Season of Reckoning - Episode 10

Sunday, December 26, 2010
Season of Reckoning
Ordinary People. Extraordinary Abilities.
Real People. Unreal Adventure.

Episode 10 – Generation Gap
Written and directed by: David Justin R. Ples
Co-directed by: Jacob Madrid, Candy Dacalos, Rebecca Yu

Previously, on SR…
It wasn’t that Poco didn’t like Ma’am Kiel as an adviser; he only wished that she didn’t keep on wading waist-high into everyone’s issues.
“I’m warning you now; anything less than a perfect score in the periodic exam will get you a 2.75 in my class.”
“I’m hardcore, and stronger than you’ll ever be.”
“Believe it or not, I care about you, ‘cuz, so I’m going to do what’s best for you. I am a grown-up, and grown-ups need to make tough decisions. I didn’t want to have to do this.”
“Yvanne, Domz, Renz – you all have something in common; you all need cash. The secretary, the budding inventor, the politician in the running.”
Now, SR continues.
______________________________________________________________________________

Desi taps her fingers impatiently on her desk as her expensive mahogany office door eases open. A snowy white head, not unlike that of a polar bear, peeps in through the crack.
“May I come in?”
“You’re already letting the air-conditioning out into the hallway,” she replies briskly.
The plush tiger-coat carpet on the floor rustles as Domz makes his way toward her desk. He sets down a small red package before his boss, crudely wrapped in white ribbon, and then places his weekly report beside it.
“This covers all the testing results we’ve gathered. Operation Black Market should be up and running by the New Year if all goes well, Ma’am. Open your Christmas present,” he adds, with a sheepish grin.
“It’s the second week of December,” Desi says, rolling her eyes. She does take the gift though, nimbly untying the ribbon. The box falls apart to reveal a small potted plant, tiny green leaves bobbing up and down on a stump of a stem. “This is the most hideous paperweight I’ve ever seen.”
Domz laces his callous fingers together, twiddling his thumbs. Desi’s eyebrows flatten into a straight line, and the wall clock, gilded gold and silver, ticks through the silence.
“What do you want?”
“I was kind of hoping to ask for an official leave. For Christmas.”
“Evil doesn’t go on holiday, Albao. What could possibly be more important than working for me and doddering around your precious lab equipment?”
Domz fishes a small white handkerchief out of his pocket, and dabs at some beads of sweat on the side of his head. He begins to turn a bright cherry color, which Desi finds disgusting.
“Out with it, Domz.”
“I have to go see my father. He’s in town for a while and we haven’t spoken in months.”
A peculiar feeling washes over Desi as she sits and stares blankly at her technological consultant. She twirls a fountain pen in her hands, and remembers her own father.
Mr. Mina. CEO of the largest banking establishment in the entire country. All these flashes – her sitting on his lap, him at her graduation party, and that tie he was always wearing. Those stupid golf club designs embroidered on it.
She was always forced to stare at them when he lectured her.
“Ma’am?”
“Get out of my sight, Domz. Be back after the New Year. This is not a paid absence, do you understand? Go and see your father.”
The inventor nearly leaps out of his seat with joy. His childish excitement begins to cause Desi an acute headache. “Thank you, Ma’am! Have a Merry Christmas!”
“It’s only the second week of December!” she yells after him, as he speeds out the door. She snaps open her desk drawer, and frowns as she tosses her father’s fountain pen inside.

*****

“Good morning, Chester.”
Rubbing the sand out of his eyes, the dormer yawns and tries to take inventory of his early morning surroundings. He couldn’t be in class yet, but somehow Ma’am Kiel’s voice was drifting into his ears. He knew the tone all too well; it was preppy, calm, and dangerous, all at the same time.
He stops at the bottom of the staircase, and grasps the ends of his towel, slung over his neck. His adviser has made herself comfortable on the pale lime couch sitting in front of the reception desk. “You know what they say, Ma’am. Trespassers get shot,” he grunts, looking up to the badly drawn sign hung over the doorway. Boys’ Residence Hall – Main. “Survivors get shot again.”
Ma’am Kiel rises to full height, primly straightening out her blouse. She stands right under Chester’s nose, and hands him a folder full of review material.
“I just thought you’d like to be reminded that you need a perfect score on your periodic exam this week, or you’ll flunk my course. I trust you spent the weekend in tedious preparation.” As she says this, she smiles. Preppy. Calm. Dangerous.
Chester looks back on the last two days. The wild and intoxicating atmosphere of the November Carnival. How the stars seemed to twinkle brighter under their cloudless sky. He was preparing, alright. Just not for the exams.
He thanks his teacher, and tossing the material carelessly aside, he picks up his bathroom kit and walks toward the back of the hall. Ma’am Kiel stops him, though, before he gets very far.
“It’ll be harder for you, of course. With your powers and all,” she sighs.
“Discriminating against me just because I’m a special will get you sued,” Chester answers, teeth grit. There was some talk in his last Social Studies class – or the last one he was awake in, anyway – about a new government organization created to handle posthuman affairs.
“That’s not what I meant,” Ma’am Kiel snaps, just as Jethro, Elise, and Chari appear at the entrance. Poco trots down the stairs in a plain white shirt and some old shorts. “Your friends are here to see you.”
Chester swings around, snatching his backpack from beside the pingpong table. He yanks the zipper open and rummages through the contents, finally tossing Jethro a dowsing rod. It was tipped in topaz and painted gold, a relic exactly like his.
“Carnival souvenir,” he adds, catching Chari’s eye. They take a moment to share a sweet look, before Chester asks the other four to breakfast at the cafeteria.
“Don’t forget your brown enve-” Ma’am Kiel begins to say, but her students walk past her into the lobby. She sees Jethro laugh at a joke Chester cracks, and Chari lay her head on his shoulder, and Poco and Elise following quietly behind. She pauses for a moment, absorbing the scenario.
“Hey,” she cries, anger in her eyes. “Chester, I’ve tried to be patient with you. All I want is for you to pass this quarter. But you’re just pushing me to my limits. As your adviser, it’s my job to make decisions for your own good, so listen carefully – all of you.” Here she turns to his friends. “You are not to get anywhere near him this week. Give him space to organize his thoughts and prepare on his own. No Paskorus practice, no Paskoncert practice, and no playing hooky!”
Elise, Jethro, and Chari each flinch in turn. Poco shrugs and mutters, “Don’t you think that’s a bit harsh, Ma’am?”
“Hardly. If I see any one of you so much as say a single word to him all this week, I’m going to send you all to the Discipline Office. You’ll thank me for this Chester; I promise you that you will.”
The other four bite their lips and wait for Chester to react. He does the last thing anyone expects him to. He laughs.
Chester leans back, throwing his hands up in disbelief. His jaw muscles grind and lock, and he hisses as he sucks in air, sputtering pieces of terrible, broken laughter. He kicks the bathroom door open, and glaring at Ma’am Kiel – at all of them – he slams it shut.

*****

There was something missing from the PSHS Ilocos oval on that day, David thought. Even as he stood on the roof of the Science and Humanities Building, watching Chester and his friends take off in different directions from the dorms, he licked his lips and thought.
December winds were whipping through the acacias, and their leaves were an ocean of variegated green and brown shades. He listened to them whispering, about something coming. Some catastrophe, a terrible uprising that would lead to the destruction of the school.
Perhaps that was merely the wild imaginings of a troubled mind.
Poinsettia, chuckles David, taking his fedora off. His thick, vine-like hair falls over his muted eyes as he raises his gloved hands toward the field, concentrating.
The ground begins to tremble; something is pushing, wriggling through the earth, breaking into the open air. Tiny stems erupt through the soil, twisting and coiling as they grow toward the sun. Their roots take hold, and their leaves unfurl, and soon, little buds start to sprout.
David exhales, and the rim of the field explodes with brilliant Christmas red – hundreds of flowers swaying left and right amongst the blades of grass. The students walking around on the asphalt squeal with delight, and some astonished cries travel across the field.
A blast of wind to his right alerts him to Jowi’s arrival.
“The soccer team won’t like that at all.”
“How did you get up here?” David asks, smiling. He didn’t think he was going to see Jowi again, after what happened under the bridge.
“I ran up the side of the building,” says Jowi, beaming. “Came to deliver some news. Captain Adre and the others are planning to intercept The Establishment. They’ve gotten word of Desi’s plans somehow and are mobilizing.”
“How? I can count the number of fugitives who can fight on one branch.” Just as he says this, David’s grin collapses. “Well, it doesn’t matter. If Adre’s leading the charge, they’re going to be okay.”
The biology teacher turns toward the field again, and stokes his chin. A strong gust causes his hat to tumble off the edge of the roof. David watches it fall three stories and then disappear.
When he sits on the edge, Jowi hands him his hat back.
“Thanks.”
“Captain Adre wants to know if you’d like to join them for the mission.”
“Does he, now?”
Jowi pauses to consider, and then shoves his hands down the pockets of his pants. “No, but I think they really need you. Don’t you want to go and help?”
The bell rings for first period, somewhere in the halls below them, and David sighs.
“The problem with being around such sublime beauty,” he says, gesturing at the field, now ringed by Christmas flowers, “is that you’re constantly reminded of the contrast. Everything around you is so picturesque, but on the inside, you’re a wreck. Makes you feel crummy.”
Jowi nods his head solemnly.
“I’m starting to hate the holidays like that. I hate the feeling that I’m the only one who doesn’t have anyone to spend Christmas with. And I feel like I deserve it, too. I’m on the naughty list,” he scoffs. “You know, back when the Company was still up, I used to make the list.”
Both men laugh.
“Tell Captain Adre – dear Lord, what a funny thing to call yourself – tell him that I’m sorry. But I’ve gotta put my own life in order first. Figure some stuff out. And take care of these kids, too. I realize that.”
“Don’t you have any family?”
“I have a niece. And maybe some distant, distant relatives.”
“I don’t remember what life was like before the Company,” Jowi confesses. “Everything’s been moving so fast since you guys found me. I’ve lost touch with the outside world. There’s this big gap between me and my parents. I don’t even know where they are, and they don’t know where I am, and…I don’t think they miss me.”
David smiles sympathetically, and notes how young Joseph actually is. Probably no more than twenty-five. He pats him on the back with his creaky tree arms. “Don’t say that. I’m sure they think about you all the time.”
Jowi thanks him, and gets up to leave.
“Are you coming back?” David asks.
“I could. You look like you need someone.”
A moment later, the teacher is alone on the rooftop. The bell rings again.

