The smell of mocha drifted along with soft jazz through the small café. Pictures, paintings, and art from so many different artists never to be known outside that building lined the walls, drew Nes’s eye as she sat at a round, wooden table in the back corner. On the other side of the table Stacy spoke of something or other, her fingers tugging absently at strands of her blond hair. Nes had always wished her own hair could contain the same bounce and color Tracy received through mother nature alone, but instead her brown hair hung straight and flat, resisting all her efforts to do more with it.
Nes wrapped her fingers around the warm cup of tea in front of her, the fumes wafting across her face, while above her the song changed, though still soft and lazy, the kind of feeling Nes came for; a feeling that filled her final days of summer.
Only a few others lingered around the café, mostly college aged, making the place feel more adult to Nes, more dignified.
“Yeah,” she said, if only to say something, aware if she went too long without responding to Stacy’s ramblings the mood would sour and Stacy would fall into a sullen silence as she’d done before. She didn’t mind Stacy’s constant speech, she just didn’t have any need for it while she sat with her tea, content instead to take in the atmosphere, look at the abstract art along the walls as if it meant something to her.
She listened each time a chair creaked back, heard the murmur of politics, classes in the fall, perhaps whatever good bands were going to be playing later that night. She listened as well to the jingle of the overhead bell as the front door pushed open and the man walked in and paused just inside the door, lit by the sunlight shining through the glass front.
Nes had her back to the door, but she carefully watched him out of the corner of her eye as he surveyed the place, his eyes slightly narrowed as he studied it, completely ignoring the woman behind the counter asking him if she could get him anything. The man didn’t appear very old, late twenties perhaps, his brown hair short, his shirt blank white, and his jeans dark blue. Nes thought he was a very boring looking man, and she might’ve ignored him completely had his gaze not stopped on her and Stacy in the corner.
She averted her eyes from him before he began walking towards the back corner where they sat. Nes hunched lower over her tea, listening to the footsteps approaching, Stacy oblivious to it as she continued on and on.
Nes could feel the man when he stopped right behind her and waited there. The skin on the back of her neck prickled from the sensation, an odd warmth pulsing in her chest, one she’d felt before, brushed aside as nothing more than nerves. She’d never felt it so strong before, so distinct from the normal tightening in her lungs she often felt when nervous. The notion of turning around and looking up into the man’s face frightened her for reasons she couldn’t explain, but knew were somehow connected to that warmth inside her.
Finally Stacy’s voice broke off and her eyes rose to the stranger standing beside them.
“Can I help you?” she asked, her tone telling the man to leave, her eyes narrowing to enforce the message.
Nes forced herself to turn in her chair and look up into the man’s down turned face, partially darkened by the sunlight to his back. A part of her had expected some kind of lecherous expression, but she saw instead confusion as he looked over her.
“Get out of here you creep,” Stacy said a little louder, drawing other eyes to them as she began to rise. The action made those eyes shift towards her and place her back in her seat. Nes didn’t think the man’s gaze was threatening, just forceful, cutting off any other complaints Stacy might’ve been about to utter.
When he looked back to Nes he asked, “What’s your name?”
“Nes,” she answered without hesitation.
“You don’t know, do you? No,” he said, answering his own question, the confusion in his eyes changing into mild annoyance as he took a step back. Whatever tension existed in the moment departed with that single step backwards. “Sorry to have bothered you,” he said and turned away from them.
Everyone in the building watched him depart. He walked calmly from the place with his hands shoved in his pockets, the ringing bell signaling his departure. Though Nes knew the music must’ve been playing through the whole thing, all sounds came back to her in an instant, even the conversations returned as if they’d never ended at all, and maybe they hadn’t ended, she thought, the tension of the moment entirely inside her head. Her chest no longer pulsed with that odd warmth. The only warmth now came from the tea cooling in the mug in front of her.
“What the hell was that about?” Stacy asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Think he got you confused with someone else. Might be a criminal on the loose who looks like you. Hope you don’t have anymore trouble.”
“Yeah,” Nes said, her elbow up on the back of the seat as she turned towards the front of the building and the street beyond the glass door. She knew the man had made some mistake, but she didn’t think it had anything to do with who she was. No, he’d only left after realizing she didn’t know about something, something he’d been expecting her to know, but Nes couldn’t fathom what it could be.
