(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!!)
Jack and Taylor were quietly walking towards the exit of the wilderness, their faces tired and haunted. Before entering the forest, they had entrusted their only mode of transportation, their bicycles, at the empty, unmanned Park Ranger station situated near the entrance of the so-called “nature reserve.” It was nothing as grand as that, but as with one so far removed from the mother nature, even the most unflattering landscape could be transformed into an untamed savannah with one or two carefully worded signboards out up front.
The two of them didn’t care about that, however.
They were in a various state of glum, unhappy, and just a bit on the paler side. On Jack’s right hand, there was some dried blood. Their shoes were grimy, caked in dirt and needing a thorough wash pretty soon.
The trail leading into the civilization was eerily deserted of people and it only served to feed their sense of isolation. Not even the pleasant buzzing of insects and the birds lazily floating by in the air could change that.
The day’s activity had left them with a nasty aftertaste that was hard to get rid of. Taylor thought she was mentally well prepared for it, but even then, the shock of the real thing was far harder to handle, far messier than her own naive imaginations could ever come up with. And as for Jack, it wasn’t any better. No, it was worse. Much worse.
He just wanted to go home and crawl under a blanket. And then, just forget this whole thing about getting stronger. That was all a load of crap. What revenge? What pursuit of justice for the victims? What the hell was all that about?
Hah. What a joke.
No way had he so acutely felt his position in the society. It was an eye opener. As soon as the adrenaline wore off, as soon as the realization of his actions dawned on him, Jack regretted everything. Literally, everything.
In the end, he was just a snotty-nosed kid from a cozy, lazy, and all too boring suburbia out of nowhere, his role in this world already established at birth: destined to become a fat, middle-aged consumer of fast foods and never-ending annualized First Person Shooter Franchises. That’s what he was.
Taking a life by force was not something as simple as it was made out to be in the movies and games and novels and the like. It was, in short, a miserable, crappy and ultimately, a terrible task he’d rather not do ever again.
The weakened whine of the dying coyote remained with him like a poisonous wasp, buzzing inside his ears and showing no signs of leaving him alone. It reminded him, ever so slightly, of all the anguished cries from that hellish day. Whether the continuous buzzing was an illusion or not, the sound remained etched in his memory, making sure of Jack feeling like an asshole.
The duo retrieved and got on their bicycles, silently pedaled away until the trail ended for good, with the road to civilization opening up. The signs of humanity were sparse; electric poles, street lamps, roads and rows of houses and sporadically parked cars. Yet, strangely, no actual human beings anywhere. It was totally deserted.
Jack found it quite bizarre. He had no idea that the end of suburbs could be this desolate and empty.
“Hey, there’s a convenience store. Go and wash up, Mercer,” said Taylor as she pointed across the road.
Jack glanced down at his bloodied hand which, coupled with his dirtied clothing and bedraggled expression, made him look like a dangerous criminal on the run. Smiling tiredly, he pointed the bicycle towards the store, Taylor following closely behind.
There were no moving cars on the road. There was only a single, beat-up hatchback from the good old 80s parked in the store’s front parking lot. A loud, colorful signboard cheerfully advertised the latest discounts available in the store, advising the shoppers not to miss this opportunity. Jack couldn’t seem to focus on these sales of the century. He just couldn’t care any less even if he tried. Too mentally worn out and desperate to go home for a rest, was all.
Parking the bikes at the entrance, the two entered through the automatic sliding glass doors. There was only a single uniformed person inside, a clerk, who was absentmindedly watching the TV. He was not much older than Jack, the signs of immaturity manifesting as pinkish pimples on his cheeks.
“Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?”
Taylor loudly asked the clerk.
“Towards the back, next to the storage,” replied the man without bothering to look at her.
“You heard him,” Taylor shrugged her shoulders. “Go wash up.”
Jack hurriedly made his way back, and after a brief search found the empty hallway behind a push door. He saw the bathroom sign there so he entered without hesitation.
There was a distant, unidentifiable buzzing coming the back, somewhere. He could just about make out the storage and the boxes of goods stacked in the darkness. The sign for the rear emergency exit flickered intermittently.
The door to the toilet was right next to the storage, unlocked, and surprisingly dirty. No one seemed to have cleaned it in a year or two. That was odd, since the actual store was clean and well kept.
The inside of the toilet was equally abysmal – grimy, walls and surfaces filled with lewd and rude scribbles all over the place, missing tiles and overhead lights flickering and dying, before miraculously resurrecting, only to repeat the process again. There were three cubicles but two of them had their doors broken in the hinges. At least the two wash basins present seemed to work fine, albeit just barely.
