New Fiction Friday

Posted: December 2, 2016 in Fiction, Flash Fiction Friday
Tags: ,

This last story of the year was inspired by a d20 mash-up of two genres: “slasher horror” and “super hero”, which gave rise to “Hero”:

“Who crapped in your cereal, little man?”

Steve looked up from the fridge, where he stood with the door opened as he considered which of the several varieties of off-brand soda to pick. In the doorway to the kitchen, Antonio’s muscular form leaning against the jamb, arms crossed over his broad chest and biceps displayed in the sleeveless T-shirt, the style of which he seemed to perpetually wear. A smug smile graced the lips of the young man, which deepened the pensive frown that had already settled on Steve’s younger face.

Beyond the apartment’s small kitchen, the sounds of the graduation party could be heard, drifting in through the door around Antonio’s bulk.

“Nothing,” Steve said, looking back into the refrigerator. “No one.”

Antonio snorted disbelievingly. “Sure, kiddo.” He pushed away from the doorway as Steve pulled a can of root beer off of the glass shelf. “So, why are you hiding? Why aren’t you out there with the rest of folks congratulating Maria?”

The can let loose a hiss of carbonation as Steve opened it, taking a long sip that extended the silence between the two of them.

“I congratulated her,” Steve said quietly after wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Hey, sis: good job graduating high school at fifteen. Good luck being a brainiac at Columbia. I’m sure you’ll be a regular Reed Richards.”

Antonio crooked an eyebrow in confusion for a moment, before shaking his head slightly and pushing away from the door jamb. He crossed the small kitchen and placed a powerful hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“She’s your sister, man,” he said, lowering his voice and leaning in slightly. “Your twin sister. Don’t be bitter just because she’s smarter than the rest of the family combined. Get over yourself and the fact you need to do summer school, okay? I did summer school almost every year from sixth grade through eleventh: it’s not a big deal–”

“Yeah, but you’re a meathead.”

Antonio lightly smacked Steve upside the back of his head. “Not the point, dingbat. Get in there and be happy for your sister. Stop acting like someone killed your dog.”

Steve opened his mouth to reply, but closed it after a second. He sighed heavily and nodded. “As always: you are wise, oh cousin mine.”

Antonio snorted softly and rubbed Steve’s head, ruffling the teenager’s hair. “It’s because I don’t let things cloud my thinking. Keep it simple, stupid, huh?” He wrapped an arm around Steve’s shoulders and hugged him quickly. “Come on: let’s get back to the party.”

Antonio guided him out into the living room, where a dozen or more friends and family members were packed in, chatting with each other or playing card games or watching the TV. On the screen there was a breaking news report about another body being found in a dumpster in Astoria, behind a sushi restaurant; NYPD officials commented that they believed it was another victim of the Woodside Ripper. They made their way into the entry hall and out through the window at the far end onto the fire escape, where they passed a handful of teenagers in pairs and trios as they ascended to the roof, where the rest of the party was unofficially located. A smartphone hooked up to a portable speaker blasted dance music across the apartment building’s rooftop, while a couple of plastic tubs filled with ice and cans of soda punctuated the open space. Half of Steve’s class was up here, along with some of the juniors and seniors who knew Maria from her short time in high school.

Steve and Antonio made their way over toward where Maria stood with some of her friends – Steve’s cousin greeting a few people that he remembered from his own time at Flushing – with the younger man making an awkward greeting to his sibling.

Maria hugged her brother tightly, whispering softly into his ear “Thank you for coming out of seclusion, bro” before stepping back into the spot she’d occupied. Steve mumbled a red-faced and barely audible apology, to which Maria smiled warmly before offering her brother and her cousin red solo cups of soda from a card table behind her. Though Antonio accepted the proffered beverage, Steve silently waggled his can of root beer in lieu of a rejection or explanation.

“Hey, Steve.” His eyes flicked quickly around the circle of teenagers to a girl a year younger then he and Maria who stood self-consciously with her arms loosely wrapped around her torso in front of her, giving him a small smile that was slightly flawed by her biting of her lower-lip, a minute act that made the gesture infinitely more perfect somewhere in the recesses of Steve’s subconscious.

