Back at the house, I’m finally ready to get out of that rubber suit. I’m in my bedroom, carefully drawing a line down the center of my chest with a box cutter, when Regina calls out from the kitchen, “Hey, Dan!”
“What?” I ask, with some asperity.
“Just wanted to know if you needed a hand taking the suit off. Don’t bite my head off.”
“Sorry. You made me jump while I was holding a knife next to my vital organs, is all. Yeah, help would probably be awesome.”
I wander out to the kitchen, my newly-applied chest wound flexing and gaping in odd ways as I move. Regina makes a face.
“I know I said the same thing this morning, but even more so now — that’s seriously creepy. You look like a bodysnatcher hiding inside a skin suit.”
“Yeah, well, this bodysnatcher is regretting his choices in not getting a more breathable skin suit. Help me cut this thing off so I can quit stewing in my own juices.”
“You just don’t understand the ways of the bodysnatchers! Don’t trivialize my people.”
Getting out of the main body actually isn’t too bad. One long cut up each limb lets me slide my arms and legs out, slithering out of the skin like a molting spider. My feet pop free with a sound like pulling a shoe out of sucking mud, which is probably the grossest part of the whole process.
After that, I’m left with the discarded husk of my Peterson costume hanging from my neck like the world’s most morbid cape. I cut it free extremely gingerly, then try to pry the mask off, but with no luck. It is, obviously, skin-tight.
Reaching around behind my head, I try to cut the mask up the back, but instead I poke myself in the neck and swear. Regina says, “Here, let me do that.”
“Careful with it. Don’t stab me in the head,” I say.
“What, you mean like you’re doing?” she asks. She has a point, so I shut up and let someone who can actually see what she’s doing make the cut.
Seconds later, I’m lifting the mask off and feeling air on my face for the first time today. It feels amazing. It’s just one of those things you never even notice while it’s there, but it’s so nice when it comes back after being gone. I rub my cheeks and revel in my freshly-restored sense of touch.
“Ah, freedom! And now, a shower.”
“No kidding,” says Regina, wrinkling up her nose. “And you might want to burn those clothes.”
“Juices, I tell you. Juice stew.”
“Okay, stop talking.”
By the time I’m cleaned up enough for human company again, Regina’s already got the thumb drive hooked up and is skimming through the security tapes. I sigh heavily as I flop down on the couch next to her.
“Do we have to do this right now? This job was boring enough to sit through the first time. Let’s go get dinner first.”
“We just had lunch two hours ago.”
“Then let’s go get ice cream. Or tattoos, or mugged, or whatever. Anything besides watching more tapes.”
Regina puts a finger to my lips. “No whining.”
I settle in sullenly. “I bet the guys at Facebook have face recognition software that could do this automatically.”
“Yes, probably. Do you know anyone at Facebook? Then shh.”
My tapes go by faster than Regina’s, since people are only there for the beginning portion, about 15 minutes at 4x speed. That said, we’re into the second hour of viewing before we finally find what we’re looking for.
“There, look!” I point excitedly at the screen, as if Regina’s not seeing the same thing I am. The museum is nearly empty of patrons, but gangling toward the desk is the same broomstick man that we saw on Regina’s tapes, the same one I saw at Børger. He appears to only own the one suit, too, although he’s accessorized with a hat this time.
Regina slows the tape to normal speed, and I watch as the man gets my attention, has a short conversation, then sticks his hand out for me to shake. In my head, I’m going, “Don’t do it!”, as if this didn’t all happen months ago and I can will it to turn out differently.
After a moment’s hesitation, the me onscreen shakes the man’s hand, and he turns and leaves. Behind the desk, my past self applies Purell.
“Good instinct,” I say to the TV. “Too bad it didn’t work.”
“What, having powers hasn’t been a walk in the park for you?” Regina asks jokingly.
“Ha! Actually, you know what? Pull up –” I flip through the videos quickly “–this one. Here’s the night I discovered I had powers. I don’t know how it went down for you, but I did not have what you might call a gentle introduction.”
