About Eight Years Ago
“Abuelita, what’re you doing out here? You’re gonna freeze.”
Stepping out onto the snow-covered deck that overlooked the bustling city below, eleven-year-old Gia Perez hurried to the side of the elderly woman who sat in a wheelchair.
Turning slightly, Romina Perez’s wrinkled face brightened, her mouth spreading into a smile. “Mi nieta,” she greeted her granddaughter fondly before continuing in English with her thick accent from most of a life spent in a small town near Mexico city. “It is not so cold. And I have a blanket.” She tugged at the well-worn quilt that lay across her legs before giving a nod toward the busy streets. “I enjoy watching the people down there, and waving to those who bother to look up. Sometimes,” the woman added with another bright smile, “they even wave back.”
“It’s still cold,” Gia pointed out, worried about her grandmother. “You’ve got snow in your hair.”
The woman made a slight scoffing sound while running her hand back through her tightly-wound bun. “You fret like your father,” she teased while poking the girl. “Always trying to tell me that it is too dangerous to go out. I am his mother, I will go out when and where I please, thank you.”
“Papa just wants you to be comfortable, Abuelita,” Gia assured the woman before adding helpfully, “I can make some soup if you want? There’s a bunch of cans in the cupboard.”
“Pah.” Romina took the girl’s hand and squeezed it firmly. “Cans.” She mimed spitting in disgust before winking at her granddaughter. “I will teach you real cooking. Real soup. Fresh Sopa de Fideo. You will learn to make it, and then you will see how terrible these cans really are.”
Suiting action to words, the woman moved a finger to the control on the end of her right armrest, turning the wheelchair to head off the deck and back inside the warm, cozy little apartment. “Come, I have to take a batch to the children soon anyway. You can help make and carry it.”
“The children?” Gia echoed before following. She closed the sliding door, twisting the lock as she looked to her grandmother. “Wait, you mean the families that Papa says you like to visit?”
“Si,” Romina rolled into the small kitchen, taking her grabber tool from its spot beside her in the chair before reaching up with it to open the cupboard. Poking around with the grabber, she carefully brought down a large bowl, followed by a bottle of olive oil and a package of pasta. “Go to fridge,” she instructed then. “Bring onion, tomatoes, and the chicken broth from pantry.”
“But chicken broth comes from a can,” Gia teased her with a grin. “I thought you hated cans.”
“Sabelotodo,” her grandmother shot back, using the grabber to jab at her as she called the girl a know-it-all. “Get them, before I wither and die in this chair. At my funeral, they will say, ‘but the beautiful and remarkable Romina was always so very healthy. What did her in?’ and the answer will be, ‘her slow granddaughter preferred being smart-ass to being helpful.’ Do you want that?”
Giggling despite herself, Gia then quickly moved to do as her grandmother instructed, collecting the ingredients. “Thanks for teaching me. Can I really go with you to visit your friends after?”
Romina nodded, easily replying, “Claro. If you are a good girl and try no more silly things as saying that it is too cold for me to do as I wish. The children would be glad to see you in person.”
Gia started to nod at that before blinking. “Glad to see me in pers–Abuelita, have you been showing them pictures?!” The preteen girl’s embarrassment was written plainly across her face.
“You are my beautiful and brilliant granddaughter,” Romina pointed out with a sniff, raising her chin. “Of course, I am sharing pictures. Bragging is what pictures and granddaughters are for.
“Now come,” she continued, rolling her chair down to the end of the counter. “We have much to do to make this soup properly, and the children will be very hungry.”
A couple hours later, Gia accompanied her grandmother into what turned out to be a neighborhood youth center a few blocks away. Both carried large tupperwares full of soup, Gia holding hers in both hands while Romina held another in her lap. As they entered the gym, a dozen kids ranging in age from about five up to around Gia’s age abandoned their games and came running over to greet them. Or specifically, to greet Romina. They called her grandmother too, and Gia realized quickly that the woman actually meant as much to them as she did to her.
