“Choices” by Dianne Rees

Like I Don't Exist, by Romeo Esparrago
[Illustration: “Like I Don’t Exist” © 2006 by Romeo Esparrago.]

It’s not easy being a superhero. Snap judgments are what it’s all about. I mean, all I saw was her, running out of her bedroom. Him, panting at her heels, his face red — leering — his shirttails hanging out of his pants. He grabbed her when she reached the top of the stairs, pinning her against the banister and she cried out. It sounded like a scream.

So I only did what any superhero would do. I yelled, and when he turned, I concentrated all of my energy in the heel of my foot and I kicked him downstairs. How was I supposed to know that he was her boyfriend?

His neck was bent at an odd angle from how he landed, head first, knocking against the wall at the foot of the staircase. Mom and I craned our own necks to look at him. “What did you do?” Mom whispered. She stared at me as if she didn’t know who I was. Not for the first time I thought: She doesn’t appreciate me.

She walked downstairs like the bride of Frankenstein, limbs all unhinged. She leaned to get a closer look at him, her hair falling forward and hiding her expression. She didn’t touch him though. She didn’t lay a finger on him. Then she walked into the living room and I sent myself to where she was walking. She yelped when I materialized in front of her. You’d have thought she’d be used to it by now — I’ve only been doing it for about seventeen years.

“What are you going to do, Mom?” I asked.

She gazed at me steadily. Then she said, “Jacie, I’m going to call the police.”

I let her call the police and the ambulance because I realized this was a test of how things stood between us. It was something I’d needed to know for a while. We sat on the stairs of the porch, waiting, because neither of us could stand to be in the same house with him/it. The corpse. My stomach felt fluttery and I squeezed my hands under my arms — they felt as if they would fly away.

I started noticing what Mom was wearing. A blue linen skirt. A white cotton blouse. Her successful business-woman, single-mother garb. Did she hope to entice him, this man, this interloper, with her feminism? A whiff of perfume sparked between us. Maybe not.

“Mom,” I said, “You look nice.”

She looked at me, again, as if I were someone she didn’t recognize.

“What was his name?” I asked, if only to make her expression change.


“Jack,” I said. “Like Dad?”

She looked annoyed and turned her face from me. “Your father’s name was John, Jacie. And no, not like Dad. Certainly not any more.” She laughed bitterly. “You’ve taken care of that.”

She shivered and grabbed a sweater from the bench on the porch. It was early summer in Scituate, at least by the calendar, but there’d been a Nor’easter only the day before. Today, I was sitting in the center of a low-pressure zone, feeling ready to be filled by some cataclysmic force. I usually felt calm in this kind of weather. At peace. But it didn’t feel right today. I picked off a stray leaf that had blown onto my denim-clad knees. “I thought he was hurting you,” I said quietly, twitching a little with the lie of it.

As if reading my mind, Mom said, “Don’t lie. You’re not a kid anymore, Jacie. I don’t know what you are sometimes. But a kid…,” she shook her head.

We looked down the driveway. We had a bit of land on all sides of us. Dad saw to that — Mom’s comfortable life. She couldn’t play at entrepreneur really, if he hadn’t feathered the nest for us. I couldn’t have grown up so safely.

But sometimes, this feeling of safety made me want to howl. Made my thoughts feel like rockets inside my head, trying to burst out of my skull. Sometimes in the dark hours, when I should have been content to be tucked away, just like Dad planned, sometimes I longed to go to places with more of an edge. And though I didn’t know how it happened, just before it did, I’d get this itch that started from the inside of my skin. I’d feel like that leaf, swirling in a low-pressure zone, being lifted and hurled. One minute, I’d be in the backyard or on the porch or even in my bedroom. Just thinking, just feeling that itch. The next minute I’d be somewhere else. Somewhere that required me to use my powers.

Like this one time, I was hurled into Dorchester. It was after midnight, and I found myself in the parking lot of a gas station. I had to stand still and look up to calm the dizziness that re-materialization always brought. I saw these bats circling overhead, illuminated by a streetlight. Their lazy, soundless swoop was so beautiful that for a moment I caught my breath and almost dematerialized again. Then I looked into the small kiosk of the gas station, where they sold chips and soda and really bad coffee and I noticed that some guy was holding a gun on the cashier.