“Hey, Cecilia,” he replied after sipping at his soda and giving her a terse and awkward bob of his head in recognition. He thought she was cute – pretty in an understated and barely-refined way, her hair in a punky bob style that was quite becoming and a shade of auburn that threatened to entrance Steve into slack-jawed stupefaction every time he looked at her – and though he had the vague notion that she might be interested in him, as well, he wasn’t one-hundred percent sure. Thus, he “played it cool” every time they interacted until he observed something of certainty that would give him the courage to pursue.

“We were just talking about this mystery party happening next Friday,” Maria said. “Shannon’s brother heard about it from one of his friends. Apparently, it’s going to take place in an abandoned and uncompleted subway station. It sounds really fun.”

“What?!” Steve asked, incredulous and looking at his twin sister like she’d just been bragging about her toy car collection made from feces.

Maria touched his forearm lightly in a mildly dismissive gesture. “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not dangerous or anything. From what I hear, these guys do these kinds of ‘guerilla parties’ all the time: they do the set-up, the scouting, the guiding-in, everything. It’s a well-oiled machine.”

“And you–you’re wanting to go…?” Steve asked, still unbelieving of what he was hearing his sister advocate.

“Yeah, why not?” Maria said with a shrug and a smile. “You only live once.”

Antonio snorted. “Don’t give me that ‘YOLO’ crap, Maria. I’ve heard of these people and, yeah, it sounds like they know what they’re doing and it’d be safe and all. But, you forget something: none of you are over age.” Maria opened her mouth to retort, but Antonio cut her off with a beefy index finger pointed at her. “And, no: I’m not sneaking you in.”

Maria rolled her eyes as some of her friends chuckled in good humor at the exchange between the cousins. “Oh well. I guess we’ll just have to sneak in on our own. I mean: that’s what being a teenager is for, right? Pushing boundaries? Testing limits? Stealing fire from the gods and all?”

Steve opened his mouth to disagree, but this time he was the one cut-off. By Cecilia.

“What’s the harm?” she asked, looking from Maria to Antonio, with a glance at Steve, before looking at the rest of the group. “Either we get in and have an awesome time or they turn us away and…I dunno. We go to a diner or something. Call it a night. Whatever. You never know if you don’t try, right?”

That last sentiment Steve swore was directed at him, a movement of her blue eyes to meet his as she said it, but he felt the bottom drop out of his guts. Instead of replying or continuing the argument against Maria, he simply stood there and sipped his root beer.

 

The Wednesday morning following Maria’s graduation party found Steve sullenly seated at the breakfast table in the apartment’s little kitchen, pushing the last, sodden vestiges of a toaster-heated mass-produced waffle around the small sea of “maple” syrup that covered the plate. He had woken that morning feeling odd and anxious, but it wasn’t until he was standing in the shower that he realized why. There was a half-remembered nightmare sliding its way through his brain like a serpent through the tangled roots of an ancient tree, venom dripping from its fangs and burning like acid upon the xylem. The fraying threads of the memory teased at his awareness, flirting with opening itself up to him, but only revealing snatches of imagery or narrative as his foggy, waking mind groped at it. It wasn’t until Steve had gotten into the shower that the memory of the dream began to blossom like a flower in his awareness.

He was walking in a darkened place, the sound of his footfalls softly echoing around him. He heard the muted call of a man — not old, but definitely older than him — not far from where he was, but distant enough to make the words unintelligible. There was music he didn’t recognize playing like a soundtrack over the dream, no words just a thumping, repetitive beat. He wandered in the half-dark for what seemed a long time, following tunnels or corridors that looked only barely shaped by human hands, until he came upon a room where he found Cecilia huddled in a corner, terrified and almost animalistic. She flinched away from him when Steve approached her, screaming in panic and abject horror, eliciting a nervous fear within himself that he had done something to hurt her. It was then that he heard the scraping of a metal door against concrete, the dull thud of it slamming shut, that caused him to turn. In the opposite corner of the room was the silhouette of a man whose features were completely eclipsed in shadow except for two reflective circles over his eyes and the Cheshire-like grin of selachimorphine teeth.

