Endless ticking grated on Dick's ears; half of it was from the various clocks that plastered the walls, all of them set to different times for some asinine reason, and the other half was due to the click-clacking of the many keyboards just past the open door. It all ended with one final, loud crash when the office door shut. He actually flinched at the sound of the door closing. Carefully he peeked over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of his boss strutting up to her desk. He drew a deep breath in order to calm himself. The hangover from the night before was killing him.
"Were you fucking high?" she harshly questioned him. He winced at her tone, just as he flinched at the door. Overall he had a good relationship with his boss – okay, a very personal and excellent relationship with his boss – which meant that when they spoke to each other, there was no filter. She smashed down his iPad onto her desk, causing another hurt expression to grace his features. It didn't appear broken.
"This is a load of garbage," she interrupted. "Not a single detail in your cute little write up matches the police report from the scene. They made it clear a misfired bomb from the idiot robbers caused the damage, not some superhero – or whatever – tapping it with his knuckles."
"But the pictures – "
"Dick, this looks like a pile of used bricks. Unless you have pictures of this mysterious guy punching a concrete wall, it's rubbish. The fact that when the police found your dumbass in the alleyway, they gave you a breathalyzer and you blew almost three times the legal limit doesn't exactly add any credit to your report."
He fell back into his chair and slumped, resigned to defeat. It was too difficult to muster a good rebuttal with such an awful headache. He muttered out a muffled, "Sorry," as an apology.
"Dick, I think you need a day off," she said. "And by that, I mean a day off from the comic books. Your perception of reality last night was obviously… distorted. Put down the comic books and lay off the drugs for one night, would you?"
"Babe – Karen – I…" he stopped himself, inhaled, swallowed and then started over. "Miss Ramus, with all due respect –"
"I don't want to hear it. Now pack your shit up, delete your garbage, and go home with a nice book – maybe the bible or Shakespeare– and take the rest of the week off."
There was no argument to be had. He picked up the discarded iPad that still displayed his write up on the previous night's events and slinked out of Miss Ramus's office. The other people that loitered around their desks watched without a word as he grabbed his camera bag and baseball cap from his cubicle and headed out. The only noise he had left was yet another sigh. He smashed the hat on tight to his head and stepped into the elevator. He watched everyone still staring oddly at him as the door closed shut.
With nothing but the elevator walls as company he had time to think about the previous day. Perhaps it was all imaginary; he knew that if someone had shown him a genuine photograph of superhero strength, he'd write it off as fake. Even if all of his photography knowledge couldn't debunk it, he'd still refuse to believe it. Yet he saw and experienced firsthand what James had done. Unless, of course, he really was just that intoxicated.
As he replayed the night through his head, he recalled the nasty bump Jae had received. He reached for his cellphone and called his cousin, hoping for the other man to clarify that everything Dick remembered was real.
At that moment, Jae had just wrapped up the worst of the exams he had that day. He wasn't even sure if he could name a single question off the test; he rushed through it with a heavy head and blurred vision. After managing to bullshit his way through the last essay question, he had bolted out the door and rushed to a half-rotten shade tree he and Charlie frequented. He was patiently awaiting her to finish her own exams when Dick called.
The vibration of his cellphone had him look at the device for the first time in hours. A warning, 'Only 7% battery remains' flashed, and right under that was his little cousin's name.
"Ah, shit, Dick," he said to himself. He answered with an exhausted, "Hello?"
"Hey, Jae, can we – "
Silence. Jae pulled the phone away from his ear and glanced down at his phone. The battery had died. "Piece of shit battery."
"Phone keep dying?" Charlie's voice asked from behind.
He turned to greet her, the phone still held up. "Yeah. It dies after about two hours. It's kind of ridiculous. How did your tests go?"
She allowed him to shove the dead phone back into his coat pocket before she started to stroll past him. He followed in pursuit, patiently waiting for an answer. She gave a dramatic stretch as she popped her back and neck. Finally, she said, "Alright I think. Totally bombed Psych 315."
"The Professor in that class is a real ass."
She laughed slightly, "He really is! Oh, hey, how is your head?"
"Is that a cruel joke?" he asked. There was a hint of nervousness in his tone, followed by a half-crooked smile that seemed out of place.
