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(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you happen to spot them, please let me know in the comments below. Thanks in advance!!)
“You’re going to be late for school, Jack!! Hurry!!”
Bob’s booming voice echoed throughout the typical double story suburban house. Jack winced slightly at the high decibel while putting the final touches on his appearance, as reflected in the body-length mirror next to the bathroom entrance in his room. He quickly checked his attire, making sure nothing was out of place. There was naught he could do about the bags under his eyes, though.
Jack called out and took a deep breath. He looked at that tired face, hoping that other people wouldn’t be able to tell something was different about him, that he didn’t go through a baptism of fire and brimstone that had altered him beneath the usual surface. To him at least, the reflection of himself appeared exactly the same as before the incident from the month ago. No visible signs of what he had to live through, no visible trauma of everything he lost that day – the face staring back was still the “Jack Mercer” of before.
He didn’t mean to, but his thoughts wandered back to the past month and a bit since that fateful day. Jack wouldn’t say it was all hazy, and for sure, things happened. Many of them were painful, some of them made him furious, some of them he’d rather forget. In other words, so many things had happened; but he tried to appear nothing had changed.
Only a small part of that month was spent in the hospital. By logic, he should have been bed-ridden for much longer period than a mere month. His injuries were far too severe for that. So, it couldn’t be helped that Jack’s unnaturally fast rate of recovery ended up shocking the doctors – and his own family – when it took less than a week to completely heal up. The rest of the month was then spent readjusting to the life of a survivor, dodging the attention of the incessant media and the well-meaning but ultimately nosy/unhelpful neighbors.
In order to heal his body that quickly, Jack ended up depleting his red soul reserve by two-thirds, a fact he had chosen not to share with anyone. The facts that he was a Super, and that inside of him there was this horrifying crimson world packed full of dead people’s souls, those would remain with him, probably to his dying day.
In hindsight, maybe using up so much of those red souls at one go wasn’t such a good idea, a bad decision made in haste and hot temper. But the upside to his youthful exuberance was that one or two questions about the spirits of the dead inside of him were answered, even if he still felt like he was only just beginning to scratch the surface. That sure felt frustrating, since he couldn’t ask anyone for guidance and had to wade in the dark all by himself.
And to make the matters worse, there were times when the faces of his confused and worried family nearly pushed his resolve to keep everything to himself to the absolute brink. Somehow, he was able to endure it. Jack brushed away those worried queries of his mother and father and sister with a curt “I’m fine,” all the while feeling like crap inside.
But they could tell he was different. They could only speculate since he told them nothing. Little did they suspect that he was enhancing his physical self with the red souls and that he was occasionally transported to an ancient land while he slept.
No, it wasn’t him actually traveling to this land but more like, him reliving the memories of another person, a man, the protagonist and the owner of these said memories.
In these dreams, the skies were truly blue, the land was fantastical and mythical, and the legends were made by the heroes and heroines. Jack encountered things that would rake in big bucks were they put to film and shown in the cinemas over the Summer vacation period. They were that great and over the top.
Compared to those extravagant adventures, his current struggles felt so small and insignificant in scale.
Jack felt stuffy and ended up adjusting the shirt collar for the tenth time. Didn’t really help, but it messed up the alignment of his shirt so he had to readjust again. He did this a few times, never quite finding the sweet spot.
He wanted to be on his best behavior, his best appearance, his best… everything, really, for this day. He was all fine physically and was ready to start living a normal life. This day was all about him returning to school and to his life as a regular teen. A beginning of the rest of his life, back to how it was like before.
Even though his best friend was still in the hospital, buried deep in a coma with no signs of coming out.
Jack’s forehead developed a deep crease as the comatose face of Nick rose up in his mind, barely suppressing the gnawing guilt in his heart. It just seemed wrong to even try living like a normal person when Nick was sleeping in the hospital, nobody knowing when he’d wake up.
Jack nearly gave up and tore off his clothes right then, before regaining his senses. Nick’s parents told him to move on with his life, after all. That Nick would get better in time and it didn’t do either of them any good if Jack brooded over it endlessly, blaming himself for what was out of his hands.
