To Pieces, Slowly

 

“To Pieces, Slowly”

by Megan Branning

-1-

Keys jingled outside and the front door opened. Benji turned around to see Limelight stagger into the house, with a tear in his green suit running from chest to hip. Beneath that, a gash had already begun knitting itself. One glob of blood dripped onto the hardwood floor before Lime fell into the armchair, exhaling as if he’d just eased into a hot bath.

Benji’s mother made a ‘tsk’ sound. She stood in her bedroom doorway, wearing a dress with her jeans still underneath, and holding a pair of high-heel shoes.

“What happened?”

Lime’s boxers showed through the rip in his suit, but he didn’t seem to care. They had stars on them, and a blood stain, but the wound itself had closed almost completely now. “Tate got me with that knife of his,” he said, shrugging one shoulder.

Benji felt a tingle of sympathy. His mother and her friend didn’t talk about this stuff around him much, but he knew that Tate had been in and out of jail for assaults and robberies. And he carried a huge blade.

“Honey,” said his mom, “go get Mr. Stewart’s extra clothes.”

Benji ran to the closet in his bedroom and slid aside the secret panel in the back. He pulled out one of three lime-green suits, all folded like towels, and turned around to find its owner in the room with him.

“Thanks, Benj,” he said, putting his hand out, palm-up. Benji slapped him high five as he handed over the suit, and pulled the door shut on his way out, leaving Lime to change.

“That man,” said his mother, when he got back to the living room. The jeans now lay across a chair, and she stood on one foot adjusting a high-heel. “I didn’t expect him to come straight from working.”

“Where are you going, Mom?”

“A job interview.”

“In a dress?”

“It’s at a bar,” she said. “A classy one.”

Limelight came out in his fresh suit, and his eyebrows waggled. “Woo-woo.”

Benji’s mom threw her other shoe at him. “You better not have led Tate here,” she said.

“Dai, you know I wouldn’t. He’s been arrested.”

She leaned on the wall, giving the strap of her heel one last tug. “I’ll be gone for an hour or two. Can you feed Benji?”

“I’ll order us a pizza,” said Lime, walking into the kitchenette and picking up the phone.

Normally, Benji liked hanging out with Lime, but not tonight. “Dad lets me stay home by myself all the time, mom.”

His mother said nothing as she retrieved her thrown shoe and slipped it on. Only when she stood in the doorway, purse in hand, did she respond. “Your father has men guarding his house day and night. You’re never really alone in that place.”

She blew him a kiss and walked out, leaving Benji and Limelight to share an awkward look. After a moment, Lime dialed the phone and placed an order.

When he joined Benji on the couch, he put his feet on the coffee table. “Benj, did I ever tell you how much I appreciate you and your mom?”

“No?”

“Your house is like my second home. And where else would I keep my extra suits?” he asked, grinning.

“You could keep them in your apartment.”

“I have some there, too,” said Lime. “But I like coming over to see you.”

“It’s not my house, though. I mean, only on weekends.”

“I know,” said Lime. “She’d love to have you here all the time, though.”

“Does it hurt?” he asked. “When you get cut and stuff?”

“Like hell, kiddo.”

“I broke my toe once,” said Benji, holding up his left foot.

Lime pretended to count on his fingers. “I’ve broken nineteen bones.”

“Nineteen different ones?” said Benji.

“Hm, no. The same ones get broken a lot.” He patted his thigh. “This leg has been fractured four times.”

“Mom doesn’t get hurt that much. Neither does my Dad.”

Lime took a few seconds to respond. “That’s just how it is for me, I guess.”

“But, why?” asked Benji.

“Hey, don’t worry about me. It always heals within an hour.”

The doorbell rang. Benji jumped up and vaulted the couch. “Pizza!”

“That was fast,” said Limelight. He looked down at himself and cursed under his breath. “Benj, I can’t answer the door like this.” He reached into his boot and pulled out some rolled up cash, which he tossed to Benji before going down the hallway.

The bell rang again. Benji opened the door and found his father there.

“Dad? I thought you were picking me up tonight.”

“I’ll be busy tonight.” He wore a crisp shirt tucked into slacks, but no tie. “Are you ready?”

“No. We just ordered pizza,” said Benji.

“Your mother’s car isn’t here. Don’t tell me she’s still hiring you a sitter.”

“It’s a friend.” Benji nearly said ‘Lime,’ but remembered his mother’s instructions not to use those names.

Dad’s mouth curled into a smile as a delivery car pulled up and the driver started up the path. “It must be Limelight,” he said, sniffing. “The man has an unhealthy love for black olives.”

Benji shuffled his feet. Silently, he paid the driver and took the pizza, feeling its heat through the box.

When he heard footsteps behind him, he turned to see Lime in the living room, wearing shorts and a t-shirt. His eyes looked less green without his suit.

“Shiro,” said Lime.

Benji’s father nodded a greeting. “I’ll come back in a little while, so you two can eat.” He stooped to look Benji in the eye. “I got a few movies you can watch tonight while I’m out.”

“Okay. See you later, Dad.”

Benji shut the door and joined Lime on the couch, where they each grabbed a slice. The pizza had olives on one half, no toppings on the other.

“I wish your father would send one of his men to get you,” said Lime.

Benji shook his head. “He promised to always come himself. I asked him to.”

“I didn’t know that. It’s just-”

“You don’t like him.”

Lime stared at his pizza. “Well…”

“It’s okay, I know.”

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” said Lime, turning to him. “I don’t live here.”

“Mom says you might as well.”

Lime chuckled and popped a piece of olive into his mouth.

“Do you think he called?” asked Benji. “Mom probably forgot he was coming early. She didn’t tell me.”

“That’s possible.”

Benji reached for another slice. “How many suits do you have, anyway?”

“I get them wholesale,” said Lime.

Benji groaned. He’d heard this one before.

“The color is cheap,” said Lime, plucking at his sleeve. “I didn’t even have a name picked out for myself until I saw it.”

“Right.”

“It’s true.”

Benji only laughed, and licked pizza sauce from his fingers. Everyone knew Lime got his name because he acted in TV commercials. Benji had only seen one of them, in which Lime pretended to be shopping for cars. At the end, a monkey puppet bought the one he wanted, and drove away in it. The puppet had gone on to stardom, but Lime had never done another ad for that company again.

