by Janice Lichtenwaldt
This three-letter tweet to the world described Selena’s current state of mind to a T.
School had been a disaster and the subway ride home wasn’t improving the situation. Summer had come early to the city. Sweat rolled down her body and the stench of humanity permeated the train car. She jostled shoulder to shoulder with the other commuters. Side-mouth insults whispered throughout the crowd, everyone considering everyone else to be inconvenient, in the way, in their space.
Selena kept her gaze in a soft focus, being extra careful not to make eye contact with anyone lest she’d have to interact with one of the human sheep. This trip was the worst part of her day. People sucked and having to be packed in with them was her definition of hell. Selena prided herself in her ability to avoid human contact. Most days she was triumphant in her quest.
She popped the second to last bite of stolen chocolate chip cookie into her mouth. Her mom would be pissed Selena had raided her stash but her cookies were too damn good. It was the only thing Selena’s mom seemed to be good at, honestly.
“Hey! Fuck off, man.”
Two men had pushed past her hard, knocking one of her ear buds out as well as the last bite of cookie.
“Not cool, asshole.”
Selena groped around for the errant bud and sighed at the sight of the now trampled bit of cookie. When she looked up one of the men was starring down at her. She felt the warm stench of his breathe on her cheek. Waves of hatred hit her like a punch in the gut.
“Fuck YOU little girl.”
Fight or flight or freeze: these where the options available to her, according to her teachers, when confronted by danger. She knew her teachers were wrong. There was also the “just not giving a shit” response. She deliberately placed the ear bud back in and turned away just enough to keep the asshole in her side view but enough to disengage.
Not worth it, Selena, she thought to herself.
The man menaced her silently for a few heartbeats longer and then disappeared in the chaos of a train stop. Humanity pushed and pulled, exchanging one herd for another as people entered and departed the car. It was all the same to Selena. Ignore. Loathe. Repeat.
The next several stops continued without incident. The train car was thankfully thinning out as they hit the outer ring of the city. Selena spent most of the time eyes down counting the fossilized pieces of gum ground into the floor. Extra bonus points for spying pieces stuck to the sides of seats.
“Please. Please leave me be.”
If there hadn’t been a break in her music, Selena would not have heard the plea coming from the back of the car.
The voice was old, shaky, scared. Morbid curiosity got the best of Selena. She tilted her chin up just enough to witness the scene through her jet-black bangs.
The two men who had run into her earlier were hovering over an old woman. The woman wore a black robe. A purple and gold embroidered scarf framed her wrinkled face securing her hair safely from view. She kept her gaze firmly planted on the floor as she trembled.
“Get the fuck out of my country.”
“You stole my job, bitch.”
“One less of you would make my life better.”
And the insults kept coming. Selena cautiously scanned the rest of the train car, not wanting to draw unnecessary attention. Empty. Only the four of them remained. Nobody was going to help this woman.
It’s only words, leave it alone. It is none of your business,thought Selena as she simultaneously turned down the volume of her music so she could hear the conversation better, not sure if it was out of concern or morbid curiosity.
Selena slid her gaze over to the old woman who was now shoved up against the train window. The woman locked eyes with Selena. There was strength there, but also a resignation. The woman knew she was in trouble and was alone. Words started to form in her mind… “This isn’t my prob…” and then dissolved into, “You must help.”
Fuck me. I’m going to regret this.
“Auntie June! What are you doing on this train? It is so good to see you,” said Selena loudly as she pushed past the two men, helping the old woman sit back up in her seat. Selena took the seat next to her.
“What the fuck?” said the main tormentor.
Selena ignored the men as she rapidly searched her brain for the one video she had seen on Facebook about how to intervene in a confrontation in a public place.
Step 1: Don’t engage with the perpetrator.
Step 2: Focus on the victim.
Step 3: Talk to them like you know them.
Step 4: Get the fuck out.
“Would you like to come over for coffee, Auntie? My stop is next.”
A total lie, but at least they would be off the train and hopefully these guys would stay behind.
Why am I doing this? So stupid, thought Selena.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing, bitch. Get the fuck out of here.”
Still ignoring them, Selena kept her eyes locked on the old woman. To her surprise the woman smiled at her. But it wasn’t a smile of gratitude or a smile of relief. It was a smile of deep satisfaction. The woman’s eyes narrowed, bearing into Selena. She reached for Selena’s hand interlacing boney thin fingers through Selena’s fleshy teen ones. With her right hand she reached up and placed her fingertips on the left side of Selena’s face and thumb planted firmly on her forehead.