Jack sighed again and quickly fixed the collar. After straightening his posture, he noticed that the hint of nervousness in the reflection of his face didn’t go way. Jack tried to erase it and plastered a fake smile. He then lightly slapped his cheeks, trying to loosen himself a bit. It didn’t sting as much as it should but that little bit helped. He felt more relaxed, prepared.
Taking a deep breath, Jack left the room and headed downstairs for his share of breakfast.
In the spacious kitchen, the whole Mercer clan was present, in various state of having their meals. Because of him diddling around with his appearance, Jack was the last to arrive. On the dining table, there were a couple of boxes of branded cereal, a bottle of low-fat milk and a set of porcelain bowls plus the cutlery – one for each family members. To the side, a wall-mounted flatscreen TV, which was switched on but had its sound muted.
His mother, Min-jung, had already finished with her meal and was in the process of placing the plates in the dishwasher. As for his father, Bob, he was checking out the news his fancy tablet, his eyebrows twitching unhappily. Although, he had no trouble shoving the strip of bacon to the correct destination – his mouth. Also, when he noticed his tardy son, Bob voiced his disagreements slightly before returning to the tablet.
His younger sister, Dana, was in the middle of her breakfast when Jack settled down on his seat next to her. The girl’s mouth was half-full as she glanced up at him, her eyes laughing slightly. Jack smiled back at her and lightly patted her head. “Hey, chew properly, alright?”
“Oh my Gawd, really? Did you forget how old I am from that knock on your head?”
Dana grumbled as she pushed his hand away. Jack laughed and tried to ruffle her hair further. She made a face and began to shove Jack away.
“Hey, behave, you two,” said Bob. He then groaned and put down the tablet, hurriedly sliding a plate over to his son. “Hey, take this. Babe, looks like I gotta run. Something really big and messy just went down in the markets. Can you ferry the kids back and forth today? Sorry about this.”
“Sure, it’s fine.”
Min-jung nodded as she closed the dishwasher’s door. She was kitted out in a smart business suit befitting of her profession, as that of a world-renowned scientist employed in a high-paying job.
Jack smiled faintly at the scene of normalcy on display by his family here. He could tell his parents were trying hard to make everything appear as normal as possible. He appreciated their efforts and tried to go with the flow, not wanting to put a damper on their hard work.
He looked at his plate; two strips of bacon, toasts, fried eggs with sunny side up, a blob of hash brown. Thinly sliced tomatoes and lettuce rounded off the contents. After asking for the dressing, Jack dug in, aiming to finish them as quickly as possible. He knew he was going to be late if he didn’t.
Jack picked the bacon first and chewed the juicy, smoky strip, marveling at how delicious it was, no matter how often he ate it. Its ability to temporarily help him forget about the jitters while enjoying the meal was still unparalleled in this world.
While chewing, Jack briefly turned his attention towards the TV and saw the recorded clip of the current POTUS doing a press conference. It was a current affairs talk show and at the moment, it was carrying a segment on the tragedy of the highway.
Min-jung noticed this belatedly and silently motioned with her eyes at Bob to change the channel, but Jack intervened first, instead asking his father to turn up the volume in order to hear what was being said.
“I, David J. Trudale, promise you folks, this: I will definitely sit down with the relevant lawmakers and we are gonna work this out. We’ll look at the laws governing this Superheroes and villains and all that stuff, and find a way to deal with this unruly, and quite frankly, terrible, horrible behavior of these people. I mean, seriously folks. Enough is enough, right? How many lives are these Supers intending on ruining like this?
“Sure, some of them have done good things in the past, but we still have these dangerous elements hidden in our neighborhood and it’s those guys we need to be wary of, am I right? We need to build a better deterrent, a wall of some kind, to stop these bad eggs from harming the lives of our families, our loved ones.
“As your president, believe you me, it’s going to happen. I guarantee it.”
The clip ended there, showing the inside of a studio where a male presenter was sitting in the middle while two guests flanked him on either side.
To his left, a man in his late fifties, wearing a stiff suit that was somewhat out of style, a red bow tie, carefully trimmed and combed dark brown hair, and a pair of thick horn-rimmed glasses perched low on the bridge of his nose. He seemed to be one of those tightly-wounded types, with a massive chip on his shoulders. But at the same time, there was a certain unrestrained air of condescension oozing out from his expressions, as if he was saying “I’m right always and you’re wrong all the time.”