Her hand rose absently to her chest where the warmth had been.
Nes looked over at her friend, blinked in surprise, so lost in thought she’d all but forgotten about her. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.
“You still have your tea.”
“That whole thing creeped me out. Let’s go somewhere else.”
“Don’t think he’s waiting out there or anything do you?”
“No,” Nes said, her eyes shifting back towards the bright morning outside. She couldn’t feel him anymore. She had no idea how that made any sense to her, but she knew the feeling that had filled her as he’d stood there had diminished slowly at his departure until vanishing completely. The man was gone. Nes knew it.
Less than an hour separated Nes’s home from a city that had risen in prominence in Nes’s mind until it had all but become a thing of legend. The city contained everything the suburbs she lived in lacked. For every source of entertainment she could scrounge up on a normal day, the city had in droves, ready and waiting an hour away, but that hour was practically an impenetrable wall. The city was the centerpiece to her cries for a car; cries that grew progressively louder as her age slipped quietly passed sixteen and into seventeen without any transportation to be seen. The city was also the centerpiece to her parent’s resistance. Unlike Nes, who saw only streets filled with bright store fronts, wonderfully tucked away cafés, and a constant stream of shows to be discovered, her parents spoke of the dark corners and seedy stares looking for young girls like Nes to do with as they pleased.
This stalemate had never been broken, but on that Saturday night Nes had no need of a car of her own to take her into the heart of the city. She walked instead with her parents down the crowded streets just after nine with the last glimmer of sunlight being consumed by the city’s glow. The heat of a late August evening joined with the scent of food, people, burnt rubber, and exhaust to block out whatever worries had plagued her before, sending the odd man at the café into the back corners of her mind to be dealt with another day, or better yet, never to be dealt with again.
Their dinners eaten and their stomachs full, Nes had nothing left to do with her parents but walk the streets, pausing with her mother by one store window or another, looking over things she would never own and had little real interest in owning, enjoying the prospect of owning them more than she knew she ever would true ownership. Her mother rolled her eyes and playfully scolded her at times for even pointing at such things, occasionally joined her inside the stores while her father waited outside or by the entrance.
He spent his time on his phone talking business. He nodded his head towards them when they signaled they were moving on, spoke with an unlit cigarette in his mouth, the remains of an addiction he swore he had bested. Nes’s mother shook her head when they came out of a store and she saw him with it, and he’d remove it, only to absently place it right back in his mouth when they entered another.
Nes resisted the first calls to go home. “Just a little longer,” she begged her mother. “The subways run past midnight. We have plenty of time.”
Her mother relented, agreed to more as they stepped back out onto the street to find Nes’s father standing with a row of others along the curb. He no longer had his phone to his ear though he still had the cigarette in his mouth as he looked towards the west through the rows of massive buildings stretching fifty stories up into the dark, cloudless sky. Most of those on the street stood along as well, some walking across the street towards the west, the normal rumble of the crowd reduced to hushed murmurs.
“What’s going on?” Nes’s mother asked, but her father didn’t answer, his eyes focused as he tilted his head to look down a road.
Before he had a chance to answer Nes felt it deep inside her. She realized then she’d been feeling it for a while slowly growing, but the thrill of the city hid it from her.
The ground beneath their feet rumbled. Nes had never felt an earthquake before, heard others in the crowd whispering to each other, asking if that’s what had happened, the area never known for it.
“Something is happening over there,” her father said, his right hand plucking the cigarette from his lips. “Thought it was thunder at first.”
“What could it,” her mother began, but the flash of light high up in the sky cut of her words before she could finish them. Hundreds of them watched that flash of light followed by a rush of wind so strong the windows rattled in the buildings. People spilled from the stores, pressed up against Nes, all the traffic in the streets stopped as more walked out to get a better look.
Another flash, brighter than the first, and with it Nes saw the shape hurtling down towards the city just north of where they stood. Her breath caught. She knew she saw it before anyone else, and when the first voices cut through the silence that had overtaken the street, shouting, “Something’s coming down,” she knew as well it wasn’t an object about to strike the street, but a man.