"Don't be smart. Show me."
He turned so that his face was fully in her view and lifted up the small amount of hair from his bangs that slipped out of its position. There was nothing there. Not a single drop of dried blood, not a single trace of a scrap or a bump. Not convinced of what her eyes showed her, she reached her hand up and caressed the place on Jae's forehead where the mark should have been.
"That's unbelievable," she breathed out.
"It really is," he agreed. "Just proof that we were obviously dreaming last night."
"Whatever. I guess you must be right. After all, if it really was those pills like you said, then how come James acted like such a pussy in the fight?"
Jae nodded and said, "Exactly. So story's over. Let's hit the bar for some drinks."
"You really want to drink again after what happened last night?"
She could only give him a small laugh. Jae wasn't one to get completely smashed; he was good at knowing when it was time to quit. It made the night before seem even weirder. She believed there was just no possible way Jae had gotten drunk enough to fall off of a balcony and hallucinated. It was obvious the entire ordeal was weighing heavily on Jae's mind, but there was just nothing she could say to reassure him. She had a memory blackout for a few hours thanks to the amount of alcohol she had consumed. There was jump in her memory after about the second or third shot of tequila – or was it the fourth coke and rum? – until when she was being attacked in the alleyway. Only brief glimpses in between flashed before her at times.
It was embarrassing for her to realize she had allowed herself to drink so much. Just as Jae, she was quick to stop once she felt her better senses leaving her. There was just something about the awkward atmosphere in Jae's apartment that night that had her unconsciously drinking more than normal. It was the first time in a long time the four friends had been together, and the obvious changes that had taken place amongst their group made her feel a bit melancholy.
She let out a sigh. Jae's ears twitched at the noise, so he asked, "Is everything alright?"
Charlie answered, "Yeah, I guess. I just – " The sound of her phone vibrating inside her purse caused her to halt both words and her walking. She dug the phone out, saw it was Dick, and then answered.
Before she could even finish her greeting, Dick spoke, "Are you with Jae?"
"Yeah, what's up?" she said.
He yelled, "Ask that asshole why he hung up on me! Wait, oh, god. Are you two, you know?" His voice fell to a whisper, "Are you two post-fuck cuddling right now?"
"No. Don't be stupid," was her flat response.
"Glad you didn't say the 'Don't be a dick, Dick,' line because I've heard that about six times today. Anyway, not the point – "
"What is the point?"
"Let me fucking finish! Damn, why is every woman so needy today? I need you lovely people to meet me at my place. Sooner rather than later, sweet cakes."
Dick hung up the phone, not wanting to dive into needless banter.
"I guess we're going to Dick's place," she told Jae.
Concern hit his face for a moment when he asked, "Is he alright?"
"As alright as the rest of us, I guess."
Jae raised a brow at the statement but didn't question it. A cold autumn breeze tickled his ears and he felt a shiver run down his spine. Goosebumps erupted over his body, but his gut told him it wasn't from the cold.
Dick was washing his hands when they arrived at his apartment; he was still washing his hands nearly three minutes later when the two decided to take a seat in the kitchen. Typically, his place was kept the cleanest out of the group, but today seemed to be an exception. They liked to joke that he suffered mild OCD. Dick never laughed.
Finally satisfied with the amount of cleaning his hands received, Dick focused his attention on his two friends. He rummaged through his bag, produced his iPad and a folder of paperwork, and then placed them neatly on the table. The two visitors just stared blankly at him.
Dick cleared his throat dramatically and spoke, "Jae, how is your head, dear cousin?"
Jae glared at the obvious tone in Dick's voice and the subject of the question. "It's fine, of course."
"That's good, because I'm about to unload a massive load of shit on you. Not literally, of course. On my iPad here are photographs I took at the hostage-robbery-thing at the mini-mart in downtown. Look at the destruction on that. Look at the two bodies – sorry if you're squeamish but they're both dead."
"Don't worry about it, I've seen dead bodies before," Jae assured him.
"That's great! Well, it's not great, but you know –"
"Dick," Jae sternly interrupted. "The point, please?"
"The police report – located to your right, it's in chronological order so if you open it please keep it together – says that those two men and the destruction on the wall was caused by a misfired bomb. But I was there, and there was no bomb. Nothing. Not even a firecracker," Dick explained.
