Doc waited outside the grocery store, sitting against the driver side door of his Volkswagen, while he refreshed the newsfeed on his phone every three seconds. A bitter wind bit under his thin jacket – ill-prepared for the Colorado fall thanks to the sudden flight from Georgia. The air swam with the pine scent of woods hiding under the cover of late night, and Doc felt the weight of massive mountains looming over the city of Colorado Springs, though he couldn’t see them. Cars passed on the highway near the store single file, their engines no more than a murmur backdrop to the breezes fluttering down from on high.
Doc refreshed his phone again. A few new links, none of which he was really looking for. He waited for news of Megajoule’s fate. He hoped that the hero would conquer, that Cynic would be cast down, her dragon Nero slain, her fortress OPI thrown down and sundered brick by brick.
Another car drove up and parked next to the Volkswagen. The window rolled down, revealing an older man with a face more grizzled than Doc’s own. “You look like hell.” Doc’s brother, Paul.
Doc grunted and put his phone in his pocket. “It’s been one hell of a week.” Drove for three days just to get here, sleeping behind the wheel in back roads, and living off fast food garbage or gas station snacks. The boy Gabe hadn’t taken to it, too well.
Doc looked back into the car, at Gabe’s sleeping form curled up in the back seats, dressed in an extra large Walmart undershirt and gym shorts. Not really a boy, anymore. Seventeen years old, and already six foot two.
“How is he?” Paul asked.
“Asleep,” Doc said. “You’ve got the place set up?”
“Yeah, for a few weeks. After that you’ll have to move. Any idea where you want to take him permanently?” Paul asked.
Doc scratched his chin. “Somewhere big. Springs is too small of a city, easier for him to get noticed. I know I can’t keep him locked in a closet his whole life, but it’s got to be somewhere he can get lost in the crowd.”
“One of the mega cities is safest,” Paul said. He nodded at the grocery bag resting on the hood of Doc’s car. “What’s all that?”
“Real food, for a change.” Doc grabbed the handles of the bag, and opened the driver door.
Paul snorted the trademark family snort they shared. “Cereal ain’t real good.”
“Realer than Hostess,” Doc said. “I’ll follow you over.”
Paul nodded and the car window rolled up, and he drove ahead. Doc followed, his eyes half on the road, and half on the rear view mirror aimed at Gabe. Doc never had kids, but he couldn’t shake this strange worry that he’d look back and the boy would have run, or stopped breathing, or something, something.
Or maybe he’d disappear. Just plain old vanish, spirited away to a better world.
Doc sighed, and drove on to the apartment complex his brother owned. A run down piece of shit clinging to the roots of the trees around it, shrouded in darkness that the street lamps couldn’t banish – spaced so far away from each other their road slipped out of view for a breath before dull yellow fluorescence uncovered it again.
Paul parked by one of the buildings. Doc parked next to him. He looked back, and saw that Gabe was awake, staring at the apartments with wide eyes.
Doc didn’t smile often. He still scrounged a smile up for the boy. “Evening, kid. Sleep okay?”
Gabe, who hadn’t said a word since they’d left the lab, only nodded. He was lucky – those who knew Megajoule intimately would see that Gabe was the spitting image of him, but in a city, just walking around? Too young to make that connection.
“Come on.” Doc grabbed the grocery bag, and stepped out of the car.
The apartment Paul had for them was a 500-something square foot studio, with the only separate room being the bathroom. There was a tiny kitchen that provided low, atmospheric light as they entered, a little couch, and a single bed. Not even a table or chairs, but the kitchen cabinets hid some bowls and cutlery.
“Don’t be too hard on the place,” Paul said, making his way to the door. He left the key on the kitchen counter.
Doc set his grocery bag. He looked at the pathetic contents – a box of Captain Crunch, a half gallon carton of milk, some instant microwave mac and cheese, and bottled water. Hardly a feast, but so much better than what they’d had on the drive. Doc felt an itch in his eyes, and rubbed them. “Thanks.”
Paul snorted, and closed the door.
Gabe sat down on the couch, staring at Doc. The boy didn’t really seem to react to anything, nor did he have anything to say.
“Are you hungry?” Doc asked.
Gabe drew his knees to his chest and hugged himself into a little ball. He nodded. His mop of blond hair bobbed around his eyes.
Doc poured him a bowl of Captain Crunch, and offered it to the boy.
Gabe took a spoonful. On the first bite, his eyes widened, and he threw the spoon down to the floor, and pressed the bowl to his mouth. He tipped his head back and drank-ate his way through the entire thing. He ate it so fast that milk spilled down his chin and into his nose, and when he finished, he dropped the bowl into his lap with a choking gasp. He hadn’t even swallowed all of the cereal, but instead crunched what was left in his teeth uncertainly.
Only then did Doc notice the tears pouring down Gabe’s cheeks. His eye itched, and he rubbed it. What to say? What to say to this boy?
Gabe laid his head against the couch’s armrest, and curled up into himself again. The boy never took his eyes off Doc, even though they glistened. Doc checked his phone’s newsfeed again. Still nothing. He refreshed it for a few minutes, still hoping for some news.
When he looked back up, Gabe had fallen asleep again.
Doc picked up the bowl and the spoon. He found a towel one of the drawers and wiped Gabe’s face with it, drying the milk and tears. Doc took the blanket from the bed, the only one they had, and covered the boy with it.
Nothing really left to do tonight, but Doc couldn’t sleep. Not even after he’d driven three days straight, not even after eight hours of sleep across those three days.
Doc stepped outside into the cold Colorado night. He still had a smoke left from his stipend at the lab, so he lit it up while he shivered in the dark.
The mountains felt like they would fall down on him any second, the stars felt like he could reach them if he stood on his tiptoes. The pitch black woods crowded him against the door to the apartment, the shadow faces in their bark appraising the guilty man smoking on his porch. His porch for a few weeks.
Doc didn’t want to go back inside, though. Even though the outside world felt so tiny, the inside of that apartment was a cavern. All five hundred square feet a dark pool that he treaded with his chin just above water, and his feet couldn’t touch solid ground. All five hundred square feet an entire god damn universe, and the only people inside it were Doc and Gabe, murderer and victim.
Doc checked his phone again, and found he had seventeen new notifications. The newsfeed had hundreds of articles that all said the same thing, more or less:
Megajoule was dead.
Doc’s eye itched. He shivered.
No, it was tears, and he was shuddering. He was only cold because the fire in the world had sputtered and died.