The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? - Jeremiah 17:9
"I can't do this anymore."
"Do what?" She brought it up while I was packing, and I didn't realize immediately that it was a break-up speech.
"See you. Run around like this."
"Like this," I repeated, feeling like an idiot. I had no idea what she was talking about. "I'm kind of busy getting expelled and kicked off campus, Misty, can we do this later?"
She ignored me, "You guys are like little kids with big squirt guns. One of these days, this is going to get serious and someone's going to decide I'm a terrorist or something."
I glared at her. "If you think protesting is just a bunch of kids playing around, if you're not worried about Vietnam and the Department of Superhuman Affairs and civil rights, maybe we're better off without you." I went back to packing, throwing my clothes into the suitcase instead of folding them.
"Maybe I'm better off without you." Misty shook her head. "You and your friends are a lot of fun, but I need something with less temptation. Something more stable. I'm going to get my license anyway."
I stared at her stupidly and then I laughed, not sure what else to say. "You're going to be a licensed meta? A superhero?"
"Ray's sponsoring me."
"He would." The words tasted like vinegar on my tongue. "Is that what you want? Legitimacy and a membership card? Fifteen percent off at Spandex City?" I pushed the top of the suitcase down and fought to get the locks to hook.
"Stability. Safety." Misty wasn't looking at me anymore, just staring out the window, but the tone in her voice was pushing me away. Her power was compulsion – statements fell from her lips like jewels and everyone who heard her jumped to obey, when she didn't control it.
"Safety? You'll still be fighting, just doing it on their side. You'll be singing for your supper." I fought off the anger, wondering if it was my own or her impressions, and sighed. "Just admit you want to trade up for a boyfriend you want to be seen with. That's fine. I've been the starter boyfriend before."
"So what if I do? Maybe I think twenty is too old to be running from cops in back alleys and helping you skip out on a prank again. I've fixed things in my life. Maybe I don't want to hang out with people who knew me when I was..."
The anger came rushing back and when she hesitated, I jumped right in. "A junkie?"
"That's-" she deflated. "That's true. But I'm better than that now. Ray helped me see that."
"Yes, Ray again."
"So you're breaking up with me because you'd rather date a guy who hasn't held you while you threw up or sweated through withdrawal."
"I can't hang out with the kind of people... I mean, it's hard to stay clean when nobody else is. I want to be sober when I have sex for once."
I cut her off, "Fine, stand up, I need to strip the bed." Misty did so, and I pulled the sheets off in one angry swoop. The bottom sheet stuck on a spring. I pulled at it again, frustrated, and the fabric tore. I cursed under my breath and sat down heavily on the bare bed, defeated.
Misty was standing in front of the window now. "I'd rather date a guy who didn't take advantage of my... I made a lot of bad choices..." She plucked at the air like her choices hung there.
"Take advantage? We were both stoned out of our minds when you climbed into bed with me."
"You could have done something else!"
"Yes, I could have. We both could have done a lot of things differently. I could have not introduced you to Ray, for one thing." I was beyond caring now. "He should be perfect for you, though. He wouldn't take advantage of you if you wanted him to. I don't know if he's ever even kissed a girl."
Misty started crying.
"Oh, for the love of..." I rolled my eyes. "What do you want me to tell you? That it's fine if you want to go date him, and I'll still be your friend and it'll be all fluffy bunnies?"
"Go to hell. It'd serve you right if I turned you in." She left so fast she didn't bother to grab her jacket.
"Misty!" I yelled after her as she ran down the dormitory hallway. "Don't you fucking joke about that! Don't you dare..." but she was gone, and the R.A. was standing in his doorway watching her go by. He looked back at me and shrugged.
"I know, I know," I grumbled, going back inside. I had to be out by five, break-up or no break-up.
It was quarter til when my friend - well, co-conspirator might be a better word for it - showed up. Pollen was a few inches taller than me, with dark skin and hair braided back in cornrows. We'd met at a protest in L.A. and stayed in touch. He moved to San Diego earlier this year for a job and I'd enjoyed showing him around.
"Tenebras?" he asked quietly as he knocked on the door. We sized each other up for a long minute. I never quite got used to seeing my fellow fighters out of their masks, real people with real lives.
"Yeah, come on in, Pollen," I answered. "I look different in daylight, huh? I appreciate the help, man."
"You look different without the mask on," the other man answered. "I know why the rule is nicks-only, but I feel ridiculous calling you that when you're moving in with me."
"You can call me Ten if it makes you feel better," I smiled. After Misty's threat to out me to the government, I almost wished I'd managed to remain that distant with her.
"I thought Melody was going to be helping you pack," Pollen said as he picked up a suitcase and a cardboard box. I hadn't really called Misty by her nick since we got involved; it was jarring to hear it.
"Yeah, well, she was. And then she broke up with me," I swung a military duffel over my shoulder and picked up the other suitcase and my typewriter case. I looked around the room to make sure I wasn't forgetting anything. Suddenly my expulsion felt a lot more real.
Pollen shook his head. "Ouch, man. Sorry."
"Not your fault." I led the way down the hall, nodding at the R.A. as we left.
Real name or no, Pollen was generous in making sure I was comfortable on his couch, and I was glad to have someplace to go. I spent most of the night tossing and turning between the unfamiliar circumstance and the argument, and in the morning I did the only thing I could think of. I called the best listener I knew and asked him to meet me at the diner.
The diner by the university was the only place in town open twenty-four hours, and it was busy for almost all of them. There was a steady stream of students, faculty, and the people who worked in all the places that catered to them.
In this case it was Saturday morning, which meant there was no rush before the 8am classes, and it was still too early for most of the Friday night partiers to be treating hangovers with coffee and eggs. There was a steady stream of people but no crowd. Alex was already there when I arrived. Alex was a big guy, blue-eyed and blond and smiling, a classic all-American sports star, except for the fact that he was gay as the poetry clubs up north in San Francisco and not at all the asshole that jocks and well-treated metas usually were. I met him when I was a freshman, before I got involved in metahuman rights and all the other protest groups, and even when I got radical, he wasn't scared off. Everyone went to him for advice.
"I don't think I need to ask what's going on," Alex said as I slid into the booth.
"Misty and I -"
"I guessed. She came around late the other night, looking for Ray."
"Sorry. She does that a lot. Guess it'll be him instead of me now. Better give her a key or she'll be waking you up at all hours."
The bigger man laughed. "We'll live. It'll be worth it to see Ray talking to a girl."
I looked up suddenly as the diner's door opened. The waitress greeted the newcomers as regulars and I relaxed again.
"Dan, what are you waiting for?"
"Nothing," I lied, quickly and badly.
"You asked me out here for a reason. You specifically asked me not to bring Ray. Something's up. Is it about Misty, or something else?"
I sighed. "The argument we had was... rough. I said some nasty stuff."
"You didn't hit her, did you?"
I almost spit my coffee. "Jesus, no. Did she say I did?"
"No. She wouldn't talk about it at all."
"I was angry, and I said some nasty stuff... I'm not surprised she was upset."