I should mention that I have a knack for materializing at the scene of a crime.

The cashier was this young guy, lanky and unbecoming in that almost endearing way of teenage boys metamorphosing into men. His zits stood in riotous relief against the pallor of his face and he spastically reached into the register for cash with huge spidery hands. The gunman, also a boy, had a woolen cap and dark glasses and a scarf covering his mouth. I could see right through him, then pulled back my sight, because seeing guts and bones is not all that useful. I saw his aura though, an unhealthy thing, all violent and black.

I projected myself into the store right behind Gun-Boy. “I have seen the future,” I whispered into his ear melodramatically, “and you are not in it.” He started in a moment that sent a bullet whistling past the cashier into the storefront window. A moment that gave me time to kick him in the groin and send him crumpling to the floor, begging for mercy. A moment that sent the bullet and a spark into one of the gas pumps, which went up in flames with the biggest, loudest whoosh. The glow illuminated all our faces and I imagined that I could feel its heat. I smiled.

“Fuck!” the cashier screamed. “Fuck!” I continued to watch the fire, because it truly was beautiful. Gun-Boy’s hands were clasped against his head to fend off further kicks that he imagined would come from me. I picked the gun off the floor and felt myself fading into black, if anything to avoid contemplating the pissed-off look on the cashier’s face. Yeah, like I made his life difficult. The gun didn’t come into the fade, and as I dematerialized another shot rang out.

I shook my head and flicked the leaf onto the ground. People just forget how to say thank you. They forget how to savor a moment. I looked at the dust and the leaves chasing each other down the road. I thought about how Dad and I would sit on these stairs and watch the road, listening to the hum of cars off on the highway, the crash of small wildlife rustling through the trees. Dad would call to Mom to join us, but she’d always find an excuse not to — poring over papers from the restaurant she helps run or pretending to do something domestic in the kitchen. Ha, there was a laugh.

Mom sat beside me tonight, though, clasping her knees to her chest. She looked young, almost as young as me. Looking at us, people might have thought we were sisters. I reminded myself that we were nothing alike.

Despite the sweater, Mom continued to shiver. Me, I didn’t feel the cold much. I never did. It was the changes in the weather that I felt. The subtle shifts in the dispositions of people around me. I slid a sideways glance at Mom. I wanted to ask her, What are you going to say when the cops come? I envisioned a couple of scenarios.

We watched a black speck getting larger on the horizon. It turned into a car and I imagine we both knew what it was before the “Scituate Police” emblem and headlights came into view. The silence stretched between us. When the car finally pulled into the driveway, two cops got out. The first one was fat and made a soft grunting noise as he pulled himself from his seat on the passenger side of the vehicle. Fat Cop looked like he’d never be able to cuff a crook, let alone chase one down. I thought to myself, This is why you need people like me.

The second cop was another story. He got out and stood, feet apart in his tight brown-olive suit, shiny black boots creeping up his shins as he watched his partner trample our rhododendrons. Boots slapped his cap against his thigh a couple of times, as if to build suspense, and then strode over to us. “Ma’am,” he nodded at my mother. Not looking at me. Not acknowledging my presence. His aura was puke green.

I wanted to slide up inside him and yell, “Me — I’m the one who keeps the peace around here!” in a way that would make his mind shatter into a million pieces. But instead, I plastered a demure smile on my face.

Mom got up, her joints actually creaking. The linen skirt was a mass of wrinkles and I felt embarrassed for her. I knew that Boots was appraising her.

I forced myself to stay in the moment, to be mindful. I smelled the moist cold air, the damp grass, the old paint on the wood. I resisted seeing through either of the cops.

Mom said, “We didn’t move him. I heard you shouldn’t move someone who’s dead, I mean.”

Fat Cop flipped open a notebook. He put a listening expression on his face. The kind of expression the school counselor used to put on when I sat in her office, back in the days when I went to school.

Boots looked at mom, his eyes narrowed into slits. “You didn’t even move him to see if he was dead?”

Mom opened her mouth. Closed it.

