Author’s Note: BRIGHT DECAY is a superhero sci-fi about a girl who can stop time. As of June 2019, the 90k-word novel is available on Amazon. Right now, you can read the first three chapters for free, here on my website.
Chapter 3 Mirage
Skylar lived with her neighbor, and not by choice. It was the third house down from her actual house. As a minor, she couldn’t live alone when her brother Malcolm was away for college.
Mrs. Kersey, the neighborhood grandmother, had been her guardian for the past two years. She was nice enough to take up Skylar as a charity case, though she got paid to offer Skylar food and a roof. As an empty-nester, she liked having one more kid but not the future responsibility of it. Skylar treated the house like a hotel. They tolerated each other with pleasantry and distance.
Skylar was moving out today. She had already packed up her things in cardboard boxes.
“Don’t throw the door,” Mrs. Kersey had yelled from the kitchen. Skylar obediently propped the front door open. A box in arms, she walked down the sidewalk and placed it in front of her house. It was identical to Mrs. Kersey’s, but it looked deserted. The dust and neglected flower beds completed the run-down look. She put the box down on the front porch and went back for another.
When she was moving the last box out, Mrs. Kersey was at the door, supervising. Skylar had once eaten out of her snack cabinet, which wasn’t included in the contract of two meals per day. After that, she was always nervous about Skylar stealing.
“Come to visit me often.” Mrs. Kersey smiled a fake smile, ready to close the door.
Skylar wouldn’t visit her unless someone was pointing a gun at her, but she still nodded.
Finding the key somewhere in her backpack, Skylar unlocked her childhood home. Nothing was the same but everything was the same. It was no longer familiar enough. She hated how she could smell the scent of the house.
She moved everything inside and into the guest room on the first floor. She minimized her need for air, but still coughed when she entered. Setting the boxes down also kicked up another puff of dust.
When she had finished the move, she sat on the couch and turned the screen on. It was an old model, small and slow, but it worked. Skylar had it playing Uncommon Report while she at least attempted to clean the house.
The show was a rather successful one. It reported all news about uncommon humans around the world, from serious to hilarious.
Her wearable vibrated. She looked down at the beeping screen on her wrist. It was Malcolm.
“Hi,” she answered the call.
“Hey you,” came Malcolm’s annoyingly cheery voice. “Sorry about the ceremony. Couldn’t make it. Congrats though.”
“It’s fine. It’s just that, a ceremony.“
“I’m taking the train. Leaving Duskim at 11 pm, and arriving at 5 in the morning of the 19th.” He was used to talking fast. “Are you coming to the station? It’s okay if you don’t. I’ve …acquired a lot more stuff this year, and I need an extra hand.”
“I don’t have a car.”
“Her car’s too small. Plus, she’s probably working.”
“Fine. You can walk. It’s only, like, two miles.”
“Alright.” Skylar wouldn’t admit it, but she was excited to see Malcolm again. He was one of the few people in the world that she got along with.
“Well, see you then. That’s next week. Don’t forget.” He hung up quickly.
Two days came and went. Skylar had sunk into the couch. The house became livable, and she didn’t seek to improve it more. She hadn’t gotten up for a while. Burying herself in blankets while the air conditioner was on, she set the temperature to make the house as cold as winter. Just as she liked.
She read a novel, something cheesy about a superhero hiding his identity from his girlfriend. The screen in the living room droned on in the background. On and on about the uncommons taking all the common jobs, until the topic shifted to the uncommon human incident at the school.
Skylar perked up. She patted the couch, found the controller and turned the volume up.
“…Luckily, no one was hurt. No living things—that includes students, that includes the lab rats, was affected by the transformation…”
“…Wilkin Hills High School, now more widely known as “the golden school”, will be opening in this coming semester. The structure was deemed safe by local authorities and D.U.R.M.A. It seemed like a result of new uncommon human awakening, though we are still waiting for confirmation from D.U.R.M.A. According to the school officials, Wilkin Hills has unexpectedly received increased enrollment of students coming from all over the nation. It’s not every day your local high school becomes covered in precious metal…”
Skylar stared at the screen, which continued to show the current state of her high school. It was covered in gold. The buildings, the walls, the cracked pavement. And then the classrooms, hallway, the tables, and chairs.
“…during the summer. Police forces are stationed on the lookout for trespassing. Two were arrested yesterday, claiming to be students while attempting to steal a ‘gilded’ chair.”
