Less Than Heroic: Chapter Two

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2

Still Life

 

There was murder on the news.

Aaron Lightheart watched it over his cereal, barely listening to the reporter recount the details in his polished monotone.

His twin brother Carter sank into the seat beside him. A stack of five or six waffles wobbled on his plate, dripping syrup over the heap of scrambled eggs and fruit slices crammed along the edges.

Get enough food?” Aaron asked.

Maybe,” Carter dug his fork into the eggs. “Didn’t have enough room for yogurt. Why are you watching the news?”

Aaron shrugged. “Dad left it on.”

Not the best cure for nightmares,” Carter said through a mouthful of food.

My nightmares are worse than this,” he answered wryly. “and I don’t think avoiding TV will help.”

They ate in silence after that, Aaron without much appetite and Carter with too much. Aaron spent it trying not to think of the dream he’d had last night. Violence, without the sanitization of a news report. The worst part wasn’t even that what he’d dreamed was probably real. The worst part was that it probably hadn’t happened yet, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. It left him with a dull headache that every little noise seemed to intensify.

No TV during breakfast,” Mom said as she swept into the kitchen, her polished shoes clicking busily across the tile. She was already dressed for work: immaculate tailored suit, with her hair gathered into a puffy ball at the back of her head. “Why are you watching the news, anyway?”

Dad left it on,” they answered together.

Mom sighed. “Of course he did,” she said. “Aaron, are you eating dry cereal for breakfast? You know we have milk.”

It smelled bad,” he said.

At least eat an apple or something. And don’t forget to—”

Take my medicine. I know.” He rubbed at his temples. His headache was worsening.

You look tired,” she said.

Well, it’s morning and I’m sixteen.”

By which you mean you were up playing video games all night?” she asked.

Carter stayed up, too.”

Well, he looks like he handled it better,” she said, and her eyes fell on the mountain of food on Carter’s plate. “Carter, you aren’t going to eat all of that, are you?”

I’m hungry,” Carter said through a mouthful of food.

He’s a teenage boy, Zoe, and an athlete,” their father said as he walked in, rubbing a towel through his damp blond hair. His shirt was almost too tight, the Air Force logo stretched across his broad chest. He draped the towel around his neck and grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl. “Track today?”

Yeah, after school,” Carter said.

Aaron tuned them out. Their conversation faded into the monotony of kitchen clatter and the buzzing of the forgotten news report. He ate a few bland spoonfuls of cereal, trying to ignore the ache brought on by the onslaught of noise. He had almost finished when he felt a sudden, sharp pain, accompanied by a low-pitched whine. He flinched, dropping the spoon. Not again, he thought.

Aaron?” The voice was muffled, distorted. There was something else, but it faded under the intensifying pain. His family, the kitchen, all the ambient noise and color disappeared. A blur of images assaulted him: vivid snapshots, accompanied by bursts of noise and emotion. Intense moments spliced together like a badly edited film and dumped into his brain.

The vision faded as fast as it came, and Aaron found himself hunched over the table, his hands clutched to his temples.

Aaron, are you okay?” His mother’s voice drifted over him, and he glanced up to see her behind the kitchen island, her face creased with sympathy and concern.

I’m fine,” he said, blinking. Everything was blurry for some reason.

Here,” Carter said. He held Aaron’s glasses in his hand.

Oh. Thanks.” He took them and slid them over his nose, trying to ignore the attention. He scooped a spoonful of dry cereal into his mouth.

Mom rounded the counter. “Let me look at you,” she said, reaching toward him. He pushed her away. Aaron’s pulse was still racing from his vision, and he knew she’d notice.

I’m fine,” he said. “It wasn’t a bad one.”

Do you need to stay home today?”

No, I’m fine. It really wasn’t that bad.”

She looked at him doubtfully. “Okay,” she said at last. “If you keep having problems today, call me and I’ll come get you. And don’t forget your medicine,” she added, more gently this time. “It will help.”

Aaron nodded, concentrating on his cereal while he waited to feel normal again.

Meanwhile, his father was watching him from across the kitchen. Aaron couldn’t decide what the look meant. “I’m fine,” he said.

