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Authors: Preston Norton

Marrow (9 page)

BOOK: Marrow
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CHAPTER 14

 

Absolutely no time had passed between my interrogation with Nightmare and the hospital. I had simply blinked and I was here. Was this another one of his hallucinations? If so, this had to be the most elaborate and subtle buildup for a death yet. Whatever the case, my head was throbbing again and the ticking sound had returned, reverberating inside my brain.

Tick tooock tooock tick . . . tooock tooock . . . tick . . .

I groaned as I sat upright, only now noticing the IV in my arm and the white, spotted hospital gown I was wearing. I felt stiff—as if I had been lying here for ages.

“Marrow . . . ?”

My gaze darted to where a pair of chairs that matched the bland, off-white decor had been arranged in the corner. Scrawny, mousy-haired Whisp stood up from one of them. A glimmer of blue hair shifted beside him. Sapphire pulled herself upright, blinking the sleep out of her eyes.

Her gaze met mine.

“Marrow!”

She bolted from her seat, attacking me in hug. I grunted on impact as she hit me with the unintentional force of a football lineman. Even though it hurt more than I cared to admit, I was absolutely positive now that this wasn’t another death hallucination, although I could barely breathe in Sapphire’s death hug. Whisp stood up as well but with slightly more consideration for personal boundaries.

They were both wearing bodysuits that I realized correlated with their hero trainers—Sapphire’s was ironically blue, trimmed in white, and Whisp’s was purple and black.

“What happened to you?” Sapphire asked, finally pulling herself together.

Honestly, I was just as excited to see her, but I could barely move after being tied to a chair for so long. Which brought up an entirely new question . . .

“How’d I get here?” I asked, unintentionally ignoring her question. I realized this after the fact, but Sapphire didn’t seem to mind.

“Flex found you unconscious in an alley yesterday,” she said. “You’ve been out for almost forty-eight hours since he brought you here. Whisp and I came as soon as we found out.”

The idea of Flex actually leaving his apartment to find me was unbelievable. More than unbelievable. It was just flat out impossible. But there was something much more disconcerting that drew my attention.

“Alley?” I said.

There was no way. It couldn’t be.

“Yeah,” said Sapphire. “Apparently it happened after you visited Oracle. Flex said he interrogated some punk who he thought was responsible. The guy said he and his friends saw some Super named Nightmare knock you out. Apparently he just left you there.

I couldn’t believe it. This whole time . . .

The interrogation itself had been a hallucination.

All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.

Nightmare’s bizarre last words suddenly made sense. But why? Why would he stage a fake interrogation like that? What was the point?

“Are you okay?” asked Whisp. I blinked, redirecting my gaze to the scrawny animal whisperer. I almost forgot he was there.

Okay? Well I wasn’t being psychologically tortured anymore, so that was a plus. However, something about Nightmare’s mysterious mind game left me more than uneasy.

“Does anyone know who Nightmare is?” I asked. Again, I didn’t realize I had ignored someone’s question until after the fact. But like Sapphire, Whisp didn’t seem to mind. I was the one in the hospital bed, so I guess that gave me some leniency.

“Well . . . Flex seemed to recognize the name,” said Whisp. “But he seems to be the only one, and he won’t talk about it. Nova and Specter said they don’t know anyone named Nightmare.” He paused, biting his lip, before adding, “Flex doesn’t seem too happy about any of this.”

Well that was a shocker—Flex not being happy about something. I wondered if that goon was even capable of being happy if he wasn’t drunk or playing video games.

“Where
is
Flex?” I asked.

“Downstairs,” said Sapphire. “In the lobby with Specter and Nova. They’re . . . talking.”

She seemed to be using the word “talking” very loosely.

Without a word, I ripped the tape and IV from my arm and started for the exit. Whisp watched me, wide-eyed behind his thick glasses like I’d just gone crazy or something. I probably looked crazy enough rushing off in a hospital gown.

“Where do you think you’re going?” said Sapphire.

“I need to talk to Flex,” I said.

“You’re a hospital patient!” she said. “You can’t just go wandering around.”

“Oh yeah? Watch me.”

I felt bad just up and ditching Sapphire and Whisp like that. I was flattered that they even came to visit me. But something was going on here, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it.

The hallways were practically empty. Passing by the nearest window, I noticed that it was dark outside. I then glanced at a digital clock on the wall and was shocked to find that it was 3:17 a.m. That explained why it was so dead. Although I received a few awkward glances from the occasional passing nurse. I ignored their looks and entered the nearest elevator. I pushed the level one button a couple of times and the door started to close.

