Chapter Two: Still Life

There was murder on the news. Aaron Lightheart watched it over his cereal, barely listening to the reporter recount the details in a polished monotone.

Carter dropped into the seat beside him. A stack of five or six waffles wobbled on his plate, dripping syrup over the heap of scrambled eggs and fruit slices crammed along the edges.

“Get enough food?” Aaron asked his twin.

“Maybe,” Carter dug his fork into the eggs. “Didn’t have enough room for any yogurt. Why are you watching the news?”

Aaron shrugged. “Dad left it on.”

“Not the best cure for nightmares,” Carter said through a mouthful of food.

Aaron spared his brother a wry smile. “My nightmares are worse than this. And I don’t think avoiding TV will help.”

They ate in silence after that, Aaron without much appetite and Carter with too much. Aaron spent it trying not to think of the dream he’d had last night. Violence, without the sanitization of a news report. The worst part wasn’t even that what he’d dreamed was probably real. The worst part was that it probably hadn’t happened yet, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. It had left him with a dull headache that every little noise seemed to intensify.

“No TV during breakfast,” Mom said as she swept into the kitchen. She was already dressed for work: immaculately neat, with her puffy black hair gathered into a ball at the back of her head. Her polished shoes clicked against on the tile. “Why are you watching the news, anyway?”

“Dad left it on,” they answered together.

Mom sighed. “Of course he did,” she said. “Aaron, are you eating dry cereal for breakfast? You know we have milk.”

“It smelled bad,” he said.

“At least eat an apple or something. And don’t forget to—”

“Take my medicine. I know.” He rubbed at his temples.

“You look tired,” she said.

“Well, it’s morning and I’m sixteen.”

“By which you mean you were up playing video games all night?” she asked.

“Carter stayed up, too.”

“Well, he looks like he handled it better,” she said, and her eyes fell on the mountain of food on Carter’s plate. “Carter, you aren’t going to eat all of that, are you?”

“I’m hungry,” Carter said through a mouthful of food.

“He’s a teenage boy, Zoe, and an athlete,” their father said as he walked in, rubbing a towel through his damp blond hair. His shirt was almost too tight, the Air Force logo stretched across his broad chest. He draped the towel around his neck and grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl. “Track today?”

“Yeah, after school,” Carter said.

Aaron tuned them out. Their conversation faded into the monotony of kitchen clatter and the buzzing of the forgotten news report. He ate a few bland spoonfuls of cereal, trying to ignore the ache brought on by the onslaught of noise. He had almost finished when he felt a sudden, sharp pain, accompanied by a low-pitched whine. He flinched, dropping the spoon. Not again, he thought.

“Aaron?” The voice was muffled, distorted. There was something else, but it faded under the intensifying pain. His family, the kitchen, all the ambient noise and color disappeared. A blur of images assaulted him: vivid snapshots, accompanied by bursts of noise and emotion. Intense moments spliced together like a badly edited film and dumped into his brain.

0202

The vision faded as fast as it came, and Aaron found himself hunched over the table, his hands clutched to his temples.

“Aaron, are you okay?” His mother’s voice drifted over him, and he glanced up to see her behind the kitchen island, her face creased with sympathy and concern.

“I’m fine,” he said, blinking. Everything was blurry for some reason.

“Here,” Carter said. He held Aaron’s glasses in his hand.

“Thanks.” He took them and slid them over his nose, trying to ignore the attention and refocus on his cereal.

Mom rounded the counter. “Let me look at you,” she said, but he pulled back, brushing off her attentions.

“I’m fine,” he said. “It wasn’t a bad one.” His pulse was still racing from his vision, and he knew she’d notice.

“Do you need to stay home today?”

“No, I’m fine. It really wasn’t that bad.”

It was pretty clear she didn’t believe him. Pursed lips, hands on her hips, just a penlight short of full doctor mode. “All right,” she said at last. “If you keep having problems today, call me and I’ll come get you. And don’t forget your medicine,” she added, more gently this time. “It will help.”

Aaron nodded, concentrating on his cereal while he waited to feel normal again.