I’ve never told Regina about the first fight at the museum, where I had superstrength and apparent invulnerability, so when the museum’s front door comes flying into frame, shattering the desk, she jumps. When the ape-person charges in and hurls me into the wall, she gasps out loud. And when I clobber him with the length of marble from the desk, laying him out on the floor, she turns to look at me, wide-eyed.
“Wow, Dan. I mean — wow.”
“Yeah, I know. But wait, watch this part.” I fast-forward it again until I get to the point where I’m walking around picking up chunks of the desk and stacking them in my arms.
“See, here’s where I’m testing how strong I am, and thiiiiiiis part…” I wait for a few seconds, and onscreen, suddenly my past self cringes and drops the entire load of marble and wood onto his own foot, crushing it to the floor. “Yup! That’s why I had a cast on when you met me.”
Regina stares at the screen. “Wait, what happened there?”
“Well, while I was in the middle of seeing how much I could carry, my powers wore off and I smashed my own foot. Definitely one of my more shining moments.”
Regina looks at me for a second, then breaks down into gales of laughter. I stare at her, mildly affronted.
“Okay, it’s funny, but it’s not that funny.”
She waves her hands vaguely at me, gasping out words between laughs. “The whole situation! Monsters? Fine! Desk? Very dangerous.”
I’m grinning now, too. “All right, fine. Now would you pull yourself together so we can go get dinner? We proved it was the same dude in both of our cases, and I want to celebrate by eating an entire pizza.”
On the way to the pizza place, I text Brian, who comes to join us. He and Regina are still looking over the menu when the waiter shows up, but I’m starving, and order a pizza with bacon, jalapeños and goat cheese. Brian looks at me in disgust.
“Like one of those ingredients is edible, dude,” he tells me. “Your breath is going to smell like you licked a garbage disposal.”
“They invented this new thing called a mint,” I say.
“Great, so your breath will smell like you licked a garbage disposal that someone put a mint in.”
“You seem awfully concerned about my breath for someone who’s ‘just a friend,'” I say, making the air quotes with my fingers.
“I’m sitting across from you! You’ve got ranged halitosis.”
“I’ll try to keep my Hs to a minimum, Henry Higgins.”
“You two are like an old married couple,” Regina says.
“He’s the wife,” Brian and I both say immediately, and Regina laughs. The waiter comes back to take their orders, and Brian orders a pizza with garlic, so I don’t even know what he’s talking about. And when my pizza comes, it is delicious and I regret nothing.
I’m down to my last two slices when Brian says, “Hey dude, that’s your building on TV.” I turn around and crane over my shoulder, and sure enough, the local news is doing a piece on the new police station, and they’re on-site with Mr. Steele. It looks like he’s just talking about the work progress and projected completion date, though, which I already know, so I turn my attention back to my pizza.
I’ve just stuck a slice in my mouth when Regina reaches across the table and slaps me in the shoulder. “Dan, look! Look, look, look!”
She’s pointing excitedly at the television, so I turn around again to see Evan Tanger, the guy who owns the construction company I work for, delivering some sort of speech from behind a podium. Evan Tanger, Jr, technically, but whatever. He’s high enough up the ladder that I’m never going to talk to him, so it doesn’t really matter if I get his whole family lineage into his name.
I’m about to ask Regina how she even knows who this dude is, when I suddenly see what’s caught her attention. There are several people in suits sharing the stage with Tanger, seated behind him. One of the suits looks shiny and well-used, bearing a strong resemblance to an undertaker’s suit. And the man who’s wearing it looks like a scarecrow with limbs made of lashed-together broomsticks.
“It’s the guy, the nano guy!” Regina says unnecessarily. “What’s he doing there? Who is he?”
The camera’s cut back to the construction site, showing video of bulldozers clearing the land, but I’ve got the image of the broomstick man burned into my head. I don’t know the answers to Regina’s questions, obviously. But at least I’ve got a starting place to find out now.
The question of “How do I talk to my boss’s boss’s boss?” is still not a simple one, of course. But compared to the impossibly broad “Who is this guy?”, it feels a lot more manageable.