*****

The angry blaring of car horns spills into the room as someone enters the café. Mellow music takes over again when the door shuts, and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee continues to circulate. Newspaper pages ruffle as quiet sipping resumes, and every now and again the cash register chimes as orders are filled.
Domz plunks into one of the cushioned booths by the wall, and leans back, waiting for the man behind the magazine to look up. Vintage records hang on the walls, flat against solid red brick, and portraits of old artists smile above the heads of the customers typing away on their laptops.
“Hey, dad.”
Albao Sr. puts down his copy of Time, laying it aside, and looks his son over. Dominic had grown some, but the glee in his face reminded his father of the young man who had run off to the city several years ago.
“So are you going to fill me in on everything or are we just going to sit here?” he laughs. “How about we get you something to eat first, huh?” A waitress appears by their table, flipping through her pad and unhooking the pencil from behind her ear. “A cup of decaf for me, and – Domz, what’ll you be having?”
“Just some pasta will do,” Domz says, grinning. His father notices the brand new watch around his wrist, loaded with three tiny screens and a bunch of blinking lights. The waitress nods and leaves.
“That’s a nice piece you’ve got there, Dominic.”
“Made it myself. It has GPS, satellite imaging, weather forecast data, wireless internet connection, a barometer, and can store up to a hundred MP3 files.”
The older Albao laughs, and Domz sinks comfortably into his plush seat.
“I’m assuming there’s a clock in there somewhere?”
Domz frowns. “That was the one thing I couldn’t get right. It’s always too fast or too slow. You won’t believe the trouble I went through trying to figure out where the clock face is supposed to go.”
His father chuckles, digging through his knapsack. Domz notes that he actually looks younger than the last time they saw each other. There were less wrinkles and his hair was surprisingly less gray. He clips a small device onto Domz’s do-it-all watch, and presses a button. The gadget beeps three times, and then unlocks.
“There you go. That’s what I’ve been working on. A way to fix any time-telling device. But where’s the old Rolex I gave you after your graduation?”
“In my apartment somewhere. It was too clunky for all the radiation experiments I’ve been doing.”
“Right, right.” The smallest semblance of sadness twinkles in Albao Sr.’s eye. Just then the waitress arrives with a steaming plate of spaghetti and a cup of lush brown coffee. Domz’s father continues to talk while he stirs. “So, m’boy, which exciting companies are you head honcho of now? Wouldn’t surprise me if you swallowed up Google, really.”
Domz puffs up his cheeks as he decides how to phrase his reply.
“I’m kind of taking it easy for now. I haven’t gotten around to multimillion dollar firms yet, but I am the technological consultant for one of the branches of the PCAT.”
“What? What on earth is that?”
“The Posthuman Crisis Aversion Team. It’s the division that handles specials.”
“Ah,” his father nods, adjusting his glasses. “You mean the people with superpowers. Crazy, isn’t it, how these amazing, unbelievable events just randomly happen? I’ll bet they’ve been living under our noses for centuries and we were just too silly to realize it. It kind of undoes all the science I taught you back in the day, eh Domz?”
“Yeah, but their abilities can be explained in their genes, dad. There’s nothing phantasmal or outrageous about it. It’s just cold, hard science.”
“Maybe, maybe.” Albao Sr. takes another sip of his coffee. He watches his son, big man that he is, gulp down forkfuls of pasta. He leans over to try and wipe the sauce of the side of his face with a napkin, but Domz swats his arm away. “You were always a pretty messy eater, son. You remember the chocolate cake disaster of ’92? You were already, what, eight years old back then, and you still got icing all over the new sweater your mom made you.”
“I’m an adult now, dad. I think I can handle a plate of spaghetti.” Domz places his fists on the table, and goes on. “I was just saying that they’ve got me constructing all of the weapons and containment facilities for their prisoners.”
“Prisoners? What I thought was that they were representing specials, and putting up some kind of big hospital to give them therapy and teach them to control their powers.”
“That’s just the façade,” Domz confesses, leaning in closer. “We’re actually learning how to make powers commercially available. We’re doing experiments on them – don’t worry, it’s all very contained – and monitoring them. It’s going to be the biggest advancement in scientific history, even bigger than stem cells or space missions. We’re going to change the world!”
Domz plops back into his seat, and raises an eyebrow at his father, who is gingerly folding a used table napkin under his saucer.
“Change it into what?” he asks bitterly.
The younger of the two inventors blinks. The café doors open and close, momentarily letting in the smell of car exhaust and wet cement. Rain had started to fall outside.
“Wait, are you disappointed?”
“No, of course not. I’m very proud of you and your job as…techno cashier or whatever.”
“Technological consultant,” Domz corrects him, frowning.
“Sure. All I know is, I taught you to be smarter than that. What’s more is, I raised you to be a better person than that.”
“I don’t understand.”
The waitress returns to clean up the table. She loads the dirty dishes into a tray, and Albao Sr. hands her a tip. Then he flips open his magazine again, and casually browses through some articles.
“Dad.”
“You know what I mean, son. What happened to your work ethics? Your principles? Deceiving people, testing on them – why, in high school, you wouldn’t even train lab mice! Are all of your human specimen agreeable to your arrangements?”
“Well, not exactly, but they’ll see the light soon enough. It’s for them, after all.”
“I thought it was for the rest of humanity?” Albao Sr. says. This time it’s his turn to throw Domz a questioning look. “Which by the way, brings us to an interesting point. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten all my lessons about balanced ecosystems and invasive species.”
“No way.”
“Then you’ll remember that it’s a bad idea to introduce drastic change to an environment. If you start handing out superpowers like lollipops, just think about all the backlash on society and our way of living. People like me will start to lose jobs, for one.”
“What is your job now, dad?” Domz says, going red in the face. “Still tinkering with odds and ends? Time-telling devices and chocolate stain removers?”
“The way I work, Dominic, I like to help people out. Improve living conditions. I’m working on a computer system that recognizes voice patterns so that blind people can vocally operate PC’s and laptops. They can access the internet, join social networks, and post their opinions online. And I’m working on something that will eventually help those with spinal injuries exercise and maintain their damaged and paralyzed muscles. Doesn’t that sound more worthwhile? Inventors are supposed to be helping people live outside the box, not put them in one.”
“You don’t understand, dad. The science I’m working on now is exciting. It’s epic, for God’s sake. Coming up with cool guns and lasers like in all those James Bond movies we used to watch. I’m like a super-secret government agent now. You have to move into the future.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Everything I’m doing is about the future.”
“I mean, you’re working on helping out disabled people and making mundane household chores more enjoyable. We’re breaching the limits of science here. You taught me all about evolution, dad. Survival of the fittest. For humanity to carry on, we have to step up our game. Make living like specials possible for everybody- focus on passing on desirable qualities rather than trying to salvage the slackers.”
“Well,” Albao Sr. says, getting up, “if you’re so inclined to power forward, then don’t wait up for old-timers like me.” He swings his knapsack over his shoulder, and heads for the door.
“Dad! Wait!”
“Don’t worry, I paid for the bill,” he says, not looking back. The door swings open, giving way to the sound of unfolding umbrellas and pouring rain.

*****

Click. Click. Click click. Click.
“Could you hold it up? Like it’s in mid-air, falling.”
Jethro’s voice echoes into the desolate ruins of the second floor faculty center. Piles of rubble were scattered all around the floor, and singed floorboards and beams were in a heap to one side. Most of the broken glass had been swept under the open windows, where light entered and fell in shafts across the charred remains of last year’s fire.
(Like this?) Golda asks, holding a plank diagonally beside her. She throws up some dust with her other hand, and Jethro’s camera takes shot after shot of the wreckage. The photographer steps back to admire the morbid beauty of the scene.
It didn’t matter that his invisible voice wouldn’t show up in the shots – he could still feel ghosts around him. The terrible laughter of crazed Andro Milla, come to steal his powers; the sizzle of his lightning and the shattering of icicles. The deafening explosion caused by another special’s powers.
All of that, and the sound of Duke’s cries for help.
The haunting strains of Strontium’s Hymn of the Wind, down the hall, weren’t helping his nerves at all. He moves his tripod, and adjusting the aperture, takes several more shots. Jethro recalls the end of quarter assignment – to capture a part of your pain, projected into a photograph. For that, there was no better place than this – where everything stopped making sense. The place he was mercilessly hunted down by a serial killer, and where he lost his best friend.
The first time. Here he lost Duke the first time. Here he realized being special wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
(How is Chester doing?)
“I’m worried for him. His powers might be messing him up.”
(You’re not happy for him and his ability? A lot of people find the whole synesthesia thing fun and… very useful. I’d like to see some color every now and again. From where I’m standing, the grass literally isn’t as green.)
“I learned that just because you have an ability doesn’t mean you have to use it. To show off or anything. It attracts unwanted attention. You saw how hard Ma’am Kiel came down on him for his ability.”
(…well, yes. But that wasn’t all Chester’s fault…)
“Doesn’t really matter.”
(But you’ve got amazing powers, Jethro Jamon. Very flashy. If I liked you, and, uhm, I’m not saying that I do… I would be very impressed. And powers like mine, they come in handy a lot, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t use them.)
“I used to short-circuit everything I touched. TV’s, laptops, cars. Powers cause trouble,” Jethro replies sadly, folding up his equipment.
(But only if you can’t control them. Or yourself. And how can you control them if you don’t practice, right? Go ahead. Use your ability to give your pictures some sizzle. I’ll take the shot,) Golda says, lifting Jethro’s prized DSLR in the air. (Go. Shoot some lightning at that pile of rocks. I’ll capture the explosion!)
“I need to have absorbed the electricity somewhere else first. I don’t make my own energy; I only absorb it,” Jethro reveals.
(No problem. There, some cables. Put your hand on them, and you know. Do your stuff.)
Golda waits patiently as Jethro grapples with his morals. Finally, he sucks some electrical power from the wires running along the walls. The lights fizzle out for a minute, and then come back on.
Jethro stands apart from the ruins of the faculty center, inhaling and exhaling loudly.
(This is a perfect chance to vent some frustrations. Get some stress off your chest.)
Looking behind him to make sure no one can see, Jethro charges up some lightning in his fists. Sparks begin to fly from his fingers. At the count of three, he throws the electricity forward - a blinding blue bolt of fire like an arrow, whizzing through the air. It strikes the pile of debris and causes it to explode, throwing up pebbles and clouds of dust.
His invisible friend hands him the camera back, and shows him the picture. It was glorious, the way the raw anger and destructive forces had been captured.
“This is…not bad at all.”
(See? Powers aren’t all bad. They’re an extension of who you are – a way to express yourself, just like photography. In fact, why don’t you use your abilities when you ask Elise to prom?) Golda nearly chokes on her words. She clears her throat. (If you want her to like you, she has to like all of you. But you have to like all of you first.)

*****

“I wish I could sit beside him through this. I know how much he hates math.”
Chari looks through the frosted glass door of the library, and sees Chester crumple page after page of pad, tossing it angrily into a nearby wastebasket. Poco leans over, much to the librarian’s chagrin, and takes a peek, too. When their friend looks up, the two move away.
The scent of sweet, sweet strawberries was very strong in the air, and Poco was having a difficult time keeping his distance. There was something about their transferee classmate – more than her hair, her eyes, or her smile – that made her extremely appealing. He knew she belonged with Chester, but against all reason his heart was beating madly.
“You smell nice,” he blurts out, before banging his head on the door. The librarian shoos them away. This was why he disliked talking. Expression was so much safer on paper, where he could erase anything he wrote if it came out bad. Why had he said that? He was almost dizzy from standing next to her.
Chari merely giggles, although she does spread a fan in front of her face. She sighs, then turns back to Chester, vigorously rubbing his head as he attempts more practice inside. “Really? People keep saying that, but really, I promise, there’s nothing there. It’s not a perfume or anything.” Her shoulders sag, and Poco can tell she’s remembering something. “I’m starting to get a cold, too.”
Here she sneezes. Even her sickness is dainty and delicate, Poco thinks.
Snap out of it.
“Maybe you caught something at the carnival,” he says, shrugging.
“Maybe,” Chari replies. “When I was younger, my grandmother used to make me this kind of herbal tea. It was a local remedy for everything, she said. It really worked. I missed that.”
“Being a dormer’s pretty tough. There’s a lot to get adjusted to.”
“Do you ever miss home?” Chari asks.
Poco tries to refuse a reply, but no matter how awkward and complicated the issue is, the scent of strawberries overpowers him. He has to answer.
“Yeah. I miss Pa.”
Chari suddenly remembers the story of Elihu, the farmer who was Poco’s father. He’d been murdered by a special months after Poco came to PSHS Ilocos. That’s all anyone ever said of Poco – except Chester, who insisted he was a talented poet. “I’m so sorry,” she says, placing a hand on his shoulder.
She nearly flinches, but fights the urge to let go. She had to get over her fears. It was only a pat, a gesture of consolation. It was barely even physical contact. Chari gulps, and just as she’s about to let go, Poco hugs her.
What am I doing?! he thinks, but the embrace soothes the ache in his heart.
The door to the library swings open, and Chester walks out, defeated and grim. He sees the two hugging, and they see him. Poco immediately steps back, ashamed and confused, and Chari bites her lip. None of them say a word to each other.
Chester shrugs at them, eyes closed, as if to mean he doesn’t mind. He gives Poco a friendly jab on the shoulder, and smiles at Chari, before turning his back and walking away.