To his right, a well-built man wearing a black tuxedo and a flamboyant face mask that a Mexican luchador might wear to a ring. His bulging muscles seemed comically out of place in that supposedly-suave set of duds.
The stiff man was the de facto leader and the mouthpiece of the Anti-Super Movement leader, one Professor Anthony Masterson. As for which field he was a professor in, Jack didn’t know, nor did he care, really.
And the luchador mask-man was a retired Superhero, Vanguard. Well known in the world as the spokesperson for the Guild of Heroes, the bureau for all things Supers-related. When he was an active Superhero, Vanguard performed many heroic deeds and in the process became something of a cultural icon.
The anchor started off by mentioning that the clip of the POTUS was from a month ago when the tragedy of the R-35 Northbound had occurred. Yet, besides some tough rhetoric spewed by the politicians, nothing was done until now.
Professor Masterson’s turn to spew some of his own rhetoric came right after that lead-in.
“Well, it’s not that surprising, really. Over the decades the politicians and lawmakers have given too much leeway to these dangerous, dangerous people, just because they happen to possess immense power that rivals an army. But all the while forgetting that it’s this immense power that makes them dangerous and thus needs a stricter monitoring and governance. The case in point was the tragedy of the R-35 Northbound. Two Supers, who were left unchecked and not properly monitored, went on a rampage and many people, innocent bystanders, ended up paying the ultimate price for their ego-driven power trip. And not even the Guild of Heroes have been able to answer for this tragedy – which is a tragedy all on its own.
“All I have been saying until now, is to tag and monitor these individuals. We would have been able to prevent this tragedy, and many others like it, if we knew what these dangerous people’s identities are beforehand. The safety of the citizens versus the rights to privacy of a handful of dangerous individuals – I believe it’s not a difficult decision to make, is it not?”
There was a hint of bitterness hidden in Masterson’s voice. Most normal people would fail to discern that, but for Jack, he heard it just fine, thanks to him enhancing his hearing. Not by much, but still enough.
Vanguard raised his hand and raised his counterpoint. He sure sounded like how he looked, like a certain muscle-bound action movie star, minus the thick Latin accent one might have expected from a luchador.
“Hold on there, Professor. You make it sound like all Supers are bad in nature. That is patently untrue, and no matter how many times you say it in the vain hopes of perpetuating a falsehood, it will not work, sir.
“Good people of this country, and indeed the world, know all the important work the Superhero community does and deeply appreciate it. The work performed by these good men and women as Superheroes can only be done because there are explicit understanding of freedom to act within the discretions of the heroes. Take that away and you risk undoing all the good that would have been achieved in the future.”
Jack narrowed his eyes and stared at Vanguard, remembering the time when the Guild of Heroes sent a bunch of representatives to check up on his status and to make a formal “apology” at the hospital. However, Jack knew better – those jackasses came for a photo-op, nothing more.
Among the representatives, Vanguard was also there. Jack had to admit that out of all the jackasses that came to see him that day, it was only Vanguard who sounded truly sincere regarding how sorry he was.
That encounter left somewhat of a favorable impression of the masked man. But it was just that, an impression. Jack still didn’t trust any of these Superheroes and whatnots. The case in point was the fact that both Master Evil and Falcon, the two Supers responsible, were still in the wind with nary a sign of their imminent arrests or prosecution.
That’s all Jack needed to confirm his suspicions – that no one was trying to capture the two culprits responsible for his friends’ death. That the Guild of Heroes needed Supervillains like Master Evil in order to justify their own existence; that they needed people like Falcon to act outside the law to carry out a certain type of work that supposedly law-abiding heroes could not.
It was all a lip service, nothing more. Small guys always ended up suffering the consequences of the big guys rampaging around – the way this unfair world worked since the beginning of the written history.
Just thinking about these matters pissed Jack off greatly. It became a little harder to hide his agitation, veins popping up in his temples slightly, his eyes becoming sharper and venomous.
Bob finally switched the TV off and gave the signal with his eye to Min-jung. She nodded and placed her hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Are you finished? Then let’s get going. It’s your first day back, and I don’t want you to be late.”
Jack nodded in consent, although he wasn’t really looking forward to what was coming next: the ride to school.
