ACTION AT A DISTANCE
Alexander Thompson leaned against the wall of an office building and watched a group of smokers standing at the bus stop commiserating over the day’s events. Missed meetings, rude customers, computer malfunctions. Alexander rolled his eyes; First World problems.
The bus pulled up to the curb and half a dozen cigarettes hit the sidewalk in unison, ground unceremoniously into the pavement beneath leather soles. Alexander opened the garbage bag on his belt and reached his hand out toward the discarded cigarettes. They floated toward him and deposited themselves in his bag.
He shoved off from the wall and limped down the sidewalk, collecting cigarette butts and coffee cups and other bits of debris along the way. He even stopped to dislodge some gum from the pavement; he usually wouldn’t have gone that extra mile, but today was special.
Alexander hurried home after work. He threw his jacket over the back of the couch and glanced around the apartment. He’d really let the state of the place decline in the past couple weeks. He reached out his hand and set about tidying up.
A plate floated from the coffee table to the kitchen sink. An empty pizza box crumpled itself into a ball and rolled into the garbage. A handful of DVD cases returned to their shelf. A few mismatched pairs of dirty socks carried themselves to the hamper in his bedroom.
It took him a couple hours, but eventually the place began to look livable again. He opened the living room window and guided a bag of garbage down to the alley below. The bag was heavy but he managed to reach the dumpster at the end of the alley and toss the bag inside.
As he shut the window and stepped back, the buzzer by his door rang. He limped across the living room and pressed the button to open the lobby door. He gave the apartment one last going-over until, finally, he heard seven knocks in rapid succession.
“Hey, Dad,” Joan said, glancing up from her cellphone as he opened the door.
His elder daughter at thirteen years of age, Joan was wearing a pink t-shirt bearing the logo of a popular boy band he’d been forced to listen to more times than he could count. Her hair had grown longer since he last saw her, and was now braided in pigtails.
She headed inside and plopped herself down on the couch as Alexander’s ex-wife, Catherine, stepped into the doorway. She was dressed for business; long-sleeved blouse, black skirt, ponytail. She worked as an investment banker for a prominent local firm, and always looked sharp.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “Got a bit held up at the office.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, and glanced down as their nine-year-old, Isabel, stepped forward.
“Hey, Izzy,” he said, patting her curly head.
She shrugged his hand off and continued into the apartment without looking up at him.
“She’s been… difficult lately,” Catherine said. “She’s having trouble in school, I think.”
“What kind of trouble?” Alexander asked.
Catherine shrugged. “She won’t talk about it,” she said. “If you find out anything over the weekend, let me know, okay?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” he replied, watching Isabel plod over to the couch and sit on the end opposite her sister.
“Good luck,” Catherine said, and glanced at her watch. “I should go. I have a dinner meeting Sunday evening, but I’ll be back to pick them up by eight.”
“All right,” he said. “Have a good weekend.”
“Bye,” she said, and strolled off down the hall.
He watched her leave; something of a recurring theme in the past few years of his life. He shut the door and stepped back into the living room. Standing in front of the couch, he looked down at his daughters and smiled.
“So,” he said, “who wants pizza?”
“Okay,” Joan said absently, her attention focused on whatever she was typing with her phone turned sideways.
Isabel merely shrugged, staring at the floor. Alexander sighed and reached out to his phone. It flew across the room and landed in his hand, dialing in mid-air. The girls didn’t seem to notice.
“The usual toppings?” he asked.
When he got no response, he ordered a large pizza, half cheese and half meat lovers. The phone returned to its tray and Alexander sat on the couch between the girls. They shifted toward their respective armrests.
“How’s school, Joan?” he asked, glancing right.
“It’s fine,” she replied, still texting. “Got an A in Social Studies.”
“Good work,” he said, and turned to his left. “How about you, Izzy?”
Isabel crossed her arms and said nothing. Alexander sighed again and reached out to the television. It came on to footage of combat from some old war movie. He winced and changed the channel.
“Do you girls want to watch anything in particular?” he asked, flipping through the listings.
Joan’s nose was still buried in her phone, while Isabel didn’t seem to take notice of anything at all. He continued scrolling, and felt a tug on his shirt when Devil’s Due, a locally-produced horror series about a pair of sisters who hunted monsters, appeared on the screen. He glanced down at Isabel, who was staring straight ahead and holding his sleeve.
“You want to watch this?” he asked. “It’s… not really for kids.”
