“And now, we stretch,” the physical therapist said, leaning forward. Mary took a trembling step forward, then swallowed, her fists clenching, and agonizingly bent her spine into shape, and forced her leg into the position. Her balance was awful, but the line of muscle rimming her arms were taut as corded knots.
“Hold,” The physical therapist said, calmly looking down at the clock. His fingers tapped out seconds to the beat of the local radio station, beat by beat, and then he drew in his own breath. “Release.”
Mary shook, and slowly pushed herself back into her standing position.
It was an odd feeling watching her go through the motions. My left hand was snared by wires and stretchy things, and I thrashed against the jaws of metal, trying to force strength back into a hand that had been smashed to smithereens.
Mary took a long breath, and her eyes met mine, and then both of our eyes jerked to the TV as it showed off images of the graveyard slowly being pieced back together.
“Alright. Now stretch like this,” The physical therapist said.
I nodded at Mary. She nodded back.
We’d get better. She had a life left to her. I had lives left to save.
My fingers strained against the stretches I forced my left hand through. Beat by beat, they ached, demanded attention, demanded I stopped, but I kept doing it.
“Report,” I said, looking down the conference room.
“Mobile resettlement efforts are moving along nicely,” Hands said. “We’ve been coordinating with the police to keep everything steady, though we had a few break ins while the sirens were wailing.”
“Satsuma needs help; we still have several roads down in the area that are interfering with every day life. Saraland is helping as best they can, though they’re requesting hero squads sent to enforce things; they think someone is stealing supplies.” A girl in glasses said, looking down at her laptop. Her eyes were closed, but I could see the flicker of her eyes as she peered through the glass in and around the room, phantom images.
Breath in, breath out.
Hands sat next to me, looking down at her tablet. A wireless earbud sat in one ear as she listened to the emergency radio. To the side of her, a pencil hovered in the air, held aloft by her invisible hand, writing down whatever of interest was blaring from local radio stations, whatever she saw from local groups that needed handling.
“Fairhope is requesting more permanent solutions to their gas situation, and we’re running out of gas as well. When’s the next shipment from Mississippi supposed to go through?”
A lance of revulsion slid down my spine as I thought about where the gas was coming from. Cuban Patrol. Excelsior had told me the first of the shipments would be slipping in this week.
We were important. We straddled the bay. As long as kept Mobile intact, we could support the entire coast line. We represented safe harbors for all ships in the area, and we’d be vital in supply lines.
It was all nonsense because I kept drifting off to the graveyard again, and everytime I did the shivers came back.
Colton flicked a shiny piece of metal between his fingers, his mind razor focused. “Tell Fairhope we’ll get the shipments to them when we get them. Tell them Gale said that,” He corrected himself.
I gave a slow nod.
“And now…” I turned to the last person in the room. Excelsior tilted his head to the side, tapping his left hand against the table.
“Should I leave?” Specs asked, looking up from my email.
“Should she leave?” I asked Excelsior.
“She should leave,” he agreed.
My left hand did slow range of motion stretches. Specs stood up, bowed slightly, then shut the laptop.
Then she left.
“She can throw her eyes about?” Excelsior asked.
“She can look through glass,” I said, breathing out. “Business?”
Excelsior took on a rueful smile. “The business is Dauphin island.”
Hands shifted next to me. Colton’s hands didn’t shake, but the flicker of metal across his fingers sped slightly.
Through my growing sense of the air, forcefully trained from keeping myself alive the last few weeks, I could hear their heartbeats peaking from the word itself.
“Why are we going there?” The words stumbled out of my mouth more than anything.
“We need to get to the supply cache there,” Excelsior said, leaning across the table. “We’re out of hero supplies. If you want to remedy your shortages…” his eyes slid onto our tattered outfits and uniforms, then at the meagre food on the table. “You’ll want to see what we can salvage. Bases are rated to withstand a month without outside aid. Fuel for the fires back here.”
His eyes flicked to mine, probably noticing how stiff I was.
