Breathe
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The 1982 Chrysler Fifth Avenue she nicked down in Bristol has a V8 engine with enough pep to plow a Sherman tank straight through Hell. Once it gets going, nothing on God's green earth can stop it — nothing except a gas station.

They're a hundred miles up I-81 North when the needle nudges over empty. Alex growls something under her breath. About fifteen minutes later, she's pulling into the last rest stop between here and the Virginia State Line.

Sunny's brown face pops up in the rear-view mirror, chewing on the scar where his lip-piercing used to be. He mentioned needing gas over two hours ago. Alex told him she'd take care of it. She knows he won't hold it against her; he won't even say 'I told you so'. She almost wishes he would. Then, at least, she could get angry at him.

The pressure builds under her skin. She focuses on something else: "How's Seph holding up?"

Sunny looks down at the floor of the back-seat. Seph makes a chittering sound. Sunny looks back up and smiles at Alex, still gnawing on his bottom lip. "He's okay. Needs more water, though."

Alex shoves the car into park. "Okay. Sit tight. If I'm not back in fifteen minutes… call the President."

Sunny makes a snrkt. Getting him to almost-laugh lifts Alex's spirits, if only for a moment. She checks on Machine-Head (still peacefully sleeping in the passenger seat, buckled in tight), pops open the driver-side door, then slips out into the bright, sunny, mid-Summer day.

The rest-stop is an over-glorified parking lot — just a slab of tarmac someone slapped down to give overworked truckers a place to catch some quick Zs. There's a small visitor's center with bathrooms, half a dozen vending machines, and a display of brightly-colored pamphlets labeled as 'FUN VIRGINIA FACTS'. Alex takes one, folds it, and squeezes it into her back pocket. Something to keep Machine-Head busy, maybe.

Out of the four lab-rats, Alex is the least conspicuous. Nobody around these parts is going to pay much attention to some sixteen year old white chick; not even one with her hair shaved down to an amber-gold peach-fuzz. That, combined with her dense, broad build makes her look like just another local farm-girl. The loose denim trousers and gray tank-top probably don't hurt.

People tend to miss the fractal-like patterns of geometric scars that wind down her neck, arms, and hands — like branches of frost expanding across a windowpane. When they do notice them, she just shrugs and says something about getting struck by lightning. Hell — technically, it isn't even a lie.

Alex hovers in front of the vending machine and pretends to mull over her choice of snacks. A mother-daughter pair make their way out of the bathroom; she waits until they're out of sight. With one last glance to make sure she's clear, Alex darts over to a nearby trashcan and fishes out a plastic bag. Then, she returns to the vending machine and flattens her right palm against the keypad.

The pressure builds up under her palm. She lets a little bit of it seep through, guiding it with her hand. Sparks of white-blue electricity twist and writhe between her spread fingers. The machine creaks, pops, and sizzles. A wisp of smoke curls out from behind the electronic panel, accompanied with the fragrant odor of burnt rubber.

The machine starts spitting out candy-bars.

Alex repeats the process on two more vending machines. By the time she's done, she's loaded the plastic bag with enough snacks and bottled water to keep everyone going for another day. It'll give her some time to pick out a new ride.

She's made it half-way back to the car when she hears the commotion. Someone's yelling on the other side of the parking lot; a group of people are gathered near a cherry-red semi-trailer. Alex turns her focus back on the 5th Avenue. Whatever is going on, it's none of her business.

She gets two more steps before catching that brightly colored skirt from the corner of her eye.

Fuck.

It looks like the semi-trailer's brakes failed. There's a big, burly man in a flannel shirt near one of its back wheels. His face is gleaming with sweat and his brow is crinkled in pain. One of his legs is squished beneath the weight of the truck's tire. Two onlookers are scrambling to get into the cab and start it back up, but Sunny is already standing next to the trucker.

The teen's deep, sable-brown skin stands in sharp contrast to the swirl of bright pastels that spiral across his ankle-length lungi. Sweat has soaked through his white sleeveless shirt; it clings tight to his lean, muscular form. His dark, bare arms glitter in the sun. Both of his hands clasp the wheel's undercarriage, while his brow furrows beneath the force of his concentration. A soft, warm, yellow-white glow envelops him.

The truck makes a low creaking sound — followed by a series of pops and metallic pings. The tire's weight shifts up. Sunny shouts something to the crowd around him. Alex rushes forward, the plastic bag swishing back and forth in her tightening grip. She swears she can feel sparks jumping between her grinding molars. A furious, hateful heat swells up from her belly and tingles against her skin, threatening to break free.

