I was constantly cutting myself.
No, not like that, not with the putting razorblades against my wrists while locked in my bedroom, the lights dimmed, and a Dashboard Confessional song thrumming mournfully.
More like the giant knives I handled slipping and biting through my latex gloves to nick my thumb or forefinger or whatever else is pressed too carelessly close on a piece of roast as I sliced it for bagging.
It was less than glamorous, working in a butcher shop—I smelled so much of meat that dogs would try to break free of their leashes to chase me home and vegetarians vomited and wept in the wake of my passing. The cuts were less than attractive, too.
After six months of this I thought I’d developed an entirely new set of fingerprints.
I seethed through clenched teeth as my knife caught the ridge of my index finger, which I had been pressing against a juicy lump of beef as I partitioned into pieces for a customer. A drop of blood blossomed over the latex, and I stopped to wash quickly. It would be bad for my own blood to mix with the aromatic pool of liquid already seeping from the meat. Human DNA touching cow DNA, not sanitary.
My boss, who was my big Greek uncle in his spare time, detected the slight variation of sound waves and said, “You gotta learn to be more careful or you’re gonna cut off your whole hand one of these times.”
“I’ve read that human hand is considered a delicacy in some states,” I replied. “We could make a profit.”
He wrinkled his curious nose—aquiline in slope but bulbous around the nostrils, like an onion in infancy—and slapped a fresh pair of gloves into my hands. “Sandra, this is not a funny joke. A man’s—or woman’s—or whatever—the hands are essential, without them nothing can be accomplished, nothing can be moved.” He glanced at the meat and added, “Or cut.”
“Maybe,” I said. I finished the order and slide the damp package down the counter.
There would be no more opportunity today for me to injure myself with knives, at least not in a work setting. It was ten past five, and I had twenty minutes before my meeting started.
“I will see you tomorrow,” my uncle said. “Be careful.”
“No promises,” I said.
Late summer in Vinton was slightly cooler than early summer, in the sense that the vitreous fluid in my eyeballs merely bubbled instead of evaporating completely. As I walked down the block, I could feel the air quiver with heat, and envisioned the multicolored, comic lines of scent coming from my body: Herbal Essences shampoo, Secret deodorant, coppery traces from my wounded finger, and the bitterly rank, salt stench of raw beef overwhelming all my attempts at personal hygiene. My hair clung to my neck, heavy with sweat and sausage grease, my palms were rubbery and wet.
I would have appreciated a shower, but there was no time. I had seven blocks left.
People surged around me, and if they caught whiffs of my bloody work they showed no reaction. Contrary to my imagining, it was difficult to judge how offensive I was to the world at large, because decorum demanded that if the words or appearance or bodily emissions of a person bothered passers by, they would go home and rage at their friends about it. I would never be informed, because after all, how was it my business what strangers thought of me?
Even so, I apologized silently to anyone who brushed close enough to intersect with my stench squiggles, feeling inordinate shame for my job. It wasn’t my first choice. I had wanted to work in a bakery, but I lacked uncles who owned pastry shops. My family dealt in the blood of livestock, not strawberries. It didn’t bother me, not that much.
Two more blocks. Evening was progressing rapidly into straightforward night. The cars on the street had their headlights on, and people walked a bit faster towards their houses or their bars or their movie theaters and so on. Were it not for my condition, I would also be headed one of those places. Well, maybe not a bar. Fake IDs made me nervous.
To be perfectly honest, a lot of things made me nervous. No—that
wasn’t my condition, although it never helped anything. It wasn’t
even that bad though, or at least I didn’t think it was because I didn’t
take pills for it and nobody had ever diagnosed me with anything.
Nobody with a reputable degree, anyway.
My stomach cramped as I hurried across the last intersection. It was the end of August already. If I lived in the days before calendars, maybe that might have been useful. I knew what day it was because something was being destroyed inside of me. Saturday, almost always. Cycle of violence equaled cycle of time.
