The cafeteria was abuzz with chatter and laughter, the stench of prefab food lingering in the air. Sitting at a corner table, Stacy and Lexi were lost inside their own world.
“Thank God we don’t have to eat this crap much longer,” Stacy grumbled as she stared down at her plate. It boasted a lukewarm hot dog, a pile of mushy corn, and something which resembled pudding–but she couldn’t be sure. It never failed to amuse Lexi when Stacy complained, and at lunch her complaints were reserved for the same topic—the damned cafeteria food. She did have a legitimate point, because Lexi’s lunch did taste like rubber and was just as chewy.
Even though Stacy was bullied nearly as much as Lexi, her torment centered around her sexuality. She’d been called every vulgar name her tormentors could think of, regarding her appearance. But if it fazed Stacy, she had never shown it. That was one of the qualities Lexi loved most about her. Either the hurtful words cut her deeply and she buried it, or she truly found the resolve not to care.
Stacy glanced towards the table where Maddie and Tiffany were sitting. “Look at them, Lex,” she said thickly, chewing a bite of hot dog. “With their noses so far in the air, I’m surprised they don’t drown when it rains.”
Lexi played with her corn, cracking a slight smile.
“Looks will fade, but stupid lasts forever,” Stacy stated, leaning forward and tilting her head towards Lexi as if waiting for a response. That called forth a grin and even a chuckle from Lexi. “There it is. I knew you were born with the ability to laugh.”
Lexi continued to play with her corn, flipping it back and forth with the tines of her plastic fork. Not once did she peek up as Stacy talked to her. Years of verbal abuse had taught Lexi to keep her head lowered for her own emotional safety. She feared with the retribution that always came in reference to her looks and the manner in which she carried herself. In her mind, she believed everyone around her was silently laughing at all times.
She hadn’t always felt this way. At one time in her life, Lexi had been an outgoing girl. She was as talkative as any of the other students, and, at times, it had even been hard to shut her up. Then, it happened. Maddie had been the culprit who’d initiated her downward spiral with yet another cruel note during the course of their second year in junior high.
“How do you stay calm, Stacy?” she asked, finally raising her eyes. “I mean, you get it just as bad as I do, and it doesn’t seem to bother you.”
“It may seem like it doesn’t, but I’ll let you in on a secret.” She leaned over to Lexi and whispered in her ear. “It bugs the hell outta me.”
“Yeah, but you never show it,” Lexi said, brushing her hair away from her eye.
“Why give the bitches the satisfaction?” Stacy asked. She took another bite from her hot dog. “By the way, how’s your dad doing?”
“He’s under so much stress. He still can’t find a job, and it’s the anniversary of Mom’s death. So, he’s got a lot to cope with.”
“I feel sorry for him, Lex,” she mumbled through the mouthful of food.
“That’s why I don’t bring up what’s going on at school to him. I don’t want to lay too much on him, you know?”
Stacy glanced at the corn Lexi was playing with. “Are you going to eat that, or just play with it?” she inquired, finally swallowing.
Lexi gave Stacy a mystified gaze, while once again pushing away the hair which had fallen over her face. “You want it?”
“If you don’t. It’s the only thing that tastes the way it’s supposed to.”
Lexi pushed her plate over to her friend. Stacy dug in, scooping the corn onto her own plate. “You know, you should put your hair up. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about pushing it out of your face.” In one swift motion, Stacy filled her fork with corn, holding it delicately with her fingers. “I can’t imagine what your dad is going through,” she said again, her thoughts switching swiftly as she proceeded to shove the corn into her mouth.
Lexi was fascinated by Stacy’s appetite, as usual. When Stacy looked up from her food, she stopped chewing, and grinned. “What? I’m hungry,” she stated revealing the partially-chewed food as she spoke. “By the way, where’s Nathan?”
“I don’t know,” Lexi replied, elegantly picking her hot dog bun apart. “I didn’t see him in the lunch line.”
