“Leo, how did you get your powers?” Tony asked. We were already awake, laying on the floor of the abandoned barn. “I mean you already know my powers.” He motioned to his metal, prosthetic legs.
“Do I?” When my partner and I rescued Tony, he had been strapped to a hospital bed, bleeding into a series of tubes. But there was clearly more to it. The teen had fully functioning robotic limbs that allowed him to walk, run, perhaps even more. He was like nothing I had ever encountered, and for me, that was saying a lot. I pulled my wavy hair into a ponytail, sweat running down my neck.
“Well, you know more about me than I do you.”
He was correct. As for what I did know; Tony was young, maybe eighteen with tan skin that looked sun-kissed. He told me he was biracial, with an immigrant mother who designed and gifted him his one-of-a-kind legs. And an abusive, white trash father who made his life a living hell.
But the fact that stood front and center in my mind was that Tony was the ex-lover of my pregnant friend, Alicia. And he was the father of her baby, despite the fact that she was engaged to marry Tony’s father, Keith.
That part I couldn’t let him know. So, I had no choice but to give him a secret of my own, if only to change the subject. “I’m a hunter but also a vessel.”
“A vessel?” His eyes were big, and doll-like, making him look even younger.
“I hunt demons, but I don’t play for one side. It’s kind of a job I fell into a couple hundred years ago.”
“No way,” Tony chuckled. “You’re like, what, twenty-five?”
“I was, about when I met Alicia.”
“You always bring up Alicia.”
“She’s a good person.”
“If you say so.” Tony ran his fingers through his hair. “For me, she was kind of a consolation prize; a crazy girl for a messed up boy.”
“So, you admit you had a thing with her?” I asked like an older sibling poking fun at his little bro. I needed to keep him on my side.
Tony only shrugged. “I don’t want to talk about me. Tell me more about you.”
“I’m just someone who made a deal.”
“To save someone I cared about. And now I have friends in high places but I’ve given up a lot.”
“Well, I have HIV,” Tony said in a way that seemed like a joke. “I’m a junkie, a street kid; might as well wear my scars with pride.”
“Um, ok.” I stood up and stretched my back. “Where’s Q?”
Q was the third member of our trio, the blue-haired teen with the power to control technology; technopath, technomage, a modern day God… whatever.
“I think she went to get something to eat,” Tony replied. Just as he stood up the door creaked open.
“Good, you guys are awake.” Q reappeared through the door. She had a plastic jug of water and a package of crackers. “So, what’s the plan?”
As the only member of our team old enough to drink I assumed the decision fell to me. “We need to head south,” I suggested, “back into Wisconsin.”
“But this whole area is crawling with wendigos, and we don’t know how high their influence is.” Q sighed as she casually ate a handful of crackers. “For all we know, they could have the president on their side. Actually, that would explain the 2016 election.”
Tony reached for the jug of water. “We can’t run forever. I mean, either we fight our way back to Wisconsin or die trying.”
His words gave me a sense of hope, maybe my instincts about him were correct. “I think Tony is the key.”
Tony locked eyes with me, mid-sip. “The key?”
“Who do you want to go back for?” Part of me hoped he was going to say Alicia but I knew the real answer.
Tony paused to think, pursing his lips. “My mom, I guess.”
“That’s what I thought. Your mom is someone special, she created prosthetic legs that allow you to walk with military-grade robotics. Maybe she holds the key to defeating the forces that hunt these lands.”
Tony shrugged. “Worth a try.”
Q rolled her eyes. “You guys are insane.”
“You’re the tech master,” I pointed out. “You have to admit; someone who can make one of a kind robotic legs for their child might be able to make something that…”
“That can defeat mythic creatures who have ruled these lands long before Vikings even set foot in North America?”
Q was too smart to be reasoned with, so I turned my attention to Tony. “If we’re going back for your mom, where can we find her?”
“After the divorce, she moved into transitional housing, within the university.”
Q’s eyes perked up. “She lives at the university?”
“She was granted tenure when I was, I think six or seven. Through all the hell my father put us through, her work has always been her sanctuary.” Tony pulled his knees to his chest like a small child. “I’d like to think if she had the money to come to this country legally, she could have married a guy in New York and worked at Harvard. Harvard’s in New York, right?”
I patted Tony on the head. “Massachusetts, actually. But, hey, close enough. Your mom is a certified genius except when it comes to relationships.”
My words brought an innocent smile to his lips. “Thanks, Leo.”
“The way I see it,” I explained, taking a seat between my teammates. “The creatures that run this land are the same creatures who allowed Beloit University to be built over the remains of the old factory district. They want to befriend the rich and powerful. So, it stands to reason that the University is a safe zone. The real question is how do we get from Northern Michigan to Southern Wisconsin?”
Q nodded. “I think I saw a truck abandoned not too far from here.”
“Think you can work your magic?”
“Maybe not as well as Tony’s mother,” she muttered as she left, slamming the door so hard it fell from its frame.
“We should probably follow her,” I suggested, making my way to the door.