That night, as Benji sat with a bowl of popcorn in his lap, watching the wall-sized television, the phone rang. It chirped just once, as always, but after a moment the speaker on the wall clicked on.

“Benji, phone for you.”

He picked up the receiver on the end table. “Hello?”

“It’s Mom. Guess what?”

“What?”

“I got the job!”

“Congratulations,” said Benji.

“You don’t sound as happy as I expected.”

“I am, but… won’t you have to work at night? And on weekends?”

“Yes, honey. It is a bar.”

“So…”

She didn’t respond right away, but he heard something tapping. “I’ll make it work,” she said.

“Okay, Mom.”

“Now you be good, and I’ll talk to you in a day or two.”

“Okay.”

“Make sure you do your homework.”

“Okay.”

“I love you.”

“Love you, too, Mom.”

Silence. For a moment he thought she’d hung up, but then, “Bye, Benji. I have to go now.”

“Bye.”

He replaced the phone and unpaused his movie. She’d be changing into her suit right now, he knew. Sometimes he wished they would both take a break from it.

 

-2-

Lime peered into the cupboard and moved a few cans aside, but found nothing behind them. No more chips, not even a partial bag. He shoved the door shut.

His fingers rang with pain.

Sucking air through his teeth, he examined his smashed index and middle fingers, already yellow-blue. When he tried to move them, they refused to bend, and sent more shocks of pain up his arm.

Lime flopped onto the couch and cradled his injured hand. The throbbing began to dwindle now. In a little while, they’d be good as new.

The sleeve of his torn and bloody suit hung out of the trash can by the wall. The fresh one sat folded on the table. He’d worked enough today. Time for a night off.

He picked up a book and started to read, but his stiff fingers couldn’t hold it right, so he set it aside. Maybe a shower? He got up and started removing his clothes, dropping them as he walked down the hallway, throwing off his last sock when he entered the bathroom. Some dried blood remained, sticky and brown on his skin. He stood in the tub and let the hot water wash it away.

By the time he dried off, his fingers felt normal again. He went and sat in his boxers with the book, but still couldn’t focus on it.

Outside, a street light flickered, and someone revved a motorcycle. “Damn,” he said. It would be one of those nights, wouldn’t it? He could sense that he shouldn’t be sitting here.

Slipping on his bright green suit, he headed for the door.

He didn’t know why he kept kidding himself about taking an evening to relax. Hopefully tonight would be an easy one, at least. Maybe he’d just walk around for an hour and then go to Phil’s for a piece of pie. Sunday meant cherry.

He’d earned a slice of Phil’s cherry pie today. Tate would be in jail for a while, and the only casualty had been a broken purse strap. If you didn’t count Lime’s torn suit, anyway.

So why didn’t he feel like he’d made any difference?

After seeing nothing for forty-five minutes but a kid tagging a dumpster, Lime sat down in a booth at Phil’s. The holes in the vinyl released puffs of air under his weight.

“Pie please,” he said to Phil, who came sauntering over with a glass of water.

“You’re my best customer,” said Phil. “I know what you want before you get here. It’s warming up now.”

Lime smiled and took a sip of water, refrigerator cold, just how he liked it. “You’re too good to me,” he said.

Phil laughed through his nose. “So let me see what’s under your mask.”

“I told you, I can’t.”

“You all come in here and eat my food, drink my coffee, but you won’t take off the masks.” Phil chuckled and shook his head. “Your pie’s probably ready. I’ll go grab it”

“All?” said Lime, when he came back. “What do you mean, ‘all?’”

“Some lady’s been in here the last four nights in a row,” said Phil, setting the pie on the table. “She’ll probably be here any minute.”

Lime looked over at the door as he lifted his fork. He didn’t know of anyone else who came into this place.

The warm cherries filled his mouth, tart and sweet. He closed his eyes, forgetting everything else for the moment. He’d seen the empty cans in the trash, but swore Phil did something to make the filling special.

“Do you know you make the best pie in the city?” he asked. “You could be running a much fancier restaurant than this.”

Phil only shrugged, sweeping the floor with a ruinous broom. “This place was good enough for my father. It’s all I need.”

When the door opened, he winked at Lime.

Lime turned around to see a woman in a black and gray suit, with sunglasses instead of a mask. A white line ran along her pant leg, widening as it swept down toward black boots.

She had her hair pulled into a tight pony-tail, and she didn’t look much more than five feet tall.

“Chilly,” said Phil, doffing an invisible hat. “This is the man I told you about. Limelight.”

Lime waved to her and nodded, his mouth too full of pie to speak. Chilly? He’d never heard of her, never seen her.

She sat down across from him, glancing at Phil as if for permission. “Hi,” she said. “Phil told me you’d be in here one of these nights.” She spoke with a hint of an Eastern European accent.

“I can’t go more than a week without his pie,” said Lime. “Are you new in town?”

“As Chilly, yes,” she said. She had a soft voice, and sat with her hands in her lap until Phil set down a cup of coffee, which she took a long pull from.

“Can you see with those sunglasses on?” asked Lime.

“They adjust to the light,” she said. “But they always look dark from the outside.”

So she had a sponsor. Gear like that didn’t come from the mall.

He ate some more pie while she sipped her coffee. She hadn’t added any cream or sugar.

“Limelight,” she said, tapping a finger on the side of the cup. “It’s an interesting name.”

In answer, he snapped the collar of his suit. “So is Chilly. Do you have some kind of cold-based tech?”

She shook her head and drained the coffee, looking at him over the rim. He imagined so, anyway, but he couldn’t really tell because of the glasses. He wondered how well they stayed on in a fight.

“My niece inspired it,” she said. “It’s how she pronounces ‘chinchilla.’”

“Chinchilla?”

“I have two of them.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Well,” she said, turning toward the window. “My sponsor gave me a serum. The way it works, after you inject it, the first animal you touch… you take on its abilities. So I chose my chinchilla.”

Lime laughed, and then felt bad about it when she sucked in her lips. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But… a chinchilla? It just sounds so…”

She arched an eyebrow. “Finish your pie and come out back with me.”

He ate the last few bites, left a five on the table and followed her outside, to the alley behind the building. She looked around, nodded, and started stretching her legs.

