“Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms. Fairies, be gone, and be all ways away.” April did her lines just right, while Terry lay on her lap playing Bottom. I couldn’t help but note that I never got to do that scene with her. Or, at least, not the part I really wanted. “So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle Gently entwist. The female ivy so. Enrings the barky fingers of the elm. Oh, how I love thee! How I dote on thee!”
Say what you will about Shakespeare, he knew how to write romantic imagery. Though this particular piece of work was about a false, transient love brought on by a magic potion. Maybe if I was a better as an actor, I’d be up there with her. But, no, that was never much of an option; my acting skills were lackluster at best.
“So, you ever gonna make your move?”
“Gah!” I jumped, glancing over to to the voice. While I was distracted, Zach managed to walk up, lean against the wall, and cross his arms. He was smiling, as always. “How long were you hiding there?” I tried to stay quiet; the Playhouse had excellent acoustics, and we were far from the stage, but that didn’t mean I risk causing a ruckus.
“Long enough to watch part of the show.” He nodded toward April. “Oh, and I might have noticed you were watching her, too. She is a babe. I’m pretty sure there’s a rule in the boyfriend handbook that I’m supposed to say ‘what complete babe over there do you mean’, but fuck that, she’s a babe. So, when are you gonna make a move?”
“I… I’m not…” I stammered. “How’d… why’d you think I was going to ask her out?”
His smile shifted into a lopsided smirk. “I don’t think you’re going to, but I know you want to. Everyone knows you want to. I’m trying to talk you into doing it. That way I win the office betting pool.”
What. I glanced around to see who might be watching, then leaned in. “They’re betting on me!?” I tried to both whisper and shout, it came out more like a choked hiss. “Why is it anyone else’s business.”
“Hey, I know it comes as a surprise us loner types.” He dropped both the smirk and the smile. “But this is what having friends is like. It means you’re never alone because there’s always some asshole willing to help you perv on chicks and try to get laid.”
Loner type? Zach acted like anything but a loner. He got along with everyone, and not just because he was dating the reason this theater hadn’t gone bankrupt, nor because he volunteered to do the hardest and most dangerous jobs, though those were factors. The fact that he was always ready to laugh and go along with the joke, oftentimes by killing himself for laughs, made him a hit with most of the crew. “I’m not trying to get laid.”
“Yeah, and the first step in the process is helping you change that. Seriously, just go ask her, what’s the worst that could happen? Because I already know the worst thing that’ll happen if you do nothing. And it’s the worst thing ever.”
I was skeptical, but I knew better than to ignore an Imbued bearing warnings. Especially one that somehow had the ability to be in the right place at the right time across half the D.C. region. If he knew something might happen to me or April, then I needed to know what it was. “So, what’s this worst thing?”
Zach looked me in the eyes. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing will happen.”
So much for giving him the benefit of the doubt. “You can stop making fun of me now.” I turned away from him; there was no point in continuing this conversation.
“You’ll go on living your life. She’ll go on living hers. You’ll both find real jobs, leave this place behind, maybe tell stories about it to your grandkids some day. Or maybe not… the only thing that’s certain is that some day, maybe tomorrow, maybe seventy years from now, you’ll die. And on that day, and every day from now ’til then, you’ll ask yourself what could have been if you weren’t a coward. You’d wish you could give up everything, just to go back and fix your mistake.”
I stopped to listen to his soliloquy. “Yeah, or I could ask her out, she calls me a freak, and turns everyone in the theater against me.” Now instead of just facing away, I began to walk.
“So you’re saying she’s a complete bitch?”
I stopped in my tracks. “What?”
“Hey, I get it, I’ve been there. I was with a girl for a while even though I knew she was a shallow, selfish, gold-digging whore.”
I turned around. Zach had stopped leaning on the wall, but still stood in the same spot.
“Of course, my mistake was being dumb enough to think that since I knew the score, I couldn’t get burned.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Turns out, betrayal sucks even if you see it coming. So, yeah, if she’s that type, then drop her like hot garbage.”
“Shut up!” I stepped forward. “Don’t talk about her like that!” I had the presence of mind to keep my voice down, but he had no right to say those things about April.