Her mother forced Nes’s gaze away from that plummeting man right before he could hit. Her parents surged back with the crowd, taking Nes with them, their feet only able to carry them a step or two before the man struck and a shockwave sent the people stumbling towards the ground. He hit no more than fifty feet away from them, the roar of his landing heard for only a second before the screaming crowd pounded in Nes’s ears.
She struck the cement along with her parents. From her spot on the ground she turned to look back towards the crater the man had formed. A sinkhole sent two cars down into the city and the front of a building crumbled in a rising cloud of dust to the street. Cries of pain from those who had been too close to the destruction joined those of surprise from everyone else as fingers pointed up towards the sky above the crater and voices cried to look.
Nes knew her parents saw by the way her mother’s fingers tightened on Nes’s wrist, but she didn’t look back to them, transfixed instead by the man hovering above the crater. Though his clothes were torn and bloodied, something about them made Nes think of the military, an authoritative quality to everything about him.
He shouted towards the street, Nes thought at the crowd, but she couldn’t hear his words over the stream of too many other sounds surrounding her. Some of the bystanders were pulling themselves up to run, others transfixed like Nes and her parents, and even more inching closer to the flying man and the crater in the street.
From out of the crater a light shot upwards into the man, and Nes saw it was the fallen one, risen unharmed from the street.
“We need to get out of here,” her father screamed to them.
Nes let her mother’s hand pull her away as another shock wave rolled across the streets and sent a spray of shattered glass raining down. She knew they fought, every hit a boom of thunder and a rush of air at their backs. But along with everything else clamoring for her overloaded senses as her parents took her with them away from the destruction, Nes felt the warmth pulsing inside her. She knew before each strike, felt a flash of heat, as if able to feel the men building up their strength for another blow.
She knew as well one of them flew towards them before the crowd could scream. She leapt for her parents, pulling both to the cement right before he hit less than twenty feet behind them, his arrival tearing through a car and spraying shards of glass and metal across the street.
Her body felt it before her mind could react to the knowledge. The light filled the street behind them; the man’s body alit when she turned to stare at him pulling himself up.
“Get away from him,” a voice shouted through the streets, loud enough to be heard through everything else.
The people tried to listen. Nes saw her parent’s pale faces as they tried to follow the command, lost, for just a split second, to their desire to live, beginning to run before they realized Nes wasn’t right there with them. Nes managed one step, her hand reaching out towards her mother, trying to grab at the hand her mother offered her, but the light erupted before she was ever able to reach the tip of those fingers.
She felt heat more than pain across her back before the blast hit her, taking everything along the street with it, Nes able to see for less than a second the look of shock on her mother’s face before she was consumed along with the street.
All of it happened faster than it felt to her, and Nes understood somehow time was slowing down, but not from the shock of the moment. Her mind allowed her to take in every detail of the destruction even as she was spared from it. She saw the buildings crumbling in on themselves, the glimpse of people through the windows before the stone and wood took them away. Smoke filled her nose and rose up into the sky just as heat scorched the ground beneath her feet. Cars partially melted, tires nothing but black sludge beneath twisted rims, and the windows turned opaque.
There was no sound in those first few seconds, and when sound finally returned, it came to her from far away; not because her hearing was dulled, but because so few had survived in the streets around her to make a sound.
Up ahead she saw people on the outskirts of the destruction, only parts of their bodies burned away, some crawling towards safety, others beginning to scream as they groped for the remains of their loved ones. Before her Nes saw the charred remains of too many people to distinguish. So many of them had joined in death into a masse of cremated remains, her parents within it, but incapable of being found.
Nes fell forward and pressed her forehead against the ground, her fingers shaking as they snaked through her hair and pressed against the back of her head, her eyes hot with tears, made worse by the smoke drifting off the asphalt.
Her eyes shot open as the heat pulsed inside her chest. Behind her the thunder roared again and brought her to her feet. She spun to face the two men, now further up the street, bringing the city to its knees with each punch they threw, their fists alone able to cause such chaos. She couldn’t stop her fingers from twitching at her sides, her mouth pulled so tightly back into a scowl she felt the ache throbbing in her cheeks. Her chest almost hurt it burned so much, barely able to control whatever reacted to these men.
