The cement wall is rough and cold against my back. My knees whistle in pain, but I have to ignore them. The footsteps are fast approaching and if I so much as breathe, they will find me between the trash cans in the alley.
I duck my head, ignoring the pounding behind my eyes, and place my forehead against my kneecaps. I never used to wear denim jeans. I never left my flat wearing anything but custom, hand-made slacks. The idea of that seems ludicrous to me now.
I feel hot tears stinging behind my eyelids. In a matter of a month, everything has been turned upside down. Maybe I was given the chance to right it all – no, without a doubt I was given the opportunity, many times – and I ignored the signals. I ignored my employees. I ignored my manager, Cline. I had grown up with my gift. Who could have known more about it than me?
I hear shouting. Angry, terrified shouting. Those people are afraid of me.
I try to fight the return of the image, but my memory has overpowered me recently. I seem to have lost more control over my own body in the past month than the crowds of horrified people – my former adoring fans – who haunt my every waking moment.
I recall for a brief moment the day before all this began. I was standing on my porch step, handbag hooked on my elbow, tossing a disinterested wave over my shoulder and the crowd of screaming children and grown admirers. They were celebrating the fifth time my face adorned the front cover of a magazine. Cline stood beside me, a hand between my shoulders, trying to guide me into my apartment safely. Two of my security guards kept the crowd at bay, but I could feel the pulse of their excitement. I paused for just a heartbeat to drink in the feel of their eyes, the sound of their exquisite adoration.
And then a strange hush fell over the crowd.
I turned just in time for the assailant’s aim to be true. The glass shattered against my temple, sending me staggering into my door. The guards were already after him, shoving through the crowd toward the man wailing at me from the back. Telling me I was dangerous. Telling my fans that I couldn’t be trusted.
Anger lit in my belly like a torch exposed to oxygen. I suppose that the flame had been there all along, waiting for the fuel.
I slid out of Cline’s hold, ignoring the blood running down my cheekbone. I still stood above the crowd by several feet, and my attacker was clear to me. A perfect shot for him, a perfect shot for me.
I raised a single hand, fingers curled together as though holding a tiny, plastic doll. The man’s screaming halted in his throat. His body lurched, and before he could begin to fight the invisible hold I nearly crushed him with, he was several feet in the air, at the will of my power. My telepathic reach. The ring that granted me my gift glinted on my right ring finger, displayed before the crowd.
There was a scream, and then another, and then the entire crowd was bustling to get away from me. Before, all they wanted was to touch me. And now, they couldn’t get far enough, fast enough.
Cline stepped in front of me, stealing my attention, and took hold of my shoulders. I didn’t release the attacker until Cline’s voice finally cut through the pounding in my head.
Let him go. This is what he wants.
And then I saw the man’s smile.
I surface from the memory as though it were drowning me. My jeans are stained with tears, and the feeling is close to normal now. I straighten my neck and listen to the shouting at the end of the alley. I glance down at my hand, where the ring glimmers just barely through the grime, and I tear it off my finger. I pocket it quickly, and feel the power ooze out of my body. I am not a weapon.
The footsteps slowly fade. I hear dogs barking, but only faintly. I can’t tell if they’re heading for me or away, but I don’t want to take the chance of finding out.
Slowly, I get to my feet and stretch my legs. I face the opening of the alley and the twilight-stained street beyond. There are police calling for my arrest. The government is looking for me now. Their promise to let me be expired when I nearly killed someone with the very power that had granted me so much fame.
I furrow my brows and stare down at the floor for a moment. The damned ring. I can’t let it go – my power is the only thing protecting me. And it won’t do someone else any good, either. It will only give me power. What was once entirely my own gift is now entirely my own burden.
I glare out at the street once more, and then turn on my heel, resorting to climbing any fences I must to remain out of the public’s eye.
I freeze in my place, the barrel of a gun nearly touching my brow.
I raise my hands instinctively, as if to use my power, despite the weight of the ring against my belly in my jacket pocket. And then a car rolls past the alley, and for a heartbeat a pair of green eyes light up.
I swallow the bile that rolls up into my throat, and move my hands to motion for surrender.
“Colin,” I say, and it comes out on a breath. I can’t add voice to my words. “Colin, please. I’m not wearing it. It’s not on. I don’t have my powers.”
The gunpoint doesn’t waver. I can see his jaw working, and I imagine his mind is doing the same. He was tasked to bring me in, undoubtedly for testing, with the rest of his agency. His putrid agency.
His eyes light up again for the span of a breath, and I am taken back for a moment to the nights when we met. First, when I was still an angel, a goddess. He was to be hired as a security guard. He even came to interview with Cline. And then he met me, the real me, dragging another man into my apartment late at night and nearly collapsing with the weight of alcohol in my brain. He spat in my face, and refused the job. He refused to be a babysitter to the most pampered, temperamental woman in the country. I drove him away, the first person to ever willingly leave.
We met again after my fall. He was the only person I could think of. I was nearly dead from exhaustion, having fled for days from his agency, and he let me stay at his home. He gave me his bed and his food, and one night, he gave me himself. A week into my stay, he found me sobbing in the corner of his kitchen. His agency had hunted my mother down and were “unsuccessful at discovering my location before termination of the subject.” I donned my ring and used my power to hold him at bay across the kitchen. I couldn’t bear to let him touch me, to soothe me. I fled out into the night, and I blocked out his voice shouting after me.
Now his gun doesn’t waver. I continue to show him my palms, letting the tears flow down my cheeks. His eyes glisten in the headlights of another passing car, and there are tears in his gaze as well. I realize in this moment that he is the only human alive who knows exactly who I am: not a super villain, not a murderer, but a broken human being with too heavy a task to bear.
I realize that the man that I love could take all this pain away in a single fraction of a second.
I remember the feel of his lips on mine. I remember the way he looked at me, as though he couldn’t bear the possibility of never looking at me again. I remember the promise he made while cradling me during a fit of tears.
I’ll never let anyone hurt you.
When I see his long forefinger move to the trigger, I can’t decide if he is honoring this promise.