Asa woke up with a jolt, after a nightmare about trying to outrun a forest fire. He had one second of awareness before the pain announced itself with a vengeance.
It felt like someone was using a sledgehammer inside his skull, pounding his frontal cortex to paste. The pain echoed through his ribcage, and, weirdly enough, through his right forearm. He was processing this while also becoming aware of his surroundings. Boring white walls, smell of industrial antiseptics fighting a losing battle, an uncomfortable mattress beneath him. He was at the hospital.
Asa sat up with a groan, arm curling reflexively around his midsection. He made himself try to think logically, methodically, catalog the pain to know it. Broken ribs maybe, possibly a concussion. Maybe a burn on his arm? Something was weird, though, and it took him a second to realize it.
He had breasts. They’d taken his binder off.
“Goddamn it,” he spat, disgusted. It was probably a medical necessity – maybe – but he liked that binder. It was really comfortable. He hoped they hadn’t thrown it away.
He had just thrown the scratchy sheets off his legs when the door to his room swung open, and a perky nurse with a blonde ponytail, who looked all of twenty three, came in. “Sorrry, ma’am, you should stay in bed. You have a concussion.”
“Sir,” he snapped. “I’m a man. Didn’t you see my press credentials?”
The nurse gave him an incredulous stare, her blue eyes dipping towards his breasts and back to his face. “You appear female to me.”
“I’m trans. I haven’t transitioned yet. Where are my clothes?”
Was the nurse going to be one of those dickheads who figured your genitalia dictated your gender and that was the end of it? It looked like she was considering arguing, but he gave her an evil enough look that she paused to reconsider. Instead, she turned and walked to the small en suite bathroom, and came out carrying a plastic container. “This is what we were able to save of your clothing. You had no one listed as an emergency contact, so we called your newspaper. Is there someone you’d rather have us call?”
“No, that’s fine.” Asa had left his family behind in Maryland, and they were more than happy to let him go. He came out as trans in college, and they had never accepted it. The last communication he’d had with them was two years ago, when his mother had said he could come home when he was ready to be their daughter again. That was the day when he decided he had seen home – and them – for the very last time. It was a relief, to be brutally honest. He then moved out West and started his new life as Asa Vardy.
The nurse put the container on the bed and stepped back, like she expected him to lunge or something. Asa peeled off the blue plastic lid, and was instantly hit by the smell of burned cotton. He was relieved to find his binder was okay – a few drops of blood on it, but nothing unmanageable. The same was true of his jeans, although they were in slightly worse condition, with more blood, and some kind of black soot near the bottom. But his shirt was gone. And at the bottom of the container, he found his phone, with a shattered screen. He attempted to turn it on, but wasn’t surprised when it didn’t.
He was about to ask her what happened, because his head was pounding hard enough that it hurt to think, but then his room door swung open, and Dustin Yang came in, holding a paper cup of coffee. “Man, what the hell happened to you?”
The nurse moved to intercept, but Asa said, “It’s okay, he’s family.”
She glared at him sharply, apparently refusing to believe that whiter than white Asa had a Chinese relation. Which was fair enough, because he didn’t. Dustin was a fellow reporter at the Journal, and probably the newspaper’s chosen representative . But the nurse had better things to do than have a pointless argument, so she shook her head, and then gave Dusty her fixed glare. “Ten minutes, then I’m sending in an orderly to kick you out.”
He nodded agreeably. “Totally get it.” He kept nodding until she left, then Dusty rolled his eyes. “I was gettin’ major Nurse Ratched from that one.”
“A fair assessment,” Asa agreed uncharitably. Dusty gave him the coffee cup, and Asa nodded his thanks before taking a tentative sip, to test the temperature. It was hot but not scalding, so he gulped down most of it in three consecutive swallows. The coffee was exactly the kind he liked – dark roast, with a shot of espresso – and the caffeine jolted his system, smoothing over the cracks of his headache. Maybe some of it was down to caffeine withdrawal. It allowed him to think, and dig through his foggy final memories. “Oh shit, the protest.”
Dusty nodded, eyes brightening in that way that suggested he smelled a big story here. “Things are super fucked up. The Mayor has been all over Al since this morning.”
Al was the Editor in Chief, Alex Silverberg. “What? Why is the Mayor harassing Al?”