She let the fire flow through her veins, turn her vision red, her eyes seeking out some means of exacting any form of revenge she could find. She saw a cop up the street, dead, half his body ruined by the attack, so close to safety but fallen short. Nes ran to his body and knelt by the partially melted remains of his gun in its holster.
The fire inside her said it didn’t matter if the weapon was ruined. She took it anyways and walked with it by her side towards the fight, the heat of the metal searing away the skin on her palm, adding more fuel to the numbness in her mind.
When she stopped and lifted the gun up she didn’t think she felt angry anymore. Everything but the stretch of still smoking road littered with the melted cars and the blackened remains of the populace pulled away. She saw her arm from a distance rising up in front of her, the skin letting off a purplish light that began to concentrate on the tip of her gun until a ball of light shined within the warped weapon.
The men saw. She didn’t think their actions paused until the second she pulled a trigger that didn’t function and sent that eruption of light across the street towards them, but the world slowed itself again, showed her clearly their looks of surprise at her presence and the revenge she manifested into physical form and shot towards them.
Though a part of her mind raged at both, she had set her sights on the one who had destroyed the streets, the one who had first come crashing down into the city. Unlike the man dressed in military like garb, this one appeared more thuggish, his face disfigured from the fight but ugly all the same; his bruised look of shock brought a joyless smirk to Nes’s face.
She had aimed for his heart, her hand able to offer her precision she had never known before, but the man was fast, saw his future and leapt away from it fast enough to avoid a fatal blow, though not fast enough to prevent it from tearing through his stomach and blowing a hole through the middle of him. He flew backwards, his hands pressed over the hole seared into his gut, eyes still locked with Nes’s when he struck the street and rolled to a stop against a parked car.
Whatever had possessed her left her on her knees barely able to stay upright. Nothing remained inside her chest, only a hollow cavity, her body dead, she thought, until she saw the man begin to rise from the street, and she felt the rush of air filling her lungs. She could see through his shirt where the skin had been destroyed, but as she stared, she saw it filling back in, flesh pouring out from inside him to repair the damage, let him rise back up to his feet, to remain alive and mock the lives he’d taken.
He never made it fully upright. Nes saw the other one behind him, and before the killer could react, he was sent back down to the street. This time he didn’t rise again.
Wobbly legs barely brought her upright. She closed her eyes, let her head hang back, tried not to think of her parent’s faces in that moment, the last look of shock lit up before their lives were burned into nothing.
Her eyes opened to the military man standing in front of her.
She saw dried blood and burns on his skin, but no injury to mark where the blood had come from. For a second she felt a flicker of the warmth inside her, something she’d almost thought was gone for good, and she knew this man created it somehow, made it pulse.
“We need to talk,” he said, his voice calm and quiet as all around them the chaos of the city began to swell. Nes heard sirens, screams, and the clatter of debris and ruined buildings still tumbling to the streets. Voices cried out for help or for some kind of answer. She didn’t know this man any better than she had the one face down on the street, and while he had warned the people away, had done his best to stop the man who had so casually slaughtered anyone near him, Nes couldn’t help the blame she directed at him in that moment.
There was no rational voice left to guide her. She turned from him and began walking away, knowing he could stop her at any moment if he chose, and as if to punctuate that thought, she saw him in front of her again. She hadn’t seen him move, hadn’t been able to even detect the movement, the man simply there, blocking her way, his eyes apologetic as his hand reached out towards her.
“Get away,” she screamed and pulled back from that hand and any words he had. She ran away from the street and towards an alley, hurrying through the walls of dirty brick, the stink of overflowing trashcans, until she emerged on another street littered with shattered glass. She expected to find him again, but no one waited for her, and when she looked back, the alley was empty.
Her eyes rose to the sky. Smoke floated upwards but no one hovered above her.
Even if she had wanted to find her parent’s car, she didn’t have the keys. In fact, the keys were melted down along with her parents. Nes wanted to go home. It didn’t matter how irrational the desire was. She had no place else to go.
She started walking through the ruined city. Every so often her eyes flickered back up to the sky. The man was never there.