As I turned to him, I noticed the kid was holding my hand. “What happened between you and Alicia?” I asked.
“She left me to go f**k my dad, I mean what more can I say.” Tony seemed irritated but he kept close as we made our way back to the main road.
“You honestly think he’s the father of her baby?”
“Alicia’s a s**t, I’d believe anything.”
“I prefer to call her a con-artist.” I abruptly let go of his hand.
“Sorry, I know she’s a friend of yours.”
“Do you think there’s a possibility she’s conning your dad?”
Tony only shrugged. “Whatever.”
Just as we reached the road, Q pulled around in a trashed pick-up truck that looked to be missing the majority of its backside. “Hop on!” she shouted over the clank of the engine.
“We are SO getting pulled over,” I said with a laugh. I had to admit the idea of going sixty mph down the highway in the back of a glorified go-cart sounded quite fun.
We decided to take a “scenic route” switching off between drivers. Q drove Michigan, to Indiana. I took over into Illinois, then finally into Beloit, Wisconsin. Following the major cities, sticking to the main roads we encountered no supernatural creatures. When it came to police, we weren’t even the craziest vehicle on the road.
Once we arrived in town, Tony took over. He seemed to know exactly where to go. We made our way to the Beloit University campus, straight to the science building, where he had no trouble finding a parking space labeled, ‘Professor M. Keller.’
“This way!” Tony went in the building and headed straight for the fire exit. It was clear he had been here before.
I could hear Tony happily calling for his mother, despite the fact he was now ahead by nearly a dozen flights of stairs. If there was any doubt in about the power his legs possessed, this moment cleared it all.
“Tony!” a woman’s voice cried. She had a thick accent, not Latina but perhaps southern European.
When I reached the top floor office, I was surprised to see a tall, elegant, woman in a wheelchair. She could have been a beauty queen in a past life.
“Mom, this is Leo- Leo this is Maria Keller, my mom.”
“Hello, Professor Keller,” I said as I reached out for a handshake.
“Please, call me Maria. It is due to unfortunate circumstances that I must keep my ex-husband’s name. To be referred to as Professor Keller all day undermines the nature of my own achievements.” She shook my hand just as Q made it to the room. “Patricia!”
I looked at Q. “You’ve met Tony’s mother?” And, somehow, are on friendly enough terms that she knows your real name?
“The day she was hit by a car while at work,” Q explained.
That made sense, I knew Q was a university student but did that mean Tony’s mother had been attacked on campus?
“One of the worst days of my life. It was a hit and run. If Q hadn’t stopped to check on me, I would have died on the side of the road.”
“Here, on campus?” I asked.
“My mother’s office was always her sanctuary,” Tony explained in a way that did not fully address my question. “After the divorce, she moved in here.”
“I wish you would have stayed with me,” Maria said through pursed lips.
“No, I understand. I couldn’t protect you all those years. You had no reason to trust me, I just thought that when we finally escaped your father we could stay together.” Maria’s voice was trembling with emotion. “But, you’re here now and that’s all that matters. And you’re clean, thanks to that lovely Alicia girl.”
“Please don’t bring up Alicia,” Tony groaned.
“She’s marrying your father. But that only means that he gets to move on- and so do we. You can stay here now. You all can.”
I froze and looked at Q, hoping she was on the same wavelength; there was something off about Maria and we needed to find out what. “Sure, that sounds great.”
Maria gave us a tour of her living space. She had a small but impressive three-room apartment, complete with an elevator just large enough to fit her wheelchair.
“Do you still teach?” I asked.
“On occasion. As of late I just do my own research and critique papers from grad-students and prospective new-hires.” She showed us the bathroom and bedroom where there were two twin beds.
I took a walk around the windowless space. “So, why are there two beds?”
“Like I said, I assumed Tony would follow me. After we fled my ex’s house we lived in a homeless shelter for a few days. I asked my supervisors if I could get all new keys and passcodes since I had to leave all of my belongings behind. The topic went to where I was staying, and they offered to allow me to live on campus, to be close to my work. Unfortunately, by the time the whole place was set up Tony was already um,” she paused, again pursing her lips, “living on his own.”
‘Living homeless, trading sexual favors for drugs,’ I already knew the story.
“When I was hit by a car I was so scared I would never see my little boy again, anyway…” Maria made her way to a fold out sofa. One of you can sleep here and the other can sleep on the floor.
“I’ll take the floor,” I offered. “Q, can you give me a ride back to the hotel block so I can get my stuff?”
“You were at a hotel?” Maria asked. “Do you have family in the area?”
“I’m actually trying to get in touch with an old friend. Perhaps you can help me.”
I made sure to leave behind the jacket that I had slept on for the past two days, as proof of my intention to return.
Q took my hand while gripping her phone. “I have a disruptor on, any creatures of mystical origins won’t be able to recognize our faces.”
“I need you to catch me up; what do you know about Maria?”
“She’s an immigrant from southern Italy.”
“Yeah, poverty isn’t just a North American thing.”