Something must have gone wrong. Skylar wasn’t there to see it happen, but she was sure that it was Palmer’s fault. Perhaps he lost control of his power and turned his surroundings gold.
He messed up, bad. But it was still good to know he couldn’t turn living things gold. If he could, D.U.R.M.A. would probably put a bullet in his head…if it could get through his skin.
She tapped on the wearable on her wrist. The circular screen lighted up. With a few swipes, she was calling Alysia. She prepared her sentences as the device beeped. “Did you see the news?” she was going to say. “Wilkin Hills turned entirely gold.”
In the end, Skylar couldn’t reach her. The line died when Alysia didn’t answer. When Skylar tried again, the call didn’t even attempt to get through. She sighed. Alysia probably forgot to charge her device. She always forgot.
Alysia was gone.
Alysia’s parents were carefree people, caught up in their art. They ran a studio on the side of the road, famous for selling paintings to random passersby.
Skylar liked those paintings, but she liked Alysia more.
Alysia was gone and they didn’t take notice, since “she’s an adult, she can take care of herself.”
On the third day, they realized their daughter hadn’t come home. They hadn’t seen her since the morning of the graduation day, when she had told them no need to come to the ceremony, since she wouldn’t be there. They shrugged and agreed.
They checked her room, no sign of anything. Everything was normal, even the degree of messiness.
They called her wearable. The battery had died and they saw Alysia had left the charger at home.
And finally, they went to the police.
The local police force had their hands full with the gold incident. D.U.R.M.A. agents were in town, and there was a new uncommon human. The school had been shut down for deep inspection. An 18-year-old’s disappearance wasn’t too high on the priority list. Alysia had a car. She could be anywhere.
“She could be taking a spontaneous road trip, all by herself,” Skylar told the officer taking her statement. Yes, Alysia went away. But nothing worse was going to happen, Skylar thought. In fact, it was better that she was away from the stalker group who wanted her power. Alysia was safer away.
Skylar repeated the tale of what they did when they last met. The car crash, the ice creams, the tattoo. Skylar told them about the tattoo and showed them her wrist. It looked nothing out of the ordinary, though the officer scowled at it. He was probably thinking about “DIY skin infection.”
Skylar made sure to leave out the part of Alysia being an uncommon. She had promised not to tell. What if Alysia turned up a day later, she’d be pissed if Skylar had snitched.
Skylar wasn’t about to lose her only friend.
Leaving the station, Skylar headed to work at the fast-food chain. It was a job she hated, but it gave her money and something to do.
She was in deep thought when she rotated between flipping burgers and handling money. When the regular who stress-ate himself to obesity told her to cheer up, she realized the gut-wrenching anxiety was real. She stared at the double-double, as her heart slowly sank into her stomach.
Reality became clear of fog.
Alysia was gone.
At night, she lay on the mattress and stared at the needle tattoo. Pressing on the eye of the needle, she willed it to come true. It was perhaps not a good idea. The needle fell off and stabbed her in the chest. She yelped and jumped up. She strained her neck, looking down. A bead of blood oozed out. Other than that, she was fine. She had not yet sighed in relief, when she realized the needle was missing from her wrist.
“Shit,” she muttered. She sat up in a stiff position, carefully avoiding movement. Scanning the entirety of her body, paying attention to the wrinkles on her pajamas, she cursed herself for being stupid.
The needle was gone. Her mind raced to the worst-case scenario. What if Alysia was dead, and the tattoo was gone with her?
She found the needle next to her pillow, and put it back on her skin. Her heart was still racing when she looked into the bathroom mirror. Her wound was fine. It was like a paper cut, and even smaller. The blood washed off when she sprinkled some water.
Everything was fine.
The next day, a cop car parked in front of her house and the same officer came knocking at the door. Skylar couldn’t help but feel like she had done something wrong. She wasn’t the last person who had seen Alysia…was she? She went with him to the station for more questioning.
Mrs. Kersey was standing in her front lawn, and stopped watering her blueberry bush to stare at the cop car. Skylar sighed. By the end of that day, the entire elderly community would know that strange girl was going to juvie.
Sitting on one of the waiting seats, Skylar distracted herself by watching the busy proceedings in the station. The small-town police department had received unexpected attention during the last few days. People from the school, neighborhood, and media came in and out.
Skylar bounced her crossed legs, looking around for the D.U.R.M.A. troopers. There were two of them standing guard outside of a conference room. They stood at a casual stance, aimed not to alarm the others. Still, their black body armors and half-face masks deserved sideways glances.
