I watched the crew getting set up for the play backstage. One of the fringe benefits of my job, from the perspective of someone who loved the theater but had no talent as an actress, was an often literal front row seat to hundreds of plays. Any other day, it would have been one of my favorite creature comforts, but I had gone the whole day unable to focus on anything other than my mistakes, and saw no reason to stop now that showtime approached.
I was so lost in thought that I didn’t notice Zach walk up next to me. “So, how much trouble am I in for missing the the warmup?”
On the plus side, I was so lost in thought that I didn’t jump in surprise. Instead, I froze in thought as all the stuff I told myself I would say next time I saw him took an impromptu vacation, perhaps somewhere tropical to escape this horrible winter weather. “No, you’re just on time. So-” why have you been avoiding me “what took you?”
Zach glanced around for a moment, then leaned in. “We made a bit of a mistake, last night.” I’d thought the same thing a million times throughout the day, but to hear him say it out loud stung. It felt like he was rejecting me, as stupid as that feeling was. “So now I’m grounded until the actual heat death of the universe.”
What. “You’re grounded for last night?” The gears clicked in my mind, and I came to the conclusion that I was an idiot. The whole time I assumed it was something I did wrong, and hadn’t so much as considered a cause which had nothing to do with me, aside possible emergencies which Muwth or Laura would have told me about.
“Well, technically I’m still grounded for a bunch of other stuff. Remember how I kinda got into a fight with bank robbers, and ran into a burning building?” Zach muttered the last part, then paused for a moment as the incident on Christmas went unmentioned. “I’d been sneaking out, not hard to do with my powers, and until last night I was keeping a low profile without meaning to. Oops.”
Okay, I’ll bite. “What happened last night that changed it?” I had a feeling I knew, but he seemed to want to vent, so I played along.
“Short answer? We miscalculated.” The right side of his mouth formed a smile. “Me running around busting petty crooks might get me into the papers. If it’s a slow day, maybe even in front of the personal ads, so Mom never noticed. But ‘Anima curb stomps three supervillains, oh, and this other scrub helped’ makes headlines.”
Great, so it is my fault, just a way I didn’t expect. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Zach moved his hand, almost touched my arm, but let it back down. “The point is to stop a gang war, not who gets top billing. And who cares if I’m super-ultra-grounded for this and every other lifetime? I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, I will do it again the second I’m told where to show up. I don’t care how much Mom bitches, she can’t stop me.”
The sinking realization that last night I kissed someone who was still in high school hit me for what must have been the hundredth time. “I’m sure she just wants what’s best for you. It can’t be easy having a kid with powers.”
Zach sighed and looked away. “She could have asked Dad for advice. He got me a combat instructor. Granted, dude was a complete douche, but he helped.”
A combat instructor? It did explain how Zach managed to hold his own against Shock and Awe, despite them being being far stronger opponents compared to when he would have lost against Nano and Shadow Boxer without me. Since Zach seemed hell bent to get into fights regardless of the danger, and his power was custom made for that very thing, his father had the right idea, but I couldn’t find it in me to call it good parenting. Good parents would do everything in their power to keep their kids away from the violent world Imbued carved for themselves in the streets.
Unable to come up with a good way to say all of that, I went with the most generic thing imaginable. “She cares about you.” Then followed it up with the most bitter. “Which is a whole lot better than I can say about my mother.”
“Oh.” Sensing the gruesome, bloody death of that conversation, Zach returned to watching the actors setting up on stage. “Looks like my turn to apologize.”
Not what I was hoping for. “How about we say we’re even and leave it at that?”
“Sounds good to me.” Zach seemed sincere, or at least I hoped he was. “But if you want to talk about it, you know where to find me.”
No, I don’t want to talk about it, I never want to talk about it. “Thanks.”
“You’ve done the same for me.” He did a remarkable job of acting like either situation wasn’t a big deal. The kid had one of the best poker faces I’d ever seen, second only to his sister. “So, hate to have to bail, but I gotta go find Tina and get into position for the play. And, uh, do you think if I asked real nice, Mrs. Battle would maybe lie through her teeth to my mother? I’ve been on house arrest less than a day and I’m already stir crazy. I’m telling you, sleep is what nature invented to keep people from going insane from boredom.”
I wouldn’t want to bet one way or the other, but I knew I didn’t want Mrs. Battle to lie to anyone about anything. “I’ll talk to her about finding you things to do that other people can’t.” Speaking of. “How do you feel about patching the roof?”