Lexi continued to watch Stacy eat in wonder. All that food she shoved in, never gaining a pound. “Are you going with us to the movie this weekend? Nathan has a couple of free passes.”
“I wish I could. I promised my parents we’d have a family night Friday. I guess I’ll have to miss the second installment of Dragon Wars.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“You two will just have to fill me in,” she said. “On everything,” she concluded with a wink, catching a glimpse of Nathan as he entered the cafeteria. “Speak of the devil.”
Nathan walked briskly to their table and sat next to Lexi.
“Where have you been?” Lexi asked.
“Occupied,” he shot back in a frustrated tone.
Lexi suddenly noticed the pink wad embedded in his hair. “What is that in your hair?”
“What do you think? It’s the freshman torture brigade again,” Nathan moaned.
Lexi pulled his hand away. “Don’t mess with it…you’ll just make it worse.”
Stacy glanced over her shoulder at the table where Tyler and Ethan were sitting. They had been joined by another of their cohorts, Ryan. Tyler was looking directly towards them, while the other two laughed. She noticed Maddie and Tiffany no longer sat at their table while unzipping the front of her backpack and reaching inside. “Hold on; I have fingernail clippers. That should work,” she told him. “It may not be as easy as it would be with scissors, but I think we can get it out.”
Stacy moved around to sit next to Nathan. He felt uncomfortable having Stacy so close to him, let alone touching him. He was at only ease around her when Lexi was close by. Butterflies were released into his stomach as Stacy’s fingers touched his head. Fingernail clippers in hand, she began to slowly trim the gum out of his hair.
“Ouch!” Nathan exclaimed, lurching forward.
“Well, if you’d hold still, it wouldn’t hurt so much.”
Just as she finished speaking, a flutter of rainbow-colored paper fell over Lexi. She looked at her lap, realizing it was play money. She didn’t have to guess who’d thrown it. She could hear Tiffany chuckling behind her.
“I’m doing my good deed for the day, Alexandria. Since your deadbeat dad can’t get a job, I thought he could use this worthless money for his worthless daughter,” Maddie said, smugly.
Stacy stopped trimming, her hand still against the back of Nathan’s head. The spiteful girls turned their narrowed eyes in her direction. “Getting your hair done, Nathan? Great idea! Though, I can’t see why you’d trust a dyke.” Maddie smirked.
Stacy pointed the clippers at Maddie. “Why don’t you —”
“Don’t speak to me, you…boy, girl, or maybe some type of crossover? And you, Lexi; I always suspected you liked girls,” Maddie said, leaning over Lexi’s shoulder.
Stacy sprung to her feet, within a foot of Maddie’s body. “Want to find out?” She made a quick peace sign with her fingers, placed it to her lips, wiggling her tongue between the fingers.
“Ew! Gross…” Tiffany exclaimed, disgusted.
“Save it for your girlfriend, Alexandria, since she can’t seem to interest any of the boys,” Maddie spat, spitefully, still bending close to Lexi’s ear, her hands resting on her knees. “Nathan,” she continued, “You’re a zero in the looks department, but I’d think you could do better than this worthless piece of crap. I mean, who wears a sweater in seventy-degree weather?”
Lexi kept her eyes focused on her lap during the entire ordeal, lowering her head further as Tiffany bent to whisper into her other ear.
“What’s the matter? Nothing to say?” asked Maddie.
Tiffany continued. “Are you going to cry?”
“Just like we thought,” Maddie added, “too stupid to even respond.”
“You stupid bitches, leave her alone,” Stacy hissed, interrupting the girl’s verbal assault..
“It must suck to be you,” Tiffany said, ignoring Stacy. “Needing your lover to stick up for you.”
Maddie’s whispering grew louder. “You worthless piece of shit…”
Tiffany’s volume increased too. “…Who shouldn’t even be alive.”
They finally began to walk away, but Maddie tossed one last jab at the already-deflated Lexi. “Nice clothes, bitch.” The two of them erupted in full-blown laughter.