I guess it wasn’t as dramatic as all that. But it sure felt pretty violent. The cramps I endured every month did need pills, but I didn’t have them with me. I would have to suffer until I got home, because if I said anything during the meeting, my teacher would remind me that ‘pain is weakness leaving the body.’
I trudged up the stairs of my teacher’s apartment building, and thought when I reached the top that I should qualify now for strongest woman in the world.
He opened the door before I knocked, because that was one of the things he was Good At. All of us were Good At certain things, it was why we gathered here every Saturday night. He called it a support group for the strangely gifted, which made him the shabby Professor X to our pale facsimiles of attractive, powerful, and desperately maudlin pupils. Maudlin and desperate were the only adjectives we approached with accuracy, really.
“Hello, Cassandra,” my teacher said.
“Hello, Socrates,” I said.
He gestured with a flourish to the inner sanctum of his apartment, where the others sat waiting.
We only referred to each other by our first names, in order to protect our identities, which I liked, because if my mom knew I was spending my Saturday nights here instead of the movies I would probably be in trouble. She had no idea about what I was good at, aside from finger painting.
Everyone was in high school except Socrates, who I think was in his late twenties. I wasn’t sure. I was the only girl.
Marek was Polish and good at setting things on fire. Jonathan was short but he could fly and he took martial arts classes. Tobias touched a person or an object and instantly saw everything that had ever happened involving what he touched.
As for me? I didn’t do much. I moved pencils and coffee cups without leaving fingerprints on them. Only small stuff was manageable, although I’d done a lot of work on chairs and couches. I thought it was more a bother than a boon, since my lack of control had led to all the scars on my fingers. I had difficulty preventing my mind from shifting around the things I held, which often led to a bad scene with my butcher knives. Maybe it was superpowered ADD, I didn’t know. But it was the reason I came here, because it helped to practice around people like me. These gatherings were like an extracurricular club, the only one to which I’d ever belonged. I would’ve liked another girl, though.
All the boys sat together on the couch and I sat on the armchair. Sometimes I noticed that Tobias looked at me a lot, even when Socrates was talking. I just tried to ignore it.
“How are we this evening?” Socrates asked He stood at the center of the room, between the furniture, smiling beatifically.
Marek yawned. “Fine.”
Marek wasn’t actually all that good at burning things. The power relied on his emotional state, and he was the sleepiest human I’d ever met. I thought maybe he was a cat who happened to be born into a boy’s body. Not even frustration over his lack of firestarting helped—he would just shrug and say that it’d come to him.
“Still breathing,” Tobias said. He was solemn and grey-eyed, and he sat hunched over as thought bearing a weight which would crush him if not for his Herculean effort.
“Good to hear,” Socrates said. “And yourself, Jonathan?”
Jonathan nodded, and pointed to the bulging bruise on his right cheek.
“Right … difficult to talk,” Socrates said. “Sorry.”
Jonathan had an Icarus complex. He was enthusiastic about his
otherness to the point of self-injury—constantly crashing into dumpsters,
streetlamps, small children.
Socrates turned to me. “And you, Cassandra?”
I flexed my sore hands. My uterus writhed and shrieked. “I’m okay.”
“Well then, let’s get started,” Socrates said. “Come, Jonathan—I have an ointment that might soothe you.”
They left the room.
Tobias’s hands were firmly clenched in his lap, as though he did not want to touch the cushions, did not care to hear their history. I gave him my purse, which he accepted gratefully. It was a new bag, so its life was simple and short.
I focused on the couch, trying to lift it into the air. I visualized it floating serenely through space, unfettered by worldly cares and heavy asses. I tried to open a line of communication. The couch was stubbornly silent.
Marek went out onto the balcony with a handful of wax figurines. They melted slowly in his palms as he stared at the rising moon.
The removal of his weight made the couch more amenable. By the end of the hour, it was hovering about an inch off the floor, though not without some reservation. I let it down and exhaled, feeling proud.
