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"Safe"

A story of The Supers of Noble's Green

by Matthew Cody

 

Dedicated to contest winner Halle Ludwig. When asked what super power she'd like to have, she answered, "a super force field protecting (me) from all illness and injury." You can read here winning essay here.

With special thanks to runners-up Jason Burlison, Jaeden Gobert, Alexa Kish, Christina Longmore, and Kevin McCabe

 

 

 

"Halle! Breakfast is ready!"

Her mother's voice sounded muffled, like Halle had covered her own head with a pillow. It was a delicate thing, letting in sound, but Halle was getting better at it. She was learning to filter out all the other stuff, the bad stuff, while still letting things like sound and light in. There was a time when Halle'd had less control over her own force field, and she'd thought she would have to learn to read lips. It was still a pain, but there were upsides, too. For one thing, if she didn't feel like listening to the neighbors yell at each other all she had to do was turn down the volume. If she wanted, she could make it as quiet as a breath inside her little bubble.

Halle walked over to her bedroom door and paused. Holding out her hand, she concentrated, picturing the invisible dome all around her. She felt it contracting until it fit just over her skin like a bodysuit instead of surrounding her like a globe. It always made her a little claustrophobic when she did this, to know that the force field was just millimeters away from her skin, but if she didn't shrink it down she wouldn't even be able to touch the doorknob.

That was another thing it'd taken her time to master. She couldn't actually feel the metal of the doorknob, but she could feel the pressure of her fingers against it.

Squeeze. Turn. Perfect.

Matisse was waiting for her in the hallway. The tabby cat had probably been waiting at the door wanting in, but Halle hadn't been able to hear his muffled meows.

"Aw, hey there little fella." Halle reached down to give him a scratch behind the ears, but she couldn't feel the fur, so she wasn't sure if she was doing it right. After a few seconds, Matisse sniffed at her finger and then haughtily padded past her and took his position at the foot of her unmade bed. It had been so long since she'd felt Matisse's silky fur against her skin. He didn't like to crawl into her lap anymore. It was like he could sense that what he was touching wasn't really Halle. Matisse recognized the invisible force field that separated Halle from the rest of the world. Protected her from it. 

Halle had almost turned it off just then. Almost.

The kitchen table was all set and Halle's mom was scooping scrambled eggs with cheese onto a plate when Halle came down the stairs. There was fresh orange juice, slightly burnt toast and fresh honeydew. All of Halle's favorites. Her mom was watching her, hopeful.

"Mom . . . " said Halle.

"It was no bother," answered her mom, quickly. "I just thought that . . . maybe, today you might want to eat something."

"I keep telling you though. I'm not hungry. Like ever."

"I know that, but I guess I was just hoping you'd change your mind."

Halle gave her mom a kiss on the cheek. She didn't feel it, but she hoped her mom did. "I gotta go," said Halle. "Don't want to miss the bus."

She grabbed her backpack and started out the door. She left her sack lunch on the hall table. Her mom still packed it for her every morning even though Halle never took it with her. There was no need. Inside her force field she never got hungry or thirsty. She didn't need food or water. The force field protected her from everything, including hunger and dehydration.

When she stepped outside the sun was shining, and Halle wondered if it was hot today. She looked down at her skinny legs poking out beneath her shorts. She was dressed for the heat, but she would have no idea if it actually was warm or not. Come winter she'd still be dressed for the summer even if it was zero degrees and snowing. Halle wouldn't feel a thing.

That was another thing she missed, outside of touching Matisse's fur, was being able to change clothes. She was still wearing same shorts and tee shirt that she'd had on that morning two months ago, the morning of the Blackout Event, when the town of Noble's Green had woken up to find itself suddenly famous. The morning when select men, women and especially children discovered they possessed remarkable powers. Real super powers. The fire chief could float in the air. The school librarian could breathe under water now. Some kids could fly. Halle had seen thirteen year old Eric Johnson lift a car that had gotten a flat tire - lift it all the way over his head.