Alex sighed, nursing his coffee. "Breakups are messy. Give her time, Dan. We're not picking sides in this, okay? You're not going to lose your friends, at least not on our end."
"Thanks." I emptied my cup. "I think I just needed to hear that."
"Well, call if you need anything, okay? You saw Misty through a lot, and she knows it. You did the right thing, you helped her when she needed it, and I think she appreciates it even if she can't deal with it."
Mad as I was, I was ready for that to be the end of it. I avoided the campus for the rest of the weekend and spent my time engaging in mild anarchism with Pollen and our friends - nothing serious, really, just blowing off steam.
Monday night, I called Flower Child.
"I want to do something a little bigger," I told her. "These little pranks aren't cutting it right now."
"The college president has a press conference tomorrow morning."
"I'm not in the mood for daylight."
"Daylight wasn't what I had in mind," she answered, and I said I'd come over.
My mask wasn't anything fancy. Registered heroes got the good stuff - I'd seen Alex and his friends in uniform, and it was honestly pretty impressive. The rest of us had to make do, and I was never much good with a sewing machine. I'd patterned the mask on the one Zorro wore on television when I was little, not that I ever mentioned that to anyone, and it was a little frayed on the edges.
I didn't have a uniform beyond that. I stuck to dark clothes to go with my powers, but a pair of gloves to eliminate fingerprints was as much thought as I put in.
The college president's house was not far north of campus, in an older section of the city. There was a wall and a gate, but they were mostly decorative. It was a nice section of town, after all, and the closest things to supervillains they saw were-
Well, I was one of them.
Flower Child and I were on the campus president's front lawn tonight. I brought her in through the shadows, skipping the fence and the gate entirely. The shadows stayed, dancing around us and keeping the corner of the lawn even darker than the surrounding night.
Flower Child opened her hand, revealing a small pile of seeds. She blew, scattering them onto the lawn. Then she closed her eyes in concentration, kneeling down to touch the lawn. Where the seeds fell, new plants sprang up.
Waiting while she talked to the earth, I listened carefully. We might be hard to spot, but we were still there, after all. I heard nothing but the blood rushing in my ears and the breeze through the new growth.
Now the plants spread out across the lawn, slowly reaching upward. When Flower Child finally stood, the plants reached nearly to her knees. I smiled, she nodded, and a minute later the shadow was gone from the lawn. It took only a few minutes for me to drop her off, but before I let her go my adrenaline got the better of me. She tipped her head up to kiss me, and I enthusiastically reciprocated. She smiled as she waved me off and a minute later I reappeared in the shadows outside Pollen's house.
When I got in around two on Tuesday morning, my friend winked at me.
"Company for you in the den. Melody must have changed her mind."
Confused, I thought I must have mis-heard Misty's nick. But no, Misty was there when I looked in the den, waiting for me on the couch. Her brown hair and corduroy pants seemed to fade into the brown couch and wood paneling.
"What's wrong, Ray throw you out?" I didn't intend to be mean to her, but it was the first thing that came out.
Misty shook her head vigorously, ignoring the insult. "No, that's not- he isn't- Ray's a nice guy. Too nice."
"So you broke it off?"
"He doesn't know I'm here."
I slipped my shoes off, enjoying the feel of the shag carpet as I walked over and sat next to her. "So why are you here? Are you drunk?"
"No," she said, looking away. "I just missed you."
"Ray's not enough comfort?"
"Ray's... not the kind of guy who keeps me warm at night."
"I could have told you that. I think I did tell you that. He's a good guy, but he was born twenty years too late." Ray was a polite, tea-totaling, good Christian boy. I'd known him for a while and never heard him so much as talk about a girl he was interested in.
"I want to be a good girl too." She leaned against me and I could smell cheap wine on her, whatever she insisted.
"-but you're not," I finished for her.
"Not yet. I will be."
"Then why are you here?" I asked again.
She leaned in and kissed me. "Because I'm not yet." I thought I heard something musical in her voice, but I pushed the thought aside with my common sense and let her pull me down onto the couch.
Misty was still dozing on the couch in the morning when I got up. I went into the main room and turned on the TV for the morning news.
"When the press arrived in the morning for the president's statement on the campus crack-down on drugs, they found his yard full of two-foot-tall marijuana plants," announced the reporter. He was keeping a straight face, but behind him, onlookers were laughing. I was laughing too, loud enough that Pollen came downstairs to see what was going on.
"That is pretty funny," he conceded, "but it's not fair to wake a guy up this early in the morning on his day off."
"Sorry," I apologized. Pollen continued into the kitchen and soon I heard the noise of breakfast being prepared.
It was well past sunrise and the news had been replaced with Romper Room on the TV when I went back in the den and sat down by Misty's feet. She opened her eyes as I watched her.
"I assume you're not going to stay with me on the couch?"
"It does feel a little cramped," she sat up and started putting her bra on. "I hope you don't think I'm cutting and running?"
"That's what you're doing. But it's okay, you've got a boyfriend to get back to." I said it with a forced smile. I figured she saw through it, but she didn't say anything as she dressed.
"I'll see myself out."
"You can... um, call... if you need anything," I told her. My voice wavered and I hated myself for it.
"Thanks." She smiled at me from the doorway. It looked as fake as mine had felt. Then she was away.
I felt a little sick to my stomach as I leaned back on the couch. That had been a bad idea, especially after the things we both said when we were breaking up, but in the moment it hadn't really mattered. I fell asleep to the sound of reruns of The Alvin Show in the next room and slept straight through lunch.
I spent the next few days in a funk, sleeping at weird hours and wandering the city streets at night, nearly invisible. Sometimes I was out with people I knew from the movement. My other roommate, Howl, talked me into helping keep an eye on a demonstration outside the San Diego PD. Misty came over two more times, and both times I made excuses not to let her in. Talking to her was starting to make my head hurt and I couldn't figure out why. I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
In the end it was me that got dropped. One late afternoon, Pollen and Howl picked me up as I slept and unceremoniously dumped me over the back of the couch. "Game time?" I asked from the floor.
"Yep," Pollen answered as he unfolded the card table and set it up in front of the couch.
"You could have asked me to move."
"Where's the fun in that?" Howl asked, dropping an envelope on my chest. "You got mail today."
I smelled beer and pizza and realized I hadn't eaten since an early dinner the night before. Nerves always kept me from eating before a prank or protest, and I'd been all nerves lately. I climbed to my feet, pulled on the first pair of jeans I saw, and pulled up a folding chair as Howl sat the poker chips down. I opened the letter quickly but froze when I got a look at it.
"What's wrong?" Pollen asked as he came back in with the rest of the poker party. He leaned over my shoulder to read it.
"It's an induction notice. The draft board is kindly reminding me that I'm no longer a student. They want me to report for evaluation."
"That was fast." Howl took the letter out of my hand to read for himself.
I shook my head. "Shit. They're up to something."
"You always think they're up to something," Pollen answered, but there wasn't much of a joke in his voice. "You going to report?"
