Short story I wrote at writing camp, experimenting with POV and sideplot.
Yesterday I woke up like usual — sweaty, cramped, and with a startled toddler crashing into me.
I guess it was my fault; I really shouldn't sleep on playgrounds. You'll get a white mom dragging her family to the playground at some ungodly hour because it's a "good bonding experience", and then find a homeless woman nice and cozy and clogging up the tube slide. Then the kid will scream and the mom will hit me with her diaper bag, and I'll walk broodily away with my backpack over my shoulder because that's what homeless people do. We brood.
If I had any money, besides the emergency twenty in my left sock, I would've bought a watch, one with an alarm to avoid more yesterday mornings. My old watch had been nicked by a scrawny teen who helped me raid a Burrito Barn dumpster. But I didn't have money, because I'd lost my chance of getting any when my dad vanished, my house burned down, I was kicked out of law school, and all evidence that I had existed at all was erased from the planet. I couldn't get money, meaning I couldn't get food. And I definitely needed food before I needed a watch. So I kept walking.
I tried to enjoy the beautiful summer morning, the birds chattering and flitting between trees, the gentle breeze plucking at the carefully-manicured flowers, the glittering drops of dew on every surface. I tried to ignore the fact that my three layers of clothing smelled vile and that I probably needed to be thrown headfirst into a jumbo industrial washing machine.
I'm not sure when I noticed the guy following me. I think I first saw him in a car's side view mirror, or maybe out of the corner of my eye when I ducked inside a convenience store bathroom, only to catch him loitering by the lottery machine. Now, I'm not new to being stalked, but this guy was weird. It was July and he was wearing a dark brown cloak, like a Star Wars cosplayer who got lost on his way to the convention. This being Chicago, nobody seemed to care. If I'd passed him by, I wouldn't have noticed. But he stuck on my trail, about fifteen feet behind me.
Finally, I had enough. I ducked down an alley, glanced over my shoulder, and saw him following. I spun around.
"The hell is your problem?" I snapped.
The guy seemed thoroughly surprised — as if I'd been stalking him for four blocks. He whipped off his hood, revealing a weathered face and a long white beard. His eyes were a bright, wonder-filled violet.
"Sal," he murmured. "After all these years… it really is you…"
"It's probably not," I replied.
There had been relief on his face, and I knew this because I got to watch it slowly drain away. "But…you must remember…this is your destiny…the fate of the Enchanted Lands depends on you alone…"
"I'm not interested in your live action roleplay." I pushed him aside. "I'm interested in breakfast. Stalk me again and I'll bash in your skull with your own foot."
I hoped it was clear enough. He didn't follow me again, so probably.
Grumbling pointedly, I left the alley and the man behind, before promptly forgetting about them. It certainly wouldn't be the weirdest conversation I'd had in the last week. It definitely wasn't at the top of my priority list. Right now I was in the mood for pancakes.
I often frequented the International House of Pancakes on Cicero Avenue, because I was good friends with the manager before I lost everything. When she took maternity leave, I did her menial paperwork in exchange for free meals whenever I wanted. I had a couple of places like that, a few friends here and there. But none of them were nearby.
Guess it was time to browse, then.
As I strolled down onto a busy thoroughfare, a cop car zipped past the regular morning traffic, sirens blaring. A few seconds later, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of light over an office building — then a distant CRACK like a gunshot.
Only too loud. Too large. The echo reverberated with a depth that was...unsettling. Cars stopped, and drivers leaned out of windows. Nearby, a mother held a crying girl. A ripple of alarm spread down the street; I could hear it. "Did you see the flash?" "Was that the police?" "Get to the car…"
I kept walking. A minute later, there was another crack. I wondered if today was the best day for a stroll. Just then, I saw a young man on the street corner, wearing a silky blue cape and a livid scowl. I tried not to look him in the eye, but as I passed, I could feel his gaze on me. I thought again of the old man in the brown cloak.