He looked down at my hands, which I only then realized were clenched into fists. “Go ahead, hit me, I don’t mind.” He opened his arms as if to offer a hug. “Good way to work off a little frustration. Plus there’s that whole ‘biggest badass’ thing, and punching the superpowered immortal really impresses the normies.”
I forced my fingers to relax. “I… I wasn’t… I wouldn’t.” I can’t believe I almost.
“Look, there are laws about vigilantism. I am not allowed to go after crooks unless they get violent first. So I’ve built my entire career around talking complete strangers into feeding me their fists.” He stopped for a second. “Huh, that actually sounded worse in my head. Point is: do you really think she’s the type of person who’d throw your feelings back in your face? Because if you think that poorly about her, yet are still willing to hit one of the toughest Imbued in the city over her honor, then you’re even more fucked up than I am.”
I looked back toward the stage. They’d moved on to other characters, and April wouldn’t be back on stage until near the end of the play. “So, she doesn’t have to be a bitch about it… she’ll say she’s flattered and wants to be friends, but.” I choked; it wasn’t the first time I’d been turned down in my life. “It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”
“Or she says ‘yes’, and the two of you piss off all your coworkers by making kissy faces on the job.”
“Easy for you to say, you hang out with three hot girls all the time.” Pun not intended for the one made of ice. “The one with the tattoos is, like, porn star material.”
“That’s my sister.”
I cringed. “Sorry!” Open mouth, insert entire leg. “I didn’t mean-”
Zach sighed. “Yeah, you did mean it. Don’t worry, I got used to it people drooling over her years ago. And she thinks it’s an insult when men aren’t checking her out. Now, enough about my fucked up life, let’s go back yours.”
“Can’t you just leave me alone?” Dammit. “Why do you even care?”
“For real?” he asked.
“If it gets you to stop bothering me? Yes, for real.”
He tilted my head back and sighed. “Fuck it. This stays between us. Not a lot of people know what I’m about to tell you, and I don’t want them to know. You blab, and I will find creative ways to make your life miserable.”
He didn’t sound like he was threatening me, but everything pop culture said about Imbued agreed that when they wanted to hurt someone, they could and would. “Fine, whatever you say.” I didn’t know anyone I’d want to tell, anyway.
“Her name was Erica,” he started. “A few years older than me… beautiful, smart, friendly, nice to everyone… my sister’s best friend, cliché as that sounds. And know how all the hottest girls always hang out with each other? Well, I may be biased, but Erica had Laura beat hands down. Kinda looks a little like April. I don’t remember a time before I knew her. I loved her before I even understood what love was.”
“Oh.” Just by the tremble in his voice, I knew this story ended in tragedy.
“Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m looking at her through rose colored glasses.” He stopped gazing at the ceiling, then turned his attention to the floor. “She had her faults. Namely, men. She always had the worst imaginable luck with men. Starting with her sack of shit father, and that set the tone for everyone she ever dated.”
He brushed his fingers over his eyes, wiped away tears while trying to look like he was just rubbing his eyes. “The fuck nineteen and twenty year old men thought they were doing dating a twelve year old, I don’t even want to imagine.”
Oh. That. I’d seen stuff like that a few times, the cycle of abuse never seemed hard to find in any city if you brushed away a little of the glitter. “So her father?” I couldn’t finish the question.
“You mean, did he touch her?” He gagged the word. “I don’t know. I do know he hit her, lots of times. I used to fantasize about walking into her house and stopping him. Saving her. Running away with her. Stupid kid stuff, I know. These days the fantasy’s a little different.” The tone in his voice grew colder with every word. “You’ve seen how I can use my power on props? Well, it works on other people. Long as I touched him first, I could take him apart and put him back together again as many times as I wanted.”
I took a step back; I’d heard about him saving people from a burning building using his power to teleport things, but the idea that it could be used as a torture device hadn’t crossed my mind.
He shook his head. “But I don’t. Maybe I’d feel better for, like, half a second, but then everything would go to shit worse than it before. It wouldn’t bring her back. There’s no power on the planet that can undo the past. If anyone did get that power, well, knowing the way powers work… he’d use it make sure his parents never met or something.”
I didn’t get why he was rambling about powers, maybe it was supposed to be a joke, but it was too dark to be funny. “What happened to Erica?”