“I didn’t say it was,” I sighed as we reached the truck. “Italy is just really far from Wisconsin.”
Q drove me back to the motel where my rig was parked. I considered moving but instead I decided to take advantage of the fact that I had a prepaid reservation. The motel’s records would show I was staying there- leaving me free to pursue my investigation.
I grabbed my duffle bag, stuffing in what little clothing I traveled with along with my laptop, phone, and the blanket off the bed (in case I needed it). From my truck, I took my paperwork (I’d need it if my rig ended up getting towed.) With my luggage in tow, I reunited with Q. “You ready to head back, or should we stop at Walmart?”
Q was tapping the side of the truck, visibly nervous. “I think we need to head back, and we need to run down what we know.”
I took a seat next to her as she started the drive. “I want to make sure we’re on the same page. Do you agree it’s strange that Maria was drawn to Wisconsin?”
“She was drawn by her ex. Keith Keller met her online…”
“Hold old was she?”
“I don’t know. College age, I assume.”
I realized I didn’t know how old Maria was currently. She could easily have come to American as a teenage bride who just happened to have a talent for robotics. “The fact is, her ex-husband lured her here with the promise of a green card marriage and kept her here by getting her pregnant with Tony.”
“Who he beat the living crap out of,” Q added with a gasp.
I knew we both came to the same realization. “It was all Keith: he was hired to keep her in Wisconsin. And that’s why she was attacked on campus.”
“When she finally left her husband, they needed a way to keep her in Beloit. Think about it: her apartment has two beds. Whoever is in charge knew she would want to stay with her son, but when Tony ran off to live as a homeless drug addict, they needed insurance, a way to keep her from going after him. “
“But I was there the day she was hospitalized. I was the one who contacted Tony.”
“They must have assumed he would leave the state or just drop dead of an overdose.”
We drove the rest of the way in silence.
Once Q parked the car, we headed up the stairs back to Maria’s attic apartment/lab. I pulled my duffle over one shoulder. “So, where does Tony fit into all this?”
“You mean, why did we find him at the public hospital being bled out? Someone saw an opportunity and took it. But I mean, he’s safe now. We all are, right?”
“That’s all that matters, I guess,” I said as we made our way up the stairs.
With both of us in relatively good shape, we made it to the now-closed doorway or Maria’s lab.
“So what now?” I asked, unsure if we should knock or simply open the door. When Tony was with us, the answer seemed more obvious.
Q was a bit more confident, but as she opened the door we were hit with a blast of light. It had to have been more than light since it knocked both of us back, with me nearly falling down the stairs due to the added weight of my bag.
I felt hands- metal hands, grabbing me by my arms and legs, pulling me into the room. “Ow! What the f**k, Maria!”
“Be a dear and put the duffle bag in the corner,” she said sweetly to the robot hands. The hands obliged. The robots seemed to be arranged in several teams, as there were still more than enough to drag my body to the sofa.
I looked to Q for help but was pinned to the floor by her legs. “Is this really necessary?” Q groaned.
“For the moment,” Maria said calmly. “I do consider you a friend but I need you to realize that my creations answer only to me. I am the queen of this lab and I have a few questions to ask your friend.”
Now I was legit concerned. In the hour or so we had been gone, Maria had transformed from Cinderella into the evil queen. “Where’s Tony?”
“Tony filled me in on your true purpose. The friend you seek is Alicia, my ex-husband’s new wife.”
That was when Tony appeared. He was casually checking his messages on an iPhone (that I had to assume belonged to Maria.) “Guess who just posted her courthouse wedding pics on her Facebook feed.”
“Alicia has a Facebook account?” I asked. That was out of character for her. People like Alicia and I tended to stay under the radar.
“Ever since she became Alicia Keller- less than an hour ago.”
Q continued to struggle against the robotic hands. “No, way! Couples need to make an appointment way in advance for a courthouse wedding.”
“That’s Alicia for you; when she wants something, she takes it.” Tony took a seat by my side. “Now, the question is- where do you stand? I know you came to find Alicia. But what will you do when you’re face to face?”
I knew I had to say what they wanted to hear. “Give me your allegiance and I will bring you her head.”
Tony gave a s**y smile, pressing his tongue against the inside of his cheek. “Ride or die.”
With a snap of Maria’s fingers, the robot hands went limp. “I will trust my son’s judgment of your character.”
Q groaned as she slapped the robots away. “Gee thanks, Maria! Because all I did was save your life during a hit and run.”
Tony gently brushed the robotic hands away, as he stroked my arm. “You ok?
“Yeah, thanks, Man.” Looking into Tony’s eyes I knew the truth.
There was someone else; a neutral third-party who held the key to Tony’s heart and with it his salvation.
Stronger than his love for his mother and his hatred for Alicia.
There was a person out there, who was his driving force, and his light at the end of the tunnel- even if they didn’t know it.
And yes, I’m certain it wasn’t me.
Tony either saw me as a friend, older brother or a crush. I just needed to ride that out as long as I could.
And locate Tony’s savior before it was too late.