He glanced at the screen, showing the lead actresses stabbing vampires inside an old church, and then back at his daughter.
“Well… okay,” he said. “For now.”
She let go of his shirt and lowered her hand to her lap. Behind him, the buzzer rang, so he got up and pressed the button. A minute later, the delivery boy showed up at the door with their supper. He had just enough cash on hand to pay for the meal, but he would have to go to the bank soon; he hoped his finances would hold out until his next pay.
He dished out the pizza, poured pop into glasses, and carried everything to the coffee table without using his hands. As he sat back down on the couch, he thought back to his one week as a waiter last year and shuddered.
He glanced to his left and to his right. Joan was still texting and Isabel’s attention was focused squarely on the television, but there was no place Alexander would rather be. He leaned back and took a bite of his pizza.
Alexander dreamed of explosions and automatic weapons. He awoke in a sweat, his right leg throbbing. He limped to the bathroom and took a shower. Afterwards, he headed out to the kitchen, where he washed last night’s dishes and floated them up into the cupboard.
Down the hall, the door to the girls’ bedroom opened, and Joan emerged with her thumb excitedly typing away at her phone. She ducked into the bathroom and shut the door behind her. Isabel stepped into the living room a short while later and headed for the couch.
“Morning, Izzy,” he said. “Sleep well?”
She shrugged and turned on the television, scrolling rapidly through some cartoons. Joan joined her a few minutes later, still focused on her phone, and Alexander started getting breakfast ready.
“So, I was thinking we could go see a movie this afternoon and then grab a bite to eat,” he said. “How’s that sound?”
“Yeah, sure,” Joan muttered absently. “Can we go shopping too?”
He sighed and said, “We’ll see.”
Alexander answered the door at quarter to ten on Sunday night and Catherine smiled sheepishly at him from the hallway. She was wearing a red dress that reminded him of better days.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said, pouring on the charm. “Dinner ran long, and I had to flirt my way out of a speeding ticket on the way here.”
“You always were good at that,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said. “Are the girls all set to go?”
“They were,” he said, and motioned Catherine inside.
She followed him into the living room. Joan was slouched over on the couch with her phone on her lap, and Isabel was curled up in the fetal position on the other end, sound asleep, with a Devil’s Due rerun playing on the television. Catherine sighed and glared at Alexander.
“I wish you wouldn’t let her watch this stuff,” she said. “She’ll have nightmares.”
“She seems fine,” he said. “She doesn’t respond to anything else.”
“Hey, Mom,” Joan said groggily, rubbing her eyes.
She picked up her phone and checked for new messages. Alexander leaned down and gently lifted Isabel into his arms, while Catherine grabbed her bag.
They headed downstairs to where Catherine’s shiny black Mercedes waited. She opened one of the rear doors and Alexander placed Isabel on the seat. He fastened the seatbelt around her waist and checked to make sure it was tight enough.
She blinked and stared up at Alexander for a moment before glancing away. He patted her on the head and shut the door. Joan gave him a terse hug and climbed into front seat next to her mother.
“I’ll give you a call if anything comes up,” Catherine said, rolling down her window.
“Okay,” he replied, and glanced past her. “Bye, girls.”
Catherine started the car and drove off, leaving Alexander standing by himself on the sidewalk. He sighed and headed back upstairs.
The fridge opened as he stepped into his living room, and a beer floated into his hand, the cap popping off midair. He slumped down onto the couch and watched the rest of Devil’s Due before bed.
Alexander was clearing leaves from a storm drain when a car pulled up to the curb and he heard a familiar voice.
“Thompson?” the voice said. “Is that you?”
He glanced up to see Lara Kevinson, one of his squadmates from his time in the Army, sitting behind the wheel of a white SUV, looking him up and down. Alexander ran his hand through his hair and smiled sheepishly.
“Corporal Kevinson,” he said. “Been a while, hasn’t it?”
“It certainly has,” she said. “Not a single email in what, five years? We were starting to think you’d forgotten about us. Oh, and it’s Lieutenant now.”
“Wow, congratulations,” he said. “Are you still with Bulletproof Squad?”
“I run Bulletproof Squad,” she said. “We just got a bunch of new recruits, though, so now we’re Bulletproof Platoon. We’ve tripled in size since the… since you left.”
“That’s… good to hear,” he said, and cleared his throat. “So… what brings you to Victory City? Vacation?”
“Maternity leave,” she said.