Jae briefly stared at the massive amount of text in the folder, and then turned his attention back to the photos. He pushed them over for Charlie to look at. She appeared to be a lot more concerned than Jae, and after quickly skimming through the report said, "They lied? Why would they do that?"
Before Dick could answer, Jae asked, "So what did happen?"
Silence. They waited for him to explain. Annoyed, Jae questioned, "James, what?"
"James happened. He broke the concrete wall. He killed the two guys," Dick said.
"You're fucking joking," Jae said. It wasn't a question; he meant for it to be a statement, because he couldn't handle it if Dick was being serious.
"Look, man, I'm straight and sober right now, alright! I know for a fact what I saw last night! And if it's true James got those pills from the military, who knows what kind of cover up we could be exposing? It would explain the weird attack that happened to us last night and the fact the police lied!"
Another round of silence hit the group. Dick needed a chance to breathe after cranking out so much wordage in one breath. It was broken when Jae said, "Physically speaking, what we think we saw isn't possible. I'm sorry, Dick, but it's the same thing with whatever you think happened with James. It couldn't have happened."
A loud beep at Jae's waist shut everyone up. The radio attached to Jae's belt screeched, "All units respond, two-four-six in progress on West Canal Avenue, multiple victims."
Almost immediately, a loud whine from Dick's scanner echoed off the walls of his apartment and a similar message hit their ears. Jae grabbed his jacket and was halfway out the door before he said, "I have to go. I'll meet you back here!"
The two watched as Jae skipped out with a small wave. At the sound of the door closing, Dick let out a loud sigh. He took the chair that Jae had previously occupied and propped his head with his hand. A comfortable lack of dialogue set in between Dick and Charlie. She occupied herself with the impressive amount of data Dick had managed to procure in a short amount of time. Her curious attitude perked Dick's interest.
"So, how are you holding up?" he suddenly asked her. She stopped rummaging through the reports in order to make eye contact, but no response was given. His lazy stare made it almost appear as though he didn't care, but she knew it was a genuine inquiry. Afraid she didn't understand, he clarified, "You were – well, you know? – attacked. The rest of us were completely done. Out cold. You're not worried or anything, are you? You can sleep alright?"
She loved him because of moments like this. He was the caring little brother every girl needed; he was the first to stand up for her or rush to her side when she was hurt. It wasn't done out of any romantic inclination. He worked hard to protect her because he understood her place in their small group. He knew that James and Jae were too emotionally attached to see things clearly whenever she was involved. She truly appreciated his existence at times like this.
With a smile she finally answered him honestly. "Physically I'm fine. It hasn't been easy, though. I want to know who they were and why we were attacked. Why can't I remember anything? I guess I'm worried they'll show up again."
Without thought or hesitation he reached out to grab her wrist. The movement caused her to let the iPad slip out of her hand. The impact of it crashing onto his table didn't seem to faze him. She allowed his hand to fold into hers, and he gave it a reassuring squeeze. He said, "They won't. And, what if Jae is right? What if this really is all in our head?"
"Do you think it is?"
It took a beat for him to speak again. "I don't think so. But, I'll be honest for once – not that I'm a liar, but I like to extend the tale for entertainment's sake – it's hard to imagine things like that really happening. That's the stuff I daydreamed about in school. It's not reality. Maybe I've just gone crazy."
She smiled again, but this time it was a different type. Before, she had smiled to give herself confidence in her own words and to pass that on to him. This time, it was a sad slip of the lips; it curled itself back down almost immediately.
James could barely remember going home and cleaning up. All he had done was splash some water on his face before he was out the door again. He doubted a single breath of sleep had graced his presence all night, which was really no surprise considering how intense the adrenaline was in his body. Whether it was the damned capsule he had taken at Jae's apartment or from busting up the gangsters, he couldn't deny the insane amount of power that pumped through each vein in his body. It pounded through his chest and pulsed in his head. It was driving him crazy.