He shrugged and shook his head at the same time. “They said we needed to keep some information out of our stories about the protest for, get this, ‘national security reasons’.”
“What? What kind of bullshit is that?” Memories were starting to crawl back to Asa, although they were still kind of fuzzy. He remembered the cops were getting pretty violent with protestors who were being fairly orderly, as these things went. And then … oh, right. That big behemoth, the tank looking motherfucker. “Wait. That vehicle they brought in?”
Dusty nodded. “The one that blew up. Yeah. They won’t tell us what it is, and keep blaming ‘domestic terrorism’ for its destruction. Do you remember that?”
Asa had to think about it, scratching his head. His hair felt a little dirty, and he saw fine flakes of black ash fall from his hair like rotted dandruff. “No. I remember that tank thing … wait. There was a noise.”
“Like Supersonic makes, only mechanical.” Asa remembered the sound vibrated through his skull, making him feel like he was on the worst roller coaster ride ever. It physically hurt, and it felt like his brain was cramping. And then … “Nobody blew it up. It blew up on its own.”
Dusty raised his eyebrows. “You sure?”
“Yeah I’m sure. The thing malfunctioned and blew itself to pieces.” Asa had very vague memories of that, the sound of the explosion a release from the pain, but quickly followed by a new sort of pain. He must have been hit with flying debris.
“Since when do cops have sonic weapons?” Dusty asked.
Asa shrugged, and gulped down the rest of the coffee. He handed the cup back to Dusty, because he didn’t know what else to do with it. “The Army has supposedly used a sonic type weapon before, but I don’t know the particulars of it, because I’m pretty sure it’s classified.”
Dusty smirked. “Like the thing last night, right?”
Asa sighed, and it was only partially to do with the lingering pain in his ribcage. He’d always known the Jupiter Cove Police department was moderately corrupt, and the Chief seemed to be completely in the sway of the superheroes he clearly admired, but this felt like a new and different level of corruption. And if it wasn’t corruption, it was something even worse. “This is fucking big.”
“But how the hell did military grade experimental weaponry end up in the hands of the Jupiter Cove PD?” Dusty asked, He was so excited by the thought of a hot story he was actually bouncing up and down on his heels.
“And how did it come to replicate a power of one of its superheroes?” Asa wondered. It wasn’t a coincidence. But that opened so many questions, he wasn’t sure where to start. That meant he had to go out there and start rattling cages until something fell out.
“And why use it on unarmed citizens?”
Asa shook his head. “We know the answer to that, Dusty. It because the cops see any challenge to their rule as direct rebellion.” He was pretty sure the high caffeine infusion had helped his headache, although nausea was starting to roil in his stomach. He probably needed to eat something, as he had no idea how long he’d been out. “Can you go get me a shirt and a burner phone? I need to get out of here.”
“Asa, you have a concussion. I think you should stay put.”
“Are you kidding? I fucking hate hospitals. And I’ll be fine. I got a concussion once, playing baseball. I’ll live.”
Dusty gave him a sly smile. “You used to play baseball?”
Asa rolled his eyes. Dusty loved finding any excuse to make fun him. Well, minor excuse. Ever since they had the trans discussion, Dusty never brought it up. Bless his weirdo Chinese hippy parents, Dusty didn’t judge, unless you were a complete asshole. “When I was a kid and didn’t know any better. So pick me up that stuff, okay? I wanna get going.”
“What happened to your phone?”
Asa took the clothes out, and shoved the container into Dusty’s hands. The only thing in there was his broken cell. “It took the explosion worse than I did. We should see if Taylor can pull some data from it. I got some film of the protest.”
“Okay, I’ll ask. But we could probably check the archived version of the live stream as well.”
Asa stared at him. “Live stream? What are you talking about?”
“A self-proclaimed ‘hacktavist’ going by the name blue_cat 2020 streamed the protest for the internet. But it went off after the explosion. Still, the footage shows quite a bit of it. I don’t know if it got the big ass tank, but if anybody did, you’d think it would be them.”
“Good, get on that.” Asa wasn’t a huge fan of “citizen journalists” half-assing a profession he took very seriously, but they did have their place.
