Read Ex-Purgatory: A Novel Online
Authors: Peter Clines
A ring of people surrounded George. Most were a polite yard or two away. Several watched from nearby tables.
George stood up. “Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to freak anyone out. Just a … a bad migraine.”
Half the crowd sighed and strolled off, their hopes for a serious incident dashed. A few lingered to be sure they weren’t going to miss anything. “You okay now?” the suit asked.
“I’ve got some Advil,” said a woman in the dwindling crowd. She slung her backpack off her shoulder and rooted through a side pouch. “I get killer ones now and then.”
George waved her off. “I’m good, thanks.”
The suit—probably a doctor of some kind—helped George onto a bench and checked his eyes and pulse. Whatever he found seemed to satisfy him. The suit squeezed George’s shoulder, told him to get some rest, and headed off across the plaza. Most of the bystanders vanished with him.
The security officer waited until the suit was gone. “You been drinking?” he murmured. The name on his silver tag was Crosby.
“What?” George shook his head. “No.”
Crosby’s eyes dropped to George’s ID badge. “If you’ve been drinking I need to report it,” he said. “You know that.”
“I haven’t been drinking. Honest.”
The security officer nodded. “Okay, then. Take care of yourself. Don’t let it happen again.” He walked off with an air of confident superiority and left George on the science court. A few last people glanced at him, and then they wandered away, too.
He waited two minutes to see if the headache returned. When it didn’t, he retraced his steps. Aside from a random coffee cup and an overflowing trash can, the court was pristine. No weeds. No cracks. The dozens of windows around the plaza were all whole and clean.
He found his phone sitting in the short-cut grass next to the window-cleaning supplies. He’d almost dropped it in his squeegee bucket. According to the log, twenty minutes had passed since his call with Barry Burke ended. He didn’t remember hanging up. He wondered if the other man had stayed on the line. Had he heard anything?
George was staring at the phone when it chirped. “George,” it said, “y’out there or what?”
“Yeah, I’m here, Jarvis.”
“I been trying to get you for five minutes now.”
“Dropped my phone in the grass. Sorry.”
“Those windows done?”
He looked up at the building and sighed. “Got to be honest,” he said, “I’m about half an hour or so behind.”
Jarvis was silent for a moment. George could picture the salt-and-pepper
man cursing back at the office. “What’s the problem?” he asked.
George looked back at the Court of Sciences. “I think I’m coming down with something. I don’t feel too hot.”
“Don’t mess with me, George.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “I’ve been having killer headaches. I almost threw up a few minutes ago.”
Another silence from the phone. “If it was anyone else,” said Jarvis’s twang, “I’d tell ’em to suck it up.”
“You need to go get checked out?”
He considered that option for a few moments. “No. I think I just need to get some rest.”
“Yeah,” agreed Jarvis. “You’ve been looking a little ragged. I’ll punch you out. Go home and sleep. Don’t be sick tomorrow or I’ll fire your ass.”
George couldn’t remember Madelyn’s phone number or dorm, but he remembered where he’d flipped the couch into the dumpster. The unusually light couch. He found a good central position between a few of the buildings and waited.
His stomach grumbled. It was lunchtime. He considered hitting one of the vending machines, but he didn’t want to miss the girl. It crossed his mind she might be down at the dining commons looking for him, but he didn’t want to lose time second-guessing himself.
Two guys crossed the courtyard reciting British comedy to each other. “I discovered,” said one, “the only reason that it had been sitting on its perch in the first place was that it had been
“Well, of course it was nailed there,” said the other. “If I hadn’t nailed that bird down, it would have nuzzled up to those bars, bent ’em apart with its little pecker, and … voom!” They walked off, amusing themselves with their performances.
He was there for an hour when he saw Madelyn coming up the path. Her palms ran along the hand rims and moved the wheelchair at a decent pace. She didn’t have any trouble keeping up with some of the other walkers.
She was a dozen yards away when she saw him. A flutter of emotions crossed her face. She slowed down. It took her two minutes to cross the last thirty feet.
“I wasn’t sure I’d see you again,” she said.
“I’ve been thinking about some of the stuff you told me.”
“I called the guy in New Mexico. Barry Burke.”
Her face lit up. “Zap!” she said. She buzzed the
against the roof of her mouth so it stretched out, like she was saying it in French or something.
“I still don’t remember him,” said George. “He seemed to know me, but …”
“But that’s it.”
She crossed her arms and stared up at him. “That’s it?”
“He asked if you were dead. He said in the dreams he’s having there’s a dead girl, but the way he says it is like … like she’s not really dead.”
Madelyn smiled. “That’s me.”
He paced in front of her for a minute. Then he realized he was pacing and stopped. “This can’t be real,” he said.
“Is that why you’re here?” she asked. “You just wanted to be a jerk and come tell me this is all silly?”
She looked back at him. “What about them?”
The back of his skull pulsed. Just once. The sensation traveled forward through the bone to echo in his eye sockets. A reminder not to push it too far. “I think I’m …”
Having some kind of nervous breakdown
crossed his mind.
“I think I’m seeing the things from my dreams,” he said. “While I’m awake.”
Madelyn looked around. “Seeing them
?” she asked.
“Do you see them now?”
He shook his head. “It comes and goes.”
Madelyn looked over at a nearby trash can. “Is there a newspaper in there?”
“In the trash. Is there a newspaper or magazine or anything?”
He glanced in the bin and shook his head.
She rocked the wheelchair back and forth for a moment. “Can you come up to my room? You need to see something.”