The conference room door opened and closed. A fragment of conversation slipped out.
“…though we strongly suggest you come with us to the Duskim HQ.”
Skylar didn’t have time to digest what it meant, or see who was inside. She shrank back under the gaze of a D.U.R.M.A. agent.
“This way, please,” he said flatly, turning around.
Skylar stood up and followed him. She was slightly trembling, she hoped because of the cool air conditioning.
They entered the conference room. The agent went down and sat at the oval table, next to the woman Skylar had seen at the crash site. On the other end were Palmer and his father, gazing curiously at her. Plenty of space in the middle. Skylar hesitated and took a seat, not sitting next to anyone.
“Do I need a guardian…or lawyer?” she asked, folding her hands on her lap.
“No need for that, Miss Griffin. We are just going to talk,” the woman said smoothly. “I work for the Duskim Division of D.U.R.M.A., Department of Uncommon Registration, Management, and Association. You can call me Inspector Maxwell.”
Skylar nodded and quickly rehearsed a series of pleasantries in her head. “If you don’t mind me asking,” she slowly said, “why am I here? I’m neither an uncommon nor do I know one. Unless you think I’m…”
“It’s alright. We have found no reason to suspect you,” Maxwell said, her voice calm. “At this moment, Alysia Sloan’s disappearance is classified as a runaway. There was no sign of abduction or murder.”
That was a relief, yet the way Maxwell said it so easily made Skylar queasy.
“All you need to do is listen as we explain our progress, and offer your insight if you want to.”
Skylar didn’t see why not, so she nodded.
“It came to our knowledge, that the two incidents could be connected.” Maxwell addressed the whole room, then turned to the parents. “Your son’s awakening and her friend’s disappearance both happened on the same day. They were both in the same grade, shared two classes out of five. Mr. Stevens, can you remember any clue why Alysia would want to run away from home?”
“We didn’t talk much.” He sounded deep and echoing, perhaps an effect of his new autonomy. “I don’t see why she would, but then again, we only ever talked about schoolwork when we talked.”
Maxwell nodded slowly. The agent took notes on a flip notebook, expressionless.
“As it is well known, new uncommons are quite unstable when it comes to controlling their powers…”
“We were here at the station the entire time,” Palmer’s father immediately said. “If you’re implying something.”
“We barely know each other,” Palmer exclaimed, despite the lack of emotion of his golden face, looking embarrassed by his parent’s outburst.
“I’m simply gathering information.” Maxwell smiled. “I’d like to know about how you turned your high school entirely gold, save for the living beings. The police report was rather vague.”
“It was an accident.”
“Becoming an uncommon can be quite exciting.”
“Listen,” Palmer’s father began. “My son–”
“Skylar, do you believe the incidents were connected?”
“I don’t know.”
“Somehow, I do remember seeing her in the crowd.” The Inspector tapped her jaw. “The hair stood out, and casual wear instead of the graduation gown. As I recall, she looked rather uneasy, and you two left the scene soon after. Any idea why?”
“We didn’t talk about it,” Skylar swallowed. “No offense, but maybe she was scared of what she just saw? The car turning gold and the portal was…unexpected.”
“You are certain that she is not an uncommon.”
“Forty thousand people in this town and two are powered.” Maxwell agreed. “The uncommon population was quite sparse, so yeah, it’s unlikely to have another uncommon around.”
“It is unlikely.” Skylar agreed. Uncommons were one in a million.
“Let’s wrap up. Skylar, if you hear from Alysia, let us know. Otherwise, the police will be searching her house and workplace, as well as tracking down her car.” Maxwell looked at her while she was standing up. Skylar nodded and slowly retreated toward the door. She wanted to give them privacy as the Inspector talked to the family.
“As for you, Palmer. Go home and look at the brochure I gave you. Get adjusted. Since you already got registered, the choice is yours. Though I would say the Academy would be a wise decision, the resources…”
Skylar didn’t let the thought take root in her head. There were people with special abilities in this world. Most people were common. She had long since grown out of the fantasy of having a superpower. Her reality was what it was. It was…normal.
When the door was closing and she was free to go, Skylar heard the D.U.R.M.A. Inspector’s voice from within. “It is always a good idea to plan your future around your power.”
Skylar scoffed. Some people could have their lives forever changed in just one moment. Some people couldn’t.
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