Dusty put the broken phone in his pocket, and not sure what else to do, he put the container, now holding the empty coffee cup, on a chair tucked against the wall. “Al’s gonna insist you take the day off, you know.”
Asa shrugged. “What Al doesn’t know won’t kill him.”
“Haven’t you heard him bitching about his ulcers? It might.” Dusty threw in a saucy wink before heading out, leaving Asa to gather his thoughts, and to stop pretending he didn’t hurt.
At first, he thought Dusty was flirting with him, but eventually he learned Dusty was that way with everyone. Cheeky, chirpy, and flirty were the best words to describe him, like he’d been raised by Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who. Since Dusty was happy to flirt with men and women, Asa assumed he was bisexual, or at least what some people called “fluid”, but Dusty had never mentioned having a boyfriend. Not that that meant anything either. He didn’t seem like the relationship type. Asa was actually relieved Dusty wasn’t serious flirting with him, because he wasn’t actually sure of his own sexuality at this point. He thought he’d figure it out once he got comfortable in his own skin, but it was still a puzzling gray area.
Asa sat back on the bed for a moment, trying to breathe through the pain in his ribs. There was still a kind of dull ache in his head, but the caffeine had taken out the worst of it. As long as he didn’t barf, he’d consider himself ahead of the game.
When he thought he could move without puking or curling up into a fetal ball of pain, he grabbed what few clothes he had and went into the tiny bathroom to change. The jeans were a mess, but wasn’t that in now? For once in his life, he’d be fashionable.
He put on the binder, and instantly felt a hundred percent better. Sure, it was probably psychosomatic, but you couldn’t discount how mental health affected everything. And Asa just felt more like himself this way.
Since he didn’t have a shirt to put on yet, he reached down for the paper hospital gown, and realized, with slow dawning clarity, that the floor with the shitty blue tile was farther down than he remembered it.
For a second, he felt a bit of vertigo, and chalked it up to the concussion. Except the picture he was looking at didn’t change, even when his vision stopped swimming. The floor was six inches below him, and he appeared to be on an invisible step. Or hovering above it all.
Holy shit – he was hovering in mid-air, unless his brain decided to indulge in an ill timed acid flashback.
What the fuck was going on?
What I Write
The cops stood shoulder to shoulder, making a human blockade, not only hiding the men being hustled to the van from view, but also trying to intimidate anyone who might be thinking about attacking. Roan made sure he was in the center so he was both the most exposed and had the best view of the restless crowd.
Somewhere near the person with the Where Is Our Civil Right To Be Safe? sign, a chant of “Kill the cats!” began anew, and Roan wondered what was wrong with him. In the face of this incoherent mob violence, he should have been afraid, but he honestly wanted to anger them more. He wanted to grab Lieutenant Ramirez and tongue kiss him before transforming into a lion, and he really didn’t even like Lieutenant Ramirez (he was way too fidgety, and Roan hated his porn stache). Something in him just lived to be contrary. If he couldn’t have their respect, he’d accept their hate.
As the officers started coming out with Kim and the undercover stunt double, Roan noticed an almost Brownian motion in the crowd, and he saw the ghostly pale scalp of a man pushing forward, so wan his skin was almost the exact same color as his off-white hooded sweatshirt. He was elbowing people aside and reaching into his pocket, and Roan knew in that second he wasn’t going for his phone. “Gun!” he shouted, diving into the crowd.
There was screaming, cops shouting in their radios, people running one way or another, but the man was focused on Grant, and Roan was focused on him, so much so that the crowd of people around him, even those he was reflexively shoving aside, dwindled away to mere spots in his peripheral vision. Noise was nothing—all drowned in the blood pounding in his ears and the growl burbling up from his throat.
The man had managed to pull the gun out of his pocket before Roan was on him, tackling him and riding him to the ground, hands firmly grabbing his wrists and pinning them to the asphalt parking lot. The man, tall and lean but still fairly strong, tried to buck him off, but Roan had had too much experience riding guys (ha) and wasn’t moved. “Motherfucker!” the man shouted, spittle spraying from his lips. “Cat-fucking fascist p—”
To Roan, the bones in the man’s wrist felt like fish bones, fine and fragile, and with just the tiniest squeeze they crackled like dead leaves under his fingers. The man screamed incoherently, arching in pain, as the gun fell out of his useless hand. Roan saw a fast-moving blur in his peripheral vision, a bigger, chunkier guy pulling a baseball bat out of one of the cat-drowning sacks and charging him. He was vaguely aware of a cop—maybe more than one—yelling “Freeze!” But he ignored it as much as the man did.