“Seriously?” Alexander asked. “You? Pregnant?”
“I know, I’m as stunned as you are,” she said. “But I just turned thirty so I figured it’s now or never.”
“Well, good for you,” Alexander said. “Kids are… pretty great.”
“So I’ve heard,” she said, nodding. “I remember how excited you were when your second was born. You printed out her photo and showed it to everyone in the barracks. Sergeant Colburn had to order you to put it away. I suppose you must have a whole brood by now.”
“Nah, still just the two,” he said. “My wife and I… we split up a few years back.”
“Oh, sorry to hear that,” Lara said. “Do you… have custody?”
Alexander shook his head. “Just every other weekend,” he said. “The divorce was… messy.”
“Ouch,” she said. “Anyway, look, I hate to leave it there, but I have a doctor’s appointment to get to. But we should hang out sometime, grab a bite to eat. What’s your number?”
He flipped open his cellphone and read out his number.
“Got it,” she said. “I’ll be in touch.”
“See you later,” he said.
She waved and drove off. He smiled to himself and went back to work on the drain.
Alexander hung up his coat, kicked off his shoes, and threw the remains of last night’s Chinese food into the microwave. As he carried the reheated takeout to the couch, his phone rang. The receiver floated to his ear.
“Hello?” he said.
“Evening, Alexander,” Catherine’s voice said.
“Uh oh,” he said. “What do you need?”
“Need, nothing,” she said. “I want to do something nice for you, but if you’re not interested….”
“I’m interested, I’m interested,” he said, rolling his eyes. “What’s going on?”
“I have to go out of town on business next week,” she said. “Joan’s going to be staying over at a friend’s house, but I still need someone to take care of Isabel while I’m gone. I was going to just call my sister, but I thought I’d ask you first. I’ll understand if you’re—”
“I’ll do it,” he said.
The rest of the week seemed to drag out forever. Alexander even took a couple extra shifts on the weekend to keep himself occupied. It didn’t help.
He rushed home Monday evening and leaned against the back of his couch, staring at his door until the buzzer rang. He pressed the button and continued waiting.
He opened the door on the first knock and smiled. Catherine stood in the hallway in a pinstripe pantsuit, her hair loose about her shoulders. Isabel stood beside her with her hands in her pockets, staring at the floor once again. She stepped inside and made her way to the couch.
“Still no change?” he asked quietly.
Catherine shook her head. “When I’m back in town, I’m going to call a psychiatrist I know. He’s a telepath, so he should be able to get to the bottom of this, even if she refuses to speak to him.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Alexander said.
“We’ll sit down with him together before we decide anything,” she said, and glanced at her watch. “I have to go. I’ve already told her school that they should call you in case of emergency. Make sure she does all her homework, and please, keep the television age appropriate this time, okay?”
“You got it,” he said.
“All right,” she said. “I… really appreciate this.”
“It’s no problem,” he said.
She glanced past him and said, “Goodbye, honey!”
Isabel did not respond. Catherine sighed and smiled weakly at Alexander.
“I’ll see you Friday,” she said.
“Bye,” he said.
He closed the door as she headed down the hall. Behind him, the television turned on and Isabel skipped rapidly through the channels. Alexander stepped around the couch and stood in front of his daughter.
“You heard what your mother said about the television, right?” he asked.
Isabel nodded. Alexander reached out to the plastic bag on the coffee table and it floated into his hand. He reached inside and produced a DVD box set containing the first season of Devil’s Due. Isabel’s eyes widened.
“I guess this will have to be our little secret, then,” he said.
Alexander awoke from his usual dreams with the morning sun peeking in through the living room window and the menu animation on the Devil’s Due DVD looping on the television. He glanced over at Isabel, curled up on the opposite end of the couch, and smiled.
He reached out to the coffee table and his cellphone snapped into his hand. He flipped it open and checked the time. It was almost seven; he had to get Isabel to school for eight, so they needed to start getting ready.
Not wanting to disturb his daughter yet, he glanced back at the kitchen counter and felt around with his mind. The cupboard opened and a box of cereal floated out, joined at the counter by a carton of milk from the fridge.
Isabel sat up and stretched as a bowl of cereal floated to the couch. She flinched when it appeared in front of her, but she hesitantly plucked it from the air. She ate in silence while Alexander showered and dressed.
They headed down to his car and drove off. The traffic was heavy but he managed to get to her school with a few minutes to spare. Isabel sat still for a long moment, gripping her backpack until her knuckles turned white.