He took a breath, stood up straight, and put on an entirely different stance. With some practice, he might have made a good actor; he was a natural with body language, at least. “Remember that serial killer a few months back? The one that killed thirty seven people in the D.C. area alone until she vanished right before Christmas?”
What serial killer? Nobody ever said anything about a serial killer in the city. “Uh… I… don’t watch a lot of news?”
“Wasn’t on the news.” He chuckled, tired and bitter though it was. “Psychopath calling herself ‘Kitten’. Mostly went after prostitutes, druggies, and gang members, and people that could vanish without raising too much attention. So the cops kept it quiet. No sense in alerting the press and starting a panic about Imbued serial killers. You think I’m making this up? Sounds like a conspiracy theory when it’s said out loud, but they care a whole lot more about protecting their image than they care about the life of girls like Erica.”
Conspiracy theory, or I’m dealing with a crazy person. Zach didn’t seem crazy, but before a few minutes ago, he didn’t seem like he thought about torturing someone with his powers. “Hey, I’ve seen enough cell phone vids showing cops attacking unarmed people and then lying about it. This is like that, but bigger, right?”
“Close enough, I guess.” He forced a smile, but it didn’t seem like he was angry at me, and that was a relief.
We stood in awkward silence, while the play went by. They were nearing the final scene, but I was more concerned with a different story. “So, what happened?”
“To make a long, painful story short? Psycho killed Erica, I got powers, and then I killed her.” Now Zach’s smile seemed genuine, if cruel and hateful. “Well, I kept her held with my power while someone else did the killing. Using fire. If you ask me, it didn’t last near as long as she deserved.”
Christ. “But she’s gone, you kept her from hurting more people?”
“It’s okay, you can say I got revenge. I did, but it didn’t make the bad any better. It didn’t make the world right. But I don’t think I was ever truly in it for revenge. “What really eats at me, the part that I can’t forgive myself for? I never even told her how I felt. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. Maybe she’d have shot me down, maybe she would have still kept seeing her god damn ‘boyfriends’.”
He lashed his head backward, slamming the back of it against the concrete wall. A second version of himself appeared right before the first exploded into a storm of green dust motes. “Maybe I could have saved her, maybe not. I could go on with maybe after maybe for days, I’ve done it before. But it all comes back to the one thing I know for a fact: I was a fucking coward who couldn’t even tell the woman I loved how I felt about her. And that because I was so weak, I’ll be carrying these maybes with me for a very long time.”
“I’m sorry.” Sorry? How lame can I be?
“Don’t be, it’s my fault it happened in the first place. Sorry won’t change a damn thing. It won’t make me feel better, it won’t bring her back, it won’t give me answers.” He seemed calmer than before his self-inflicted concussion, but still his voice trembled. “You want to prove this story means a damn thing to you? Then don’t do what I did. You go up there, make your move, and then even if she turns you down you thank your lucky stars you at least got to do that much. Because you never know when something will happen that takes the chance away forever. Then all you’ll have left are maybes.”
I looked up on the stage, where they were just starting the epilogue scene. Midsummer Night’s Dream was known for the last couple acts being short and simple compared to the bedlam which defined the rest of the story. April would be back on stage soon to do her part, and then it would be over. Until they had to do it all over again tomorrow.
“Know what? You’re right.” My heart slammed in my chest. Maybe I never would have had the guts to do it myself, but after Zach’s story, I knew I had to. “Even if she doesn’t like me, at least it’ll be out in the open.”
“Exactly.” Zach turned and started to walk away. “You kids have fun.”
Wait a second. “You’re not going to stay?”
“Should I?” He turned back. “I mean, I can, but I thought it’d be easier for you to do it on your own.”
He had a point. It was going to be hard enough to talk to her without an audience watching in. Even one that knew what I was trying to do. “No, you’re right. And, uh, thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet, you’ve still gotta do the hard part. Meanwhile, my castle is in another princess.” He paused for a second. “Speaking of princesses? Don’t tell Anima I said April was a babe. I’m not saying she would have one of her summons treat me like a chew toy, but if she wanted to, there ain’t much I can do to stop her other than beg for mercy.”
I laughed, quietly so as to avoid disrupting the play. “She won’t hear a thing from me.” As Zach not-so-eloquently put it: he had his princess, I had to worry about getting mine.