Authors: Joshua Debenedetto
By Joshua DeBenedetto
Mark looked down at the restraints that covered every inch of his body, pinning him to a cold slab of silver steel, and knew that his first day of school could have gone much better. He strained against his bonds; hands that could crush bricks clenched tightly into fists until his knuckles turned white, pulling upward with all of his monstrous strength, but it was no use. He was strong, but his captors had dealt with stronger. Many of his captors were stronger.
A look around the room left Mark wondering what it had initially been designed for. The walls were a pale blue
, almost soothing, in stark contrast to the machines kept inside. Silver and green dominated the landscape within, the floor scattered with a mixture of medical devices and larger green boxes that looked like they were built to mold metals. The green paint covering the sides of these large boxes was chipping from overuse, and the patches left behind were black from rust. Mark wondered if these were used to build the assault weapons that he could see lining the far wall, or perhaps the ammunition. For a school that has publicly denounced gun use, they certainly keep lots of them around.
Mark closed his eyes to think, realizing there was far too much in this room to distract him. His mind whirled from the quick events that led him
to be held captive, and the desperate need to know why he was being held at all. He had come to the Academy to be trained by them, the great heroes of his day, to fight on their side. That very morning, he walked off the plane bubbling with excitement, ready to prove his worth. Ready to become a soldier. Their soldier.
This is all a misunderstanding. I just need to explain to them that I am on their side,
Mark reasoned to himself. Opening his eyes, it was clear that his hopes were unfounded. If they meant for him to leave, they would never have allowed him into this room. There were other rooms; there must have been other rooms, where they could have taken him. This room was full of dark secrets, things the Academy would never want someone to see, especially not a new student. Yet there he was. To let him leave now would be to risk the revelation that there was something else going on.
And Mark knew exactly what the hidden underbelly of the Academy held. The scene he had unwittingly walked in on a short time ago revealed the truth, and there was no turning back from that now. He knew he could never be their soldier anymore. If they let him go now, he would have no choice but to reveal what he had seen. The truth was too dark a secret for him to hide. He could lie, and pretend he did not understand what he had seen. He could tell them he agreed with their methods, that he was
loyal, and always would be. But he knew lying to the Academy would be a futile endeavor. These are the people that train superheroes, and there are more than a few mind readers among them.
Any way he looked at it, his fate would be the same. He could not l
eave without exposing what he had learned, and they could not risk holding him indefinitely. Mark was no longer blind to what they could do, what they
do, to maintain the status quo.
Mark laid his head back against the steel table to wait. A tear rolled down the side of his face as he waited there to die.
– Four Years Earlier
As the clock clicked to seven a.m., the alarm settings forced the radio to turn on at a higher than comfortable volume, jolting Mark awake. A song was playing that he was particularly fond of, but that at this very moment, he hoped never to hear again. The thought that waking up to the radio would be more enjoyable than waking up to an obnoxious screeching buzz sounded good to him when he bought the alarm clock, but the reality of the situation is much different. There’s no good way to wake up when you are not ready for it.
Mark moved instinctively to hit the snooze button, bringing on the first pangs of discomfort from his exceedingly sore muscles. All at once he felt it throughout his body, and he longed for the return of that brief moment of sublime ignorance upon first waking, before the body remembers the state it is in.
This marked the fourth straight morning of muscle fatigue, once again growing even more painful than the previous morning, a feat he would not have thought possible before experiencing the awful truth. Mark dropped his arm back to the bed, which failed in its quest to silence the alarm clock music. The music had become the lesser of the two evils, and he would willingly endure its blaring wakeup call if it meant he did not have to lift his arm again. Mark made sure not to do any heavy lifting the day before, in order to rule out exertion as the cause of his pain. He had hoped to find the cause on his own, or that it would go away naturally, but he began to fear that a trip to a doctor may be necessary. His father was strongly against taking time off from school for any reason, and this was only Wednesday, but he was not sure he could survive until Friday at the rate he was going.
Mark heard the front door slam shut, and despite the uncertainty of whether his legs would hold him, he slid them off the bed, and proceeded to force himself up. Loud noises roaring into his ears he could bear, but his father’s anger over him being late to breakfast was something he could not. The crash of the front door meant his twin sister
Elise was back from her morning run. She ran like clockwork, and Mark knew that if she was arriving home, he should already be downstairs at the table.
Walking to his bedroom door proved that there was no problem with the strength in his legs. The radiating
sting as he used that strength was another story. Mark stepped forward with his left leg, and a jolt shot up from his heel all the way to his forehead. He knew there were muscles in the forehead, but he would never have guessed them big enough to feel pain, yet they throbbed momentarily, just like the rest. A step with his right leg evened out the sensations, allowing both sides of his body to feel the current that bordered on agony.
The consolation to his journey was found in the diminishing effect of each step. Whether he was getting used to the pain or it was legitimately decreasing he was unsure, but he would accept it nevertheless. The stairs started a fresh set of jolts, but he pushed on, and by the bottom he was able to push the pain back enough to keep it from painting a picture across his face.
Stepping into the kitchen, he could see his father and sister sitting at the table waiting for him, father with stern consternation, and Elise with anxious excitement, reading the heroes section of the newspaper. It was his sister’s ritual to return from her runs and immediately request the heroes section of the newspaper in order to get caught up on the hero-villain war, and on any youth who had newly discovered a power within themselves.