“You okay?” he asked.
She nodded and looked away.
“I can tell them you’re sick,” he said.
She stared down at her knees for a moment and then shook her head. She climbed out of the car and shut the door behind her, glancing back over her shoulder for a moment before hurrying off into the building.
At noon, Alexander stopped into his usual diner for lunch. Lara waved from a table in the far corner and he made his way across the room.
“Hey, Thompson,” she said. “I’m glad you came. You seemed a little out of it when I called.”
“Sorry about that,” he said, taking a seat at the table. “I’ve been distracted. My ex is out of town this week so she asked me to watch after our youngest while she’s gone.”
“Oh yeah?” Lara said. “That must be nice.”
“It’s… complicated,” he said. “Isabel’s been… Actually, I don’t know how she’s been. She hasn’t spoken a word to me all month.”
“What does your ex say?” Lara asked.
“She’s just as baffled,” Alexander said. “She wants to take Isabel to some psychiatrist, but that seems a bit extreme to me. Don’t get me wrong, therapy’s done a lot for me and my… issues. But Isabel’s nine.”
“Were the two of your close before this all started?” Lara asked.
“Well… not really,” Alexander said. “She’s never been completely comfortable around me, and I understand. I was overseas for half her life, and suddenly I showed up with a messed-up head and a ton of baggage. But she was never this distant. She at least talked before.”
“Maybe she just needs space,” Lara said. “It’s a confusing age for kids, especially girls.”
“You’re probably right,” he said. “I just don’t want to miss out. In a few years, she’ll be a teenager, and that’s a whole other ordeal.”
“True enough,” Lara said, chuckling. “I’m just glad I’m having a boy.”
“Oh, boys come with their own set of challenges,” Alexander said, “but I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” she said. “Anyways, what’s with this getup you’re wearing? Please don’t tell me you’ve been cleaning sidewalks all these years.”
“Not the whole time,” he said, “but this is the only job I’ve managed to hold down since I came home.”
“Man, that’s rough,” she said. “You seriously deserve better.”
He shrugged. “It’s a living,” he said. “At least no one’s shooting at me.”
Lara stared down at the table and said, “You know, Bulletproof hasn’t been the same without you. My new guys are great and all, but there was just something about the original line-up. It’s a shame things had to go down the way they did.”
“Yeah,” he said, trying not to think about it.
“We’ve actually been thinking of bringing in a few civilian consultants,” she said. “Strictly in training and advising roles, of course. I don’t suppose you….”
He shook his head. “Sorry,” he said. “I miss the old gang, but I just can’t go back.”
“Fair enough,” she said. “Can’t blame a girl for trying.”
“I’d be insulted if you didn’t,” he replied, and smiled.
Alexander pulled up in front of the school at three-thirty and found Isabel already waiting on a bench out front. She threw her bag over her shoulder and ran to the car without looking back.
“Hey, Izzy,” he said. “How was school?”
She shrugged and fastened her seatbelt. He sighed and pulled away from the curb. He thought about what Lara said and glanced down at his daughter.
“Just so you know,” he said, “I’m here for you if you ever want to talk about… whatever’s going on. But I’m not going to pester you about it. I can’t speak for your mother, but you’ll get no more pressure from me. Okay?”
Isabel stared up at him for a moment and then nodded.
“Good,” he said. “Now, what do you say we get home and watch some more Devil’s Due?”
Alexander whistled to himself as he directed a discarded coffee cup into his garbage bag. Even though Isabel still hadn’t said a word, he was optimistic that he could get through to her. As he made a mental note to call Lara and thank her for her advice, his cellphone rang.
“Hello?” he said, stopping to lean against a building.
“Oh, good morning,” a woman’s voice said. “I’m looking for Mr. Thompson.”
“Speaking,” he said. “Who’s this?”
“Minerva Nguyen,” she said. “I’m the principal at Isabel’s school. Sorry to disturb you at work, but there’s been a bit of an incident.”
“What kind of incident?” Alexander asked, stepping forward. “Is she okay?”
“Your daughter’s fine,” Minerva said, “but she… attacked a fellow student this morning.”
“What do you mean, ‘attacked’?” he asked, limping back down the street toward his car. “What did she do?”
“She threw a rock at a boy in her class,” Minerva said. “He wasn’t seriously injured, but he needed several stitches on the back of his head.”