*****

The cell door glides open, and Yvanne steps inside. Her cousin lifts her head at the sound of three-inch heels clack-clack-clacking on the cold floor. Claudine tries to get up, wrestling with her handcuffs, only to crumble back to the ground, breathing heavily.
“How long…” she grumbles. “How long are you going to keep me here?”
“Until it’s safe.”
“How many days have passed?” Claud pushes. “…Am I spending Christmas in here? Oh god, Yvanne, please, have a stupid heart and let me out of this nightmare. Just untie my blindfold; let me see again! It’s so dark here and nothing ever makes noise and I think I’m going out of my mind.”
“I read your profile before I trashed it. You’re what they call a bodysnatcher. So…the blindfold stays on for now. But I brought you a home-cooked breakfast, for a change,” Yvanne whispers. She slides a tray closer, and neatly arranges the buttered toast and eggs beside the orange juice. “If you promise to behave, I’ll unlock your cuffs.”
“Nope, wait, you’re out of your mind. How could you possibly come in here,” says Claud, heaving, hair matted underneath her pale, dirty face, “and think that this peace offering would make it okay? You’ve made your own cousin a prisoner!”
“Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be, Claudine. Just let me eat and talk with you. I know how lonely it must feel. I know how trapped you are.”
When Claudine doesn’t move, Yvanne takes it as a sign of resignation. She pulls out a keycard, and runs it along the groove on her cousin’s restraints. The locks pop open, and Claudine wrings her bloody wrists before her, sitting up straight at last.
“Here, let me wipe that -”
“No! Don’t touch me.”
The bodysnatcher cleans up her tarnished hands, wiping them on her skirt, and gropes around for the food. She knocks over the glass, and half of the orange juice has spilled out before Yvanne can turn it right side up again. Finally though, she locates the bread, and brings it to her lips, ravenously devouring it.
Yvanne sighs, and watches sadly.
“We’re not too different, you know. Plans go wrong, circumstances keep us from doing what we really want to. You’re trapped in this cell, and I’m…trapped in this job. Your mother and father used to tell me that the next generation always inherits the sins of the first. I’m so sorry I had to do this to you.”
“No, you’re not,” Claudine growls, before wildly tossing the empty plate through the air. Yvanne ducks, although the dish lands nowhere near her. The shattering sounds alert the guards, who appear at the door of the room.
“Time’s up, Miss Cuesta. Let’s go.”
The secretary gets up, as the guards come in and secure the handcuffs on Claudine once more. Just as she is about to leave, her cousin yells from the corner of the cell.
“You’re wrong, Yvanne. We’re nothing alike, so don’t flatter yourself. Do you know what the difference is? One day, I’ll get out of this prison. I’ll escape. But you? You will always be trapped in your stupid job, in your stupid ‘circumstances’. You have no reason to fight your way out. You’ll never escape.”

*****

Domz finds his father seated under the doorway of an old bookstore. The rain has subsided into a drizzle, and the traffic has disappeared, leaving the street peaceful and empty. He leans over his old man, and smiles apologetically.
“I didn’t know what I was saying in there, dad. I just missed you a lot. I got to talking too much again. Are you okay?”
“There’s the Dominic I remembered. Come here, boy.” The two inventors lean in for a warming embrace. “I’m alright. The fabric in my jacket is self-heating.”
Domz laughs. “That’s just…awesome, dad.”
“I came here because I didn’t know any place else. Big city’s chock full of smoke and gangsters who shove their shoulders at you when you pass by. Makes me miss Davao already.”
After a moment of contemplation, Domz answers.
“Let’s go back.”
“What?”
“Back home, to the old house in Davao. I have the whole month off from work, and I wanna spend some time with you, dad. And I kind of wonder what my room looks like now. Wow – seven, eight years ago. You haven’t cleaned out all my shelves and equipment, have you?”
His father pats him on the back, and the two walk down the street.
“Of course not. Now let’s go, before the weather acts up again.”

*****

Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion.
Walking into the room, muscles tensed, eyes to the floor.
He knew they were watching him. He knew how hard they were trying – to believe that he could snake his way through this. That he could overcome the impossible mountain before him.
Looking up, meeting their nervous stares.
But he knew what they all thought. He knew that they knew – it was over.
Tossing his bag to one side, sliding into the seat.
Ma’am Kiel was there. Did she have any idea what she’d done? What role she’d played in the decisions he had ultimately come to? His time alone had made him certain.
Passing the papers backward. Setting the timer. Calling out last minute instructions. Acknowledging corrections on the questionnaires. All of it was happening so slowly.
Elise’s mouthed apologies. Didn’t matter – he’d already forgiven her.
Jethro’s meaningful looks. Didn’t matter – it wasn’t his fault.
Poco’s bashful glances. Didn’t matter – he knew it was nothing.
Chari’s beautiful eyes. The only thing that would matter, in the end. He was sorry, utterly and deeply, painfully sorry, in his heart. For what he was going to do. For what was coming. What was leaving.
And finally, the test.
A thousand colors, infinite and blinding, all coming together.
“Begin.”
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Season of Reckoning - Episode 9

Sunday, December 19, 2010
Season of Reckoning
Ordinary People. Extraordinary Abilities.
Real People. Unreal Adventure.

Episode 9 – Home Sweet Home
Written and directed by: David Justin R. Ples
Co-directed by: Chester Ragudo, Jacob Madrid, Rebecca Yu, Benedict Almirol

Previously, on SR…
“Maybe it’s better if you leave, Chester. You’re no use here anyway.”
“I’m going to the one place that’s made me feel home in a long, long time.”
“No one can refuse the charms of the carnival for long. I made sure to give our boy the means to find his way home.”
“When do you think Patty is coming back?”
“Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick!”
“Saying goodbye.”
Now, SR continues.
__________________________________________________________________________

Chari falters as a blast of scorching noontime sun floods the backseat of the FX. Chester’s familiar lanky silhouette, backpack slung over his shoulder, blocks the light out for a second as he steps onto the dusty road.
“I got you,” he coughs, taking her hand. Chari hesitates, almost unwilling to leave the cold comfort of the quiet vehicle. Beside her on the seats, three other passengers stir, turning over to keep the outside world at arm’s length. They nudge against each other’s shoulders, and return to snoring. Finally, she hops off, stomach lurching - a leap of faith.
The FX’s wheels surge through the dirt, and Chester watches with a wordless grin as it disappears into the horizon. He cocks his head back, and then unzips the back pocket of his bag. A forked piece of wood, embellished with little golden stones, slides out, and immediately begins to bob up and down in his hands.
“How far?” Chari asks, tying her hair into a ponytail. Her companion scans the barren earth around them, pointing his dowsing rod, tipped with topaz, at every bush and boulder he can see. The artifact nearly leaps out of his hand, and he follows its insistent tugs into the wasteland.
“We’re getting closer. I can feel it.”
The words are scarcely out of his mouth when the sky melts away before them. Cloudless blue evaporates into a hundred red and yellow streamers framed against the rustic metal of Ferris wheel and rollercoasters. Children’s laughter echoes over the sound system, in tune with festive calliope music. A vision appears before them, arms outstretched like the Messiah descended from the cross.
Noel.
He and Chester lock eyes, struggling with memories from that evening four weeks ago – distant and half-forgotten. The chaos under the big top. The offer of family. The heavy sighs they had unknowingly shared, the shortness of breath in their chests as they had suffered the innumerable pangs of a loss they had yet to fully understand.
Chari had never met Chester’s father before. But the way he walked right into those welcoming arms – you would’ve thought he was coming home.

*****

Never pushing, never shoving, never having to squeeze her way through the crowd – it was a luxury that Golda bitterly enjoyed. Her gaze passed over each of them in turn, a ghost surveying ghosts, pallid and almost undead from her otherworld. She lets out a faint gasp, soundless in her abyss, as Elise glides through her; seconds later, Jethro passes through, unaware of her presence.
She was so hollow that it hurt.
To step out of these gray shadows and into their light – it was unthinkable. To make herself known, to make herself seen, now, in her comical attire, in all her imperfect glory, was just too much of a risk. Noel had taught her all the words before, but ultimately, what could she offer that would trump the certainty of the life they already lived?
She had no curly locks, not like her. No adorable laugh, not even a smile. This girl, this Elise, she had him, and she would always have him. No matter what Golda could do, no matter how many rabbits she pulled out of her hat or how many handkerchiefs she pulled out of her sleeve, Elise would always be ahead of her.
Because in their fantasy high school world, Elise was real. And Golda was a ghost.
“How could I let this happen? They’re gone, Jethro. Gone.”
“The dorms?”
“Not there. I checked. I shouldn’t have been so harsh. What if they don’t come back?”
“Elise, relax. It’s Chester, remember? The knucklehead knows better. It’s gonna be fine. It’s all going to be just fine.”
The way he kneaded her shoulders. The way she practically collapsed into his arms. The way they could be emotionally, physically there for each other. How she envied them.
“Where are you going?”
“I need to think. Tell the others Paskorus practice is cancelled for today. Okay?”
“Okay.”
Elise, her Jethro’s sparkling Artemis, walks away, rapidly, clutching her books like every breath she had in her depended on those pages. And Jethro himself, standing there by the lockers. At last he would understand - how it felt to stand still and senseless while the world turned. She could tell he wanted to go after her.
Love. Affection. It was their privilege, the crest of an uncomplicated life. It was too much for Golda to ask. But they were friends, at least. At most. They had a picture together. They’d told some stories. Made some jokes.
She had a right to care, didn’t she?
She would help him help her. Win the girl. Have the happiness he deserved.
That much she owed him. Because in the next week or so, in the coming months, she would take away so much more. Maybe he would forgive her if she was good to him now.

*****

“Glad to see you come back.”
The words dimly register in Chester’s ears as they walk along the sand-strewn paths. He knew these walks, knew where to turn before Noel could point out the avenues. His whole body could remember the grainy feel of pebbles under his shoes, of the wind carrying the weak year-end sun across his arms. Pieces of his last visit surfaced every time a tent flap would snap and fold as he walked by. It was like he never left.
And yet somehow the carnival he recognized had also changed. In the daylight, everything was so much lighter, different from the way the immensity of it all pressed down on him on that fateful night. Clowns were walking by, honking their big red noses and squirting passersby with their flower brooches. Every now and again the sound of bottle towers collapsing intersected the laughter of children. The November Carnival, a month from its first gloomy arrival in Ilocos, had flourished in his absence.
“I needed somewhere to crash for a while,” Chester yawns. He can feel Noel watching him from the side, and as his eyes slide left, he notices the ringmaster’s crooked smile. It was like Noel was remembering something, too. “What’s a good ride?”
“For you, I recommend the Flying Festival. If you don’t scream your head off, then you can have your money back! What do you say? A good deal?”
“I dunno,” shrugs Chester. “What do you think, Chari?”
Beside him, Chari shrinks back as Noel leans forward to get a good look at her. To her surprise, he smiles, and tilts his chin back to acknowledge her presence.
“Was under the impression we would get everything for free,” Chester adds, smirking. “Don’t us specials get a discount or something?”
A nervous moment passes in which Chester almost takes back his words. Noel stops walking, and with an eyebrow raised, looks the two students over. He’d been wondering if Chester remembered. Obviously, he did, and to his relief, the boy wasn’t going to take it against him.
“Heh.” Noel grins, and sharply inhales. “Of course, of course. All your rides and drinks, on me. Go, enjoy yourselves. Have to make most of your time at the carnival, right?” As he says this, he looks over their heads, and calls someone over. “If you need anything, anything at all, you can talk to our Bearded Lady.”