Nothing was more maddening to him then what had happened to his hometown. While it seemed clear at night, once the sunlight hit the streets it became undeniable. Drug deals and prostitution happened in broad daylight; vicious fights and small robberies took place down every street. This was not the all-American small town he had grown to love. This was chaos. His watchful eyes tried to find a single redeeming quality about the sad state of the city, but he was hard-pressed to find much good. So he sat perched on the old library rooftop and witnessed the townsfolk hurry by in their indifferent lives.
He tried to contemplate what he could do to help make the town better. Out with the drugs, the gangs, the nonchalant attitude toward violence… all of these things seemed obvious, but he questioned how he could make it possible. How would a single man change the way every individual views crime or immoral acts? How was he to make them care about the lives of others again? It gave him a headache; he wasn't one to think, he was one to act. He left all the thinking and decision making to Jae. James had a "punch now, talk later" attitude. It was itching to rise to the surface.
The wail of police sirens had his need to fight break free. From rooftop to rooftop he effortlessly followed the squad of cars. Gaps seemed too large to jump naturally, but he made them all without issue or fear. He simply embraced the idea that he had somehow gained these inhuman abilities. There was no need to question whether it was reality or not, because it felt real enough to him. If it was all in his head, he'd rather have just stayed inside the fantasy forever. At least I can make a difference this way, even if the whole world is make believe, he thought.
The cars screeched to a halt just outside a small duplex on West Canal Avenue, where at least seven other cars had already set up a perimeter. James managed to land right on top of the duplex. He peered curiously over the gutter at the gathering of police officers. He strained his ears to hear their words above the autumn breeze.
"Another damned deal gone wrong," one of the officers said to the newcomers. "Dispatch received a call from inside that said three were down but their condition unknown."
The officer shook his head.
A clunker of an old import truck nearly barreled into the police barricade. From the beat-up vehicle Jae appeared; he slipped on his jacket and grabbed the EMT bag from the back of his truck. He strode up to the officers with a determined look on his face.
The lead officer held his hand up and stopped him. "Whoa, hold it cowboy. You get called in by dispatch?"
Jae nodded. "Yes, sir. All volunteers in the area were called in."
"Well, we're shit outta luck right now, kid. The gunman is still in there."
"Or maybe its gunmen."
James had to snort at the fact the police didn't even know what laid just behind the walls of the duplex. Their lack of haste annoyed him more than anything. The idea that three or four people lay dying or dead while the crooks inside just lazed about and watched TV didn't sit well with him. He had to take action.
He crawled away from the gutter and approached the backside of the duplex. A careful peek into the backyard revealed to him that the place was completely surrounded by officers from multiple agencies. It didn't appear as though there was a way for him to slip inside unnoticed. In fact, it was somewhat of a surprise that he hadn't been seen yet, but perhaps it just revealed the police departments' general sloth and incompetence. He decided there was only one way to play hero.
After rolling his shoulders a few time and cracking his neck, he felt warmed up enough to make his entrance. He sprinted toward the front end of the building and leapt off. The sight of a man falling from the top of the duplex caught the eye of every person on the scene, including Jae. James landed harshly, even going so far as to punch the ground. The impact was hard enough to break the earth beneath him. Shockwaves from the hit had a few officers close to him tumble to the ground; the duplex rattled as though a small earthquake struck right at its foundation.
"What the fuck!"
"On the ground, on the ground!"
James heard the various shouts of the officers, but he ignored them. The wind had blown his hood up, so when he raised his head to see them, they had no clue who they were looking at. Jae recognized the jacket, and the small amount of grinning expression he could see from the shadowed face seemed familiar, but he didn't call out to him. He was only able to lightly breathe out his friend's name.
A wave of gunfire from the house obliterated a window just inches from James's head. He didn't even flinch. He watched as the officers scattered for cover, and remained motionless as they tried to return fire. Jae was forced behind a car by a cop, and did his best to remain hidden.
The shots were interrupted when James grew tired of standing still and punched the duplex with all of his strength. It was like a wrecking ball crashed into the old building with maximum force; the entire wall blew in and the ceiling collapsed down onto him. Despite seeing the roof headed his way, James remained still and let it hit him. He anticipated immense pain, perhaps unbearable pain. However, he felt as though he had to let all of that debris hit him; he had to know how much his body could take while on that insane high.
