Never Heroes
Act I
II: Birthmarks

It was just her luck to run into car trouble the next morning. The piece of junk had made it all the way to that desert town so she thought it would survive the weekend, at least. Fortunately, the town hadn't changed much, and she knew a damn good place to bring a car that needed fixing. Greeted by a familiar and friendly face, she was happy to wait around as the old car got a solid tune up.

This familiar face belonged to childhood friend Doug. Stunned to see her, Doug had stared blankly at her for a few moments when she arrived. Then, he said, "Better fix your car before you kick my butt again." To this, she could only smile. He had sounded deadly serious about it, yet she could barely recall ever wrestling with Doug. They had never been particularly close and really only associated with each other because they had mutual friends. Something had clicked one day, however, and they had felt bonded ever since.

That didn't mean she didn't find him to be a complete moron and an obnoxious asshole. The entire time he fiddled with her car she could hear him complain about the smallest, dumbest things. If it wasn't something she had done in high school, it was something she hadn't done; if it wasn't something she said, it was something she didn't say. Years later, and she never really did understand what his issue was with her.

It was her turn to have an issue with him. She bluntly asked, "Why weren't you at Sarah's funeral yesterday?"

"Ah, shit! I forgot! God dammit. Stupid, stupid, stupid…"

The sound of the wrench in his hand as he smashed it repeatedly against his forehead started to give her a headache. Typical of Doug, he screwed up. Barely graduating from high school was an achievement for him. A car wreck a month was almost the norm. It wasn't that he was a particularly bad guy, this she had to admit. Often he would go out of his way to help anyone that needed it. That didn't change the fact he was a colossal failure. All the dreams he had spoken so highly of as a teen were long gone.

"What are you doing here, anyway?" she suddenly asked.

"Isn't that my question, girly?" he countered. Done hurting himself, he was back at work on her hunk of junk. Since he was underneath her car she couldn't see his expression, but she knew full well sweat was starting to puddle at his brow as nervousness grew. This was something he didn't want to explain.

"I mean, when we were kids, you swore, 'I'm never running my uncle's stupid shop! Fuck cars!'" she imitated.

"Ah, come on. My voice was a little deeper than that!" he whined. When he didn't hear a response, he knew his attempt to dodge the inquiry was pointless. Unable to focus on his work, he rolled out from under the car to face her. After a hefty sigh he sat up and said, "Look, life didn't go according to plan. It didn't for any of us. Otherwise, I'd be a rock star, you'd be on Broadway, Chip would be a comic artist, and Sarah would still be alive. But, it just doesn't work that way."

Satisfied with himself, he fell back down on his creeper and returned to his spot under the vehicle. After a few moments of silence she said, "But that's not it. So, yeah, our careers paths didn't line up. But we were going to be heroes. We were going to change the world."

All of the air was sucked out of his lungs and once again he couldn't get his body to work. It was so irritating how she always did that to him. When did she get so sentimental and weird, anyway? She would've kicked his butt for saying cheesy stuff like that. He couldn't stop himself from saying, "Thanks for reminding me I'm a failure."

"Sorry…"

The apology wasn't acknowledged. It was strange how her time with Walter was so seamless, as though they hadn't been apart for more than a few minutes rather than years; yet in that small shop with Doug, nothing had ever seemed so awkward. Attempts to mentally leave were futile. Grease stains on the floor blurred until they were faces of the past; the dings and tings of tools reminded her swing sets and tetherball poles; each little curse and exasperated complaint from Doug brought her back to junior year Homecoming.

There was a topic she'd been meaning to scratch on. She asked, "Remember that game we played in grade school where we faced an invading force from another dimension? Their leader was called – "

"Interfector, yeah," he interrupted. "You didn't let me play with you guys. You said a kid that didn't have parents would never be a hero, just a nobody." Bitterness seeped through every single syllable he uttered. It was impossible to ignore. Seventeen years later and it still stung him. There was no need to vocalize her remorse for how she acted. Sliding out from under the car for the last time, he smiled at her. Before she could speak he said, "Ah, don't worry about it. Kids are all little shits at that age. Besides, you were right."