If she hadn’t been so nice, Lime might have cracked a joke. He could ask if she intended to make him a fur coat, or–what else did chinchillas do? Before he could think of anything, she sped away.

He looked to his left and saw her standing at the end of the alley.

“Chinchillas can’t be that fast,” he said, as she walked back.

“Faster than you think.”

“So what else can you do?”

She smiled, and this time she crouched down. He took a step back when she sprang at him, but she passed over, bounded off the wall, and landed on a fire escape opposite. From there, she jumped again and bounced off the bricks to land on the pavement beside him.

He applauded. “I’m sorry I laughed.”

Breathing rapidly, she gave a dismissive wave. “I forgive you.”

A door opened behind Lime, and he spun, but it was just Phil. “Do you want your change?” he asked.

“Keep it,” said Lime. Phil gave a thumbs-up and went back inside.

“Do you know… anyone else?” asked Chilly. “I want to meet everyone.”

“Well, there’s D-Mama,” he said, thinking of Dai. “And Silvertongue, or whatever he’s calling himself this week.”

Chilly rocked on her heels, but her voice remained level and as quiet as ever. “Can I meet them?”

“Sure.”

“Tonight?”

“I don’t know where they are right now.”

“Then meet me here at lunch time tomorrow,” she said. “Can you?”

“I think so. I can definitely bring D, but I’m not sure about Silver.”

Chilly nodded. “That’s okay. I’ve heard of her, you know. And you. Not just from Phil.”

Lime scuffed his toe in the gravel and shrugged. Nothing covered up real embarrassment better than affected embarrassment, he’d found. His ears always got warm when anyone female knew who he was, in either of his careers.

He’d almost had a heart attack the first time someone recognized him from an ad, scared for a moment that she’d spotted him as Limelight without the costume. After that, he’d taken care never to wear green shirts, just in case.

They walked along the street, half watching for crimes and half chatting. The clock on the bank read 1:30, seventy-one degrees.

“Can you really heal?” asked Chilly.

“Yes.”

“May I see?”

He didn’t know if he should, but he put out his hand anyway. “Got anything sharp?”

“No.”

“All right, hang on.” He glanced around and settled on the chain-link fence that bordered the bank’s parking lot. Holding his palm flat, he pressed it down into the wire at the top, until he felt a stabbing pain. She took his hand in hers and turned it over to look at the blood welling up. Lime wiped it away with his thumb, and as they watched, the hole began to close.

“Wow,” she said. “But couldn’t you get tetanus?”

“I’ve had my shot.”

“Do you ever get sick?” She let go of his hand, and he shook it out to relieve the sting.

“I get sick like everyone else,” he said. “And I get headaches, that kind of thing.”

She paused as they came to a cross-street. “I’m going this way,” she said. “Do you want to keep walking, or call it a night?”

He’d yawned a couple of times, despite himself. “I should get home,” he said. “I have… something to do in the morning.” He had an audition, but he couldn’t give away such a personal detail to someone he’d just met. She could still turn out to be an enemy.

But he didn’t think so.

 

-3-

Benji woke up with his head in the popcorn bowl, and saw his mother’s face on the TV. Mask or no, he knew her by her dark eyes and her jet-black hair, both matching his own. Anyway, she’d made her identity no secret to him.

The ticker along the bottom said “D-Mama foils armed robbery.”

She stood beside a convenience store, in her black and red suit, with a microphone shoved in her face.

“How did you do it?” asked the reporter.

Benji’s mother breathed out slowly through her nose. “Without any gadgets or gimmicks,” she said. “Hard training, and a lot of work, that’s how.”

“It looks like you got a little banged up in the fight,” said the reporter. “This must be dangerous work. Do you care to comment on that?”

D-Mama stared right into the camera. “It is dangerous work,” she said. “No thanks, no reward. But I do this for…” She shook her head and waved away the microphone.

They panned to the reporter. “Strong words from a strong woman,” she said. “Reporting from downtown-”

The TV went black. Benji sat up and turned around. His father stood behind him, remote in hand. He wore his two-piece suit that looked like a tuxedo, and his mask dangled around his neck. He yawned, covering his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Morning, Dad.”

“Good morning, Benji. Did you fall asleep on the couch again?”

“I guess so.”

His dad gripped him by both cheeks and wobbled his head back and forth, gently. Benji laughed. “Stop it. I’m not a baby.”

“Cereal?” asked his father.

“Yeah.”

They padded along in their socks together. In the kitchen, they sat down on opposite sides of the breakfast bar, where bowls and a box of shredded wheat cereal awaited, along with a pitcher of milk with water beading on the outside.

“Were you out all night?” asked Benji.

“Yes. I see your mother made the news again.”

“Yeah.”

His father poured milk onto the cereal in each bowl. “You know I do it all for you, Benji. Right?”

Benji did not, but he nodded anyway.

His father swept his hand toward the kitchen door and the house beyond it. “I’m able to give you this life because of what I do.”

“I know.”

“Your mother doesn’t see it the same way.”

“I know.”

Benji’s dad took a bite of cereal and kept the spoon in his mouth, bobbing the handle up and down. After a moment, he pulled it out and swallowed. “Does she ever say anything to you… about me?”

“Just stuff like, ‘Dad’s picking you up at eight.’”

“Ah.”

“I have to get to school soon.”

“Of course. Hurry up and eat, then get dressed. I’ll go change.”

They rode in the sports car this morning, the engine humming as his dad shifted gears and whipped along the curving road into the woods. Where it looked like it should swoop back up at the bottom of a hill, the road instead kept going down into a tunnel. Benji loved that part, and it made his breath stop every time. Just like a roller coaster.

They came out of a garage in a back alley five minutes later, and from there it was only another two miles to the school. Benji sat with his backpack on his lap, with the lunch inside that the cook had made for him. Plus a slice of leftover pizza.

When the last bell rang, Benji ran out looking for his father’s car, but instead he found his mother standing at the bottom of the steps. The kids flowed past her, like water around a stone. She stood with her arms crossed, but she smiled when she saw him.

“Hi, Mom,” he said.

She hugged him, squeezing tight. “Hi.”

“What’s up?”