“That doesn’t sound like my Izzy,” he said. “Why would she do this?”
“She won’t say,” Minerva replied. “But regardless, we have a zero tolerance policy for violence here, and I’m afraid we have no choice but to suspend your daughter for the remainder of the week. We’ll also need to schedule a meeting with you and Catherine sometime soon to discuss Isabel’s future if this sort of behavior continues.”
“All right,” Alexander said, rubbing his forehead. “I’ll find out Catherine’s schedule when she gets back to town in a few days and we’ll arrange something from there. Do you want me to come pick Isabel up now, or after school?”
“Now would be best,” Minerva said, “if it’s not too much of an inconvenience.”
He climbed into his car and said, “I’ll be right there.”
Alexander found Isabel huddled in a chair outside the principal’s office. He thought about all the things he could – and probably should – say, but instead he simply gestured for her to follow and headed back out the door.
He took out his phone and scrolled through his contact list, looking for someone who could watch Isabel on short notice. He paused for a moment on Catherine’s sister Joanna, but decided against it; she had always hated him, and this would only add fuel to the fire.
He skipped to the next entry down and pressed the call button immediately. The phone rang several times before the call was answered.
“Morning, Thompson,” Lara said. “What’s up?”
“I, uh, hope you don’t mind,” he said, “but I have a bit of a favor to ask you.”
“I’ll certainly see what I can do,” she said. “What do you need?”
“I need a babysitter for my daughter while I’m at work this week,” he said.
“Isn’t that the school’s job?” Lara asked.
“It was,” he said, and glanced down at Isabel, “until she got herself suspended.”
“Ouch,” Lara said. “Well, I think I can probably handle that. When would you need me to start?”
“Um… now,” he said, “if possible.”
Lara chuckled. “The things I do for my squad,” she said. “Okay, bring her over.”
Alexander pulled up in front of Lara’s house and Isabel followed him up the front step. He rang the bell and waited. He glanced down at his daughter, wondering what she was thinking as she stared down at the ground.
“Well, if it isn’t Thompson and Thompson,” Lara said as the door opened. “You must be Isabel. I’m Lara.”
When Isabel didn’t look up, Lara glanced at Alexander, and he shrugged.
“Hey, want to see something cool?” she asked.
She held her hand out and Isabel glanced up. Lara closed her eyes and her skin turned from brown to mottled grey stone. Isabel recoiled and hid behind Alexander.
“Or… not,” Lara said, reverting to normal.
“It’s okay,” Alexander said to his daughter. “She’s nice, and she’s saved my life on more than one occasion. She’ll take good care of you.”
Isabel squeezed his arm but didn’t move.
“Look,” he said, “it’s either this or I call your aunt Joanna.”
Isabel let go of him and stepped forward, looking up at Lara nervously.
“Oh, hey, the baby’s kicking,” Lara said. “Do you want to feel?”
Isabel glanced at Alexander and he nodded. She reached out and touched Lara’s belly. She held her hand there for a long moment and then suddenly withdrew it.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Lara said. “That’s going to be a little boy in a couple weeks.”
Alexander knelt in front of his daughter and held her hands.
“I have to go back to work now,” he said. “Are you going to be okay here?”
Isabel looked up at Lara and nodded.
“Good girl,” he said, and stood up. “I’ll be back in a few hours. I really appreciate this, Kevinson. I owe you one.”
“Damn right you do,” Lara replied with a wink.
He smiled and headed back to his car. He sat behind the driver’s seat for a moment, watching Lara coax Isabel inside, and then drove off.
Alexander returned to the house late in the afternoon and rang the bell. Lara answered the door and smiled.
“How was she?” he asked.
“Fine,” Lara replied. “Quiet, but fine.”
“So she didn’t speak to you, either?”
Lara shook her head. “It’s so weird,” she said. “When I was her age, you couldn’t shut me up if you tried. Whatever she’s going through, I think she’s afraid to talk about it.”
“Do you think I’m doing the right thing, keeping the pressure off?” he asked.
“Hard to say,” she replied, “but I’ll keep an eye out any changes in her mood over the next few days, see if we can figure something out.”
“Thanks,” he said. “You’re a real life-saver.”
“It’s what I do,” she said, and glanced back over her shoulder. “Hey, kid, your old man’s here!”
Isabel appeared at the end of the hall and walked slowly toward them. She shoved her feet into her shoes and headed out the door. Alexander glanced at Lara and smiled sheepishly.
