DISCLAIMER: This story is intended for an adult audience. It includes strong language and mildly suggestive content. Discretion is advised.
Caleb’s mother was so busy hustling about the kitchen that she didn’t notice her son come in. He watched her for a moment as she frantically stirred a thick, brown gravy in a cast-iron skillet with her left hand and tried to flip chopped steak patties with the other. The aroma of meat and cooked onions made his stomach growl. With everything going on with school and work, he hardly ever made a point to have a home-cooked meal. When Virginia called him earlier to see if he would have supper, he didn’t think twice.
“Do you need some help, Ma?” Caleb asked.
He had forgotten that he hadn’t even said hello yet. Virginia gasped and her petite frame jerked, almost causing her to lose one of the steak patties. Much to the disappointment of the little, long-haired chihuahua dancing around her heels, she managed to stick the landing.
“Boy, what have I told you about sneaking up on me?”
“Why don’t you get over here and flip these steaks? They’re just about done. Fred will be home shortly. They got him held over at the plant again.”
Caleb took the spatula and smiled as his mother prattled on about his stepfather and how the power plant never lets the old man rest. He knew that she enjoyed having an adult ear to talk to, especially since Fred was hardly ever home and Amy wasn’t much of a conversationalist. He at least took peace in the fact that the ladies at the Baptist church never left her lonely, even though he knew their ulterior motives. Nothing to whet their appetites for gossip and foster their senses of goodwill like a re-married widow with a problem-child for a daughter.
“Last Sunday, they tried to put Amy in the high-school group but she screamed and hollered until she could go back to Miss Rachel’s class. Bless her heart, Rachel’s been a real angel with her, but the doctor says it don’t do Amy no good to let her stick around the little kids. Even if she don’t like it, she needs to hang around kids her age so she can learn how to act.”
If only it was that easy, Caleb thought, but he knew Dr. Morris was right. Amy wasn’t beyond letting go of her inner child. She was just very far behind.
“Other than that, has she made any progress?” Caleb said.
“No, honey, she’s about the same. She pitched a fit when I tried taking her dolls away. I tried to buy her some of them magazines…you know, with them boy bands and beauty tips? She don’t want nothing to do with them. She says they’re boring and you know she can’t hardly read nothing in them. They been trying to get her to learn more complicated stuff at school, but she can’t focus on it. I tried everything I could do short of whipping her but she still won’t settle down long enough to learn anything.”
“You better not even think of whipping her,” Caleb said. “And Fred had better keep his hands off her, too.”
“Oh, hush. Fred has never dared to lay a finger on her, and you know it. He was just hard on you because you’re a boy. And you know it wasn’t for nothing.”
Caleb bit his tongue. While he did smart off to his parents often and did things to get him in trouble from time to time, his bitter relationship with Fred went deeper than just a few welts across his legs. His bookish nature and general disinterest in anything involving physical labor did not sit well with his stepfather, who made it a point every chance he got to berate him about it. Fred had strong notions of how others should act, and if anyone didn’t live up to his idea of what was “normal,” they might as well not even exist. Caleb knew Fred was making Amy suffer for not acting like a normal, teenage girl, and his mother didn’t want to see it. Caleb could see it in Amy’s frightened eyes anytime the two were in the same room together.
“Alright, I think it’s ready. Why don’t you go get your sister and we can all sit down to eat?” Virginia said.
Caleb slapped the steaks on a plate and made his way to the staircase. Nacho scuttled after him and yipped at his heels. When he got to the landing, he saw that Amy’s door was ajar. He could hear her humming faintly through the crack. It sounded like the lullaby their father used to sing to them.
“Amy?” he said.
He gently pressed on her door. Her room was every little girl’s dream. She had a large, four-poster bed with a sheer, pink canopy. Her walls were painted a pastel purple, and her furniture was all white. A fuzzy, pink rug spread across the maple wood floor with a child-sized tea table right at its center. She sat hunched-over on one of the four matching stools with her knobby knees almost to her chin. She was wearing a white, sparkling gown with golden trim that looked uncomfortably snug on her sixteen-year-old body. The other stools were occupied by Mr. Twinkles, Miss Susie and Baby Lily.
“Daddy!” Amy squealed when she finally looked up from carefully pouring invisible liquid into each of the little toy cups. “We were just sitting down for some tea. Would you like some?”
It took all of Caleb’s effort not to burst into tears. He hadn’t shaved that morning, so it was hardly worth the effort to correct her. He wouldn’t be able to convince her that he wasn’t their father, and he didn’t want to remind her of what happened to him, either.
Miranda gulped down her coffee, hoping its warmth would soothe the aching knots in her stomach. He was supposed to have met her at the little coffee shop fifteen minutes before.