And then he woke.

Steve stared at himself in the mirror, wiping the condensation off of the glass surface and hearing the distant sounds of traffic from the streets below through the bathroom’s cracked-open window.

His parents owned a convenience store and pharmacy located on the ground floor of the apartment building that the family lived in, and it was there that Steve had spent his summer days over the last few years, even when he technically wasn’t old enough to be employed. In years past, he’d either done inventory or re-stocked the shelves, but starting last summer he’d been given cash register duty and that’s where he’d mostly worked all during break and even after school once it was back in session. He spent most of that Wednesday standing behind the counter, ringing up purchases until his lunch break late in the afternoon. Tiredness and digestion got the best of him and Steve ended up spending half of his hour-long break napping in the backroom. He had a dream of someone – a white kid not much older than Steve – coming in and trying to shoplift, but before he could do anything about it, he was shaken awake by his father, who stood over him, looking down at where Steve reclined on some boxes with a bemusedly disapproving look before vocally ushering him back out to the counter.

Traffic picked up as five o’clock came and went and a number of the city’s working folk made their way home. Steve was flipping through a copy of one of the ubiquitous tabloids that sat in racks around the store, when the bell over the door rang, drawing his attention up from the glossy pages detailing the rumored dalliances of the rich and famous. He caught sight of a teenager’s back disappearing down one of the aisles and something in the back of his head tickled him. Sitting up straighter on the stool behind the counter, Steve glanced at the monitor for the store’s security cameras, which displayed black-and-white images, showing a young man’s form near the cold medicine shelves. He felt a pit open up in his stomach as he saw the teenager peer suspiciously over his shoulders before grabbing several boxes of allergy and cold meds to stuff into the front of his pants.

Steve was frozen on the stool, unsure of what to do. It wasn’t the first time that someone had tried to rip off the store, it wasn’t even the first time that that had happened while he’d been working. But, he was simply floored by the fact that the dream he’d had during his nap was playing out before his eyes. The young man was three-quarters of the way back to the door before Steve was even able to move, calling out to his father and the other employees. When that happened, the young man bolted for the door, the bell jangling violently as he sprinted out of the store. Steve vaulted the counter and made for the door, stopping a few feet outside of it.

The teenager was being held on his tip-toes by a beat cop who towered over him, desperately lobbying to the authority figure that he be let go. The officer questioningly cast a glance at Steve and the others who crowded into the doorway behind him before beginning to arrest the young man in his grasp. That night as he hung out near the tennis courts in Lodati Park with his friends, Steve couldn’t help ruminating on the events of the day and the strange manifestation of precognition or deja vu or whatever the hell it was he’d had that afternoon.

The only dreams he remembered Thursday morning involved him endlessly wandering through the halls of his high school, trying to deliver a box filled with infinite awards and academic trophies to Maria — whom he could never find — and one where he was a superhero foiling a police chase. It wasn’t until early evening that Steve figuratively stopped holding his breath and relaxed, realizing that the utterly surreal nature of the dreams really had precluded them from somehow coming true.

Friday morning he woke to a note from his father that Maria had been called back down to their high school to take care of some her extracurriculars and clubs, and that he would have to walk down and pick her up afterward. Grumbling, Steve went about getting ready for the day and headed down to the store to start his shift. As the day waned into early evening, he clocked out and just as he was heading out the door, his father stopped him.

“Here,” his father, Marcello, said as he pressed a medium-sized box into Steve’s arms. “This is for Maria. Okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Steve said, before turning and leaving.

He walked the ten blocks to the high school, a squat mid-century affair that was hemmed in on all sides by apartment buildings and a few houses. Several minutes were spent trying to find an open door and when he did, Steve roamed the empty and almost eerily quiet halls until he finally found Maria and a few of the other students in the classroom traditionally set aside for the model UN club.

“Hey, sis,” Steve said as he entered, lazily tossing her the box underhand.