Jack groaned softly after realizing that there was no soap here, never mind a towel or a machine to dry his hands. He was somewhat astonished that such a place existed in his neck of the woods. Didn’t seem real – as if he had unwittingly traveled to the set of a classic slasher movie.
The water trickling out from the faucet ran down to his hands, settling on the dried blood for a second before sliding further down, the color changing to reddish pink.
Jack slowly scrubbed his hands, at first. The water felt cold against his bare skin. The blood from the dead animal was coming off a bit by bit, a layer by layer.
Yet, beneath one layer, there was another. And when he managed to wash that off, there was another one still. His scrubbing became vigorous, harder and harder, faster and faster until he could get those layers off his hands.
But yet again, there was another layer waiting underneath, mocking him silently.
Gritting his teeth, Jack clawed at the disgusting remnants of blood, the evidence of his guilt, like a madman. Finally, his skin broke and his own blood began to mingle with what was already on his skin. The scratch stung, and the pain brought him out of the maddened state.
Jack was breathing heavily as if he ran a lengthy marathon. When he saw his own reflection in the mirror, he could see how pale he was. Jack gulped down a lot of stale air, trying to calm down. There was nearly not enough energy in his legs, and he felt like toppling over. Only by holding onto the basin and bending over did he feel a little more secure of his footing.
Because of the closer proximity, the water splashed inside the basin and some landed on his face. Reflexively, Jack brought up his hands to wipe the droplets away. But that was a mistake – because his wiping hands left a trail of muddied blood on his face.
Jack sucked in another bout of deep breaths as dread rapidly filled him up inside. Now the face in the mirror looked like a true villain, a killer and a taker of lives. A bad guy, a monster, had stolen his face. That man in the mirror was not him. It couldn’t be him.
Jack quickly buried his head under the stream of water, trying to get closer to the faucet and wash his face clean. The angle was all wrong and it was difficult to fully get under the roaring water. He persisted, of course. He had to get this blood off him. He angrily splashed water on his face.
All because he simply couldn’t bear to witness the transformation of one Jack Mercer into a murderer.
No, he was not like them. He was not a monster like those bastards busy flaunting their superpowers like some kind of gods lording over the common, powerless people and doing whatever they pleased. He was not like them. Never.
Jack didn’t know just how long he spent in the bathroom, but when he finally raised his head, all the bloodstain was gone. His face was deathly pale, but at least, all signs of him committing a terrible deed had disappeared for good. The broken skin on his hand had already stopped hurting, the sign of his enhancement working properly.
He drank the water, trying to wash away the bitter taste in his mouth. He immediately spat out, regretting his decision soon after. The water tasted worse than mud.
Wiping the mouth with the back of his hand, Jack thought about buying a soda on his way out. He heard that sugar could calm the frayed nerves. He saw that in some movie not too long ago.
Jack took usable toilet papers from the cubicles and dried his face. It was time to go home and stop this charade. The period of pretending to be an avenging angel was over. He was going back home and back to the life he knew. Away from this madness of Supers and whatnots.
As for the agreement Jack made with Taylor, he would honor it. He may not need her powers anymore, but that was fine. He wasn’t going to go back on his words; a promise was a promise, so he shall fulfill it.
Only if the fate would let him return to his old life.
Jack was about to reach the door handle when he heard a loud shout. His enhanced hearing came to the fore, allowing him to hear the contents. They were not good. Not good at all.
“Give me all the money in the counter, now!!”
Jack froze on the spot when he heard that. He silently cursed out in his heart.
What the hell?! What is this cliched development?
A holdup was in progress. And he needed to make a quick decision.
If Jack stayed in the bathroom, then this storm might pass him by. After all, hiding in here guaranteed his safety. It was not like the robber would enter the toilet to steal the soap or something, since there was none here, to begin with. Thinking of his own safety, the choice was obvious.
Yeah, let’s stay in here. That’s for the best…
“Uh? What the f*ck? Hey, bi*ch, c’mere, now!! Get your skinny ass over here right now!! You looking to die? I said, get your ass over here, now, bi*ch!!”
Jack turned into a stone statue when the rough, intimidating words flowed into his ears. His hands gripped the door handle tightly until the knob was creaking under the pressure.
Oh, no!! Taylor – she’s still inside the store!!