“Okay, okay!” One of the men who had been sitting in the bleachers talking with a few other obvious parents stepped down and approached. He had long, curly blond hair that reminded Gia of a lion’s mane, and his arms were heavily corded with muscle. “I’m pretty sure Grandma Romi came for more than having you guys all mob her. Let’s let her breathe a little bit, okay?” To the younger girl herself, he added while extending his hands, “And you must be little Gia. I’m Hansel. Let me take that, we’ll get it right into the kitchen and dish it out before it gets too cold.”
“Hansel?” Gia brightened quickly at that, letting the man take the tupperware. “Like the story?”
Chuckling, the man winked at her. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t tell you where any giant gingerbread houses are, but I might be able to point you to a nice stash of M&M’s if you keep it secret.”
“M&M’s?!” The youngest boy there, barely five years old at a guess, jumped up from where he had been sitting down to meticulously tie his shoe. “Can we have some?!” He was clearly beside himself with excitement at the thought of being given candy. “Please, please, Uncle Hansel?”
“Treats after soup,” Romina insisted in a voice that brooked no arguing or other nonsense. “Eat now.”
“You heard the lady, Reed,” Hansel informed the small boy. “Soup first, then treats.”
They took the soup into the kitchen then, serving it up into the bowls that were there before handing it out to the clearly hungry kids. Through their interaction, Gia found that the people there were homeless and actually lived in the youth center. Some were with their families, while the others didn’t actually have any living relatives at all, and were simply there with friends. Or with no one at all. The few adults watched over all of the kids, like they were one big family.
For the rest of her Christmas vacation, Gia went with her grandmother to visit the center every day. She helped make food, played with the other kids, and listened to the silly stories that Hansel and the other adults liked to tell. Yet, throughout her time there, the girl couldn’t shake the idea that there was something else going on there. Whenever she and her grandmother came, there were always people watching the front and back doors, like they were guards or lookouts. She was even pretty sure that there was usually someone up on the roof. What were they watching out for, police? Was staying in this place like they were illegal or something?
She had no idea. And before long, Gia put the entire thing out of her mind, because something happened that changed the girl’s life forever. Months later, during her spring break off from school, she was approached by a woman who called herself Mistral. She told Gia about monsters, about the creatures who killed and ate humans, and about the Bystander Effect that stopped ordinary people from being able to protect themselves. And she told her about a place called Eden’s Garden, where humans became Heretics, and were trained to defend humanity. The woman even had her drink some kind of potion that would allow her to retain the knowledge of what she was learning instead of forgetting about it thanks to that Bystander Effect.
Over that vacation, Gia was recruited into Eden’s Garden, and taught about what to expect when she eventually joined the place when the next school year started. Her parents and grandmother were told that she was being brought into some kind of exclusive private boarding school, and by the last couple weeks of summer, the girl was introduced to the people who would be her classmates and teammates. Then, she was given the apple that would turn her from an ordinary person into what she was bound and determined to call a superhero.
That first semester was amazing. Gia learned even more than she ever expected to. It was all so exciting and new. She wanted to learn everything, wanted to experience everything. Before long, everyone knew her as the girl who almost never shut up or settled down.
Unfortunately, the experience was marred by the news, around Christmas, that her grandmother had actually passed away. She went home for the funeral, profoundly and horribly devastated by the loss. She and both of her parents grieved in that little apartment together for over a week. Abuelita Romina had been so important in their lives. It felt somehow wrong, or even impossible, for them to simply go on living without the feisty, yet incredibly loving old woman.
And yet, go on living was exactly what they had to do. So Gia did. She threw herself into her training back at Eden’s Garden, gaining a reputation for being incredibly motivated and excitable over the next few years. She even managed to acquire a potent enhanced speed power early on, and her regular use of it meant that no one was very surprised when it came time for the girl to be given her Heretic name. Pace. In some ways it referred to her speed, while in other ways it was a joke about the girl’s inability to pace herself, as she constantly took on more and more.
It was that Thanksgiving, right after earning her name, that the girl now known as Pace to everyone but her parents found herself back on that balcony. She stared at the spot where her grandmother loved to sit in her wheelchair and watch the world go by, a lump in her throat even after all the years that had passed. She missed the old woman, desperately sometimes.