*****

“Take good care of this kid,” Noel whispers to Alla, brushing some of her hair back. Today she wears it in a golden blonde beehive topped with pinwheel flowers. The curls behind her ear bristle as she listens.
“I bet he reminds you of yourself when you were younger, Cabs.”
“And how would you know, Miss Alla Tan?”
“Sometimes Lydia talks about her little brother and how he was a loafing lazybones. But don’t worry; I think she means to sound fond of you or something.”
“My sister misses the old me now, after all the scolding she used to give me. Know-it-all mother’s pet, but she cared. She’s so distant lately.”
“You’ll win her approval back.”
Noel sighs. ”Introduce them to Patty,” he continues, gesturing to the gleeful artist waiting patiently beside her. “I’ll be around.”
As Noel turns and goes, Chester and Chari approach. Patty bounds forward, and throws Chester a warm hug.
“You two know each other?” Alla asks.
“We were classmates,” mutters Chester, just barely able to tear his eyes away from Alla’s beard. She notices this, and winks, her moustache wrinkling slightly. “So this is where you’ve been hiding all this time, Patty. If I’d known it was a legit reason to be absent, I’d have run off here a long time ago.”
“It isn’t,” Patty laughs. “I love being here, Chester. I feel like I’m part of a family, which is a lot to say, since, you know. Sometimes I stop and think that my real parents would be happy that I’ve found a place here. I’m really contributing.” Patty pauses, inhaling. She graciously smiles, pearly whites agleam with her braces. “I can’t say I don’t miss everyone back at PSHS, though. How are they?”
“We were all wondering where you were. Trust me, you’re living the good life – no trig long tests and no homework. What have you been up to?”
“Alla here’s had me on beautification duty. I’ve been prettying up the posters here, see?” Patty points to some moving advertisements posted on the tent poles. “And lately I’ve been working on some invitations we’ll be sending out. To specials, you know? I heard you’re one, too. That’s awesome.”
“Not really. Powers have been getting me into heaps of trouble.”
As Chester and Patty continue to talk, Chari steps back and takes a seat on a large crate outside the Bearded Lady’s tent. He hadn’t even bothered to introduce her. She wonders how long it will be before they finish catching up, and then sees Alla looking similarly out of place just beyond them.
“What are your powers, anyway?” Patty asks.
Before Chester can begin to explain, Alla cuts between them. “There’ll be plenty of time to talk about that later, sweetie,” she says, waving her bangle-adorned wrists as though to shoo their concerns away. “The new beh-behs must be so tired. I know how far PSHS is. Golda makes regular visits and she says the journey is like, absolute murder.”
“Who’s Golda?”
Chari watches the smile fade from Alla’s face. Nearby, wading through a crowd of carnival goers, Noel shoots her a silencing look. Chari’s eyebrows knot.
“Oh, uhm, no one really. Let’s get some chow, kids. I’m totally starving.”

*****

“Turn the music off.”
Yvanne’s eyes veer off the road for two seconds to survey her cousin in the rear view mirror. Claudine slumps against the seat, clutching a neck pillow in her hands. Her eyeliner is unusually dark today, and Yvanne frowns at her all-black ensemble.
“Looking for something more punk rock?” she laughs. Claud doesn’t return the humor.
“I just don’t wanna listen to Ke$ha right now, okay.”
But the party don’t start -”
“Yvanne. Please.”
The secretary is taken aback by her cousin’s words. She abruptly switches the radio off. The drive continues in silence, with the two caged behind tinted windows, unwilling to speak a word to each other. Every now and again, Claud shifts position in the back seat.
The car slows as they approach a red light.
A beetle hovers outside the window, and Claud begins to roll the glass down.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m letting the bug in.”
“Eew, gross! Close that window before we get into an accident! I can’t drive if there’s going to be some disgusting beetle crawling around on my leather!”
Claudine ignores this, and allows the insect to settle on her index finger. It stays there, obediently seated, which is more than what Yvanne can say for her cousin. She grabs the old newspaper lying around beside her on the passenger seat – where Claud should’ve been – and whacks the poor, unsuspecting creature out the still open window.
“Hey!”
“Don’t you hey me, b----” yells Yvanne, just as a car behind them honks loudly. She steps on the gas, and wheels around the intersection. “You’ve been acting up the entire weekend.”
“I’m the b----?!” cries Claud incredulously, at exactly the same time another car in front of them beeps its horn. Yvanne had almost collided with its bumper. “Why don’t you just leave me alone?”
“I have news for you, sweetie,” hisses Yvanne, gritting her teeth. “I’m your guardian. For as long as your parents are gone -”
“What? You get to play mom? You’re not my mom. You’re barely even a grown-up. Stop butting into my business! I don’t need you breathing down my neck.”
“Butting into – oh my god. This is still about that freaking carnival, isn’t it?”
Yvanne pulls over at the old bank building where she used to work. She yanks her door open, and pounds on the window of Claudine’s door for her to get out. Like a blizzard, Claudine storms out of the vehicle and stomps into the lobby.
Her cousin beats her to the elevator, where she pushes the button to the top floor. The two endure the steady climb in heated quiet. On the fourth floor, the doors slide open and a couple of men enter.
“You’re lucky I saved your ass, Claud.”
“All you did was tear me away from my best friend.”
“You’re crazy if you were thinking of joining her in that flea circus. If she was really your friend, she wouldn’t have hauled your dumb locks into the middle of nowhere with all those clowns.”
“You don’t even understand what you’ve done,” Claud cries, flashing the eavesdroppers around her an evil eye. “It took me months to track Dani down. I was perfectly happy there. People get me there.”
“People are dangerous there,” Yvanne appends, rolling her eyes.
“Everything would’ve worked out if you hadn’t meddled.”
“How dare you. I do not meddle. You don’t know what they would’ve done to you. How are you so sure they didn’t kidnap Dani in the first place?”
The panel above the door pings a bright yellow, and some notaries walk into the elevator. The growing crowd adjusts, and Claudine is shoved beside her cousin. They squabble for room, finally deciding to settle for not having to look at each other.
Claudine remembers the way the detective convulsed on the floor. The sparks circling the ringmaster’s clenched fists.
“I would’ve worked it out. I could’ve handled it.”
“You wouldn’t know the first thing. I’m a businesswoman, Claud. I know about planning and strategies and logistics. Getting through obstacles is a challenge, and you can’t just run headlong into danger and hope to get out unscratched.”
“Businesswoman? Fat chance. You’re just a dowdy secretary,” Claud sneers.
“Oh. My god. You did not just call me that.”
The door opens a third time, and everyone gets off except the arguing pair. The elevator continues to rise, floor buttons lighting up in sequence.
“I wanna go back,” Claud says stubbornly. Just then, the door opens onto the top floor. Yvanne files out, her cousin in tow, and practically flies up a couple of stairs. The dark rectangle ahead of them opens out onto the roof, where a helicopter is waiting.
“Don’t you get it? I’m just trying to keep you safe. There are freaks in that hole I just pulled you out of. This is so much bigger than you think it is, Claudine Allyson.”
Claud hated the way her cousin said both of her names. It was patronizing.
“No, you’re the one who doesn’t get it. I belong with those ‘freaks’. I’m a special, too!”
Yvanne’s heels grind to a halt.
“That’s right,” continues Claud. “I have powers, and I belong in that carnival, where everyone else has powers, too.”
Shoulders hunched and locked, Yvanne turns to her cousin. She licks her lips, and tries to put a manicured hand on Claud’s shoulder.
“I did what I did because I care.”
“That’s an epic lie,” snaps Claud, cocking her head back. She flicks Yvanne’s hand away in irritation. “You don’t know the first thing about me. You think I’m young and girly and stupid, and that I still like all your typical tween glamour. I’m hardcore, and stronger than you’ll ever be, and you don’t need to hover over me pretending you’re a mom. I’ve been through more than you probably ever will be in your entire life. So get a clue. Leave me alone.”
Yvanne throws the helicopter door open, and the blades above them begin to turn. She doesn’t attempt to project her voice over the roar of the mounting wind. Instead, she takes her cousin by the arm and flings her into one of the seats.
The door slides shut, and the helicopter takes off.

*****

Jethro sweeps some dust from the stone of the third floor stairwell, and takes his place next to Elise. He hesitates as she sobs, and wishes he could muster the courage to brush her hair back behind her ear.
“I’m sorry you have to see this,” she sniffs, as he hands her his handkerchief to wipe her tears. She takes it, hastily dabbing the wet spots on her cheeks. When she finishes, she beams her usual smile, and even manages to stick her tongue out at him.
“You’re like me now,” says Jethro. “You worry too much. You really care about Chester, don’t you? Even when you were yelling at him…we all saw how much it hurt.”
“He’s so lazy and irresponsible and you never know if he means to do what he says.”
Jethro licks his lips, fumbling for words.
“How can you count on him,” she goes on, “to be okay?”
Awkwardly, Jethro pats her on the back. He cringes as he does this, praying to high heaven that Elise doesn’t notice how hopeless he is in this kind of situation. Hundreds of movies and indie songs, all gone to waste.
(Follow my lead,) comes Golda’s voice in his ear. He whirls around to mouth how busy he is, but Elise’s feelings begin to pour out like a river.
“Well he’s not going to ask me to prom now. Not after I humiliated him in front of everyone. I might as well go with Chari,” she laughs. “After all, my dad probably won’t object to that. Argh. If a male friend smiles at you, he’ll get you pregnant. If he asks you to his house, you’ll get pregnant. If you have a date to prom, he’ll get you freaking pregnant. Don’t get into this, it’s too rough; don’t get into that, it’s too hard for a girl. I’m not just a girl, you know. Gah. I’m a person, too.”
(Tell her how amazing you think she is. Tell her how you feel about everything she does.)
“What? I can’t do that,” Jethro hisses, just as Golda’s invisible elbow jabs him in the stomach. “Youch!”
“Are you okay?” Elise asks, confused.
“Yeah. And uh, you should be too. You’re this incredible, headstrong young woman. You’re like, a force of nature.”
(Good. Now remind her about all the extraordinary things she can do.)
“You’re class president, SCA president, choir leader, violinist, volleyball player, and Capoerista. You could probably break some guy’s bones if he ever tried to make you do anything you didn’t want to -”
(Now hint at how you feel, Jethro Jamon. Talk about how you like who she is.)
“- and that should scare me, but it doesn’t, because I think you’re really cool. And your dad will figure that out. You just have to show him who you really are.”
The effort of conjugating all those meaningful phrases together exhausts Jethro, and he slumps back against the steps. Sweat pours down his sides, and he can’t believe his hands are actually quivering slightly. He looks to see what effect his speech has had on Elise; her lips are one straight line, and she hugs her knees tight.
“You’re right about all those things, you know. Isn’t it stupid how I’ve been doing so much to prove myself to him and he still treats me like I don’t know how to make the right decisions? But with Chester leaving, I’m starting to doubt if I did the right thing.”
(Tell her everyone makes mistakes,) Golda says. She remembers how the keyboard’s insulating cord felt against her fingertips. The sound it made as it broke into pieces. She didn’t just hurt Chester. She hurt Elise, too. (You know she would make it up to him if she could.) As Golda says this, she looks straight into Jethro’s eyes. It stings to have him stare through her.
“It’s okay to be angry. And I guess, you can’t always get things right. But Chester’s gonna be okay. And Chari, too. I’m pretty sure that if you could apologize to Che right now, he’d forgive you. You mean a lot to him, you know.”
“Really?”
“I’m his best friend, I should know.” Jethro’s chest suddenly weighs heavy with his own words. He hadn’t exactly been there for Chester, either. No wonder he ran off.
“I’d ask him to prom right now if I could. But no self-respecting girl would do that.”
(Say that she’s too good to care about what anyone else thinks.)
“You’re uh, too good to care what anyone else thinks. Besides, there are probably other guys out there who really, really like you and want to ask you out.”
“Like who?”
(Confession time, Jamon.)
Jethro pauses, heart pounding in his chest. With his next breath, it drops into his stomach like an anchor. “I can’t,” he mutters under his breath. He tries to look at Elise again, but ends up staring blankly at the checkered yellow pattern of her skirt. “I dunno. Maybe they’ll surprise you. In the meanwhile, you gotta cheer up, Elise. Smile for me again. That’s who you are, Elise – bouncy, energetic. Happy.”
“Thanks, Jethro,” she says, hugging him. Every nerve in his body explodes simultaneously, and he sinks into the warmth of her touch. “You’re like my big brother.”
No one can see it, and no one can hear it, but somewhere in the abyss of another dimension, Golda facepalms. Jethro frowns for a moment, but contents himself with their prolonged contact. Finally, Elise breaks free.
“When I’m with you guys, I feel like I’m home. More at home than with Dad and his expectations that I never ever seem to meet no matter what. When I’m hanging around you and Chester and Chari, I don’t have to be anyone but me,” she smiles. “Now if only I was sure who I was, exactly. How do you do it, Jet?”
“What? Do what?”
“You’re totally confident with the way you look, and the music you listen to, and the things that you…like. You know what you like. That’s pretty important. I’m just trying everything out because I need to show everyone I’m capable. Sometimes I get lost in it all.”
(I think you know what to say, Jethro. I…I need to go now. Good luck.)
“I got this. Thanks, voice. Hey, wait, your name?” he whispers, as Elise toys with the aglets of her rubber shoes.
Golda bites her lip so hard it begins to bleed. She couldn’t risk her name. Not yet. Clenching her fists, she starts soundlessly down the steps, looking back only to make sure that Jethro and Elise are happy in each other’s company.
They are.
“That’s just me, you know,” Jethro continues, a little sad not to hear an answer from his invisible friend. “You don’t have to figure everything out right now. That’s what high school is about, I guess. It’s a season of reckoning. We all figure out who we are, where we belong, what we like.”
Here he stumbles. “Who we like.”
Just then the bell rings. Elise springs up, and grabs Jethro by the wrists.
“Thanks again, Jethro. Now come on. Only four more periods, and then maybe at the end of the day Chari and Chester will be back.”

