Fairhope’s scraggly beach rolled out over the ocean, hemmed in by vegetation and urban sights. I stared at it from the top of the hill, giving Colton a long glance. “Is this really necessary?”
“We need something, alright?” Colton said, softly. “Hands hasn’t stopped shaking since we got out of the car.”
My gave flicked past him and settled on the highschooler. My heart ached for dragging her along with us, but she was only two years younger than I was, so who was I to say she was too young?
Who was I to make judgements at all, when I couldn’t get the smell of burning flesh out of my nose, or off of my skin.
“Let’s just get this over with,” Hands said, stepping onto the sand.
“Come on, enjoy yourself,” Colton advised, his voice wavering slightly.
“I just… I don’t think I can do that right now,” Hands stepped past the two of us and down the hill. “I just don’t think anyone should be able to after that, and the smell…”
Colton and I stared down at the beach for a few heartbeats, and then joined her, stepping down. Swimsuits were on, but I felt awkward in mine. Too much exposed skin, and the lightness of my body without the ever present touch of body armor made me feel weak, useless.
But I was getting used to that feeling, so perhaps that was why I slipped down into the water, toes in flipflops, and walked slowly along the surf.
Colton waved at me from the top of the beach, and I waved back, and then he left, walking up over the hill.
“Where’s he going?” Hands asked, joining me. When the water splashed over her exposed toes, she shivered.
It wasn’t that cold, but we hadn’t had a chance to bathe, not really, and it rubbed against the thin layer of ash that had settled on us, hugging us as tight as another suit of skin, and swept away some of it into the gulf.
“To get food, and drinks, probably.”
There was only a single other family out on the beach. They looked frightened, but determined to enjoy themselves. Wondered what they’d seen to be so scared; had they looked upon the abandoned cars and thought it might be the end? Had they seen something lapping in the distance, in their mind’s eyes, in their dreams, floating through the air?
I hadn’t slept yet and I dreaded what might greet me at night, but knew that it wouldn’t be anything worse than what already awaited us.
“Makes sense,” Hands said. “Gale…”
“Yeah?” I replied.
Her invisible hand tugged at the strap digging into her shoulder. “What are we doing?”
“We’re at the beach,” I said. “Walking in a straight line. In the surf.”
“I mean… it seems really petty to be here now.”
“In a way, yeah,” I admitted. “But I don’t really want to…”
“They shot at us, Gale,” Hands said. “I thought they were the good guys.”
“They burned those people, Gale,” Hands said, giving me a look. “Good people don’t burn people like that.”
“When the plague was striking europe, victims were often burned in the houses to prevent the spread. Islands were dedicated for people who were ill, so that the plague might die with them,” I said, unable to take the academic tone out of my mouth.
“We’re in the twenty first century, Gale. We don’t… We don’t do that anymore.” Hands’s voice shook in her throat.
I couldn’t meet her eyes because I didn’t know if I wouldn’t’ve made the same decision. People infected with the layer of skin. Gun shots to keep them down. Burnt alive.
Didn’t know what the sea of skin would do if it touched me, but the thought revolted me, made me cringe away.
How was this different from justifying the murder of the Cuban Patrol? They were trying to hurt us. Would hurt us.
They weren’t. They were just infection vectors. Put down before they hit Mobile.
“I think, that in times of crisis, there are things that are justified that would not normally be justified.”
Hands shook her head quickly. “No, no, that’s not…”
“We killed people, Hands,” I said, looking at her. “In Dauphin island. People who were doing their jobs.”
“Those people were trying to kill us!” Hands hissed. “And the people in that town were what?”
“Vectors for death,” I said. “It wasn’t them that were the threat, but they were…”
Hands shook a few times, then threw out a massive wave of water as she punched the ocean. Then she punched it again and again until her flesh and blood hands were chapped and bright red, but the invisible hand kept striking the surface over and over again.
I threw a hand up over my eyes to protect them from the water being flown around.
“This is stupid,” Hands hissed after she was done, her hair splattered with all of it. “Why the hell are we heroes if we couldn’t stop that from happening?”
“We can’t be everywhere,” I said. “And we can’t save the day sometimes.”
“But there’s supposed to be heroes everywhere. Why the hell did they let something like that happen? Is that what they mean by a villain occupying Birmingham, or is that some other horrific thing?!” Hands scowled, tugging wet hair out of her face.
“I just… how many people died because nobody intervened, or because we were just protecting ourselves, or… Dammit, we’re not supposed to be killing people, you’re supposed to save people! What are we, heroes or butchers? We fight criminals… we help people in disasters”
“Awful lot of disasters lately,” I said. She shrank from me and stepped deeper into the sand.