"I don't know yet. Where's the other guy that usually comes over for poker?" I changed the subject. "What was his name... the Hippie?"
Pollen looked at the other two and back to me. "He went home a couple of weeks ago - guess his mom got a letter telling him to report for the draft. He figured he'd just show them his school paperwork. But we haven't heard from him."
"Tell me about it."
"Has anybody called him or something?"
Howl shrugged. "Who're we going to call? We can't look up Mrs. The Hippie's Mom in the phone book. I don't even know where his hometown is." He looked at the other players.
"I think he said he was from Santa Barbara, but I don't know," Pollen said, tossing his hand on the table. "Anybody got a joint?"
I really wanted an excuse not to think, and for the most part the poker game was a good one. Eventually, though, we got bored of poker and by the time the pot went to my head I started thinking about Misty again, and then Ray, and then our mutual friends. I felt like a damn idiot.
After the game, I called Ray's number. I was drunk enough that I didn't know if I was hoping Ray would answer and give me an excuse to confess or if I wanted to talk to Misty.
It didn't matter because Alex answered.
"Nevermind." I wondered how drunk I sounded, but Alex didn't comment.
I needed to get out of the house, so I decided it was time for a soup kitchen run.
"I'm going down to the shore and give 'em a soup kitchen, Pollen. You want to come?"
"I'm working in the morning. Give them something good for me, though."
I grabbed my mask and gloves, suited up, and walked though a shadow and out onto the boardwalk. It was still occupied, even this late, so I stuck to the shadows and concentrating on being unseen.
I settled on an upscale-looking restaurant near the beach. It was dark inside, and I considered slipping through to the other side of the large glass windows, but I decided to go around back instead and cut down on my chances of being spotted. There weren't any windows I could see through on this side, so I pushed a tendril of shadow into the keyhole and pushed until the tumblers fell into place.
Inside, I stepped from the hallway into the kitchen. I started with the large refrigerators, which held a variety of pastries and raw materials for tomorrow's meals. I helped myself to some vegetables and meat for them to cook, and as many of the pastries as I could carry. I figured everybody deserves eclairs once in a while.
I left as quietly as I'd come and made my way down to the beach in the shadows. A couple of the guys down there were regulars and knew me on sight, so I just talked to them for a while as I shared the eclairs with them and left them to their business. I tried not to be acutely aware that I'd probably be down here too if not for Pollen's generosity, but I couldn't help it.
After that, I ended up at at Flower Child's apartment. When she answered the door, she was wearing a robe over a nightgown, but she'd thought to put her mask on. I stared at her, realizing just how drunk I was. Or stoned. Or both.
"Tenebras? What is it?"
"Can I come in?"
She looked around outside and, apparently satisfied, nodded for me to come in. I stumbled into her kitchenette and told her about the letter.
"I'm scared," I admitted for the first time. "Almost getting arrested, almost getting killed here, that's one thing. Letting them ship me off is-"
She bit her lower lip. "Do you want some coffee?"
"Do you think I'm that drunk?"
A smile. "No, you just look like you could use some. I have Irish creme, if you don't want it black."
"Coffee's fine." I needed it. I needed something, at least.
She moved around the kitchen, starting the coffee, pulling cookies out of a stoneware jar and putting them on a plate. Neither of us said much. I was trying to figure out why I'd come. It seemed like a good idea, at the time. It still seemed like a good idea. I wasn't sure why.
"Can I ask you a question?" The coffee was cooling in my cup and I was toying with the shadows in the bottom when she asked, and I almost didn't realize she'd spoken.
"How do you feel about me, really?"
"I respect you as a fellow soldier in the battle against opp-"
Flower Child rolled her eyes. "Tenebras, really. Just because I'm a feminist doesn't mean that's what I want to hear all the time."
"Okay. Ask me again, in guy language."
"You kissed me the other night, on the mayor's lawn. Did that mean something?"
"Do you want it to mean something?" I was stalling for time. I realized where this conversation was going and that I was not prepared for it at all. Shows how much good I am with women, I guess - here I am kissing girls and I don't even have an answer ready when they ask me why.
"I think I do. But it's hard to be sure, with all the secrecy that goes around."
I nodded. "The codenames-only rule makes sense, but it's not always practical if you're renting an apartment with somebody, or you want to go out with them."
"Yeah, you can't make reservations-" she stopped. "Go out with, hm?"
"I would certainly like to go out with a lovely young woman, now that I've gained some closure in my last relationship."
"Closure, huh? That's not what your friend Pollen said the other night."
"Hey!" I almost fell over in my hurry to stand up.
"You should be more careful," she said as I leaned on the table. "About a lot of things."
"I probably should."
"I've got a more... hands-off approach."
"Do you, Flower Child?"
She bit her lip and looked at the floor. "Emily. My name is Emily."
"Dan," I told her.
Emily smiled back at me. "So do you want to see a movie tonight?"
"Sure, I'm not doing anything." I hadn't done much of anything since I was expelled, so any excuse to get out of Pollen's den was a good one.
"I appreciate the lack of a sarcastic comment about me asking you out."
"Hey, what do I have to complain about? It means you're paying, right?"
She started to glare at me and I held my hands up. "Joke, okay? It's a joke."
Emily leaned in and gave me a peck on the cheek. "I know you're broke. Don't worry about it."
"You know I'm- Jesus, you spend a couple of weeks on a guy's couch and he's announcing your secrets to the world."
"He was trying to talk me out of asking you."
"He didn't think it was a good idea, with you still sleeping with her."
"That's not going to happen again," I told her. I meant it, too.
But that didn't stop me from almost being wrong.
The next time I saw Misty was Wednesday evening. She knocked on the door. She'd been crying.
"He wanted me to go to church with him, so I did," she said, her voice shaking. "I figured it was just a thing, you know? I got through it when I was a kid, even if I hated it. So I'd sit there and be bored for an hour, for his sake."
"Was it that bad?"
"Yes! No. I mean, it wasn't bad. I just wasn't expecting it to... mean something, I guess? I haven't been to church since I was a little girl and my mom would take me. It's been a long time. And it felt weird, like God was watching me."
"That sounds kind of creepy," I said, wondering if I should be trying to reassure her.
"No, not creepy. Good. But I felt so bad, like I was just pretending to be good enough to be there."
"But you want to be good, don't you?"
"I don't think I'm good enough to be good. With you, at least..."
Once again I swore to myself that I wasn't going to let myself get talked into anything. Sure, I liked the image of my virile self swinging in like Tarzan to take care of my ex-girlfriend, but I hated losing friends for any reason, and definitely not when it was actually my fault.
But once again I felt weak-willed when she told me she needed attention and she wasn't getting it. Ray wasn't feeling well and didn't want to see her today, and she'd been short with Charles when he sent her away, and really how did I stand them.
Well, sure, Charles could be a self-righteous prick and Ray was sick more often than not. That went with the territory. She should have known that when she broke up with me. I told her as much.
"I wish I hadn't," she said. She looked like she might cry, and I felt bad for saying the wrong thing. Of course, I always seemed to be saying the wrong thing anymore.