While driving, the mood was rather awkward inside Min-jung’s SUV. That was entirely Jack’s fault.
Even the valiant attempt at trying to lighten the atmosphere by the mother and the daughter duo by talking about one of Dana’s classmate who was coming over for a sleepover later in the week did not work. Not even stuff about “girl talk” that would normally fly over Jack’s scope of understanding failed to brighten the funeral-like aura.
That was because Jack’s face was covered in a thin sheet of sweat. He was pale and breathing roughly, as he gripped the armrest hard to the point that the plastic was giving out squeaking noises.
He became like this ever since he got discharged from the hospital. He couldn’t stop shaking from irrational fear whenever he had to ride in a car. Didn’t matter what car it was, the reaction was the same. He tried so many different things to overcome it but….
Still, here he was, doing his best to ride through this…. phobia, trying to fight it. As he mused before, this was nothing, compared to the man and the adventures he went through in the dream world.
“So, Jack. You’re 17 now. Maybe it’s time you learn how to drive yourself?”
Min-jung tried to help out by engaging Jack in conversations.
Even though his voice trembled, Jack did his best to reply.
“Yeah, I should. But don’t we need another car for that? What about the licence test? I…. I am not sure if I can do that right now.”
“Mm. Yes, you’ll need to buy a car for that…. Well, you should start looking for a part time job, then.”
Jack slowly murmured. “Well, I’ll think about it. No rush, right?”
Jack had to think about it. Learning how to drive was always high up on his list of things to do, no doubt. As soon as he got over this stupid phobia of being in a moving car, then the first thing he would do is to go out and find a part-time work. Maybe he’d flip burgers for a few month, save up and buy himself a beater. Before that, he’d get the licence too.
In all honesty, though, he had to overcome this crippling fear. Because he had things to do. His thirst for vengeance cried for satisfaction, and he had no intention of letting that call go unanswered. Didn’t matter how far away this dream was, he was determined to make it happen. After all, he was a Super now. He had the potential.
“Yes, no rush. Please, don’t force yourself, Jack. There is time. Remember, one step at a time.”
Min-jung couldn’t hide her worries about her son as she tried to sound reassuring. She used her husband’s oft-repeated line, hoping she’d get through to Jack. She was right, of course. Jack could not rush things. Even he had to admit that, albeit unwillingly.
Jack’s first problem was his ability to sleep – or the lack thereof. He currently needed medication for that. Without it, a super strong bout of insomnia would kick him in the head, making him dead tired just trying to close his eyes and sleep. Because of this, he had been popping in pills every single day. Even that was losing its effectiveness, though, after a month of constant abuse.
Without sleep, Jack couldn’t gain access to that dream world in order to manipulate the stored red souls in his body. So far, he hadn’t found a way to control them when not in slumber. Nothing seemed to work. He wasn’t sure whether such a thing was even possible at all.
And to add to his consternation, his stock of souls had depleted greatly. Jack had a pretty good idea how to procure more souls but the mere thoughts of it alone made him feel like a monster.
He knew that someone had to die near him. Only then would he be able to absorb those red mist-like things escaping the body of the dying person.
Jack confirmed this fact while he was in the hospital, still “recovering”. There was a time when he went on a stroll to see if Nick was alright. He was still in a coma, covered in head to toe with bandages. Jack spoke to Nick’s parents who were there at the time. They seemed to have aged ten years from all the worrying.
After saying goodbyes, Jack then continued to roam the corridors. Since he was in a hospital, he figured that there would be patients on the death’s door here. As morbid as that sounded, he had to see if the only way to gain red souls was through someone dying.
Lo and behold, it was just as he suspected.
There was a soldier who was suffering from a gunshot wound. The surgery to save his life went well but he hadn’t recovered from the medically induced coma. When Jack glanced into the soldier’s room, he saw a faint trace of red mist slowly rising from his still body. The man was slowly succumbing to his injuries despite all the work that was done to save him. The soldier’s wife sat on a chair next to his bed, reading a book out aloud for her husband, hoping she could get through to him somehow.
There was another, a former colonel or some such. He was dying of cancer. Again, a slim, flickering mist of red was rising from his body when Jack peered into his room.