Meanwhile, his father was watching him from across the kitchen. Aaron couldn’t decide what the look meant. “I’m fine,” he said.

Dad plucked an apple out of the fruit bowl and tossed a bright green apple toward him. Aaron fumbled to catch it. “You need to eat more than cereal,” he said. He finished his own fruit and dropped the core in the trash. “Tell me how track goes,” he said to Carter, and headed back down the hall.

“We should get going,” Aaron said, with a glance at Carter. “We have to pick up Lucia on the way to school.”

“Just a sec,” Carter said. He spent a minute devouring the rest of his food—a sight both impressive and mildly disgusting—before dumping his plate in the sink and joining Aaron in the hall.

They were almost through the door when Mom rushed up, a white pill pinched between her fingers.

“Don’t forget your—”

“Medicine, I know,” Aaron said, letting her drop it in his palm. He put it in his mouth and swallowed. He waited until they were outside before he spit it out and dumped it in the hydrangeas.

* * * * *

Carter’s ancient red sedan was, by this point, only mostly red, and sounded like it ran on the souls of tortured cats. Technically, it was Aaron’s car, too, but he didn’t drive. Couldn’t, thanks to his “condition.”

He slumped into the passenger seat and threw his arm over his face. “I’m just going to close my eyes and pretend I don’t exist for a while.”

“That bad?”

“No,” he said. “But I had a bad one last night. It’s never good when they come so close together.”

“Your power sucks,” Carter said.

“No argument here.”

“See anything good?”

“Biology class.” He spent a moment sorting through the images in his memory. Test papers, a flash of blond hair, Carter’s yellow shirt, a faded anatomy poster. Anxiety and concentration. He blinked. “Pop quiz today. Couldn’t see the questions.”

“Boring,” Carter said. “Let me know when you have a vision about the girl’s locker room.” He said it with a grin that meant he was joking.

“Shut up,” Aaron said.

“I texted Lucia,” he said. “You want her help with the headache?”

“I figured I could trade it for my bio notes.” He yawned and leaned back, resting his head on his hands. “Turn on some music, will you? Just not too loud.”

They pulled up in front of a small blue house surrounded by azaleas. Although the bushes were neatly trimmed and the grass cut, the siding was cracked and the porch rails showed more rust than iron. The screen door slammed open and Lucia Clarke burst out, vaulting down the porch stairs as she swung her backpack over one shoulder.

03lucia

She looked almost normal for once, in faded jeans and a black shirt, artfully ripped to show the lime green tank top underneath. Her long black hair hung loose, the tips dyed vivid magenta.

“Hey, losers,” Lucia said as she slid into the backseat. “What’s the emergency?” She lounged in the center of the seat, propping her legs up on the center console. “I brought snacks,” she said, producing a bag full of miniature muffins. She opened the bag, releasing a waft of warm, cinnamon-scented air. Aaron could almost taste the sweetness. “Want one?” she enticed, dancing the bag toward him.

“Oh my god, yes.” Aaron said, reaching immediately for it.

“I thought you weren’t hungry,” Carter said, and: “Three please.”

“You know I can’t resist cinnamon,” Aaron said, taking a bite. “Especially if Lucia bakes it.”

“Aw, he’s so sweet,” she said, in a fake Southern Belle voice. “So what’s going on?” She arched her brow as she glanced between them. “You two are kind of anxious about something.”

“Pop quiz in Coldwell’s class,” Carter said, and Lucia shuddered. Coldwell was famous for his vicious test questions. “And Aaron has a headache.”

“I’m not a bottle of aspirin. Take some painkillers or something.”

“I took three and it hasn’t helped,” Aaron said. “Mom was about to go full brain doctor on me this morning. Please, Lu? I’ll trade you my notes.”

Lucia leaned forward and squinted at him. “You do look pretty awful.” She rested her hand on his shoulder, letting her fingertips touch the bare skin of his neck. Her eyes closed, and she took a deep breath. “Wow,” she said. Then, rolling her eyes: “Okay, okay. I’ll do it this time. But I want Carter’s notes. No offense, but your handwriting sucks.”