"You could apologize," she said, all the right notes in her voice. When I hesitated, she continued. "With a kiss."
"I thought we decided-"
"I decided. But I think I was too hasty. Please, Daniel." I felt like a heel for even arguing with her, and I was next to her on the couch before I let myself think about how bad an idea this was.
I forced myself to think it. I didn't want to do this, and neither did she, right? That was what she said when she broke up with me. So why did that fall apart when she opened her mouth?
"Misty? Misty, are you using your voice?"
"No." Her tone was suddenly flat and quiet.
She didn't answer.
"Jesus, Misty. Do you think I'm not attracted to you on my own? I've done enough stupid shit with you that Ray and his buddies shouldn't even be speaking to me."
"I didn't mean to."
I didn't know whether she meant she couldn't control it or she couldn't help herself. I didn't care. All I could think about was the way I'd gone right to her the last time she came over. I wondered if that had been me or if it had all been her.
"Please don't tell-"
"I won't." I didn't know if they would believe me anyway. "But don't do it again."
"I have more respect for myself than that."
For once, I bit back the snide comment. I let her go.
I opened a book and tried to read, but ended up mostly staring at the same paragraph as half an hour went by. I started to worry that Misty might be in worse trouble than she'd been in with me, if she was looking for something self-destructive to get into.
Well, it was dark. No reason I couldn't make sure she got home. I turned off the television and went outside. I felt much safer outside after sunset, when the streets were more shadow than light. Disappearing into the shadows is a workable skill during the day, but at night there are just so many more possibilities.
I stepped through the darkness at the side of the house and found myself about half a block from Misty's current place. It wasn't much, but now that she was holding down a decent job it was within her means. And hey, it was more than I could afford at the moment, so I couldn't knock it.
The lights were out in her apartment. It was possible she'd just ended up there and gone straight to bed, but I doubted it. Just to make sure, I moved up to her balcony and took a peek inside, trying not to feel like too much of a peeping tom.
The living room was spotless. The bedroom was a cluttered mess. Neither room was occupied. For a minute I let myself feel relieved that I hadn't spied on her in bed, but it wasn't much consolation – I'd tried to, after all. And it meant she was somewhere else.
I wondered if she'd gone to see Ray. I couldn't imagine him up at this hour, especially if he wasn't feeling well, but that might not stop her.
The small bungalow that Charles, Alex and Ray shared was on the other end of campus. It would have been a long walk, if I was walking.
I didn't see her at the house when I got there, but there were lights on in the living room. I almost knocked on the door, but I heard footsteps coming up the street and my instinct was to disappear.
It turned out to be a good instinct. Misty was only a few yards away, headed straight for the house. I stepped away from the door, aiming to get out of any possible light and head back to Pollen's house, but I tripped on the garden hose and fell.
Misty jumped; I'd failed at falling silently. I usually didn't bother travelling short distances by shadow but in this case my dignity was already busted, so I watched from the bushes at the corner of the yard as she pounded on the door.
Charles answered it. "Misty? It's late."
"I think- I think somebody's following me. Please let me in."
"I told you, Ray's sleeping..."
"I don't need to see Ray, please. Let me in. I just want to get off the street." Misty looked like she might try to duck around him if he didn't say yes. I could hear her power in her voice again, a slight harmony, and I wondered if she was really scared or just trying to get past him.
Charles shook his head and closed his eyes. "I'm sure there's nobody..." he began, but stopped.
His eyes opened wide and he looked straight at me through the darkness.
Crap. Telepath. Why do I have such a hard time remembering that? I was really starting to hate metas with mental powers.
"Come inside," he said quickly. I didn't hang around to hear what would come after that; Misty was fine and that was all I'd come out to check on. I didn't even bother to reappear outside the house, aiming for the semi-dark den and ending up in the claustrophobic downstairs bathroom.
I stumbled out into the living room and put on the late movie, not wanting to think any more about anyone's self destruction, and waited for the rush of panic to back off. I was being ridiculous. I hated being caught out, and Charles had a power that could see through mine. It was stupid to be upset about that.
I told myself that until I fell asleep. It felt like I'd barely done more than blink when I opened them again.
"Romper, bomper, stomper, boo. Tell me, tell me, tell me do. Magic mirror, tell me today. Did all my friends have fun at play?"
I rolled over. Romper Room? Already? I must have I fallen asleep with the television on again. Pollen and Howl were going to think there was something wrong with me.
"I see James, and Terrance, and Emily. I see Alex and Raymond. I see Mildred's having a special day today." Miss Mary Ann was rounding out the Romper Room episode, staring through the Magic Mirror and straight at all the boys and girls watching at home.
On screen she seemed to hesitate and then glared through the mirror. "And I see Daniel, who's been a very naughty boy. You should be ashamed of yourself."
I stared at the screen in surprise. Maybe I was still asleep. Miss Mary Ann blinked twice and continued on about seeing all her friends, and how she and Do-Bee wanted us to have a very good day.
I didn't move until Pollen came downstairs dressed for work.
"You okay, man?"
"Yeah. No. I don't know."
"The TV's talking to me."
Pollen shook his head. "Whatever you're doing, man, you need to lay off."
"Whoever," I corrected him. "And believe me, I am done with her."
I had better things to do that day than sit around and brood about Misty, for a change.
A second date with Emily, for example.
I headed onto campus around noon, ignoring the sunlight and the feeling that I didn't belong here. I caught sight of Emily waiting for me just where she said she would, on the bench in front of the library. She had her back toward me and she was sitting with someone else.
It only took me a moment to recognize the tall frame as Alex. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that he knew her - he really did seem to know everybody.
"Can I trust you with my new girlfriend?" I laughed as I came up to them.
Emily looked up at me. "You're early."
"Not much else to do," I confessed. "I'm working a couple of hours here and there but nothing solid yet."
Alex stood up. "I was just telling Emily that she should come to the party we're having for the end of the semester. Are you free Friday?"
"Er, I am," I looked at Emily and then back at him, "but doesn't that seem a little awkward? I mean, with Misty and Ray...?"
"No, don't worry, it'll be a good time," Alex told me. "Bring your roommates. You come too, Emily. It'll be fun."
I took his word for it, and to be fair, the party started out like a great idea. I showed up with Pollen and Howl, as instructed. Alex greeted us all as old friends.
"How long have you known him?" I asked Howl as we moved toward the food.
"Since he was a freshman, I think? I don't remember how we met. Seems like he knows everyone, though."
"I'm pretty sure he does," I agreed. I looked around for Misty and didn't see her, letting out the breath I didn't know I'd been holding. I went for the hors d'oeuvres.
While I was bent over the table, a hand slid into my jeans' pocket. For a minute I thought it was Misty and tensed to pull away, but when I started to turn, I saw Emily's head on my shoulder.
"You spooked me," I told her, laughing at myself, and then I noticed something odd. "Your hair--"
"I know, I need to dye it." The roots were barely visible amongst the thick waves of light brown, but this close, they were unmistakably green. "That's my natural color. Has been since I was fifteen." Her voice was shy, something I hadn't really heard from her before. I hadn't expected Emily to have a weak point at all, much less something that sounded like vanity at first blush. It did make sense, though. It was unique enough to out her as a meta to anyone who noticed.