Jack gritted his teeth. She might be a Super, but her powers were not really useful in a situation like this. She could only tell whether a person was a Super or not, or for that matter, whether there was a person in the vicinity near her. Of course, it was a given that she wouldn’t be able to tell apart a gun toting criminal from a law-abiding citizen.
What…. What do I do now?!
He hesitated. He didn’t know what to do anymore. He briefly entertained the idea of going out there and taking the armed robber or robbers head on, but he had no courage. He just wanted to hide in here and do absolutely nothing.
But once more, the choice was made for him.
There was a loud gunshot. And then, another.
The sharp crack of each shot pierced into Jack’s heart. Suddenly, his head was filled with the image of the dead coyote, but this time Taylor’s dying body replacing it.
Like a possessed man, he dashed out of the bathroom. The door broke and flung off the hinges. He didn’t care.
There were two robbers. Both them were decked out in black, head to toe. Black ski masks, black shirts, black pants – even the pistols wielded by the two were black in color.
One of them was holding Taylor from behind, the way a hostage taker might. He had his gun pressed against her temple. She was terrified, trembling like a wet dog.
The other armed robber was already behind the counter. From his angle, Jack couldn’t see what happened to the clerk, obscured partially from his view. But he could guess.
Jack threw himself at the hostage taker; he was the nearest. They weren’t ready for a sudden and violent appearance of a hidden player, which worked to Jack’s favor.
When he got closer, Jack could see the stunned expression hidden behind the ski mask. The robber’s brown eyes widened, his mouth trying to form a word.
Jack’s hand shot out and grabbed the gun-wielding hand. Then, he twisted it upwards. The unmistakable sound of a bone snapping in half followed soon after.
The robber cried out. His grip on Taylor loosened. She took this chance to dive forward, out of the man’s grasp. This paved way for what Jack wanted to do next – to land a solid punch on his face.
And land he did. Jack’s knuckles dug deep into the robber’s masked face, and the teenager clearly felt flesh and bone giving way under pressure. The robber became airborne, off his feet, momentarily escaping the embrace of the gravity.
The force of Jack’s punch propelled the robber back, and his body slammed into the display cabinets full of junk food with a huge crash.
There was now a stunned silence in the store. Even the robber behind the counter remained still, stupefied. His hand was in the middle of going through the open till but now, he wasn’t even moving anymore.
Jack breathed heavily, his adrenaline coursing through his veins once more. He felt good. He felt invincible. He felt like he could take on an army all alone. He clenched his fists in excitement. It was such a huge change in his temperament from less than a minute ago when he was a scared kid wanting to hide in a corner.
Jack was smiling like a madman in that moment.
“Get the other guy!!”
Taylor shouted from the floor. That broke the stupor of both men.
The robber hurriedly raised his pistol and took aim at Jack, while cursing out loud. “F*ck!! A goddamn Super!!”
The robber had all the right to feel aggrieved. Of all the joints he could hit, he and his pal just had to choose the one with a damn Super doing his thing, waiting to pounce on them. Now that was the very definition of “Rotten Luck.”
Jack raised his head and saw the muzzle of the gun. Like that time facing the coyote, he was calm, not an ounce of panic in his heart. As the adrenaline flowed in his veins faster and faster, the world around him slowed down to a crawl and he could clearly see the movement of the robber’s arm, the gun, and even the potential trajectory of the bullet, judged by the direction the muzzle was pointing at.
His body, driven by instinct, shifted to his left side on its own the moment the robber pulled the trigger.
Jack could see the bullet leaving the muzzle; the empty cartridge ejecting from the chamber as the slide moved; the thin, almost imperceptible dispersing molecules of gunpowder.
But the thing was, it didn’t matter whether he could see them or not. Because, there was just no way his body could react in time.
The first bullet grazed by his shoulder. The second bullet struck the shelf just as Jack ducked behind it. A split second of hesitation, and he’d be the one with a bullet hole in his face. The things on the destroyed shelf scattered noisily, showering him with the debris of potato crisps and white powder of some kind that smelled rather sweet.
He had no time to ponder the identity of the mystery item, though. The robber kept on firing the gun, necessitating Jack to continue with hauling his ass out of there in a hurry.
The robber cursed aloud and decided in haste to empty his clip right there and then. After all, he was facing a Super – if he didn’t go all out, then he’d surely suffer the consequences.
It was like a scene from a cheap Hollywood action movie; Jack ran while crouching, broken things and bits flying and showering all over. In a flash, he arrived at the window. He didn’t hesitate one bit and dived head first. He didn’t forget to raise his arms to shield his face, of course.