Socrates returned with Jonathan, who was touching his cheek gingerly. His pale skin was flushed.
“I lifted the couch,” I announced. Tobias nodded in confirmation.
“Very good,” Socrates said.
Marek came in with his figurines. Their faces were disfigured and their arms had coalesced into their bodies, but they were recognizably human still. He yawned.
“Getting better,” Socrates said. “And you, Tobias?”
He held up my purse. “She bought it at Macy’s.”
“I so did,” I said.
“Hmm,” Socrates said. “Can you tell us anything more about it?”
Tobias bit his lip. “She’s carrying three shades of lipstick … two are hers, and one she stole from her mom.”
“It looks better on me,” I muttered.
“Good,” Socrates said. “Keep practicing everyone … and don’t hesitate to call me if you need me.”
That was how he dismissed us. He didn’t usually provide direct instruction—how could he teach powers he didn’t have?—but he provided a safe space for us to develop them. That was what he offered when I met him, about three months ago. He was my substitute in Honors English. He had noticed that I was idly rolling pens around my desk while he lectured and I pretended to take notes (I was drawing little pictures of roses). After class, he asked me to wait a minute. Thinking I would be scolded for my doodles, I stood before him shamefaced. But instead he held out his hand, with a pen across his palm.
“Take this from me,” he said. I reached for it, and he said, “No. The other way.”
I gulped. “What other way?”
He smiled gently. “It’s all right. I’m here to help you.”
That was when he explained the ‘club.’ I had been going ever since.
I know—it was weird to trust a stranger right away. But he was
a teacher. Bad guys wouldn’t be teachers.
I lived three blocks away from his apartment building. When I stepped out onto the sidewalk, I was struck by the thick dark heat. A few minutes of walking and I was soaked with a layer of sweat so heavy it felt like makeup. I wanted to walk quickly, but it was like swimming through sludge. I resigned myself to it. Home and the fridge weren’t far.
A man started walking beside me, uncomfortably close.
I pretended he wasn’t there, and sped up, but I was too strained from the heat to gain much distance. The man was directly behind me.
He grabbed my arm, and I gasped.
“I need money,” he said. “Give me your purse.”
I trembled and twisted around. The barrel of gun touched my nose, and panicked adrenaline flooded my muscles. My only concrete thought before I descended into madness was this: “Someone on the street actually notices me and it has to be a guy with a gun.” The adrenaline banished the cramping pain, quickened my mind, and caused me to shudder uncontrollably. The man cocked his gun and shouted at me, but I was too frightened to say anything. My vision was glazed, I didn’t know what was happening, my fingernails were dug so deeply into my purse that I tore the polyester.
The white haze over my eyes turned red and splotchy. I fought for breath. The man’s gun was on the pavement, among the remains of his body, which looked as though a bomb had detonated in his brain.
I hugged my purse to my chest and sprinted to my front door, sickness rising in my throat like a mountain from the ocean.
My mother caught me as I stumbled inside, heaving miserable sobs.
Alarmed, she held me by the waist and said, “What’s wrong, Cass? What’s wrong? You’re covered in blood.”
I brutally murdered someone with my mind. “I was held up,” I whispered. “There was a gun.”
“Oh, honey. Did he take anything? Are you okay? Come
here and sit,” My mother led me to the living room and arranged me on the
sofa. I stared ahead numbly.
“Yes and no … or … no, and yes.”
“Did he shoot you?” Mom felt me up, searching for signs of an oozing wound. But none of the blood was mine. When mom realized this, she took me to the bathroom. Without asking any more questions, she stripped off my tank top, my jeans, my underwear. She helped me into the shower.
I leaned into the spray of water, swaying like a blade of grass. The streams were clear when they hit me and crimson as they ran down the drain. I crouched in the center of the tub and said, “I think I’m going to hell now.”
My mother massaged shampoo into my hair and didn’t say anything.
After my shower, I dressed in the softest pajamas I could find and vomited into the toilet. I brushed my teeth until my gums were sore and the brush bristles were red.