That meant she felt safe here, of course. I scanned the living room again, this time not looking for anyone in particular. How many of these people were meta, anyway? I knew quite a few of them from protest meetups and other groups. When I said Alex knew everyone, I hadn't meant that he knew all the metahumans, but it seemed to be the case.
I tilted my head forward and kissed the part in her hair. "I think it's charming. Not that you need my approval." She leaned into me.
"Careful, I hear he's a ladykiller." Charles had come up behind us.
"That would require him to date ladies," Emily answered him before I could even decide between a clever quip and a serious response.
Charles smiled. "You've got me with that one. I can't agree and I can't disagree in polite company, now can I?"
"Oh, you can agree. I'm not a lady, I'm a woman."
"You win," he held up his hands. "I know better than to argue with a feminist."
"I can't believe it's the end of the year already. I completely lost track of time," I said, trying to change the subject with small talk. I wondered if I was broadcasting nervousness on a frequency he could hear.
Charles just smirked back. "Well, when you're not actually in classes, that's pretty easy."
"Thanks for the reminder," I sighed. "It's not as if I forgot."
I wanted to ask him what his problem was, but I thought better of it. It was his place as much as it was Alex's, and it would be disrespectful to Alex. Besides which, he'd always been an okay guy before. I made a note to catch him later and see if I could figure out what was wrong. I didn't exactly want to get into a discussion about why I was hanging out in front of his house in front of everybody.
The party itself was a lot of fun. Emily wandered in and out of my field of vision. I played darts with Pollen - I was winning until he gave me an allergy attack - and spent a lot of time catching up with people I hadn't seen much since I moved off campus.
Eventually people started drifting home. Pollen and Howl asked me if I wanted to leave with them, but Emily wanted to dance so I told them I'd see them at home.
I finally caught sight of Misty while Emily and I were dancing to "Sweet Caroline." She looked like she wanted to say something but she didn't interrupt. Misty just stood by the kitchen door until the song was over.
Emily turned to look at her. "You're not very good at hiding what you're thinking."
"Yeah, I've had a lot of problems with that lately."
"Do you want to talk to her?"
I shook my head. "That sounds like a terrible idea. Every time I talk to her, things end up worse."
"Maybe I could-"
"No!" I snapped, the vision of her singing Emily into breaking up with me at the front of my mind.
Emily blinked at me. "Still hurts, huh?"
"I don't want to have this conversation right now. Or at all, but mostly right now."
She frowned briefly, but the look quickly disappeared. "I've got my last final bright and early on Saturday, I should head home."
"I- I'm sorry."
"Don't be," she said, giving me a peck on the cheek. "But you look like you want to talk to her. That's all I'm saying."
I sighed. "Let me know if you want to do something after your exam, okay?"
"Sure will, handsome." Emily smiled at me one last time and headed for the door. I watched her corral Alex on her way out and thank him for the invitation.
I told myself I was going into the kitchen for a Coke, but I knew I was looking for her. She was waiting there, but so was Ray.
"Hi, Misty. Hey, Ray. Hope you're feeling better. Alex said you were sick."
"No worse than usual," Ray answered. Misty avoided my gaze. I wanted to say something, but I wasn't sure if she'd told him. I hesitated, then continued over to the refrigerator. Might as well get the Coke.
"You can stop looking so awkward," Ray said as I shut the door. "She told me."
"Oh, good," I sighed in relief.
"Good?" Misty snapped. "It was terrible. I felt like-"
"I'm glad I don't have to lie about it. I didn't want to make you the bad guy."
"I'm not the bad guy here."
I looked at Ray, but his face was sad, not angry. Why was Misty so upset? I knew I was missing something, but I was at a loss for where to start looking.
When I looked up, I realized that Alex and Charles were in the doorway.
"Oh, by all means, come in," I told them. "We could totally use an outside opinion on this discussion."
Ray winced. "Please, we don't have to do this in public."
"This isn't public. This is Alex." We all went to Alex for advice. I couldn't imagine a sense in which he counted. "Besides, he already knows."
Alex stopped and hesitated, waiting for Ray to turn on him. Charles, coming up behind him, looked mad as hell all of a sudden on top of the confusion. "He's telling you secrets about Ray?"
"Everyone tells me secrets," Alex said, trying to brush it off. "You know that, Charles."
"This is different, though. This was about Ray."
"It was in confidence."
"He told me to stop, if it's any consolation," I said, annoyed at Charles. We were having a perfectly good argument before he got here.
Ray stepped toward both of them. "Charles, please, don't get mad on my behalf."
"Somebody has to!" Charles snapped. "You're willing to let anyone screw you over if it means you don't have to ask for something you want. And you," he turned to me, "have no right to hurt my family. Not by sneaking around behind Ray's back, and not by putting Alex in the middle of your little soap opera."
"You act like this is all under my control," I glared at him.
"Oh, and now it's not your fault?"
"I didn't say that. But Misty showed up at my house. It takes two to go down in flames, you know."
Charles balled his fist and I felt the beginning of a migraine in the back of my head. It took me a minute to realize what it was - damn telepath, that wasn't fair. Licensed goody-two-shoes like Charles and Ray weren't even supposed to use their powers like that, but all I wanted to do was shove him out of my head. I hurried to bring up something I knew would upset him. After a moment, I thought about Misty, her shirt off, asking me to keep her company because Ray was too good for her.
A natural redhead, Charles flushed almost the color of his hair as he backed off. It had only lasted a moment and I wasn't sure if the others had even noticed.
"Look, I'll get out of your hair. For what it's worth, Ray, it was a mistake, and I think Misty and I are both sorry it happened."
Misty smiled at me and then forced it away. "I'm a big girl. I don't need you to apologize for me, Dan."
"Apologize all you want, then. I'm sorry it happened. It won't happen again." I meant to say it to Ray but I was still looking at Misty when the words came out, and they were as much a promise to myself as to either of them.
I left through the back door, letting the screen slam behind me. Almost before it was closed, I heard yelling start - mostly Charles and Misty's voices. I thought it was almost too bad Charles was gay; they'd be perfect for each other.
Then I stepped into the shadow of the house and I was gone.
I told myself I would be good after that. I didn't worry that much about Ray - I figured he had to have known what he was getting into with Misty. I didn't worry about hurting Misty either. I wanted to hurt her, in a way. I wouldn't have chosen to do it outright but it was hard to swallow the urge to let her be her self-destructive self.
"I want to watch her melt down," I told Pollen later that day. "I want to watch the death spiral. I guess that makes me a pretty bad person."
"Eh, we're all pretty bad people if you listen to the press," he told me. "Have you heard anything from Lucky Penny?"
"Not since he headed back to follow up on that stupid draft... wait, how long has it been?"
"Longer than he said it would be."
I swore. "I need to check on a couple of things."
"No more time for self-loathing, huh?"