"You're not a no –"

"Work's done. Don't you have a coffee date?" he said.

The sudden interjection didn't go unnoticed. There was no time to comment on it. She said, "How much do I owe you?"

He waved her off. "On the house. Consider it a favor."

It was never her intention to take the labor for free. Yet she probably didn't have enough to pay him even if she wanted to. Something about the twinkle in his eye made her think he was well aware of her financial situation, even if she had yet to speak a word of it. There it was – that ol' reliable, good friend attitude Doug would show every so often. Still, she felt bad. She offered, "Why don't you come with us? I'll pay for whatever you want."

"Nah. I gotta hold down the fort. Go have fun."

"Your loss, loser."

He could only snort at the insult. Even the tone of her voice sounded ten years younger. As she drove away, she gave him a wave out the window and honked; there was no reason for him to return the gesture. For a moment he regretted not going with her. His excuse was pretty lame. Business was dead just like that town. Really, he just didn't want to see the depressed look in Chip's face. Maybe a few weeks down the road, when the heavy mist of sorrow finally lifted, he would bother seeing his friend.

Through her rearview mirror she watched as Doug finally retreated. No matter how much Doug had tried to tease and sound like his old self, it was obvious age was already catching up to him. Stuck in the same rut as everyone else, he put the motions in for life but never really lived it.

Downtown came into view. Nostalgia hit hard. Memories of whizzing down the crowded sidewalks on her favorite bike returned. Even after they were old enough to drive, they had always just rode bikes. Back then, they didn't care if they hit someone, it was their fault for getting in the way. A bench just outside a vacuum repair shop still had a dent in it from a time when Chip hit it in an attempt to dodge a loose dog. Both his arms shattered when he pulled a superman over the metal bench and landed on the cracked concrete rather unceremoniously. It was alright for him, though, since Sarah felt so sorry for him she spent the next six months waiting on him hand and foot.

Emily remembered telling him at the hospital, "Should've just hit the dog."

When Sarah cried out, "No! You did the right thing! You're a hero!" Chip's face lit up and he held the most sincere smile anyone had ever seen. That was the moment when everyone started making bets on how long until they started dating; which later turned into how long until they were married; and finally, how long until they had kids.

Those memories hurt. Ache struck her chest as she recalled each and every mushy moment she witnessed between those two. All of the twisted faces she made at them when they would kiss and the sound of Doug pretending to gag were buried within her memory banks somewhere. It was fun to tease them back then, when kidding around and being mean spirited was nearly synonymous. Walter would always just smile at them, already mature enough to appreciate the sight of two people so disgustingly in love.

She arrived at the only coffee shop in town. Located on the south side of downtown, it had somehow survived decades of change. Empty and rundown buildings surrounded it. Most shops were closed on Sunday, yet this tiny gem was an exception. Only one car was parked on the side of the street, as most everyone else was either recovering from a hangover or in church – sometimes both. She eased her car just past the edge of the "No Parking" sign, knowing full well that no one actually enforced parking laws around there.

Inside she spotted Walter and Chip huddled in the far corner. They were wrapped up in their own conversation, unaware she had arrived. Heavy shadows under Chip's eyes and the fact he kept rubbing his temple made it clear that he was still in recovery mode. Barefoot and with a hooded sweatshirt and basketball shorts, he didn't appear ready to be in public. In stark contrast was Walter's ironed slacks, polished shoes, and slick dress shirt. Despite being best friends, they had always been like yin and yang.

"Sorry I'm late," she called out to them as she got closer. Before she made it fully to the table, Walter stood and tried to casually pull a chair out for her. She thanked him with a subtle wave and he retook his own seat. Seated, she asked, "Did you get my text?"

"Yeah. How's Doug? Did he actually fix your car or just put stink bombs in the vent?" Walter asked.

Her face scrunched up as she recalled Doug's favorite Freshman year prank. "Ugh, don't remind me," she said.