Movement from below caught her eye then, her perception trained from years spent being taught to watch for Strangers. As the girl’s gaze snapped that way, she saw the youth center in the distance. It had been closed and boarded up for a long time by that point, but she caught a brief glimpse of someone slipping through the backdoor, which had been pried open somehow.
A flash of anger rushed through her then. Vandals? Thieves? Whatever, they were breaking into a place that had been important to her grandmother. And thus it was important to Pace. So, without thinking, she glanced back inside to make sure her parents were thoroughly occupied, before hopping over the edge of the railing. She dropped part of the distance before landing on the edge of the fire escape, bouncing from that to the nearby wall, then to another railing, down to the top of the dumpster, then to the ground. After landing, the girl narrowed her eyes to stare at the building in the distance. Yes. She could see the faint glimmer of a flashlight playing off the windows inside. Someone was there, probably ransacking or vandalizing the place. The thought made her growl, and Pace was suddenly sprinting that way. For her, sprinting meant that she was traveling at a good sixty miles per hour, which meant that she reached the open back door within seconds.
Turning her head to listen for a moment, the girl slowly stepped inside. She could hear movement ahead, in the kitchen. Slowly and deliberately, she walked that way. One of the powers she had acquired over the years let her move completely silently. It wasn’t one that she ended up exercising that much (Pace usually wanted people to know exactly where she was), but in this case, it was useful. She wanted to take these stupid trespassing dicks by surprise.
However silent she was, however, before she was halfway down the hall, the noise of the person moving around in the kitchen suddenly stopped for a couple of seconds. She then heard the distinct sound of a drawer slowly being pushed closed, before the click of the flashlight.
Darkness. Why would the person turn off their light, unless they knew she was there? But she was completely silent, and nowhere near that room anyway. How the hell could they have–
An enormous figure was suddenly rushing toward her, barely visible in the darkness of the corridor. Pace had excellent night vision by that point, and even then she could hardly see. Only her incredible speed saved the girl from being immediately trampled, as she quickly spun aside.
There was the briefest impression of fur and claws, before the huge figure was past her. As Pace continued her pivot, she reached into her pocket and produced a single coin. With a single word to trigger the enchantment, the girl tossed the coin onto the floor just as it lit up. The hallway was suddenly as bright as day, leaving the creature that had attacked her reeling.
Fur and muscles had been the right impression. The thing standing there, shielding its eyes from the sudden light, was incredibly muscular, and covered with thick, golden brown fur. Its hands were as big around as frying pans, with claws that were a solid four inches in length. A Stranger. The thing that had broken into the place that meant so much to her grandmother was a Stranger.
Anger erupted inside Pace right alongside the Heretic predatory sense that identified the figure for the monster that he was, and she immediately snatched a pair of knives from her belt. The knives themselves were special, just like all Heretic weapons. In her case, the blades of the knives could be altered to match any material that was placed inside the handle. Additionally, they would return to her hands instantly after being thrown or knocked away. And, with the touch of a button on the hilt, each could produce different gels either along the blade or squirted out the end in a spray. Some of the gels were acidic, others would explode after a few seconds, while still more were a healing salve. The knives could produce over a dozen gels of various effects.
She had often joked that with her healing salve, she could technically stab someone into being healthy, since the power of the healing would quickly outweigh the damage done by the blade itself. But in this case, Pace had no interest into making her target healthy. With a snarl, she flipped the blade in her right hand around, and moved to drive it into the intruder’s chest.
The sound of her own name, her birth name, coming from the Stranger’s lips as he stared at her brought Pace up short. She blinked, staring again into that twisted, fur-covered face until the familiarity struck her. Eyes widening, the girl stammered, “Wh–Hansel?”
It was him. The big man who had helped Pace and her grandmother during that wonderful Christmas vacation all those years earlier. The man who had made her laugh, who told her stories and shared M&M’s with her. That man.