*****

“She’s definitely a keeper, eh? What do you think?”
Terence bounces on his heels, favorite cap fit snugly over his head. He traces Chari with his eyes as she walks by, outlining every curve and every subtle movement of her hair with a thought in his head of snatching her away.
Behind him, bathed in shadow, his companion stirs. The sound of jingling bells flitters through the tent.
“You’re an idiot if you think she’s looking to swap.”
You’re a nimrod if you don’t think we can pull this off, Nars.”
“So you’re not even going to try this time? We’re skipping to Plan Me already?” Just under the thin gold plating of his mask, Nars smiles. The long fake nose attached to the front of his face makes him look like a devious heron, prowling about in the marshes for fish to catch.
“Why fix what isn’t broken?”
“For fear of breaking something else,” laughs Alla, joining them. She uses a long braid to pull the edge of Terence’s hat over his eyes. Nars leans through the hole in the tent, and points out their target, about to board the Flying Festival with Chester.
“What’s the lowdown on Strawberry Shortcake?”
“She’s here with one of Noel’s prodigies. And I have explicit orders to keep the likes of you two away from the new carnivalettes. Cabs will be furious if anything happens that turns them around.”
“Aww, come on, Alla,” pleads Terence, elbowing Nars and laughing. “We’re just gonna have some fun with them, that’s all.”
“I mean it, you two,” the Bearded Lady says, raising an eyebrow. Terence steps back for fear of it growing in size. “No funny business. These two are just as much my project as they are Noel’s. So play nice.”
“Got an interest in them, I see,” Nars says as he passes by. He lifts the tent flap for Terence, who’s gone in a flash. “Well, we’ll just see who they like better at the end of the day, huh?”
“Challenge accepted,” scoffs Alla, rolling her eyes. As Nars leaves, his large red shoes squeaking, Patty enters.
“What was that all about?”
“I’m just going to see what they’re like, is all. Chester and Chari.”
“You’re worried Golda likes spending time with them more now?”
“No,” Alla laughs. She waggles her fingers in the air to dismiss the comment. She then pulls on the bottom of her beard, and like a taut carpet, it rolls back into her chin, disappearing. “Okay, maybe a little. But I’m fun, too, right? I mean, look at my hair. It juggles.”
“You don’t need to prove yourself to anyone, Alla,” Patty says innocently.
“Nah, I guess not.” As she says this, the Unbearded Lady’s straight edge hair curls into gorgeous red locks. The ends are faintly tipped with orange highlights. “Even if I’m always working and telling people what to do?”
“They’d be lost without you.”
“Thanks, Patty. Now we should probably go make sure those two don’t get into trouble.”
“Chester and Chari, or Nars and Terence?”
“I haven’t quite figured out yet. Let’s go.”

*****

As the carousel turns merrily on its roundabout course, Chari Beleran begins to think the following things: that the horses on the ride weren’t nearly as soft as the ones back home, and that they were far slipperier and that she was going to fall off them, and finally that the carnival lights were too bright and that they were a sickening, ill shade of yellow.
The people staring indulgently at her as she passed by again and again didn’t help anything either. She knew why they were crowding around the ride, and she felt more like a menagerie attraction than Chester’s date.
He was seated just behind her, so near the edge of the horse that if he leaned back he would probably slide off its tail. His arms, warm with the down of young adolescence, were wrapped around her on either side. She was sure he meant to be sweet, but more than anything she was falling into a bout of claustrophobia.
His breath against the back of her neck startles her. Around and around the carousel goes.
“This is kind of nice. Just us. No school or teachers to worry about.”
She smiles in reply, her beautiful, beady black eyes staring at a spot on his shoulder, just out of reach of his sleepy gaze. They were pressed close to each other, and each time the horse whinnied higher, she could feel the air leave his chest. He puts his forehead to her hair, and chuckles.
“I’m having a really good time here with you. I don’t think I’m ever leaving.”
“Don’t say things like that. We have to come back sometime.”
“But let’s enjoy this, for now. Did I tell you about the last time I was here?”
“You, Jethro, and Elise rode the Ferris Wheel. Yes, I remember.”
Chester’s eyes are now closed, absorbing every sensation and riveting color in his mind, oblivious to the rest of the world standing in wait around them. Chari wonders when the ride is going to come to a stop. She can see that two of the carnies have joined the ranks of her ever present admirers, and an inexplicable dread falls over her.
One of them was in a baseball cap, and he was looking straight at her – as straight as he could with the carousel turning. His companion was a masquerade clown, dark skin contrasting elegant checkered white attire. The clown’s mask was golden, and the carousel lights swam in reflection across it. He tilts his chin to her, bringing up the tip of his mask’s curved aquiline nose.
“Jethro tried to ask Elise to prom. Epic fail,” Chester grunts. Chari can feel his hand sliding over her shoulders, caressing her. “How about you? Any plans? Because if not, I was thinking of going with you.”
“Me?” squeaks Chari. Her chest tightens as Chester gets closer. The sun has set halfway over the horizon, and the earthy browns and oranges were grappling with cobalt and rose for dominion of the sky. “Really?”
“Everything’s all topsy-turvy now. But when I’m with you, I feel home.”
Chari turns her head, heart pounding so loud that it swallows up the calliope music and all the voices around her. Chester’s nose meets her cheek, and his fingers begin to intertwine with hers. He was pulling her closer.
“Stop! Stop, stop, just stop it!” she cries, breaking free of his embrace. She hops off the horse, and Chester loses his balance, falling onto the floor. Chari scrambles out of the ride, clearing the fence with surprising ease, and Chester can only watch, stupefied, as she disappears into the crowd.
Terence smirks, and discreetly slaps Nars a high fve. The clown’s eyes stop glowing, and a contented smile forms on his lips.

*****

Yvanne steps icily into the hallway, snapping on the lights. She flinches for a moment at the foreboding numbers painted in what seemed like black tar on the wall – all 5’s, sharp and menacing. She shoots her cousin a look – boiling but also melted – and begins walking.
There were so many things she could’ve said. She had meant to be proud of her new, important position in The Establishment. She would’ve been glowing as she had introduced Claud to her new office, her new desk, and all the glittery things with which she’d decorated it. She would’ve beamed at the enormous new paycheck she’d been awarded.
They would’ve gone shopping together to celebrate.
But Claud had been right. She was a different kind of girl than Yvanne. Tougher, grittier. Yvanne prayed that would be enough to get her through what was about to happen.
“What are we doing here on this island?” scoffs Claud. She passes some sullen looking people behind glass walls. These were prison cells. “God, Yvanne, where are we?”
“This is Level Five. We keep the most dangerous ones here.”
“What? Who are these people?”
Yvanne places a frigid hand on frigid glass, and sighs. She whirls around to face Claud.
“You wanted to be left alone. So I’m…following orders. Like any dowdy secretary would.” At this, her lip quivers. “Claud, I can’t let you run off again. Believe it or not, I care about you, ‘cuz, so I’m going to do what’s best for you.”
Her fingers dance over the keypad, and the cell unlocks. Several guards enter the hall, and begin to walk toward them. They crack their knuckles as they approach.
“My boss, Desi… She doesn’t like your kind. The specials. And she is going to do terrible things to them. If she found out that you were one, she wouldn’t spare you. She hates me, you know. I have to go through this every day to earn enough money to take care of both of us. Of you. I put up with that monster because I am a grown-up, and grown-ups need to make tough decisions. I didn’t want to have to do this.”
“Do what?” cries Claud, as two guards grab her by the wrists, cuffing them together. A blindfold comes over her eyes just as they begin to glow.
“Desi would torture you for information on the carnival if she knew you’d been dealing with them. The moment you make another escape and she finds out, you’re screwed. This is all I can do to keep you away from them.”
“So you’re locking me up here?! Yvanne!” wails Claud as the guards shove her into the room. She manages to throw herself up into a kneeling position, but as she opens her mouth again, the door slams shut. Her frantic shrieks are lost behind the glass.
“I’m tossing you out of the fire into the frying pan. I’ve scrapped your profile in the database. She won’t ask any more questions if you’re already behind bars. She probably won’t even notice you.”
Yvanne locks the code in, and swallows. The saliva feels like acid down her throat.
“I’m doing this to keep you safe. You don’t wanna see that, I get it, so fine. Wear that blindfold and stay put. Until you learn some respect.”
Claudine slumps to the floor, and the cloth around her eyes stains with her tears. She bangs her head once on the cold steel, and then continues to sob. By this time, her cousin has arrived at the end of the hallway. She takes one last look at the cell holding Claudine, kills the lights, then closes the door.
Gently. Slowly. Until it clicks shut.

