal space, but I kept my mouth shut. Not to sound egotistical, but I’d long grown accustomed to such behavior, and thought nothing of it.
I looked up at her; she was cute, in a subdued way, with that innocent sort of face that spoke to some deep part of the psyche. Men would want to protect her, and women wouldn’t view her as a threat to their relationships. In a nice restaurant like this one, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn she made twice what her more developed coworkers did in tips. “Sorry, still waiting for my guest to arrive. She never was good at showing up on time.”
I wondered if the brief flash of disappointment on her face was in my imagination, and if it wasn’t, what her motivation was. “I’ll be near the front of you need me. We’re slow this time of day, so don’t hesitate to contact me when ready.”
Genuine disappointment it is, or someone recognized me and she’s hoping I’m generous. Not that the possibilities are mutually exclusive. “Don’t worry yourself on my behalf.” I went back to gazing out the window, in effect rejecting her implied offer to keep me company while acting like I hadn’t noticed. I lacked the time and inclination for a relationship right now, and preferred a more aggressive type of woman regardless.
It took another fifteen minutes for Chloe to arrive, making her almost half an hour late. I stood the moment I saw her pass by the window, and was still standing when she made it to my table.
I almost thought you weren’t going to show. “You, uh, cut your hair.”
The forced smile on her face gave way, if only for a second, then returned. “I needed a change, I guess.”
More than just her hair, which she now wore as a bob rather than down her back, had changed. Biggest of all, perhaps, was the lack of makeup; Chloe always wore some blush, in an attempt to make herself appear older, which only served to make her look like a kid trying to look older. Now, her face was clear of all beauty products, even lip gloss. By some twisted quirk of fate and genetics, this had the effect of making her look older, even world-weary, compared to her face paint. Her clothing had also changed; selected for utility, rather than appearance as was the norm.
Where have you been staying all this time? Is leaving your family part of the ‘change’ you say you needed? “I was afraid you weren’t going to show.” Dammit.
“Sorry. There was a bit of a commotion at the park.” Chloe hesitated for a moment, then slid into her side of the table. “Plasma showed up, and long story short there’s an amateur photographer out there who’s probably selling everything to the tabloids as we speak. Expect something about exhibitionist superheroes tomorrow.”
I picked that conversation path, rather than the thornier question of her why she was at the park to begin with. “On a scale of one to ten, how bad was it?” As part of the team who avenged Mom, I could understand why Chloe would put me off to talk to Plasma. “Did you get a look? Or an autograph? Maybe a chance to thank her for… Mom?” Mom was still a painful subject for me, and I assumed Chloe as well, but I had to ask.
Chloe searched for a secret message hidden in the fake wood pattern of our table. “Uh, a look, but no autograph. There wasn’t much to see, even, just a bit of midriff. Half the girls at school show more skin.”
“Half the girls at school are under dressed for the beach.” I hoped the hyperbole would earn a chuckle, but Chloe didn’t smile or meet my eyes. I also left out that Mom, as Starfall, had a couple wardrobe malfunctions of her own that found their way online. Nothing good came of that discussion, and I preferred to keep those memories repressed regardless.
“I see your date’s arrived.” The waitress was kind enough to pick this awkward moment to interrupt. I added ten bucks as a thanks for the effort. “Can I take your orders, or do you need more time?”
“Not a date,” Chloe said with a long-suffering sigh. “He’s my brother.”
“Oh! That’ll teach me to make assumptions.” She gave a brief glance at me, but I didn’t catch any glimmer of relief in her expression. That settled it; she was just angling for a nicer tip, and now she worried she annoyed us.
“You’d be surprised how often that happens.” It came from me getting Mom’s height and dad’s darker hair color, while Chloe got Mom’s hair and Dad’s height. Coupled with both of us being attractive from an objective standpoint, people drew the obvious but erroneous conclusion. “I think I’ll have the trout. An iced tea sounds good, too.”
“I’ll take the salad,” Chloe said. “And the tea.”
Our waitress scribbled down her notes. “I’ll have your drinks to you in a minute.” With that, she scrambled off to leave me with my errant sibling.
“Just a salad?”
She looked out the window. “My, uh, roommate is a dedicated carnivore. The food’s great, don’t get me wrong, but I’m looking forward to something different. Weren’t we talking about Plasma before the waitress showed up?”
She’s not ready to talk about it. “You know, I kinda wish I could talk to her, some day.”
“Really?” She looked at me, finally. “What about? I mean, besides the obvious?”