I touched her shoulder, then narrowly avoided the back swing when she lashed out. It was automatic, but her eyes went wide as her hand passed through my hair.
“Shit, I’m sorry!” She squeaked.
“Hey, hey,” I said, tugging her closer. “Come on, calm down, let’s…”
“I don’t want to calm down, Gale. I want things to go back to normal.”
“We’re not going to get to normal for a while yet,” I said, softly, whispering to her. “We need to keep moving, alright? We can work on getting everything together when the time comes.”
I wanted to believe it as much as she did.
Hands slumped against me. “I want to believe you, Gale.”
The ocean lapped against the sand, and carefully, I tugged her away from it before it struck her again. She startled for a bit, and gave me an unsure look.
“I really want to believe in you, too,” Hands said, quietly. “But why are you here? Why are you trying to carry this?”
The words stuck in my throat, but it wasn’t hot lead or hot knives or glue this time, just a momentary pause.
“Because you needed a leader, and I was in the right place at the right time,” I said. “If you’d been where I was, you would’ve done the same thing. So would’ve Colton. Maybe even Gunze. We’d’ve seen a situation like this brewing, and because I was at the right place at the right time, when the right man pointed at me and said, this one’s in charge… you don’t have a choice but to try and lead, when you know what’s at stake. You don’t have a choice but to gather people together and try to help. You just don’t.”
“And the people who didn’t want to help us?” I thought back on the people we’d met. The people who hadn’t arrived. The people who had left. Thought about Excelsior.
I laughed. “Can you blame them? They’re different people. They have different motivations, too. Maybe they look at me and think I’m insane, but I’ll try and keep things stable for them so they can prove I’m insane later.”
Thought about Patrickson and my skin crawled and heat flooded my veins. “And…”
“And?” Hands asked.
“The ones who stand in our way, those are the ones we fight,” I said.
“You’ve got a lot of things to say about being a hero,” Hands noted. “Though I think you’re more of a brain.”
I paused, then gave her a sidelong look.
“How do you keep moving?” She asked, finally. “I just want to curl up and die right about now.”
How could I say the mix of emotions that cluttered up my mind right there. Thinking of that terrifying moment with Negalli, trading my life for thirty minutes. Thinking of Patrickson, trading my life again and again.
“If I didn’t stand up, the consequences were too severe,” I muttered, squinting at the surf. Couldn’t see Dauphin island. Didn’t want to remember it. Didn’t want to remember how stupid I’d been to go there. “So I couldn’t just fold. I had to keep standing back up.”
“My dad sounded like you,” Hands stepped another foot away. “I wondered where he died for a long time, when they weren’t talking to us. Mom… didn’t want me to respond to the emergency radio. Didn’t want me to help because…”
“Because you might end up like him?”
She laughed quietly, tossing seafoam out of her hair. “Something like that. Just another idiot tilting at windmills now, I guess.”
“I can help you find out,” I said, stunning myself.
“About your dad.”
Hands looked over at me. “You’re a B rank, right?”
“They said it was up for A ranks and above,” Hands said. “But… thank you for the offer. What’s your dad like?”
A subject change if I’d ever heard one, but I didn’t want to press my luck right there on the beach.
“Big,” I said, honestly. “Always made me feel so small. And he can fly around, so he was never that far away from me. Away from us, really.”
“Us?” she asked.
“I have a lot of brothers,” I admitted. “Don’t think dad knows where all of them are, either. He’s… not really great at being Dad,” I finished.
“But…” Hands pried.
“I just… I want to know if he’s proud of me. I think it broke his heart when I didn’t show much more than a flicker. Everyone else is a C rank, at least, and I was solidly a D,” I admitted. “He wanted to take me flying so bad when I was younger, but it never happened.”
Hands stared at me for a long moment, then took my hand. “Then it’s a deal.”
“What?” I blinked.
“After this is over, I’ll tell your dad he should be proud of you, and you find out what happened to my dad,” Hands said. “Deal?”
Colton arrived shortly after with a pizza and drinks, and we gathered together for a slice and some sunshine.
For a moment, we stared at the tiny niche, lit up by the sun, sand flicking through the air like tiny worlds, we’d incidentally kept in one piece, and wondered when we’d all start starving to death, or when the sea of skin might take us, or when whatever other horrors lurked about would destroy us wholly.
Then, because it’s the gulf, naturally, it started raining.