When Brian arrives to pick me up, he makes a big show of looking me over.
“I like the new haircut, man. You’re still never gonna be pretty, but at least you’re making an effort. Ladies appreciate that. Looks like you’re trying too hard on the scar thing, though, you know? They like ‘rugged,’ and you’ve gone straight to ‘car crash.'”
I laugh. “No, what happened was that Doc Simmons discovered that I’m like Samson — my hair contains all of my power. So she shaved it all off to study it. The rest of the damage is just from trying to get away from her when she came at me with the clippers.”
“Dude,” Brian says earnestly, “I could 100% believe that. You don’t ever want to be between her and whatever she’s focused on.”
We drive to his place, bantering about nothing in particular, and settle in for movies which serve much the same purpose: they provide a comfortable background in which to disengage. My healing may fix my physical damage at a faster rate than normal, but I’ve been getting pretty relentlessly pounded mentally, too, and it feels fantastic to be able to relax, take a deep breath and know that nothing’s coming after me.
For now, anyway. I’ve still got no idea what triggers the powers, or why. The doc has shown me what’s causing the powers, but how did I get the nanomachines in the first place? Why do they come with a nemesis, and why does that person have such unreasoning hatred for me?
I’m still just a bacterium on some scientist’s slide, stuck beneath a microscope. At least now I recognize that, though. I’m starting to understand the scope of the experiment, if not the reasoning behind it or its ultimate goal. That’s progress of a sort.
“You spacing out over there, man?” Brian asks. “No shame if you’ve gotta bail early.”
“Nah, I’m wide awake,” I tell him. “Just thinking about the powers.”
“Yeah, so those are totally gone again?”
I focus on the pizza box and gesture upwards. It remains resolutely unburnt.
“Gone. Although,” I tear off the advertising flyer from the top of the box, crumple it up and cup it in my left hand. Staring fiercely at it, I steadily raise my right hand and whisper, “Uuuuuppppp!”
My right hand is past my head before the paper starts to smolder at the edges. I keep going, and at full arm extension, a tiny bit of fire licks out from the corners, like I’ve just touched a match to it. I blow out the ball of paper and drop it back onto the pizza box before it gets too hot to hold.
“So that’s basically what I’ve got left of it,” I say, and then notice that Brian has his hand to his face and is laughing silently. “What?”
“Dude, just get a lighter like everyone else. You look ridiculous.”
“Haters gonna hate!” I say dismissively.
“Oh yeah, I’m totally jealous of Strike Anywhere, the human matchstick!”
“Hey, I’d watch a movie about Strike Anywhere. He sounds like an awesome action hero.”
“…yeah, okay, me too.”
Another movie later, the pizza is gone and I’m running out of steam. It’s barely even 10 o’clock when Brian drops me back off at home, but I am definitely ready for bed.
It’s no warmer in the house than it is outside, which makes sense, since the windows are still open from my effort to clear out the burned-couch smell. I’m a lot less comfortable in 40 degree weather now than I was a couple of days ago, though, so I pull on my coat and turn on the thermostat for the first time in a few weeks.
As I’m going around closing all of the windows, I pass by the gaping hole Vince made in one of the walls. It hadn’t occurred to me at the time, but at least he picked an interior wall to make his clone out of. I’m still going to have to do a bunch of work to fix it, but I don’t have to deal with an opening to the outside in the mean time. It’s not much of a silver lining, but I’ll take it.
The furnace has grumbled to life and is reluctantly pushing warm air through all of the vents by the time I have the windows closed, but I still keep my jacket on until I’m in my bedroom and ready to strip down and crawl under the covers. With as warm as I’ve been lately, I’d forgotten how nice it feels to be wrapped up in something cozy. I trade my jacket for the comforter of my bed, and from there slide swiftly into sleep.
My sleep is troubled by dreams of fighting amidst fire, but partway through the battle it segues from a first-person view into a cinematic look at Strike Anywhere, gun for hire. Watching his exploits is much less troubling than living them, and I manage to sleep through the night and wake up refreshed.
I drag out the process of making and eating breakfast for as long as I can, but all too soon, it’s time to face the music. I pick up my phone and dial Matt’s number.
“Morning, Matt. I’m sufficiently recovered for our talk.”
“Would you like to come in and do this in person, Dan? I can be at Børger in an hour.”
“Level with me, Matt. Is there any chance that that’s going to make a difference? Or is this a one-sided conversation here?”
Matt sounds genuinely hurt when he says, “Dan, no conversation is one-sided. I’m very willing to listen to what you have to say.” He pauses, but when I say nothing, he sighs and continues, “You’re right, though, that I can only see one way this ends. Dan, I’m going to have to let you go.”
“Yeah, I kinda figured.” It still stings, though. I actually liked that job. I was enjoying myself. I was even willing to put up with B-Rock for it.
“For my own curiosity, can you tell me what happened? You clearly got caught up in something.”
“I was — sort of assisting the police in something. An investigation and apprehension. In a contractor kind of capacity.”
Matt’s skepticism is clear in his voice. “Then why did you threaten to steal B-Rock’s car?”
“Why did I what?!”
“When B-Rock called me yesterday, he told me that in the middle of your shift, you demanded his car, threatened his life and stormed out.”
That slimy jerk. “Wow. No, what I said was this was a life or death situation, and could I borrow his car. When he said no, I called for a pickup, and he gave me a ‘you’ll never work in this town again’ line.”
“Hm. Maybe he misunderstood.”
“Yeah, maybe. Hey, Matt? I know I’m the employee on the way out, and you’ve probably got to take this sort of thing with a grain of salt — but you should get rid of B-Rock. He’s a petty tyrant, a bully of the worst sort. He was lousy to me the entire time I was there, he’s lousy to the other employees, and now he’s lying to make me look worse. He’s bad for the Børger image.”
“Why didn’t you say anything about this when it was going on?”
“Because I thought I could deal with it? Because I liked the job, man. Everything about Børger was awesome except for him. I had too much to lose. But if I’m out now anyway, then I’ve got nothing to lose, and maybe I can help someone else.”
Matt sounds doubtful. “All right. I think this may have just been a personality conflict between the two of you, and not an endemic problem. Still, I’ll keep an ear open. Thank you for expressing your concerns, Dan.”
“It was good working with you, Matt,” I say sincerely, and hang up. Seriously, how am I feeling so much regret about getting fired from a job flipping burgers? I really should have gotten a sample of his blood so the doc could test it for nanomachines. I’m pretty sure it would come back clean, though. He’s too genuine.
I put the phone down on the table and shake my head at it. Is what I said about B-Rock really going to make any difference? Almost certainly not. Still, even if nothing’s likely to happen, at least I gave it a shot. Without trying, it’s certain that nothing will ever change.
I’m dangerously close to getting philosophical over a fast food job. I head to the computer before I can go too far down that path, and start looking up information on drywall repair. Philosophy is all well and good, but if my folks come back into town before I’ve got that fixed, I’m going to find myself contemplating the metaphorical nature of the universe from a cardboard box on the street.
As I’m looking at online paint-matching tips, I sigh. This superhero gig is not as glamorous as I had been led to believe.
END OF BOOK 2