“You in for a late night?” the waitress said, refilling Miranda’s ceramic mug without spilling a drop despite Miranda jerking while her hands were still wrapped around it.
“Easy,” the young, tattooed girl continued. “What’s got you on edge?”
“Sorry, Paige. Zack is supposed to be meeting me tonight.”
Paige smiled warmly, her snakebites protruding slightly from the strain of her muscles.
“That boy is always late,” Paige said. “Relax.”
She turned around abruptly to continue with her work. Miranda sighed and released her vice grip from the coffee mug. She pulled her phone from her purse and turned on the screen. It wasn’t like him to give any word if he was running late, or if he chose to not show up at all. Especially if it was to discuss the terms of a break up. She resigned herself to scrolling through her Facebook and distracting herself with click-bait and cat videos.
About ten minutes later, a body plopped down in the booth across from her, causing her to jump.
“Sorry I’m late,” Zack said. Miranda knew that he wasn’t.
She took a deep breath. For a moment, she just looked at him. His lips were drawn into a grim line and his green eyes were hard with impatience. She could smell his crisp, wintergreen body wash from across the table and his tousled, sandy-blonde hair was still wet from his shower at the gym. He wore an athletic tank that was cropped on each side to the bottom of his tanned ribs. Her heart ached.
“I changed my mind,” she said weakly. “I want to stay with you, if you’ll keep me.”
“Yeah?” he said, not seeming surprised. “What about Michelle?”
“You can have her. And any other girl you want. I just want you to be with me. I want you to love me.”
Miranda had known Zack since high school. He was the guy that all of the girls wanted to be with. He was smart, charming and he had an uncanny knack for making everyone he talked to feel important. For as long as she had known him and through the number of times that they had dated, she knew that he had never loved her. That never stopped him from saying it, especially when he was inside her for the first time when she finally had given him her virginity. She thought she would die from the embarrassment at school the next day when she was the first girl in their class outed for putting out. The most she suffered, though, was jealous glares from her classmates and concerned looks from the teachers.
“Miranda, I know all too well that you aren’t really cool with that,” Zack said. “I mean, it’s amazing that you care so much about me that you would make that sacrifice, but I can’t ask that of you.”
“I know,” Miranda said. “That’s why I’m offering.”
Zack sighed and propped his elbows on the table so he could lean closer to Miranda.
“I’m never going to have the same feelings for you that you have for me,” he said. “We’ve had this conversation over and over. You deserve to be with someone that will be as committed to you as you are to him. I’m not ready to commit to anyone right now.”
“When will you be?” Miranda asked weakly.
“I don’t know,” Zack said. “That’s why I can’t have you waiting around for me. It’s too much pressure. I’m sorry.”
Miranda sobbed. Zack flagged down Paige so he could pay their bill. She gave him a dirty look and snatched his credit card from his hand. Zack rolled his eyes.
“I guess I deserve that,” he said. “Miranda, please tell me you’ll be okay?”
Miranda just kept crying. She had known for a long time that this was coming, but now that it was here, she still couldn’t help feeling empty.
“Look, I’m not asking you to be okay with this situation or with me,” Zack said. “I screwed up, stringing you along like this. I guess it’s not my place to be concerned, but, for what it’s worth, I feel like a total piece of shit.”
Mercy watched the small bag of white powder and crumpled bills exchange hands. From the shadows of the alleyway, she could only faintly see what was going on across 15th Street under the orange glow of a dying street lamp. A small wisp of a woman in her late twenties trembled as she shoved the small bag into her almost nonexistent cleavage. The tall, scrawny drug dealer scanned up and down the street nervously as the woman ran off straight for the alleyway where Mercy was hiding. Mercy had been hoping that she would.
As soon as the woman had joined her in the shadows, Mercy grabbed her and clamped her hand over the woman’s mouth. Mercy cringed as the woman’s slimy hair rubbed against her cheek and she had to force herself not to gag at the rancid smell of urine and body odor. She whispered quickly as the scrawny drug addict tried to bite her hand.
“Relax, I am not going to hurt you,” Mercy said. “I am going to help you. Try to be still.”
The woman continued to squirm, but Mercy felt the shocking waves of energy reduce slightly. Still, the voltage from the jonesing woman was almost too much to bear. It had been years since Mercy had sworn off these vigilante outings, but she never lost her hard-trained ability to steel herself against the intense, nervous vibrations. She took a deep breath, and as she exhaled, warmth radiated through her body and traveled down her arms. A nearby streetlamp flickered and the warmth poured from her body to the woman’s. The static quickly faded away until it was nothing.
When Mercy let go of the stranger, the woman fell to her knees on the filthy pavement. Her body had stopped trembling, and she was staring at her scraggly, scabbed arms and tattered clothing like a child seeing the world for the first time. She looked up at Mercy, her mouth agape.