“Hey, Steve!” Cecilia said from one of the corners of the room, where she and a small group were working together, seated in desks rearranged to face each other in a loose circle.

Steve suddenly felt his face heat up and he gave the girl a lazy wave while grunting out a near incoherent “Hi” before Maria spoke up.

“You know, you can just hand me things,” she grumbled, giving him an icy look.

Steve shrugged. “I gotta keep you on your feet.”

Maria gently shook the box. “What is this?”

Steve shrugged again. “I don’t know. Dad gave it to me to give to you.”

He hadn’t even finished the sentence before Maria’s eyes went wide and she excitedly ran to the unoccupied teacher’s desk, rooting around in the drawers for a few moments before withdrawing a pair of scissors and began opening the box.

“What is it…?” Steve asked, wandering over to stand on the opposite end of the desk from his twin sister. She ripped open the flaps once the packing tape had been cut and pulled out a handful of small, circular, metal pins prepackaged in tiny bags. Each pin apparently had a specific flag and its associated nation typed on a space below it.

“They came!” said one of the teenage boys in the room excitedly and the others began congregating around the desk as Maria tossed them specific pins.

“They’re pins that we raised money for,” Maria explained in between checking to make sure that she was handing out the correct pin to the correct person. “For the model U.N. conference later in the month.”

“Oh,” Steve said as Cecilia slipped up next to him and took her bagged pin from Maria. “See?” she asked Steve with a toothy smile, holding the pin up to see. “I’m Uruguay!”

Steve nodded and smiled awkwardly, wanting to be enthusiastic, but not having the first clue of how to do so. “That’s…awesome?” he said speculatively, adding: “I don’t know a lot about Uruguay…”

Cecilia’s eye lit up and she glanced briefly at Maria before looking back to Steve. “Oh! You should come with us tonight!” she said, once again looking to Maria and nodding before returning her gaze to him. “I can tell you all about Uruguay!”

Steve glanced between Cecilia and his sister, crooking an eyebrow. “You guys are still planning on going to that party?” he asked. “I don’t know–”

Maria moved around the desk and gently, but firmly, took Steve’s arm by the elbow. “Can I talk to my brother for a moment?” she asked rhetorically, not waiting for Cecilia’s response before dragging Steve into the hall.

“Listen, you will not crap on this, okay?” she whispered sternly, leaning into him.

“I just don’t know, sis…”

She fixed him with a baleful, homicidal stare. “It’ll be fine. It’ll be safe. It’ll be fun. Live for once in your life, Stefano Giuseppe Esposito.” She paused, then added: “Besides, you’ll get to spend time with Cecilia.”

He blushed and cleared his throat awkwardly. “W-why would that–”

Maria rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. You’ve had a crush on her all year. Besides, she’s throwing herself at you in there. Actively telling you that she wants to spend time with you. Get. The message. Steve.”

Steve blinked. “Oh,” he said replied laconically. He cleared his throat again. “I, uh, I guess it couldn’t be too bad. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen, right?”

“…It also ranks as number one among Latin American governments in lack of corruption, the use of electronics for the operation of government, freedom of the press, democracy in general” Cecilia said as they made their way down the night-darkened sidewalk in Brooklyn.

After leaving the school, Steve and Maria had told their parents that they were going to get dinner with friends, that Maria would be sleeping over at Cecilia’s house, and that Steve would be crashing with one of his friends, Angel. What they had actually done was hop the train to Brooklyn, where Maria’s friend Shannon had said the meet-up for the party was located, getting off in Park Slope and grabbing dinner before slowly wandering their way to the rumored spot.

“That’s cool,” Steve replied, walking next to Cecilia with Maria on the either side of the younger girl.

She nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah. I’ve been really happy getting to be Uruguay in the model U.N.”

“Oh!” Maria said, squealing softly in excitement and nodding pointedly ahead of them. “I think we’ve found it!”

About half of a block up there were small groups of twos, threes, and fours casually congregating on the sidewalks. The trio took up position just within the informal boundary where people were waiting, continuing to idly chat with one another until a woman in a pantsuit with dreadlocks pulled back into a loose ponytail and a clipboard in her hands whistled to get everyone’s attention and began guiding the assemblage through the streets of Park Slope. After almost fifteen minutes the travel slowed and it didn’t take long for Steve to see that the line of partygoers were being led down into a manhole.

