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Smiling At Strangers

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It had been a good day.

As in – it had started good.

Sunday had woken at the first ring of her alarm – an irregularity, but a welcome one nonetheless – had gotten ready in record time, she found an earring she thought she’d lost in her fruit bowl, she’d been having a good hair day, and to top it all off, her train had been right on time.

She should have known that such a run of good luck would have heralded the current mess she had found herself in.

Of course – the end of the world could hardly be called a mess, could it?

It was more like, well, the end of the fucking world.

The invasion of New York hadn’t been kind to the superheroes that had tried their best to put themselves between the alien forces and the general public. It had been even less kind to the ordinary people that found themselves in the firing line anyway.

Sunday still remembered the distinct feeling of running across a destroyed road, the way the cracked pavement had made her ankles twist and strain, the way panic and blood mingled in her mouth, her tongue missing a little piece of itself from where her jaw had snapped shut, as the blast that had wiped out the bank next door to her little café, had tossed her through her own windows. Of course, she had been lucky that she hadn’t been closer to the counter in that moment. She also remembered the way her manager had looked; with his guts all exposed and his eyes glazed and lifeless.

Sunday still remembered the hope that had risen in her at the sight of the red and gold suited man flying above her. Iron Man! She’d screamed his name at him, unsure what exactly she wanted. A lift out of the horror, probably. She’d followed him – more than a little stupidly – she now realised, followed him as fast as she could run.

Sunday still remembered the shocking heat from the explosion on her exposed skin, the way her hair had singed, the disgusting smell of burnt hair, the way she had been thrown around again like a rag doll. The alien had been destroyed at least, she remembered thinking, as her body came to rest back across the road that had been so hard to cross. She remembered the way his armour had shone as he flew away, back into the fray, leaving her broken body there. Of course, she had told herself, still told herself every morning, how was he to know, to notice. There were bodies everywhere, civilians everywhere. She was just another face, another body to protect. And she’d been lucky. She had to remind herself of that; she’d been lucky.

She could have died.

 


 

“Yo! Cripple comin’ through!”

Sunday manoeuvred her wheelchair expertly through the hurried splitting crowd, grinning like a maniac at the half-pitying half-surprised faces of the New York public as she whizzed through them like a speed-demon. She bumped unapologetically into the back of a man too busy with his phone to notice her approach. “Move it! Some of us can’t walk around obstacles like you can!” she told him, watching as his pained angry face went to horrified, what ever expletive he had had ready for whoever had rammed him dying on his lips as he took her in.

“I- oh, my god – yes, of course, so sorry ma’am- I’m so-”

She ignored his stuttering apology, and wheeled around him. “Keep your head out of your phone, dipstick.” She threw over her shoulder at him, already pushing away. She was late, like actually pretty late – and though her manager was more than nice, and kind of her best friend in the world, she was also pushing her luck being late three days in a row.

The 2012 Battle Of New York – capitals intended, as the media wanted – had destroyed a lot, even now, four years later, the effects could still be seen. Stark’s clean-up was still at work, but still, homes were rubble, businesses dust. Her new job was at one of the luckier coffee shops that had been spared from the destruction. In fact, lucky was a good way to describe the owners, who’d escaped from New York with no adverse effects.

And they’d been kind enough to give her a chance.

Sunday spied the little gold lucky cat waving at her in the window, and pushed her wheels faster. It used to hurt a bit, pushing herself so fast – and back when she’d first gotten her chair, when she could be convinced into it, she used to struggle just getting to the corner shop outside her apartment block. Now though, she was a regular menace. She couldn’t find it within herself to feel guilty about the chaos she caused as she rocketed through the busy New York streets.

She whizzed up the purpose built ramp in the front of the café, and shoved the door open just before impact, making the bell jangle loudly.

“You’re late.” Her manager and close friend; Felicity Sevin, was a young mother, happily married and happily busy with the café and the raising of her six children. She was frowning through a cloud of steam at the coffee machine, and Sunday adopted a familiar feel-sorry-for-me pout, fluttering her lashes at her manager as she headed to the nearest table, collecting the dirty cups onto a tray she carried with her.