“He was dead,” I said. “You could tell. His aura changed from red to gray.”

OK, I didn’t say that. What do you think I am, crazy? That sort of talk just invites trouble.

“He’s dead,” Mom said. “Come inside. Please.” She got up and went inside, not bothering to smooth the wrinkles from her skirt, not bothering to watch if we were coming.

We walked inside the house. I took a careful look around me, seeing the living room as Boots might. I noted the overstuffed sofa, the throw rugs, the Crate and Barrel vase on the bookshelf, probably on a thousand bookshelves all around Scituate. And of course the corpse, lying at the foot of the staircase, bunching up one of the throw rugs. His/its right temple was blue-black. On his/its chest, there was a foot-sized bruise that only I could see. I surveyed the scene, thinking that this might be the last time I saw this room.

Fat Cop squatted, putting fingers to pulse-point.

“Dead, all right,” he said. He stood, exhaling from the effort as he did so, his cheeks inflating like red balloons.

“How did it happen?” Boots asked Mom.

“We were kissing,” Mom said.

I held my breath. This moment could spin into a lot of different directions.

Then in one billionth of one revolution of the earth, I heard her say it.

“It was Jacie. She came up behind us and pushed Jack away from me. She’s strong. You don’t know how strong she can be. She kicked him. Or maybe she hurled one of her energy bolts at him. I don’t know,” Mom whined plaintively.

She wrung her hands, red-knuckled and raw from that hour on the porch steps. Fat Cop and Boots looked at each other. At me.

I made a circling motion at my forehead with my finger. “Right, Mom,” I said, “an energy bolt.”

I could tell by the expression on the cops’ faces that they did not believe Mom. That should buy me some time until they matched the bruise on the corpse’s chest to my diminutive size-six sneaker and found traces of something a little like gunpowder in the mark. There wouldn’t be any traces on me. The residuum had wafted into the cold Scituate air, into that void left by the Nor’easter.

But then Boots spoke up. He was looking at me now. “So why don’t you tell us what happened?”

I thought a moment, my super-acute hearing picking up the crash of surf against the seawall about half a mile away from us. A lone yip of a dog. Dad had always wanted a dog. Mom thought it would do nothing but track sand and mud and fleas into the house.

“Well,” Boots said, impatiently. Fat Cop was watching me.

I replied, imitating sweetness, and laid it out for them. “I went out for a walk. When I came back, Jack was on the floor.” I paused for effect. “Mom, poor Mom, she was in hysterics.”

Mom’s eyes widened. “You bitch!” she screamed at me. “That. Is. Not. How. It. Happened.” Her aura was violet, trembling on the cusp of a full-fledged purple-black.

“Mommy,” I pleaded, in a quavering voice.

It was not hard to come up with, that voice. My own mother had called me a bitch after all. She’d said things that could land me in jail, if they could catch me to put me under lock and key, that is. I wasn’t really worried though. I was just contemplating a number of different outcomes to this choice Mom had made.

Boots looked at the Fat Cop. Looked at my mom. Looked at me. He’d sniffed something about me, something off.

“Hey,” he said to me suddenly, “You used to go to St. Sebastian’s didn’t you? My brother went there.”

He threw me with this reference to a more innocent me. I looked for a family resemblance in his face.

He must have caught this because he said, “Mike Sullivan. That’s my brother’s name. I’d see you when I picked him up at football practice. You’d be running track.”

That was me, the fastest girl on the team, and this was before I’d realized all the things that I could do. I pictured Mike Sullivan. Muscle-bound Mike. A big dope of a boy with a thatch of dark hair and eyebrows that reached across his forehead. He’d smile vacantly whenever he caught the ball with a big guttural “oof.” It was the same smile he always had when he tried to feel a girl up by the lockers by the girls’ gym — whether or not she squirmed in protest beneath his big, meaty paws. More when she squirmed. Yeah, I remembered Mike.

“Err, right,” I said, uncertain if the admission would engender sympathy or something more dangerous. It all depended on how much Mike might have shared about certain embarrassing moments.

“How is Mike? Mikey?”

“He’s not playing football anymore. He’s joined a seminary. He’s had a complete mental collapse,” Boots said.