You fucking idiot.

Several people from the crowd dart out to help move the man out from under the truck. Sunny lowers the wheel and exhales. The glow around him vanishes.

He's already pulling away from the crowd (many of whom are staring and pointing) when Alex reaches him. She snatches him by the side of his shirt and tries very hard not to light him on fire. "Are you fucking stupid?" she hisses.

" — sorry, he — I heard the commotion and I saw he was hurt, and — " The focus vanishes from Sunny's face in an instant. He's all apologies, now — nibbling and worrying away at his bottom lip. He looks like a chided puppy. "I couldn't — "

Alex shoves the plastic bag into his arms and grabs him by the shoulder, pulling him along. "Shut the fuck up and — "

Tiny bursts of silver-green arc between her knuckles. Her whole body is heating up; she can feel her saliva sizzling on her tongue. With each thump of her heart, the pressure under her skin intensifies. Alex lets go of Sunny, closes her eyes, and forces herself to count backwards.

The pressure recedes.

"Sorry. For yelling. Just… just get Seph and Machine-Head. Get all our shit together. I'll find us a ride. But we gotta go. Now."

Sunny frowns, but nods. He clutches the bag of snack-foods and bottled water tight to his chest, then runs back to the car.


The worst part?

It wasn't the sedatives, or the needles, or having to piss and shit where anyone could watch. It wasn't the shitty tests, or the shitty meals, or the shitty once-a-week sessions she spent with a psychiatrist who had to consult a chart just to remember her name. It wasn't even the creepy fucking guard who refused to leave the room whenever she changed or showered.

No. The worst part? The absolute worst?

It was the waiting.

You waited for everything. You waited to be given your food; you waited to be given your pills. You waited to use the shower; you waited to use the toilet. You waited to enter the test-chamber; you waited for your instructions. Then, you waited to go back to your cell — where you patiently waited to die.

Alex hated the waiting. She hated not knowing how much longer she had to wait. Every time she asked when she could leave, they upped her dosage. She stopped asking.

Once, she lost control during a psych session. She broke down. She tried to explain it to him through choked sobs — tried to tell him that she was so tired of this. She didn't want to spend her life as their fat, ugly, sedated cow. She just wanted it to end. She pleaded with him to just let it end. Let her go. Send her back home. Or, kill her. Anything. She didn't care what it was, just so long as it wasn't more of this.

He calmly made a mark on his clipboard, made a sympathy-frown with his mouth, and said: "I'm sorry you feel that way, honey. I'll up your dosage. We'll see if that helps."

She felt it, then: the pulsating pressure that the drugs suppressed between tests. Her skin was a dry, flaking crust spread thin across an alien planet. Her bones were its tectonic plates; her beating heart was its spinning ferromagnetic core. With every thump, ionized clouds of sulfuric acid expanded through crevices and vents, surging out to fill her body. With every moment, those clouds crashed together to form an electromagnetically charged mass.

Alex closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

Then she exhaled lightning right into that fucker's face.

They tripled her dosage.


Someone gently nudges her shoulder.

A few hours after stealing a new car, Alex pulled over for what was supposed to be a quick nap. Now it's night. Seph somehow managed to move her into the passenger's seat without waking her up. He was even polite enough to buckle her in.

It's quite a sight to see that lean, teenage octo-pup hunched over the steering wheel. His silver-blue skin glistens in the dim glow of the car's dashboard. There's an elfin quality to his face — his eyes are a bright moon-yellow with black slits across the center. He squeezes the wheel with his webbed, four-fingered hands.

Instead of hair, he has a dozen or so broad, silver-gray tendrils mottled with splotches of white and gold. They're nearly as thick as a wrist at their base, and end in tapered, delicate tips. He keeps most of them wound around his waist or shoulders.

"Fuck." Alex grinds her fists into her eyes. "How long was I out?"

Seph partially turns to her; a few of his hair-tentacles weave down below his face. Three approximate a flat palm, while several more simulate a hand with four raised fingers. He 'rolls' the 'hand' down, then rolls it back up again. FOUR HOURS.

"You shouldn't be driving," Alex tells him, making sure that he can see the movement of her mouth from the corner of his eye. "What if the police pull you over?"

He signs back with the tentacles: STOLEN CAR.

Alex frowns. "Okay, yeah. Fair point."

