January 1st, 2011
My dad wasn’t breathing.
I had my ear pressed right against his mouth, straining for even the slightest sound, the faintest whisper of air against my skin, but there was nothing. No sound. No movement. No life.
I wanted to break down and sob into his chest, and just let everything out, until... until what? Until I ran out of tears? Until the falling snow buried us both? Until someone, anyone came along and fixed everything that was broken?
I wanted to break down, but I couldn’t, because I could hear someone waking up further into the alleyway. Someone who I clearly hadn’t hit hard enough the first time. I stood up and started walking towards him. He and his friends all wore the red and green colors of the ABB, one of the three largest gangs in Brockton Bay. He was trying to push himself away from me, his face looking pale and sick in the golden light that surrounded me.
Golden light? It hurt to think, but I could just barely recall how the glow had lit up the whole alleyway, just before I’d heard my dad scream my name, and then...
My legs buckled and I fell back to my knees, right before throwing up into a nearby pile of snow. Something had happened, but I couldn’t put the pieces back together. I staggered back to my feet and kept walking.
It was all just a desperate blur, but sometime in the last few minutes I’d apparently become a parahuman. It didn’t feel important. My newfound powers let me knock out a half-dozen armed gang members with my bare hands, but they couldn’t do anything that mattered. They hadn’t saved the only person who still mattered to me. I was still just as weak, just as worthless as before.
I stepped over to the retreating ABB ganger, grabbing him by the neck and hauling him to his feet before slamming him against the brick alleyway wall. He wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger, but that also didn’t feel as important as it should have. I stared into his eyes as they filled with panic, and felt...nothing. I didn’t even know why I had grabbed him, just that I needed something from him.
“Why?” I heard myself say. He looked at me without comprehension.
“Why,” I tried again, “were you here? This isn’t your territory. It’s supposed to be safe.” I almost had to spit the word ‘safe,’ as my hand tightened involuntarily around his neck. We were only a block from my home, on the edges of the Docks but not actually on the ABB’s turf. Dad offered to host the Dockworker’s Association New Year’s party out our place specifically because he wanted everyone to stay clear of the Docks at night. I’d gone out for some fresh air, just like I had a hundred times before, and then.. And then...
“Lung!” the man said, choking out the word around my iron grip on his windpipe. I’d forgotten he was there. “Wants. New territory. Told us. To make examples.”
His face had started to turn all sorts of unusual colors, so I relaxed my grip just a little. After a few shuddering breaths, he met my eyes and continued.
“He sent a bunch of us out, told us to put up tags and then come back with something valuable. Wallets. Guns. Girls…”
“Girls,” I growled. I was starting to remember the things he and his friends had been saying as they grabbed me.
My captive seemed to misunderstand that as a question. “For the brothels,” he gulped out, “or ransom, if their parents were important enough. We didn’t want to kill anyone. If that stupid asshole hadn’t-”
I punched him, snarling as more golden light coruscated down my arm and into my fist. I heard a thundering crack as a cloud of dust and debris erupted into my face. When the dust cleared, I saw that I’d missed the man, instead punching a crater the size of a dinner plate into the brick wall right beside his head. My hand glowed with a strange inner light; it didn’t have a scratch on it.
My captive, unfortunately, had passed out. I rummaged around in his jacket pocket for his phone before letting him slump to the ground. My fingers moved on autopilot, dialing 911, while my mind raced. What was I going to do now? The smart plan would be to wait for the cops, give a statement, call the PRT about my powers and join the Wards. It made the most sense, but it also made me feel sick to my stomach.
My life had been hell before this; why would joining the parahuman boy-scouts make it any better? They’d put me in a shiny new costume, make me smile and wave to the crowds like everything hadn’t just fallen apart, like it wasn’t thanks to fucking capes like them that things had even gotten so bad in the first place. They’d make me go back to school.
I could almost hear Emma’s voice, see the sneer on her face. “Oh, Taylor, I knew you were pathetic, but I never even imagined you’d be so useless that both of your parents would die because of you!”
Somewhere far away, the 911 dispatcher was telling me to please stay on the line. The phone dropped into the snow. I turned around, took one last look at dad, and ran.
I staggered out of yet another alleyway, one hand buried in my hoodie’s front pocket while the other checked my chest for broken ribs. It was a futile gesture; I didn’t know how to distinguish the pain of a broken bone from that of a giant bruise, so I couldn’t figure out anything more detailed than “yup, that sure does hurt!”
Which it did. A lot. Ouch.
Still, I wasn’t dead, nor were any of the ABB members I’d picked a fight with. Even better, I’d managed to take them down without any obvious glowing, so they probably wouldn’t guess they’d been beaten up by a cape. The ABB only had two capes of their own, but I clearly wasn’t ready to tangle with either of them.
