The snow was coming down pretty hard, but not enough to make me pull over. I’d driven through worse in my time.
My time… It was fifteen years since I woke up, with a proverbial hole in the head where the memory of my life should’ve been. Fifteen years and a hundred times I should have been dead. Not as many times as I’d wished I was—wished I could. Until I just stopped caring.
Trust me, it’s not as depressing as it sounds.
A gas station loomed up out of the woods as I rounded a bend in the highway, and I pulled in. The truck needed some fuel, and so did I. Stepping from the truck’s cab, I pulled up the collar of my jacket against the blowing snow and looked the place over. A low, unpainted, ramshackle wooden storefront with cracked windows; a lean-to built onto the side of the store that was probably supposed to be a garage; two gas pumps half-buried in the snow, on a lot that might or might not have been paved under the knee-deep white slush.
I’d seen hundreds of places like this, a lot of ’em more than once. Tired and broken-down outposts run by tired and broken-down people, just surviving at the side of the road like trampled weeds. They went way past "quaint" into just plain "old and beat-up"—but they meant gas and a cheap hamburger, and maybe an occasional tip or two about what I’d find in the next town. A few days’ labor for cash, maybe a cage fight; it was all the same to me.
Either way, anyplace was better than standing around in the biting wind and wet snow. I hiked across the lot and stepped in, a bell over the threshold jangling as the door opened. I shook the snow out of my hair and looked around at the low shelves, the high counter, the scuffed linoleum floor. A young woman with an old face sat behind the cash register, reading a magazine, and an older man who was either her husband or her father was sitting in a back corner, watching a hockey game on a black-and-white TV the size of a shoebox. Though I could’ve been their first customer in days, neither of ’em even bothered to look up, and with a discreet sniff I took in the odor of heavy, greasy food.
Incurious people and the prospect of a square meal—exactly the way I liked things.
Might as well stock up on a few provisions as long as I was there. I started to wander between the shelves, picking up a few staples—canned stew, bags of beef jerky, anything that’d keep well. Not that refrigeration was exactly a problem in that kind of weather.
A pile of week-old newspapers was sitting in a rusted wire basket at one end of a shelf. I’d never had any interest in ’em; the rest of the world in general could just go hang, for all I cared. All the same, I scanned idly over the headlines as I passed, and one of them gave me a moment’s pause.
"Issue Of Mutants Could Weigh Heavily At Historic World Summit."
Mutant. Now, there was a label I’d rejected to myself for a long time. I didn’t have anything against those who won the weirder stakes in the gene pool. It just wasn’t enough to explain me.
Whatever it was that turned me into a walking switchblade, it was nothing natural. The bloody fingerprints of human ingenuity were all over me; I had no illusions about that.
Nature couldn’t grow metal over bones—and yeah, I knew about that too, even then. Found out at the very beginning, in fact, while I was doing some primitive surgery to extract a bullet from my leg. Don’t bother to ask who shot me, or why, because it’s all still part of that big blank nothing inside my head.
No, the metal was no mutation. But… there were other things.
Things like never staying hurt.
Things like watching the years pass, and realizing I wasn’t aging the way I should.
That’s what I cursed most of all—even more than the pain of the claws. It was the changelessness. It was wondering how long life, and my own animal instinct to survive, would hold me by the throat and keep me fighting.
It did keep me fighting. Rage against nature, against whoever it was that had given me the claws, left me taking it out on anything or anyone that would fight back. Sometimes they even fought back hard enough to make me hurt for a little while, but it was good… at the time. Reminding me that I could be hurt. Except that every wound that faded away on the outside just seemed to build up into another scar on the inside, in the rage.
Sometimes I wondered how much longer it would be before it all burst out from under my skin. Just like the claws—only a whole lot more destructive.
But it wouldn’t be today.
I shook my head and walked on, past the newspapers. Turning a corner around a shelf near the side wall, I nearly tripped over something.
Correction: someone. The kid, maybe fourteen years old, was sitting cross-legged on the dirty floor in front of a rack of outdated magazines. He twitched as I stepped back, trying to catch my balance.
He was just about the weirdest-looking thing I’d ever seen.
Yeah, yeah, I should talk. Well, I may not exactly be one of People’s "Fifty Most Beautiful", but at least I manage to look pretty much human… as long as people stay off my nerves. But this kid looked like he was from another planet. Under a mess of curly purple-red hair, his face was white as a ghost—and I don’t just mean any normal kind of pale. I mean paper-white. White as the snow coming down outside, with his veins standing out a deep dark blue color that was genuinely creepy. Under the bundle of raggedy old clothes he was wearing, he looked skinny as a rail, and from something more than just a poor diet.
I only got a glimpse of his eyes before he sorta shrank back into himself and out of my way, but they were dark. Too dark. I’m not sure if it was that or his smell that bothered me most.
He smelled like fear and loneliness, and something else that no one has a name for.
Clenching my jaw, I looked away and stepped past, halfway stepping over him. I’d been on the receiving end of enough stares in my so-called life to know that was one thing the kid didn’t need… even though a part of me was curious.