And Halle, well, Halle had one of the strangest powers of all. Halle had woken up surrounded by an invisible force field of protection. Protection from physical harm, from sickness, from hunger or cold. Halle didn't even need to sleep because she was protected from getting tired.  Life was perfect and safe inside her bubble.

At first she'd shut herself away from the outside world completely. Not on purpose, but just because she didn't know yet how to control it. She had a sense that if she chose to, she could turn it off completely, but she was afraid that if she did she might not be able to turn it back on again. Who knew? These powers were a mystery to even the smartest scientists on the planet. Her mom tried to convince her to try turning it off, just for a moment, but Halle refused. Her friends told her she looked kind of ridiculous walking around in the same clothes every day, but Halle didn't care. They never got dirty because Halle was protected from dirt. The green stripe in her hair never faded because she never needed a shower. 

Perfect. Well, mostly perfect. She did miss touching Matisse. And there were other things . . . 

But Halle put those out of her mind. It was worth it to miss out on a few silly things. It was worth it to be protected all the time.

Plus she could do some pretty awesome things with her power. If she expanded the force field into a globe she could roll around in it like a hamster wheel. And because she was impervious to harm she could jump off the highest diving platform out at the old Tangle Creek Bridge - something she'd never had the courage to do before - and make the biggest cannon ball splash anyone had ever seen. She could stay under water for as long as she wanted because the force field protected her from drowning. She didn't even get wet.

She was never, ever going to give it up. Never.

Every morning to get to the bus stop, Halle had to pass the home of their next door neighbors, the Cudgens. Having grown up next to the Cudgens, Halle was used to the constant shouting, but she was still glad to be able to muffle the yells. Clay Cudgens was a notorious bully, even worse since the Blackout Event, and most kids quickened their pace when they passed by that house, or avoided it altogether. But not Halle. Clay and Halle used to play together when they were little, and Halle still had a picture her mom had taken of the two of them as toddlers splashing around in the baby pool, their fat tummies sticking out over their diapered swim suits. Clay didn't look so fierce in those photos.

Halle walked past the Cudgens' house, a one-story ranch with a torn screen door in front that flapped in the breeze and a rusted-out pickup truck on cinder blocks in the driveway, just taking up space. Even through her force field she could hear the yelling. Just inside the screen door was a boy's silhouette, his head bowed. A woman stood over him shaking her finger in his face.

"Useless!" she was shouting. "You expect me to work my fingers to the bone to put food on the table when you can't even do a single thing right? You're embarrassing, you know that?"

Halle closed her bubble up tight, cutting off the voices, until she'd passed by.

Alexa and Jason were waiting for her at the bus stop.

"Hey," said Alexa. "Pushing it kinda close this morning. You're lucky the bus is late."

"Maybe she just knew it was going to be late," said Jason. "Like she's got a new power - tracking bus routes!"

"Hah, hah," said Halle. Of all her friends, Jason actually dealt with her power the best. He used to rib her before she had powers, and he still teased her now. Nothing had really changed, which was nice.

The same couldn't be said for everyone else. Alexa was still her best friend, but there was something weird between them now, and it wasn't just Halle's force field. Like all the rest of the "normals" in Noble's Green, she was probably a little freaked out by Halle. But Alexa tried her best to get used to it, and Halle was thankful for that.

"Hey, Halle," said Jason. "Do something."

"Jason . . ." said Alexa.

"Oh, c'mon! The bus isn't even in sight yet. Please?"

"She's not here to entertain you every morning," said Alexa.

"No, it's okay," said Halle. "What do you want to see?"

"Anything!"

"Hmm," said Halle. "Stand back." 

Alexa shot Jason a look, but they both took a step backwards. 

"More," said Halle. Then she imagined her forcefield expanding, slowly growing ever bigger, until it was just inches from her friends' faces. They didn't know that, of course. The field was completely invisible and undetectable until you tried to cross it.

"Now, reach out your hands, but slowly!"

Alexa and Jason raised their hands and found the air in front of them solid and smooth like glass. "All right!" said Jason, and he pressed his face up against the field and blew out his cheeks. He looked like a puffer fish pressed against a glass tank.

"Oh! Here comes the bus," said Alexa.

