Everyone leave me alone, I need a moment to think. I want to scream at them — at Butterfly, for putting me in this position, at Mark, for–
“Ma’am, your cape?” The twitchy secretary with the immaculate bun holds my cloak out to me, and I’m forced to glance around the dark hallway between the tank room and the laundromat as the double doors clunk shut behind me. We’re in complete darkness as I take my cape from her. Then, the front double doors open, and light, the tangy floral scent of detergent, and the pastel colors of the laundromat greet me. The secretary’s no longer beside me, or anywhere, as I wrap the cape around my waist, over my skirt, and step out of the shadows. The gears creak, and the door grumbles and slams as the wall of the laundromat reforms behind me.
Finally, silence. Finally, alone.
The groans of the prisoners in the tank room never quite leave you.
Where were we?
I want to scream at Butterfly, because I had a good thing going, putting away the trash and recycling it for science. And the money! The sweet cash money! May sound shallow, but it’s not my dearly-departed parents’ trust fund that pays for Robot-man’s projects. That’s a filthy July lie. The envelope of cash I slip to Robot-man every week, between my wink and his nod, without our teammates knowing? It’s not a secret because I’m modest, it’s a secret because less ears means less lies. This side-gig pays for the warehouse, the superpowers he builds the other Guardians, the truck, the safety alarms, and I just have to lie once, to Robot-man, once a week. This isn’t rich orphan money, it’s dirty bounty money. For all I know my parents never died.
For all I know they abandoned us when they saw us melting for the first time.
My mind goes blank as I add water to the sad clay flowerpot on the counter. Touching the sticky, smooth stem, I can already tell the break is healing. Poor thing. There’s more color in the petals, too.
No reason to hate myself. I just need to think. Think what to do about Mark, and Butterfly. I can do this. I make the hard calls the other heroes don’t make. It’s part of growing up without the privilege of a fixed identity.
I can’t believe Butterfly saved that pocket-pincher over herself! They always said the thief’s penchant for escaping unscathed had to be a super-power, but now we know. He had a Guardian Angel.
Why don’t I ever get a guardian angel? Who protected me when my cells misreplicated in my mother’s womb? Who watched over me when I spent my elementary school years vomiting bloody body parts into the toilet? Who covered me when I awoke post-seizures in my own urine and stool? When July couldn’t walk, and Jun couldn’t talk, and the doctors kept pricking my jaundiced limbs to take vial after vial of blood samples: “she doesn’t have polio” — “it’s not Huntington’s or Gaucher’s disease” — “not Hurler’s either!”
No one knew to tell me I could stabilize this disease process if only I held on to one identity. No one taught me how to hold on, how to clench every muscle in my body to force my skin to stay, to keep that constant focus in my mind, to do that thing that I can’t explain that constantly pulls on who I am, that tension that if I relax lets me just melt…no one told me which X chromosome carried the horrible enzyme deficiency, Jun’s or July’s, and no one told me that if I could silence that X chromosome, like every other female does with her Barr body, I would live. I walked this road alone. I picked Jun at random, and survived by maybe. I chose speech therapy over physical therapy by chance.
I never had a guardian angel.
A familiar whirring sounds overhead, and then the squeak of tires, a car door, and a metallic step and holy heavens what the heck is Robot-man doing here?!
Jun, arise! I must become my better self. With a slurp, a flash of pain, then darkness, unconsciousness…
And with a lotta blinking I’m back in business. I race outside to stop Carl from entering. Gah, my shins still burn from the whole transformy-thingy! Hate bein’ July, always feel like losing my cookies during, and right after.
“Holy crap, Carl, whatcha doin’ here?” I ask. “Did you get my” — imaginary — “distress call?”
He whirls, his metal heels clicking. Aw, his face, he’s all worried! “Butterfly — have you seen her? Her tracker went dead around here!”
Butterfly, really? Fah, this girl.
“Bad news, buddy,” I say. “She’s the traitor Mark’s been goin’ on about.”
He doesn’t react, and he thinks before he talks. “What makes you think that?”
“I saw her, she’s dating Simon Punjab — the super-thief!”
“I know that,” he says.
What? How’s he know? Did he follow her home, worried about her safety, like I thought about doing when I guessed she’d got a villain for a boyfriend? July wanted Simon off the streets for his possible powers, but I just want him gone ‘cuz he’s seduced my friend. He’ll turn her!