A hand with bright blue nail polish forced its way in, stopping the doors, and they reopened. An irritated Sapphire and a reluctant Whisp filed into the elevator with me. Sapphire practically stabbed the level one button with her index finger and the doors closed again. There was a subtle shift of gravity and a gentle hum as the elevator descended.

“You’re a real butthead, you know that?” said Sapphire. The friendliness was gone. She stared straight ahead, not even bothering to look at me.

Whisp bit his lip and tried to blend into the elevator wall.

“Sorry,” I said in a half-mumble. Which was true. I was sorry. Sort of.

The silence was thick and suffocating. But I had already suffocated quite a bit lately thanks to Nightmare, so I was used to it.

“What’s going on?” Sapphire asked. She was looking at me now and there was even a hint of concern in her voice. “Talk to me. Please. You owe me that much.”

I made the mistake of making eye-contact with her—big blue pleading eyes that put every homeless puppy to shame.

I sighed.

“I’ve been interrogated by Nightmare for the past who-knows-how-long,” I said. “He wanted to know about my visit with Oracle. At least that’s what he said.”

“Interrogated?” said Sapphire. “You mean before he knocked you out?”

“No, I mean while I was knocked out. Apparently the entire interrogation was a dream. That’s his power—hallucinations.”

Sapphire was silent for a long moment. “Okay. That’s weird. What did he want to know about your visit with Oracle?”

The elevator halted with a
ding
and the doors slid open.

“No idea,” I said. “That’s what I’m hoping to find out.”

The lobby was easy to find—a long, curving room with sleek light fixtures and maroon leather furniture. It was empty except for three obvious figures.

Specter’s already curvaceous body was accentuated in a blue and white bodysuit to match Sapphire’s. Specter was a tall, statuesque blonde with full lips and eyelashes that belonged on a camel. Okay, maybe that’s not the best comparison in the world since she was a drop dead gorgeous cold hard ten, and camels are . . . camels. But seriously. Her eyelashes were huge.

Nova was a stocky man with a beard and a shaved head, dressed in a durable purple and black plated uniform well-adjusted to his power—exploding.

And then there was Flex, wearing baggy shorts, flip-flops, and a t-shirt with cutoff sleeves that read, “Jamaican Me Crazy.”

His voice carried above all the others.

“HE’S WHAT?”

“Flex, calm down,” said Specter.

“Don’t tell me to calm down!” said Flex, shaking his head with dreadlocks flailing wildly. “I have no reason to calm down!”

“I told you telling him was a bad idea,” Nova grumbled beneath his beard.

“Hey,” said Flex, pointing his finger. “You can shut your donut hole, you ugly old warlock. How long were you planning on hiding this from me anyway?”

“No one was hiding anything from you, mop-head,” said Nova. “All of this information was in your packet. Too bad you don’t know how to read anything that isn’t an alcohol label.”

“Really, Flex, it’s not that bad,” said Specter. She attempted to place a soothing hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it away.

“That kid is Spine’s son!” said Flex. “The Guild must think they’re a bunch of comedians. There’s no way I’m training him. I would rather train a freaking honey badger.”

Sapphire and Whisp exchanged hesitant glances beside me.

“Good!” I shouted, marching out into the lobby. “I don’t want you training me anyway!”

Specter and Nova both shot me startled glances. Flex didn’t even look at me, rolling his eyes instead.

“What could I possibly learn from you anyway?” I asked, throwing my hands in the air. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“I don’t need to know about you,” said Flex. “I know enough about your dad.”

“Oh, right,” I said. “Because you and the rest of the world are all experts on everything there is to know about my father. I’m sure the news told you everything you need to know.”

Flex sighed. “Marrow—”

“No!” I said. “You know what? He’s as much my father as you are my trainer. Forget FIST. Forget this stupid Sidekick Internship Program. I’m done with it. All of it. I don’t need anybody.”

I started for the exit.

I had no idea where I was going. I didn’t even know where I
could
go. Never mind the fact that I was still in my hospital gown. All I knew was that I had to get out of here. I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Marrow!” said Sapphire.

I walked faster.

“Marrow, it’s not like that,” said Flex.

I whipped around, every muscle in my body tense. “Oh, it’s not? Well please, tell me what it’s like then!”

Flex’s mouth opened, but no words came out. He looked about as ready to talk as he was ready to train a sidekick.

I started for the exit again.

“Your father trained me,” said Flex.

His words seared into every nerve ending in my body. My next step faltered. Turning slowly, I met Flex’s gaze, solemn and regretful.

“I was Spine’s sidekick,” he said.

CHAPTER 15

 

There comes a time when someone says something so astronomically, catastrophically, mind-blowingly WHATTHECRAPTASTIC that the fabric of the universe is ripped wide open and the space-time continuum comes to a complete halt. It was like those movies when an explosion goes off, and all the character can hear is this shrill ringing sound that doesn’t technically exist because it’s actually coming from ear drums that have momentarily forgotten how to be ear drums. Things are happening, and people’s mouths are moving, but the world is disconnected.