“Cutting it close this morning, aren’t we?” Mark’s father asked with a frown on his face.
Mark looked nervously to the clock, and was relieved to watch as it clicked to 7:15.
“No, you made it on time, but when I say breakfast begins at 7:15, I do not mean you should be arriving right at the onset. What have I told you about being on time?”
“If you’re on time, you’re late,” Mark recounted, then added “I apologize father, it will not happen again.”
A nod from Mark’s father released him, and he sat by his sister, adding toast and eggs to his plate from the communal tray in the middle of the table.
The first forkful of eggs was interrupted by a sing-song squeal emanating from the mouth of his sister, which made Mark long for the comparative peacefulness of his clock-radio.
“Mark! Father! A speedster was discovered in Rothlinberg
County! That’s only two hours west of here!” she proclaimed with immense excitement.
Their father slapped his fork down onto his plate. “I will not have slang in my house, and certainly not at the breakfast table,” he declared angrily, “those who read minds are called Prometheus, those who are strong a
re called Titans, and what do we call those who are quick?”
“Sorry father, we call them Hermes. Can we go see him? Can we, please?” she implored. Her dream has always been to see a Hermes in action, ever since she began running as a
small child. Among normal humans she was a cross-country star, but Hermes are in a class all their own.
“No we most certainly cannot,”
their father responded with finality, “he is not a circus animal, but an individual with a great gift. When he graduates from the Academy and is assigned as a hero, we can watch him on the news, should he be assigned to our region. At that point he will be a hero worthy of our admiration, but for now he is merely a young boy with a big future ahead of him.”
Elise turned back to her food, face turning a deep, dark red from the mixture of anger and
forced restraint. Mark was certain she would bubble over one of these days, and he waited to see if the smashing of her dream would be enough to put her over the edge. He could almost see the debate raging in her mind, but as her eyes softened and the red began to fade, Mark could see that even this would not be enough. She finished her food in silence, then took her empty plate to the sink, rinsed it off, and left to finish preparing for school.
Mark took a deep breath, and prepared to approach the subject of his muscle pains. He hated to bring up new or unusual subjects with his father, because his father was never receptive to them. Their home was run by a strict, calculated schedule, and anything that could cause that schedule to veer off from the normal trajectory is loathsome to him. Still, the pain was not going away, so he would have to bring it up.
“Father?” Mark began, waiting to make sure he was not interrupting a train of thought or a mental schedule review, or whatever went on inside his father’s head.
“Yes, Mark?” He replied
, laying down his fork and placing his hands on his lap. He believed it was rude to talk while eating, or to eat while talking.
“I have been having some odd muscle pains the past few days,” Mark stated. His father looked back at him, unflinching, his “listening” position in full effect. Mark knew what this meant – his father was waiting for him to get to the point. Despite his belief that he had already stated the important point, he continued. “It has gotten worse each of the past few mornings, and is now pretty severe. I was thinking, maybe, I should see a doctor.”
“Which muscles?” his father shot out. Mark could see that his father had transitioned from listening mode to intelligence gathering mode. He hurried to keep up with the questions.
“All of them.”
“The human body cannot feel all its muscles.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Does your heart hurt?”
“No, my heart feels fine.”
“Your heart is a muscle.”
“Alright, then most of my muscles hurt.”
“When did it start?”
“What did you do Saturday?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary, finished my homework, did my chores, went out with some friends…”
“What did you do with your friends?”
“We played cards.”
His father paused. Intelligence gathering had ended, and next would come the verdict. “You do not look sick, and it is clear that you can still function. Go to school, and if it progresses over the next two days, we will see a doctor Saturday morning.”
Mark supposed he could push through a few more days.
Mark was fairly successful in keeping the muscle fatigue out of his mind throughout the day, but he still heard the final bell ring with relief, wanting desperately to go home and lay down. He met Elise in front of the school, and they began their daily hike home. The school has a policy that all students are to take the buses; their father, however, petitioned to allow his children to get the exercise of a long walk, and their father always got his way.
It was a warm, picturesque spring day, but Mark noticed none of it. He stretched his right arm out in front of him, and then folded it back, almost touching his shoulder with his hand. He repeated this action a few times, noting an odd resistance that he had never felt before.
“Who are you flexing for?” Elise asked with a laugh, looking around them.
“I’m not flexing, my arms just feel weird,” Mark responded, stretching his arm and folding it once more. He took two more steps forward before Elise grabbed hold of his left arm to stop him. Looking up, Mark saw four boys on bicycles riding their way. The significance was lost on him, until he saw who was leading the group. Mark did not know his name, but he had seen the boy talking to Elise a few times before, and Elise always walked away from the meetings looking unhappy.
The boys arrived quickly, but instead of riding by, they began to circle Mark and Elise.
The bikes flashed each time they passed by, reflecting the sun as it hung in the sky to their backs. The leader of the pack began to laugh at them, making snide comments about the looks on their faces.
“What’s the matter Elise? Aren’t you glad to see us? Why don’t you come with
me, we are going to play some baseball, you can be our cheerleader,” they taunted.