“I’m disabled…” she said mournfully – affecting her best woe-is-me tone.

Felicity made a disgruntled noise, “No – you like to sleep through your alarm.” She raised an eyebrow, “even in college you were chronically late.”

Sunday dropped her pout, and grinned. “Yeah I know; being chronically late is a disability.” She mopped imaginary sweat off her brow after she dumped the dirty mugs into the washer. “I’m struggling, Fee – please be kind to me.”

“Whatever.” Felicity rolled her eyes at Sunday – before turning on a ridiculously bright smile as the bell jangled once more. “Hello there, how may I help you, sir?” Sunday grimaced at her friend’s customer service voice, and wheeled herself around to meet the familiar face of one of their regulars.

“Uh, yeah – I’ll grab the usual.” The man – she was pretty sure he was a doctor, he’d come in once talking about a ‘case,’ in an obnoxiously loud voice – was, as he always was, buried in his expensive phone, in his expensive suit, with his expensive watch reflecting the fairy lights that Felicity had set up above the counter. Her eyes narrowed.

“Sorry – what would that be?” Sunday asked, politely enough, ignoring Felicity’s exasperated sigh and obvious clattering on the coffee machine as she began making the man’s order that they both knew off by heart.

The man looked up, with his familiar scowl. “Americano, one sweetner, no cream.” He said curtly, just as he always did. Sunday took a great deal of satisfaction in the small irritation she caused him – he deserved it. He never tipped, never smiled, and he clearly thought he was above them. So many times she’d been close to telling him to go shove his americano up his ass, and go somewhere else to buy his stupid coffee.

Sunday gave him a syrupy sweet smile. “And was that regular or large?” she punched in large, but waited for his sigh.

“Large.” He told her, going back to his phone with a not so obvious eyeroll.

“Of course. Your total is going to be 4.75 today-” he thrust his black-platinum-gold-whatever card in her face, and she clenched her jaw with the force of her smile. Asshole.

She made sure to punch in the surcharge of spending under ten-dollars on the machine, and as he didn’t move the card, busy typing with his other hand, had to move the machine to him and tap it against his card. Asshole, asshole, asshole.

Felicity moved quickly, placing the take-away cup in front of him before Sunday could react further. “You have a nice day now.”

And then – he actually looked up and smiled. Smiled! But not at her, obviously, at her pretty friend. “Thanks.” He said shortly, to Felicity, and strode out of the door.

Sunday’s mouth fell open. “Did you SEE THAT?” she cried furiously as the door swung shut. “That little asshole! He’s totally ableist – I bet you.”

Felicity sighed. “He’s a doctor, he’s not ableist, Sunny – maybe you should try being nice to him. Does the term customer service ring any bells?”

Sunday drew herself up, wheeling around to face her friend. “Um – I was so nice just then. I smiled at him and everything.”

“Oh, that’s what that was? I thought that was a threat display – y’know, like a monkey? When they bare their teeth?” Felicity grinned at her teasingly. “You should try some genuine kindness – just pretend he’s someone you like.”

“Is that what you do, Miss Congeniality?” Sunday wheeled herself to the display cabinet, where Felicity had gotten half-way through stacking the baked goods, picking up the tongs and placing what remained of a tray of chocolate chip cookies into the case.

Felicity’s smile had gotten a little dreamy. “I just picture Julian…” she sighed wistfully.

Sunday wrinkled her nose. “Ew. Keep your husband out of this – you know I’m allergic to your P.D.A.” Felicity and Julian had met in her final year of college, and as her roommate, Sunday had been unable to avoid their ridiculously loved up antics. She didn’t believe in soulmates, but if she did – she’d probably credit Felicity and Julian’s relationship as a major catalyst. They were so happy, and had a joyful life, and adorable children – though she’d never say as such, because she was already saddled with babysitting whichever child happened to be at the café when she was there.

“Aunt Sunday!”

Speak of a devil.