Mom brought me a bowl of chocolate ice cream. She sat with me and let my head rest on her shoulder. I had never told her about the things I could do, but as I ate my ice cream I wondered.
“It’ll be all right,” my mother said finally, because that’s the sort of thing people said to each other after accidents, family deaths, and unspeakable slaughter.
“Can I have a Skittle?” I said.
“Yes. Absolutely,” my mom said. Skittles were what mom called her anti-anxiety medication, which she had been taking since divorcing my father two years ago. She got the bottle and tapped out two white pills, which I mashed into a bite of chocolate and swallowed.
I slept all day Sunday and skipped school on Monday. On Monday morning I had to bleach my sheets, because I hadn’t even opened my eyes long enough to change my tampon. I watched television while I waited for them to dry and considered, seriously, that I was cursed. I did not want to reflect on the power I had access and I definitely never wanted to access it again.
Because of me, someone was dead. It didn’t matter that it was a bad someone, that it was self-defense, that I had no control. What mattered was that it happened and it was my fault and it could, in theory, happen again. I realized that I was training myself for it to happen, we all were. What other use for such power could there be, if not to subdue by force, to kill? What better way to handle a threat than to eradicate it completely? I imagined Marek engulfing the man in flames. At least he would have been cleansed.
I considered also what I knew about Socrates. Maybe he was a government
agent. Maybe he was an archvillain and only watching over us so he
could strike us down at the right time. Maybe he was something smaller
but more sinister, spending all that time alone with us. I didn’t
know, didn’t care to know.
But eventually I had to go back to the world.
Mom said, “You don’t have to go to school tomorrow either, if you don’t want to.”
“Yeah, I do,” I said. “I don’t want to get behind.”
I took almost all honors classes at school and I contributed to class discussion frequently. I was one of those people the other kids didn’t like much, having been blessed with ability in English and math, which, as all my peers knew, marked me as an abomination unto God.
I kept quiet that week. My teachers noticed, but I had washed off all the blood so they couldn’t do anything but ask if I was all right. I nodded mutely and escaped into the hallway throngs before the interrogations could intensify.
I was the betrayer of myself. If I said nothing, thought nothing, did nothing—beyond what was absolutely necessary—I could protect everyone from me. I focused on points of light, on the cinderblock indentions of the classroom walls, on the wings of a fly on the windowsill. My mind was empty and clean and could therefore harm nothing with its demonic will.
Unfortunately, forcing yourself not to think is more exhausting than you’d expect. By Friday I was so strung out that I’m sure my teachers had concluded I was on drugs. When I went into work on Saturday and saw my uncle, I felt as raw as any of the meat hanging from hooks in the freezer.
“Allo Sandra,” he said. “Ready to work?”
“Not really,” I said. “But I’ll give it my best shot anyway.”
He smiled the smile of those who consciously misinterpret what is said to them and gestured to the cutting counter.
I made the knives my focus, but my concentration was so absolute that they began to bend in my hands. I realized that if I continued on like this, if I did not allow my mind to roam, it would burst free in some explosion even more horrific than what I had already done. I let it go, worriedly.
The release acted as a balm for my brain, but by the time five thirty happened my fingers were covered in little nicks, more than ever before. I honestly looked like I’d stuck my hands into a pile of razorblades and fished around for a few minutes. My uncle was appalled.
“Sandra, what did you do to yourself today?!” he cried, taking my hands in his.
“I dunno,” I mumbled.
“I don’t think I should have you working with the sharp objects anymore,” he said. For some reason this upset me.
“No, look, it’s fine,” I said. “I just had trouble concentrating today. Um, school, you know, it’s a lot of stress.”
He frowned at me, and let my hands go. They stung as though being pricked by a swarm of bees. My eyes watered, and he brought me bandages dripping with salve.
I pretended I was a mummy as I walked out, undead, unthinking.
I passed by Socrates’ building without a glance. I had to get home
while it was still light outside.