Back on the street, I stopped a moment to catch my breath before walking towards the abandoned building I’d been sleeping in the last few nights. I’d gone into that fight expecting it to be a walk in the park, but it turned out that my power wasn’t actually all that powerful. I was stronger and tougher, but I clearly wasn’t much of a brute, and faster reflexes didn’t mean that I automatically knew how to fight. That trick with the glowing fists might have been useful, but it was a bit obvious, and I wasn’t confident that I could use it without accidentally killing someone.
I’d started off strong, catching the gang members off guard with a stronger punch than my scrawny limbs would suggest I was capable of, but it didn’t take them long to rally against me. In the end, I only really won through sheer endurance, taking three blows for every one I landed myself. If any of them had been carrying a gun or a knife, I might have died.
Eventually, I reached my hideout, only to find that someone had been by while I’d been out. They’d taken my little pile of kindling, the spare shirt I’d hung out to dry, and the ratty old shopping bag that had held my entire entire store of bottled water and the half sandwich I’d been saying for lunch. They hadn’t been able to grab the soggy, beaten-up mattress I’d found to sleep on, so they’d just slashed it up with a knife instead. How nice of them.
Ah, fuck it. I didn’t sit down so much as I just collapsed on the ground. At least I wasn’t broke anymore. I pulled out the gang members’ wallets from my hoodie pocket and started rifling through them for valuables. I ended up with a little over a hundred dollars and a Subway gift card, both of which I greedily stashed away in a zip-up pocket. It wasn’t a fortune, but it meant I didn’t need to worry about food for a while longer.
Leaning back against the wall, I held up my right hand in front of my face, focusing on it until it started to glow. My power was just so frustrating! It felt like I had this vast ocean of energy flowing through me, enough power to level buildings or throw cars into space or something. Just holding it inside me muted fear, filled me with confidence, made me feel like I could accomplish anything...until I actually tried to do something with it. Then, nothing. It could make my fists as strong as steel, let me punch brick walls for half an hour without suffering even so much as a bruise, but that didn’t draw on more than the smallest flicker of the fire I felt roaring inside me. I could control the energy, change how it flowed through my body with only a thought, but no matter how much I poked and prodded it didn’t seem to actually do anything.
I sighed, and then forced myself to my feet. Fine. It only made sense that I’d get the world’s most underwhelming power. I’d dealt with disappointment before, far worse than this, and I’d survived so far. There was a strange kind of freedom in knowing that I’d hit rock bottom. All of the worst things I’d imagined had already happened, which meant that there was little left for me to fear. So what if my power wasn’t going to fix things for me automatically? I’d just have to find a way to fix my life without it.
I made my way back to one of the more occupied streets, trying to remember where the nearest subway was located. All the while, though, my eyes were scanning the nearby store fronts, looking for gyms, dojos, any place that could teach me how to fight properly. I still didn’t have an actual plan beyond the next few days, but learning how to take care of myself couldn’t be a bad start.
I felt like shit for missing dad’s funeral, but the community center only offered free self-defense lessons on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and I'd go crazy if I had to wait until the middle of next week. Plus, it wasn’t exactly like I could even show my face there. I couldn’t quite say why, but I didn’t want the rest of the world to know I was still alive. I wasn't going back to my old life, no matter what, and so I'd let everyone assume I was gone until I knew just what my new life was going to be.
I squared off against my practice partner, and older woman with frizzy white hair and workout clothes that would have been garish even back in the 80s when they’d been made. She charged at me, stabbing out with the plastic cafeteria spoon we’d been asked to imagine as a knife. I side-stepped the attack, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her into one of the joint-locks the instructor had shown us. My partner dropped the ‘knife’ with a hiss of in-drawn breath.
“Sorry!” I yelped, immediately letting go. “I didn’t mean to twist that hard.”
She only laughed, though. “Don’t worry, hun, I’ve been through plenty worse. I was just surprised at how fast you moved. You sure this is your first class?”
Her tone was good humored, fortunately, so I didn’t take it as an accusation. Years of abuse from the Trio had trained me to search every compliment for hidden barbs. Being out in public like this, letting myself be friendly with people, still wasn't easy. I was relying on my power to help buoy my confidence and manage the anxiety I felt. Even then, I don't think I could have managed it if I hadn't given everyone a fake name. If these people ever betrayed me, if everything became too intense, Ms. Linda Carnaham could just vanish from their lives, never to be seen again.
“Maybe I was a ninja in a past life,” I said, picking up the spoon so she could take her turn disarming me.