“I just wanted to see you before I go to work. I have orientation today, and I start officially tomorrow.”

Benji peered around her, looking for his father. The two of them hadn’t talked to each other in person for a long time, and he thought it might be better that way. No sign of Dad yet, though.

“Mom, do you want to work at a bar?”

“It’s a good job.”

“Will you be a waitress?”

She brushed back her hair. “No, Benji, I’ll be making drinks and doing some light cleaning.”

“Cleaning in a dress?”

“I mean wiping down glasses and things like that.”

“What time do you get done?” Some cars drove by, but none of them pulled over.

“Two a.m.”

“And after that you’ll… go to your other job?”

She leaned back to look at him better and nodded. “Yes. And I should go now so I won’t be late. Love you, baby.” She kissed him on the head, and he glanced at the kids around them to make sure no one had noticed.

After her hatchback pulled away, the sports car came around the corner and Benji ran to the curb. “Mom got a new job,” he said, climbing in.

“Oh?” said his father.

“At a bar. A classy one.”

Dad laughed. “I’m glad it’s classy. Now, let’s go home and get your assignments done so we can have a nice dinner before I go out tonight.”

Benji sighed, but tried not to do it too loudly. ‘Let’s get your assignments done’ meant he would be alone in his room for an hour or two. Dad refused to help him because he said no one had ever helped him with homework, and he was better for it.

And, of course, Benji had been hoping his dad might stay home tonight, but he didn’t bother to say so.

 

-4-

Limelight felt something small hit his head, and stopped. Standing just outside of Phil’s, he put out his hand, palm up. It didn’t seem to be raining. As he started walking again, something bounced off his arm. He bent to pick it up. It looked like a chunk of wood.

Stepping back toward the curb, he craned his neck and spotted a pair of feet hanging over the side of the three-story building. As he watched, another bit of wood fell to land on the pavement.

He didn’t see anyone waiting in the diner yet, so he went around to the alley and started climbing the fire escape. When he got to the roof, he found Chilly sitting there, with her back to him. Her head whipped around, and he waved.

“What are you doing up here?” she asked, hiding something in her lap.

He sat down beside her. “I saw your feet. What’s that?”

She opened her hands and showed him a block of wood. “You caught me.”

“I don’t get it.”

Beneath her sunglasses, her cheeks flushed pink. “After the serum, my teeth… It’s either this or trim them, and that hurts too much.” She looked down at the sidewalk. “I still have to do it sometimes anyway. In the bathroom mirror.”

He took the wood and held it up to examine the bite-marks. “Whoa.”

“Yeah.”

“Chinchilla powers,” he said, handing it back. “Can I see your teeth?”

Clutching the hunk of wood, she hesitated and then turned to him, mouth open. Her teeth looked normal at a glance, but then he saw that her incisors were a little long, and her molars somewhat pointed. She closed her mouth again.

“Interesting,” said Lime, trying to choose the politest word possible.

Chilly threw the wood over her shoulder. “Come on. I want to meet your friends.”

“D-Mama was busy, but Silvertongue should be meeting us.”

They had their choice of booths inside Phil’s, and he brought them each their usual drink. Chilly’s face still looked pink as she sipped her coffee.

After a few minutes, the door opened, and Silvertongue slid into the booth beside Lime. Instead of his shiny suit, he had a gray and white one, with a dark gray mask. On his head he wore a helical, metal horn, held on by straps. It reminded Lime of a unicorn.

“Had one heck of a time finding this dump,” said Silver. “Hi, Lime.”

“Silver. Uh.”

“I’m not Silvertongue anymore. I’m the Narwhal.”

Chilly laughed into her coffee, but the Narwhal didn’t seem to notice. His head listed to the left, the horn looming over Limelight.

Lime moved closer to the wall. “Narwhal. This is Chilly.”

The Narwhal stuck out his hand, and Chilly shook it. “Hi,” she said.

“Pleasure to meet you.” He adjusted the horn.

“Isn’t that thing heavy?” asked Lime. “It looks like it’s made of steel.”

“Sure is.”

“Real narwhals’ horns are actually teeth,” said Chilly.

“What?”

She nodded. “They’re overgrown teeth.”

“No kidding. Well, I’m not about to wear this in my mouth.”

He’d started leaning into Lime again, but didn’t move to correct it.

“That thing is going to give you neck problems,” said Lime. “This isn’t your best theme.”

Phil came over with a pot to refill Chilly’s coffee. “Would you like anything to drink?” he asked, eyeing the horn.

“Diet soda,” said the Narwhal. “And a ham sandwich.”

“Any food for you two?”

“Can I have the chicken soup?” asked Chilly. “And a muffin, please.”

Lime ordered soup as well.

The Narwhal adjusted his horn again. “Soup?” he said. “Geez.”

“What?” said Lime.

“You must be kidding. It’s about seventy-five out today.”

“Sil- Narwhal,” said Lime. “Chilly is new in town. She was anxious to meet you.”

“Me?”

“Well, everyone,” she said. “Is the horn solid?”

He flicked it with his finger, producing a ringing echo. “Not all the way through.”

“Do you even know you’re leaning on me?” asked Lime.

“Hey, listen,” said the Narwhal, turning to face him and almost beaning him in the process. “I saw Stopwatch again.”

“You did?”

“Yeah, it was last night.”

“Who’s that?” asked Chilly.

“A criminal,” said Narwhal. “He’s supposed to be thirty-five or something, but he looks about sixty. He can go back in time, but get this, he can’t go forward.”

“Really?”

Lime nodded, drumming his fingers on his knees. “We hadn’t seen him in a while. I don’t like this.”

“Anyway, I caught him breaking into a car,” said Narwhal, “but of course he got away.”

“Did he get the car?” asked Chilly.

The Narwhal grinned. “No. That’s the good part. It was this fancy sporty thing, all silver. And you know whose it was?”

“Whose?”

“Mister Hood’s.”

Lime shook his head. “No way.”

“Girl scout swear,” said Narwhal, holding up three fingers. “Mister Hood comes along, and as soon as Stopwatch sees him, he’s gone. Probably jumped back about five, ten minutes and just walked away.” He turned to Chilly. “Even the other crooks are scared of Hood.”

“So what did you do?” asked Lime.