The standard reaction flashed across his mind. This was serious getting-fired territory. It was also, he had to admit, crossing another line. In a way, that one scared him even more.
“Yeah,” he said. “Sure.”
George followed her into one of the dorms. They waited on an elevator, and when it came she slid inside and spun her wheelchair around so she could tap the controls. It wasn’t a large elevator. He felt crowded.
The doors opened on the third floor and Madelyn led him down the hall. She dragged her backpack around, pulled out a keychain on a black scrunchie-cord, and unlocked the door.
“Sorry,” called a voice from inside. “I didn’t expect you back.”
Madelyn pushed her way into the dorm room and tossed her backpack on the bed. Her side of the room looked empty to George, but he couldn’t figure out why. Then she spun her wheelchair around to the desk. The standard chair was missing.
Two oxygen tanks stood next to the bed. They looked like a scuba diver’s rig mounted on a small dolly. A clear tube ran off the left tank, coiled around, and hooked into a clear mask shaped to fit over the nose and mouth.
Madelyn saw him studying the tank. “I need it to sleep,” she explained. “I don’t breathe when I’m unconscious.”
The other side of the room looked like an art project. Posters and magazine pages showed Olympic gymnasts, dancers, and martial artists. It was a look George was familiar with. A month or so into the semester, as the new students finally accepted they
were unsupervised, there was always an explosion of creative decorations, clothing, and relationships. Some of it stuck around. A lot of it didn’t.
The young Asian woman sitting cross-legged on the bed wore a baggy white sweatshirt with bold rainbow stripes on it. A textbook sprawled in her lap, and her long braid brushed the pages. She glanced up from her textbook as Madelyn settled in. She struck George as familiar.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Kathy.”
She studied him for a moment. “Hey,” she said. “I know you. You’re the couch guy.”
He smiled and remembered her slouching deep into the passenger seat of the car. “Yeah.”
“I’m sorry about how my dad talked to you. He and Mom are having major separation anxiety.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“That was kind of awesome. You picked it up like it didn’t weigh anything.”
“It’s …” George glanced at Madelyn. Her fingers were brushing back and forth across her laptop’s touchpad. “It’s a balance trick,” he said. “It looks impressive, but there’s nothing to it.”
Kathy smiled and let her eyes drop back to her book. “Your friend’s kind of cute, too.”
She blushed. “With the glasses? How old is he?”
“Hey,” interrupted Madelyn, “pay attention.”
“Sorry,” said George. He glanced at Kathy, but she waved off his eyeballed apology and went back to her book.
Madelyn’s desk held nothing but her laptop. The shelf above it was packed with two dozen black composition books. Each one had a piece of paper with a set of dates taped to the spine. At the far end were a trio of what looked like pocket diaries. She glanced at him, then followed his gaze up to the notebooks. “Journals,” she said. “Well, it started out as diary, but I think I should call it a journal now.”
“You planning on writing a memoir or something?”
“Remember how I said I had memory problems for a while?”
“Writing a journal helps me remember stuff.” Her fingers slid back and forth on the computer’s track pad. “I had a lot to remember.”
There was a calendar on the wall and next to it was a list of words. They’d been printed out in large font.
Corpse Girl (ME)
St. George / Mighty Dragon
She followed his gaze over to the list and pointed at the top. “That’s you,” she said. “You’re the Mighty Dragon. You used to be, anyway.”
He bit his lip. “Okay.”
Madelyn tapped a few keys on her laptop and brought up a web page. A news headline from that morning showed the President and First Lady at some event. George remembered seeing a notice about them being in town.
“This is what you wanted to show me?” he asked.
“When I first realized who he was,” she said, “I just thought it was part of this weird history-rewrite thing. He used to work for my dad. I think I even talked to him on the phone a couple times when I was in high school.” She pointed at the picture. “Do you know who he is?”
His headache was coming back, and his nose was starting to run, too. He sniffed and pressed on the bridge of his nose. “The President?”
She sighed. “Yeah, but past that.”
“What do you mean, past that?”
“Okay, how about this.” She grabbed a box of tissues from the corner of her desk and tossed it to him. “Do you recognize his wife?”
George pulled out two and wiped his nostrils. He looked at the picture of the First Lady and nodded. She was six years older than her husband, but it looked like more because he was so well preserved. He’d laughed off accusations of plastic surgery more than once. “She used to be a councilwoman here in LA, back before they got married.”
“Yeah.” Madelyn tapped the picture of the President again. “I’m pretty sure he’s behind all of this.”
“All of what?”
“Us being here instead of in our world. You and everyone else not remembering you’re superheroes. All of it.”
George stared at her for a moment. “Okay,” he said. He balled up the tissues in his hand. “Now the President is part of this?”
“I think so, yeah.”
He dabbed at his nose again and tried to keep from sounding too harsh. “The most successful President in history? A guy who’s so universally loved there’s a bipartisan movement in Congress right now to repeal the Twenty-second Amendment so he can run for a third term?”
“Yeah. He must still have his powers for some reason. Probably because he’s the one who did all of this.”
George drummed his fingers on his leg. He’d almost bought it. He’d wanted to believe her. “So I’m a superhero,” he said, “but I don’t remember it.”
“And I’m supposed to be dating an Abercrombie and Fitch model who’s also a superhero. I’m guessing she doesn’t remember it, either. And you’re one, too, except you’re supposed to be dead.”
“Not like that,” she said. “That’s my superpower.”
“Being dead doesn’t count as a superpower.”
“It does in my case.”
“Right. But on top of all this, you want me to believe that
President John Smith—who I voted for—is some kind of supervillain?”