Dad plucked an apple out of the fruit bowl and tossed a bright green apple toward him. Aaron fumbled to catch it. “You need to eat more than cereal,” he said. He finished his own fruit and dropped the core in the trash. “Tell me how track goes,” he said to Carter, and headed back down the hall.

We should get going,” Aaron said, with a glance at Carter. “We have to pick up Lucia on the way to school.”

Just a sec,” Carter said. He spent a minute devouring the rest of his food—a sight both impressive and mildly disgusting—before dumping his plate in the sink and joining Aaron in the hall.

They were almost through the door when Mom rushed up, a white pill pinched between her fingers.

Don’t forget your—”

Medicine, I know,” Aaron said, holding out his hand in resignation. She gave him a smile as he popped it in his mouth and swallowed, and ushered him after Carter. He waited until he heard the door shut, then turned and spit it out in the hydrangeas.

#

Carter’s ancient red sedan was only mostly red, and sounded like it ran on the souls of tortured cats. Technically, it was Aaron’s car, too, even though he couldn’t drive.

He slumped into the passenger seat and flung his arm over his face. “I’m just going to close my eyes and pretend I don’t exist for a while.”

That bad, huh?”

Mph,” he said in reply. “It’s never good when they come so close together.”

Your power sucks,” Carter said.

No argument here.”

See anything good?”

Biology class.” He spent a moment sorting through the images in his memory. Test papers, a flash of blond hair, Carter’s yellow shirt, a faded anatomy poster. Anxiety and concentration. He blinked. “Pop quiz today. Couldn’t see the questions.”

Ugh, boring. Let me know when you have a vision about the girl’s locker room,” he said , with a grin to show he was joking.

Shut up,” Aaron said.

I texted Lucia,” he said. “You want her help with the headache?”

I figured I could trade it for my bio notes.” He yawned and leaned back, resting his head on his hands. “Turn on some music, will you? Just not too loud.”

They pulled up in front of a small blue house surrounded by azaleas. Although the bushes were neatly trimmed and the grass cut, the siding was cracked and the porch rails showed more rust than iron. The screen door slammed open and Lucia Clarke burst out, vaulting down the porch stairs as she swung her backpack over one shoulder.

She looked almost normal for once, in faded jeans and a black shirt that had been strategically ripped to show the lime green tank top underneath. Her long black hair hung loose, the tips dyed vivid magenta.

Hey, losers,” Lucia said as she slid into the backseat. “What’s the emergency?” She lounged in the center of the seat, propping her legs up on the center console. “I brought snacks,” she said, producing a bag full of miniature muffins. She opened the bag, releasing a waft of warm, cinnamon-scented air. Aaron could almost taste the sweetness. “Want one?” she enticed, dancing the bag toward him.

Oh my god, yes.” Aaron said, reaching immediately for it.

I thought you weren’t hungry,” Carter said, and: “Three please.”

You know I can’t resist cinnamon,” Aaron said, taking a bite.

So what’s going on?” Lucia glanced between them, shoving a whole muffin in her mouth. “You two are kind of anxious about something.”

Pop quiz in Coldwell’s class,” Carter said, and Lucia shuddered. Coldwell was famous for his vicious test questions. “And Aaron has a headache.”

I’m not a bottle of aspirin. Take some painkillers or something.”

I took three and it hasn’t helped,” Aaron said. “Mom was about to go full brain doctor on me this morning. Please, Lu? I’ll trade you my notes.”

Lucia leaned forward and squinted at him. “You do look pretty awful.” She rested her hand on his shoulder, letting her fingertips touch the bare skin of his neck. Her eyes closed, and she took a deep breath. “Wow,” she said. Then, rolling her eyes: “Okay, okay. I’ll do it this time. But I want Carter’s notes. No offense, but your handwriting sucks.”

#

About a mile and a half from school, they hit a traffic jam. Cars were backed up in every direction, and far ahead, Aaron saw the flash of police lights.

Wish you’d seen a vision about this,” Lucia muttered. She sprawled across the back seat, perusing Carter’s biology notebook while she munched on a muffin. “We could have taken the fun road.”

If I could control it, I wouldn’t see anything at all,” Aaron said. Her efforts had eased the pain in his head, and in his relief he’d eaten two more of her muffins.

Carter glanced back at Lucia. “Can you sense anything?”