Though their voices had silenced, their words continued to slice through Lexi’s scant reserve of self-esteem. They continued to chip away at her as they made their exit.
“Did you see her face?” Tiffany chortled.
Maddie responded, “It’s days like this that make it worthwhile to show up at school.”
Stacy and Nathan looked over at Lexi, who was still staring into her lap, dazed, the word “useless” echoing inside her head. Perhaps, they are right, she thought. Maybe I am worthless. If I didn’t have my two friends sitting next to me, I’d have nobody. She let out a withered sigh as a lone tear trickled a path down her left cheek.
Nathan reached over and put his hand gently on her shoulder. “Lexi?”
She stood abruptly, grabbed her books, and sprinted out of the cafeteria. Nathan spun his chair around and called out again, “Lexi!”
“Leave her alone. Give her some space,” Stacy said quietly. “Come on, let’s finish clipping this out of your hair.”
Stacy snipped away, cutting the gum out piece-by-piece. “Sorry, I can’t go with you guys to the movie,” she told him. “Having overprotective parents is a bitch.”
Nathan stared soundlessly into the hallway where Lexi had disappeared. Goosebumps ran over his arm with each of Stacy’s touches.
“Are you going to say anything, or do you prefer to let me blabber away?” she quipped. “I can go on forever.”
“I think we should go see if she’s alright,” he responded.
With a final yank the last of the gum pulled free. “You spoke,” Stacy teased, tossing the wad onto the table before tossing the clippers into her backpack. She rubbed his head, sending chills throughout his body. “You can hardly see the bald spot,” she joked.
He snapped around to look at her in shock. “I’m kidding,” she said, with a wide grin. “You can’t tell anything even mildly devastating happened.” She flung her backpack over her shoulder, stuffed the remaining hot dog into her mouth, and mumbled, “I’ll go find her.”
Lexi darted into the girls’ washroom. Pushing open a stall door, she ducked inside and slammed it shut.
As she sunk onto the toilet, her books fell from her hands, but she didn’t notice as they crashed against the floor. Unable to hold back anymore, she buried her face in her sweaty hands and cried uncontrollably. She wondered how she could possibly make it through the last five months of school. Her fist slammed against the stall as the tears flowed freely, splashing against her books and the tiled floor.
“I hate them,” she mumbled to herself. “I hate them. I hate them. I hate them.”
She slid up her sleeve, revealing several rows of scars and scraping her fingernails over the scabs. Every swipe felt like a knife slicing into her, causing the warm blood to trickle from the wounds. Her breathing slowed from a rapid pant to a normal rhythm as the pain settled over her, filling her with calm. In that moment, the physical hurting became a temporary relief from the emotional agony which swelled inside her. She sat there for a few minutes, taking in deep breaths.
“Lexi?” the soft voice rang out, bouncing off the walls of the vacant room.
Lexi yanked her sleeve down to hide her secret and pulled her hair back in her hands. “Yeah, Stace?” she sobbed out.
Lexi gathered her books from the floor, attempting to regain what little composure she could. As she reached to open the stall door, her red-stained fingers caught her attention. She vigorously wiped the blood onto the inside of her sweater. With a final breath, she emerged to find Stacy standing by the door.
“I’m sorry, Lex,” Stacy told her, wrapping her arms around Lexi.
“Just another day in hell,” Lexi replied.
The bell echoed from down the hallway, startling them. They strolled out as students began to fill the hall. Only half a day left, she thought as they made their way to the next class.
“You must be in heaven right now,” the disembodied voice said.
Turning around, she gazed upon a worn down Nathan. “Not quite.”
“Must be having spaghetti for dinner,” he said. “So are we.”
“How’s it been, eating dinner with your parents?” she asked.
“Well, it was nice when it was the two of them, but I knew it would eventually fade into just one of them after a while,” he sadly replied. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” she snapped back. “I would ask the same, but just by looking at you, I can get my answer.”
“Look, about the rally,” he said.