That’s where I was.

I proceeded to walk outside.

But I didn’t leave like I said I would. Neither did Flex ditch me like he said he would. Instead, I found a nice, cold, mildly uncomfortable place on the curb and waited for the universe to realign itself until it made sense again.

But the fact of the matter was that it
did
make sense. It made so much sense that it hurt. The Guild had two problems—Spine’s son and Spine’s sidekick. Why not combine the problems into a nice, little package and let the problems sort themselves out?

That’s what we were—two problems that the Guild was just trying to get out of the way. No wonder Flex wanted nothing to do with me.

Flex sat down on the curb beside me. He was holding my clothes in his lap.

“I told everyone they could go,” said Flex.

I nodded. Sort of. It was really more of wobbly bobble-head thing, but Flex seemed to recognize it as a nod regardless.

“Do you wanna get dressed and go home?” he said.

I repeated my bobble-head response. I didn’t
really
want to go. But then again, this curb sucked, and it was cold outside, and I was basically wearing a dress made out of a bed sheet, and I was beginning to lose feeling in my butt.

I went back inside to change and we left in his crappy old Volvo. Most of the ride was silent. The tension was gone, but the silence was thick and suffocating.

“You were there?” I finally asked. “You were there when he—?”

I couldn’t finish the question. It made me sick just thinking about it.

Why? Why did I suddenly care? Spine wasn’t my father. He was a monster. Heck, he even sent Nightmare to interrogate me or torture me or whatever the heck that whole thing was supposed to be.

“Yeah,” said Flex, his mouth pulled in a bitter, straight line. “I was there.”

I wanted to just leave it there. Nothing good would come from knowing the details. But the question was itching on my tongue.

“Why?” I asked. “What happened?”

I realized it was a vague question only after I asked it, but Flex seemed to understand. A soft patter of rain swept over the car in a sudden gentle wave. Flex flipped the windshield wiper on, staring contemplatively into the storm.

“I ask myself that every day,” said Flex.

Of course Flex wouldn’t know the answer. That’s because there wasn’t an answer. It wasn’t healthy for me to pry into this. What sort of answer was I expecting anyway?

“Oh . . . okay,” I said. I hated how disappointed I sounded. “Not that it matters or anything. My father was just a sadistic psychopath who only cared about himself anyway.”

“That’s not true,” said Flex.

His instant response shocked me. In fact, even he seemed surprised by his quick and bold reply.

“Your father was one of the best men I ever knew,” said Flex slowly, choosing his words carefully. “He was everything that a hero should be. And for the record, I’ve never seen a father care for his son as much as Spine cared about you.”

I was breathless. Why? How could that be true? It didn’t make any sense.

“If I had to guess, I’d say it was your mother’s death that started it,” said Flex. “A car accident—something so simple. Spine had saved so many people, but he couldn’t save her. He didn’t go from good to evil overnight, but he did stop feeling. He just stopped caring. I think a tragedy like that could make anyone spiral out of control if they let it. It’s the only possibility that makes sense. All I know is that he loved your mother more than life itself. Living without her just wasn’t an option.”

I hadn’t noticed until now the moisture trickling down my cheek. I hastily wiped it away. I couldn’t take this conversation anymore.

“So who’s Nightmare?” I asked, vying desperately for a subject change.

Flex was caught off guard by the change of topic but didn’t seem to mind it. “A friend of your father,” he said. “The two have been friends since before he trained me.”

“And Nova and Specter didn’t know who he was?” I asked.

“Nightmare was a Super, but he never even tried to be a hero,” said Flex. “Or a villain, for that matter. He was a recluse. He lived out in the woods and didn’t want anything to do with people. The two of them would occasionally go fishing and ramble about politics and philosophy, but I’ve never even talked to him. Just seen his face a couple times. One ugly dude.”

“Yeah he is,” I said with a weak laugh. “A mother couldn’t love that face.”

“Not even a little bit,” said Flex, chuckling.

Our laughter faded awkwardly. As much as I wanted to make light of the situation, it was obvious neither of us was in quite the laughing mood.

“So . . . what happened with Nightmare anyway?” Flex asked.

It would have been really easy to give him the extremely condensed version of the story that I’d given Sapphire. After surviving
at least
forty-eight hours of torture, the last thing I wanted to do was talk about it. But I wanted answers even more. My experience with Nightmare wasn’t exactly something I could just shrug aside. And as far as I knew, Flex was one of the only people who actually knew who this guy was.

So I told him everything.

