A contract villain turns hero to protect a six-year-old boy.
|ST. MARY’S HOSPITAL
WE NEVER SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE THAT NIGHT, and it had cost the lives of three innocent civilians and one egotistical moron. Despite all of that, I'll give you a guess on the youngest survivor's favorite superhero.
“You still caught the bad guy, right?” The boy reached his hand out to me, and the weight of worry left him when I nodded. “Thank you.”
I tried to keep my voice steady. “It was my duty.” The kid was hooked up to a dizzying array of medical equipment, and I was terrified I'd unplug something if I made a wrong move. “Get some rest, Cameron. I promise I'll watch over this place tonight.”
He nodded and snuggled beneath his blankets. Someone had bought him a Red Bolt action figure since my last visit, and the toy company had somehow perfectly matched my suit's colors.
Someone had way too much time on their hands.
“Can you fly to Heaven?” Cameron asked. I shook my head, bracing myself for his next question. Instead, he yawned. “It's okay...”
“Your family loved you very much.” It was the only thing I could think to say. He gripped my gloved hand—more like three of my fingers—tighter. “I know you miss them, and I'm sure they miss you, too. They would want you to get better, though. It won't be easy, but you're not alone.”
“I know.” He exhaled and closed his eyes. “I just miss them.”
I waited until he fell asleep before I left and eased the door shut behind me.
“Thank you for coming back again.” A short red-haired nurse named Beth worked nights and was friendlier to me than the day staff. “He just lights up the moment he hears you're in the building. I suppose most of your hero friends stay pretty busy these days.”
“They're all a bit full of themselves, but it comes with the territory.” A wave of pain shot from my right leg to the base of my spine. I gritted my teeth and located the closest chair in the waiting area. “I won't be back in the field with them anytime soon, but this is important...maybe even more important. Hope matters to people, especially after tragic events.”
“Yeah, I finally watched the entire video this morning.” She broke eye-contact and looked at Cameron's room door. “There isn't anything more you could have done. You know that, right? What happened wasn't your fault.”
Why do people say things like that when they don't really mean it?
I sighed. “Well, his father didn't accidentally drive off that bridge for no damn reason.” Her eyes widened, but I was past the point of keeping my mouth shut. “There are ground rules, Beth—things even most so-called villains know how to honor. Fighting in that populated of an area was unnecessary.”
“You were doing your job. Things escalated.”
“It's an entertainment business!” I gestured to several patches on my sleeve. Disgusted, I tore one off and held it up to her. “Saving lives from evil—sponsored by Cordy Coffee Creamer. Half the conflicts on the feeds now aren't even real, and it’s even better if you can draw out a fight and make it seem more dangerous. Why do you think the same villains keep cropping up again and again instead of being permanently contained by the feds? It's under-the-table, but I wouldn't be surprised if we're all on the same payrolls.”
“Is that what happened that night?” Disbelief and then anger hit her expression. “Some random villain was paid to attack you? Like an act?”
I didn't immediately answer. I wanted to leave, but the elevator now seemed an impossible distance away. “Sorry to disappoint, but it's the truth.”
“A child lost his parents and sister, for what? So you could get a few more social media views?” she asked, the volume of her voice rising. I found my footing and decided that asking for painkillers was now out of the question. “You should feel the guilt from this for the rest of your sorry—”
“A lot of people like me started off like Cameron,” I interrupted, pointing back to his room but attempting to keep my voice down. “Only they had no other family—no money—no good fortune of someone caring about them when they were young. Then some superhuman abilities start to manifest, and suddenly the whole planet is beating down your door. With a few exceptions, the only major difference between the two sides is who got to them first. We're all damaged, Beth. We're all guilty.”
“Then why come here and fill a six-year-old's head with ideas you obviously don't believe?” She followed me down the hallway. A couple of the other nurses stared but then moved on as if I wasn't even there. “What do you hope to gain out of all of this? Even more publicity? Is that what Red Bolt stands for now?”
I pushed the elevator call button to go down—then pressed it a few more times for good measure. “You wouldn't believe me if I told you.”