About a mile and a half from school, they hit a traffic jam. Cars were backed up in every direction, and Aaron saw the flash of police lights ahead.

“Wish you’d seen a vision about this,” Lucia muttered. She sprawled across the back seat, perusing Carter’s biology notebook while she munched on a muffin.

“If I could control it, I wouldn’t see anything at all,” Aaron said. Lucia had managed to ease most of the pain in his head, and in his relief he’d eaten two more of her muffins.

Carter glanced back at Lucia. “Can you sense anything?”

She closed her eyes, tilting her head to once side. “A lot of frustration, a little anger. Curiosity….concern.” Her brow creased together. “Fear. Someone’s hurt, I think. Badly.”

They followed the string of cars inching along the detour around the scene. As they came closer, Aaron spotted the two wrecked cars on the roadside. One had smashed headlong into the other, flipping it over and sending it careening into the guard rail. The impact had crushed the frame of the car. A paramedic crouched by the driver door, and another was loading a gurney into the ambulance. The police were busy directing traffic, and questioning a man holding a bloody towel to his forehead.

“It’s terrible,” Lucia whispered. “So much pain.”

As they watched, two of the police joined the paramedic at the crushed car, and after a busy minute, one walked off and pulled out his phone.

“What are they doing?” Carter said.

“I don’t know,” Lucia said. “They’re…really anxious. Like…” Her eyes searched for the words to describe whatever she emotions she felt. “Almost…helplessness.”

“You think someone’s trapped in there?”

Lucia bit her lip. She scrunched up her face, tilting it like she was trying hard to listen to something. “Yeah. Maybe.”

They passed the bottleneck around the wreck and the congested traffic dispersed across the normal two lanes. Instead of speeding up, Carter changed lanes and pulled off on the shoulder. His hands tightened on the steering wheel.

“We should help,” he said.

Aaron raised an eyebrow. “Help?”

“They have help,” Lucia said. “You know, people who do this as their job. We’d just be getting in the way.”

“But they can’t help. I mean, that’s what you said.”

“I said I think that’s what’s going on. If you want more specific details, ask the crystal ball over here.”

“You know I can’t control—” Aaron began, but she ignored him.

“Anyway,” Lucia said, frowning back at the scene. “I don’t know what we could do about it.”

“If someone’s trapped, I can get him out. You could heal him—”

“It doesn’t work that way,” Lucia said. “I can ease pain, and I can kind of push the body toward regenerating faster. But I can’t heal physical injuries. I can’t heal blood loss.”

“I could still get him out. Maybe the paramedics could save him then.” Carter’s grip on the steering wheel tightened. “Don’t you get tired of having powers and not doing anything with them? We should be using them.”

“Of course we do,” Aaron said quietly. “But…we can’t just charge in and…there are police, and paramedics, not to mention all the people driving by gawking at it. There’s no way we can do anything without them seeing us.”

Carter shrugged. “Most of the police are busy with the traffic. There’s one medic and an officer.” He glanced back at the wreck, and said, hesitantly: “Couldn’t you…you know…distract them, somehow?”

“Without getting arrested?” Aaron asked, but Carter had that determined look on his face. He wasn’t going to give this up easily. “Okay, I know what you mean.” Aaron took of his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. He knew how Carter felt. He felt the same way, every time his had a vision of something terrible he couldn’t stop. Having power, and not doing anything with it.

“Okay,” Aaron said, pushing the frames up his nose. “We can get a closer look.”

Lucia glowered at both of them, and closed the notebook in her lap. “I guess I’ll help,” she said. “Otherwise both of you will get arrested, and I’ll feel guilty.”

They took a long route through the trees, and hid downhill from the wreck to get a better view. From here, Aaron could just see the shape of a body wedged in the crumpled car. The paramedic was crouched nearby, along with two officers who had little to do but watch. Aaron took a deep breath. He knew what Carter wanted him to do, and he wasn’t looking forward to it.

“Okay,” he said. “I can get you enough time to get close,” he said. “Not sure what will happen after that.”

Carter nodded, and tensed his body to run. “Ready,” he said. Lucia tucked her hair behind her ears and nodded, less certainly.