*****

Chari darts through dozens of nameless, faceless people, pushing them aside as if they were blades of withered grass. Her frantic escape takes her straight to the door of the House of Mirrors; what little daylight remains is quickly engulfed within. She steps back, and begins to turn around, breath still wild and uncontrolled, and comes face to face with Nars.
“Hello there, miss,” he says in a low voice, almost growling. He takes one step forward, giant shoes squeaking, and holds up one gloved hand for her to shake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
As he approaches, Chari makes the mistake of looking into his eyes. Fire glows around the edges of his irises, tiny purple embers that rob her of oxygen. Her knees knock together, and she stumbles backward.
“What’s the matter?” Nars asks, looking past her into the hall. “Afraid of the dark?”
Those last words set off Chari’s trembling legs, and she bolts without direction or reason straight into the House of Mirrors. Her reflections loom over her in the dim light of the incandescent bulbs, shrinking and growing with her every move. As she approaches a fork in the maze, Nar’s ghostly image leaps out at her from all sides.
Outside, Chester can see Chari’s horrified scream as a fountain of ragged white and pink sparks coming from a distant rooftop. He races toward her, all new levels of fear thumping in his chest. What’d he do wrong? What was happening to her?
Preoccupied with all these thoughts, he runs straight into Noel, who props him up by the shoulders as he trips.
“There you go. Something wrong, Chester?”
Just then Chari screams again.
“Shit, man, it’s Chari. She took off from the carousel and now she’s freaking out. I have to get to her.”
Noel frowns, just as Alla rushes by. He manages to grab a tangled ponytail, and gently yanks her back. “Didn’t I say -”
“I’m sorry, Cabs,” the Bearded Lady says, out of breath. “Nars and Terence, they uhm, they saw Chari run into the House of Mirrors, and now she’s supposedly too scared to even move. I’m on my way to get her out now, I swear.”
“Hold on a second,” Noel coughs. “This moment belongs to Chester. Just go join those two imbeciles and tell them I’m on my way.”
Alla looks over the crowd, and wrinkles her nose. Her hair grows to enormous lengths, braiding and intertwining, and she lifts herself over the sea of people, fifteen, twenty feet high. Her hair begins to move forward, and like a spider, she takes long strides in the direction of the House of Mirrors.
“Dumb and dumber, ooh, you’re going to get a month’s worth of kitchen duty for this!”
Noel turns to Chester, who all this time has been fighting his grip to get to Chari.
“Have you figured out your powers yet, Chester?”
“No, there’s no time!” he groans. The ringmaster’s callous hands steady him, and he bends down on one knee to look Chester in the eye.
“You’re more than just a synesthete. You can draw people to you with your music. You can move the masses with the beats, with the melody. Use your power to guide Chari out.”
“What? How am I supposed to make music?”
Noel ducks into his tent, and emerges carrying an aged cajon under his arm. It looks similar to Chester’s, but its colors are faded and the wood seems far more worn. The boy’s eyebrows knot in surprise.
“A beat-box?” Chester says, the truth dawning over him as the sun finally sets. “Then it was you. You sent me the cajon.”
“It was a gift, from the November Carnival.”
NC, Chester thinks. Noel Cabauatan. Of course. Noel wades through the crowd, one muscled arm hooked around the instrument, another waving to his protégé.
“Hurry!”

*****

Thump.
Chester’s first strike at the wood ends in a dull, lifeless beat. The coffee color washes into the air, tired and pale. He looks to his new mentor for advice, and Noel stoops over. A steady hand pats him on the back, and Chester feels his nervous insides rattle.
“You have to feel the weight of your music. Somewhere in those haunted halls, the girl you care about is backed against a wall, waiting for someone to save her. Be her hero, Chester. Focus your thoughts on Chari.”
Frustrated, Chester runs a quivering hand through his short hair. He licks his lips, and begins to tap his feet. Quietly first, then louder, faster. He raises his hand in the air, and then brings it down on the wood. His other hand, clenched into a fist, follows, falling into the rhythm.
Tug-dug, pak! Tugu-dugudug pak! Tug-dug, pak! Tugu-dugudug pak!
Chester barely even notices the intensity of the colors he generates; as each ring blends into the next, and the thumping grows louder, the hues saturate and absorb each other, creating fantastic russet ribbons and cerise stars that travel inward, into the heart of the mirrors. He can only see Chari, her delicate vision frightened, hopeless, trapped. He was going to get her out.
Inside the hall, Chari lifts her head, drying her tears. Her arms, frozen from the bone out, begin to feel prickly and warm, the way they would under the morning sun. Like snow, her terror melts away, and she rises to full height.
Tug-dug, pak! Tugu-dugudug pak! Tug-dug, pak! Tugu-dugudug pak!
She doesn’t know where she’s going; all she has is the sound of the cajon - powerful, aggressive - to lead her back into open air. She closes her eyes, letting her feet choose their own path, threading the music along like Ariadne and her ball of string. She knew it was Chester, she knew he was there. She knew he would be waiting at the exit.
And she wasn’t afraid of his touch anymore; she needed his embrace. The memory of his breath on her neck draws her forward, onward, out.
At last she feels the cool breeze funnel by. She takes a few more tentative steps, and emerges into the softer lights of the carnival. At the bottom of the steps, standing by a proudly beaming Noel and the aged cajon, is Chester.
“Hey. Welcome back.”
Chari rushes forward, and buries her head in his shoulders. He wraps his arms around her, and hushes her nervous sniffling. The dozen or so people also drawn by the music cheer loudly.
“You had me scared there for a while.”
Alla walks over to them; suspended in the air on either side of her are Terence and Nars, ankles caught in nooses of her mighty hair. “I’m sorry these guys caused so much trouble.”
“It’s okay,” Chari says, smiling at her. The Bearded Lady’s shoulders relax, and she smiles back. “The carnival was interesting, and all, but…I just feel like heading home now.”
“You’ll be back,” grins Noel, tilting his chin in salute to them.
Chester inhales deeply, and nods. The city lights flicker in the distance.
“You can count on it.”
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Season of Reckoning - Episode 8

Friday, August 27, 2010
Season of Reckoning
Ordinary People. Extraordinary Abilities.
Real People. Unreal Adventure.

Episode 8 – Ahedres
Written and directed by: David Justin R. Ples
Co-directed by: Rebecca Yu and Benedict Almirol

Previously, on SR…
“This detective can’t be allowed to live, knowing what he knows about us.”
“We’re going to create a bank system that sells superpowers.”
“But you do have a record for being this lazy. Chester, you’re failing. Badly.”
“When have you ever needed a second opinion, boss?”
“Patty, you could probably spend time making some pretty, pretty posters.”
“Find David. No…find Adre. He’ll know what to do. Run and don’t look back.”
Now, SR continues.
___________________________________________________________

The smiting power of the gods rocks the battlefield with a terrible tremor. Armored horses clatter to the ground, riders still strapped to the saddles; castle towers collapse, sending frightened holy men scuttling for cover. Royalties take the folds of their robes in hand, defiantly elegant, as their soldiers look up to the heavens for reckoning.
“For Christ’s sake, Terence, stop with your incessant quivering.”
“Godammit, Gab, make a move already!”
With a deep breath, the Living Statue rights all of the fallen pieces, and melds the edges of their chessboard with the table. The sound of Terence’s protests are lost as he retreats further into his own vast mind. Four hundred years’ worth of battle strategies comes into play, crowding around the stars and galaxies, the mountains and cities, the ocean depths, and the faces of his companions. Dimly he makes out the shapes of Lydia and Noel, huddled to one corner.
“When I think about how close we came to ruin…”
“Get off my case, Lyd. I handled it!” Noel retorts. He hastily mixes up a jar of ink with his pipe, as the Tattooed Lady pulls up her divining stool. A clammy gust of wind from outside extinguishes the candles dripping on the shelves; wisps of smoke like ghosts fill the tent.
“Yeah, Lydia, quit bein’ such a stiff,” sneers Terence, just as Lydia drops her sequined shawl to the ground. The speedster averts his eyes; Noel didn’t like anyone messing with his sister. She shouldn’t have been an exhibitionist, then. “Speakin’ of… Gab! Just eat the pawn!”
Lydia clasps her hands together as Noel lightly taps her bare back with the tip of his pipe. Ochre and blackberry sink into her pores; tattoos of Dom, Claud, Yvanne, and Desi bubble to the surface seconds later. “The detective, the runaway, the secretary, and the villainess. The web thickens, and all the specials are flies, drawn to the gossamer.”
Noel runs his thumb over Lydia’s skin. “What’s her name?”
“Desi Mina.”
From the table at the front of the tent, Gabriel stirs. “David mentioned her.”
“Puppetmaster of the Icarus incident,” Noel mutters.
“And conqueror of the Company,” adds Lydia. Noel’s brow creases as Gab’s golden lips straighten into a faint smile. Debts had been paid for at last.
“Whatever she’s planning, we need to get in the way of. What does the ink say?”
“Not enough,” sighs Lydia. “I’m not a precog, Noel. You know that. I only see what my ability lets me. Hmmm… She has a team, but…each eye has its own prize.”
Tattoos of Domz and Renz take their place beside Yvanne and Desi. The four depictions shove and push against each other, hissing and writhing, before settling with their eyes averted from one another.
“Let’s get out there and mess ‘em up,” coughs Terence, brandishing one of his favorite throwing knives. Its curved edge glints before Gab, who urges one of his knights forward.
“Brilliant, Terence!” cries Lydia. “Play into their trap. If a special draws government blood, we’ve all but sealed our fate.”
“I don’t get it,” the speedster shrugs. “What does she want?”
“Us. All of us. We’ll be traded like slaves. Our abilities…rent from our bodies.”
Noel grabs his petrified dahlia staff, resting against the shelves. The coarse wood under his palms moans. “We have to protect our family. If Desi plans on swooping in and snatching up all our brothers and sisters… We have to get to them first. This wouldn’t be a problem if Golda was doing her job properly.”
“You send a teenage girl to a teenage boy. What are you expecting?” scoffs Terence. His hand zips across the chessboard, pushing the rook as far up as it can go.
“Your prodigy won’t be in for a while, Noel. We’ll have to go to the specials one by one. Individually convince each one of them of the danger they’re in and the protection they’ll find under our big top.”
“But where do we start?” asks Noel, as he leans in and begins to tap the chessboard with his tired fingers. The pieces jump up, and Gabriel holds them down.
“With Desi. The key to victory in this game of generals is not in numbers, nor strength, nor Fate or luck. It is not in the mastery of your own pieces, but those of your enemy.”
Terence’s haughty laughter disrupts the silence. More candles flicker out.
“Yeah, karathead? You can’t touch my pieces. That’s against the rules.”
Gabriel laces his stubby, golden fingers together and raises his chin in defiance. Lydia pulls up her shawl and joins them at the table, looking back and forth between the three men.
“I can’t choose your tiles,” the Living Statue concedes, arching forward, “but I can make you choose them for me.” As he says this, he pins one of Terence’s bishops in place with his rook. The speedster, unthinking, flashes another piece into position. Gabriel’s queen barrels forward, cornering the king, and the game is over.
“We need a way to keep track of Desi’s plans. Know her move before she does.”
“How?” asks Terence, rolling his eyes. He picks up his king and tosses it to the ground in disgust. Lydia dusts it off, and places it back in his hand.
“With ink, and a little help from Ms. Patty Bonifacio.”