“I’d almost believe it,” I heard our instructor say from behind me. Sergeant Camden (just calling her Mary felt wrong, no matter what she said) was the only other woman here as tall as I was, and her bulky frame probably weighed more than twice what I did. She worked in the PRT, but volunteered at the community center whenever she found the time. I felt lucky to be here on one of the days she was teaching.
“You picked all this up faster than anyone else I’ve seen,” she said. “If my recruits learned even half as fast as you, I’d be out of a job in a week.”
I did my best not to blush at her praise. “It must be because I have such a good teacher,” I said, with a slight hint of playful sarcasm to make it clear that I wasn’t just brown-nosing.
Inwardly, though, I’d been wondering. “Learning fast” was an understatement. It seemed like I never needed her to show me anything more than once before I could do it myself. Everything she taught me just felt natural, like I only had to go with the flow and let my body move flawlessly through every step. Not only that, but I could feel my power responding to the training, the energy flows inside me shifting or intensifying in response to my motions.
Sergeant Camden chuckled, and before she could move on to examine another pair of students, I spoke up.
“Actually, Ma’am, I have a question?”
“It’s Mary, not Ma’am,” she said, “and shoot.”
“Well,” I said, “To be honest, I’m not just here to learn self defense. I’m actually a huge fan of professional MMA, and I’ve been thinking of trying out some of that stuff myself.”
Camden smiled indulgently. “Well, from the looks of things you’ve probably got a knack for it. Why show up here, though? I’m not exactly running rigorous physical training, here.”
I looked down at my shoes, trying to sound embarrassed. “Money’s kinda tight in my family right now,” I said, “and I wasn’t sure if I’d be cut out for anything serious. It’s been really fun so far, though, so I thought I’d ask if you know any good ways to find an instructor?”
She grinned at me, and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “I might have a few ideas. Meet me in my office once the class is done, and don’t worry so much about money. I know a few people who would who’d be happy to give a few lessons, especially since they all owe me a few favors. I only ask two things in return.”
“What’s that?” I asked. This was going better than I’d hoped.
“First,” she said, “I don’t want you joining any of the gangs. I’m not getting you training just so you can go use your skills to help bastards like Kaiser or Lung.”
“No chance of that,” I said, meaning every word.
“Good,” she replied. “Second, if this all works out for you, consider joining up with the cops or the PRT. I’m not saying you have to enlist, but give it a thought. We could use more people like you on our side.”
I couldn’t stop myself from blushing this time. How long had it been since someone had looked at me and seen potential instead just a problem child? I had to look down to avoid letting her see me tear up from her words.
“I’ll try to keep impressing,” I said. When she walked away, I went back to practicing with my partner. It suddenly had a lot to think about.
“Stop right there, little lady.”
The voice coming from behind me was doing its best to drip with menace, but mostly it just sounded drippy. Still, I stopped as he asked.
“You didn’t think you could just walk down this private road without paying a toll, did you?” he continued. Mentally, I added another tick to the tally. That was three “pay the toll” threats this week, along with two “show you a good time”s and one “it’s dangerous out here, why don’t we walk you home?” I was beginning to think that all the gangs in this city learned everything they knew about muggings from movies.
“Now turn around,” the mugger said, and I complied. There were four of them in total, carrying improvised weapons and wearing Merchant colors. I preferred to go after the ABB when possible, but focusing on one gang exclusively risked drawing too much attention, so today I’d decided to go fishing through the drug-peddlers’ territory. I had to choke back a giggle as I saw that I probably had a solid two inches of height and 15lbs of muscle on the one who called me ‘little lady.’
“Please don’t hurt me!” I said, faking a tremor in my voice. “Please, I’ll do anything, just don’t get your blood all over my nice new jacket!”
Only one of them seemed to have actually heard me, since he frowned while the others just leered and advanced on me. Before the genius in their midst could say anything, I moved, covering the distance between me and the muggers in a heartbeat and slamming my elbow into the first one’s nose.
He howled in pain, hands coming up to stop the blood now gushing from his shattered nose, and I took the opportunity to hammer three quick blows into his ribs. My power surged inside me and I gladly took the extra strength it offered, letting it fill me like light fills a crystal chandelier. The Merchant to my left swung at my with a crowbar, so I grabbed the now-stunned ringleader by the shoulders and spun him into the path of the strike.
When the crowbar hit his back with a sickening thunk, I kicked my hapless punching bag into his shocked friend, intending to knock them both down. Instead, I felt my power sing through my limbs, as if it was telling me how it wanted to be used. I released my power just so and felt it rush up my leg, not hardening it to boost the blow, but actually slamming the power itself into my target. The merchant shot backwards like he’d been launched out of a cannon, bowling over his crowbar-wielding ally in the process before smacking into the side of a garbage bin.. On instinct, I reached a hand out and grabbed the crowbar as it fell right into my palm.
