Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
It was the sun woke me. I spent a few hazy, dry-mouthed seconds watching the dust motes swirling cursive script in the butter colored light. My head felt as scattered as the weightless particles.
I sat up slowly, raising a shaky hand to my temple. My chest hurt. My head hurt. A lot of things hurt.
I closed my eyes, almost slipping back into sleep, when an image of gunfire and wet streets unfolded behind my eyelids. For a moment I was falling, falling, rain stinging my eyes. Then suddenly I was prone on the shuddering floor of a careening truck, pain in my chest flared, hot and angry and real, too real to be a dream.
My eyes flew open. The events of the night before flooded my mind as I scrambled for my alarm clock.
I was going to be so, so late.
A quick check of the top bunk revealed that Etta, at least, had managed to get up on time. An unread message from her was flashing on the screen of my phone where I’d left it charging on the windowsill:
I didn’t want to wake u or mom. I’ll text u when the bus drops me off @ school.
Below that a second message, received later:
Made it 2 school safe. c u when I get home <3
Shit. I ran a hand through my tangled hair. She had taken the bus by herself? She was only ten. Ten-year-olds weren’t supposed to get themselves to and from school themselves.
Then again, moms weren’t supposed to get brain tumors, and big sisters weren’t supposed to be too busy sneaking out to train as superheroes to notice their little sisters growing up.
I typed out a brief message, fingertips glancing on the chipped screen of last year’s model.
You should have woken me up. I don’t want you taking the bus on your own!
I hit send and bent to poke through the laundry strewn on the floor. Where were my clean clothes? Did I have any clean clothes? Did we even have coins for the Laundromat?
Before the thousand-and-one minor anxieties of my life could overwhelm me, my phone binged with a message back from Etta:
sorryyy!!! you looked like u were dead tho, I thought u needed sleep
I fired back:
I needed to get to school on time, and you need someone to walk you to the bus stop. You are TEN!
I let out a huff of breath and returned to kicking through the clothes on my floor.
I bet u took the bus when u were 10
She wasn’t wrong.
Do as I say not as I do, you little goblin. And I always rode with Xen.
The notification telling me she was typing appeared the moment I hit send.
yeah cuz they’d be gr8 protection against kidnappers
I wished I could tell her I’d had my powers to protect the both of us in case anything happened. I wished I could tell her the truth.
I need you safe, Etta. This isn’t a joke. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.
That was the truest thing I had ever said.
I’ll wake u up next time I promise. Don’t stay mad @ me?
I’m not mad. Now stop texting in class, Goblin. What are you even doing with your phone out?
She texted back:
I snorted at my phone. For all that my sister and I argued, we both knew that we were a team. Ever since she’d been a toddler, we’d always been by each other’s side. My sister truly was my best friend.
At that thought, I felt the weight of my secrets heavier than ever. I turned off my phone and tossed it onto my bed.
I rubbed my face and felt the crustiness at the corners of my eyes and my greasy skin. I sniffed under my arm and winced, realizing I hadn’t showered after the events of last night. It was possible I had never felt this gross in my life. I smelled like smoke and sweat and the coppery tang of blood.
I suppose I’m already late, I thought, and headed down the hall towards the bathroom.
After the worlds shortest, hottest shower, I was feeling much better, if slightly scalded. I threw on the cleanest clothes I could find, which consisted of a pair of thrift store jeans, ripped and faded but not in a fashionable way, and a red and white striped shirt with a small brown stain on the hem. I tucked the shirt into my pants to hide it.
I struggled to run a brush through my tangled, dirty blond hair before giving up and tucking as much of my mane as possible under a fraying black beanie. Apparently, spending your night fighting villains and bargaining with corrupt politicians was not conducive to a good hair day the next morning.
It must have been the humidity from the rain last night, I reflected. Wet weather always makes my hair so frizzy.
Yawning hard enough to make my jaw crack, I wandered into the kitchen, pausing along the way to check on Mom. She was still sleeping like a log. Like a corpse, my traitorous brain whispered.
I shook off the thought and rattled through the kitchen cabinets before remembering we had no food. Technically, we still had a heel of bread and some peanut butter, but just the thought of another stale sandwich made my tongue stick to the rood of my mouth.
The mayor agreed to give us money to live on, I remembered. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to spend some of my last credits on coffee and a bagel on the way to school.
I considered. It had been a long time since I’d treated myself.
Excited by the prospect of a decent meal, I shoved my feet into my beat up canvas high-tops. They’d been two sizes two big when I’d first gotten them, but now I had finally grown into them.
Not that I was thrilled to have grown. Five foot eleven and worried I was still getting taller with hips too wide and shoulders too broad, I often felt like I took up more space then I had available. I paused to look in the dusty mirror hanging in the hall.
Damp strands of curly hair were escaping from my beanie, but instead of prettily framing my face they clung to my neck and got in my eyes.
My eyes were wide set and brown, and today they were underscored with deep lilac crescents as dark as bruises. Speaking of bruises, the left side of my jaw and cheek were decorated by a dappling of bruises. I couldn't even remember how I'd gotten them. Had it been the punch? The fall? The bruises were red and green like Christmas lights, and just as noticeable. I sighed and headed back to the bathroom.
wincing as I dabbed my mother’s concealer over the bruises, I hoped I was doing it right. I wasn’t really one for makeup myself; I had always preferred to avoid attention as much as possible. I blended the foundation into my skin the best I could, and then set it with some matte powder. The effect was fairly convincing. The bruises were barely noticeable now.
I swiped some concealer under my eyes as well. Might as well, right?
I considered covering the paint-splatter freckles across my cheeks and the bridge of my nose. In the end, I decided to leave them. I’d inherited them from my mom, after all. It felt wrong to try to hide them.
Finally ready to go and now well and truly late, I swung my backpack full of homework I hadn’t done over one shoulder and slipped out of the quiet apartment.
As I closed the door behind me, I took a deep steadying breath. For a strange moment, I almost wished for my costume. Even if it was all a pageant, the bright colors and the anonymous mask covering my face made me braver. Without the false bravado of my alter ego, I felt exposed, vulnerable. I could only hope that today, for once, could be a normal day.
This thought was still on my mind as I made my way down the crowded street outside my house and came face to face with . . . myself.
An electronics store a few doors down from my building was playing the morning news report on dozens of televisions stacked like building blocks in the window.
A dozen tiny purple and white Moxies were clinging to the roof of a speeding truck, my wild curls billowing behind me. Then the image changed, and I was standing on the pavement with fire behind me and blue and red emergency lights painting my face. Even from outside, I could here my voice tinny and distorted over the airwaves.
“My name is Moxie. And if you need me, I’ll be there.” I cringed at how false the words rang. Then I cringed again at how tightly the costume clung to my curves, how visible and conspicuous I looked.
I hunched my shoulders and hurried onward; comforting myself that no one would ever know it had been me. After all, I couldn’t possibly have looked less like myself.