“Uh, Maria…” he began to say, but his sister shushed him.

“I told you it was going to be in an abandoned subway station, right?” she said, rolling her eyes, before changing the subject. “You, uh…you have an ID, right…?”

Steve’s eyes went as wide as dinner plates. “Um,” he said, drawing the m out for several long seconds.

Maria rolled her eyes and sighed. “Well, we’ll just try and bluff our way past.”

Steve’s lack of confidence in that scenario was momentarily forgotten, though, replying, “Wait. How do you have one?”

Maria shrugged and stood on her tiptoes, peering down the line ahead of them. “I got one from Steph Beatriz,” she said nonchalantly. “Her older sister looks enough like me that it’s passable.”

“Jesus,” Steve whispered, agog that his sister was this much of rule-breaker. He looked to Cecilia. “And you?”

She shrugged. “My older sister, Annette.”

Steve felt the world begin spin as they got closer and closer to the head of the line, where the woman in the pantsuit stood guiding people down and occasionally checking identification with a small penlight. Finally, they got to the lip of the manhole and the girls presented their fake IDs to the woman as Steve lamely dug through his own meager wallet in the pathetic effort to pretend that he was having trouble finding his own. Fortune smiled upon them, though, when some sort of disturbance further back up the line drew the woman in the pantsuit away, and the trio took the opportunity to slip down beneath the street.

They found themselves in an access tunnel, the line of people ahead of them continuing to slowly but efficiently move along. They traversed tight hallways and metal stairs within concrete shafts, until they passed more formally attired individuals and emerged into an open area that was festooned with lights and had a makeshift bar off to the right-hand side.

Off to the left a soft, thumping bass slowly rose in volume before a voice echoed through the concrete cavern. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Vault!”

“This is so awesome!” Stever heard Cecilia gasp loudly over the rising volume of music as they filed over handmade wooden bridges that connected the concrete platforms. The two girls excitedly discussed the decorations, the music, the sheer potent atmosphere of the place as Steve worked to stay with them and soak it all in. He couldn’t believe that they’d actually made it in.  To his left there was a DJ and band set up on a stage upon a concrete platform a dozen or so yards away, across a dark gap that separated the area they were in and the rest of the partygoers. Music started playing through the large speakers strewn about the area of the stage, and the mass of people surrounding the trio of teenagers gave out an exhilarated cheer that was hard to resist echoing. They were in what appeared to be an abandoned subway station of some kind – its once bare, concrete walls covered in random graffiti and a few purposeful murals, all lit by strands of Christmas lights and the occasional regular bulb, with several bars set up and worked by individuals who obviously knew their trade well as they were inundated with people looking for drinks, handling the flood more than ably.

They danced. Maria scored them drinks and Steve enjoyed the first sips of alcohol he’d had since his dad had let him try one of his beers back when Steve had been little, five or six. He found that he liked a rum and coke. Cecilia kissed him and he kissed her back. Eventually, the two girls told him that they had to use the bathroom and tipsily wandered off to find it.

Later on, Steve would wonder if he’d actually seen the tall man with the somewhat scraggly hair follow them or if his mind had simply crafted the memory out of whole cloth. But, when Maria came back alone, Steve felt a pit open up in his stomach.

“Where’s Cecilia?” he asked, raising his voice to be heard over the music.

It took Maria a moment to process the question, shooting him a confused and worried look when she did. “You mean…she’s not…she didn’t come back here?” she replied. “There’s a line of port-o-pottys…when I got out and she didn’t come out a few minutes later, I figured she had finished before me…”

“Shit,” Steve said, gently taking a hold of his sister by her shoulders. “Stay here. Don’t move.”

