Orientation: Part 2

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Brian and I end up meeting at a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop called By the Beans.  Their coffee is burnt, their clientele is questionable, and their decor is best described as “dumpster chic,” but they have two major advantages: they’re cheap, and they’re nearby.  It took the insurance over a month to pay up after my car got totaled by the brawler who attacked me at the museum, and by then I’d already been fired and was living la vida lazy.  At some point, I’m going to have to go get myself some new personal transportation, but applying for a car loan while jobless hadn’t seemed like the best way to go about things.

I make a face as Brian adds sugar to his coffee from the table silo.  He pours it with a practiced hand motion, starting with the container just over the top of his cup and moving it swiftly upwards, then reversing and bringing it back down to nearly touch the cup again, ending the whole thing with a quick upward flick of his wrist.  The end result of this cascade of sugar raises the coffee level neatly to the brim of the cup.

“There’s this new disease you’ve got to look out for,” I tell Brian.  “It’s called sucrotizing fasciitis.  Basically, your flesh starts turning into sugar crystals.  It affects people whose diet is more than 50% sugar.”

Brian scoffs.  “Oh, a diet lecture from Dr. Dominos himself!  Which of these is more recently true for you: you drank eight glasses of water in one day, or you drank eight glasses of soda?”

He’s got me there and he knows it, so he presses on.  “Pot calling the kettle, you know?”

“Yeah, but listen to that cup when you stir it!  You can hear the sugar grains gritting around at the bottom.  There’s sludge left at the bottom when you’re done!”

“Which only means that I didn’t drink it all, making me better off than you.  You know how much sugar is in a can of Coke?  Over two tablespoons, man.  Eight teaspoons.  Next time we get coffee, I’ll pour my sugar into an empty cup and we’ll measure it out.  Then we’ll see who gets to call who names.”

I sip my coffee, which really is pretty horrible.  There’s no way I’m adding sugar to it right now, though.  Even a tiny amount would be ceding the argument, and just because I’ve already lost doesn’t mean that I need to go around admitting it.

“So — any fun ambulance stories?”

Brian, good guy that he is, accepts this topic change as tacit admission of my defeat and doesn’t rub my nose in it.  Besides, he likes talking about the ridiculous stuff that happens to him while he’s out on the job, and I think that most of his friends work at the hospital and are all inured to the stories.  They’re new to me, though, and I’m still vastly entertained by the sort of nonsense that drugs, alcohol and bad decisions can lead to.

Brian’s halfway through a story about the latest SOCMOB — hospital slang for “standing on the corner, minding my own business,” which is apparently what everyone was doing just before they got shot, stabbed or beaten — when all of a sudden, I feel new powers setting in.

I’ve described it before as an all-over ice cream headache, and I’m sticking by that.  You know how it feels like a sudden, swift pain, but somehow it keeps going?  And there’s nothing you can do, nowhere you can go to move away from it, nothing you can press on to relieve the pain.  It’s inside your head, all of your head, pressing from all angles.

Now imagine that in your knee, and your ribs, and the soles of your feet.  Your whole body, all at once.  That’s what this feels like.

Not surprisingly, Brian notices my discomfort and breaks off his story.  “You all right, man?”

The discomfort fades, and I shake my head to clear it.  “Yeah, no, I’m good.  I just — I think I just got new powers.”

I don’t know why I’m being coy about this.  I’m absolutely certain I just got new powers.  It just sounds kind of stupid to say it so matter-of-factly out loud, I guess.  Putting an “I think” in there gives me wiggle room in case of skepticism or ridicule.

Brian’s not skeptical in the least, though.  He grins, slightly wide-eyed.  “Cool!  So what can you do?”

“I have no idea yet!  These things don’t come with an instruction manual.  I’m just lucky I was awake when I got them this time.  Half the time, they show up in my sleep, and I don’t find out about them until later.”

I’ve got a ritual that I go through every day, a checklist of tests for all of the powers I can think of.  I’m not going to do a lot of them inside of a shop, of course.  Some would be dangerous to other people if I was right, and nearly all would make me look stupid for trying them.  But I can check some of the small ones right now.

I pull out my multitool and unfold a small blade, then prick my finger with it.  Brian raises an eyebrow at me.

“When’s the last time you washed that blade, man?”

“Relax, Mom.  It’s just a pinprick to see if I’ve got invulnerability or regeneration or anything again.”  A drop of blood wells up, so invulnerability is clearly off the table.  After a second, I lick it away, but the tiny cut underneath is still visible, so it’s not regeneration either.

I look up to see Brian watching me, now with both eyebrows raised.

“What?”

“Dude, you just poked yourself with a dirty knife and then licked the cut, and you’re asking me ‘what?’  You know how many infections you just exposed yourself to?”

I gesture at the dingy shop surrounding us.  “Name one thing in here that’s cleaner that I could have used.”

“There’s soap and water in the bathroom, man.  You could have acted like you’re not living in the 14th century and washed your hands.”

“Look, you wanted to know what powers I had!  I was checking a couple of them for you.  I thought I was talking to my friend Brian, not Panic Spasm, EMT.”

Brian snorts at that one and relents.  “You want to get the superpower of gangrene, fine, that’s your business.  I’m just used to working with sterilized medical tools, is all.”

He pauses, then says, “Hey, we could actually test your blood, you know?  Find out if there’s anything in there that’s causing this.  I can get a sample and take it down to the hospital.”

“You just carry blood sample stuff on you?”

“No, I’m saying in general, man.  We can set it up.  I’m not taking your blood in a coffeehouse.”

I grin at that image.  “I don’t know, I bet you guys would do a lot better at the blood drives if you just showed up at coffee shops and asked people to donate in exchange for buying them their morning coffee.  Back on topic, though: what are the odds that it’s something in my blood?  I’ve had the same blood for 30 years, and this only started happening a few months ago.”

“The same blood, sure, but who knows what got introduced into it?  Especially with your hygiene habits, man.”

“Hey, my hygiene is fine!”

“I’ve been to your house, Dan!  Don’t lie to me.”

“Don’t give me that. I keep that place spotless just in case my parents stage a surprise visit.”

“Yeah, there’s not a spot of dust on the collection of pizza boxes and soda bottles piled on the counter.”

“You were there the day before trash day!”

“Sounds to me like your new superpower is ‘making up excuses.’  You can be The Apologist.”

“Pipe down, Snidely Sidekick.”

I can see Brian preparing a retort, but just then his phone buzzes and he pulls it out of his pocket.  “Listen, Chief Passing Buck, I’d love to continue this chat, but it’s time for me to get to work and dispense medical assistance to people who do dumb things like stab themselves with rusty knives, you know?  Give me a call when the infection sets in, and I’ll bring the ambulance by.”

Brian and I walk out to his car, still bickering amiably.  As he’s getting in, he says, “You need a lift home?”

“Nah, it’s only like a mile, and it’s the wrong way for you.  Besides, for all I know, I can fly there now.”

Brian cracks a smile and drives off, and I make it about a dozen steps before I realize that hey, maybe I really can fly home!  I take a quick look around and see no one in the evening gloom, so I take a few running steps and jump as high as I can.

This turns out to be probably about two feet up, at which point gravity intrudes on my dreams of flight and pulls me back to the sidewalk.  I stumble slightly on the landing, and as I recover, I see that an older woman and her dog have rounded the corner just a few dozen feet in front of me.  She and the dog are both looking at me with identical expressions of curiosity and disdain.

Rather than try to make up an explanation, I just mutter “Evening” and hurry on by.  This is why I test for superpowers in secret.


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