“I’ve clearly got my work cut out for me,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”
Lara waved as Alexander turned and followed his daughter to the car. Isabel was already buckled up by the time he got behind the wheel and started the engine.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked as he pulled away from the curb.
She shrugged, glancing back out the window.
“What did you think of Lara?” he asked. “Pretty cool lady, huh?”
Another shrug. Alexander chuckled.
“Okay, okay, forget I asked,” he said. “Now, I know I’m supposed to come up with some kind of punishment for you, but I’ve never been good at that sort of thing. Besides, I know you’re a good kid and wouldn’t do what you did without a good reason. Although I’m not actually supposed to tell you that there’s ever a good reason for violence, so maybe I should just stop talking now.”
He sighed and stared out the window. He realized he was being unfair to Catherine by leaving all the punishment up to her. She would end up looking like the villain while he remained the “cool” parent. He knew it was selfish, but he couldn’t help himself.
They finished the first season of Devil’s Due that night and he spent Thursday trying to figure out how he could afford to buy the second. His next paycheck was going to be tight, especially with the shorter hours he was pulling this week, but he decided to put off his phone bill a couple weeks and picked up the DVD on his way to Lara’s house that afternoon.
“I think she’s opening up,” Lara said at the door. “I even caught her smiling at one of my jokes this morning.”
“Considering how bad your jokes are, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing,” he said.
“Shut up,” she said, punching him in the shoulder with a stone fist.
She summoned Isabel from the living room and he headed to the car with his daughter. He waved at Lara as he pulled away from the curb and drove off.
“I don’t want you to think I’m rewarding you or anything,” he said, “but….”
He pointed to the dashboard, and the glove compartment popped open, the DVD set dropping into her lap. As she held it in her hands, he was certain he saw the corners of her lips curl ever so slightly.
He had a sudden urge to teach her how to play poker.
Alexander pulled up in front of Lara’s house on Friday morning and walked with Isabel to the door. As he reached out for the buzzer, he noticed a hastily-scrawled note taped to the door that read, “WATER BROKE. HAD TO RUN. SORRY.”
“Huh,” he muttered, stepping back. “Okay, Izzy, change of plans. I guess I’m going to have to call your aunt after all.”
He took his phone out of his pocket but Isabel reached up and grabbed his hand. He glanced down at her and she shook her head emphatically.
“It’s not my first choice either,” he said, “but what else do you want me to do? Take you to work with me?”
She squeezed his hand and stared up at him.
“You won’t like it,” he said. “I spend the whole day on my feet, just walking around.”
She kept staring, unwavering.
“Okay, fine,” he said, “but if you get bored, it’s your own fault.”
Isabel let go of his hand and returned to the car. He followed reluctantly, hoping he wouldn’t regret this.
Alexander pulled into the parking lot at the Public Works yard that housed many of Victory City’s various maintenance services. The office of the streets department was in the basement of a building off in the back of the complex, past a municipal recycling plant.
Isabel stayed close by him as they made their way through the narrow stone corridors and down the stairs to a dank locker room. He opened his locker furtively to avoid embarrassing Isabel with the photos of her and Joan plastered all over the door. He quickly slipped into his reflective yellow vest and stocked up on garbage bags before signing in for the day’s shift.
His rounds started in front of the Victorious Memorial Hospital, where smokers liked to congregate by the big red “No Smoking” sign. Isabel followed along behind him, staring at the sidewalk with her hands in her pockets.
He still couldn’t tell if he was actually making progress with her. Lara’s conclusions were reassuring, but not entirely convincing. And he was running out of time.
After about an hour on their feet, he limped over to a bench and took a seat. Isabel climbed up and sat on the opposite end. He rubbed his leg and waited for the throbbing to subside. Isabel waited patiently beside him.
“How are you holding up so far?” he asked. “Tired?”
She shook her head.
“Ready to keep going?” he asked.
She nodded and hopped down from the bench. He stood and headed up the sidewalk, reaching out to collect an event poster that had fallen from a telephone pole. He glanced back over his shoulder at Isabel, hoping he wasn’t wearing her out. It was going to be a long shift, especially for a nine-year-old.
Alexander took Isabel to his usual diner for lunch, and she pointed out her selections on the menu to the waitress. She ordered a burger and fries with a strawberry milkshake to drink. He knew Catherine disapproved of him taking the girls to these sorts of restaurants, but she hadn’t found him out yet.
