(1) Songbird

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Chapter 4: Does Our Health Insurance Cover Pre-Existing Conditions?

‘Where It All Went Wrong’

I heard it every day. The wonderful melody that filled the street I walked down to get to school. It was the same, day after day. Week after week. Year after year.

wake up

It was a song filled with elegance and class.

wake up

wakeup

The house that the melody came from was ancient, decrepit and rotting away. A giant spiked fence covered the perimeter, letting naught a soul invade it’s domain. The other neighborhood kids thought it was haunted, like the songstress was gonna eat you when you tried to visit her. But I knew the truth. Everybody else tried to tune it out but 13 year old me knew better. He could hear the loneliness dripping off every verse.

I wanted to see her, to cheer her up. Show her that she had somebody who understood her, even if just a little.

wakeup

But I was running out of time. My father was being transferred out of the city and our bags were packed... we were leaving my hometown. So I steeled my nerves and I grabbed a hold of the thick metal spikes topping the heavy duty fence surrounding the house.

And then I realized that I’ve been tased and I’m remembering a repressed---

Without a second of further hesitation I hoisted myself up by the sides of the spikes and I managed to get my two tiny feet between them, allowing me to effortlessly jump down onto the unkempt grass below.

The second my velcro shoes hit unmowed pastures, a familiar tone echoed throughout the neighborhood.

She could tell I was there, there was a bit more pip in the melody.

WAKEUP

Not wanting her to suffer any longer, I ran to the front door and opened it wide.

When I saw what was inside

When my body, charred by electricity, was compelled to move

I heard a faint whisper.

“Help me.”

-----

My two arms, previously flailing about in a desperate attempt to mitigate the pain of being tased, rise unnaturally like the stem of a rose dipped in diluted Viagra. Using all of my core strength, I sit up to see the security director, who is apparently my mortal enemy, inching closer and closer to Hope.

Her small and uncharacteristically scared plea echoes through my head.

“Help me.”

And again.

“Help me.”

And again.

“Help me.”

I can think of nothing besides saving Hope this instant, so I shakily get to my feet. How many seconds have passed since I got tased? Twenty, maybe thirty? It hurts. I want to vomit. I shouldn’t be conscious, let alone preparing to fight a bodyguard.

But I walk forward.

Why? Is this my will? My body hurts so damn bad. I feel like I can collapse again at any moment.

But I walk forward.

Rod turns towards my shambling flesh prison, having heard the grunts escaping my mouth, closes the distance between us in an instant and shoves that damn taser in my gut again.

‘help me’

‘help me’

‘help me’

It’s echoing, invading my every thought. It doesn’t stop, It’ll never stop.

----

“Get me out of here!” she shrieks at me with the fear of a thousand horror-movie-protagonists.

----

Always echoing. Never ceasing, into infinity.

Eleven years ago, half an hour ago, now. It’s all the same

BZZZZT

“Stay down for good you fucking brat!” Rod demands as he pushes my left shoulder, sending my backwards lightly.

But not off my feet. Never off my feet.

I walk forward.

My heart is racing. All of my hair is standing on its end from all the electricity flowing through me. My muscles are all burning in a desperate attempt to fight against this. The world is spinning.

I walk forward.

Rod goes to shove the damn taser into my gut again, but my right arm shoots out to grab his wrist before he can.

Rod’s sad attempt at jolting me further ends in failure, with the electricity ejected from the taser pathetically hitting air, so I use my entire body weight to yank him, by the wrist, into the hard brick of the store we’re both dutifully employed at.

Rod’s skull bounces like a five-year-old on an inflatable castle and he stops moving, hopefully for good. Calmly, I wipe the blood of the fallen Security Director off of my khakis and look towards Hope. A veil of disappointment falls over her face.

“Did you have to go that far?” she asks with the most serious expression I’ve seen her wear in years.

“Did you have to wipe my memories eleven years ago?” I retort with heavy breaths interrupting each word, causing her to look up at the sky in thought. After a couple of seconds, her eyes come level with mine and she replies

“Yeah, or else you would’ve tried to save me again!”

“Did ya like the worn-out house or something!?” I ask mockingly.

“At least the feds knew not to tease me!” she counters.

“They were probably afraid of you, Hope. I wouldn’t mock you if I didn’t know that you wouldn’t hurt me.” I reply frankly.

“Why would they be afraid, it’s not like I can hurt them!” She replies as she tries to flex her right arm, with nary a muscle visible even if one were to look from the Hubble telescope.

“Hey, that’s mean!” she objects.

Replying to her previous statement, I point at the man laying in a puddle of his own blood.

“You may not be able to directly hurt people but by god can you make others do your dirty work.” I remind her.

