2.5.2

Bedevil answers the phone. Her demeanor snaps from alcoholic, sobbing mess to peppy wonderkid in a flash. In a cheery voice only Epione could match, she says, “Hi, Director May!” She winces, recoils from the phone. A lady shouts through the phone speaker, so loud that I can hear it when Bedevil pulls away.

“-why the FUCK where you not on call last night? The rest of your team deployed and no one could reach you.” That’s the voice of a lady hell hath no fury even close to resembling.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I was still recovering from-”

“Oh, you think you need recovery time, wonderkid? Want me to wheel you down to Krater’s room in the ICU? They had to scrape the stone from around his mouth just so they could get him on a breathing tube, and you want to talk about recovery time? Does your recovery time include puking out your guts and pooching some asshole at a bar?”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re on thin fucking ice, Ruby. You gonna tell me you want to do the Houston Heroes like you did the Inheritors? Krater’s not going the way of Megajoule, not on my watch.”

Bedevil puts a hand over her mouth in shock.

“Sober the fuck up and get down here ASAP. If I have to bury Tachikaze today, I’m burying you with her.” The call ends.

Tears sprout and spill down Bedevil’s cheeks.

Oh, man, how do I even approach this? “Um. “Are you… are you okay?”

Bedevil wipes her eyes. “Can you not call me wonderkid, anymore?”

That seems like a reasonable request at this point. I nod.

“Okay.” Bedevil clears her throat and stuffs that phone so far into her backpack I’m worried we’ll never see it again. “Where are we headed?”

“My apartment, so I can tell Doc I’m still alive, and get in touch with the Underground. I’ve got a spare watch there,” I say. “Are you sure you should come with me?”

Bedevil nods. “I’m not going down to OPI today, not after that. Not unless I get an emergency call or something.” She finishes getting ready, her eyes still brimming with tears. After she’s all packed, and I pet the shit out of Pawpaw, we leave.

I forgot that she lived on a nice tower in River Oaks. I’m met with an actually decent view for Houston, the inner loop city rising up to meet the day with its many skyscrapers. Parks and greenery crowd around the bases of every building. Cars hum and honk, the city sounds like a guitar someone set against a wall.

Bedevil leads me down to the sky-rail that runs by the ground floor of her apartment building. She pays for our seats. After this, she orders two cranberry juices from the vending machine. While she waits, she sings a wordless melody of little “da’s” that bounce and lilt while she taps the glass to guide them in rhythm.

Her singing voice is lovely.

The car takes off, headed downtown. We’ve got the whole rail to ourselves, at least until the next stop.

She offers me one of the juices. The bottle is cold and perspiring, just what I need right now. “Thanks.”

“No prob,” Bedevil says. She opens her jacket and pulls a small flask, emptying the contents into the cranberry juice bottle. She sees me staring, and says, “H-tine, hold it dine.”

“Gesundheit,” I say, as neutrally as possible.

“You’re a bad Houstonian.”

I shrug. “You’re from California. I think people hate you here by default, right?”

She sips her juice at me.

“Have you considered not day drinking?” I ask.

She glares.

“Just a thought. Maybe, like, therapy?”

“Why don’t you go to therapy?” She points a finger at me. “If we’re having a ‘who’s more fucked up’ contest, I think you win.”

“At least I’m not from California.”

She puts her hand to her forehead. “I’m dealing with an absolute manchild.”

“Can’t walk into a therapist’s office, anyway. What do I say? ‘Hello, I’m a clone of Megajoule, please do not report me to anyone and also help me sort that out? Thanks.’” I tuck my upper lip into a goofy smile while I pantomime the conversation. “’Gosh, sure would like to, but the fish promised me so much money pennies are going to fall out of my ass, so… tough luck!’”

Bedevil chokes on her jury rigged cocktail. She stifles a fruity giggle. “But- but-” she sputters. “They swore an oath!”

“Mmm, and we all know that no one ever breaks those.”

“I mean, you could leave the therapist a bad review in the least. ‘Sold me out, the rat bastards.’”

My turn to laugh. She smiles into her juice.

“You’re not worried about being recognized, are you?” Bedevil asks.

I tap my glasses. “The Clark Kent effect is real. Plus my natural hair color is blonde, like his, so dyeing it and growing it out a little helped. My beard was the kicker for a while, but well, someone made me shave it.”

Bedevil looks away, her cheeks flushing.

“That, and, most of his promotional materials are from his mid to late thirties. I look way too young. I get comments that I kind of look like him from time to time, but I think our mannerisms are different enough that nobody puts it together.”

We sit quietly for a minute. The sky-car stops, opens its doors, and nobody gets on. We spend thirty seconds at the stop before continuing on. The skyscrapers roll by as the train speeds into the city. Thousands of cars swarm the roads beneath us, people walk around, living normal lives. They all look so unconcerned, so happy and free. It’s a sunny day. “Hey.”

“Yes, Gabe?”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” I ask. “You shoulda reported me when I told you I was going to Parlor. At least your director. Why?”

Bedevil curls a finger into her hair and plays with that while she thinks. I give her the time to word her response. “You won’t like my answer.”

“I don’t like a lot of things.”

“My first thought was you really were Megajoule and you’d lost your memory somehow. I didn’t want to risk your mission. Then, I thought about it all night and realized there’s no way you’re lying. The reality I wanted, where he’s still alive, it just… isn’t.” She gives her bottle a shake. “I woulda been the worst sort of person to turn you in at that point. So I didn’t. I got twisted, instead.”

“Like you’re doing now.”