I’d run into other mutants before—a surprising number of them, for being out in the Canadian wilderness. It was easy enough to guess they came looking to get away from people. That was partly the reason I stayed, too. But there was much more to it for me. More even than the fact this wasteland was where the animal part of me was most comfortable… and could do the least real harm.
My past was out there somewhere. Keeping me searching, calling me back, every time I thought to move on for good. So I just stayed on that road, waiting for the scales to fall from my eyes. Waiting for a vision, for a real memory; for something that would mean I might have been almost human once, my life more than a serial number and the cryptic label of Wolverine.
I moved on, but I couldn’t help giving the kid another glance. He didn’t notice, busy turning the pages of a comic book between his long skinny fingers. He was looking at it the same way I’d occasionally looked at carrion after days without food. It was some kind of superhero junk, from what I could see.
Maybe if I could’ve remembered being a kid myself, I could’ve understood what it meant, or why it helped, to believe in heroes—even if they only came in the shape of bad drawings telling outrageous stories.
Good one, Logan. Mentally kicking myself for getting maudlin, I moved on to the microwave to heat up a pre-packaged sandwich. Somehow though, I could feel those eyes of his following me, making me want to turn around. To be angry, or to be… I don’t know what. It was always confusing to meet someone who inspired me with something other than dislike or just indifference. Didn’t happen often—but I knew it just had.
For some reason, I wondered if the kid knew what I was.
The tired woman behind the register didn’t bother to make eye contact as I piled my goods on the counter, adding an order for gas. As I was taking out my wallet, she rang up the stuff, then asked flatly as if out of habit, "Anything else?"
Something compelled me to glance back at the kid. I knew he’d been watching me, but his eyes were back on his comic book.
I looked down into my wallet, fingering my last two twenties. I was trying to get up some cash to have the truck looked at; most problems I could deal with myself, but it was long overdue some professional help. I didn’t care to see it have a total breakdown a hundred miles from anywhere.
Ah, to hell with it.
"The kid’s magazine," I said in a low voice, nodding to where he sat in illustrated oblivion as I laid the two bills on the counter. "And a hot meal, and whatever else this’ll get him."
Finally the woman’s expression changed, her eyes meeting mine. They were blue, surprisingly pretty… and completely freakin’ amazed.
That’s when Hubby or Daddy or whoever the old geezer was decided to cut in.
He got up from his stool and lumbered toward the counter, giving me a rotten look. "Don’t go wastin’ your money on freaks like that. They’re a menace to the world. Sooner the government rounds ’em up, the safer we’ll all be."
My fingers trembled and my fists clenched. I closed my eyes and slowly counted to five, holding back the claws. It wasn’t easy, but I’m pretty sure that when I looked back at him, my face was totally blank.
"It’s my money to waste, bub," I said quietly. "You want it or not?"
Geezer gave me a long, dirty look. Finally he turned and ambled, apelike, back to his stool in the corner. He fiddled with the TV antenna, then banged a fist on the top and mumbled a few prize curses.
Maybe this evolution business wasn’t such a bad idea, if it’d weed out people like him.
The woman was still looking at me with something like awe. I shifted from one foot to the other, not feeling anything like the Good Samaritan she must have been making me out to be, and leveled a hard look on her. "So what do you say?"
She looked down at her hand, still resting on top of my money. Drew it back across the counter and slipped it into a pocket, glancing nervously at the ape on the stool, then the boy.
"I’ll do what I can," she whispered.
My face ain’t made for smiling, but I did my best. She was a good sort—better than most of what I’d found in my travels. She might have looked like the shrinking-violet type, but I had a feeling when it got down to it, she could stand up to McGilla over in the corner. Maybe the kid had something to hope for in her; maybe she could be a real hero for him.
With one last nod, I grabbed my bag of groceries and headed for the door. I paused once to look back at the kid—but now he was nowhere in sight. I knew he couldn’t have left without me hearing him, though; he was still there somewhere. I shrugged my shoulders, pushed open the door, and stepped out into the white drifts.
The moment I was outside, the snow stopped falling, like someone had turned off a switch.
A little surprised by the sudden change in the weather, I threw the groceries into the camper, filled up the truck’s tank with gas, and climbed into the cab. Casting one last glance toward the store, I saw a dark-eyed white face peering through the grimy window.
He smiled at me, and I found myself smiling back.
Then he disappeared from the window, and I sat behind the steering wheel for a minute, wondering what would happen to him. Wondering why I cared about some freak of a kid who was scared and lonely and wanted to believe in heroes. Wondering if he’d ever know how I tried to help him out; wondering if he’d remember me, even though a part of me hoped he wouldn’t.
Because I’m no hero.
Finally I started up the truck and pulled out of the gas station. As soon as I hit the road, the snow began to fall again—lightly at first, then harder, until it was coming down the way it had before. I braced my knee against the wheel, lit up a cigar and sighed, thinking of the extra work it’d take to make up that forty bucks. With a wallet as empty as mine, it was time for a few more rounds in the cage.
For just a moment, I let myself close my eyes. For just a moment, I was honest with myself.
I don’t want to go on like this.
Opening my eyes, I exhaled a drift of smoke, and glanced out through the snow toward the dented roadsign ahead.
LAUGHLIN CITY 20 KM
© 2003 Jordanna Morgan -send feedback