“Mostly the obvious, I guess.” I looked for a way to phrase it. “I mean, she brought justice to Mom’s murderer. Or, at least, one of them.”
I had hoped to one day express my gratitude in person. Unfortunately, I had no means to contact her which wouldn’t be part of the public record, and I had a career to consider. Association with Imbued was dangerous by default for a public figure. Even officer heroes, or anyone else who wore a costume as a uniform, could damage one’s reputation. An independent vigilante with a kill on her hands, no matter how justified, was political suicide.
The way things played out with Mom’s half-revealed identity after her death was perhaps the only means to protect my future. I would never have dishonored my mother with such a Machiavellian plot for my own gain, but it was obvious by the speed and effectiveness that she’d planned for this eventuality, herself. Dad didn’t do it; he barely functioned through the funeral, let alone plot a major social maneuver on the fly, and Mom was always the planner of the pair. Even in death, she protects us.
“Uh? Adam? Are you okay?”
Oh. I blinked, then brushed the moisture out of my eyes. “Sorry. Thinking of Mom. I’m good most of the time, but then something kicks up a memory, and. It’s hard to imagine she’s gone. I sort of assumed that I’d be telling her ‘I can’t talk foreign policy with you, it’s a conflict of interest’ during Christmas dinner some day. Then Dad would tell me not to trust the king of Saudi Arabia because he cheats at golf. Something like it has been a recurring fantasy since I was eleven.”
Chloe balled her fingers up into tight fists for a moment, then forced them to relax. “I’d just like to not think about the heavy stuff for a while, okay?” I’d never heard my sister plead before, not since she got it into her head that she was an adult contrary to all evidence. “So what would you like to say to Plasma, if you had the opportunity?”
“What? Like a sit down conversation?” When said out loud, I realized I didn’t have much to cover, beyond Mom and Hunter’s deaths. “I’d have to ask her about the name change.” It seemed obvious Daybreak picked her moniker because of Starfall. Whatever the connection was, changing it felt like a betrayal, someone, but in no way I could put into words. “I liked her old name better. The old costume, too.”
“Huh, I thought you’d read that interview she did for the paper. She answered those questions and a bunch of others. Besides, her costumes keep exploding. Life of a Tank, I guess.” Chloe returned her attentions to the table. “She’s lucky to have a partner who can make armor on demand.”
You know there’s more behind the Daybreak name, you just don’t want to admit it. “I guess I wanted more than a blurb on a newspaper that spent around eighty percent of its space going ‘ooh, lesbians, we’re pretending we’re progressive but this is an excuse to show pictures of attractive women making out, and we’re taking it’.”
“Yeah, that was tacky.” Chloe stayed silent for a minute, before looking back up. She even managed to put a smile on her face, however out of place it looked. “But they’re doing a lot of good for the city. Seems like they get a new bust every night, doesn’t it?”
“A step in the right direction, at least.” She knew as well as I did that getting some drugs or thugs off the street wasn’t going to make a real difference. The problem was in human nature as a whole, and that wouldn’t change any time soon. “What would make a real difference is access to jobs, perhaps some higher education. Uh, sorry, guess I’m pontificating again.”
“I’m watching for the day you stop.” Chloe’s body language relaxed some, and she pointed at me the way Mom used to when warning us. “That’s how I’ll know if you were replaced by a pod person.”
“Wait ’till you get to college.” I yearned to ask her if she was still planning to go to college, but I couldn’t bring myself to break this moment of normalcy yet. “Won’t take you long to figure out that the pod people are the ones who never shut up. Sometimes, I suspect I’m in a cult recruitment center.”
“Your iced teas.” The waitress popped in again and set our drinks in front of us, then vanished into the scenery the way a good service industry employee should.
Dad, being Dad, would have singled her out and gave her a couple compliments that would have left the waitress more than a little uncomfortable at the praise. ‘Would have’ being the operative term at the moment.
Chloe sipped at her drink, and so did I, an excuse to not talk as we stewed in our own thoughts. We were still working on how to get past small talk and discuss what mattered when our food arrived. I picked at my meal; as good as it was, I just couldn’t find my appetite.
Instead, I watched Chloe as she scarfed down her salad as fast as politeness would allow. She didn’t appear malnourished, in fact she looked like she’d never been healthier, but appearance proved nothing.
After she finished, I decided now was the last possible moment to address the proverbial elephant. “Chloe?” The look on her face indicated she knew as well as I did what had to happen. “When are you coming home?”