"Very funny. I'll see you at the meeting tonight." In the meantime I had some work to do in my mask.
It was easier than I expected to get access to the Student Records office at the university. They locked up at five sharp, but thanks to the glass doors, I had no trouble picturing where I was heading inside. I hated moving in daylight, but I had to be at the meeting at nine. Finding the physical records was the hard part; after I went past the front counter, I was in unknown territory.
"'No Students Allowed,'" I snickered as I read the sign. "Good thing I'm not enrolled anymore, then." It was weak humor, even for me.
This door was locked as well, and there wasn't even a small window. Instead of travelling inside, I pushed a wisp of shadow into the lock and pressed it against whichever surfaces moved, trying to mimic the key. After a minute, the tumblers gave and the door clicked open. I stepped inside.
Before me was a room set in semi-darkness, lit by a few emergency lights. There were filing cabinets lining the walls, but I guessed that somewhere in the sea of desks was what I needed.
Starting with the first desk, I scanned the piles for anything that looked useful: withdrawal paperwork, or drops, or removal. It was late in the semester, too late for there to be many of them. I hoped that would make the process a little easier. Lucky Penny and the Hippie had both mentioned being students here. If they'd disappeared from campus, there might be a record of them doing so.
I'd spent the better part of an hour before I finally came across a stack of forms for Late Withdrawal. I flipped through it, checking the dates.
There were a few that looked promising. I wrote down names and forwarding addresses on the desk's pad - all young men who'd left in the last month, reason for leaving unknown.
It shouldn't have surprised me to come across my own name in the pile, but it did. I stared at it, and at the notes neatly typed down the page. 'Expulsion with a recommendation not to re-admit. Student does not take his education or others' seriously. Disruptive influence. Lacking in goals and initiative.'
I got mad, and when I get mad, I get distracted. When I get distracted, I don't notice people sneaking up on me.
When the lights turned on, I jumped.
"Dan, what are you doing?" I recognized Charles' voice. When I looked up, I realized they were in costume, and I made myself think of him as Viridian. Alex and Ray stood behind him - or I should say Cobalt and Carmine. All three were in their official uniforms and masks, provided by the DSA. They called themselves Trinity Prime when they were dressed up like this, though a lot of my friends called them the Color Kids or the Rainbow Brigade.
I slipped the page from the pad into my pocket. "Some research."
"Come on, Dan. This could get you in serious trouble," Cobalt said.
"What are they going to do? Expel me? And besides, I've got the mask on. You're supposed to call me Tenebras."
Viridian rolled his eyes. "Breaking and entering and tampering with state property are pretty serious."
"I didn't break anything," I told him. "How did you guys even know I was here?"
"Alarm on the door," Carmine pointed, managing to look sheepish even in the mask.
"But I've been here for ages."
"I guess we weren't the first choice," he shrugged. "But when they called us, we came."
I sighed. "Fine, whatever. I'll go."
"You're going, all right. To jail," Viridian told me. The line was so cheesy I had to laugh, even as Cobalt was hissing at his boyfriend to stop.
"Stop? He's breaking in! He could be destroying records or blowing them up for all we know," Viridian yelled. Carmine stepped between them, and Viridian stopped.
"What are you doing, Tenebras? Really," Carmine turned to me.
I realized I didn't want to lie to him in mask any more than I did out of it. "Some friends have gone missing. I want to try to track them down, but that means real names."
"That's reasonable," Cobalt said, but Viridian turned on him.
"That is not reasonable," he snapped at the larger metahuman.
Carmine frowned. "You should go to the police with a missing persons case."
"I can't go to the police," I told him. "I think it's the government that's taking them."
"Don't be silly, the government wouldn't do that." Carmine looked at his teammates instead of me as he said it.
"Don't bother, Carmine. You know how Tenebras gets about his conspiracy theories," Viridian laughed. It was as good an opening as I was going to get.
"He's going to run!" Viridian yelled almost as soon as I'd made the decision. I hate telepaths. A lot.
It wasn't exactly a brave charge into battle. I was running for the hallway at the back of the office. In here, with the fluorescent lights overhead, there wasn't enough shadow for me to get away.
Cobalt came up behind me and I circled out of the way. Despite his size, he was quick - but he didn't want to hurt me and I knew it, so I wasn't too worried. I just wanted to get far enough before he caught me.
"We can talk about this, Dan," Cobalt said, but when I looked back, Viridian was coming up behind him and Carmine was on one of the office phones.
I felt the wall behind me, finally, and waited as Cobalt came closer. Finally, his shadow fell over me and I was able to grab it.
"You want to talk? I'll call you." I stepped into his shadow and then I was outside, at the public park near the coffeehouse where we were meeting tonight.
I hurried to the first payphone I saw asked the operator for the number. She gave me the cost and I dug in my pocket for spare change. Luckily, I had enough.
A young woman answered, sounding tired.
"Is Nicholas St. Clair there?" I asked.
"Who's asking?" she snapped back immediately, sounding suspicious.
"A friend. From school."
Her voice dropped to almost a whisper. "What... what kind of friend?"
Now honestly, that question could mean almost anything, but I figured I had to take a risk. "The kind who knew Lucky Penny. I just want to find out what happened to him. A lot of us are... we're worried."
"So am I. They told my brother he was getting called up for service, school or no school. And then he didn't come home from the draft office, and they won't tell us anything except that all good Americans have an obligation."
"I'm sorry." My voice shook. It's one thing to be abstractly paranoid. Having it laid out for me so neatly, so completely, made me realize that even though I'd been right all along, I wanted to be wrong.
I called a couple more numbers and got the Hippie's family on my third try. His dad was less emotional, but what I could get out of him amounted to the same story.
I felt sick to my stomach as I headed into the coffee shop.
The guy who handed me the Metahumans Are Humans Too flier was new. So was the girl at the microphone when I came in. As I scanned the crowd for people I knew, I noticed several more that I hadn't seen before.
I wanted to be glad, but I was just nervous. The coffeehouse was busier than usual and I don't trust crowds at the best of times.
"This war should be over. Why are they still drafting? Why are we still registering?" the girl on stage was yelling. I hung back, hugging the shadows and listening to them argue. Some of them repeated each other. The crowd didn't seem to care. When they'd talked themselves out, I stepped forward. "I've got a couple of theories."
"Well, let's hear them," someone yelled. I thought it was another new guy, but it was hard to tell.
I stepped up to the microphone. "Either the war's not going as well as they want it to or they want to go straight through Vietnam and into another war. I think it's a little of both - I bet the north's being propped up by Russian or Chinese metas the same as the US is doing in the south.
"And then there's the other question. Why registration? They're hardly calling anyone up after that first visit anymore. They're letting the metas do half the fighting.
"Guys, the metas are what they're looking for. They're specifically drafting metas in the guise of mandatory training. I know three people that got a letter from their draft board ordering them to report for safety training even though none of them were known to the government as metas.
"One of them, Pecos Bill, went to Canada. I heard from him last week.
"The other two, Lucky Penny and the Hippie, went in to clear up the confusion. I haven't heard from either of them in over a month.