Afterwards, they headed back out on his rounds. Halfway up the block, he heard gunfire and screeching tires. He instinctively spun and threw himself over Isabel, his mind flashing on the memories that haunted his dreams.
“Cut!” a voice yelled.
Alexander glanced back over his shoulder and noticed a crowd gathered in front of a barricade. An entire intersection had been blocked off for a film crew that was shooting a scene on the street. A tall woman stood in front of a car holding a gun in one hand and a knife in the other. Isabel squirmed out from under Alexander and dashed up the street.
“Isabel, don’t run off!” he said, limping after her.
He caught up with her at the outskirts of the crowd and found her trying to catch sight of the filming through the mass of onlookers. As he peered over their heads, he recognized the woman on camera as one of the stars of Devil’s Due. They were shooting an upcoming episode.
“Hey,” he said, “want to get a better look?”
She nodded excitedly. He turned away from her and kneeled down. She climbed up onto his back and he lifted her to his shoulders. She wrapped her arms around his forehead as he stood and turned back toward the film set.
A scruffy-looking Asian man stepped into frame and stood beside the actress. He mimicked her pose and pointed a matching gun at the idling car. He closed his eyes and his skin rippled, shimmering for a moment as his body reshaped itself, growing taller and more feminine, until finally two identical women stood side by side.
The real actress hurried off camera and the director yelled, “Action!”
The doppelganger fired blanks from the gun as the car sped toward him and struck him head-on. He rolled over the roof of the car and landed on the pavement behind it. The car sped off and disappeared around a corner, leaving the stuntman sprawled on the street.
“Cut!” shouted the director. “Change places!”
The actress stepped out in front of the camera and lay down beside the stuntman. The stuntman stood from the ground, dusted himself off, and shifted back into his original form. He glanced at the crowd of bystanders for a moment and then stepped out of the shot.
The scene continued with her co-star rushing to her side and helping her to her feet. Together, they got into a second car and drove off after the first.
“Okay, great!” the director said. “Now let’s get everyone back in position and we’ll do it one more time from the top.”
“We should probably get moving,” Alexander said, crouching so Isabel could climb down.
She hopped from his shoulders and they headed down the street.
“Well, that was pretty neat, huh?” he asked as they turned right.
Isabel nodded, glancing back over her shoulder. Inside his jacket, Alexander’s phone started ringing. He fished it out and answered.
“Hello?” he said.
“Thompson,” Lara said languidly. “Sorry about this morning.”
“It’s no problem,” he replied. “When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.”
Lara chuckled. “Yeah,” she said. “I would’ve called earlier, but I figured you wouldn’t appreciate me screaming in your ear.”
“Naw,” he said, “that would’ve been just like old times.”
“True enough,” she said. “I hope you didn’t have trouble making other plans.”
He glanced at Isabel and said, “I figured something out.”
“Good, good,” Lara said. “Listen, you should stop and meet my little guy later, if you’re in the neighborhood. I’m at the Vic.”
“Sure, I think I can swing that,” he said.
“Cool,” she said. “Oh, and if I call you again in a few minutes saying the exact same things, please disregard. I’m on some rather awesome drugs right now.”
By mid-afternoon, Alexander noticed Isabel was having trouble keeping up, so he lifted her onto his back again and carried her for the remaining hour of his shift. When they arrived back at the Victorious Memorial Hospital, he lowered her to the pavement and headed inside. Isabel hesitated at the doorway.
“It’s all right,” he said. “We’re just going to see Lara. You like Lara, don’t you?”
She tentatively stepped forward and the automatic door slid shut behind her. Alexander got Lara’s room number from the front desk and they headed up the elevator. He knocked lightly on the fifth door down the hall. A heavyset man in a sweater vest answered.
“You must be Corporal Thompson,” he said. “I’m Glenn, Lara’s husband.”
“Nice to meet you,” Alexander said, shaking Glenn’s hand. “This is my daughter, Isabel. Lara’s been watching her for me the past few days.”
“My wife’s told me a lot about both of you,” Glenn said. “Come on in.”
Alexander and Isabel followed Glenn into the room, where Lara lay in bed with a sleeping newborn cradled in her arms. She looked up at Alexander and smiled groggily.
“Congratulations,” he said. “How do you feel?”
“Like I just fired a seven and a half pound bullet out of my…” she trailed off and glanced past him. “Oh, hey, kid. Didn’t see you there.”
