This story is by Rowan Stewart-Smith and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
It’s him again.
Smith had told the kid just a couple days ago to cut this shit out, start taking Xanax or something, or Smith was going to report him to the housing association. The kid had shuffled his feet, said, ‘Yeah, sorry,’ then returned to his apartment, the cheerful skip lost from his step, a slump to his shoulders.
Smith felt slightly bad, sure, but he felt worse when he was wide awake at 1:00 a.m. in the goddamn morning listening to the screams.
Smith had a long day yesterday, doesn’t need this shit, turns over and pulls his pillow over his face and squeezes his eyes tight shut as if that could keep the sound out. He’ll talk to the association tomorrow. Honestly, Smith isn’t even sure how the kid can afford an apartment here. There must be better-suited places for somebody like him to stay.
Smith is halfway through his second coffee when his phone rings. It’s his assistant, telling him they’re due to have yet another last-minute meeting about the merger. It’s his one day off, but his protests are all ruthlessly rebutted. The phone call ends and his coffee is cold and they expect him in half an hour.
He gets ready in his usual disorganised messy rush. Frantically running around with one leg in his pants looking for his keys, struggling with tugging a sock on with a toothbrush clenched between his teeth, shoving a mess of papers into his briefcase and snapping it closed. He can’t find car-keys but he does dig up a metro card under close-to-the-tenth couch cushion. He brushes his hands over his thrown together outfit, not impressed but resigned, casts one last look over his trashed apartment, and closes the door with a resounding bang.
Smith is slightly nervous about catching public transport. With the escalating incidents recently… there’s bound to be trouble soon.
He nods at the old man who rents opposite him, who snorts at Smith and keeps walking with his unsteady gait. The floor elevator is out of service so Smith has to sprint down eight flights of stairs and he’s out of breath and blood is rushing to his face. He can feel the colour flooding his cheeks but he perseveres and discovers an appropriate bus-stop a block away.
With some exaggerated arm motions he catches a bus leaving. The driver gives him a sour look, and he has to squeeze in to fit amongst the seething crowd of people, but he has made it.
After a couple of minutes, Smith realises he hadn’t stopped at the front desk to lodge a proper complaint about the kid. He forgives himself in his rush. He can drop in after work.
Most of the city-dwellers get off two stops after him for the support corporation, so Smith must squeeze too close to the filthy masses to leave. When the bus zooms off again it hits a puddle which splashes all over his ankles, leaving mud on his trousers and water in his shoes. When he walks, he can feel the slight squish of his sodden socks between his toes. He weaves between the pedestrians and jogs up the stairs leading to his building.
He goes through the rotating door head held high and determinedly does not feel embarrassed in front of the front desk operators who whisper and giggle to each other behind their palms.
He catches the executive elevator to the top floor, watches the city, its rising buildings. When the door opens he walks right into the meeting. There’s only one room, at the top floor.
Twenty eyes turn to him, take in his rumpled and dirty suit, untidy appearance and the white-knuckled grip he has on his briefcase. The senior staff member continues droning, giving a brief pause to nod respectfully at Smith. Smith sits in the closest seat, trying to slouch while not looking as if he is slouching, and carefully places his briefcase beside him on the floor. The nameless member is pointing to diagrams and projected sales and everyone is nodding. Smith tries to make it look as if he is listening and hopes he isn’t called upon so he doesn’t have to open his briefcase and reveal the mess.
It’s somewhere around the half hour mark of droning, Smith is almost asleep (not enough coffee) and an announcement sounds over the loudspeaker. There’s been an attack in the area- they’re calling for an evacuation of the building as it is believed fighting will progress to this area of the district. Everyone grumbles a bit, but they’ve all done this a million times before, it’s nothing new. They’re like old men complaining when it gets cold in the winter. They file out in practised lines and form neat rows in the elevator.
There’s an odd number, and Smith hangs at the back of the pack, so he ends up stepping in alone.
Time passes fast but Smith processes it slow- seconds last longer, stretching to fill the space between held breaths.
When he turns to look out the window, he ends up staring, caught frozen in the action of adjusting his suit. There’s a villain in some cheesy, gargantuan robot suit not two streets away, towering over the buildings. It’s not threatening in of itself- if the city hadn’t adapted to villains, it would have fallen with most of the others. What is worrying, causes Smith’s breath to catch in his throat as he watches, terrified, is its outstretched hand and the wave of fire coming towards him.
It fills Smith’s vision with flickering devils and he’s stuck, motionless, staring stupidly, as the flame rushes ever closer. It gets as near as an metre away from his building- he can feel the heat, sure as anything, scorching his bones and stealing all the moisture from his breath- it gets as near as that, as Smith does nothing, when a body comes between him and the fire.
They’re wearing some garish blue costume with white swirls and a magenta cape that clashes horribly. They raise a hand and Smith can hear them shouting something -probably a stupid catchphrase, or inane banter, Smith is glad he can’t hear- and ice spreads like lay lines from their fingertips. Smith looks up at them- surprised, still, and catches a profile of their face.
It’s then that the window cuts off and the elevator chimes to tell him this is the ground floor.
He gets to go home, everybody does. The traffic going home is even worse than it was before, because even if the flame hadn’t reached his building it had covered plenty else and the robot had dealt its fair share of destruction.
Smith spends this time thinking, oddly introspective, staring through the window out at the city beyond, even as he’s jostled and pushed around. The city services will have fixed the roads by morning. They’ve gotten efficient. He might request another day off, anyway. Or, looking at his hands, remembering the heat, he thinks he might take his annual leave.
Smith moves on autopilot. He reaches his building, walks right past the reception and up the stairs, not even attempting the elevator. It’s a slower walk.
When he gets to his floor, there’s someone else there. It’s the kid. He’s hunched over his door handle, trying to maneuvre his keys to open the door. He doesn’t seem to notice until Smith has shuffled right past him.
‘Hard day at work?’ Ice Storm asks, turning empathetic eyes to Smith.
There’s a smudge of ash on his face. The legs of his suit are charred, and his eyesore cape is in shreds, only a thin line of fabric left on his shoulders. It’s poor quality material and not even fireproof.
‘You could say that,’ Smith says (doesn’t bring up the villain, or the night terrors) and walks over to his apartment.
Odd how a kid that young lives by himself, Smith thinks, later, absentmindedly biting into an apple, hungry with no appetite to back it.
The next time the screams start, he rolls over, grabs his noise-cancelling earplugs and goes back to sleep.
If there is a small package slipped into his neighbours’ mail, a blue and white costume properly crafted, with a tasteful cape and made from all-inclusive, no expense-spared materials, bought from a high-class boutique. Well.
Smith does not like heroes. He doesn’t like their holier than thou, do-gooder attitudes. But he does appreciate the local heroes who save people around the city. It means Smith is in less danger. He’s a popular target for villains. Really, he’s only helping the kid to help himself.
It’s not because he feels guilty for yelling at a kid who saved his life- the first person to help Smith on a bad day in a very, very long time.
(At least, that’s what he tells himself).