No one else around could see the red mist, that much Jack was sure of – absolutely no one, not the doctors, not the nurses, not the visiting families, not even the ones dying themselves.
That’s when Jack knew. That he was the only person, so far anyway, who could see these red souls. And that someone had to die if he were to acquire more of it. No matter how he cut it, what he had was the kind of horrible superpower nobody would want to be saddled with. No, calling it a curse was far more appropriate.
Not knowing what her son was thinking at the moment, Min-jung frowned and asked as she pulled out of the lane, turning into the school district.
“Jack. Remember what I said, back in the hospital? If there’s something bothering you, please talk to me. Instead of keeping it inside, it’s better to talk to someone about it.”
Jack looked at his mother. She had a worried frown on her face. And that made Jack feel even worse. Of course he wanted to talk to her, tell her everything. But how could he burden her with this… secret, of her son being a goddamn cursed Super?
There was a layer of suspicion here already. His recovery was way too fast. Jack had made a big mistake with that. But since the doctors, including his own mother, couldn’t find anything wrong with him, the suspicion remained just that, a suspicion.
The rate of a Super being born in the human populace was one in a million. In the entire world, active number of Supers did not exceed a couple thousand at any given time. But since they had been around as far as the dawn of the time, regular people accepted them as a part of their daily lives.
Hell, most of these Supers didn’t even live a life as a hero or a villain, simply choosing to live like the rest of humanity, normal and hidden from the scrutiny of the world.
Whatever the case may be, Jack didn’t feel right telling her that her son was a Super, a cursed one at that. There was a lingering fear of rejection that was hanging around his mouth like a bitter aftertaste. So he chose not to tell her. Nor to anyone, really – especially if he was planning to get stronger and go after Master Evil and Falcon himself. And potentially, kill them.
As crazy as that sounded, Jack was determined to succeed.
“Well, we’ve arrived,” said Min-jung.
Jack looked out of the window and took in the sights of his school. He saw other kids hurriedly leaving their cars and entering the three-story building, busy chatting away and greeting one another.
“Hey, that’s my friends. I’ll go first. Talk to you later.”
Dana left the car first and ran after the group of her friends in the distance. That left Jack alone with his mother for a brief time.
“Jack, have a good day, okay? And if you feel unwell, or there’s something that does not feel right about your body, just give me a call, alright?”
Min-jung spoke affectionately.
Jack breathed in deeply and nodded. “I will. Later, mom.”
As he exited the car, he felt like everyone stopped what they were doing and now were looking at him. Were they pointing at him in a hushed whisper? He suddenly felt naked and vulnerable, and boy, was it unpleasant or what. Gritting his teeth, he resolutely walked forward, trying to ignore the stares.
But one of the enhancements he did to himself in haste was coming back to bite him in the ass: his hearing. He thought that it might prove useful but right now…. he was regretting it, big time.
Jack could hear the whispers of other kids as he walked by, and as he expected, the contents of those whispers weren’t so cool. They were whispering stuff like, “How come is he the only one who survived?”
Or: “He looks completely fine. How the hell? Was he even on the same bus?”
Some even said, “I bet you he used someone as a shield to protect himself. That’s why he’s okay and no one else lived.”
Jack had half a mind to bust the heads of all the idiots here but didn’t. He had to ignore them and move on. Getting angry at these fools would only waste his energy. No, he was already angry at someone else. At two in particular.
In his fury, he failed to notice that there was one more pair of eyes staring at his departing figure, her brows deeply knitted as if in a deep contemplation.
The school was, in short, a torture.
No one from his previous class survived the trip other than Nick and seeing that he couldn’t attend the school even if he wanted to, it was only natural Jack had to “transfer” to another class
Once there, his new classmates were, outwardly at least, showing concern for his well-being. And also showed more concern for what he had to go through. Teachers treated Jack with the proverbial kiddie gloves – as if he was an expensive glassware that could break apart with the slightest touch. Being politically correct and all that – and Jack got tired of it, real fast.
But then, Jack still felt those accusatory pointing fingers whenever his back was turned. It wasn’t even his imagination, either. Their hot, curious and deeply suspicious stares burned into his skin like a scalding iron. It was definitely not a good feeling. Worse still, Sue, Nick’s current girlfriend, came to see him during one of the breaks.