“And maybe we’ll find something we can use against the Cuban Patrol. But that mission is secondary to making sure as many people as possible get the supplies they need.”
“But we’ll get revenge?” I asked.
“Justice. We’re looking for justice. Meet up with me tomorrow, at the bridge, pack your armor. There might be trouble.”
I had to get out of the office to clear my head; the mold and the moldering muling feeling of the last conversation had stopped up my lungs too much to continue. My feet tapped against the broken pavement of our far off location and I swept across the street to the waffle house.
Tv was playing the national news, and I stopped to listen for a moment, but it was undercut by a flurry of younger heroes discussing things. They stopped dead and stared at me as I entered, somehow making me feel even older.
“Well? Why’d you stop?”
“We probably shouldn’t gossip around you,” Specs admitted, shyly grinning. “Since you might actually know what’s going on.”
I paused, took a seat on the barstool overlooking the griddle and leaned back.
“Coke please,” I said, then looked over at them. “What’s the news?”
“Washington senator was found dead in his home. Apparently he’s been there for weeks and nobody noticed.”
“Anybody important?” I asked.
“Besides being a senator? Not really attached to any important committees, just oversaw some of the energy affairs,” Specs reported.
I liked her. She was quick, direct to the point, and didn’t mind spending hours staring at emails she couldn’t help with.
Probably because in some twisted turn of events, she assumed that I would be able to do something about some of them. Easy breath in and out. Without looking behind me, I felt the waiter drift back towards me, and turned to catch the glass before it touched the table.
The caffeine made me jittery, but woke me up out of some of the fugue of everyday living.
“Could be unrelated,” I lied. Energy could mean anything really, and if he was dead, it could mean someone had gotten even more information that was for his eyes only.
“If you say so,” Specs said, unconvinced. “Anyways, did you hear the Fourth Wave has got some new shrines?”
I paused and turned to look at her. Everyone else at the table was easily high school aged; marked only for neighborhood watch patrols, and thus served more under Colton than under me.
It had been rough, recovering, but splitting up the labor further had finally happened. My left hand twinged, and I started doing the stretches again. Take it easy and it might heal.
“Really?” I asked.
“New leadership, too, after…”
“Yeah.” Father Henry’s passing hadn’t been felt too much by the makeshift procession they’d set up. It was too easy to forget his passing, hidden among the numbers and the long nights staring at the ceiling, doing physical stretches, eeking out minor gains, trying to figure out how to solve the problems before they compounded.
I thought that might make me monstrous, but I was hoping it was simply shock, and I’d recover.
I didn’t know if I wanted to recover, because then I might start crying again in that graveyard, where blood and limestone dust filled the air, warring against the pouring rain.
“Think you’re going to check it out?” Specs asked.
“I might. I need to make contact, anyway. Is that all?” I asked.
There’d been an email about the exchange of power, and some small words confirming that the Fourth wave would continue supplying food. In the moment, that had been enough, but now the cola in my glass was flat, and I was back in that strange funk. I smiled at the heroes in front of me, though it felt less like a smile and more some horrid permutation of the muscles in my face, stretched over taut muscles, paid my due and left.
“Why are you still wearing your body armor?” Specs asked, flicking her gaze down across my chest. I threw an arm up over it, and flushed.
I’d forgotten I’d even kept it on. My fingers stretched, piece by piece, and my left hand let out an agonizing pain from swollen tendons.
“To keep up awareness, I guess,” I lied.
Specs stared at me uncomfortably. “Right…”
Because it was Mobile I was drenched by the time I’d gotten someone to give me a ride into town. It wasn’t unexpected, but it made my outfit soaking wet.
I needed another one, anyway. Rips and tears littered the purple fabric from where I’d taken hits and the clothing had sacrificed itself to stop my skin from tearing off, so I spent a moment at the mouth of the church drying myself off and adjusting the body armor snug to my body, then slowly shrugged, messing with the straps, then left it at the front door next to my umbrella.