"The very thing that keeps us safe puts us in danger. I knew Lucky Penny. I knew the Hippie. I didn't know Nicholas St. Clair or Mark Anthony Jackson, so I couldn't keep an eye on them when they left. And then they didn't come back.
"Now I have to ask myself what's more dangerous - that Tenebras might disappear at any moment? Or that you might recognize me?" I started to reach for my mask, but I hesitated. There were a lot of new faces in the crowd. "I'm not saying you have to out yourselves, or even that you should. But I want my friends to know who I am. If you see my name in the paper, whether it's the police blotter or the obituaries, I want you to know what happened to me, and not be left wondering.
"I don't want anyone to have to track down my sister, or my father, and find out the way I found out about Penny and the Hippie."
I relinquished the microphone.
Maybe it was dangerous, but I liked dangerous. And hell, as close as it seemed like I was to Pollen and Howl these days, maybe this really would keep me safe. At least if I was arrested, someone stood a good chance of noticing.
Maybe I'd even get bailed out by someone other than Alex.
So I said it, after the meeting, as I walked home with Howl and Pollen.
"Nice to meet you guys. I'm Dan," I told them with a smile.
Howl looked at Pollen and laughed. "We know. You've been getting your mail at our place for weeks."
"I'm Paul," Pollen introduced himself, "and this is Rafael. But the big question is still not answered."
"The one about your order to report."
"Oh, right, that. I'm not sure yet." But I was going to have to get sure, and soon.
At first I thought it was just paranoia talking, but I started seeing shadows. Not the kind I usually saw, but people following me. I didn't know what to make of it until the day Rafael came home and immediately pulled down all the window shades.
"What the hell do they want?" he grumbled.
"You didn't see the spook in the car across the street?"
I went over to the window and nudged the shade over just enough to see. Sure enough, just behind the hedge in the driveway across the street sat an occupied car.
"I think they're following me," I told him, explaining the feeling I'd had.
Rafael frowned. "You think they're from the draft board?"
I shook my head. "My date hasn't passed yet. And if they wanted me, they'd have come right up to the door. No, it's got to be the DSA."
"Superhuman Affairs? How'd you get their attention?"
"I've been pissing people off lately. My ex went legit. Maybe she's got her eye on revenge." I shrugged. It didn't really sound like Misty, but neither did going straight.
"She never seemed like the type."
I sat back down on the couch. "I don't know. I didn't think she would. But I know who to ask."
It was a couple of days before I called Alex. I wanted to make sure I wasn't overreacting, and I needed to figure out what I was going to say. I was careful to call him at his job on campus, so that there was no chance of Charles or Ray picking up the phone. He agreed to meet me at the usual diner on Saturday morning.
"Switch me sides?" I asked him.
"Why?" Alex asked, even as he stood and moved to the opposite side.
I looked straight at the door as I sat down. "Less light on your side."
"If you say so." Alex wasn't the kind of guy who argued, even when he knew he wasn't getting the whole story.
"So how much does Ray hate me?" I asked Alex.
"Ray doesn't hate anyone," he said, setting down his coffee. "I don't think he's capable of it."
I let out a deep breath. "He really is a good guy, you know? I didn't mean to..." I trailed off as the waitress came over and I ordered coffee and hotcakes.
"Things got away from you. That's life."
"Why are you so damn wise, anyway?"
"Too many older sisters. If I wasn't mellow, they would have eaten me alive."
I shook my head. "Still, man. I'm glad you're still talking to me, at least."
"Was this what you wanted to ask me about?"
"No, actually." I took a quick look around the diner and then leaned forward so he could hear me whisper. "I think the DSA is after me."
"You always think the DSA is after you."
"Technically, the DSA is always after all unregistered metas. But I think they're actually following me at the moment. I think they know I've been busy."
"And how would they know that?"
"I thought maybe Ray had been angry enough to tell them," I shrugged. "But if he's not, then I don't know. Maybe it's all politics. Everything's politics." My hands were shaking as I wrapped them around the coffee cup.
"It doesn't have to be, Dan. You make it that way."
"That's easy for you to say. You're enrolled in college, remember? Some of the rest of us are dodging the damn draft, and not just because we don't want to fight."
Alex blinked at me. "Oh, you think they'd find out?"
"Their doctors aren't stupid. They know what to look for - do you know how many metas they've actually discovered via the draft? They're talking about calling for women to register too, not because they'd send them over with rifles, but just to find the metas."
"Now you sound like a conspiracy theorist."
"A conspiracy theorist who's right. And I don't believe in fighting that kind of war anyway; I'm not interested in stopping communism, I'm busy stopping fascism."
Alex looked away from me, down at his coffee. "I'm not going to tell you what to do. None of us is going to turn you in. Ray and Misty know I'd never forgive them."
"I appreciate that, but I'm not sure..." The door jangled open again and two men in suits looked around. I stood, leaving a bill on the table to cover both coffees and disappeared into the men's room without a word to Alex. I hoped he understood.
I couldn't see what happened, but I could guess easily enough by listening.
Someone asked, "Where'd your friend go?"
"Bathroom?" I heard Alex answer. He knew I'd be gone before they had the chance to walk that far, and he was right. I didn't go far, just outside the diner, and I took a minute to look back through the windows. One of them men came out of the bathroom, shaking his head no at another man who'd appeared between Alex and the exit.
The first man yelled at Alex, slamming his hand down on the table. Alex answered and I wondered how he could stay so damn calm.
Before either of the men could answer, I knocked on the window several feet away from them. No point in letting Alex get in trouble for my sake. The men hurried toward the exit, and Alex turned to see me smile at him quickly before I took off running.
"God, I'm an idiot," I grumbled, but the looks on the faces of the agents when they spotted me were almost worth it. I took off running as soon as he was sure they were following him and leaving Alex alone. The shadows in the restroom weren't the only ones I could disappear into, after all.
I led them on a brief footrace toward the east side of town before dashing down a dark alley and reappearing behind the potting shed in the backyard of the house Alex rented with Charles and Ray.
I stormed in through the unlocked kitchen door, almost running over Ray. Misty was behind him at the stove, making grilled cheese sandwiches.
"Dan? Are you okay?" Ray asked.
"No! No, I am very much not in the least bit okay."
"Somebody's got the god-damned DSA on my tail."
Misty glared at me over the sandwiches. "Let me guess. You think it was me."
"It's not like you haven't threatened," I told her. "But no. If I thought you'd done it, I wouldn't have come here. I just didn't know where else to go. The rest of my friends are unregistered; I don't want to get anybody else messed up in this."
"That's very noble," Charles said from the doorway. "But if you really want to protect your friends, you should turn yourself in and get it over with."
I turned and stared stupidly at him.
"The Department doesn't give up. If you keep hiding, they'll just look harder. And if they look harder, they'll find your friends, won't they?"
I nodded. It made sense.
"So give up. Make it easy on yourself, on your friends, on Misty…" It seemed so obvious when he said it like that.
"Charles, stop," Misty said, and I hear the full melody of her powers behind it. He stopped and looked at her.