“I call you forth, now and forever,” the old woman hissed beneath her breath. Selena watched in awe as the whites of the woman’s eyes turn black and her pupils sparked iridescent purple to match her headscarf. “Rise up, young leviathan. Know your power. Take your place.”
Something beyond electricity coursed through her. Burning flesh and hair seared her nostrils. Purple pain flooded her eyes, her mind, and then her entire body. A guttural scream rose from her stomach, traveled through her chest and exploded into the train car smashing the windows into a million shards of glass dust. The men flew through the air. One was thrust through the aisle of the train car to the far door. The bastard who had been the most abusive hit a metal pole snapping his neck, dying instantly. Selena dropped hard off her seat onto the sticky train car floor. Her head bent between her knees in an effort to keep the chocolate chip cookie where it belonged.
“What the fuck did you do to me?” Selena asked, more mystified than angry. There was no response. She turned toward to the woman to demand answers and gasped in horror. The old woman was dead. Her eye sockets smoldered with purple-tinged smoke. The fingers of her left hand were charred like bonfire remnants. The purple headscarf had slid down revealing four dime-sized scorched circles climbing up the left side of her face starting just above her cheekbone. Selena scrambled backward, crab walking until she slammed into the wall of the train car.
“What the hell?” said a distant male voice.
Selena had forgotten about the men. The surviving one at the far end of the car shook his head several times as if he was trying to Etch-a-Sketch away the scene in front of him. When that didn’t work he made an effort to stand using the train car door to prop himself up. He finally focused on Selena. They held each other’s gazes neither knowing what to do next.
The decision was made for them. Train had reached the next station. As the car came to a stop neither hesitated. Selena grabbed her backpack and leapt out the door nearest her. The man did the same at his end of the car. The platform was conveniently empty. Selena slowly turned toward her adversary to see what he was going to do before she made her move. To her surprise the man cringed at the sight of her, turned, tripping over his feet, fell, scrambled up to his feet again, and sprinted toward the exit at his end of the platform.
The train doors closed behind her and the train slowly began to pull away. Selena was able to take in one last glimpse of the old woman. Despite the blacked flesh around her eyes, the woman looked at peace. That’s when the weight of what had just happened hit her.
“Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!”
Anger flared insider her unlike any she had felt before. It was seasoned with a fear she had never known. She could handle the street brutality she experienced nearly every day. She could handle the creepy advances of her drunken stepfather, Richard. She could handle the occasional mugging. These were all known quantities. She had learned from a young age how to navigate the unseemly nature of her life in the big city. What she wasn’t prepared for was a women burning up in purple flames in front of her. She had also never seen anyone die before. Now she had two bodies under her belt.
Taking the subway steps two at a time she ran all the scenarios through her head. Nothing she could imagine seemed plausible. She burst out of the subway entrance on the street. She’d gotten off one stop early. Finding energy she didn’t know she had, she sprinted through side streets and alleys to get to her apartment. She hoped the few extra twists and turns would lose anyone who might be following her.
Reaching her block, she scanned the area for any signs of danger. Everything seemed normal. She hurried up to the steps of her apartment building to find the neighborhood tomcat, Furry Frank, blocking her way.
“Frank, I’m in no mood tonight. Get out of my way.”
“What the fuck, Frank? Just let me know pass, ok? I’ve been through some serious shit.”
“Fine. Fuck you, Frank,” Selena yelled and swung her leg back to deliver, not for the first time, a significant blow to Frank’s soft side belly. Thud.
“Ouch!” Selena blinked her eyes. She was looking up at the sky lying on her back on the sidewalk. Furry Frank sat comfortably on the stoop, licking his paw and passing it roughly over one ear.
“What the hell just happened?”
“You tried to hurt me out of spite.”
“Who said that?” Selena said as she propped herself up on her elbows.
“I did, you ungrateful witch.”
Selena jumped up to her feet, heart racing. No one was within sight. Furry Frank had moved off the steps and onto the sidewalk staring up at her. Selena saw a faint purple spark twinkle in Frank’s dark cat eyes.
“No, no no no no no no. Noooooo. NO!”