A few other things littered the open area; bits of plastic, ponchos. The occasional coat. I had the feeling that anyone who wasn’t a hero was obliged to visit out of uniform.
The main hall was covered in super hero artifacts. Mostly local. A few more places were being carved out, workers doing their best to attach plaques as I moved through. Kept my gaze up, though from the corner of my eyes, I saw a piece of metal that had been salvaged out of the graveyard, belonging to a hero being carefully moved into a box for display.
They were scavengers, and yet, I couldn’t help but think that the elderly heroes who had stood up at the graveyard that day had done their best, and deserved the tiny memorials being set up.
Despite myself, my feet drifted slowly to one of the most recently finished shrines.
Electro: Born Thomas King, 1958-2018. Local hero beloved for assisting in the blackouts that rocked the area after Hurricane Katrina.
News papered were plastered around the single monocle on display, pictures snapped of him moving about and restoring power lines with his bare hands.
He was already past middle aged when he struck local fame. Inspiring to see someone step up when the town needed him.
The strange music settled in the background drew my attention from the shrine, and my eyes were misty as I remembered the hero that had begged me to call lightning down.
The music drifted through the shrine to the Brawler, elegant, crafted, and through the room that was dedicated to my father; to a deeper meeting room attached to the free use kitchen, odored with seafood.
The music was soft, sweet, chorale, and it drove away the constant buzzing in my ears. I stood at the lip of the room and listened, wordless, as the soft murmuring merged one by one into something that chased away my thoughts, if only for a moment.
Hooded procession, faceless masses, gently singing some heavenly song, with a man standing at the front of the room, looking like a prophet himself, gesturing to call upon the church crowd to keep singing.
I stayed there maybe five minutes before his eyes settled across me, and he stopped.
Then slowly, the crowd stopped, and the man flashed me a grin, teeth rimmed with silver. “And we have a hero among us today, everyone. Look upon Gale, for we have been graced today.”
My face flushed as eyes flicked back over to me, and then my heart thumped as they flashed me a clearly religious cross across their chests.
“Will you come on stage with me today, Gale? Show these poor folks just who has been fighting to keep them alive!”
I swallowed and hesitated, the air in my lungs tight. Indecision flickered, and my left hand twinged, tendons and bones awkward against one another.
Then I nodded slowly, and stepped into the room proper. Made my way down a glorious red carpet to the center of the stage, and let my eyes slide over the strange gathering instead of focusing on the awe in their eyes. Mobile had a population just under two hundred thousand, and a decent clip of them had decided to frequent the fourth wave. Maybe a hundred had fit into that small room.
Recognized only a few of them, though the ones I did had been from the initial destruction, when I’d started ordering people to clean up.
“No need to look so nervous,” The man on stage said. “They won’t hurt you, after all.”
I shot him a grin, teeth grit together.
How I had dreamed of being like this at some point, on a stage with people telling me how great I was…
But now that I was here it was utterly nauseating, my head swam. Could they see how unsteady I was, how unpleasant my affect?
“Do you have any words you want to say to them?”
I swallowed, and my eyes slid to the mural on the wall behind them. To my shock and rising horror, it was a picture of my father, done up in elegant colors. Legs shook as the pastor handed his microphone over to me.
“Any inspiring words?”
I swallowed. “I just want to say how important it is that you all keep fighting too,” I said, mumbling. The pastor put a hand on my shoulder. I was flubbing this up. “That you all keep calm, and keep working, and help us put the city together. I just want you guys to know how important it is that you’re all safe, and you’re still here, and you’re still fighting, because that’s what we’re here for. It’s what the Association are here for, to keep you all safe, on your feet, and going through your lives. And every moment I see you all working to help keep the city strong, working to keep it fed, I think to myself how wonderful you all are.” I took a breath.
“Because the world is scary out there, and you guys are going out with just your own two hands and doing your best to move through. You might have your failings, your flaws, your moments in the darkness, but you keep moving. There are days where I’ve wanted to do nothing but lay in bed, thinking of what I’ve had to do, the things I’ve seen, and I think about you all, moving, despite everything. How you keep moving and acting,” I swallowed again.