“Okay,” Aaron said. He breathed in and out in long, rhythmic motions, concentrating on the sensation of time passing around him. There was a feeling like a twist in his mind, and everything around him slowed.

Carter and Lucia seemed to freeze, the only evidence of life a slight, prolonged exhale. The sounds of traffic and birdsong warped into a low, protracted warble. Pressure built around him, like being wrapped tight in plastic. Aaron breathed deep against the temptation to hyperventilate as he started up the hill.

Bending time like this took effort, and sustaining it took concentration.  By the time he’d sprinted to the top of the hill, his head was throbbing.  He hurdled the guard rail, clumsily, and sprinted toward the nearest patrol car. Luckily, the door was ajar, and he slipped inside the empty passenger seat, already out of breath.

He scanned the console for the siren switch, trying not to panic. It was much more likely he’d be seen while he was sitting still, and he’d rather not be caught sneaking into a police car. Where is it? Where is it? He spotted it suddenly and flipped the switch. The rising wail of the siren followed him as he bolted from the car.

The pressure was like a vise around his chest, and he struggled to breathe as he rounded the wrecked car. The officers helping the medic had already started to turn toward the whooping siren, and the medic was flinching, both hands halfway to her ears. Lucia and Carter were halfway over the guard rail. Aaron collapsed and released his hold on his power.

Time sped back to normal. The siren pierced the air with a shriek. Aaron gasped for breath.

The paramedic spotted him. “Hey, you can’t be here—”

Lucia came up from behind, and laid both hands on the medic’s neck. “That siren is really loud,” she said. “You should look away for a minute.”

The medic’s eyes glazed over. She seemed to forget Aaron, turning to peek around the car in a kind of dazed fascination.

Carter dashed in, sliding into a crouch by the car’s door. The impact had crumpled the roof, jamming the door in its frame. Carter wedged his hands between the door and frame, gripping each side. With a grunt, he started to pull the door back from the frame. It peeled away with a metallic groan, which rose to a screech as it tore free of its hinges. Carter tossed it aside and ducked down to find the driver.

The man was still alive, but crushed between the seat and the steering wheel. Carter took half a second to take stock braced his foot against the frame of the car and his hand against the seat, behind the driver’s shoulder. He took a few quick breaths and grunted with effort. His muscles bulged as he pushed.

204

The steering wheel inched away from the man’s chest, just far enough for Carter to reach his arm around and catch him as he started to slip. Carter laid the unconscious driver carefully on the asphalt.

The medic had begun to turn back, startled by the sound, and Lucia placed both hands on her neck again. “Forget,” she said. “You didn’t see anyone else. You got him out of the car. Go do your job now. Help him.” As soon as Lucia released her, the paramedic stumbled toward the driver, ignoring the three teenagers like she didn’t even see them.

Aaron pushed himself to his feet, still unsteady, and followed the other two as they fled the scene.

* * * * *

When they got back to the car, they all collapsed into their seats and just stared for a minute, stunned and exhausted. Aaron closed his eyes, trying to sort through the mix of nausea and fading adrenaline.

“That,” Lucia said at last, “was awesome.”

“Yeah,” Carter said, with a short nervous laugh. “Yeah, it was. Hand me that shirt,” he said, and Lucia tossed him the shirt crumpled in the backseat. Carter pulled off his bloodstained yellow shirt and pulled the clean one on. Lucia whistled appreciatively. “Shut up,” he said. “Or I won’t let you read my notes.” She help her hands up in surrender.

“It was kind of satisfying,” Aaron said. He pushed his hands through his hair and swallowed against the taste of bile. “But you know, I think I’m done with thrilling heroics for today.”

“Here,” Lucia said. She placed her hands on the back of his neck.

“You don’t have to—” he started.

“Yes, I do,” she said. He felt a rush of gentle sensation through his head that faded to a dim warmth as she released him. “Better?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Thanks.”

“You were awesome,” she said, and grinned up at them. “We were all totally awesome.”

Carter turned the ignition, and shifted the car into drive. “I’m hungry,” he said. “Do you think we have time to get milkshakes before school?”

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