Three more cracks. Each louder, closer than the last. I walked a little faster, and so did the people around me. I was still starving. A trickle of sweat rolled down the back of my neck, and as I turned a corner, emerging from a building's shadow, the sun made me squint.
Then, someone screamed. A sudden heat seared my cheek, and a new light blinded me again. The building across the street — despite being made of stone — burst into flames with a sharp CRACK!
There were more sirens. Bystanders scattered, screaming and covered in soot. In the panic, someone bumped into me, and I stumbled backwards into someone else.
A leather-gloved hand clamped down on my arm.
I didn't even think. My heart skipped a beat, and I whirled around with my other fist clenched. The fist collided with a cheek. The man staggered back before his boot pinned solidly onto the hem of his blue cape. The sound he made when he hit the ground was pitiful. But when he looked up at me, nursing his cheek, it was in...awe?
"It really is you," he exhaled. "The daughter of death…we…we have been looking for so long…"
"You've — " I started to say, but he jumped nimbly up, startling me.
"You were missing! For nigh a quarter of a century!" he exclaimed, sounding much too excited for comfort. "Oh gods…we need to get you out of here! I know you might not understand, but…but you're special! You have to believe it!"
That didn't sound creepy at all. I started getting a bad feeling about this situation, and looked over my shoulder just as a wailing police car pulled up in front of the smoking building. Oh, jeez. If there was anything you'd learn from two years on the streets, it's to get as far away from crimes as possible — even if you didn't do it. Police were really good at pinning crimes on homeless witnesses. Suddenly furious, I shot forward and grabbed the collar of the cape man's tunic.
"Like hell I'm special," I growled, and threw him to the ground. Then I stormed away, teeth and fists clenched.
Suffice to say — I had enough. It didn't help that the blue cape men were everywhere. At first, they were largely alone, but as time passed they started clumping together into squadrons of four or five, jogging down city sidewalks like they owned the streets. Some held swords, which was just unfair. I couldn't even pull out my empty wallet without someone thinking it was a gun.
Then there was the fact that another one soon recognized me, and I'd had to punch him too, and from then on I kept my hood up and shoulders hunched so I wouldn't get mistaken for the Daughter of Death in their deluded fantasy roleplay. It was hot and my hood stunk and I was still in dire need of breakfast and it was overall just very unpleasant, so I blamed the cape guys.
And then, though I was never too close to one, there were still exploding buildings. Once, for a second, something massive and dark blotted out the sky before vanishing behind a skyscraper. I saw police cars coming in even from the suburbs, ambulances and fire trucks and the whole outfit running themselves ragged as shots kept firing and blue cape guys ran into burning buildings with nothing but swords. Somehow I got the feeling that the blue cape guys were better equipped to deal with the disasters than the police force. But by this point, even seeing them on the street was making me pissed off.
It was 11:43 AM, according to a clock on a bank across the street — just before the bank crumbled to the ground, sending bankers scattering. I kept walking. Many shops and restaurants were closing despite the hour, their owners terrified by the chaos. I might have been the only person in the city whose first priority was a good bite to eat, because it wasn't like my existing situation could get worse. I was already homeless. I had no identity. It served me no good to have a sense of what was really happening around me. As crazy as today was, I couldn't bring myself to care.
I just. Wanted. Breakfast.
The sole problem being: I wasn't keen on dumpster diving right then, because that required going behind a building where it was more dangerous. If a blue cape guy tried to jump me, it would be me, him, and this sizzling anger that just wanted my regular day back. I wanted normalcy. Damn it all, if that meant I had to pay for it…
I walked for another block, ignoring the explosions and descending chaos, before reaching a McDonald's — the only place open on the street. Two men in blue capes, one holding a sword and the other holding a stop sign, dueled in the parking lot. No one was inside the restaurant except a single teenage cashier. He was on his phone until I bent over, reached into my sock, and pulled out my emergency twenty dollar bill. He didn't even question it.
"Hi, welcome to McDonald's, can I take your order."
"I want as much breakfast food as I can get for twenty bucks."
"We have a menu, ma'am."