“Y-you’re a… you’re a… th-they turned you into a monster,” she half-babbled, feeling tears threatening to flood her eyes. Hansel had been a good memory, one of the last really good memories that she had of time spent with her grandmother. The thought that he had been turned by monsters into this made her sick.
But the man himself slowly shook his head. The fangs, claws, and fur retreated until he looked the way she remembered. “Turned? Gia, I haven’t turned into anything. I’ve been like this since I was a little kid. Aww, man, kid, what did they do to you?”
Kill him. It’s a trick. Put him down before he attacks again. Those thoughts and more all filled Pace’s head, as she watched for an opening. With her speed, it wouldn’t take much.
And yet, she didn’t move to attack. With her knives up defensively, she shook her head. “Wh-what are you–no. No, no. You were n-nice. You were good. Abuelita Romina, she was–and we were–you were around all those kids! Did you–did you eat th-”
“Uncle Hansel!” A voice from behind the big, furry man called. “Did yo–Heretic!”
A boy was suddenly trying to dart past Hansel to lunge at her, but the big man grabbed his arm to stop him. “Reed, no!”
Reed. Reed was the name of one of that boy from before, one of the youngest children that Pace remembered from her time helping her grandmother at this place. Now, he was around the same age that she had been back then. And he too was setting off her Heretic sense. As she stared at the kid, Pace felt the familiar predatory sense, the rush of almost-hunger, the quickened heartbeat, the thrill of the hunt.
For several long, silent seconds, all three figures stared at one another. Pace felt her heart trying to shatter apart. The best memory that she had of time with her grandmother, and it was… it was with…
“You’re monsters,” she managed finally, voice cracking.
Carefully holding an arm in front of the boy protectively, Hansel slowly shook his head while watching her. “That’s not true, Gia. Nothing’s changed here except you. Both of us are the same now as we were back then.” He lifted his chin, eyes narrowing. “You wanna know the truth? You wanna know what happened to your grandmother, and to this place?”
Before she could respond, Reed himself immediately blurted, “It was their fault, the Heretics!”
“Reed, stop.” Hansel ordered. His eyes softened, and he looked to Pace before nodding.
Then he explained. According to the man, Romina had been at the youth center when Heretics attacked, ambushing the people inside, who had all been Strangers. Or, as he put it, Alters. Alternative from human. Romina, as a human, wasn’t directly attacked. But the shock of seeing all these people that she cared about, including children, being slaughtered was too much. That was what actually caused the woman’s fateful heart attack.
By the time Hansel finished speaking, Pace had crumpled to the floor with her back to the wall. The knives had fallen from her hands, and she simply sat there, staring at nothing. Her voice was shaken. “I… I d-don’t believe you.”
But her words were unconvincing, a last, pathetic grasp for the certainty that she’d had before, the knowledge that she and her fellow Heretics were good and that the monsters were bad.
“Some of us like to come back here sometimes,” Hansel quietly informed her, his voice gentle. “Mostly for the memories. This was a good time, while it lasted. Your grandmother was an amazing woman, even if she didn’t know what we were.” He paused for a moment then, watching the girl in silence before carefully asking, “Are you okay?”
“Am I–” Pace barked a humorless laugh at that. “Am I okay? Am I…” She shook her head. “No, I’m a long way from okay. I’m–” She stopped, giving a violent shudder. How many had she killed? How many had she–
She turned suddenly, throwing up right there on the floor as a sense of horrified revulsion washed over her. Everything. Everything she had done. How much of it was to innocent creatures, innocent people, just like Hansel and Reed?
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her words meant not for the two standing in front of her, but for those long-dead figures. “I’m so sorry. God. Oh, God. A la verga.”
No more. Not again. Never again. She would fix this. She would do something about it. Whatever it took, whatever she had to do, Pace would fix it. She would expose the truth, find a way to make everyone understand what they were doing.
But one thing was for sure, no matter what happened, Pace made a single vow to herself, a vow to her grandmother’s memory, a promise to the woman she had loved so much.
Whatever happened, whatever they did to her, she would never kill another innocent creature.