I found myself sorely missing the phone when I forgot the name of the media place I’d seen on the headlines. Not even a day, and I was already reliant on the smart device.
But I made do. A quick scan of newspapers at a small vendor stand on Main Street jogged my memory and sent me swinging off towards the Justix Journal building on Lee Boulevard. A pit of anxiety weighed in my stomach as I crossed the busy sidewalk, getting a strange mix of pitying and annoyed looks. It seemed my crutches made me like an injured dog in the eyes of strangers- either sad and pitiable, or a dead-weight nuisance who wouldn’t stop tripping over you.
The media headquarters was inside the Council district, about a fifteen minute walk across the sprawling city if I was walking as briskly as I might have. As it was, I made it there in good time, all things considered.
I found myself waiting far too long outside the sprawling building, tongue dry in my mouth. I was oddly apprehensive, but I had to see him. He probably wouldn’t even recognize me, which was for the best. I needed confirmation. Confirmation that I’d made the right choice. That I didn’t die for nothing.
Because weird serum or not, I was as good as dead. I was still here, but my life, my best friend, my family, was gone.
People sat on the steps, talking, laughing, living.
I moved past them all, and pushed open the glass doors. I was met with chaos inside. People shouted over each other, chairs screeched, and phones blared. It was a din of productivity. As I moved closer to the woman at the computer nearest to me, I hesitated. I probably wasn’t allowed to just walk in here. This was a Council-owned building.
The woman, probably in her early thirties, didn’t look up at my approach. I wobbled by her desk, uncertain, and cleared my throat cautiously. She kept tapping frantically. Finally, she met my eyes and pointed a deliberate finger at the device in her ear.
I stared, confused.
“Yes, thank you. That will work fine. Tomorrow?”
I blinked. Was she talking to me? “What will work? What is tomorrow?”
She glared at me now, cupping the device with her hand and whisper-yelling in my direction, barely more than mouthing the words. “Are you stupid? I’m on the phone. Get lost, cripple.”
I backed away, taken aback, and she spoke brightly into the phone again as I left. “Wonderful!”
She didn’t seem so wonderful to me, but the next person I accosted was a little less cruel.
“That direction, through that door, take a left and keep going until you reach the end of the hall. The door at the end is a stairwell, and if you go up two flights you’ll reach his office.”
I blinked down at my crutches, and the blond man followed my gaze. “Do you have an elevator?”
The hum of the elevator ascending thrummed through my veins and I twisted my hands together nervously, elbows resting on the crutches as I propped myself against the wall. There was a mirror across from the doors, and I found myself captivated by my own appearance.
I looked the same.
It was strange.
I searched my reflection for any difference, some miniscule difference that would show what I’d been through. My eyes had been my favorite feature before. I thought my nose was too straight, my hair too boring and flat, my eyebrows a weird shape, my skin too different. But when I took the time to notice my appearance, I had always loved the golden glow of my eyes, almost unnaturally amber in the right lighting.
The elevator light didn’t give them justice, but they didn’t have the flatness in them I’d been looking for.
Physically, I was still the same.
The elevator jerked to a stop, startling me a bit. As the doors creaked open, I steadied my breath. The blond man downstairs had warned me that the head journalist didn’t meet with people very often, and when he did he usually required an appointment.
I’d just have to hope that the shock factor of seeing me would be enough to let me talk to him. Ideally, it would also keep him from using his position to tell the whole city I wasn’t dead.
I was heavily relying on the fact that he’d be deemed crazy for telling the truth. Because, honestly, the truth was crazy.
I tightened my grip on the hand-holds of my crutches and hopped from the elevator, rocking the carriage slightly with the swing. The hallway was well lit, with noon light filtering in through partially closed blinds. A helpful sign led the way to a small office. The plaque on the door read: “Head Journalist” in simple, utilitarian block letters.
I knocked on the door.
“Sidney? Is that you?”
I cleared my throat. “Uh, no, no it isn’t.”
“Who is it?”
I pushed open the door to find a tired man who, though I knew him to be in his late twenties, looked far older.
His black hair was cropped, not the shaggy waves it had been when he was younger, and his pale skin was streaked with tiny wrinkles that accentuated bright eyes. He was achingly familiar, a passing acquaintance that defined my life.
While I stared, he barely glanced up at me from his computer. “Well?”
I didn’t answer, but wrenched my eyes away to inspect the room.
From the corner of my eyes, I watched his fingers inch towards the telephone. He obviously didn’t think I was much of a threat, the strange girl on crutches who had burst unannounced into his office. But I didn’t doubt that he would kick me out without a second thought.