Flex listened quietly. Once I started, it was impossible to stop. The words became a landslide coming out of my mouth. Flex’s facial expression didn’t budge the entire time. After I finished, I had to take a deep breath. I already felt queasy.

It was another long moment before Flex finally spoke.

“Spine . . . ?” he said. The name came out with all the subtlety of a gag reflex. “He told you Spine sent him?”

“Yep,” I said, grimacing.

“And the whole thing was just an elaborate illusion?”

“Yep.”

“And Oracle thinks Spine has been spying on her?”

“Yep.”

Flex stared at the road ahead for a moment longer before he unexpectedly pulled one hand away, glancing behind him as he groped the back seat. This sudden diversion did not last long. He returned with a familiar package in a manila envelope.

“So this is for me?”

The videotape.

“You have it?” I exclaimed questioningly. “I thought Nightmare took it!”

Flex shook his head. “It was tucked in your jacket when I found you.”

I couldn’t believe it. Nightmare hadn’t bothered to search me? He was interrogating me about my visit with Oracle! I even told him I was carrying a package from her!

And he didn’t bother going back to get it?

Flex crinkled the manila package beneath his fingertips. “It’s a VHS tape, isn’t it.”

It didn’t sound like he was asking.

“Uh . . . yeah,” I said.

“And it’s supposed to motivate me to go visit Oracle?”

I nodded, but my mind was preoccupied with something else.

“You haven’t watched it yet?” I asked.

Flex tossed it back in the back seat. “Don’t need to. I already know what it is.”

My mouth hung slightly ajar as I glanced back and forth between Flex and the package in the backseat. “Well? What is it?”

“A home movie,” said Flex.

“A what?”

“I was an orphan,” Flex explained. “Oracle adopted me before I was admitted into FIST. It didn’t matter that she was blind; that crazy old lady had a moral code to videotape everything. I don’t know which home movie it is, but I’m sure it’s one of them. Worst home movies ever, by the way. Everything’s way off center. My head is cut off half the time.”

I nodded slowly as I processed everything. It suddenly made perfect sense why she trusted Flex so much. Also why she had his entire hero track record memorized.

I couldn’t imagine the two of them living under the same roof.

“So . . . do you want to visit her then?” I asked.

“No,” said Flex in a flat tone. Then he sighed. “But we’re going to anyway.”

“When?”

“Right now.”

“What? Now? It’s like four in the morning.”

“Good,” said Flex. “That means we’ll catch her at home.”

I didn’t have the energy to protest. Instead, I simply slumped back in my seat.

Suddenly my head pounded. The familiar ticking sound that I kept waking up to was echoing through my skull louder than ever now.

TICK TICK TICK TICK . . . TICK . . . TICK TOOOCK TICK TICK . . .

That’s when I noticed two headlights from my side window. I wouldn’t have given the car a second glance, but the headlights didn’t seem to be angled straight. They faced the ground and then moved, flashing me directly in the face before streaming up and cutting through the storm clouds.

None of the car’s wheels were touching the ground.

“What the—?” said Flex.

Out of sheer instinct, I tapped into my skeletal structure, fortifying myself. Not a second later, the flying car smashed into us. My head whipped so fast, the next few seconds became a blur. Our surroundings spun and toppled. Gravity reversed as we rolled. Our dangerous momentum came to an abrupt halt as we hit something else from Flex’s side.

I was numb. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. I couldn’t think right. I blinked several times, trying to register my surroundings. We had hit the solid concrete base of a street lamp. The car practically folded around it. Flex was hanging limp from the shoulder strap of his seat belt. There was a gash across his forehead, accompanied by a bloody nose and a cut lip.

I tried to say his name. I couldn’t. Either that or I couldn’t hear myself speak. All I could make out was a high pitched ringing sound that pierced my skull.

“Flex . . .”

I heard my voice that time, although it was strained and barely audible. Fortunately, I could hear the sounds of city life as well—a barking dog, a distant siren, the sound of the freeway like gentle ocean waves . . .

Metal screeched beside me. My door was ripped off, landing on the ground with a heavy
clank
.

An invisible force gripped every inch of my body and wrenched me from the car. It didn’t seem to matter that my bone structure was still at its densest. My insides defied gravity as I soared across the street—four whole empty lanes. I hit a solid surface behind me—literally smashed into it. My body was still numb to the impact, but I felt brick crumble around my super-enhanced frame.

If my skeletal structure had been at its normal density, I would have been out cold for sure. Maybe even worse. This invisible force felt like the concentrated power of a hurricane.

Telekinesis?

A tall, skinny silhouette levitated out of the shadows. As the figure drifted past a nearby street lamp, his face was illuminated.

It was Nero.

BOOK: Marrow
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