There’s no other way I could have woken up so quickly from getting tased, Hope must have used her voodoo on me. Back then, she used the same trick to try and get me to help her escape.

It’s called ‘Compel’. A simple name for a weird ability.

“Well, it’s not like the name matters dude.” Hope chimes in.

It’s a simple ability on the surface, but it’s uses are nearly endless.

“‘I amplify the will of a person within earshot of me’, is what I told you all those years ago, right? Too bad it didn’t do the job then, or else you would’ve broken my chains and been halfway to Cancun before the feds noticed.” she adds.

Not that I quite understand the plan there, because a thirteen year old kid can’t break a steel chain as hard as he tries. They also can’t drive, so a getaway would’ve been impossible.

“Not with that attitude they don’t.” she retorts.

Anyway… we should probably get to stepping before more goons show up. So I walk past Hope towards our goal, the receiving bay. But as I walk towards our inevitable escape, one part of this whole thing irks me.

So whilst wiping more blood off my hands, I turn back to you and ask “When did you know?”

Hope was brought here, and I happened to work here. Not only is that a huge coincidence, there are parts of that which makes little sense. For instance, why was a top government secret like you brought to a shitty department store off the freeway?

What was possibly worth that risk?

You look up at me, cheerful for once, and you tell me “Such an unlikely coincidence is no such thing. I’ll tell you later.”

Then, with a warm breeze at your back, you walk past me towards our destination.

-----

It’s been 11 long years.

I ruined your life.

It’s my fault that you’re working this dead-end job.

It’s my fault that you’re life is in danger

I can’t keep ruining your life.

So I turn back towards you and I open my mouth to speak.

I’ll knock you out, it’ll be really easy. Your mind is already shot from the tazing.

They’ll just wipe your memory Joel. They’d never kill you, you’re a valuable subject.

-----

“Fuck off Hope.” I whisper to her left ear as I palm her mouth in my hand. “You’re not the only who can read minds dipshit, you’ve been trying to ditch me this entire time.” I add.

Her eyes go wide for a second and I feel the need to continue with “No, not actually. We normal people have this little thing called intuition. Now quit it. It’s not like I have any purpose besides this.” I plainly state.

Other than my pet fish Ody, I’ve got nothing left. My family all hate me, my job is out to kill me apparently and that V-Card is etched into my soul.

You ruined my life, but I’ll be damned if you don’t ruin it further.

My point finally getting across to you, I release my death grip on your face.

“It’s not my fault if you die, Joel. Healing isn’t in the ‘powerset’, as you call it.” she replies.

I just shrug and push her forwards, towards the destination which we reach with no further grief. Swiping my misspelt name tag into the card reader on the entrance to Receiving creates a satisfying click as the door opens in front of us.

“It’s not good as a weapon, but it has it’s uses.” I quip to Hope, who’s still sulking at my decision to not lay down to my Fate.

We enter Receiving and immediately something catches my eye. “Ugh.” Hope whines, noticing the same thing I do.

A box sits open in front of us, left strewn about on the floor. It must’ve been freshly picked from the truck when all the gunfire sent the employees into a frenzy. Inside is the motherlode. “Should we really be wasting time on that?” Hope asks, not realizing the monumentality of my discovery.

I close the two foot distance between the box in a second flat and pull out one of the contents, a pair of Frozen sneakers emblazoned with Elsa and the stupid snowman who’s name escapes me. Her fake annoyance at my antics doesn’t fool me, especially since the slightest smile trickles across her face as she pelts her old footwear at me.

“No, it’s very real annoyance.” she protests, too much I doth add. Despite her bs complaints, she still slides the new pair of poorly made sneakers on her feet, unable to contain her happiness.

“Merry Christmas, if you celebrate that.” I tell Hope, not knowing quite enough about her.

“They did give me an unlit tree to look at in December.” she informs me.

Ending the rather dull conversation there, I run over to the pinboard where the keys to the delivery trucks sit precariously on household tacks. Snatching the only set of keys that lay there, from the single truck that sits right outside this room, I breathe a sigh of relief. The long journey is almost over.

I turn around with a toothy grin, I whisper “I got em!” to Hope, who just gives me a face telling me “I know!”.

Then, like an effect without cause, my vision goes black. There’s no buzzing pain in my stomach and it certainly doesn’t feel like Hope’s magic horseshit, so what’s the cause?

“We need to run Joel!” Hope screams somewhere in my general vicinity. Even if I wanted to, it’s not like I would know where to go. Now stay next to me!

Seconds pass, but nothing changes. No more light and no tiny person standing next to me.

“What are you waiting for Joel?!” she screams at me, slightly farther away. She must be able to see the door, which doesn’t surprise me since she’s basically a superhero.