“No, this is day drinking, day drinking is different from twisted.” She pulls out an e-cig, a really high end one that looks almost exactly like a real cigarette. “For instance. You don’t smoke with twisted, but you do with day drinking. Do you mind?”

I shake my head.

She draws in on the e-cig. The tip glows bright blue. She lets out a puff of smoke, and I catch a whiff of bubblegum. “I used to follow a regimented diet, I did yoga two hours a day.”

I imagine Bedevil doing floating yoga poses with her telekinesis while Pawpaw barks and runs around beneath her. I snap out of my imagination when I see Bedevil studying me.

“You said he left you, too,” she says. “What did you mean?”

I’m not sure how to answer that. I feel like I have the burden of the whole world on my shoulders, and before that, Megajoule had it. He went and died; he tricked me.

But that’s not why I said that, is it?

“The video of Megajoule I showed you. I have more of those. Those are all I ever got from him. I never got to meet him, I never got to know him beyond what he told me in the vlogs. I always…”

I’ve never said these words out loud, and they hurt worse than a knife in my hand. “I thought of him as some kind of dad. Even back in the lab, I thought of him as my dad. Why not, right? It made sense, I had his DNA, I had his face, borrowed everything about myself from him. I never met him. Not once. Not a single time, not for real. Oh, I saw him through a glass window while he looked on at the only kid from batch 4 that wasn’t liquidated.”

“Liquidated?” Bedevil asks. Her expression shifts to understanding; her eyebrows lift, her mouth drops open. She puts two and two together.

“I’ve had so many brothers, I had sisters, I had a father, technically. That’s normal, right? Except it wasn’t, and he was never there. Just through a window. Watching it unfold. I don’t know what he felt. He told me in one of his videos that he was proud of me, and that’s the closest thing I got to that.”

My vision’s getting blurry. I hug that cranberry bottle and pull what little heat there is in, frosting the plastic. “My number was Thirty-One. That’s my real name. Not Gabe. Not Julian. Just… a number.”

That memory is bitter. Pandahead called his enslaved kids stock. The same as OPI treated me. Cattle. Numbers on an accounting sheet. Numbers to be balanced, to fit into an equation. At the end of the numbers, a pile of corpses. Mound of dead children.

“D-did you pick the name Gabe?” she ask.

“No, I got it from the lab. But Doc made it mine.”

“What do you mean?”

“When we first got out of the lab, I couldn’t… I couldn’t tell myself apart from Megajoule. I just… there was no ‘I,’ just an extension of the life he’d already lived. Another piece to take on. I wasn’t my own person. Just a unit of time, just more of him.”

Bedevil hasn’t sipped her juice since I started talking. She’s staring, mouth open just a little.

This is going to make me sound crazy. Only Doc knows this. Not even sure why I’m telling her. Maybe I just need to get it out. “I’d hear him, talking to me. Like… Like really in my ears. A delusion, I guess, or a hallucination. Doc found me in the shower, the water so hot it was turning my skin red. Because Megajoule was telling me I needed to burn the parts of me away that weren’t him.”

Silent tears race down Bedevil’s cheeks.

I get lost in the memory while I tell her. “I didn’t understand, I didn’t get it. I barely had thoughts that could be called my own. And Doc gets in the shower with me, he hugs me, and he says that I’m enough. He says he has a name for me. When I had no idea who me was, he gave me that. He says, you’re Gabe. G for Good, A for Able, B for Beautiful, E for Enough.”

The weight of that memory presses into my chest, and I wheeze like one of those plushie dolls you can squeeze. The noise surprises me. The heaviness of that time shocks me. How much have I buried? “You know what the worst part is?”

Bedevil shudders and turns, the spell between us broken. “Oh, God, you’re telling me this gets worse.”

I laugh. “My life is a roller coaster drop that hasn’t bottomed out yet.”

“Tell me the worst part so I can make a dark joke to clear the air,” Bedevil says.

“The worst part is I don’t feel like Gabe is my name. It’s just a band aid. It did make me stop hearing Megajoule in my head, though.” Except for last night. I drink some more of my juice, super cold now that I drained the heat out of the liquid. “Still, I’ve never had a name that quite felt like my own. Except that number, Thirty-One.”

“Not even Home Run?”

“Jury’s still out on how I feel about that one. What was the dark joke you were gonna make?”

Bedevil wipes her eyes. “Oh, right. I was gonna say, at least you were made. I’m an accident.”

“An accident?”

“Yeah, my dad actually told me they only got married because whoops we made a baby. And here I am.” She holds one arm up in a flourish, like she’s ringmaster at a circus.

“Wait, you mean, you were…”

“An accident.”

I frown. “That’s not a joke.”

“I am the joke.” She giggles into her juice.

I chuckle out of pity.

She can tell. She glares. “I’m sorry, should I have worked a little harder on my material?”

“No, no, now that you explained the joke it’s very funny. More funny than before, even.”

Bedevil parrots my words back at me, to spell it out in no uncertain terms that she thinks I’m being an asshole: “More funny than before, even.”

“Wow.”

“Wow, what?”

“Just, wow.”

“Just wow,” Bedevil parrots again. She curls her upper lip to make a stupid face, too.

It’s clear to me this could go on for some time. I decide to be the bigger man.

The in-train TV catches my attention with a breaking news story. I gasp as I read the subtitle:

THE PRINCE FAMILY RESPONDS TO TRAFFICKING VIDEO. ELENA PRINCE ANNOUNCES END TO HER RETIREMENT FROM HEROICS.

VOTE ON TOP WEB FICTION / JOIN THE DISCORD

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