“Hood wasn’t up to anything. He just got in his car and drove off. I went home for the night after that.”

“How did they not see you, with that giant steel horn?” asked Lime.

“Master of stealth, right here.”

“Are narwhals known for their stealth?” asked Chilly, speaking into her coffee cup. Lime heard a smile in her voice.

“This one is,” said the Narwhal.

Phil brought out their food, and the Narwhal shoved his sandwich into his mouth, chewing lustily. Lime raised a spoonful of soup and looked at Chilly over it, trying not to laugh out loud. She faked a cough and covered her mouth with her napkin.

No one spoke while they ate. The Narwhal finished first, pushed his plate forward, and stood up. His head hung to the right, and he reached up to fix the horn again. “Thanks for lunch,” he said. “Nice to meet you, Chilly. I’ll see you out there some night, maybe.”

“But I won’t see you.”

“Huh?”

“Because you’re a master of stealth, right?”

Lime snorted and spilled soup.

“I’ll come out of hiding for you,” said the Narwhal, and pivoted toward the exit. His horn clanged off the door frame on the way out.

“I never actually offered to pay for his food,” said Lime. He decided to let it go this time. The audition had gone well. Hopefully he would get a call soon about doing the commercial for a hair replacement treatment. He would be the ‘after,’ dramatically riding a horse along a beach. With a beautiful woman, maybe.

Lime went back to the roof above Phil’s that Friday night. He’d spent the afternoon working on his portfolio, sorting head shots, and cleaning his two-room apartment. Now he sat with his feet dangling, looking down on the street. The warm air carried every sound to him. Cars, mostly, and barking dogs.

Just as he began to grow bored, a ringing snapped his head up. An alarm, and not far from here.

Lime swung his feet around and hopped onto the roof to sprint for the fire escape. He took it three steps at a time and ran toward the sound, keeping to alleys and back streets. When he arrived, he found a laundromat with the window smashed. A man clutching a sack stepped out, over the broken glass, and looked up at Limelight. “Damn.”

Lime lunged, and the burglar swung the sack around. With unexpected weight, it took Lime in the side of the head, filling his world with white fireworks. He crumpled to the ground as coins fell around him like rain.

When his sight returned, he saw the burglar heft the half-full sack and turn to bolt. From somewhere behind, a voice called out. “Beware the Narwhal!”

Footsteps pounded across the pavement, the criminal froze, and the Narwhal came into view with his head down, steel horn shining in the light of a flashing sign.

He stumbled to the left and crashed into the laundromat door.

Lime got to his feet, head still throbbing, and the burglar took off.

“Get him, Lime!” shouted the Narwhal, whose horn had slid down over his face.

Lime ran, but the pain in his head flared with each step, and his stomach rolled like a barrel in a river. By the time he caught the robber by the sleeve, he could hold it in no longer, and sprayed vomit all over the man.

The bag of coins hit the sidewalk. The burglar pulled a knife, slashing out just as Lime jumped back.

Lime lost his footing and fell on his tailbone, but the knife kept coming, and he rolled aside. His mouth tasted like acid and he couldn’t tell up from down anymore. When he flopped onto his back, the criminal jumped him, knees pinning his arms, knife against his throat.

“You puked on me, you neon asshole.”

Lime couldn’t move. Where was the Narwhal? Where were the cops?

He closed his eyes, wondering if his healing could outpace the blood loss of a slit throat. But instead of slicing pain, he felt the weight lift off of him.

When he turned to look, he saw the thief now lying on the ground, his knife gone, with a woman on top of him. She wore a dress and heels, and had a purse slung over her shoulder.

“Where did you come from?” asked the burglar, amber light from the street lamps reflected in the whites of his eyes.

The Narwhal came jogging up, followed by the hoot of a siren and two police cars. At some point, as they helped Lime to his feet and cuffed the burglar, the woman disappeared. Lime had not seen her face, but he knew her. With no doubt.

His head had begun to heal, and his stomach settled. Everything smelled sharply of vomit, but that would wash out, and most of it had ended up on the other guy, anyway.

A policeman knelt on the sidewalk, gathering quarters, while the others put their charge in the back of a cruiser. He would have to go to jail smelling that way.

The Narwhal patted Lime on the shoulder. “Sorry I fell behind. This horn kept slipping off and I couldn’t see.”

“Yeah.”

“Did he throw up?”

“No, I did.”

“Nice. And that woman? Who the heck was she?”

“Probably an undercover cop,” said Lime. The Narwhal didn’t need to know.

She came into Phil’s the next day, while Lime sat eating cheese fries, and took the seat across from him.

“I tried to take the night off,” she said.

He slid the plate toward her. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His reflection looked back at him from her sunglasses, grinning.

“But seriously, Lime, how did he get you pinned like that?”

“I think my skull was broken.” He rubbed his temple where the sack had struck. “I’ve had concussions, and this hurt a lot more.”

She paused with a fry halfway to her mouth. “How did that happen?”

“He hit me with a bag full of quarters.”

“That’s it? That shouldn’t break your head.”

Lime looked around, but no one else was there besides Phil, who had headphones on and his attention turned to filling salt shakers.

“I get injured a lot,” he said, squeezing the end of a french fry until it oozed potato. “More and more.”

“What are you saying?”

“I guess the more I heal, the more I’m prone to it. I’m more… fragile.”

“So eventually…?”

He shrugged, but couldn’t look at her. “I know I should stop.”

“So why don’t you?”

He stared out the window, watching a woman push a stroller. “I do this so other people won’t have to get hurt. People like them.” He gestured at the mother and infant.

Chilly put her hand on his. “How old are you? Thirty-something?”

He nodded.

“You’ll fall apart by the time you’re fifty, at this rate.”

“I know, I know.”

She removed her hand and ate another fry. “You better finish these before I eat them all.”

He put two in his mouth at once. The hot cheese burned his tongue, but he ignored it. Outside, the woman with the baby had moved on, out of sight.

 

-5-

Benji rang the doorbell, and looked at his dad’s face, but couldn’t read it. Why hadn’t he driven off like usual? Why did he want to come in?

His mother opened the door, wearing jeans and a tank top. “Shiro,” she said.

“Dai.”

“I wasn’t expecting… Please, come in.”