Jae, having seen the building collapse onto his friend, jumped out from his hiding spot. Officers shouted at him to stay back; he didn't hear them. The shooting from the building had stopped after the roof started to fall, and he felt confident the shooters were too dazed to do anything. It took him only two seconds to reach where James was. In fact, he made it to the edge of the duplex before everything had finished falling.
He stopped a mere foot away from James. The latter was frozen; still standing, but covered with chunks of drywall and wood. His face was adorned with cuts and his jacket was torn. The hood, however, remained perfectly in place. The two friends remained stagnant, as though time itself had stopped completely. Finally, Jae reached his hand out and cautiously called out to his friend.
James faintly heard his friend's voice but he assumed it was just the whistling of the wind. He pressed forward. Using his strength he lifted a large chunk of the debris off the ground. Underneath the fallen rooftop lay a gunman, his pistol still tightly gripped in his hand. The man was still alive, although barely. His arm was fractured, his chest was crushed in, and his face held many broken bones. He gasped out, attempting to ask for help.
James stared at the man with disgust. He let loose a strong kick at the gunman's head. The sicken sound of every tissue and bone in the man's neck breaking was the last noise the gunman's body made. Jae gaped in disbelief at the sight; James considered the threat neutralized and never looked back.
Once past the collapsed rooftop and wall, James was cozily inside the building. He glanced around; the room was littered with bullet holes and garbage. Blood smeared across a wall caught his attention, and he followed the smudge to the ground. A deceased victim lay crumpled on the floor. It was a man, he guessed about thirty. Since he couldn't help a dead man, he followed another blood trail into a different room. He stepped from carpet onto tile, and found his boots splashing into a puddle of red.
In the middle of the pool lay a woman near the same age as the previous victim. Her dead eyes stared blankly at the ceiling. Still wrapped in her arms was the third victim, a little girl no older than six. Plastered with red, there seemed to be little hope. James knelt down to check on her condition. He tried to convince himself that she was covered in her mom's blood; he tried to wish her back to life once he saw the lifeless white of her tiny eyes.
The sound of Jae trying to force his way through the half-caved in doorway snapped James back to reality. He rose from his position on the floor, his knees completely covered in the family's blood. Jae followed the drops of blood from James's pant as they landed back at their origin. The sight of the two victims caused him to jump forward, but James managed to catch him with one arm.
"Don't bother," James said to Jae. His voice was so broken, enough so that Jae didn't bother to fight. James felt the dark eyes of Jae on him, begging for an explanation. "They're already dead."
Jae allowed his eyes to focus on the two bodies, and he knew without a doubt that James was telling the truth. A rage bubbled up from his gut and made his entire body erupt into a violent shake. This was just another failure; a failure for this town, a failure for the police, a failure for humanity, a failure for himself…
James let his hand slip off of Jae's shoulder. Enraged, Jae knew he had to channel his anger somehow. He turned and punched the wall as hard as he could. The momentum and ease took him off guard and he barreled through the wall. He landed rather sloppily in the adjacent room and skidded to a halt.
At first, James wanted to laugh, but he noticed a fourth person. He pushed his way through the wall and nearly tripped over Jae as he rushed to the teenage boy. This fourth victim managed to make a gurgling plea for assistance or fear at the sight of the two strangers. James knelt next to him and assessed his injuries.
"Jae, bro, get up! This kid is still alive!"
Jae's head felt heavy; he was dazed and had no clue how he flew through the wall. It seemed impossible. Everything seemed impossible. Yet the sound of James's excited voice and the content of his words had Jae focused again. He scrambled to his feet and hurried to the injured young man.
The police were fighting their way through the destruction right as Jae knelt at the man's side. He turned to James and with a clear, commanding voice said, "You have to go."
James cocked a brow and said, "What?"
"They're going to haul you in if they catch you. Just go. We'll talk later," Jae said. He then shoved James's existence out of his mind so he could focus on his job.
James couldn't help the frown that found its way onto his features. He knew that tone of voice. It was typically reserved for Dick when he got out of control with his ramblings; sometimes, he used it on James when he had had too much to drink. It irked him that such a tone would be used at such a time. He had to force himself to take two strong, heavy breaths in order to calm down. Despite that, he still felt his hand curl into a fist. He turned and left in a huff. Indeed they would talk later.