Halle saw the familiar yellow school bus pulling into their lane, and she imagined her force field shrinking until it was again like a second layer of skin. Impenetrable skin.

The bus came to a stop in front of them and the driver, Martin, waved at them. Martin was so wrinkly that when he smiled his face looked like a prune. But he was friendly and always had a piece of candy for the kids on Halloween. Halle stepped aside to let Alexa and Jason go first. When she climbed on, she was happy to see that Alexa and snagged an empty seat and was waving her toward it. Halle said good morning to Christina, who was telling Jaeden to please stop kicking the back of her seat. Jaeden apologized and instead started throwing paper wads at his friend Kevin in the seat in front of Christina. As the paper wads started flying past her head, poor Christina just threw up her hands and sank down low in the seat.

"Boys," she muttered.

Halle let her force field expand a bit so that she "accidentally" smacked Jaeden and Kevin on their foreheads as she walked by.

"Ow!"

"Ow!"

Christina smirked and mouthed "Thanks" as Halle passed her. Then Halle plopped down next to Alexa, who was already digging around in her backpack. "Hey, you wanna trade lunches? Oh, sorry I forgot."

Alexa's face turned beet red.

"Don't worry about it," said Halle. "I don't miss food. Well, there're times I could go for a sundae. But really I don't get hungry."

Alexa smiled and nodded, but her face stayed a shade too pink. This was going to be another awkward bus ride, Halle could feel it.

Martin the driver closed the door and had just started to pull away when the bus suddenly jerked to a stop. At first Halle thought they'd been rear-ended by another car or something, but then Jaeden looked out the back window.

"Uh-oh," he said.

Kids crowded around him so that Halle couldn't get a good look at whatever it was they were all gawking at. But then she heard the excited whispers turn to alarm.

"He must've missed his stop again," said Christina.

"I can't believe he grabbed the bus by the fender!" said Kevin. "He's crazy."

Martin the driver glanced worriedly into the rearview mirror before opening the bus door. The kids all moved to the side windows to follow the person who was now stomping toward the front.

Martin gave a nervous laugh as he greeted the newcomer. "Gee, son. You shouldn't go doing that. You coulda hurt somebody."

Clay Cudgens climbed aboard the bus and glared at the driver. His eyes were bloodshot and puffy, which only added meanness to his already mean face. "You pulled away too fast. Made me miss the bus."

"Look, I waited for as long as I could . . ."

The other kids let out a gasp as Clay grabbed Martin by the shirt collar and nearly hauled him out of his seat. "You didn't wait long enough!"

This was bad. Like Halle, Clay had powers. The boy was super strong and super tough but unlike Halle, Clay enjoyed using them to bully people. Halle had never seen him bully an adult before, though. This was a first. And there was something in Clay's face that morning that worried her. Heck, most of the time if Clay missed the bus (which was often) he'd just skip school altogether. No, this morning he was angry about something else. Halle remembered what she'd seen earlier as she'd passed by his house. And what she'd heard.

"Y-yeah," stuttered Martin. "Okay, kid. Sorry about that." The driver knew what Clay was capable of, and it was obvious he was just trying to calm him down. To diffuse the situation. There were only a few more stops until they'd pick up Mollie and Eric. They were Supers, too, and Eric especially could keep Clay in line because he was the only person in all of Noble's Green that Clay was afraid of. Eric would know what to do.

After a tense moment, Clay dropped Martin back into his driver's seat. Clay stalked down the aisle toward the back of the bus, and kids were careful not to make eye contact with him. Halle glanced back and saw to her alarm that Jaeden had taken the back seat by the emergency door - Clay's usual seat. Her friend must have assumed that Clay was skipping school again, so he'd taken the only seat available. Which was bad luck for him.

All at once, Jaeden seemed to realize his mistake and leaped out of the seat like he had super speed himself. But by then it was too late. Clay wouldn't let him past.

"What do you think you're doing?" Clay snarled.

"Oh uh, hi Clay," said Jaeden. "I was just keeping it warm for you."

"Now I gotta sit where you've been sitting? Stinking up my seat?"