But really I just imagined this.

“He’s fine,” Boots says. “He’s being recruited by a college team.”

College? Had it been that long? I felt a sudden pang of jealousy. I had missed my junior-high graduation, my prom. I had missed taking the SATs. And Mike had gone and done it all. Though not the SATs, I suspected.

“Well whose fault was that?” I could hear Mom say in my head. But I saw a sudden flash of sympathy in her eyes and I had to look away.

“So back to this evening,” Boots said, interrupting my reverie, “You were in your room studying and you heard a noise.”

I gaped at Boots. Fat Cop was chewing on his lips. He was written something down on his notepad. Then he crossed it out.

I started to say something.

“Oh, stop this!” Mom interrupted. “She’s not stupid.”

“Ma’am,” Boots said patiently to my mother. “We’re investigating her story.” He spoke to her slowly and I could tell mom was getting angry, the way her eyebrows were knitting together and those lines were appearing on her forehead. If there was one thing my Mom hated, it was being patronized.

“It’s OK, Mom,” I said. But really, I didn’t know where this was going next.

I thought back and saw myself coming out of my bedroom. Jack was running at Mom who also was running, her head tilted back at him. She looked young, carefree.
They were both laughing. Right before Mom made that sound that sent me flying towards Jack, heel extended, chi gathered within me like the center of a storm. They were both laughing. She screamed with laughter. I remembered thinking that they were acting as if I weren’t even there. They were carrying on as if I didn’t exist. And the next thing I knew Jack was at the bottom of the stairs. Well, almost the next thing. Because before the next thing, I remembered feeling my foot connect with his chest and there was a bit of tumbling after that.

“It’s OK, Mom,” I repeated.

Boots was leering at me. I could tell that Mike had told him a few things. I felt myself blush. Mom looked from me to Boots and back to me. And right when I was about to say it, to acknowledge what I’d done and let her get on with her life, in 3-billionths of a backwards revolution of the Earth….

Fat Cop squatted, putting fingers to pulse-point on Jack’s neck.

“Dead, all right,” he said. He stood, exhaling from the effort as he did so, his cheeks inflating like red balloons.

“How did it happen?” Boots asked.

I held my breath. This moment could spin into a lot of different directions.

“We were kissing,” Mom said.

I winced, waiting.

“Then he grabbed his chest. He stumbled backwards. Down the stairs.”

“It was an accident,” Mom said. “He had a heart condition. And a pacemaker. Something must have gone wrong with the pacemaker.”

“Well,” Boots said slowly. He looked at me as if he was trying to place me. “And where were you during all this?”

“She was out taking a walk,” Mom interrupted him impatiently. “She wasn’t in the house when it happened.”

They wrote all of this down. Then they left after a while. The ambulance came to take Jack away. But before the paramedics could put him on the gurney, Mom rushed to him with a sob and placed her fingertips lightly on his chest as if in farewell. There was a light-blue surge in his otherwise gray aura. The paramedics strapped Jack to the gurney, shrouding his face, and left us alone, Mom and me. We watched them drive off through the living-room window. Mom held the curtain to one side like a veil.

“Wow, Mom,” I said. I was the only other person to have caught the backwards spin of earth and air. That flicker of light from her fingertips.

“If you could do that, why didn’t you go back to, you know, before…” I faked a karate kick through the air.

I started thinking of before.

Before Jack on the floor. Before the locker room, pinned beneath a sweaty Mike. Before Dad on the porch.

“Shut up,” she said. “I made my choice.”

She turned to look at me. Seeing through me.

“Now you make your choice,” she said.

“Make it the right choice, Jacie,” she murmured, reaching for me. Gathering me to her. Warming me in the furnace of her love. *

About the Author: Dianne Rees is an attorney and freelance writer. Her fiction has appeared in The Vestal Review and is forthcoming in Spillway Review and Bewildering Stories. She has co-authored articles on technology and law, which have appeared in Bio-IT World, Development, Immunogenetics, Regional Immunology, and The FASEB Journal.
Story (c) 2006 Dianne Rees diannerees@sbcglobal.net

About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago has super art powers.
Illustration (c) 2006 Romeo Esparrago

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