Felicity’s youngest daughter had her head poked out of the back room, a huge grin on her chocolate smeared face. At least, she hoped it was chocolate.

"Aunt Sunday makes me sound old, Ally - come on! Call me Sunday!" 

Alice just laughed, and took another bite of a cupcake she produced from thin air. Sunday wrinkled her nose at the further mess that the girl made. Children.

“Alice!” Felicity turned away from the coffee machine to scold her daughter. “I thought you had a stomach-ache! That better not be chocolate…” She took a threatening step towards her ten-year old, who giggled and fled into the staff room. Felicity sighed, and gave Sunday a long-suffering look. “Sorry, I’ve got to go lay down the law.”

Sunday chuckled, turning to face the pair of hipsters that had just walked in and were considering their menu board. “As if. You’re such a pushover.” Felicity sighed, and left to go give her daughter what Sunday could tell would be a not-so-stern talking to. Sunday gave her best smile to the taller of the two that had stepped forwards to order. “Hey, what can I getchya?”

 


 

Sunday rolled into her apartment building, more tired than she should have been. It hadn’t been a particularly busy or tiring day, but sometimes she just got… tired. Worn out.

She jabbed at the button for the elevator. The familiar creaking groan of the mechanics started up worryingly, as it always did. She had been in this building since she’d left college, unable to move out then, and definitely unable to move out now. Her building wasn’t exactly wheel-chair friendly, but she had no other choice. It was just another item on her list of private irritations.

She tried not to think about it, honestly. When she thought too hard about it, about the need to wheel herself around because she was too weak to walk more than a few metres without collapsing, she got angry, she got sad. Still – she was lucky. She just had to tell herself that.

Some people couldn’t even go to the bathroom by themselves.

She was lucky.

She rolled herself into the elevator, the light flickering dubiously above her, and sighed as the doors shuddered shut.

She was lucky.

 


 

When they’d dug her out from under the rubble, she’d been rushed to hospital. There she’d been quickly diagnosed with an SCI – spinal cord injury – with damage to her lumbar spine. She was a grade C case, according to the ASIA. Of course, that, to someone completely unfamiliar with SCI’s and everything that came and went with them, it meant nothing. To the nurses and doctors that had been with her in the first year, it meant ‘there’s a chance of full recovery!’ it meant encouraging smiles, and false hope, and inevitable disappointment, because even with an incomplete paraplegia, she still struggled to move far without her wheelchair.

It was just so fucking infuriating.

She hadn’t used to be active per-say, but she’d never forget what it meant to just get out of bed without her walking frame, what it felt like to hurry down the stairs, what it meant to kick her door shut, what being mobile felt like. It just made it worse.

To remember.

She shut her apartment door behind her with a gentle click, spinning to face her apartment. Her walker, bedazzled and familiar, seemed – for all it’s connotations – to taunt her, where it sat, right within reach. She was almost tempted to try and walk for the kitchen without it. But she knew it was a bad idea. Her physical therapist had told her she still wasn’t ready for unassisted ambulation.

She knew it herself. If she barely felt strong enough to walk around her tiny apartment with her walker…

Sunday tightened her jaw, and smiled her customer service smile at her walker. “Suck it up, Sunday. You’re lucky.” She said aloud. A meow in response to her voice made her smile for real, as a fat ball of fur came barrelling in from her bedroom. “Hey, Freddie.” She kissed at him, and he meowed again, winding around her walker expectantly. “Okay, Mr. Mercury, okay – I know you’re not dying… you’re too fat as it is.” She told him, slowly easing herself up out of her chair, hissing at the familiar pain that radiated out from her hip. It froze her where she was half-standing, fighting the urge to cry out or curl up. Freddie Mercury meowed again, and she shot him a tight smile, pushing herself the rest of the way up, hands curling familiarly around her walker’s handles.

At her usual slow pace, she made her way to the kitchen, pulling out Freddie’s bowl and sachet of wet-food, and putting it on the counter for him. He leapt up immediately, burying his head in the blue bowl with a loud purr. She patted him absently, considering what she wanted for dinner. Something easy.

Always something easy.