He smirked at me. “You mean climbing around on uneven surfaces covered in ice where I might get bit by disease-infested flying rats? Sounds perfect!” He took a step back, then turned. “But it’ll have to wait until after the show.” He jogged off toward the storage corner.
Once again, I was astounded by how he could shrug off his power with such ease. Were it me, I would have an existential crisis on the nature of life and death only possible in the shittiest of vampire novels. Instead, I embraced the relief that he didn’t hate me, and while it was still my fault that Zach wasn’t able to come and go as freely as he’d have liked, he didn’t blame me.
The usual pre-showing chaos kept us from seeing one another again until it was time for the play to go on, where we took our positions back stage for our roles. Even then, the work kept us busy, and I have to admit I was grateful to put off the conversation.
Tina stood near me, along with several of my Dweorh, or whatever the plural of them was. Zach and April were up near the stage, waiting for their moment to shine in an opening act which had been modified in order to take advantage of his powers. April’s costume did not do her looks any favors, making her appear to be a somewhat portly woman in an outfit that looked a like something you might expect an Amish woman to wear.
Meanwhile, the narrator introduced the play with an exaggerated flair that one could only get away with in the form of parody, and not always then. They promised Rocky Horror levels of absurdity, and they were intent on delivering from the first moment the curtain was supposed to go up. However, the curtain stayed down.
“Oh, I’m sorry folks, we appear to be having a bit of technical difficulties.” The narrator kept his absurd faux-British accent. “Give us a minute, please!”
For a short period of time, they made a deal about the curtain not working, with people running around. The timing was critical, just long enough for the audience to buy into this being a real technical mishap, without taking so long that they became irritated by the delay. I hoped for their sake that they got it right, because such a stunt could make or break a performance, and there was no safety net in a live performance.
“Okay, we officially have no idea what the problem is. Looks like the show’s over, we’ll have refunds at the door.” He waited a heartbeat, then dropped into one of the better stage whispers I’d seen. “Unless we have a sorceress in the house that knows how to dissolve clothing?”
That was April’s cue. She brought her hands to her mouth and formed a ring to shout through. “You ruined the big reveal that starts the second act!”
“Well, that’s better than not having a first act, now isn’t it?”
“Fine, whatever!” The smile on April’s face belied her angry words. “Just so you know, I’m loading this thing up with puppies and tossing them in the ocean!”
This was Zach’s moment to demonstrate his power for the stage. The theater’s spare curtain, sans weights, appeared next to Zach and began to fall to the ground. The audience shouted and gasped in surprise, while we in the back were all blinded as the light rushed to join with the curtain.
The visual spectacle was, as one might imagine, incredible, perhaps the greatest I’d ever seen in my years as an Imbued. Other than the visual impact, Zach had more impressive tricks with his power, having teleported heavier objects before, to say nothing of bringing someone back from the dead, but in terms of surface area it was the largest thing he’d ever used his power on.
“And so, we renew our tale of the noble hero,” the narrator began to speak again, talking over the audience at first, but soon they quieted to listen to the play. “And his quest to stop the evil sorceress from drowning puppies! Oh, and conquering the kingdom, that’s important, too.”
Zach touched April’s shoulder, then started stepping backward away from the stage to us. April waited for her time to enter, having been introduced as the plucky love interest. Yes, using those exact words, because even the original version of this play had no respect for the fourth wall. Zach went to a bench, then sat down with his eyes closed. He didn’t seem to have tired from his display, but he had to concentrate on holding the tag he’d just established.
Tina stepped forward, my Dweorh following behind her like the dutiful soldiers they were. She did the work of folding the curtain up so the stout, barrel-shaped, armor-skinned warriors could lift it and take it out of the traffic areas. Tomorrow, before the next showing, I’d use other summons to reposition it so we could repeat it for the next show. Meanwhile, I stayed quiet and watched the show; it would be some time before things were ready for me.
The show itself was good, delivering the absurdist humor one would expect. While I’d seen better actors, even amongst the volunteer troupes such as this one, they had energy and knew their comedic timing, which was the critical ingredients in the performance they were giving. Now that I didn’t have my personal troubles in the forefront of my mind, I found myself getting into the play. I laughed along with the audience and watched as they achieved everything I loved about theater, and created a world so that we could take a vacation from our lives for a little while.