Benji and his dad sat on the couch, and his mom in the armchair.

“Dai, I wanted to speak to you about Benji’s report card.”

Benji tensed up. He hadn’t known his father had even seen it. Hopefully the A’s and B’s would overshadow the one D. He couldn’t really help that they made gym so hard.

“His report card?” asked his mother.

“Yes. You ought to know. He had a D in gym class.”

She turned to Benji. “What happened, honey?”

Benji pulled his feet up and looked at his knees. “I don’t like it, that’s all. They let you sit out if you say your stomach hurts.”

“Why don’t you go put your bag in your room and tidy up while your father and I talk?”

Benji held back a sigh. Tidy up? He’d left the room clean when he went home last Sunday. No sense in arguing, though. He grabbed his bag and carried it down the hall.

While he unpacked, he could hear their voices through the door, low and muffled. As he pushed the dresser drawer shut, his mother’s voice rose.

Uh-oh. She wouldn’t ground him for the whole weekend, would she? He opened the door a crack and leaned out to listen.

“This is why they gave me custody,” said his father. “You can’t even-”

“Can’t even what, Shiro? It’s none of your concern if I worked at the bar for four days or four years. I can take care of my son.”

She’d lost the job? Oh, no. Not again.

“None of my concern? I leave him in your care for two days a week. And don’t say ‘my son’ as if he were more yours than mine.”

“Are you saying you don’t trust me with him?”

“You know I do. But what kind of life does he have here? There’s no one to keep him safe while you’re out, except maybe a sitter. There’s only one lock on the door, and no alarm, either.”

“I’m sorry I can’t afford armed guards, like you. But he’s perfectly safe here. I hope you can manage to let go for two days out of seven.”

“I’m never sure if I’ll get him back! He comes home and watches you on the news. He talks about you all the time.”

“Oh, please, Shiro. We both know who he’ll want to be like when he grows up. Do you think he doesn’t talk about you, and your fancy cars, and the lavish meals?”

Benji’s chest felt tight. He’d almost forgotten what it sounded like when his parents fought. Trying to tune it out, he pulled a video game from his bag and started playing.

For a minute or two, he managed to ignore them, but their voices got louder again.

“Our son wouldn’t be alive today if we hadn’t stolen the money to pay for his treatments.”

“But you didn’t stop, Shiro! He got better, and you didn’t stop.”

“Did it become more wrong just because our son wasn’t dying anymore?”

Dying? Benji recalled the hospital visits, but his parents had always promised he would be okay. He put aside the game and went back to stand by the door.

“It was always wrong,” said his mother. “I wouldn’t change anything I did, but it was still wrong. If you had stopped when I did…”

“What? If I had stopped, what?”

“I wouldn’t have left you.”

They got quiet then. Benji twisted the doorknob, back and forth, back and forth.

“The past is the past,” said his father, finally. “Even Stopwatch couldn’t change it. But it’s you Benji wants to be like, just so you know. I’m sure of that. He’s going to follow in your footsteps, not mine.”

“And live this amazing life?” said his mother. “Driving a crappy car and losing jobs because he’s out catching thieves during his shift? You’ve shown him that crime pays, Shiro. Congratulations.”

Benji hurried down the hallway. He couldn’t let them keep fighting like this. When he entered the living room, they both turned to stare at him. His father’s eyes had red veins all over them.

“I want to be a zookeeper,” said Benji.

“What?” said his mother.

“I want to be a zookeeper when I grow up. And go home at night and see my family. And not be gone and make them worry.”

His parents looked at each other. Mom sniffled and put her hand over her mouth.

Dad turned to him and touched his arm. “You’re a smart boy, Benji. I’ll see you Sunday night.” He kissed him on the forehead and walked out of the house.

Benji’s mother sat down on the couch, and he snuggled up beside her. “It’s okay, Mom.” Outside, his dad’s car rumbled and drove away.

His mom leaned her head on his, and put her arm around him. They sat like that for a while, not talking. Benji didn’t know what else to say.

After a while, his mother stood up. “I should make us some dinner.”

While she banged around with pots, the phone rang. Afraid it might be his father, Benji ran to grab it before she did.

“Hello?”

“Benj! It’s me.”

“Hi, Li-… Mr. Stewart.”

“Is your mother there?”

“Here she is.” He handed her the phone, which she cradled between shoulder and ear while opening a box of spaghetti.

“Peter, how are you?”

Benji could hear Lime’s voice, but not his words. Then the rattling of spaghetti drowned him out completely.

“Monday?” said his mother. “Yes, I can do that.” She held the pot under the tap and filled it with water. Knowing the procedure, Benji opened the fridge and got out the jar of pasta sauce and the grated cheese.

“I’ll see you then,” said his mother, and hung up the phone.

“Aw, Mom, I wanted to talk to Lime.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Benji.” She turned on the burner under the pot and reached over to rub her son’s shoulder.

“What are you guys doing?” he asked.

“There’s someone who wants to meet me. We’re having lunch at a diner downtown.”

“Can I come?”

“Absolutely not. I’ll be in costume, and you’ll be in school. No more sitting out gym, either.”

“Aw.”

She hugged him. “I’m not angry at you. I once failed math because I refused to do my homework.”

“Really?”

“I hated long division.”

“Me, too.”

After she released him from the hug, he opened a cupboard to get out bowls. He never had to set the table at Dad’s house, but he didn’t mind doing it. “I’m sorry you lost your job,” he said.

“I am too.”

“What’ll you do instead?”

She put two glasses on the counter and stared at them for a moment. “I don’t know yet.”

“You could be an actor like Lime.”

She laughed at that. “I was in a school play once, you know.”

“What were you?”

“A pencil. I didn’t even get to speak.”

“A pencil? What kind of dumb play was that?”

“I don’t even remember now.”

Benji placed the glasses beside the bowls, and took the forks she handed him. “Why was I dying?”

Her empty hand hovered in the air, and she lowered it slowly. “You weren’t supposed to hear that.”

“But why was I?”

“You had leukemia, Benji. Cancer.”

“And I’m all better, right?”

“Yes, you’ve been cancer free for years. Don’t worry.”

“Did I almost die?”

She bit down on her lip and turned away. Benji decided that meant yes. He didn’t make her say it. He wouldn’t ask about that anymore.