The glass shattered rather dramatically, with bullets trailing him from behind. Even though he was in mid-air, Jack still had the mental wherewithal to glance back and see the robber.
And he saw that the robber had run out of ammo, as his finger was depressed over the trigger but no bullet was coming out.
The robber was obviously flustered. In his panic, he ran out of the store via the front door, ignoring Jack who was trying to get back up. In his haste to escape, he even forgot about his buddy, still sprawled out inside across the broken shelf.
Jack stood up, ignoring the bits of glass all over his body. He was about to give chase when he heard Taylor shout out for him from inside the store. Reluctantly, Jack watched the robber jump into an old muscle car and drive off in a hurry, then he turned on his heels to come back inside. He was beginning to get worried about Taylor’s condition as well.
Once inside, there was a mixture of smells wafting in the air. There were soda, crisps, disinfectants, as well as another smell he wasn’t familiar with but knew instantly that it was from the gun – the bitter and acrid smell of gunpowder expanding under heat.
And then – there was also blood.
Jack paled and hurriedly called out for Taylor when he couldn’t immediately find her. “Hey!! Where are you?”
“Over here!! Call an ambulance!!”
Taylor shouted from behind the counter. Jack rushed there and when he looked over, he paled even more as he saw her pressing down on a wound on the chest of the clerk. It was bleeding profusely through the gaps of her fingers. Her face was grim, while the clerk’s were pale and his eyes drifting away.
The very first impression he got was that there was just so much blood. Jack stumbled back, feeling of vomit rising up in his throat once more. The formerly excited state evaporated like a lie and the previous fears of him becoming a monster rushed back. He didn’t want to take part in any of this. He had enough guilt on his hands.
Taylor was doing her best to stem the flow of blood. Her hands were full and she urgently needed help. Yet, that expected help didn’t materialize. In a frenzy, she shouted out aloud.
“Jack Mercer!! Wake up!! I need you to man up and pull your weight right now!! Or this person will die because of your inaction!! Do you want that on your conscience?!”
Jack shuddered from the shock. His retreating steps stopped. The cloud of fear in his eyes lifted, albeit just a bit. But that was enough for him to regain some of his senses.
He gritted his teeth again and quickly rummaged his pockets for the smartphone. Thankfully it had survived the crashing through the window and it still functioned properly.
Jack quickly dialed 911 and described the situation to the operator. Of course, he didn’t forget to omit some things from his reports.
By the time he finished the call, he heard the groan from the second robber behind him.
An intense anger flared up like a raging tornado inside him. Jack rushed to the robber and raised his fist, ready to bash in the bastard’s skull. His fury at nearly getting himself and Taylor killed blinded him even from the burning fear in his heart.
The robber pathetically whimpered and raised his only working arm to shield his face. “Please!! Please don’t hurt me, man!! Please!!”
That’s when Jack hesitated. He could clearly hear it, the fear in the voice. The robber’s eyes were also full of fear. Seeing and hearing the fear of another person, it affected Jack a lot more than he had bargained for. The way he was looked at was like how a victim of a terrible attack would look at the perpetrator. In other words, as if looking at a monster.
Jack’s expression darkened. He didn’t want to be viewed as a monster by the likes of this armed robber. This man was the villain, not him. The one with the gun was the true monster in this situation.
To reinforce and confirm his beliefs, Jack reached out and yanked the robber’s ski mask off. The revealed face, however, showed a scared looking man in his early twenties. There were trails of tears and snot, some blood on his face, broken cheek bone, loosened teeth.
Underneath all that, no matter how hard Jack searched, the robber…. looked just like any other human being.
Jack was stunned into silence. He expected to see some evil, devilish countenance, a face so unforgivable and suitable for a criminal like him but not this, a plain face.
And for the briefest moment Jack’s eyes wandered in denial, they caught the multiple, scattered and broken reflections of himself on the fallen bits of glass and artificially sweetened liquids on the floor, on the fridges, on the shelves.
To his horror, it was Jack who looked more like the monster between the two of them. There were streaks of blood all over his face where the window had cut him. His clothes were torn and cut, too. And there was a mess of unidentifiable things all over him, coloring him in a heady mix of dirt and a sickly rainbow.
Jack stumbled back up, trembling intensely at his own reflection. He could not recognize the face staring back. That creature was a deranged monster. No way in hell that could be him. It just couldn’t be him.
He stood there, stupefied into silence. The robber was confused and was tilting his head. But he wasn’t going anywhere, because there was a loud wailing siren of a police car in the distance, rapidly closing in.
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