“He’s turned her,” I say. “They lured me here to–” Oh crap, and I don’t have a good lie to finish that sentence with. Dangit, I feel better at this when I’m pretty like July. Maybe if I keep talking a thought’ll come? “I think they lured me here the same reason they lured you.”
“…to distract us from what’s happening with Skye,” Carl groans, smacking his forehead with his palm as light-bulbs go off in his eye implants. “Muchacha,” he says it like a curse, not like a word for girl, “we gotta get back to base!”
Uh — okay, sure! Thank-you Skye, I guess? Another save from the boy in blue? What on earth message did Robot-man just get in his eye-thingy? It always lights like that when he gets a message…
We sprint to Carl’s refurbished truck and slam the doors. Carl’s tense, and I’ve never actually seen him tense, not in the two years I’ve known him. I’m worse. Over my shoulder I can feel the Scythes watching us from every building, guarding the laundromat, and I just want to get him out of here before they decide to bottle him, too.
Carl furrows his brow and pauses. No, man, come on, let’s go!
“No,” he says. “Butterfly’s not turned. She’s in trouble. Maybe this Simon guy kidnapped her.”
“What’s happening with Skye?” I nudge. We need to leave now!
“Man, I don’t even know. He was fine when I talked to him half an hour ago, but Thunder just texted me a picture of our base in pieces.”
“So she’s threatening us? She’s the traitor?” Just point as many fingers as I can. “Maybe Butterfly’s a distraction to keep us from an attack on our base! We better get over there now and check!”
“Maybe, I don’t know, people aren’t communicating clearly today.” Carl rubs his face in his hands like an old man. “No matter what I’m doing, I’m doing something wrong.”
With that bitter muttering he shifts into drive, and we’re finally off.
I’m silent. Watching him like this feels like staring at a turtle without its shell, or a person without skin — it’s wrong. I squirm.
Dangit, Butterfly, this is your fault, too. Getting yourself captured screws over Robot-man, me, Mark–
Oh crap, The Mark. He never loses. He’s sent a message somehow. He must have. Is that what Robot-man got just now? Is Carl stressed ‘cuz he’s hiding from me that he knows?
No, no, Mark would only text Skye. He hates all other humans, and we all know it. Thank heaven Skye almost always leaves his team phone on silent — I can count on his irresponsibility, I think, I hope, I believe he hasn’t checked it yet…
“We’ve gotta get to Skye,” I mutter. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
They’ll be interrogating Butterfly now to find out the source of her powers. I hope she just tells them Robot-man built them. I hope she doesn’t try to protect him, from nothing, not knowing that they only want organics, mutants…then maybe they’ll…if not let her go, at least not experiment on her? Ridiculous compassion isn’t a superpower…
I grind my teeth and almost lose my form. This wasn’t s’posed to happen to one of ours! This is for scum, rule-breakers, Fermi, Simon, Zinfandel, or better someone like Zeus–I’d love to get his head in a jar.
Maybe I can get them to let her go. They’ve never let anyone go. The idiot who almost overdosed on knock-out gas to save a thief? Guilt by association. Somehow I doubt she deserves the exception to the rule, if I can get one. Mark does, but he’s too dangerous to release…
I may have to come to terms with losing the lives of two good guys. This is war. Sometimes you lose the good guys so you can take out a whole lotta bad ones.
But when I lean back against the old leather seat and close my eyes to try to calm this new headache, Butterfly’s face comes to my mind. We’re changing behind the little screen we put up in the warehouse whenever we gotta split guys and girls to get naked, and she’s listening to me blather on about the newest punk guitar I love, this ironic Hello Kitty number, and the mike I’m gonna get with it — the AT2020, maybe. She doesn’t know a thing about guitars, but she asks questions and takes interest and suddenly I realize it wasn’t me gifting her my free and vast knowledge — all those lessons on that ratty couch that devolved into me just rocking out while she cheered me on — that was her gifting me with her ears because she doesn’t care a lick about rock music but she cares about me.
Oh gosh, this headache.
We can see the destruction long before we land. The warehouse’s got three sides now, and it’s empty, without a roof, its contents strewn around the street and throughout the grassy field behind it. We come in for a landing to see the grass laying flat, ironed down in a patch of huge footprints, as if something landed, stomped around a little, and then flew away.
“Oh…wow,” I say. “That’s Olympian damage.”