 

-6-

Lime watched Chilly and D-Mama sitting across the booth from him, laughing.  They’d been doing it almost non-stop since the moment they met, and this time he didn’t even know what was funny. Not that he could complain about them getting along. Or about the way Chilly kept looking at him with that smile on her face.

Too bad Benji couldn’t be here. He would have liked Chilly, too.

The door jingled open, and in walked a man in a blue costume, with a black pattern of concentric circles on the chest. He wore a black mask as well, but Lime knew him by his walk – a slight swagger, more steady now without the weight on his head.

“Narwhal,” he said, as his friend slid in beside him. “You look different.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed, the horn wasn’t working out. I’m Echo Chamber now.”

“What was wrong with Silvertongue?”

“People kept mixing me up with that comic book character. The silver guy.” He turned to wave at D-Mama. “Hey, D.”

“Hi,” she said. Chilly whispered something in her ear and she snorted.

“Don’t talk about Lime,” said Echo. “It’s not nice.”

Phil came over with notepad in hand. “Now that your fourth is here,” he said, “do you want to order?”

As soon as they’d finished, he vanished into the back again. He’d been in there more than usual today, and Chilly’s coffee level had suffered for it.

“I’m glad I got to meet you,” she said to D-Mama. “You were my inspiration.”

“Was I?”

“I see you on the news,” said Chilly. “I liked what you said about no gadgets or gimmicks.”

“But you-”

“I know. I’m not as good as you. You must train a lot.”

“I have plenty of free time for it,” said D-Mama, twisting a straw wrapper in her hands.

Phil came out with a bowl and set it in front of Lime. Salad, with several large black olives. “On the house.”

“Thanks, Phil. But why?”

“You’re a good customer.” He stared at the wall, then abruptly turned and went into the kitchen again.

“Is this the place with the amazing pies?” asked D-Mama.

“Yeah. Sorry Phil is being weird today. He’s usually a nice guy.”

“Well, he did give you free salad,” said Chilly.

Nodding, Lime skewered some lettuce on his fork, making sure to get an olive with it. “Not bad,” he said, chewing.

When he’d finished it, he pushed the empty bowl aside and looked at the kitchen door, hoping Phil would come out with their lunches soon. It opened a crack and then shut again.

“The heck?” said Echo. “I’m starving.”

“Something seems off,” said D-Mama, just as the front door swung open. Tate walked in, wearing his usual full-face ski mask, one hand resting on the knife tucked in his belt.

Lime had a moment to wonder who’d paid the guy’s bail, before two thugs came in behind him, followed by Stopwatch in his all-black suit with the white clock hands on the front. The time-traveler looked even older than when Lime had last seen him, and bore a noticeable bald spot on his head.

Limelight and the others all rose at once, backing up to the middle of the room without taking their eyes of their opponents. The two groups stood facing each other, surrounded by tables and chairs and the gurgle of a coffee machine.

Tate crossed his arms. “Hello,” he said.

Lime expelled a slow breath and straightened up. “What are you doing?”

“Waiting,” said Stopwatch.

“For what?”

“For the stuff I put in your salad dressing to kick in.”

Beside Lime, Chilly growled. “What did you do?”

Stopwatch smiled. “It took me a while to get the formula just right, so it could pass the blood-brain barrier. What it does is activate old synaptic connections. It makes you remember.”

“Remember what?” asked Lime. His leg had begun to twinge.

“Pain. Every wound you ever felt.”

“Why would you do that?” asked Chilly, taking hold of Lime’s arm.

Stopwatch raised his eyebrows and inclined his head. “Why do you think?”

Lime’s leg ached, and his palm burned where he’d pierced it recently. He glanced at the door to the kitchen. “Did Phil…”

“Yes, he told us you’d all be here today. In exchange for a reasonable amount of cash.”

Lime wanted to run into the kitchen and slug the man, but his desire to strangle Stopwatch outweighed it. He did neither, because his head burst into throbbing pain, his skin stung in ten different places, and he couldn’t think anymore. He sank to his knees, kept from collapsing because Chilly and D-Mama grabbed him.

His fingers hurt too, right where he’d broken them a few days earlier. This couldn’t really be all the pain he’d ever known, but it still felt like he’d been hit by a building. Vision blurring, he ground his teeth to keep from sobbing, but a whimper came out anyway. He focused his efforts on not throwing up.

Around him, feet shuffled on linoleum. Neither side seemed eager to make the first move.

Chilly’s hand brushed the back of Lime’s neck. He wanted so much to just lie down and shut his eyes, but in a moment they would need him to fight.

Their enemies fanned out, and Tate drew his knife. Lime shuddered to his feet, swallowing back nausea.

The front door whipped open, sending a napkin fluttering. As Lime blinked at the black and white shape walking in, the tuxedo-like cut of the suit came into focus. His hand made a fist involuntarily. Mister Hood.

Everyone turned to watch him come. He cast his glance around the room and stopped short when his eyes hit D-Mama. “No one told me she would be here.”

“No one told us you would be here,” said Tate, holding his knife at his side.

Mister Hood looked more like Shiro right now than he ever had. Mask or no, he wore an expression of worry, of hesitation. His eyes shifted from D-Mama to Lime, and he twitched his lip. “You look pale.”

Lime opened his mouth to respond but only managed a rattling groan. If he moved in any direction, he felt certain he’d collapse.

“Screw it,” said Echo, and charged at Stopwatch, head down as if he still wore the horn. Stopwatch vanished just before impact. One of the thugs stuck out a foot to trip Echo, who rolled and spun, and would have landed in a crouch if he hadn’t collided with a chair.

Tate whipped out with his blade, but Chilly moved like a blur. She ended on top of a table, holding the knife in her hands.

Lime took a step, but fell back to his knees, moaning. He tried to calculate how far back Stopwatch would have gone, but even as he thought it, the kitchen door burst open. He couldn’t manage to turn around and look, but he could hear D-Mama fighting with him now.

The thugs lunged for Chilly and she leapt right over them, kicking down Tate. Echo went for Hood, who danced aside.

The throbbing in Lime’s head had gone down. He forced himself to his feet and grabbed for Mister Hood, who twisted and got Lime into a headlock.