“What is your name?” Mercy said, her voice slightly muffled from the scarf wrapped tightly around the bottom half of her face.
“Annabel. What…what did you do?”
“Do you have anywhere you can go, Annabel? Friends? Family?”
“My grandmother lives in town. She’s the only one who will have anything to do with me since…”
Annabel stopped and reached into her bra. She pulled out the package she had gotten from the drug dealer. She seemed confused.
“It’s weird,” she continued. “I don’t even want it anymore. Who are you? What did you do to me?”
Mercy took the drugs from Annabel’s limp hand and tossed it in the dumpster.
“Consider it a second chance,” Mercy said. “Don’t let it go to waste.”
After calling Annabel’s grandmother and making sure someone would come and pick the woman up, Mercy made her way down the alley to where it connected to 16th Street. Aside from the bottom feeders loitering on 15th, downtown Slatesville was usually deserted this late at night. Most of the businesses closed early, and only a few bars and clubs were still open several blocks over. Mercy wasn’t expecting she would see anyone else.
She had parked her Sebring a few blocks up on 16th Street from the alleyway. When she reached her car, she grasped blindly for her keys through her oversized hand bag. She had finally wrapped her hands around them and was about to unlock the door when she heard a voice behind her.
“Well, look at you,” Miranda said. “A hero, at it again with her double-standards.”
Mercy spun around.
“Seriously, Miranda? You’re following me now?”
“I wasn’t following you. What is it that they say? ‘If you need some relief, go to 15th?’ Heaven knows I could use a joint, not that it’s any of your business what I’m doing out here.”
“So that’s how you choose to deal with your problems if I can’t fix them for you. Smoking pot? Yeah, let me know how that works out for you.”
“Well, I probably won’t. Like I said, it’s none of your concern, since you’d rather throw bones to strangers than to your own best friend. What did you do? Take away her drug problem? How ironic for you to sympathize with a druggie, seeing as how you scorned me the other day for acting like one. Tell me, how do you know you didn’t waste your magic on her like you claim you’ve wasted it on me? How do you know she won’t just relapse?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Mercy snapped. “And don’t act like fixing her problem is the same as fixing yours. At least she can decide for herself if she’ll stay clean. No one is shoving needles up her arm.”
“How naive,” Miranda said. “You don’t know anything about her. For all you know, her life is so screwed up that she’ll just fall off the wagon again.”
“Again,” Mercy said, gritting her teeth. “It will be her choice. You don’t get to choose how Zack feels about you. Why can’t you understand that?”
Miranda shoulders slumped and she sighed. She leaned back against the brick building behind her and pulled a pack of cigarettes from her bag. She slid one out, lit it and took a long drag. Mercy scrunched her nose as Miranda exhaled directly at her.
“You’re right,” Miranda said, her voice cracking. “He’ll never feel the same way for me the way that I feel for him. He made that perfectly clear. But it still doesn’t make sense to me that, after all of the wonderful conversations we had, all the promises we made to one another and the fact I have never given him any reason not to be madly in love with me, he suddenly claims to not have any feelings for me at all. The way I see it, he completely flipped on me.”
“Well,” Mercy said, “that’s what people do. They change.”
“You know, I remember the first time Zack and I broke up. Do you?”
Mercy shook her head. She actually did remember, but she knew Miranda was going to go on about it, anyway.
“It was just before finals, and you went with me to the library. We were studying statistics, and you said you needed to go get a drink of water. Right as you were coming back, Zack called me and said that he couldn’t be with me anymore, and later that night I found out that he screwed the captain of the girl’s soccer team. The next day, you drove me to 15th Street, and in that very same alleyway, you worked your magic on me. He called me again, apologized and begged me to take him back. Then, I found out later that the skank was busted with drugs and expelled. Just as quickly as it had happened, it was over.”
“What’s your point?” Mercy said.
“My point is that I’m not convinced Zack’s sudden change of heart has anything to do with me. Tell me, where did you really go when you said you were getting a drink of water?”
Mercy’s heart sank. She had hoped that Miranda would never piece it together.
“Miranda, I had nothing to do with all the other times he left you. I’m not even sure I had anything to do with the first time.”
“You’re not sure, right? Which means you did use your magic on somebody in that library that night. What the hell is wrong with you? I thought you knew better than to use your power in a way that would put innocent people at risk. Why did you do it?”
“I had to! Do you remember Alison Young?”
“That smart ass teacher’s pet? Of course I remember her.”
“She was having a seizure in the lobby. She was taking eighteen hours and she was so stressed by finals that she had swallowed a bunch of pills. I didn’t know what to do.”
“Call an ambulance? Let her die? Something a normal person would do? Just because you have a power doesn’t mean you have to be a hero. Especially when you know it’s going to cause hell for someone else.”