*****

“Keep your fingers to yourself, Albao.”
Desi turns her attention to her technological consultant, reduced to a starry-eyed child at the sight of The Company’s vast collection of scientific instruments. Some of them she could identify – electron microscopes, centrifuges, and those things that looked like irons that doctors were always using to bring the dead back to life. The rest was a complete mystery - massive columns that opened down the middle and swallowed up test subjects, three-pronged needle guns, and something that vaguely resembled a guillotine.
Domz was enjoying what had always been to Desi just another set of shiny trophies that she, the rookie, wasn’t allowed to touch. For her first order she could have Domz explain them to her. Or perhaps have him take them apart. That would drive her prisoners nuts.
As she thinks this, she throws a smug look at the painter gasping on an operating table. Just another sign of The Company’s failure – their best precog was obviously malnourished. She could’ve used scotch tape to tie him down.
“Elucidate something for me, Ms. Mina,” says Domz. Desi smirks; for some reason, the scientist was always trying to put on an air of authority. His efforts were of course thwarted by his constant lisping. She didn’t see why he bothered. Everyone knew who was pulling the strings.
“What is it now, Domz?”
“You wanted to take over your father’s banking corporation so that we could sell people powers. But as I understand it, the abilities are attached to the posthumans. How do you trade something like that?”
Desi had been hoping he’d ask. She’d been dying inside, waiting for someone to bring it up. The suspense was wasted on Renz and the soldiers.
“Evolution gave them powers; now evolution is going to take them away.”
That ridiculous face. How she hated it when Domz’s lip folded in that manner.
“Tell them to bring in the catalyst.”
Sighing, Domz obeys. He steps into the hallway for a moment, and when he returns, he is followed by three armed guards shoving along a bear of a man in shackles. He was uncannily large and hairy, with dark skin, and dead, tired eyes.
“Mr. Albao, meet Catalyst J. He’s a posthuman with a very special ability. It can’t be used for combat. Shall I tell you the history behind him?”
Domz’s shoulders sag as he realizes he doesn’t have a choice. The guards push the catalyst into a corner, and point their guns at his head. Desi pulls up a stool and daintily folds her legs to the side. She primly brushes her blouse with the back of her hand, and clears her throat.
“My uncle, Dale Garcia, was a posthuman researching on genetic mutation. In other words, he was trying to manufacture people with powers. He created J as a way to transfer perfected abilities from imperfect patients, so that they could prolong their studies.”
“You mean this man,” says Domz, gesturing to the so-called creation, “can ---”
“Yes. He can take powers from one person and give them to someone else. Boys, unlock those cuffs. I’m about to give one of you the ability to paint the future.”
The guards waste no time obeying orders. Desi’s puppet strings run taut through J’s veins, and she motions with her fingers to move him forward. Ancer groans against his restraints, now profusely sweating.
Domz watches as J’s broad, plump hands close in around Ancer’s neck. If the catalyst was trying to fight Desi’s power, it showed only in the remorseful black of his eyes. The scientist realizes he must’ve been in her possession for quite some time. His spirit was broken.
Ancer begins to squeal; the CEO closes her fingers around empty air, and J follows suit. The shadows of the guards leap at the walls, rising and bending over the ceiling. Pale, twinkling red light escapes from J’s hand as he sucks the painter’s lifeblood away – not the gentle glow of stars, or the warmth of a candle, but the eerie glint present in a snake’s fang, the hopeless warning light of a speeding truck in the pouring rain.
An audible crack.
Desi maneuvers her beast toward a guard, who flinches. She holds him in her power as well, stilling his quivering legs, and forces J to grab him by the shoulders. The light flashes once more.
The light was dying, Domz thinks. Dying with every ray.

*****

Jethro could think of few benefits to having a ghost hovering around him night and day. One of those invented advantages was the ability to blame his awkwardness on someone who wasn’t really there. If he knocked something over, it wasn’t him. It was her. If ever his shoes were to begin sliding away from a confrontation – well, that would be his mysterious voice dragging him away.
If she was here, now, on the second floor back landing, she wasn’t being much help. He was going to have to face Chester himself. Everybody liked his best friend when he was asleep, and to some degree when he was awake, but nobody wanted to be near Chester when he was angry. That would be like stepping on a rabid dog’s tail with a pair of cleats.
“Dude,” he begins, gulping, “we’re super running out of time. We’re completely beyond unprepared for Paskoncert. If you’re not gonna practice Hymn of the Wind with Elise and Ma’am Kiel, then you might as well rehearse with me.”
Chester’s eyes remain shut; the rest of him remains anchored to the unused table sitting outside the stuffy journalism room. Around the corner to their left, the sopranos are threatening to shatter glass.
“Not now, man. Can’t you see I’m not in the mood?”
“Screw that,” pushes Jethro. He was half hoping Chester hadn’t heard him. “I’m gonna pull the you-know-what for you-know-who during our performance. It has to be perfect. Let’s go rehearse.”
His lanky friend grazes his teeth over his lip. “You don’t even have a song yet.”
“Because I need your help with the lyrics!”
Chester leans forward, kneading his temples. “Poco! Jethro says he needs you!”
“What? Wait, I can’t -”
There were a lot of things Jethro was afraid of. And a lot of those things were easily avoidable. All except awkward conversation. He whirls around to leave and comes face to face with Poco, an eager albeit confused look on his face.
Jethro jabs Chester in the shoulder, praying he doesn’t hit back too hard. Instead, the synesthete hisses. “Leave me alone, man. Go be bros with Poco.”
Walking back to his guitar, Jethro casts a quick glance at his much shorter classmate. What did they have in common? Homework. And not having a promdate. But he sure as hell wasn’t going to talk about that.
“Look, dude. Seriously, you don’t have to uh, help me out. I dunno what Chester’s problem is.”
When Poco begins to speak, Jethro jumps. He’d thought the kid had walked away.
“He’s having trouble with acads. He’s in danger of failing some stuff. And uh, dropping out.”
Jethro frowns. “What? Since when? Why didn’t he tell me?”
“You, uhm, never asked.”
The crisp sound of Jethro’s guitar case zipping shut momentarily outweighs the sound of the rest of Strontium hitting high notes. Jethro sighs, and turns to Poco again.
“What else did he tell you?” The musician’s brain scrambles for information, pieces of Chester’s long winded stories. It’d been awhile since he’d had to sit through them. In hindsight, he kind of missed them. Sort of.
“He’s a special and…so are you.” Poco manages a grin.
What did Chester think being special was? It wasn’t some coupon you could wave for free food. Didn’t the guy have any common sense? Never tell anyone you’re a special, unless they’re a special too. Maybe not even then.
There was one exception to that rule, but he was long gone.
“Chester just…thinks he is.” Jethro didn’t know why he’d said that. He knew perfectly well what Chester was capable of. David had told him so. “Anyways, thanks for the concern, Poco, but you really uhm, kind of wouldn’t…get it. You know? Sorry for bothering you.”
As Poco turns away, Jethro hears him whisper. Poco probably didn’t mean to say so himself, but Jethro heard him. “Yeah. I guess we normals wouldn’t get it.”
Perhaps it was his size that so reminded Jethro. Or the distance. Something about the moment was painfully familiar.
“Actually, dude…wait.” Jethro lays a hand on Poco’s shoulder. “Here. This is what I wanted it to sound like. Maybe you can…find me some words.”

*****

Even the homeless wanderers who stretched their weary legs by the side of the river rarely ever gave it a second look. Nowadays, Pasig was cloudy and featureless, merely an extended pool of mud that was always looking for a pristine ocean. Anyone who bothered to turn their heads and glance was assaulted by the smell of neglect and dying fish.
Unwatched and unnoticed, two specks travel along the river’s length. The first races over the stagnating foam, just a blur throwing up a soundless, muddy trail behind him; the second soars over the surface of the water, creaky wings straining to keep up with his companion.
The two approach a bridge, and within seconds, have landed on a shabby tugboat bobbing under it. One of the figures throws open the trapdoor on the deck, and both duck inside. Pasig lazily murmurs goodbye, sapped of the vigor needed to lap onto the banks.
“Light, Joseph,” says the older man. He snaps his fingers brusquely.
“Yes, Sir.”
A weak incandescent bulb, hanging on gnawed wiring from the ceiling, flickers open. David takes his fedora off and squints to get a better look at his survivors.
Slumped onto a crate is Wren Benzon, her once long black hair hanging in an uneven cut around her hunched shoulders. She bucks, and the distinct splash of seasick vomit echoes across the room. Benedict Almirol rubs her back, sighing, as one hand goes to his electronic visor. He turns a dial, providing himself some night vision.
Father JI Bautista’s long legs fold underneath the only chair in the room; his priestly robes are draped over some sandbags and rope. Sean Fortuna stands facing the wall, one hand rubbing his neck; his forehead droops and thumps on the wood every now and again. Romeo Manangu has one hand grabbing the low ceiling beams for support; his left arm is in a makeshift cast.
“This is it?” David asks. His mossy brows knot. Again, JI, familiar with the unique sound of a heart pumping sap, turns a jaded eye to him. The plant-man takes a step forward, and puts a hand up. His vascular tissues tense; an empty breath transpires from his lips. “H-how,” he mutters. “How fast?”
“Half a day, eighteen hours tops,” growls Benny. “They took everything. Caught everyone. All except us. You’re looking at the only Company agents left.”
The bulb sways as the boat lurches. It fizzles out for a moment; when it comes back, Jowi has returned with some packets of food and a couple of water bottles. Wren straightens up, and begins to sob.
“Condition,” breathes David. He turns to Benny, who avoids his gaze.
“JI – tired but without a scratch. A couple of razor blades lopped off some of Wren’s hair; apparently the ones sent to the Palawan branch can’t follow orders as well as the others. She’s not so good on water. I’m okay, but my glasses were stepped on. Jowi has a bunch of cuts from running through jungle; he looks like a tiger under those clothes. Romeo’s arm is broken, effectively making him useless in battle. He’s still pretty good for filching supplies though. And Sean…”
Benny turns to the youth dragging his palm across the wood. Sean licks his lips, shakes his head, and then walks away, deeper into the darkness.
“Empaths sustain powers on memory of the special they copied the ability from. When Desi broke his neck, he used a borrowed ability to heal himself. But after that…he couldn’t access any of his memories. Ergo, no powers. Boy’s lost himself.”
David pauses for a moment. His stomach was heaving. But only so slightly.
“Where was I when this happened?”
Benny doesn’t respond, and the words die on David’s lips. Something silvery from the opposite side of the room glints; heavy footsteps, like anvils being dragged across the floor, approach them. Where the pale light touches the figure, there a fist is raised. No one moves to stop it as it connects with David’s jaw, carrying about as much force as a speeding freight train.
“That’s a good motherfucking question, boss!”
Adre seethes as his thrown punch knocks his superior off his feet; the mass of branches and vines tumbles to the ground – the sound of timber collapsing. JI has jumped up, and Wren’s hand goes to her lips in dismay.
The agent raises his fist again, ready to mash David’s face to a pulp. Dust scatters as Jowi zips between them, holding up his injured hands.
“Why are you defending him?” roars Adre, as he pushes Joseph aside. His metallic fingers drag David off the floor by the collar of his trench coat. The two are now eye to eye. “We are broken, goddamn you! How could you do this to us? We mourned your ‘death’, your ‘transformation’. We lost our leader! And things just went downhill from there; heaps of shit piled up on your Company, and we were left to deal with it. And then you came back!”
“Enough, Adre,” says Benny, telekinetically dropping David back on his feet.
“I’m not through with him yet!”
The infuriated agent rams David against the wall, snapping his shoulder blades. As sap leaks out, more vines grow in place, healing the wound. The impact throws clouds of dirt from the ceiling; rats shriek and flee from their hiding places.
“You came back, and I confess, goddamn you, that I had hope. I was glad to see you come back, even if you were screwy in the head, because I thought you were going to save us. I thought about all those years I’d been working for you – I even lost my fucking arm for you – and I thought it was all over, you’d come back! But what in holy hell did you do? You went to teach ABC’s at some high school!”
Adre’s fist moves even faster than Jowi, sinking into David’s stomach.
“What did you think was going to happen, huh, boss? You could turn your back on twenty five years of lives that you changed? You could pretend you never led the Company, that you’d taken the other road? Because you weren’t there on the day that headquarters was attacked, our agents are now at the mercy of some psychopathic bitch!”
Telekinesis forces Adre to his knees; Jowi zooms past him, taking David up on deck. Wren’s tears patter to the floor. Sean sits beside her, taking her hand. His eyes, blank and uncomprehending, scope out the room. Romeo sighs.
“Let me go, Almirol! Let me go!” Adre bellows. “What do you have to say for yourself, David?! Come back down here and man up! Own up!”
“Adre, shut the hell up for a second, and listen to me!” cries Benny in anguish. “Do you think any of us had it easier? I had to leave all of my men, all of my friends, and run! Like a coward! Beating David up over this…it won’t change anything.”
You fought. You did everything you could,” hisses Adre. “I will never forgive this sorry excuse for a man, because it was his fault I couldn’t fight to save the only thing that ever gave me purpose in life. The only thing that ever meant anything to me died with him, and he’s still here, breathing.