She closed her eyes, tilting her head to once side. “A lot of frustration, a little anger. Curiosity….concern.” Her brow creased together. “Fear. Someone’s hurt, I think. Badly.”

As they inched closer to the scene, Aaron caught a glimpse of the wrecked cars on the roadside. One had smashed headlong into the other, flipping it over and sending it careening into the guard rail. The impact had crushed the frame of the car. A paramedic crouched by the driver door, and another was loading a gurney into the ambulance. The police were busy directing traffic, and questioning a man holding a bloody towel to his forehead.

It’s terrible,” Lucia whispered. “So much pain.”

As they watched, two of the police joined the paramedic at the crushed car, and after a busy minute, one walked off and pulled out his phone.

What are they doing?” Carter said.

I don’t know,” Lucia said. “They’re…really anxious. Like…” Her eyes searched for the words to describe whatever she emotions she felt. “Almost…helplessness.”

You think someone’s trapped in there?”

Lucia bit her lip. She scrunched up her face, tilting it like she was trying hard to listen to something. “Yeah. Maybe.”

They passed the bottleneck around the wreck and the congested traffic dispersed across the normal two lanes. Instead of speeding up, Carter changed lanes and pulled off on the shoulder. His hands tightened on the steering wheel.

We should help,” he said.

Aaron raised an eyebrow. “Help?”

They have help,” Lucia said. “You know, people who do this as their job. We’d just be getting in the way.”

But they can’t help. I mean, that’s what you said.”

I said I think that’s what’s going on. If you want more specific details, ask the crystal ball over here.”

You know I can’t control—” Aaron began, but she ignored him.

Anyway,” Lucia said, frowning back at the scene. “I don’t know what we could do about it.”

If someone’s trapped, I can get him out. You could heal him—”

It doesn’t work that way,” Lucia said. “I can ease pain, and I can push the natural healing process a little faster. But I can’t close wounds or mend bones. I can’t heal blood loss.”

I could still get him out. Maybe the paramedics could save him then.” Carter’s grip on the steering wheel tightened. “Don’t you get tired of having powers and not doing anything with them? We should be using them.”

Of course we do,” Aaron said quietly. “But…we can’t just charge in and…there are police, and paramedics, not to mention all the people driving by gawking at it. There’s no way we can do anything without them seeing us.”

Carter shrugged. “Most of the police are busy with the traffic. There’s one medic and an officer.” He glanced back at the wreck, and said, hesitantly: “Couldn’t you…you know…distract them, somehow?”

Without getting arrested?” Aaron asked, but Carter had that determined look on his face. He wasn’t going to give this up easily. “Okay, I know what you mean.” Aaron took of his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. He knew how Carter felt. He felt the same way, every time his had a vision of something terrible he couldn’t stop. Having power, and not doing anything with it.

Okay,” Aaron said, pushing the frames up his nose. “We can get a closer look.”

Lucia groaned. “I guess I’ll help,” she said, glowering as she shut the notebook. “Otherwise, you’ll both get arrested and I’ll feel guilty.”

#

They took a long route through the trees, and hid downhill from the wreck to get a better view. From here, Aaron could just see the shape of a body wedged in the crumpled car. The paramedic was crouched nearby, along with two officers who had little to do but watch. Aaron took a deep breath.

Okay,” he said. “I can get you enough time to get close. Not sure what will happen after that.”

Ready,” Carter said, settling into a runner’s stance. Lucia tucked her hair behind her ears and nodded less certainly.

Okay,” Aaron said. He breathed in and out in long, rhythmic motions, concentrating on the sensation of time passing around him–a dense, slow moving current pushing everything inexorably forward. But as fluid as it first seemed, the tide was less like an ocean than a web. Some strands were tough, thick, like the sinews of a tree, while others were like braided twine, slender and flexible. He reached out, feeling for a gap in the flow, and twisted it apart.

Pressure built around him, like being wrapped tight in plastic, and the noise of traffic and birdsong warped into a low, protracted warble.

With a gasp, he opened his eyes.

Carter and Lucia had frozen mid-stride, still staring uphill at their destination. Time hadn’t stopped, exactly, so much as he’d stepped into a slipstream, accelerating to the point where it was almost imperceptible.