She kept her eyes on mine this time, but her lip quivered as she pulled together her answer. “I… I’m not. I can’t. Please, don’t ask why. I won’t lie to you, but I can’t tell you the truth, either. It’s better that you don’t know.”
“Don’t give me that line, it sounds like something Mom would say.” I regretted the words the moment they came out of my mouth. “I know you’re living with a guy from school.”
Chloe tensed up hard enough that her fork bent in her hand. “What did Dad tell you?”
“Dad told me nothing!” Woah, let the emotion slip there. A quick glance confirmed that the waitress recognized the situation enough to look the other way, and nobody else seemed to notice. “Dad refuses to talk about it, too. He pretends you’re on a vacation or something, and we’re afraid to contradict him because of Mom.” I stopped myself at that point. I wasn’t quite ready to discuss dad’s descent yet, so I focused on the other subject.
“Look, just because I don’t go to your school anymore doesn’t mean I can’t ask people who do.” Friends, ex girlfriends, younger siblings of friends. It was a rather insular collection with a high power rumor mill. “I’ll tell you what I know, and maybe you can fill in the blanks. You were at that party our parents throw every year, then the next day you moved in with Domenic from school.” I knew of the guy; it was difficult not to hear about the school outcasts. “Rumor is, you’re dating him, but we both know that’s not true, and why. I don’t think his sister’s your type, either.”
“I think you’d get along with Dom if you got to know him. He’s a great guy, and I’m lucky he’s been there for me.” Chloe kept her eyes locked on mine, and in the lighting of the restaurant, they almost looked like they were glowing. She closed her eyes, took a slow breath, and she even managed a smirk when they opened. “Oh, and according to Bea, you happen to be her type.”
I bet. “If you believe the rumors, her type is any guy with a bulge. In his wallet. You told her no for me, right?” The girl was attractive to the point of gorgeous, but to be blunt, it wasn’t hyperbole to describe her as a thug. Even without my reputation to worry about, I had no interest in getting involved with her.
“Let’s drop the subject,” Chloe said. “I admit I don’t like her much, but she’s still Domenic’s sister. We should respect that.”
“So you care about his family, but not your own?” For a moment, we were both paralyzed by what I’d said. “I, sorry, that was harsher than intended. Our family’s falling apart without Mom, and I don’t have what it takes to pull it back together. Dad’s taken to the bottle, and he’s neglecting all his business obligations. At this rate, I’m afraid he’ll hurt himself.”
“Dad and his business can go to hell, for all I care.”
I swallowed down my outrage. What happened to you, Chloe? I thought of one answer that would explain everything. I couldn’t believe it, but I had to ask nonetheless. “Did… did Dad do something to you? Touch you?” If he did, he wouldn’t have to wait for the alcohol to end him; I’d do it myself.
“No!” Chloe jumped up, then dropped back into her seat. “No, he never did anything like that. Now, please, drop it.”
I can’t drop it, not when it’s causing everyone so much pain. “And you won’t tell me what he did do.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t, it’s better if I don’t.” Chloe clenched her eyes shut. “I want to, I do, but I can’t.”
“Not even for me, or Jay?” As if I didn’t feel like enough of an asshole, I used our little brother for a guilt trip.
“It’s because of you and Jay that I can’t say.” Chloe brushed the tears out of her eyes before looking at me again. “If, if it were just me, I’d go public and be done with the whole ordeal. You have no idea how bad I want to. But I can’t.”
What the hell is left? “Is it blackmail?” I reached out for Chloe’s hands, but she pulled back. “Prostitution? Drugs? Did that boy make you do this? Whatever it is-”
“How dare you!” Chloe was out of the seat so fast that for a second, I thought she flew. “Domenic’s been nothing but good to me, and asked nothing in return. Just because his family’s poor doesn’t mean he’s involved with drugs, or… or anything else.”
She turned and ran, and her athleticism showed in how she cleared half the distance to the door before I even got to my feet. I yanked a bill out of my pocket, tossed it on the table, then chased after her. I knew without looking that it was a hundred, and hoped it would be enough to smooth over any complaints our waitress or the other staff may have had. Still, by the time I made it outside, Chloe was nowhere to be found in the parking lot. The benefits of superior training, and the fact that she was in sneakers to my dress shoes.
I brought a hand up to rub my face. “Mom, if you’ve got any other beyond-the-grave-saves, I could use one right about now.”