Lexi rolled her eyes and shook her head in complete dismay, “Please don’t tell me you’re sorry, please don’t tell me you’re sorry, please don’t tell me you’re sorry,” she said in a low voice.
Mr. McCormick handed her the neatly wrapped bread, still warm to the touch. “Fresh from the oven, my dear,” he said, and turned to look at Nathan. “You’re not looking too good, Nathan.”
“I’ve been getting that a lot lately,” he replied.
“Chicken soup, it’s always good for what ails you,” Mr. McCormick said. “You kids have a great day. Say hi to your parents for me.”
Lexi gave him a gentle smile. “I will.”
Nathan placed his hand on her shoulder in comfort, “You shouldn’t have tried to stop me.”
Lexi huffed in disbelief. Quickly pulling her shoulder away from his hand, she darted out.
He had not noticed that his order was ready, until he turned to try and put his thoughts together. Tossing the money on the counter, he grabbed the bread and dashed out quickly, knocking the bell off the door frame.
He has become accustomed to chasing her down and apologizing. It had become a ritual of sorts. Ask for her forgiveness and hope for the best, but it was becoming more than that. It was becoming a simple quest to find the right words to say to her.
He caught up to her and snagged her arm to stop her. “I thought it would make me feel better,” he said, gasping from his run.
“Yeah, well how did that turn out for you? Feeling better?” she said without remorse.
He didn’t hesitate to answer her question. “For that one moment, when everyone was laughing, yes, I did feel better. But when they started cheering him, I got frustrated. I wanted to wipe that entire gymnasium out and kill everyone in it.”
“Including me? Including Stacy?” she asked, her voice rising in frustration. “That’s the thing, Nathan. I get so damn mad talking to you because you just don’t understand the basic concept of what you have done! You’ve allowed this addiction to put the people that you care for at risk.”
“It’s not an addiction.”
“It’s not? Then what would you call it? Take a look at yourself and tell me what you see because I see a guy that looks like he’s going through some kind of withdrawal… trembling uncontrollably.”
“I am not trembling.”
She snatched his hand to hold it out. “Take a look,” she barked.
It was a losing fight for him to keep a steady hand as he looked away in denial. “I’m just nervous,” he said.
“Bullshit,” she snapped.
“It’s not bullshit.”
“Then what the hell would you call it?”
“You can’t even get your answers straight. You can’t even look at me.”
A veil of guilt covered the anguish in his soul when he finally decided to look at her. “I’ve done wrong and I know it. I haven’t absorbed anybody’s soul since that night.”
Tilting her head to the side, Lexi shot him a sarcastic smile and clapped slowly. “Good for you. Do you want a gold star?”
“You don’t have to be so cold about it.”
“I’m not sure what else you want me to do, and if I hear you say that this is who we are, I will punch you in the face,” she threatened. She continued through her clenched teeth, “Because it’s not who I want to be.” Feeling the urge to hit something, she began to slap his left shoulder with her hand. “Do you want to know how I spent the last half of my afternoon with Stacy last weekend? I ran into a burning building to save a family. A fucking burning building, and if Stacy were not there to coax me to do anything, I would have let more innocent people die.”
Feeling that yelling in his face would not solve anything, she regained her composure and backed away. “We’re eighteen years old and look at the power we have. The power to determine life or death, to abuse and control the ones we love. Those are frightening responsibilities. You may not have trouble using it, but I do. You call this crap The Gift. I call it a damn curse and quite frankly, I’m getting tired of having this conversation, because you have not learned a damn thing.”
Any rational person would have walked away without another word, but as she felt the sorrow clearly written on his face, she can’t help but feel sorry for her closest friend. “I don’t know how many times you want me to forgive you. It’s becoming repetitive.” Lightly touching the side of his sweaty face, she frowned. “I still love you and care for you, but I’m sorry Nathan, there is nothing I can do. You’re the only person who can help yourself.”