"Stop what?" I asked her.
"He's putting thoughts in your head."
Charles shrugged. "You're an easy target, Dan."
"You're the one who put the DSA on me, aren't you?"
"About time you figured it out." Charles picked up one of the grilled cheese sandwiches and sat down at the kitchen table.
"Why?" Misty asked before I got the chance.
"You're asking me that?" Charles turned to her. "When he kept dragging you down after you broke up with him? When he followed you to the house and you banged on the door and begged me to let you in?"
"You were on Romper Room!" I announced, remembering the strange message Miss Mary Anne had given me. Misty and Ray both looked at me like I was crazy.
"You were following me that night?" Misty asked.
"I wanted to make sure you were okay. You were kind of, you know, messed up when you left."
"Following a girl from your house and hiding in the bushes to watch her is not okay," Charles stood up. "You're out of control. And it looked like you were going to do the same thing to another girl. So I did something about it."
"You ratted me out to the DSA because you don't think I should be allowed to date?" Okay, so maybe my life was over, but couldn't it at least make sense?
"I'm a big girl, Charles. I make my own mistakes. I don't need your help," Misty told him. "You want to know something? I didn't know Dan was following me that night. I just wanted you to let me in."
Charles swallowed the last bite of his sandwich, but it didn't seem to go down well.
"If I wanted someone to protect me from my ex-boyfriend, I would have told Ray. I appreciate what you were trying to do, Charles, but I'm not helpless."
I leaned my head against the wall. "For god's sake, if she wanted to, she could have told me to walk into the bay."
"It's not just that. You're a bad influence on Alex, too. On lots of people. And you're breaking the law."
"Alex is a big boy, too," I told him.
"You were well on your way to ruining someone's life. If not Ray's or Misty's, then some of those impressionable kids who go to your rallies."
"So you ruined my life preemptively! How thoughtful of you."
"Charles." Alex's voice. I looked up. He must have just gotten back from the diner. They frowned at each other for a long minute before Ray stepped over to me.
"You should go," he said, and I took his advice.
The walk home from their house was a long one. I could have taken a short cut, but I needed to think. I skirted the campus, picking a quiet street that ran behind fraternity row in the hope of staying out of sight.
I was exhausted and paranoid and starting to consider throwing myself on the mercy of the draft board just so I could relax. What if Charles was right? I kept telling myself that I couldn't expect Ray or even Alex to understand - what was the big deal about registration when you were already registered? Of course they didn't get it, even if Alex was indulging me.
Maybe he was indulging me in the hope that I'd come around.
"--called the cops," someone was shouting to be heard over moaning. I was so busy worrying about my own problems that I didn't hear the noise until I was almost on top of it.
"I don't care," another voice answered. "I'm sick of this guy coming in and messing up our yard."
The noise was coming from behind a fence almost as tall as I was. When I looked over the fence, I saw one of the beach drifters from the other day curled up on the ground next to an overturned trash can. I figured it was a good bet that the two guys standing over him were members of whatever frat house I was standing behind.
One of the two college boys kicked the man in the ribs while the other tried to pull him away. I thought I recognized the second one from my physics class the previous semester. The drifter whimpered but didn't move.
I had to do something. I didn't have my mask, but I figured it shouldn't be that hard to get them to leave him alone long enough for the man to get away, even without using my powers. I tried the gate, but it was locked from the inside.
At the corner of the property, a tree grew near the fence. After checking to make sure no one was watching, I climbed onto its shadow and then vaulted over.
"Leave him alone," I ordered. For a minute, I felt downright heroic.
"Mind your own business," the attacker yelled at me.
"Dan, come on, I'm trying to calm things down," the other guy said. He must have remembered me, too. "You're not helping."
"I am helping," I argued, but I was cut off by his frat brother punching me in the face. I figured that made it fair game for me to fight back.
I don't know when the guy in the doorway disappeared, but I definitely noticed when he came back with two policemen in tow.
"Why don't we go ahead and take you all downtown while we sort this out?"
I didn't see that I had a lot of choice in the matter, considering I was unmasked. Disappearing into the shadows would hurt my cause, not help it, especially since one of them knew me. So I did as I was told, letting them cuff me and shove me into the back of a police car with the drifter.
I'd never actually been arrested before. If there's one thing my power is great at, it's escaping, so actually seeing the process firsthand was interesting. Almost all of my friends had been arrested, so I figured it was about time.
"You want your phone call?" one of the cops asked me. I tried desperately to think of someone's phone number. Alex's was the only one that came to mind.
I called. Ray answered.
"Um. Is Alex there?" I tried to tell myself that at least it wasn't Charles. That was something, right?
"Can you give him a message for me?"
Ray hesitated. "Yeah."
"Can you tell him I'm in jail, and this was the only number I could think to call?"
Another silence that lasted just long enough to make me uncomfortable. "I'll tell him."
Once I was left to sit in my cell, I got bored fast. I could only spend so much time thinking about the multitude of ways I'd screwed up, after all.
Finally, I heard a key in the cell lock and sat up. An officer was glaring at me through the bars.
"Someone's here to get you."
For a minute I thought it might be the DSA, but I figured if that was the case, the officer would be in a better mood. He walked me down the hall to the lobby, stopping along the way so I could collect my shoes and my wallet.
Rafael and Emily were waiting for me in the lobby.
"Thanks, guys," I told them as we walked toward his car.
"Don't thank me yet," he shook his head. "Your friends in the black suits came by the house already. They made Pollen late for work. We were worried they'd beat us here."
"How'd you know where I was?"
"Got a call that Dan McCarthy was in jail from a certain ex of yours," he said with a smirk. "Good thing we knew who that was."
"If you're going to Canada, you better get going." He was entirely deadpan, and I realized he was right. San Diego wasn't large enough to play cat and mouse with the government for long.
"Canada?" Emily glared at me. "You finally start talking to me and now you're going to run away to Canada?"
The idea had come to me while I was waiting in the cell. If I disappeared and Tenebras did too, the DSA wouldn't just be guessing at putting two and two together, they'd know for sure. But I – Dan – had to; telling the draft board to screw off was non-negotiable.
So the answer was for me to go to Canada very obviously. I planned to leave a trail a mile wide, sending letters to my family, forwarding my mail, and enjoying a very nice train ride up to the border. And then I'd come right back down, hitchhiking or riding freight trains, and make sure everyone who kept an eye out knew that Tenebras was still in town.
"Don't stay gone too long," Emily said. She kissed me on the cheek. "When are you leaving?"
"Next train, probably. No point playing any more tag with the DSA."
Rafael took us back to the house and Emily helped me pack. I was leaving most of my stuff in the den, but I needed clothes and books and whatever money I had left to scrounge up. Emily walked me to the train station.
"Have you ever ridden up the coast?" she asked me when we got to the platform.
"Never. I'm from New Mexico. But I expect postcards."
I nodded. "I won't be long. But it'll be harder to see you when I get back."
"Don't worry about it," she said. "I'll keep busy. Now get going."
And I did.