He laughed. A mug was slid across the table toward her. "Continental roast, no sugar, no cream. Just arrived. It's what you always order, right?"

Graciously she picked the mug up. Heat from the coffee warmed her hands and she enjoyed the fresh brewed aroma. "Yeah. Amazed you remember," she said. Per usual, she didn't actually thank him. Just as she was about to take her sip, her eyes went to Chip. He had yet to say a word. The scruff that was on his face yesterday had been shaved away, revealing the small dimple on his chin; he'd attempted to cut his hair, too, which resulted in one side about half an inch shorter than the other. So, she ribbed, "What the hell happened to your head?"

"Well, I…"

They waited for him to continue. Walter jumped in and said, "He thought it was a good idea to use my razor to cut his hair. It's not as bad as that time he shaved a mohawk on his head in college, but he does look ridiculous."

Tensed up and blushing, Chip made it clear he was ashamed by the entire ordeal. As he went to sip his drink, Emily expertly changed the subject when she said, "Let me guess, white chocolate mocha, iced, with heavy whipped topping?"

A hint of a smile graced his face when he said, "You know it."

She rolled her eyes, shook her head, and muttered, "Basic."

Conversation wasn't warranted. In silence they sat, sipping their drinks and relishing their friendship. Occasionally, Emily's eyes would look between the two men in that joined her, marveling at how much they had grown. How much more would they change in the next ten years? Or ten years after that? How many of them would still be able to sit at that table with their children, their grandchildren? Their group had already dwindled so much. Tomorrow, she would leave town again, and poor Walter would be tasked with keeping Chip sane until the grieving process had run its course.

"I think I'm going to stay," she thought out loud. The eyes of the boys stared her down, demanding further explanation. It took her a moment to realize she had spoken her thoughts. "Well, life's shit in New York. I'm sick of sharing a one bedroom craphole with three people I don't even like. Everything I own is already packed in my car, so… fuck it."

The shrug that ended her sentence fit her perfectly. "But, where will you work? It's kind of dead around here," Walter said. It didn't surprise her that he presented the cons before the pros.

"You can work with me at Doug's shop. I just deliver parts and stuff, it's not very exciting. I'm sure he'll pay you, though!" Chip said. It was strange how he sounded so cheerful. Innocence and hope emitted from every word he spoke and the smile he wore. It was refreshing to see him truly smile, despite everything going wrong in his life.

"Well, if that's the case, you can stay at my place until you find an apartment or a house," Walter suggested

"No, no, stay at my place!" Chip offered.

"I've lived alone since graduating, and honestly – "

"It gets kind of lonely."

Walter broke into laughter as soon as he realized how synched he was with Chip when they both admitted their loneliness. Emily could only twist her face in confusion; that soon changed into irritation when Chip clumsily tried to explain himself, "I mean, not in a sexual way! I haven't thought about you that way since I was like fourteen – not that you're not beautiful now! It's just that, that'd be weird, especially with Sarah and all, and – you know, it's like, as a man, I want to. Like, really bad – "

"Stop!" Walter managed to command between fits of laughter. He had to clamp his hand over Chip's mouth and the physical contact was enough to make Chip relax. The heat on his cheeks almost burned Walter's hand. It only made Walter's laughter grow once he found out how mortified Chip was.

Somehow, Emily took the entire awkward string of strange confessions in stride. She said, "Gross. I'd rather sleep in my car then bunk with either of you."

Walter made a mistake and removed his hand from Chip's mouth. He realized his error when he heard Chip's voice. "Wow, that break up with Paul really did drive you lesbian, huh?"

"Not the thing to say, Chip," Walter berated, barely above a whisper, his voice muffled as the covered his face with his hands.

Even Chip knew he made one of hell of a blunder. Red dyed the tip of Emily's ears, a sure sign she wasn't happy. Soon the red reached the tip of her nose as she did her best not to explode in a fury of curse words and punches directed at her friend. It took a lot of effort, but she had promised herself that Chip could get away with anything today in honor of Sarah.

"Sorry," Chip apologized. "If it makes you feel any better, Doug tracked him down after you left town and broke about thirteen bones in his face."