Before she could argue, Steve took off through the abandoned station in the direction that Maria had returned from. He found the long line of people waiting for the port-o-pottys going off down one of the uncompleted tunnels that lacked any kind of rails on the ground. He called for her as he moved down the tunnel, occasionally drawing interested glances from strangers, but most people were too focused on their own situations to pay him any mind. He went down well past the port-o-pottys, just in case she had wandered the wrong way in her inebriated state, calling her name as loudly as he could. Steve had just turned on his heel to head back to Maria, when he heard a soft cry reverberate down the tunnel behind him.

“Cecilia…?” he called out speculatively, turning back around and continuing into the half-lit darkness of the tunnel.

He wandered until he heard another soft, whimpering cry come from his right. Steve groped his way through the tunnel until he found a smaller access hallway that branched off of the mainline and slowly made his way down it. A few times he wanted to call out to Cecilia, but every time he opened his mouth he felt an apprehensiveness choke off his voice. So, he went silently forward, feeling his way down the hall by trailing his hands along the pipes that lined the walls. His steps slowed as light seeped down the tunnel, eventually revealing the thin silhouette of a cracked-open door. Steve could feel his heart pounding in his chest, his mouth going dry, his hands shaky and weak as he crept closer and closer.

“C-cecilia…?” he asked, his voice weak and soft as he pushed open the door.

He blinked against the light, letting his eyes adjust, stepping into the room as he did so. When the room came into focus, he saw Cecilia curled up in a corner, a bruise swelling over her right eye and cheek, the front of her shirt slightly ripped. She was whimpering in fear and pain.

“Cecilia?” Steve asked again, his voice stronger but more confused.

He heard the door creak loudly shut, the bottom edge scraping across the concrete floor. Steve whirled, feeling the alcohol in his system slow his reaction time, as he saw a tall man with scraggly hair that fell to his shoulders; round glasses that glinted with the reflected fluorescent lighting; and a wide, bestial smile. The door clanged dully shut as the tall man took two steps toward Steve, his hands shooting out and wrapping around Steve’s throat in an iron grip. A choked and burbling gurgle slid out of Steve’s mouth as he tried to cry out in alarm and pain, but quickly found red and black edging in from the periphery of his vision.

He slapped at the tall man’s hands and arms, but he was already feeling weak and distant from his body. Steve swung wildly, smacking the man’s arms and chest, and tried to kick either his shins or his crotch, but he connected with nothing. Growling — the sound distant and tinny in Steve’s increasingly narrow field of awareness — the tall man lifted Steve up off of the ground and swung him around, slamming the young man’s back against the small room’s concrete wall. His awareness went to a pinhole and everything — the room, Cecilia, his desires and fears — became distant and unimportant.

Steve was on the floor of the small concrete room. Cecilia was kneeling next to him, her hands cradling his face as she stared at him intensely, her mouth uttering forth a word over and over and over that it took him several aeon-long moments to realize was his name.

“C-cecilia?” he asked weakly, his voice hoarse and pained.

“Oh my God!” the girl cried, burying her face in Steve’s chest. Her body shook almost uncontrollably with her sobbing and, unthinking, Steve wrapped his arms around her comfortingly.

“What…?” he began to croak out, but his vision was coming back into focus and he could see the tall man lying eerily still on the other side of the room. A trail of blood ran across the floor from the pulpy mess that was apparently the remainder of the man’s head to a piece of steel rebar that lay discarded on the concrete next to Cecilia. “Y-you…did that?”

Cecilia sniffled and pulled her face away from Steve’s chest. She began to look over her shoulder at the tall man’s body, but stopped, squeezing her eyes shut and shaking her head in a small, almost violent moment. “When he was…” she began to say, fighting to speak past her sobbing. She shook her head again. “There was a metal bar on the floor. I couldn’t let him hurt you. Or me.” She swallowed and curled into Steve again. After a long moment she added: “I…I think he was the Woodside Ripper. He said…he said he liked doing this…”

Steve held her, unsure of what to do other than try to comfort her. Cecilia had not only saved his life, she’d killed a man that likely would have killed them both. After a long moment, he pulled his gaze from the man’s bloody corpse, burying his face in the top of her head and squeezing his own eyes shut against the reality of the moment.

“Thank you,” he whispered hoarsely, hugging his hero.

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