With a snarl, he jumped, and slammed bodily into the man, who was too surprised and hit too swiftly to react. He went crashing to the parking lot, still managing to hold onto the bat, and as he brought it up, Roan caught it and yanked it out of his hands, throwing it across the lot. Although the Vicodin was helping to keep his anger in check, he still felt a sharp, deep pain in his jaw as it shifted, and tasted blood. “Who else wants some?” he roared at the onlookers. The ones who didn’t want trouble had already fled; those who were considering whether or not to join the fray if there was any chance of winning were still loitering about, and most were in the dangerous demographic of men in their late teens and early twenties, the probable age group of the would-be assailants. The sideliners stared at him in goggle-eyed horror, and he could smell the sudden fear like a toxic spill of vinegar. The fight was over; no one wanted to chance it.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Batman, couldn’t you leave some for us?” Thompson carped. He was the cop that looked not unlike a young Jim Brown and had been at the head of the escort line. Roan wouldn’t have minded tongue kissing him; he was much more attractive than Ramirez.
“Oh, he’s always been a show-off,” Dee said, kneeling beside Roan and putting his EMT kit on the ground. Yep, ambulance teams were standing by, and since they were at a hospital, it seemed almost silly. There were doctors inside—why couldn’t they use them? Probably some damn insurance thing.
Dee looked him in the eye, an eyebrow raised in concern, and asked, “You okay, Ro?”
It was probably the Vicodin, but he felt much more in control of himself. The lion hadn’t come out enough to run away with him. It had just come out enough to distend his jaw a bit. Oh, and allow him to throw a body slam on a guy trying to assault him with a bat. And break a man’s wrists like they were made of spun sugar. Okay, so the lion had come out a bit more than he intended. At least no one was dead, himself included. Roan wiped the blood away from his mouth and said, “Peachy.”
“I can’t breathe,” the man beneath him gasped, obviously breathing but wincing in pain all the same. Roan got off of him, and he rolled over on his side and curled up into a fetal position, holding his ribs.
“You know, if you just Googled this red-haired bastard, you’d have saved yourself a world of hurt,” Dee scolded him, snapping on a pair of rubber gloves. Roan stood and noticed Shep and some other paramedic he didn’t recognize were attempting to work on the gunman, who was still screaming and writhing in pain. Three cops were standing around them, but only one still bothered to have his Taser out. Roan visually confirmed the paddy wagon was gone; Grant and the other cops got away, as they were supposed to have done. Mission accomplished.
He rubbed the back of his neck and scanned the rest of the lot, freezing as soon as his eyes fell on a cameraman for Channel Five standing crouched beside an SUV, the helmet-haired “action news reporter” beside him (his name was Chip or Flip or some damn cartoon name). Roan only needed to see the blow-dried wonder’s mouth moving in profile to know he was saying to his cameraman, “Tell me you got that.”
(An excerpt from Infected: Shift)
|What I Write||
I specialize in mashing up genres. I hate to be categorized, so I throw open a lot of doors. This may work better for some people than others. I’ve also won a couple of Rainbow Awards.
Infected: Prey, Infected: Bloodlines, Infected: Life After Death, Infected: Shift, Infected: Lesser Evils, Infected: Freefall, Infected: Undertow, Infected: The Lost Weekend,Infected: Epitaph, Infected: Paris, A Little Death, Thunderballs, Josh of the Damned Complete Collection (Pretty Monsters, Peek-A-Boo, Triple Feature 1, Triple Feature 2: The Final Checkout), Strange Angels, Merged, City of Monsters, DMZ, the Infected Holiday Special, Infected: Holden, Hearts of Darkness, and Lochlann. You can also find me in the anthologies Closet Capers, A Loose Screw, Won’t Back Down,Keep The Stars Running, Private Dicks: Packing Heat, and Fairytales Slashed: Volume 7.
My Write-a-thon Goals
I would like to finish one more novel before the world completes its transformation into an endless hellscape. I may be too late already.