"It doesn't," she stated loud and clear. Eye contact was never broke. She had never backed down it felt like confrontation was eminent. Fortunately, Chip never cared for confrontation of any kind, so he shrunk further into his seat.

Silence swallowed them. It was broken when Chip asked, "You ever feel like someone is watching you?"

"Now what are you talking about?" she asked, doing her best to sound cold rather than upset.

Chip made a motion with his head over her shoulder and explained, "That guy near the window has been everywhere recently."

"Well, it's a small town. I don't see what the big deal is," Walter assured him. There was something gnawing at the pit of his stomach that told him otherwise. He knew how Chip could get, however, and decided it best not to mention his misgivings.

"The government is following us," Chip whispered.

"What?! You are sober, aren't you?" Emily asked. She reached across the table, snagged his face in her hands and forced his eyes open.

As she checked to make sure his pupils appeared somewhat normal, he spoke in a muffled tone, "I'm serious! They know that I know!"

"About what, exactly?" she questioned. She already knew what his answer was.

"Interfector!" he announced. A groan from Walter and a rolling of the eyes from Emily was enough to make him angry. "I'm serious! Look at this!" he shouted as he stood up, lifted his shirt and shoved his pants down a few inches. "The scar I had –"

"Is gone, yeah I know," Emily interrupted. "Pull your pants up and stop acting weird."

"No! Look!" he demanded. Just to make his point, he managed to place one foot on the table. Walter tried to calm him down by asking him politely to chill out, but Chip never heard it. "Yes, the scar is gone, but look at the skin! It's not normal!"

"You're not normal," was Emily's lame insult. Her eyes had managed to stay focused on his. Curiosity got the better of her and she looked down at the part of his body he had exposed. Sure as he said, from the outer thigh on his right side up to his belly button, the skin was decidedly paler than anywhere else.

"You got cut by a blade in the final battle… you probably have the same thing!"

"What? What the hell?!"

She barely got the curse out before her head crashed against the floor. Chip had leapt off the table and tackled her. A small wrestling matched occurred but her head ached so much from hitting the ground that she could barely focus. His cold hands tickled her side as he slid her shirt up. Exposed along her ribcage was a paper-white patch of skin. He breathed, "I knew it."

"That's a birthmark, asshole!"

Walter had gotten to his feet the moment Chip jumped but hadn't intervened. The last thing he wanted to hear was Emily yelling at him for rescuing her, so he purposely waited until the two of them became perfectly still. Harshly, he yanked Chip to his feet and chuckled, "You both are embarrassing me, you know that?" Then, he offered a hand to Emily which she batted away.

"They're trying to hide it, but why? Did they brainwash us? Shit, what if they killed Sarah?" Chip rambled.

Back on her feet, Emily adjusted her shirt to make sure she was properly covered again. "Sorry to be the blunt bitch here, but Sarah committed suicide. And who can blame her, being married to a whacko like you."

"Emily!" Walter snapped.

It was the first time he had done so. She shrugged it off and said, "It's the truth. You're paying for the coffee. I'm out of here."

The voice of Walter telling Chip it was going to be alright was all she heard as she strutted out. The lone waitress eyed her when she passed. Chip had done a good job making quite a scene. Near the door sat the man that Chip had claimed was following him; as she exited she passed a glance his way. Pudgy and unassuming, she dismissed the idea he was sent to watch them.

Through the outside window she gave the guys one more look. Walter was apologizing profusely the owner, who was just trying to figure out what had happened. Chip had sat himself back down, his shoulders lax and his head hung low. Sweet and innocent in his younger days, she wondered what had happened that changed him. Escaping reality through games and stories had carried him through his turbulent youth, but she never would have thought his fantasies would completely take over his life.

Subconsciously she gripped her side, where his cold fingertips had traced over the pale birthmark that marred her body. It hurt, like a knife had just sliced her down to the bone. Harshly, she shook her head, clearing her mind of any thoughts of any supposed injuries she might have gotten. Just being around Chip was making her nuts.