Forgiveness is a trait of a strong soul, and as she spotted Kyle on the other side of the street, she leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “If anybody can beat this, you can.”
He watched as she ran across the street to catch up with her newfound friend.
How touching. Such a kind, wonderful friend you have there. It’s too bad she doesn’t understand that it is not that easy to abandon.
“I don’t think you understand that I can beat this. Beat you.”
Don’t be so naïve. If she didn’t stop you, you would have murdered hundreds of students, including her and your girlfriend. So tell me again how you will beat this, when you can’t even control your rage. Look around you, look at all these souls, these arrogant souls all for the taking. You can try to suppress your hunger but the high is too much for you to forget.
“And you tell me to act like I’m not hearing things,” Stacy said, snapping him back to the present, “when you’re standing here looking like a dork.”
Turning to look at Stacy, he filled his eyes with her beauty and then pulled her close, as he realized that he almost killed her and Lexi without thinking. Was it possible that this girl nestled in his arms was the one he was truly meant to be with, or was it Renee slowly creeping out? At the moment though, it didn’t matter. She soothed his nerves with her touch, relieving him of his shakes, and bringing calm to his heart.
“She doesn’t deserve what I’ve put her through,” he admitted.
“You said yourself that it’s for her own good,” she calmly replied.
He looked at her, smiled, and kissed her on the forehead. “Sure.”
Deborah and Richard Sweeny gazed at the glow radiating from the television. The drawn shades darkened the room, and only the glare illuminated their pale and terrified faces. They lay on their bed, their heads propped up by pillows, mouths agape, watching meaningless images flash before their lifeless eyes. The black satin covers, pulled up neatly to their necks, hiding the stiff bodies that lay beneath. The blood that flowed freely from their ears and eyes were dried and crusty.
Nathan lifted the picture frame displayed next to the television. He hopped on top of the oak dresser and stared at the three of them, standing in front of a sign with an eagle above it that read, Screaming Eagle.
“I remember this,” he said. “Six Flags. Must have been what, seven years ago? The last time we were an actual family.”
He spun the picture around to face them. “Remember, Mom? You promised me that if I rode the coaster, I would get the shirt I wanted. But I would have to ride it first.” He let out a dry laugh. “But it was you who ended up being scared and screaming the entire time. Believe it or not, I still have that shirt.” He set the picture down and disappeared from the room.
The emblem of an eagle, and the words Six Flags, stretched out on the shirt that was now two sizes too small for his body, leaving his stomach exposed. Nathan leaned against the door frame trying to pull the shirt down.
“It may not fit anymore, but it was something I kept in my drawer to remember the good times.”
Pulling it lower, Nathan heard the shirt rip. “Damn,” he exclaimed. He lifted the shirt over his head, but that only tore the shirt nearly in half. “This pretty much sums up what happened to us, doesn’t it?”
Nathan waved the shirt at his parents. “Kind of ironic, isn’t it? I took care of it all these years, just like you took care of me. But like this shirt, you outgrew me, and replaced me with that restaurant. When you tried to wear your love for me, it wouldn’t fit anymore. While I, finally outgrew you the moment Lexi and I found those meteorites. The more you tried to fit me into your busy lives, the larger the rip became. Well, this shirt is now worthless to me. Like you are now.”
The vibration of his anger shook the room. The television bounced towards the edge of the dresser, only to be halted by a single glance from Nathan. “I don’t know who to blame anymore. Tyler. Ethan. Stacy. Lexi. You. Hell, maybe even myself. Though, I don’t see why anyone would blame me.”
Flipping the shirt onto Richard’s chest, Nathan levitated over, and sat down on the bed. “I tried. I really tried to forget about these powers. It was hell. Like going through a withdrawal or something. I did it for Lexi and Stacy. I did it for you two. But they pulled me back into it. Tyler, Ethan, Maddie, and Tiffany. They all had to pay for what they did. It was my responsibility to give justice to everyone they messed with all these years. I’m judge, jury, and executioner. I am… God.”