They let the silence stretch out between them for a while. The soft hum of the road under the tires is all that Alex hears.

Eventually, Seph starts signing again. He taps a tentacle against the top of his head and wiggles it away, lifting his eyebrows.

DREAMS?

"Yeah," Alex sighs, stretching her arms back. She glances in the rear-view mirror; Sunny and Machine-Head are both asleep. Sunny is sitting up, with the 'FUN VIRGINIA FACTS' pamphlet clutched in his hand. MH's bald sienna head is laid across his lap.

The name started as a really dumb joke back at the Osworth Institute. Machine-Head has six quarter-wide metal plugs positioned along their cranium; two near the front, two near the middle, and two in back. Alex once said they looked like batteries poking out. MH asked what the batteries would be for, and Sunny immediately replied: 'Your Machine-Head'. Everyone thought it was the most hilarious fucking thing.

Maybe you just had to be there.

Seph continues signing: INSTITUTE?

Alex nods. "Yeah."

He uses a tentacle to touch his chin, then his chest, raising his eyebrows once more: TELL ME?

"It's —" She pauses, then looks out the passenger side window. " — not important."

CANNOT SEE MOUTH.

"Sorry." Alex turns to face him, then repeats it: "Sorry. It's not important." Something occurs to her: "Wait, why did you wake me up?"

NEED WATER.

Oh. Right.

She finds the plastic bag on the floor next to her feet. Fishing through it, she pulls out a bottle of water and pops the cap, offering it to him. Seph curls one of his tentacles around it and lifts it to his mouth. He drinks half of it, then pours the rest of it on his head. His skin shimmers and slickens.

SUNNY AFRAID. WORRY. YOU ANGRY.

"Well, I am angry. The fucking — " She feels that pulse of rage again. She reminds herself to close her eyes and silently count backwards. When the anger fades to a dull ache, she opens her eyes and continues: " — he put all of us at risk because he wants to play at being a superhero or something."

NOT PLAY. CANNOT STOP. OTHERS HURT. MUST ACT.

"Well, I can't keep looking out for him. I'm not his fucking mom. I'm not anyone's mom."

YES. AWARE. MOTHER LEAVE ME BEHIND. The right side of Seph's mouth twitches upward. His eyes are still mostly on the road, but a hint of amusement flickers through them. YOU DO NOT.

Alex rolls her eyes, folds her arms under her chest, and does her best not to smile. "Oh, fuck you, you sweet-tongued cephalopod."

NOT SWEET TONGUE. SWEET TENTACLE.

"And a fucking pedant, to boot," she adds. Then, a little softer: "I don't know. Sometimes I don't think he understands how much danger we're in. How bad it could get —"

Seph's tentacles move suddenly, emphasizing the force of his words:

HE KNOWS. REMEMBER ESCAPE?

Alex remembers. Back in the 'Land of Oz', Sunny was always the cheerful one; the one who tried to make everyone happy. Fuck, that's why they called him Sunny. The fucker never cried, never cracked, never came down on anyone. It was like nothing could knock him over. He was fucking unbreakable. She once asked if he was some sort of Terminator sent from the future to try and cheer all the emo kids up.

And then? As soon as they cleared the fences — as soon as they set foot on something that wasn't part of the lab? He shattered like glass. He collapsed to the ground in a crumpled up ball and sobbed for nearly an hour, just rocking back and forth. They had to take turns talking to him, trying to soothe him and keep him from hyperventilating.

Alex couldn't understand it at the time. It didn't make sense. She was elated; ecstatic. They were finally out of that fucking hellhole. Why on earth would that make you want to cry?

It wasn't until later that she realized that he wasn't unbreakable. No one was. Sunny was just really, really good at hiding the cracks.

"Yeah. Fine. I'll…" Alex rubs the center of her nose. "I'll talk to him, when he wakes up. Let him know it's okay. Just, y'know. He should try doing less stupid shit that's gonna get us caught."

Seph flattens several tendrils to his chin, then sweeps them down to motion to Alex — mouthing the words: THANK YOU. He extends the tentacle with the empty water bottle out for Alex to take.

Alex takes it. She throws it on the floor next to the bag; she then looks from Seph's tentacles to the bag — and back to his tentacles again. Her brows crumple, collapsing into a single point. "Woke me just to get you water, huh?"

Seph pauses. His tentacles move slowly, forming the words with clear reluctance: YES. JUST WATER.

Alex gives him a crooked grin. "Okay, octo-boy."


Next: On the Run


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