*****

“Ugh. Here, take these, Domz – they’re really more your caliber.”
Desi rolls her eyes, and with a flourish, deposits a stack of drawings onto her technical consultant’s lap. Mr. Albao flips through them excitedly, before realizing that the collection of glorious acrylics he was expecting is actually only a series of childish stick figures.
“What happened?” he asks, a similar disgust in his tone.
“That nimrod guard should be sent back to preschool. Maybe then he’ll figure out how to color inside the lines. He says he could see the future flashing before him, but obviously his painting skills weren’t up to par with the special’s.”
Domz tosses the drawings to the floor, and leans back into the velvet cushioning. Desi reaches to her side and brings a delicate glass of wine to her lips, spilling not a single drop even as the limo passes over some jagged road.
“Where are we?” the inventor asks.
“According to Picasso, his drawings are supposed to predict tabloids being published – articles linking me to that bonehead politician Renz and revealing the true nature of The Establishment. Obviously I can’t let that happen. We should be nearing the warehouse now. We’re going in and putting a stop to this.”
Her companion takes a regretful look at the images penciled onto the paper at their feet. They looked nothing like what Desi had just described.
The limousine screeches to a stop, and the new executive practically kicks the door down. Her polished heels make contact with the chipped sidewalk, and as she straightens her blouse, she looks around. The building before them looked more like a shack than any sort of printing press; its roof was lopsided and the windows seemed unusually foggy. There was a big NC stamped across the doorway.
Domz follows Desi inside, brushing aside several cobwebs. “Are you sure this is the place?”
“One of those drawings was of you and me standing right here. I don’t understand. Where are all the newspapers?”
The door slams shut with a gust of wind. Domz is pushed aside as something blurs past him; Desi puts up her hand to protect herself, and feels a light prick to her skin. The door blows open again, and then all is silent.
“What the hell was that?” hisses Desi, through gritted teeth. She looks over her arm, and finds a black liquid oozing into her pores. She screams, and Domz rushes over, grabbing her. The inventor has mere seconds to observe the ink form a tattoo – a she-demon, with wild hair and terrifying claws – before the dye disappears completely.
“Get that looked at,” he says sternly, turning to the door. The mischievous cockroaches scuttling by his shoes alert him to the chaotic pile of grey and black print in the corner. “There are your newspapers. There’s not much on them, though.”
“We’ve been set-up.” Desi dabs at the tattoo with her handkerchief; when she lifts the cloth, her skin is smooth and ink-free. “Somebody’s trying to waste our time, and doing a very good job of it, too. Get moving, you oaf. I have work to do back at HQ.”
As the limousine pulls away out of the street, Domz looks sourly behind him. The warehouse has disappeared, leaving only wild grass growing on the empty lot.

*****

“Elise, do you mind if I borrow this for awhile?”
Chari was used to getting what she wanted. But early on she had learned it was always infinitely better to ask. After all, Elise was a girl, and Chari was always getting favors from boys. Besides, this was her friend’s treasured keyboard, given to her by an upperclassman from her old school.
If there was one thing Chari could understand, it was mementos.
“Sure,” Elise replies, sticking her tongue out and winking. She turns back to the tenors, and whacks one of them on the head with a copy of their contest piece. “Open your mouth! O-shape!”
The way Chari could feel their eyes on her as she slowly, daintily walked away could’ve been enough to make her drop the keyboard. She takes it, mildly straining with its weight, to Chester, still immovably distraught around the corner.
“Please tell me, Chari,” his eyes closed, “that you’re not here to convince me that I’ll be okay. Because you wouldn’t be the first person to try.”
“How did you know it was me?” she laughs. Chester is unable to fight the grin forming on his face. Her accent was adorable – which was a stretch, as adorable was not really Chester’s word.
“Strawberries,” he says, inhaling. He opens his eyes just as she sets the keyboard on the table beside him. She ropes the cord along the opposite edge, and takes his hand. Gently she presses his fingers to the black and white. A couple of notes trill away.
“I know how the colors make you feel. I wish I could see them with you.”
Chester nods, drifting back into darkness, as he plays with the music. Red, pink, and gold flutter before him, swirling and coiling past.
“So you’re not going to pretend that I’ll pass.”
“No. I was actually going to say that being in a new school isn’t so bad,” she chirps. Moving to Chester’s side, she places her head tenderly on his shoulder. “You might really like it. Leave all of the bad memories behind. Make new friends. Find someone…special.”
“Aren’t you going to miss me?”
“I can go with you,” she giggles. “We can run. I’m pretty good at running,” she adds with a semblance of a sigh. The breath appears before the boy as melancholy lavender. “Chester, what do you want to be? When you leave here?”
“I dunno. An architect. Or a businessman.”
“Really now?”
“My dad always taught me to be practical. Whatever brings on the mullah.”
“But I don’t think that’s what you really want to be,” pushes Chari. She slides her own delicate fingers over the keys, and Chester smiles at the colors. “I know you better than that, Chester. What do you want to be?”
“I want to be…free. I wanna be great. This place is just holding me back.”
“Well you can be just that. You can be as big as you want, Chester. You taught me that. I don’t want to see you leave, but I know that if you put your mind to it… You can get through this.”
Sticky words, thinks Golda. Jethro probably would never speak to her again if he knew that she was going to be behind this terrible accident. She was fated to be behind everything that was going to take Chester away from his best friend. The longer she had to do this – hiding and lying and, to some extent, stealing – the worse her stomach churned.
But the sooner she finished, the sooner Noel would have his protégé. And then Jethro would join them, anyway. In the grand scheme of things, they would all be together. If only she could bring herself to do what was required.
Slowly, invisibly, she walks toward the keyboard’s electrical cord. Firmly, she grasps it, rubbery, tingling with catastrophe, in her hand. She waits for Chester to stretch, to yawn, to have his fingers dangling carelessly by the keys.
And then she pulls.
The keyboard practically flies off the edge of the table. Chari screams in horror, and Chester reaches out in vain to catch it. Elise’s most prized possession clatters to the ground noisily, the impact with the tiles sending it skipping several feet. White and black teeth snap off, and the keyboard moans a low final note before lying defeated on the cold ground.
Elise turns around, eternities passing before she meets Chari’s terrified eyes. Hopeless heartbreak washes over her face, and she drops to her knees before the wreckage. Chester hands her the shattered keys.
“I’m sorry! I don’t know what happened!”
“Oh my god! Chester, how could you?”
Chari gets between them, as Elise rises to her full height. An uneasy coldness has come over their class president, but something wicked burns in her eyes.
“It was my fault, I borrowed it,” pleads Chari, taking Elise’s hand. Her friend’s anger subsides. “I should’ve checked the cord; I’m sorry. I probably tripped on it -”
“It’s not your fault,” Elise says. She throws a broken look at Chester.
“An accident, Elise,” he mutters. “I-I’ll buy you a new one. I can replace it, get it fixed, just please don’t-”
“Maybe it’s better if you leave, Chester.” Elise’s lip quivers; her words are soft but thunderous. The rest of Strontium exchange nervous glances. Jethro, standing in file, gulps. He wasn’t going to get out into the middle of that. “You’re no use here anyway.”
“You don’t mean that, Elise,” Chari intercedes again. This time, Elise merely cradles her busted keyboard in her arms, turns her back, and walks away. Chester angrily swings his backpack over his shoulders.
“I know you saw, Chari. I didn’t touch the stupid thing,” he says as he brushes past her on the way to the stairwell. “It fell by itself. Whenever some bull happens, it’s my fault. Everything always goes wrong around me. So yeah, I’m taking Elise’s advice. Tell her I’m sorry.”
“Where are you going?” Chari cries.
“You said so yourself. I deserve to be happy. I deserve to be greater than this. Better than to be yelled at by everyone. I’m going to the one place that’s made me feel home in a long, long time.”
Without asking, Chari already knows. She takes her bag, and takes a few tentative steps. “I’m going with you.”

*****

“I got into a fistfight once,” David says grimly, swaggering over to the edge of the bridge. He looks down into the dark water, shattered colors trickling down across the surface from the dim lamps along the road. Joseph stands silently beside him.
A few seconds pass before the fallen leader speaks again.
“Well, it wasn’t much of a fight, to be honest. Before the powers set in, I was kind of a wimpy kid. Didn’t like physicality. I read a lot, though. The classics, and then some. Put lots of ideas into my head. Got me asking questions. Has a book ever done that for you, Joseph?”
Only a muffled response escapes into the chilly December air.
“You’re right,” laughs David. He clears his throat, and waits for the echoes of his hollow laughter to diffuse into the night. “Not much time to read nowadays, huh? What with all the earthshaking news and such. Company’s been taken over, I hear. That’s quite…terrible, isn’t it?”
Joseph sighs. “I’m sorry, Sir. I know what it meant to you.”
“Why does everyone call me that? I don’t think I’m that old yet. Forty-something, I guess.” As he says this, David puts a withering branch of an hand to his face, kneading the bruise left by Adre’s lead-heavy fist.
Across the city, lights begin to die out. The last beastly growls of speeding motorcycles fade away, and for a moment the entire world is quiet.
“My life’s been a series of wrong choices, hasn’t it, Jowi?”
“I…wouldn’t know.”
“There are times when I put my hand to my chest and I can’t feel anything. No heartbeat, no blood. Would it be wrong if I said that it didn’t hurt, Jowi? You apologize for me but you don’t understand; there’s this hole in me, and….the Company being torn apart by dogs… Abednego’s anger… it doesn’t mean as much as it should. It doesn’t…hurt.”
Jowi’s wounded hands close around the cold steel of the bridge railings; below them, a heated discussion has begun between Benny and Adre. Their words seem to sail just below David’s tired, olive eyes, and then sink back into the river.
Why won’t you say anything? Aren’t you going to excuse me of being a monster? I don’t blame Adre. He’s right. All of this was my fault. I betrayed everyone by leaving.”
Joseph hesitates. He wonders whether to pat the man on the shoulder, and if it would be right to throw disappointment at him. In the end, nearly a minute later, he does neither.
“I’m not much of a talker,” he begins, slowly. “But your choices and your past are your own. You should do what you think is best now. Maybe find your humanity again.”
David lifts his head, and his fedora casts a shadow across his face. From the depths of that darkness, he flashes Jowi a weak smile, crooked and uneven from the bruise on his face.
A heavy metallic thud behind them alerts them to Adre’s presence.
“I’m leaving in the morning,” he announces, authority in his voice unlike any David has heard from him before. “And when I go, I’m taking the rest of them with me. Joseph can stay with you if he wants, but me and the others – we’re going to salvage whatever we can from your mess. This’ll be the last time, boss. It was…” and here he falters, “a good run.”
Adre turns his back, not waiting to be acknowledged, and disappears down the bridge. The boat below them lurches, and the river groggily laps against the shore. Bats sweep under them, casting shadows all around, as their wings flutter silently through the air.
“You should join him,” David says, some time after, eyes closed. “He has a plan, I think. He could use your help.”
Jowi watches him cast a final, hopeless look into the murk. When David turns to him again, expecting an answer, he shrugs. Then he swings himself over the rails, barely touching the abyssal waters as he lands, and zips away, leaving only a streak of soundless foam in his wake.
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