“Well?” His voice was sharper now. I met his eyes, and the wrinkle between his eyes became more pronounced. His jaw dropped, slightly, but for the most part he simply looked confused.
He couldn’t possibly remember me, could he? He was only seven years old when we met.
But I followed his darting gaze to the wall across from the window, and I realized why he recognized me.
He had a full billboard of photos on his wall, taped up in a chaotic collage with the mindset of a detective’s crime board.
All of the photos were of me.
I hadn’t even realized there were so many photos of me out there. But apparently when you had the Council on your side, private photos of dead people weren’t so hard to come by. I noticed photos of whom I could only assume were me as a baby that I hadn’t even known existed, copied from documents on my entry to Justix. Plenty of school photos from throughout the years, all of dubious quality, the most recent taken only a few months before the bombs. I winced. My hair was braided back, just as it was now, and my eyes gleamed with the reflection of the harsh lighting, looking unnatural yellow. I wasn’t quite frowning at the camera, but I definitely wasn’t smiling. It was the same picture plastered all over the internet- blurry and pixelated, obviously printed off some website.
There were drawings, too, artwork I was certain hadn’t existed in my lifetime. The range of mediums was shocking- technical drawings of my face that were more or less accurate from different angles, renderings of a middle aged me, dramatic paintings of me bolting down burning hallways, me as an angel, me, dead, in a coffin, with a halo… Frankly, it was all a little disturbing.
I met his eyes again, sure my shock and horror were dripping off my face. I couldn’t find the motivation to wipe it away.
“Theodore Bane,” I gestured at the wall, close to hysteria, “what in blazes is all of that?”
Theo stood up, shakily, gaping at me now. He walked towards me, and I stared him down.
But he walked right past, closed the door behind me, and returned to his seat. I sighed, and plopped into the small couch across the cramped office from his desk.
We didn’t speak for a few seconds, until he finally spoke.
“Are you all right?” His voice was soft, concerned. I frowned. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that. [delete this, have him hate her from the start]
“What do you mean?”
“What happened to you?”
“I-” I didn’t know how to answer that.
“I knew you survived. At least, I hoped. Out of the 547 recorded casualties, only 68 had no proof of death. Some of the upper floors, including the fifteenth, suffered little to no structural damage in terms of massive rubble that could disintegrate a body. Every single person who was reported to be on floors fourteen and fifteen either survived, or we had physical evidence of their death. But not you.”
He leaned across the table, a feverish glint in his eyes.
“So all logic points to the fact that the person who managed to evacuate nearly every single person on that floor with only two casualties would be able to escape.” He leaned back, the wrinkle between his eyes deepening again. “The only question was how.”
“Can I play devil’s advocate?”
Theo blinked, as if he’d already forgotten I was there. “Yes?”
“What made you think I didn’t make my way to a lower or higher floor and then die there, where the structural damage and flames would have been enough to destroy any evidence of my remains?”
Again, I was speechless.
“But here’s what I didn’t expect.” I was sure he was talking to himself, not to me. “You’re unchanged. Why?”
“But it doesn’t matter, does it? Because you’re here now.” Theo met my eyes, and this time he looked sad. “And I hate you for it.”
I was very, very confused by his train of thought. “Me too?”
He ignored me. I should’ve seen that one coming. “Because you saved forty-two people. Forty-two people, and only two people dead. Out of only two casualties,” He closed his eyes, anger or grief shaking his chin. This guy was unstable. “Out of only two casualties, you didn’t save my father.”
A chill tickled the back of my neck, tracing down my spine and making me shiver in the warm room. I felt sick. That feeling, like when you realise you left your bag on the bus and there’s no getting it back now.
But a million times worse.
An scene danced across my vision, a moment I’d rather forget.
The man in the hallway.
The adrenaline in my blood.
The need to save the helpless kid, the belief that the man who’d been driven crazy by smoke and panic would find his way out if I gave him a shove.
What had I done?
Theo was talking again. “Do you know how it feels, Sitara?” I flinched at my full name. “Do you know how it feels to have a guardian angel save your life over your fathers, then disappear as your world burned? Do you know how it feels to be orphaned by the one person who was supposed to keep you safe? I was scared. I was alone. When I needed you most, you were gone, like smoke on the wind.”
“No. I don’t care that you’re alive. You’re famous, and I rode the wave of your death to fame. I have a good job doing what I love. Writing the occasional article about you, the attack, or conspiracy theories surrounding your death has served as a reminder to everyone why I have this position. Thanks to you, I caught the Council’s eye. So thanks, but unless you want to give me concrete evidence for your alive-ness, I’m perfectly content with you being dead.”