Halle caught Alexa's worried glance. Clay was really on a tear this morning.

"Well," said Jaeden. "I'll just go sit up front-"

He tried to shimmy past Clay but the bully grabbed Jaeden by the arm.

"Ow! Ow, ow, ow, Clay! C'mon!"

"You never, ever sit in my seat," said Clay. "Ever!"

"O-okay Clay, that's enough," called Martin from the front. "You've proved your point. Now let the boy go."

Halle cringed at the sound of their driver's voice. He meant well, and he couldn't just sit by while one of his passengers was bullied, but she was afraid of what Clay would do next.

As it turned out, she was right to be afraid. Clay let go of Jaeden, and whirled around to face Martin. "You adults are always telling me what to do!" he shouted. "You think that just because you're older than me you can treat me like dirt? Like garbage?"

Clay's face was almost purple with rage and he was snorting like a bull ready to charge. Halle had never seen him so mad before.

He started stomping toward Martin, his hands balled up into fists.

"Oh my gosh, he's going to kill our bus driver!" breathed Alexa.

Halle didn't think Clay was capable of that, but in his current rage he might hurt him. He might hurt him bad.

Without thinking about what she was doing, Halle stood up and blocked his path.

"Halle, are you nuts?" whispered Alexa, but Halle ignored her.

Clay stopped in his tracks and looked down at her. For a moment he didn't say anything. Then he leaned close and snarled, "Move."

"Nope," said Halle. Her heart was beating so fast she thought she might faint. "I don't want you to hurt anyone, Clay."

The bus door opened, and Martin quickly stepped out. Halle could see he was frantically dialing his cellphone, probably calling the police. Unfortunately, Clay could see the same thing. He shoved Hallie. It wasn't even a hard shove, but she still went skidding onto her butt. That didn't matter to Clay. All he wanted was to get past her and that's exactly what he did. He stepped over her like she wasn't there and began to chase the poor bus driver.

Halle got to her feet. Kids were shouting now and pressing their faces up against the windows to see what would happen next. Halle ran past all the rubbernecking children. She got outside just in time to see Clay crushing Martin's cell phone between his fingers. The terrified driver ran for an empty wooded lot at the end of the street. Clay took off after him.

And Halle ran, too. Clay was strong, but he wasn't fast. Even so, he was faster than old Martin, and he'd catch up with him eventually. He wasn't faster than Halle, though. She sprinted for the trees, and soon overtook Clay, putting herself between the bully and the driver.

"Get out of here!" Halle shouted to Martin, and the bus driver took off running for the nearest house. Then she stood her ground in front of the charging, super strong boy. This time she let her force field expand until it was a globe around her. Then she braced herself.

To his surprise, Clay slammed into the invisible wall three feet in front of Halle. With a grunt, Clay bounced off. Halle was knocked back several feet by the impact, too, but she didn't fall this time.

Clay sat up, rubbing his nose where he'd rammed it into the wall of force.

"Just calm down, Clay," said Halle.

But Clay was anything but calm. "You're just like the rest, Halle! You laughing at me now too? I'll show you all!"

"Clay," said Halle. "No one was laughing -"

But Halle didn't get a chance to finish her sentence because Clay was suddenly on his feet again, roaring at her. He came at her this time with his fists, pounding on her shield with everything he had. 

By this time neighbors had heard Martin's calls for help and were coming out of their homes to see what was the matter. Halle's own mom would probably be there, maybe even Clay's mom, too. But there was nothing she could do about it now. Clay's blows knocked Halle backward into the trees, and she heard them split and fall around her. But she didn't feel them. They bounced off the force field harmlessly, but Clay didn't have anything but his own thick skin to protect him. As tough as he was, his clothing was still being ripped to shreds by his own destruction, and he was getting cut up and scratched as he barreled through the trees. They were tearing a path through the woods, Clay punching and Halle giving ground. Halle remembered that on the other side of the wooded lot was a house - the O'Malleys, with their infant son. Clay was crazed, berserk. He wouldn't even see where they were headed until it was too late. Their fighting would bring the O'Malley's house down around their ears.