“Ok, I’m coming!” I tell her, before moving my legs in her direction… at least, that was the idea.

THUD

The lack of vision is my downfall, quite literally, as I find myself tripping over one of the many boxes strewn on the ground. I manage to catch myself by the forearms before my head hits concrete, but a slight pain creeps up my left leg. “Are you OK!?” she screams at me. Dude I’m fine, I just had myself a little slip. No biggie.

“Hello!?” she screams, not acknowledging my thoughts. What’s going on with her… it doesn’t matter. I’ll just stand and meet up with her, then we’ll head to Cancun...

THWACK

The sound of my palms slapping against concrete echoes throughout the ceaseless darkness of Receiving. I can’t put any weight on my left leg at this critical moment.

“I’ll just have to crawl out of here dammit!” I scream into the void, evoking a small yelp out of Hope somewhere in the distance.

“Is this thing on?” A familiar voice ponders rhetorically over the intercom.

What is he still doing in the building? The only place you can use the intercom is the returns desk in front of the store, it’s a completely closed system from what I remember. But, more importantly, he would have been the first guy out of the building. After all, he had them build his office right next to the fire exit when they built this place a bazillion years ago.

“Ya know Joel, it’s really funny. I always thought you were just a slacker, a guy who complained about his situation and never did anything to improve it. I’ve treated you like dirt these couple of years you’ve worked for me, yet you took it all because of a silly little fear of unemployment.” My boss, Mr. Aldis declares, mocking me with a level of venom not surprising to me. But within that venom is a hard truth. Somewhere along the way, I lost my pride and blamed it all on my circumstances. Instead of trying to improve my life, I became content with having a scapegoat.

Seeing as Rod tased me earlier, I should have maybe seen something like this coming. There isn’t anything particularly interesting at this store, so the location was never going to be important. If they were gonna bring Hope to a superstore, it could have been one closer to where the old neighborhood is.

But it’s apparently the people here that caused Hope to have to travel to this dreadful store. What Aldis has to do with a state-sanctioned kidnapping/imprisonment is another question altogether. But I should be way less shocked than I am, I guess.

“But now, you finally have the chance you were never looking for.” Aldis informs me, perking my ears.

“Don’t listen to him!” Hope screams, slightly closer to me now. I can faintly hear the shuffling of her feet as she tries to get to me, but she keeps bumping in stupid boxes.

“You want to ‘be someone’ right? A hero, you called it? They don’t exist in this world.” Boss tells me before pausing for effect and then continuing “But if you just do what I say, I can make you. I’ve got connections Joel, connections that would make your little angelic friend down there blush.” Aldis rambles.

“All you need to do is follow protocol Joel. ‘Run, Hide, Fight’ in that order Joel. Run from the cause of all of this Joel and a nice little package will be waiting for you on your doorstep. Money, a cushy job and maybe even a hot date await you.”

As Aldis’ offer ruminates in my head, the light touch of Hope’s tiny hand envelops mine. I try to look into her off-colored eyes for any sign of worry, but only bleak darkness stares back at me.

“Angelic huh.” I murmur to myself, causing Hope to jump a little.

It’s kinda funny because had Rod not knocked me out, I might have taken Aldis up on that offer. Yours truly started this ‘journey’ for the wrong reasons, to be cool, to be some kind of ‘savior’. To get some small notoriety when my heroic self would show up for a two-minute interview on the 8 o’clock news.

But now I’m going to right my wrong. I’m going to finish what I started eleven years ago. “Thanks but no thanks boss, the Songbird is gonna escape her cage today!” I scream up into the heavens, so that God themself can hear.

Suddenly, the lights come back on and the bright smile plastered on Hope’s face is shown to only me.

Or, so I thought.

“GET DOWN!” Hope screams as she pushes me into the pinboard I got the truck keys from.

BANG!

A sharp pain spreads throughout my body, up from my left leg and down from the two sides of my skull. The ringing in my two ears won’t stop and the table beneath my ass is barely holding me up. “Hope we need to run!” I scream, not knowing the volume of my own voice. Then I realize my right hand, which was previously occupied with holding Hope’s hand, is cupping my own skull.

Why is the side of my head wet? Is there a water leak?

I scrape some of the liquid off of my head and examine it.

Crimson, my entire hand is red. Covered in blood. Lifeforce. Plasma. Platelets.

I look down to my side, where Hope lies motionless in a pool of her own blood. A gaping hole spurts a constant spray of red out of her forehead.

To my left stands the bane of my existence. The man who’s made my life a living hell, along with every poor wandering soul who’s found themselves employed at this hellscape of a store.

Mr. Aldis points his WMD of a revolver straight at me, and blankly states.

“You’re fired.”

BANG!

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