She was all in tears. She was very much torn up about Nick’s condition. She said she was glad Jack was okay, that she was thankful for him getting Nick off the bus in time. That action had saved Nick’s life, although he was in a vegetative state right now, unresponsive and fighting for every breath.
Sue’s crying face made sure the rest of his day remained as miserable as humanly possible. Jack just simply couldn’t get past her tearful face.
The faces of the parents of dead classmates, the faces of Nick’s parents, Sue’s face…. And the faces of souls, trapped inside of him. The ones where he was ruthlessly absorbing for the sake of revenge. All those faces haunted him throughout the day. Thus, it was a pure torture. He was regretting coming here.
After school ended, his new classmates dispersed for their club activities. As for Jack, he belonged to the track and field but was excused due to his current circumstances. Again, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at his situation.
In the end, he had nowhere else to go. He didn’t want to be in the library, didn’t want to remain in an empty and foreign classroom, didn’t want to be inside the gymnasium – basically, he didn’t feel like he belonged anywhere. So, he sat on the bleachers and forlornly watched everyone else do their stuff. No one approached him, nor sat anywhere near him. At least the late afternoon sun felt pleasant on his face, which was nice.
Jack figured that his alienation was partly him putting up a wall no one could surmount. But there was also an element of other kids thinking that he was having a hard time adjusting. It was them being considerate to his plight, trying to give him some space to work his sh*t out.
In reality, Jack’s mind was furiously revolving quickly around, hoping that the time might pass by faster this way. It was intolerable, sitting there and having people stare at him like as if he was a zoo animal.
The revolving mind soon arrived at the gloomy topic of his revenge, and the noises of the kids slowly faded into the background as Jack thought about what he needed to do. The need to get stronger was growing inside him like a festering wound but he had no quick and dirty way to achieve the desired growth. He thought about hanging around morgues the whole day, but after a bit of thought, gave up on that idea.
When he went to the cemetery for the funerals of his classmates, he couldn’t spot a single red soul there. Not a single one. Jack thought that if a soul wasn’t absorbed right away then it would simply dissipate into the thin air – or head straight to the gates of judgment or something.
So, that left him with what, exactly? Could he lurk around in a local hospital the whole day without being accused of some unsavory conduct, waiting around for someone to croak? That was not a time efficient way. Jack needed another method. A legal method. One that wouldn’t land him in hot waters. He just couldn’t come up with a good one yet.
As he was buried deeply in his thoughts, Jack didn’t notice a presence coming up to stand behind him.
“Hey, got a sec?”
Jack stiffened when he heard the voice from behind. He quickly turned around to see a girl. She was around Dana’s height, dirty brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and of a slim build. She also wore a pair of spectacles that were pretty….. thick. Her dress code was a standard fair, nothing fancy – perfectly anonymous. Her face was pleasant but again, a plain and anonymous, as if that was the way she wanted to remain.
Jack didn’t know this girl. Try as he might, he couldn’t even recall whether such a girl actually attended the same school as him.
“Uh, can I help you with something? Do I know you?” Jack reflexively asked.
“No. But I want to talk to you,” said the glasses girl, sharply.
Jack thought there was some kind of glint in her eyes which was sort of unnerving. He had seen the very same eyes almost every morning in the mirror for the last couple of weeks, after all. Thinking that this, whatever this was, might lead to unnecessary trouble, Jack declined promptly.
“Sorry, but can you leave me alone? I don’t feel like talking to anyone at the moment.”
“That’s too bad, because what I wanted to say, it’s important.”
The girl shrugged her shoulders. Then she leaned in closer and whispered. “I know your secret, you see. That you’re a Super now.”
Jack sucked in a cold breath. Sweating heavily, he studied the girl’s face intently and found the trace of that strange glint burning even stronger than before in her eyes.
“Dunno what you’re talking about,” Jack curtly replied.
To his reply, she teasingly chuckled. “It’s okay. I’m a Super, too.”
(Please support my writing by reading it, and talking to your friends about it. Any comments you wish to make are welcome, especially the constructive criticisms. Also, I would deeply appreciate if you show your love by donating some $$. Ahahaha. Well hey, I need “motivations” too, you know!!)
Synopsis: The online game <