I’m in the midst of a bright forest, golden beams of sunlight falling through translucent green leaves. A breeze blows the scent of pine and fresh river water. I’m walking hand in hand with my fiance. We stumble across a small squirrel in the path, nibbling at an acorn. It looks up at us, its fur perfectly bristled and vibrant in the sunlight on the forest floor. For a moment our eyes meet, animal and man, and then with a squeak it rushes into the woods.
For a moment there is silence again and we keep walking, smiling as we go.
A month passed since that afternoon at the club, that night in the park. I thanked the tech kids at school for their help, and when they bugged me about it, I told them it wasn’t important anymore. Justin asked to keep the glove, so I let him; Beaver told me I still owed them. I don’t think they’ve got the guts to take me up on that debt.
I see Pace almost every day. We talk. Little things, mostly, till Pace gets all Yoda on me and I can’t think of anything to say. He keeps asking if I want to meet the others in the Underground, but after my last meeting with them, I’m not so keen on reintroductions.
I’ve spent the month training. I’ve learned to bypass the physical stress and induct it mentally; inverted meditation, in a way. My focus is stronger now, reaching that point of orange ambiance, but once I’m there, it’s all anger and energy inside. Part of me wants to get past that; part of me knows it’s my only fuel for the brightest fire.
We’re in the park again, Pace and me. On the bench as before, my arms to my chest, his arms spread-eagle, one draped behind my back. The leaves are starting to turn. The wind blows. I shiver a little; Pace just laughs. He hasn’t said anything yet. Neither have I.
“Listen”–we speak at the same time and stop just as fast.
My watch read midnight when I made it back to the Underground. The club was open with ladies’ night specials flashing on the signs out front, but I wouldn’t be let in, I already knew that. So instead I turned down the side alley, hoping against hope, and finding it granted.
Pace looked up at me and grinned, but didn’t move from where he leaned against the side of the brick building. Except for the darkness around us, he looked little different than he had earlier.
“Thought you’d come back,” he said. “At least, I hoped you would.”
I walked alone in the park. I could see the buildings downtown rising behind lush trees, flanked by clear skies and the afternoon sun, but the quiet grass and pockets of shade helped me forget the city all around me, helped me forget–just a little bit–what I had done.
My fist felt fine. The muscles in my arm were sore, and I kept running my fingers over my hand and looking at my knuckles up close, but I couldn’t see anything on the surface. Whatever I had done, whatever had happened at the Underground, it was not human.
The Underground was a nightclub downtown with a dilapidated sign and ladies’ night every Thursday. They weren’t on top of the scene anymore, but they still had radio ads and made a killer on the weekends. Didn’t think they were open during the day, but I made my way to their doorstep after school the next day like Pace Vaughn had told me to.
As expected, the doors were locked.
I caught movement to my left and turned to see someone in black slipping into the alley nearby. I glanced around, saw no one out of the ordinary afternoon traffic, and decided it wouldn’t hurt (or at least not hurt too much) to follow him.
But when I turned down the alley, it was already empty.