Isabel peeked out from behind Alexander’s back and stared at the baby.
“His name’s Lawrence,” Lara said. “Do you want to hold him?”
Alexander extended his hand toward a chair by the wall and it slid across the room to the side of the bed. Isabel reached out hesitantly toward the baby, then paused, withdrew. She spun and ran out of the room.
“Hey, where are you going?” he said, and turned to Lara. “Sorry. I’ll be right back.”
He headed out the door and limped up the hall. The elevator was still on the same floor so he kept going to the end of the hall. He glanced left and right but saw no sign of Isabel, so he doubled back and headed to the other end of the hall.
He looked both ways again but there was still no sign of her. He was about to turn back when he spotted a pair of feet poking out from behind a row of gurneys. He stood over her with her arms crossed, and she looked up at him with tears in her eyes.
“Am I a freak?” she asked.
“What?” he said. “Why would you think that?”
“A boy in my class said I’m a freak,” she replied. “Now everyone at school’s saying it and they won’t stop.”
Alexander’s leg throbbed as he lowered himself to sit beside her, opposite a rickety old wheelchair.
“Is… that why you threw the rock?” Alexander asked.
“I didn’t throw it!” she snapped. “I just… thought about it. And then….”
She stared at the old wheelchair and it sprang into motion, rattling off down the corridor and crashing into the wall at the far end. She hugged her knees and buried her face into them.
“I don’t want to be a freak,” she sobbed.
“Izzy, honey, you are not a freak,” he said.
“Then what am I?” she asked.
“You’re… special,” he replied.
She glared up at him and rolled her eyes.
“I just want to be normal,” she said.
“Why?” he asked.
She opened her mouth to reply, but said nothing. She stared down at the floor.
“Look, I can’t pretend to know how you feel,” he said. “I asked for this power. You didn’t. And I’m sorry for that. If I’d known I could pass it down to my children… I don’t know, I might have chosen differently. So I understand if you’re mad at me for that.”
She shrugged and looked away.
“But here’s the thing,” he said. “I’ve had this power for ten years. It’s been so long, I can’t even remember how I ever managed to function without it. Trust me, sooner or later you’ll realize that this is really the best thing that could’ve happened to you.”
He put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed.
“Now what do you say we go see Lara again?” he asked.
Isabel nodded and stood up. Alexander grabbed the railing of a gurney and pulled himself to his feet. They headed back around the corner and stood in front of the door for a long moment. He squeezed her shoulder; she closed her eyes and the door opened by itself.
“You okay?” Lara asked.
“Yeah,” Isabel replied.
“She speaks!” Lara said. “And such a pretty voice. You’ve been holding out on me.”
Isabel smiled faintly and looked away.
“Would you like to give this another try?” Lara said, glancing down at her son.
Isabel sat in the chair by the bed, and Lara handed her the baby. As Lara instructed Isabel on how to properly hold the child, Alexander turned to Glenn and smiled.
“Let’s go grab some coffee,” Alexander said, heading for the door. “I’ll fill you in on what you can expect to be dealing with nine years from now.”
As Alexander turned into the lot beside his apartment building, he spotted Catherine’s Mercedes already parked out front. He pulled into his usual spot and glanced at Isabel.
“There’s just one more thing I’d like to say,” he said. “I know we haven’t exactly been all that close over the years, but I want you to know that I’m here to stay, and I’ll help you through this in any way I can. You won’t have to go through it alone. I promise.”
“I know,” she replied, and smiled.
“Good,” he said. “Now let’s go face the music.”
They climbed out of the car and headed around the building. Joan was sitting on the front step playing with her phone, while Catherine leaned against the hood of her car with her arms crossed. When she spotted Isabel, she stomped forward and opened her mouth to speak.
“I held a baby!” Isabel said excitedly.
Catherine froze, staring at her daughter with her mouth agape for a long moment, then glanced at Alexander.
“What?” she muttered.
He fished his keys out of his pocket and floated them over to Isabel.
“Why don’t you girls head on inside?” he said. “I’ll be right up.”
“Okay!” Isabel replied, and ran up the front steps.
“You are such a freak,” Joan said, following her sister to the door.
“No, I’m special,” Isabel replied, heading inside.
Alexander smiled and turned to Catherine, still standing there looking perplexed.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “Got a bit held up at the hospital. Have you got a few minutes to talk? There’s something you should know.”