I wanted to believe my own words more than anything else in the world. Wanted to feel their golden taste across my tongue, and maybe grasp at that thing that was just beyond the grip of my right hand. Immaterial.
“You’re all the real heroes. Each and everyone up you that keeps the world around for us to fight for it. Never forget that.”
There was a curious silence as the Fourth Wave processed the ideas that they too were also heroes. Clicks as gears moved in people’s heads.
The pastor squeezed my shoulder. “Good words,” He said, and pried the microphone back out of my hand.
“And that’s Gale, always humble, always nervous. A fantastic leader for the heroes of Mobile to the end. What do you say of reports that the end approaches?”
“The end will not approach so long as we all keep fighting,” I said, though I thought the words were hollow. We were out of back up heroes, and in much the same straights as before, but I couldn’t let them panic or worry about it. Couldn’t be cruel and tell them how wrong the world was. How their children could be monsters, and how easy it was to break bone. All the little realizations that had spiraled up and up and up, again and again.
“We will live through this.”
The pastor smiled quietly, and it showed off more of his silver rimmed teeth. Counted them one by one, as time stretched on glacially and strangely in that performance on stage, and realized only the front two canines were without caps.
We locked eyes, and I felt hot again, and wondered why I’d felt at ease taking off the armor when at any moment the man might lash out with a dagger and pierce my skin. The lights were hot across the skin of my outfit, tattered slightly, like the fabric of my mind, but I swallowed and stood strong in front of all of them.
“And that’s our time, I believe,” The pastor said, sweeping his arms out. “Everyone thank Gale for speaking with us today, we have words to exchange to better help our community.”
There was a muffled mixture of applause and verbal thanks that clashed against one another into a dull dehumanizing roar, and I stood on stage and quietly thanked whatever higher power was there when the stage lights dimmed further.
The pastor smiled and waved, and watched his flock move out, one by one. A few stepped to stare at the museum pieces, to stare at the things left behind by great people before them, but I ignored them.
“Glad you could make it, Gale,” The man said. “I’m Seth. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” He offered his hand and I took it, we shook on that church stage, and we made our way off stage. “Wish you’d given me a bit more heads up, but I think I got you back by putting you on the spot.”
I let a frustrated whisper through my teeth. “Agh, I thought I was going to explode up there. Can you not put me on stage like that?”
“Your father was always good at public speaking, and you did fine!” Seth said, stepping to the side.
“I spoke utter nonsense the entire time. I don’t even know what I said.”
“It doesn’t matter, they liked it,” Seth pointed out. “Now are you here on business or pleasure?”
“Both. I need to make sure you’re aware of the particulars of our arrangement, and I wanted to see all of the shrines you’ve been working on.”
Seth grinned again. “Great, great, I’ve been looking forward to it.”
He led me to my father’s room, and we stopped for a moment to look at the expansion set into one corner, detailing the exploits of my brothers. Mentions of administrative position, things undertaken over in the Japanese colonies, the occasional mention of the crater of Germany, the normal bits I’d come to expect from my brothers.
To see it in a religious institution was unnerving. What lessons would they try to derive from this? Seth paused in front of me. “Father Henry said that our charity was going to you. May I ask what you’re doing with all of the meals?”
“Feeding refugees mostly,” I said. “We’ve got people streaming in from the more northern towns, some of the more rural counties. Someone new shows up every time we turn around, and with food supplies so low, anything we can scrounge up is worth it.”
“I’ll admit, some of my procession didn’t think too highly to carving up fish most of yesterday,” Seth said. “But I said it was for a good cause, and they understood it was good to do anyway. Do you have any changes you want to make for the arrangement?”
“Not really,” I said, then thought better of it instantly. “Actually… how close are you to the other churches?”