Clay couldn't hurt Halle, but she couldn't get through to him either. There was more than just a force field in between them now. There were years of pain. But she had to stop him somehow.

Clay took a deep breath, and drew back his fist for another strike, and Halle imagined her force field even bigger, only instead of shoving Clay back further, she imagined something else. Like sound, like sunshine, she imagined letting Clay in.

Clay felt it. He felt the invisible wall wash over him - and then suddenly he was inside the bubble with Halle. Nothing between them anymore but a few feet of empty space.

Halle looked at him. She tried not to let her voice tremble when she spoke, but she was terrified. "Okay," she said. "Here I am."

Clay glared at her and raised his fist.

"Go on," she said. "There's nothing stopping you now."

Clay hesitated.

"Or we can talk," said Halle. "We used to talk a lot, remember?"

Clay snarled and looked over his shoulder. People were coming through the woods. Adults searching for them. Halle heard the angry, shrill voice of Clay's mother getting close. Halle imagined her force field as sound proof and suddenly it was completely quiet inside. All she could hear was her own breathing, and Clay panting like a wild dog. Then she imagined the force field opaque, like ivory glass, so that no one could see in. 

Halle and Clay were alone now, inside a silent white dome. Just the two of them.

Halle took a deep breath to calm her nerves. "Okay, let's talk."

"You think you've got me trapped? What if I just pound you? Bet your fancy little force field will fall down then."

"I don't wanna trap you, Clay," said Halle. "And you're right. You could hurt me if you wanted. I can't stop you anymore."

Clay watched her. Angrily he wiped at his eyes, at the tears that were making little streams along his dirty cheeks. "This is stupid," he muttered.

"Yeah," said Halle. "You were totally out of control."

"I wasn't talking about that!" said Clay. "I'm talking about this - this whatever it is you're doing."

Halle sat down. "I heard your mom this morning. She shouldn't have said those things."

"Yeah, well I bet you've heard plenty, living next door." Clay, almost cautiously, placed his hand on the dome. "They're out there, aren't they?"

"Probably."

"But they can't hear us?"

"Not unless we want them to."

Clay shook his head. "No, I don't wanna." He sat down heavily and took a deep breath. Halle felt herself relaxing at last. Her heart stopped beating in her ears.

"Quiet in here," said Clay. "Almost . . . Peaceful-like. I can see why you never let it down."

Halle shrugged. "It's safe in here. I'm protected. Can't get hurt. Can't get sick."

"Yeah, I get it. That's nice," said Clay. "For a while, anyway."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it's not really living, is it? I mean, look at us now - we're here but we're not out there. Not really a part of the world and all."

Halle looked away. "I guess."

"Still, nice for every now and then," said Clay. "It's nice for right now."

Halle nodded. "So, you wanna play a game? How about Chopsticks? We used to play that when we were little, remember?"

"That math game?" said Clay. "I suck at math."

"It's easy," said Halle. "And you were pretty good, if I remember."

Clay grunted. "Maybe. Maybe that was before I knew I sucked at math. Before everyone told me . . ."

For a moment, it looked like Clay was going to cry again. Or get angry. Both feelings seemed to come from the same place with him. But he just closed his eyes and breathed instead. "Can we just sit here for a while longer? You know, without talking?"

"Yeah," said Halle. "Sure. But you're right that we can't stay in here forever. We've got to leave sometime."

Clay opened his eyes. "Both of us? I'm gonna be in big trouble when I get out of here, you know."

Halle tugged at her hair. She looked at her perfect green stripe. Her spotless clothes. It had been easy to let Clay inside her bubble. She'd hadn't needed to be brave at all because she just did it out of instinct, without thinking about it. This next part, however, terrified her. For two months she'd been perfectly safe, untouchable. And a bit lonely, too.

Plus, she sure missed feeling Matisse's fur.

"Okay, both of us," she said. "We'll go out there together. But first let's get in at least one game, because I have a feeling we're going to be grounded for a long, long time."

Clay smiled and Halle scooted closer.

"Halle?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks."

"You got it."

And for the record, that morning Clay won two games out of three.