“Don’t,” said Hood. “There are two people in this room I will not harm. You’re one of them.”

“Then make it stop.”

Behind him, a table crashed to the floor and a salt shaker rolled.

“I can’t,” said Hood.

“You can.” His leg didn’t ache so much now. He pulled away, and Hood didn’t resist–but as soon as he got free, he felt an arm wrap around his waist, and a fork press against his throat. Tate.

Chilly came flying and knocked him back, leaving Lime sprawled on the floor to watch her bite Tate’s neck.

The thugs grabbed her by both arms and pulled her off him, holding her tight.

Lime looked around and saw the knife shining in a patch of sunlight. He went crawling for it, but a foot came down on the blade, and he looked up at Stopwatch. Turning, he found Stopwatch also still fighting with D-Mama, but when she swung a high kick at him, he vanished.

“You’ll kill yourself this way,” said Lime, rising.

“I’ll kill you first.”

Lime shook his head, thinking of Benji. Before the others had arrived, D-Mama had told him the boy wanted to be a zookeeper. That kid probably had more sense than anyone in this room.

Stopwatch had the knife in hand now. “The stuff I gave you is wearing off.”

“Yes.” Lime still felt stabs of pain in several places, but they hurt less each time they pulsed.

He had no weapon, though, and the one pointed at him had an edge like a table saw. As he contemplated his options, D-Mama came up beside him, and Stopwatch took a half step back.

But what had happened to Echo?

Chilly grunted, and Lime whipped around. The thugs still had her by the arms, and Tate stood before her, flexing his fists. When he made his move, she kicked off the floor and did a standing backflip, taking the thugs with her. She bounced off the wall and over them as they fell, but Lime never saw her land. Tate crashed into his chest, knocking him down and dropping hard on top of him.

When he wrestled free, he found D-Mama on the linoleum with the knife in her shoulder, and Stopwatch standing over her. Blood soaked her costume around the blade.

Mister Hood flew at Stopwatch, and the wrinkled thirty-five-year-old disappeared again. Hood turned back and crouched over D, while Tate edged away, looking confused.

Chilly helped Lime up. “Is she-?”

But the knife hadn’t gone in too deep. D-Mama opened her eyes and mumbled something about making lunch for her son.

“This is over,” said Hood, looking at Tate and the thugs. “Get out of here.”

They ran.

Lime saw legs sticking out beneath a booth, and found Echo there, unconscious but not bleeding.

Mister Hood snapped his fingers at Chilly. “My car is around the corner. We’ll get her to a hospital. Help me carry her.”

“And Echo,” said Lime.

“Who?”

“Him.” He pointed.

Mister Hood shook his head. “There’s no room in my car. You can get him there on your own.”

Chilly bent to grab D-Mama’s arm, but D waved her off. “I can walk. I’ll accept that ride, though. You brought that damn coupe, didn’t you?”

Hood nodded.

Chilly walked over to Lime and touched his back. “You okay?”

“Much better.”

“Do those two have some kind of history?” she asked in a whisper.

Lime choked back a laugh and gritted his teeth, hit by a lingering pain where he’d broken a couple of ribs once.

Hood helped D-Mama into a chair, and then hurried out to get his car. She sat clutching her arm just below the knife. “Is he all right?” she asked, looking at Echo.

“I think so,” said Lime. “He’s breathing fine.”

“You?”

“I’m okay.”

D-Mama arched her eyebrows. “Are you sure?”

“Asks the woman with a giant knife in her. For a minute there, I thought I might black out, but I’m good now.”

He and Chilly moved Echo onto a booth seat and put a few rolled up napkins under his head. An engine revved outside, and Mister Hood walked in. He helped D-Mama wince her way out to the car, and they drove off.

“She’s safe with him?” asked Chilly.

“He won’t hurt D-Mama.”

“Does he… have feelings for her?”

“Maybe, maybe not. But… trust me, he won’t hurt her.”

Echo stirred, muttered, and sat up with a grimace on his face. “What happened?”

“They all left.”

He pulled himself up on the back of the booth and looked around. “D?”

“She was hurt, but she’ll be all right. She went to the hospital.”

“That bastard cook,” said Echo. “I thought he was a buddy of yours.”

“I thought so, too.”

“You checked in back for him yet?”

Lime and Chilly glanced at each other.

“You go,” said Echo, lying back down. “I think I hit my head.”

Lime nudged the door open. The kitchen stood empty, except for a loaf of bread on the work surface. The door to the alley hung partway ajar. He went back out to the dining room, shaking his head. “Gone. We’ll probably never see him again.”

“Do you want to go to a doctor, Nar- Echo?” asked Chilly.

He folded his hands on his stomach. “No. But could you see if there’s any ice?”

They put some in a plastic bag and gave it to him. Then they made sandwiches with food from the kitchen and sat in Lime’s usual booth.

After a while, Lime broke the silence. “I miss Phil’s pie already.”

 

-7-

Benji yawned. His mom sat with her left arm around him, her right one in a sling. Lime had woken them both with a phone call, all in a tizzy about turning on the morning news.

It kept showing the same film of a burnt-out building, still smoking. They were talking about someone named Chilly, who’d saved three people from the fire. Benji wondered if she used some kind of cold-based tech.

“Well, now that we’re up,” said his mother when the story ended, “we might as well have some breakfast.”

Benji followed her into the kitchenette. He hadn’t expected the sling when he’d arrived the previous morning, but it hadn’t surprised him either. She had called Monday night to say she was putting away her costume, so she could ‘focus on a real job.’

He’d asked his father if he would do the same, but Dad had said no and refused to talk about it further. Benji knew something had happened on Monday, but neither of them would say a word about it, and he’d given up asking.

Maybe when Lime came over for dinner tonight, he would be more talkative. Only, Mom said he was bringing someone, a woman named Kate. They might not want to discuss it in front of her.

Benji hoped she would be nice, and maybe she would even talk about video games with him. Or maybe she liked animals. That would be a good thing to talk about, too.

Benji always got along with people who liked animals, and he had a good feeling about this one.

______________

Megan Branning‘s work has been published previously by Abyss & Apex, PodCastle, and others, and is forthcoming in Asimov’s. She is a youth services librarian living in Pittsburgh with her husband.

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