“Down to emails and social media. There are blockades and road outages pretty much everywhere. Bandits, criminals, evacuated zones…” Seth made a vague hand gesture. “It’s making it hard to route supplies. We’ve got a few countries willing to push supplies into the area, but they’re moving directly to national guard convoys.”
My mind drifted back to the cargo ships bobbing in the harbor. We could crack into those for food, certainly, but we’d need to be careful.
“Is it that bad that we’re moving towards that?” Seth asked, eyes glinting with an emotion I couldn’t quite name. Confidence, arrogance, fear?
“We have time,” I said, while knowing it was only barely true. Excelsior was right. We needed to move on supply caches, add them to the local supplies. Ramp up fishing efforts, plug the holes in our system.
And somehow try not to die.
I put my right hand on Seth’s shoulder and squeezed, then looked over his shoulder at the door he was turning to face.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
“We heard you were pretty important at whatever went down at the graveyard,” he said.
My lips fell open and my heart caught in my throat. I moved slowly behind him, dreading what I’d see.
He opened the door, and it wasn’t a large room, which was the only saving grace. But it held my name across the wall, and paintings and art, and the start of a stained glass mural of myself. Sweeping purples, black, white. Someone had done their best to capture myself, reflected across the waters of the bay.
“And while you’re not really a local, Mobile’s always been a pretty important place for the Fourth Wave, what with Hurricane. So we thought we’d do up a shrine for you. People were asking when you’d be up for it.”
I slowly moved towards the far wall, where a small shrine had been set up. Someone had snapped a picture of my hands on Excelsior’s sword, Negalli’s blood dripping across my outfit. The look on my face wasn’t one I recognized, but looking at the burns and the cuts, and the sureness of my brow, I thought I understood what I’d been feeling.
A bizarre peace in that I’d finally done something heroic.
I’d been willing to trade my life for thirty minutes.
A few small offerings had been left on top of the shrine. Letters. Small amounts of money. Pictures. Locks of hair from those that had been saved. Things you’d leave to a saint.
“They were quite insistent that you have one of these,” Seth said, sounding vaguely amused behind me. I started, and whirled around to see him. Color was in my cheeks. Flustered by the entire bizarre room.
“They think you’re some sort of patron spirit, some of them. The ones that cling to more pagan traditions,” Seth continued. “Or that you’re an angel, out to save this place.”
I didn’t need to be an angel or a spirit to step up to the plate. There was a hot flash of anger across my eyes, and I tensed up. “That’s stupid.”
“The people venerate what they want to venerate.”
“I didn’t do this because it was my job, or I’m some sort of angel,” I said, clicking my teeth together. “I’m a damn human being, just like the rest of them. I’m here to save them because we’re all here to save us. We act and we move and we do, and we try to do our best.”
“You’re not on stage anymore,” Seth said, laughing. “Who’re you trying to convince?”
I counted backwards and my breaths, one by one, relaxing my right hand. Idly, I did more stretches with my left hand, trying to eek out a bit more movement until it ached too much to continue.
“Nobody,” I said, and swept my way out of the strange shrine.
“Do you want your donations?” Seth asked. “They’re yours first, and the church’s second.”
“Take the money for your work, move it towards charity,” I stopped at the threshold of my shrine and turned to look at him. “And I don’t want a statue in here, either. Keep it simple.”
Seth smiled slightly. “We’ll keep the walls blank for the rest of your works on the earth.”
I scowled at him and whirled away back into the depths of the museum.
This was ridiculous.
“They say that heroes go through journeys,” Seth said, following after me. “Step by step, they go from our reality into a place of their own. Each step growing in power, and in technique. They grasp some great truth on the other side, and drag it back to us, to make the world a better place. Why not celebrate and venerate those journeys? Why not try to view your life through them?”
Some small part of me wanted to believe I could be like those heroes, but the other, far more active and angry part of me demanded I ignore it.
After all, I knew the hero’s journey.
“That’s just a literary model,” I said. “You can’t use that as basis for worship.”