I glanced over at Zach, still sitting in his corner concentrating on his power, rather than enjoying the play. Correction: almost everyone gets to escape for a while. Zach had seen the play in fragments, fit together piecemeal as the actors practiced their roles, but that paled in comparison to the live experience he missed out on. Hmm, I’m sure I can get a film of the show, it’s not as good as the live experience, but it’s better than nothing.
The play neared the end of the first act, as the heroes went through the trouble of breaking into an ancient crypt and fighting with zombies, an activity made more difficult when they discovered garlic only worked on vampires. They did ask me if I could do the monster propwork, and it was with great joy and relief that I told them my pool of summons didn’t include anything undead.
They ended the act by finding a mystical artifact which could render the sorceress powerless, which was the point April got to shine. She snatched the bauble, then began to cackle like a madwoman. If having too much fun with a role was a crime, then April would be locked up for life. “You fools! The sorceress has been in your midsts this whole time!”
The guy playing the big dumb hero shouted. “Oh god! The sorceress is invisible!”
The actors on stage stopped to stare at the guy long enough to let the audience have their chuckle, then April cleared her throat. “As I was saying, I am the sorceress! Behold my power to destroy clothes!”
“Zach, you’re on!” I spoke as loud as I dared, and April’s ugly costume vanished, revealing a dominatrix-like outfit underneath, complete with fake leather and a corset. As far as last minute alterations to the play went, it seemed to be a hit with the audience.
The smaller actor who was in theory the hero’s sidekick, but in practice played the smart one of the group spoke up after a moment. The girl playing the character had a deep enough voice to sound like an androgynous male, and delivered the flat, sarcastic humor well. “Well, that’s nice and all. Now what happens?”
April hesitated for a moment. “Well, now the curtain’s supposed to fall so we can set up the next scene. But I got rid of the curtain.”
“Can’t you put it back?”
“But then what will I stuff the puppies in?” April adjusted the top of her corset, calling deliberate attention to her chest. An improvisation, but one that fit the tone of the play well enough that none of the audience would have known it wasn’t part of the act. A moment later she sighed. “Fiiine, have your stupid curtain back.”
Now the actual curtain began to drop on the stage, and the actors went about congratulating one another for their performances while grabbing the various props to haul off stage. Zach got up off the bench and came up to me. “So, I take it the play’s good?”
“Yeah, it was, and a big part of it’s thanks to you,” I said.
Zach beamed at the praise. “I’m just glad I didn’t screw up and lose the costume.”
They had a backup plan: the frumpy overlayer to the costume was a single piece held together by a strip of velcro, so it could be yanked off with a single good tug. In fact, that was how the scene was meant to be done, but using Zach’s power looked better.
“It doesn’t hurt you to use your power like that, does it?” I didn’t think it did, but then I hadn’t thought to ask. If he was hurting himself, I would put an end to it.
“Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt.” Zach smiled, while I did my best to read through his mask to the real feelings. “Why do you ask?”
“I mean, there was that guy you saved from the fire,” I said. I hated to pry, but Zach had a talent for hiding when he was hurt and I wasn’t a Truthsayer. “That seemed to take a lot out of you.”
Zach leaned in close. “That was the fire,” he whispered. Then he moved back and spoke like normal. “I guess maybe it’s a little tiring, but it’s not hard, or it is, but.” He paused, frowning. “Think of it like trying to keep a number in your head. The simple stuff like clothes are easy, they’re like an apartment number. People are the hardest, worse than a phone number. Doesn’t your power work the same way?”
“No, my power doesn’t require concentration.” Quite the opposite, I have to put effort into surpressing my abilities. “Sorry for prying.” I wasn’t sure I believed him, but there was a limit to how much I could pry before I had to take his word. Powers were all personal in nature, and so the only person who could understand someone’s power was the person who had that power, or perhaps those with powers like Sympathy’s.
“Don’t apologize for having my back. Having friends you can count on is a good thing.”
“It is.” I smiled a little, under my faceplate. I’d wasted the whole day fretting over nothing, and now I wanted to laugh at how stupid I was acting. Zach was a friend, just like Laura and Glen, and I needed to learn to accept it, to trust them.
Zach glanced around at the bustle of people moving their props, and in fact waited until the intermission was almost over when we had the back to ourselves. “I should have a few minutes after the play before I have to get home. Maybe we can talk about the other thing that happened last night?”