Aaron breathed deep, the air like syrup in his lungs, and fought the urge to hyperventilate. One of the drawbacks was that nothing else shifted with him: not even the air he was breathing. Bending time took effort, and sustaining it took concentration.

By the time he’d sprinted to the top of the hill, his head was throbbing. He clambered over the guard rail, spotted a patrol car with an open door, and made a beeline for it.

Fighting a fresh wave of dizziness, he scanned the console. His lungs hurt, and he could feel the panic setting in. There! he thought triumphantly, slamming his hand against the switch. It took some effort to get it moving, but as soon as he felt the click, he bolted from the car. The rising wail of the siren followed him.

Aaron stumbled around the wrecked car, wheezing against the vise-like pressure on his chest. The officers helping the medic had already started to turn toward the whooping siren, and the medic was flinching, hands halfway to her ears. Carter was mid-vault over the guardrail, with Lucia a few paces behind. Aaron released his power, collapsing against the hood of the car.

Time sped back to normal with a sickening lurch. Aaron gasped for breath.

The paramedic whirled at the sound, and pointed at him in shock. “Hey, kid, you can’t be here—”

Lucia stepped behind her, laying both hands on the medic’s neck. “That siren is really loud,” she said. “You should look away for a minute.”

The medic’s eyes glazed over, and she turned to stare at the wailing siren in dazed fascination.

Carter slid to a stop by the car door, eyes darting over the wreckage. The crumpled roof had warped the door, jamming it shut and trapping the driver inside. Somehow, Carter managed to wedge his hands between the door and the frame. Bracing both feet against the ground, he gripped the twisted metal, grunted, and pulled hard.

The door peeled away with a screech and a groan, then snapped, tearing free of its hinges. Carter tossed it aside and crouched down, wriggling under the passenger seat toward the driver.

The man was still alive, but crushed between the seat and the steering wheel. Carter took half a second to take stock braced his foot against the frame of the car and his hand against the seat, behind the driver’s shoulder. He took a few quick breaths and grunted with effort, muscles bulging as he pushed.

The steering wheel inched away from the man’s chest, just far enough for Carter to reach his arm around and catch him as he started to slip.

All the noise had startled the paramedic out of Lucia’s daze, and she’d turned back, mouth agape as Carter laid the unconscious driver carefully on the asphalt.

Lucia thrust a hand against her skin. “You didn’t see anything,” she said quickly. “You didn’t see anyone else. You got him out of the car. Go do your job now. Help him.” When Lucia released her, the paramedic shook her head, as if confused, and then rushed toward the prone driver without a glance at the three of them.

Carter grabbed Aaron’s arm, pulling him to his feet. “Come on!” he whispered frantically. Still dizzy, Aaron lurched after him, clutching his brother’s arm as he climbed over the guard rail. He stumbled down the hill after his brother, fell to his knees, and threw up in the dirt.

#

When they got back to the car, they collapsed in their seats. Moments passed while the three of them just sat there, staring at nothing in overwhelmed silence. Aaron closed his eyes, trying to wade through the mix of nausea and fading adrenaline.

That,” Lucia said eventually, “was awesome.”

Yeah,” Carter agreed, with a nervous laugh. “Yeah, it was.” Then he grimaced down at his bloodstained yellow shirt. “Ugh, gross. Hey, Lu, there should be a spare shirt back there somewhere. Grab it for me?” Lucia reached down to pluck a wrinkled blue shirt off the floorboard and tossed it to him. Carter pulled off the stained shirt and Lucia whistled appreciatively. “Shut up,” he said, laughing. “Or I won’t let you read my notes.” She help her hands up in surrender. He was grinning as he pulled the other shirt over his head.

It was kind of satisfying,” Aaron mused. He ran his hands through his hair and swallowed against the taste of bile. “But you know, I think I’m done with thrilling heroics for today.”

Here,” Lucia said. She placed her hands on the back of his neck.

You don’t have to—” he started.

Yes, I do,” she said. He felt a rush of gentle energy through his scalp, a tingling that faded to a dull, pleasant warmth. “Better?”

Yeah,” he said. “Thanks.”

You deserve it,” she said. “You were awesome. We were all totally awesome.”

Carter turned the ignition, and shifted the car into drive. “I’m hungry,” he said. “Do you think we have time to grab donuts before school?”

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