Robot-man’s grim as we touch down with a rubbery bump. As we get out, my rubber slipper shoes squick — everything’s wet, like it rained here, and only here.
“Oh no, the fridge!” My ice cream! You’d be surprised how sad you get when you see your butter pecan delight bleeding out on the pavement. All day I was looking forward to curling up with that, to just vegging out and forgetting my troubles. With no doors and a dent bending it almost in half, our fridge’s not working ever again. That and the couch were like the center of our team! Where’s the couch?
Skye’s leaned back against the tipped-over couch, his eyes closed.
Before Robot-man and I can freak out, Skye waves. “Hey guys.” He sounds like he’s breathing through pain. “Natasha went to get us lunch. We didn’t know what to do about the mess, so once we weren’t hurting too bad anymore we thought we’d call you…”
Carl dashes over to kneel by his side. “Skye,” he says in that big, calm Dad-voice. “How do you feel, papi?”
“Mebh?” Skye opens his eyes as Robot-man takes his pulse and starts running diagnostics. “Well since you said if it hurts to breathe it’s probably cracked ribs and there’s not a lot they can do at the hospital as long as I haven’t punctured a lung, and I’m breathing just fine, and I’m not dizzy or bleeding out or belly pain-ing, so…”
“Skye, if I’m not around you have to go to the hospital,” Carl says. He presses on Skye’s left side, just below his chest. Skye jumps, and yelps. “See, you have no no way of knowing you haven’t ruptured your spleen. Open your suit, let’s see the skin here.”
“I’m not dizzy, and my pulse is good, and I’ve been sitting out here for 45 minutes without passing out so like you said last time I don’t think I got internal bleeding…” Skye answers.
Carl switches to the sonogram on his arm and says nothing.
“I guess if I had been bleeding inside, though, now would be too late,” Skye admits.
“If I’m not around, you go to the hospital,” Carl repeats. “Change into street clothes and tell them you got jumped. That’s what I used to do.”
“Okay, next time I will, I’m sorry.” Skye looks up at me. “Hey Jun!”
“Hey,” I croak. I clear my throat, and my mind. Right now, Skye’s story, and all the questions I have about whatever Olympian he faced, can wait. I need to focus on deleting that message! “Hey buddy!” I get peppy, get back to being that prankster partner in crime he knows and loves. “Did you kick major butt?”
Skye cringes, and bites his lip, and I can tell he’s trying to decide whether or not to come clean. I’m not gonna rat him out, but I know whoever trashed the place, Skye invited him. Skye’s been doing that, under our noses, because either it’s funny or it’s clever or he’s lazy and it’s easier to bag the bad guys when they’re in your front yard, and I haven’t said anything because the more secrets everyone else keeps the safer I am.
Please don’t come clean, Skye. They say the suicide rate goes up every time the news reports a suicide. We follow what we see, and I’m feeling awful enough to follow what I see, and I can’t, I can’t afford to come clean, please don’t.
He doesn’t. He goes halfsies.
“Well…Zeus didn’t kill us.” He winces like we might hit him.
And Robot-man almost does. Now he’s scolding, and all the Puerto Rican curse words start to fly until he’s almost speaking all the way in Spanish. “Mira, cabron,” why didn’t Skye call him, that “jodiendo” oversight could’ve killed Skye — there a few “carajo”s in there, and a “mierda” for good measure, and you can tell it’s because he cares because he keeps calling Skye “papi” in between scolds.
While they’re both occupied, I ask to borrow Skye’s phone for something, and he hands it over without a thought.
Oh thank heaven oh man — my whole body relaxes so much I almost melt into July. There’s an unread message from Mark, and then there isn’t, because I delete it, and I’m safe, my secrets safe, and I’m so relieved and so horrible and so collapsing to sit down in the wet grass and I’m giddy. I can do this, we can do without Mark and Butterfly, as long as I keep my boys safe. Carl and Skye can’t know, and the Scythes can’t have them, and I’m relieved.
But as Skye defends himself, and asks about Butterfly, and says he didn’t want Carl to have to choose between them so he didn’t call for help…
Carl’s so distraught. Dangit, Butterfly, you’ve made him feel like a failure. I don’t want you to die for it. I don’t want Mark to die for it. I can’t rescue you, and put Skye and Robot-man in danger, because no one can beat the Scythes, and I won’t make them my enemy, but — but–
What happens if I can’t decide?