I didn't like his tone, but I begrudgingly looked up to the menus on the TVs. Suddenly, there was a great roar from outside, and the building shook, and a giant twisted claw ripped through the ceiling right above the cashier. Chunks of drywall and sawdust sprayed down on us.
When the dust cleared, I looked back up and the TV menus were gone. Now there was just a wide hole, revealing the smoke-covered sky above.
The cashier said, "Guess that means my shift's over" and walked away.
I think I was in a little shock, because it took me a second to react. "Hey — wait!" I yelled, too late. The cashier was already gone.
Now desperate, I scoured the seating area, and at last glimpsed something. In what must have been a blind panic, a family in the kids' play area had left behind four partially-eaten breakfasts. There were bagels, hash browns, a beautiful muffin, jugs of orange juice and milk, even a cup of coffee. Elated, I ran to the breakfasts like I would to a long-lost loved one.
But before I could reach them, the window shattered and two angry men in blue capes tumbled through it. Still wrestling, they landed on the table, sending my holy grail to the floor.
They froze up when they saw me, staring. My eyes flicked between them and the demolished breakfasts. One of them gasped.
"My lady — " he tried to say. But I wasn't there to hear the rest of it. I turned on my heel and ran for the kitchens, all inhibitions gone. I was shaking; I was so angry that I literally felt like steam was leaking from my ears. I wanted to crush something. I stomped my feet so hard that the tile cracked under my boots. And I was completely, unabashedly, entirely ready to get my food, even if it was the last thing I did.
It almost was.
Filled with rage, I vaulted over the cashier's counter and reached for the nearest refrigerator, but as soon as my hand brushed the metal, pain shot through my palm. It had been just a small shock, but it forced me back against the counter. My hair stood on the back of my neck. Somewhere, there was an enormous rumbling.
Through the hole in the ceiling, I saw a bolt of violet lightning streak down from the sky. Less than a second later, an indescribable heat seared my hands and face. The noise was so loud that I screamed.
The kitchen exploded and the McDonald's crashed down to the ground.
After what felt like an hour, I pulled my hands away from my eyes. I'm not sure what surprised me more — the fact that I wasn't in any pain, or the fact that everything around me was rubble, ash, and twisted metal. The crisp, distinctive smell of ozone filled the air.
My stomach felt like a stone weight. With all my effort, I pushed myself up on what was left of the countertop, staring at the desolation. This was impossible. Incomprehensible. I didn't want this. I was so hungry, and now even food was taken from me. I had run halfway across Chicago to get away from whatever generic fantasy hell had ripped itself free of B-list novels, and now it took away even breakfast. The smallest of joys. My only hope.
It pissed me off.
Without even knowing it, I'd clenched my fists, so hard that my fingernails dug into my palms. I was shaking again. Fury bubbled in my gut, right alongside the audible evidence that I hadn't eaten since yesterday's lunch. And it shot through my veins, searing and invigorating, filling me with a strength I didn't know I had. I glared up at the sky.
"I'm DONE!" I screamed. "Your fantasy world SUCKS! I don't WANT a DESTINY, I want to EAT! Now LEAVE — ME — ALONE!"
My voice echoed. The ceiling was gone; there was nothing to echo from, but it echoed. The sky rippled, like dropping a stone into water, and the soaring silhouette of a dragon slowed to a stop. The smoke hovered, motionless, in the air.
Until I raised my fist, and there was a bright flash of light.
When I opened my eyes again, the McDonald's was back. I was standing behind the counter, facing an undamaged kitchen. Above me, the TVs displayed their usual menu, and there was no hole in the ceiling. I turned around and found the two men again, one staring at me, the other staring at the four breakfasts on the table. The breakfasts were just how I'd first found them — half-eaten, abandoned, and free for the taking.
Breathing heavily, I held out my hand. "Muffin," I snapped. Hurriedly, one of the men scooped up the muffin and placed it in my soot-covered hand. I ripped off the top with my teeth.
It was blueberry, and it was delicious.