I stayed sitting as he crossed to the door again and swung it open. I rose shakily to my foot and grabbed my crutches.
“Goodbye, Sitara. Thank you for saving my life.”
The door slammed shut behind me.
The asphalt swung by below my crutches, and I focused on the little details as they flew by rather than think about the past. Someone left some gum on the sidewalk here, trash there, a coin I didn’t bother to pick up. Once, I might have grabbed it and put it in my jar. Back then, I planned ahead. Back then, I saw the bigger picture. But now, all I saw was a single coin when once I saw a fortune.
I refused to dwell on the past, or the future, or anything besides that pebble by my foot.
As I meandered down crowded Council-Center streets, the path grew more and more familiar.
After a while, I was near my old home. It would probably be more accurate to say Elliot’s home, because he was the one who always mysteriously seemed able to pay the bills without a real job.
Blazes, I hated all this obscurity. Aspen’s source of income had always been mysterious, but no one would dare question how she could afford that row house. She worked all day, and left her house for dubious late-night meetings carrying ominous black duffel bags that couldn’t carry anything good.
Cade lived with his parents at nineteen, and Vera just came and went like a ghost. Micah lived with his boyfriend, and Elliot and I were inseparable.
It was a horrible neighborhood, but it appeared to have somehow gotten worse in the time since I’d been there. I leaned against the gorgeous graffiti across the street from the building and took it all in.
Then, I closed my eyes and let myself process everything.
I hated it.
I didn’t want these thoughts and feelings in my head. I wanted a distraction.
Aaron was a few streets away from the Cade’s derelict headquarters when I approached, talking animatedly on the phone.
Maybe it wasn’t polite to eavesdrop, but I wasn’t in the most polite mood at the moment.
“-is Ce-ce? Is she all right?” The person on the other side of the phone chattered back, and Aaron waited, tapping his foot in a staccato rhythm on the asphalt.
“Look, Mom, I’m sorry. I’m just super stressed about the FCE’s. Is it alright if I go on a little road trip with some friends to cool down?”
“Yes, I know. I promise I’ll be back before the FCE’s, and then I’ll be grounded for what, two months?”
“Yes, okay. Thank you, Mom. I’ll be back before you know it. Love you.”
I waited a few minutes before turning the corner, so it wouldn’t seem like I was listening in.
“It’s rude to eavesdrop, you know.”
Oh. He’d noticed, then.
“Sorry.” I wasn’t sorry. I narrowed my eyes at him. “Why do you want to come?”
“Easy. Then don’t come.”
He sighed. “That’s my phone, you know. My house, with my family, that the phone was sent to. A message meant for me, telling me to find the Justix Angel. I’m not too eager to find out what ‘or else’ means.”
I didn’t like this. I hadn’t thought about it earlier, but it seemed odd that the message said to find the Justix Angel, and then suddenly I was back. They called me the Justix Angel, didn’t they?
We started back together towards Cade, Aaron slowing his stride to match my hobble. Just to spite him, I tried swinging faster and faster until I nearly fell over.
“So, you guys all really hate the Council, huh?”
I turned my head slightly towards him, but focused on not falling again. “Yeah. Don’t you?”
He hesitated. “Well, what’s so bad about them?”
At that, I did fall. My crutches caught on a crack in the pavement and I went sprawling across the sidewalk. Aaron extended a hand to help me up, but I ignored him and settled into a sitting position on the gross ground to hide the fact that I couldn’t get up on my own. I don’t think I did a very good job.
“What’s so bad? What’s so bad about the Council? The blazing Council?”
“They are tyrants, Aaron. Tyrants. They are killing this city, running ninety percent of the population to early deaths in horrible living conditions. For a city-state with a flourishing economy, it just doesn’t make sense for everyone to be so blazing poor!” I felt a little odd lecturing him while I sat on my butt with my crutches lay next to me, but I jutted my chin and pretended that everything was still all right. “They are safe in their anonymity, and they know it. ‘Unbiased leaders’ this, ‘fair, anonymous government’ that. It’s all a sham. The Council needs to go.”
With that, I mustered my strength, ignored the twinge of pain from the stitches in my thigh, and used my crutches to push off from the ground in a very ungainly manner. I leaned with one arm on my crutch and used my other arm to brush the dirt and who knows what else from my rear.
Turns out all I needed was to yell at someone to remember what my whole life’s purpose is.
The Council are malicious, father-killing scum.
It’s about time I brought them down.