For several seconds, nobody made a sound. Then I turned to look at the remaining two, tossing my new crowbar into the air like a baton-twirler in a marching band, and allowed myself a toothy grin. From there, it was all over but their crying.
Half an hour later, I strolled back into my latest hideout with that grin still on my face, tossing the Merchants’ wallets onto the ‘to sort’ pile with the others. I wasn’t so concerned with theft now that I lived on the third floor of a building with no intact stairs, inaccessible to someone without flight or the enhanced jumping ability I’d figured out. I grabbed a bottle of water from my icebox (literally an insulated box filled with ice) and flopped down onto my pile of salvaged mattresses. I’d picked up some more cash, taken out a bunch of Merchants, and even learned a new use for my power.
Honestly, that last bit almost felt like overkill at this point; the last half dozen fights had barely made me break a sweat. That should have been a relief, but it seemed like the better I got at this fighting business, the more I itched for a real challenge. It was becoming increasingly clear that my power wasn’t nearly as much of a lemon as I’d first thought, and didn’t that meant that I should actually do something with it?
That meant, much as I hated to think it, that I couldn’t keep running from what had happened to me. When I was struggling to survive, it was easy to put away the memories and concentrate everything on whatever was in front of me, but now I’d messed things up by earning myself the time to think and relax. Nothing I did with my power would ever feel right if I couldn’t face up to the reason I was doing it.
I sighed, pulled out the old notebook I’d been using as a journal, and tried to get comfortable. It felt like I was going to have a long night.
“Mom...dad...I have to tell you something you’re probably not going to like.”
I knelt in front of my parents’ graves, and the cold I felt had nothing to do with the winter weather.
“I wish I’d come to talk to you both sooner. I could say that I didn’t have a chance, that I was too busy just trying to get by, but the truth is that I just didn’t want to have to face you. I think some part of me was hoping that I’d get myself killed before I ever had to deal with…”
I paused, trying to hold myself back from tearing up until I realized that was pointless and just let it out.
Minutes later, once I managed to find my voice again, I said “I’ve asked myself what advice you would give, if you were here right now.” I looked towards my mother’s gravestone. “You would probably tell me to go back and finish high school, find something that I loved to do, and then find some way to change the world with it. You, on the other hand” I turned towards my dad’s headstone, “would just tell me to stay safe, to keep my head down.” I chuckled. “Of course, when that didn’t work, you’d probably make me join the Wards instead.”
I sat back, and took another deep breath.
“I promise I’ll do my best to make you both proud of me, but there’s something I need to do first. I know it’s a bad idea, and there are a million and one reasons why I shouldn’t do it. I’ve tried to talk myself out of it so many times that it made my head spin, but I just. Can’t. Let go.”
I clenched my fists, and my power flared involuntarily, golden light shining briefly from my brow. I didn’t want to think about mom and dad ever seeing this side of me, but this was my last chance. If I couldn’t bring myself to tell them about my plan, then I’d know for sure that it wasn’t right.
“It’s just...ever since you died, dad, I’ve seen what a shitho-, er, what a terrible place Brockton Bay really is. I would have died a dozen times over if I didn’t have powers. The same thing that happened to you is happening again and again every day, but no one steps up to stop it. No one does anything about the gangs because they’re too scared of the villains. I can’t let that stand, not when I have the power to stop it. I need to show everyone that the gangs aren’t invincible.”
I paused, waiting for a sign. If I saw dad’s face in the clouds, if I heard mom’s voice in the wind, maybe I wouldn’t have to do this. I could go to the police, tell my story, start living with a foster family. It wouldn’t be hard to have a normal life, or as normal a life as a cape could hope for. Letting go, moving on, it would be the toughest part, but I knew it was possible. All I wanted in return was just a single moment of feeling like they might not be totally gone.
I held my breath and listened. I looked up at the sky, blinking away tears. Nothing. Of course. They were gone.
“I’m going to kill Lung,” I hissed, and just like that, everything felt somehow lighter. “He’s the biggest villain in Brockton Bay, so powerful that no one dares to fight him. Even the Protectorate are afraid of him. I should probably be afraid of him too, but when I look at Lung I don’t see the vicious crime-lord or the dragon who went toe to toe with Leviathan and lived. All I see is the reason why I don’t have a father anymore.”
“I don’t know how, and I don’t know when, but someday soon I’m going to kill him for that.”
I stood up, indecision replaced with cold certainty. As I turned to leave, though, I whispered one last thing under my breath.
“I just hope you’ll be able to forgive me.”