“I’m clearly not going to convince you that you’re holy or divine,” he said, starting off. “But what I want you to ask yourself is why not? You’re heroes, you help people out. You give them hope.” Seth asked. “Whatever makes people happy, and keeps us around, yeah? God works his ways in whatever means he has; who isn’t to say you’re not a nephilim, whose divine journey shall enrich us all when you become an angel?.”
“If only in metaphor, then,” I said, pausing at the entrance to the main hall. “I don’t need a shrine.”
“It’s nice to be acknowledged, though, isn’t it?” Seth asked.
“This… This isn’t right,” I said, weakly.
Seth paused, then cocked his head to the side, catching my gaze. “Then why did you never protest your father’s?”
Colton’s place was an apartment building to the east of town, where the sprawl lazily bat at the edge of the bayou. Tiny place, few people involved, but I recognized most of them; it was hero housing, a place the Association had negotiated contracts with in order to subsidize housing for heroes trying to get their feet back.
The apartment was small, tiny, and I hated it on sight, but it didn’t stop me from swiping the spare key and letting myself inside.
The tv had been left on when Colton and I had left. The air still smelled like stale alcohol and burnt popcorn, but I figured that was sort of the smell that never went away.
My hand throbbed and my body ached, step by step. Head swam as I stared out the single window, and made my way to the bed that had been thrown up in the kitchen, next to the makeshift table.
Then I took a deep breath, and stretched, reaching around myself, piece by piece, to press my left hand, trembling, shaking, weak, against the clasp for my armor. Fingers numb and danced across it. Not catching purchase. Not doing much of anything.
I had to relax for a moment, my heart pounding. The armor sat across my body like a second skin, and wrapped around my lungs. Made my skin crawl from the weight, back up against the wall. Arms ached from where the skin was stretching. I took another deep breath, and reached.
Hero armor was designed to be easily removed at rest, but hard to remove in a fight. Clasps on the back needed to pulled simultaneously to shrug it off.
My numb left hand settled against the clasp on my right side, and clicked across it. I hissed a breath in victory and tugged at it, only for it to slip through my fingers again. Then I grabbed it again, and it slipped away. Again, and away. Lungs burned.
Then I took a slow deep breath and relaxed. Sat there, listened to the news station.
“New Orleans has declared itself a safe haven for all those seeking refuge, sources say, after a generous donation by the Cuban Patrol has topped up food banks in the area. Good news to any of us trying to find a safer place to wait this out.”
Hissed a breath and sat there, feeling the weight across my body, and sank down into the bed.
“Florida remains under hurricane advisory. Association assets in the area stress that everyone should be sure to evacuate to their designated shelters ahead of time, as there will not be enough heroes nearby to handle any stragglers.”
The man on the news stopped for a moment. “We do not have much more good news tonight, I’m afraid, for today’s Crisis round up. Alabama is still a no travel zone, as most highways remained quarantined. My heart goes out to you viewers. Again, I repeat, New Orleans is open to more refugees, and the Cuban Patrol is out in full force to stabilize the area while the national guard deals with the remnants of the border crisis.”
My hand twitched and burned and I grabbed the stress ball from the corner of the mattress and jammed it into my left hand and squeezed. Cut off a whimper from my mouth.
“The executive office has still been quiet, but official reports from the CIA and higher Association authorities indicate that the glowing zone in upper North Carolina will be solved and quarantine will be established within the upcoming months. No word on whether or not the government will oblige demands to compensate those forced to leave their homes.”
Breath hot in my chest. Heart pounding. Pushed myself back up, dragged this poor tired corpse up again and step by step, inch by inch, made my way over to the television.
“This has been your gulf coast report. Thank you, and good night.”
I turned it off and made my way back to the mattress. Tried a few more times to get the armor off, then just gave up, rested on my side.
Colton found me a few hours later, half asleep, still in my armor. Our eyes locked for a long moment, and he calmly, and without saying anything at all, unclasped my armor and sat it to the side next to me.