Side Effects

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Her heartbeat is ringing out as clear as a bell. I leap through the air, traveling a hundred feet with every jump. My back and knees are never going to forgive me for this, but there’s no way she’d survive if I tried to run her in at this speed. She’d be killed by the wind shear before we made it two blocks, and suffocate well before we reached the hospital.

I’m on the rooftops now. It only took a few minutes to get here from outside the city, but it might as well have been forever. My hands are slick with her blood. She clutches at me with surprisingly strong fingers. Normally, her nails would be digging into my skin. But for the next five minutes it’s hard as a rock.

I pray that’s enough time.

The trouble with a city like this is that all the damn buildings and traffic get in the way. If I didn’t care about collateral damage, I could bounce straight to the hospital, flattening cars and knocking down walls on the way. But there are people in those cars, and people on the sidewalks under those buildings. It doesn’t make sense to save one life if I’m killing a few dozen others, no matter what my intentions are.

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It’s like a metronome, ticking her life away. I try keeping a mental count in my head while also dodging and weaving my way around innocent people. A few quick bursts of speed as I run get me through the worst of the downtown traffic.

She’s stopped scratching at my face now. Instead, her hands are wrapped around my neck. Her fingers are freezing. I try to tell myself that it’s the cold air rushing past. Or maybe the rain. The last thing I want to think about is the truth: that this woman is going to die in my arms if I don’t go faster.

I’m starting to feel her weight more. She wasn’t terribly heavy when I grabbed her from the car accident out in the suburbs. I know you’re not supposed to move someone. I know that. But she was going to die if I didn’t. I took a calculated risk.

It’s not like I’m new at this. As near as I can tell, my record is around two hundred lives saved in one night. Each pill only gives me twelve hours. Then I’m normal again. No super speed or super strength. No more enhanced hearing or vision. Just me, with my shitty retail job and tiny little apartment.

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Her heart’s beating faster. I’m losing her. Moving faster now, running up walls and zipping around people. Moving so fast the rest of the world stands still. I try to keep her tucked in against my body, telling myself that a missing finger or toe is better than her dying.

My mind runs back over that first night. When I spent my first few hours dicking around in a junkyard. Picking up cars and tossing them like they weighed nothing. Trying to run up walls. It was supposed to be a clinical study. Try out a new drug, earn a couple hundred bucks. Easy money.

Instead I got powers. The first thing I did, once Dr. Porter explained what had happened to me, was steal three bottles. Then I got the hell out of there. Sitting around while a bunch of guys in lab coats poked and prodded me suddenly didn’t sound all that appealing.

“One pill, twelve hours,” Dr Porter said. It’s the only thing I really remember before I raced out the door. They weren’t pissed enough to come looking for me, so I’m hoping that somewhere he’s approving. Hopefully he didn’t get fired.

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The woman in my arms is shaking. I can see the hospital just up the street from us. We’re going to make it. Her eyes flutter and for a second she smiles. She knows I’m going to save her. We can make it. I duck my head down and run faster. There are a lot of cameras outside hospitals, and I don’t wear a mask or a gaudy costume. The plan is to jump and then land near the entrance. Set her down and take off again fast enough that they can’t identify me.

The shaking is getting worse. I try to write it off as cold, or maybe a reaction to the run. That’s happened before. This is different. It’s hard to hold on to her. My legs tense, and I jump, watching the ground push away from us. There’s maybe thirty seconds left before the pill wears off. I shouldn’t need more than five.

It isn’t until I hit the ground that I realize I can’t hear her heart beat. For a moment, I almost stop moving. I lay her down outside the hospital and close her eyes before taking off again. Behind me, I hear the shout as someone finds her laying there.

Maybe they can still save her life. I won’t have any way to know, really. It’s not like I can stroll up to the hospital and ask about her.

My legs are giving out now. I can’t hear the chatter of pilots flying planes above me. Or see the radio signals flashing through the sky. My own heart begins to beat faster, almost in mockery of the woman I left at the hospital.

I slow to a jog and then a walk. Everything hurts. The seconds tick by on my watch, the last bits of power fading away. I took three bottles from the lab. That’s ninety pills. It comes out to almost 1000 hours. You can save a lot of lives in that span of time.

Ducking into a park, I practically fall onto a bench. I sit there for a while blinking back tears. For a few months, I got to be special. I saw amazing things. Bullets frozen in mid-air. I once hit a guy so hard that the dude’s tooth wound up embedded in a wall. I’ve pulled kids from burning buildings and took the keys away from drunk drivers before the ignition in the car could turn over.

I don’t know if I’m crying for the woman or myself. Or maybe it’s just the realization that no matter how many people I save, there’s always one more that needs it. And I won’t be able to do that anymore.

Sometimes I think about returning to the lab. Maybe finding Dr. Porter again and seeing what options they have for me. But they’d probably just keep trying to find a way to recreate the effects. If I wasn’t a supervillain before, being treated as a lab rat would make me one pretty damn quick.

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My heart’s beating steadily in my chest. I drag myself off the bench and start walking towards home. There’s a little bit of blood on my shirt, but not so much that you’d notice. If anyone asks, I’ll say I had a nosebleed. People shove past me on the sidewalk, stepping off curbs in front of drivers who slam on their brakes and lay on their horns. I keep my head down and keep walking. I’ve got work in the morning, and they don’t give you time off for superheroics.

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

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