“Are you serious? You would rather I let her die?”
“I would rather know that you’re not using your power so recklessly. You know, I was close by when you pulled that last stunt. How do I know some tragedy isn’t going to happen to me?”
“If something bad was going to happen to you, it would have happened already. It probably transferred to the dealer or one of his gang.”
“But you don’t know, because you walked away. You don’t even care who it went to because, like I was thinking in the bar, you were thinking that the only other people around deserved it. What if you’re wrong? You don’t know those people or what their lives are like.”
“What I do know,” Mercy said, “is that whatever reason they’re out here dealing, they are destroying other people’s lives. Miranda, what do you want from me?”
“I want you to come off your high horse for just a second and take responsibility for what you did to me. You might have not caused Zack to screw those girls after the first time we broke up, but you sure as hell were the catalyst for the beginning of this cycle that destroyed my relationship. Maybe if you had just left Alison alone, he would have never cheated on me. He would have never gotten a taste of something different, and would have never craved more. I want you to admit that you started this.”
Mercy took a deep breath and just stared at Miranda for a moment. She knew Miranda was at a low, but she couldn’t believe how desperately she was trying to blame anybody but herself for Zack not wanting to be with her. Or at least pin it on him.
“Alright,” she finally said. “I will admit to being responsible, but only to the first time. Every other time was because of the person he is. I have no control over that. And you can’t honestly say he wouldn’t have gone down that path if I left Alison to die. There’s just no way of knowing that. Even so, I didn’t do this to you. Not even the first time. You know that I don’t know what the consequence of using my power will be until something actually happens. I didn’t know that her energy was going to transfer to you.”
“Don’t worry, Mercy. I’m not completely unreasonable. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt there. But the problem is that, even though you didn’t know it would transfer to me, you still knew I was there. You still knew you were taking a risk, but you did it anyway. I can’t easily forgive you for that.”
“Alison made a choice,” Miranda said. “If you were a normal person, she would have had to face the consequences of that choice. She might have lived or she might have died, but whatever way you dice it, she made the decision to try and end her life. You said yourself that you can’t fix people. You can only fix what causes people pain and hope that they’ll make the most of it. The fact that you would take a risk on anyone knowing that it might have been for nothing is completely messed up. Now, own up to it. Own up to it and I might let this whole thing go.”
“Well,” Mercy said. “What are you going to do if I don’t? You make a good point, but I’m still not going to apologize for saving a girl’s life. If I can’t use my power for something good, then what good is it?”
“That’s the thing,” Miranda said. “It’s not good. You’re not helping people. You’re giving people who screw up their own lives another chance to go screw themselves up again, and at the price of screwing up other people’s lives. You’re a master of destiny, and the fact that you think you have any right to decide who is worthy of good fortune and who isn’t is just conceited.”
“Funny, I feel like I was giving you the same speech just the other day in the bar. What made you change your tune?”
“What can I say? Your words rang true to me, even if I did resent them. The longer I thought about it, though, the more I realized that you were a hypocrite, and I can’t stand for that.”
“Okay, well, aside from wanting me to get on my hands and knees and plead guilty to the unknown consequences of saving a girl’s life–and, believe me, I am sorry about that, because now, I’m having to deal with this shit–what do you want me to do? What do I have to do to get you to drop this? What do I have to do to keep you from running your mouth to my boyfriend?”
Miranda threw back her head and laughed.
“So that’s what it is, huh?” Miranda said. “He doesn’t know about it, does he? God forbid that boy find out about it. He’d have you committed in a heartbeat.”
Mercy was ready to smack Miranda over the head with her heavy handbag. She hated the way her old roommate was goading her. She wanted to be done with her. She wanted to get in her car, drive away, and forget that the bitch ever existed. But she wasn’t sure if it was because Miranda was being impossible or that she was right. Regardless, Mercy didn’t have any delusion that her power was a gift like Miranda thought she did. She knew it was a curse. But she would be damned if anyone else was going to criticize her for it. Especially somebody who reaped the benefits of it on a number of occasions.
“I want to make your life hell,” Miranda said.
“And you think you’re not already?”
“Are you kidding me? I’ve only just gotten started. You have forty-eight hours to have Caleb call me and tell me what he knows about your powers. If I don’t get a call from him, then I will call him up and tell him just how special his little Mercy is.”
Miranda pulled a tiny tape recorder from her bag. No wonder her words were more rational than before. It was all for show. Mercy lunged at Miranda, trying to grab the recorder from her hand. Miranda was bigger and stronger than she was, so before Mercy could try to pry the device from Miranda’s fingers, Miranda shoved her away, dropped the tape recorder back into her bag and slammed Mercy to the ground.
“Make that twenty-four hours,” Miranda said.