“Try me.” The elevator doors opened as she said this, but then she stepped inside with me.
“You're going to get fired if you're not careful.” I pushed the button for the next floor down, hoping she would take the hint. “Let it go, and I won't come back. Just tell the kid I'm sorry for everything. I didn't land in front of his family’s car on purpose. I was thrown and couldn't move in time.”
“No, you weren't.” She shook her head in confusion and pointed her finger at the logo on my chest. “You were clear on the other side of the bridge! The guy who attacked you was—”
“About that...” I removed my mask and inspected a small hole that had developed near one of the eye slots. “This is a knock-off from online. I’m pretty sure the same company supplied the real deal, though. They at least got the colors right.”
“Then where's the real Red Bolt?” She pressed herself into the corner of the elevator as if she thought I'd murdered him.
I pressed the button for the ground floor, and the elevator doors shut again. “When the car jumped the railing, we both dove into the river. I managed to bust out the rear window and get Cameron to the surface. Then Hero Boy tried to lift the entire car out for some reason...only something must have gone wrong. I know the police didn't find his body with the others, but you would think he'd have made an appearance by now.”
She glared. “So now you're pretending to be him?”
I put the mask back on and adjusted it. “Just for this. His friends know everything. They don't exactly like it, but I think they understand now.” I exited and didn't look back at her. Maybe it was best for everyone involved if I walked away while I still could.
“We'll see you tomorrow night then?” She called out. I hesitated and turned around, but her sudden sunny tone seemed more for the benefit of the families in the lobby than me. Her voice cracked a little, though. “You matter to Cameron—more than you know.”
I forced a smile and gave her an exaggerated wave. “It's my duty.”
As I walked away, I realized I was crying, too.
I CHANGED BACK INTO MY NORMAL STREET CLOTHES in the bathroom of a 24-hour breakfast restaurant across from the hospital. If either of the two hung-over patrons had noticed me enter, they didn’t care.
“This is on me,” an older waitress said just as I found a table and sat down. I blinked at the full plate in front of me in confusion. “You look like you’ve had a rough night, kiddo.”
I’d had plenty of rough nights since I’d moved to Corvus, but contract villains never exactly got free bacon and eggs for it. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity but managed to hold it together. “Thanks. I do have money if—”
“One of you saved my grandson from a mugger about a year ago.” She smiled and patted my hand. “It doesn’t really matter if it was you personally or not. I just want to pay-it-forward to someone trying to make the world a better place.”
“Thank you,” I repeated, still a little thrown off by the gesture. I felt some sense of relief, though—considering I had never mugged anyone.
The bacon was just the right crispness, and the eggs were fluffy. Despite trying to take my time, it was hard to break the habit of eating fast. I left a tip greater than the cost of a meal underneath the plate and tried to exit before she noticed it.
I made it about three steps outside before someone shoved me and grabbed my duffel bag. It only contained the Red Bolt suit, but replacing it within a day would have been almost impossible. I hadn’t missed a night with Cameron at the hospital since he’d regained consciousness.
“Hey!” I shouted, but of course the guy didn’t stop. Why the hell would he? I broke into a run and started to gain on him when I tripped. I caught myself before my head hit the sidewalk, but the damage was already done. Everything below my waist hurt in sharp jabs—an aggravated old injury. At least a dozen people just walked around me while I groaned and assumed a fetal position.
Then a pair of black leather shoes stopped in front of my face, and I automatically cringed. A gray-haired man in an expensive suit crouched and held his hand out to help me up. Fortunately, I didn’t know him—and the nickname my brain generated from his appearance was Grandpa Sherlock Holmes. “My car isn’t far. If you can stand, I’ll help you.”
“I can’t move right now,” I replied, hoping he’d just call for an ambulance instead. The man leaned forward and pressed something against my neck. I felt a puncture, and my eyelids began to droop. “Just so you know, all of my organs are in terrible condition…not worth stealing…”
Note to brain—change this asshole’s nickname.
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