Selena dashed up the steps of her building, fumbled with her keys, finally getting through the door. She tore up two flights of stairs reaching the third floor in record time. The smell of stale cigarettes and cheap beer assaulted her nostrils as she heaved in air from all the running. Her lungs were on fire. She heard the Tinleys engaging in their nightly Battle Royale, hurling insults, and the occasional plate, at each other. It was almost comforting to hear the ‘normal’ sounds of her life. She slowed down as she reached her apartment. Warning bells slammed around her brain. The front door was ajar.
Selena stood to the side of the door and cautiously tapped it further open with her foot. Nothing looked out of place. She swung the door a bit wider and saw her mother passed out on the couch, one leg dangling precariously off the side. She’d lost one shoe, revealing the horrendously tasteless neon orange toenail polish she insisted on wearing. She said it made her look tan.
Again, Selena sighed and let her guard down a bit. It was good to have a bit of normal again. She entered the apartment making sure to close and double lock the door behind her. Dumping her bag by the front door, Selena went over to her mother to get her better situated on the couch. That’s when she saw the cookies from the batch she had stolen from earlier. She picked one up and sniffed it. Chocolate, sugar, butter and pungent weed. She figured she deserved another cookie given part of hers had been denied her. As she began to pop it in her mouth she heard a grunt from the far corner of the living room. That’s when she saw her stepfather squatting like a gargoyle rocking back and forth.
“Don’t eat that.”
“Richard,” she said with a snarl, “Why not? It looks like you and mom had your fair share.”
“Something’s wrong with ‘em. Not a good trip, Sel.”
“Huh? What are you talking about? “
“Before your mom passed out she freaked, mumbling something about it ‘not being time.’ She was like, ‘no, she’s not ready.’ Then she screamed and passed out.”
Selena looked from her stepfather to her mother and back. A smile slowly crept across her face.
This explains it!,Selena thought. Her mom had dosed the cookies with something more than marijuana. She should have known better than to take a baked good from her mother’s stash without confirming the ingredients. What she had seen on the train must have simply been a bad trip. Relief swept over her. Her shoulders released down from her ears to their normal position. Under normal circumstances Selena would have been pissed but today all she felt was gratitude. She hadn’t seen a woman combust in front of her. She hadn’t seen two men get blown across a train car. She hadn’t caused train car windows to shatter. She’d just been high. Plain and simple.
“Well, Richard. I think it is time for bed. Do you want help getting to your room?” She surprised herself with the question. Typically she ignored Richard as much as was humanly possible, but tonight she felt guided to make sure he was ok.
Ah, yes, there it was. Richard in his true form. However, rather than being angry Selena was peaceful.
“Ok, Richard. If you need anything let me know.”
An angry growl was the only response. Selena smiled at his hunched over form. Normal. Things were normal again. She was a bit surprised at her genuine desire to make sure he was ok but chalked it up to the respite she felt after such an awful experience.
No more getting high on public transportation, girl. And with a light-hearted laugh she grabbed her backpack from the front door and went to her room.
It was too early to go to bed but she was exhausted. She grabbed her favorite ratty green t-shirt and Wonder Woman boxers and wandered to the bathroom. She flipped on the light and made a beeline to the shower. Steam filled the room. She stood in the shower and let the hot water pound out the rest of the stress from the day. The smell of fresh berries wafted through the air as she shampooed and conditioned her hair. She washed her face with oatmeal scrub finding the left side of her face a little sensitive but didn’t dwell on it. She finished up, turned off the water and grabbed a threadbare beige towel to dry off. She flipped her head upside down and wrapped the towel around her shoulder length black hair. It felt good to be clean.
She slid the t-shirt over the towel and hiked up the boxers. The steam still permeated the air. She grabbed her pink glitter toothbrush and went to work cleaning the last vestiges of demon cookie from her teeth. The wintergreen toothpaste felt bright and cool in her mouth.
Selena was finally content.
She dropped her head upside down unwinding the towel. Flipping her hair back, she used the towel to make a small oval on the mirror.
The reflection revealed four violet triangles lighting up the left side of her face near the hairline. Two of the triangles pointed up, two down. One of the up triangles was bisected with a straight line as was one of the down triangles. Her fingers trembled as she reached up to touch the marks.
She shifted her gaze making eye contact with herself in the mirror.
A shimmering purple nimbus blazed around the edges of her bright green eyes and then disappeared along with the marks.