Song: “When I Grow Up” by NF
This didn’t make any sense. How could it be empty? It had to be here.
I stood to my feet and turned to see two associates in the doorway. One was a light-skinned man and the other was my ex. Just when I’d thought things couldn’t get worse. But the face-altering device was still on so it was buying me some time.
“Weren’t you just in your living room?”
“I was, Veronica,” I said, throwing my voice to mimic the real Tiberius. “I just came in to–” There was a fizzle and the device shut off, revealing my real face.
Veronica’s jaw dropped and the other guy pulled his gun on me instantly.
“Who are you?” the guy demanded.
Veronica put her hand on his arm and lowered his gun. “Calm down, Jay. This is Marcus. My ex.”
My mind immediately sprang into exit strategies. What other gadgets could I use to get me out of this? There was a grappling-string device in my back pocket, but I wasn’t sure how it would play out yet. And they were blocking the exit. And apparently Nolan Tiberius was in the living room. It was three against one, but I had to admit, I kinda liked those odds.
Veronica glanced at the magazine in my hand and grinned at me. “Were you looking for success?”
Jay scoffed. “Did you think it was gonna be that easy? Sneak into Tiberius’ penthouse and snatch it from his safe? You don’t think people have tried this before?”
“He was probably trying to impress me,” Veronica interjected. Then she added, dripping with condescension, “You failed with me and you failed with this. Just stop.”
I was about to open my mouth to tell her she didn’t know what she was talking about, but a tall red-haired man in a gray suit and gold tie entered the room. Nolan Tiberius. He took one look at me then lifted his phone to his ear to call security. But this was the opening I needed.
The second Veronica and Jay turned to him, I flicked the grappling string out and it snatched the phone out of Tiberius’ hand with Spider-Man quickness and snapped it back to me. Before they could realize what had happened, I was already sprinting to the windows. I shot one out with a volley of rejections until it shattered then dove out headfirst. The three of them rushed to the edge as I fell, but by then I was already deploying my glider umbrella and gliding over the city.
“GET MY PHONE!” I heard Tiberius scream.
I landed in a park several blocks away, found one of the trashcans I’d previously stuffed before the mission, and pulled out a sealed plastic bag of clothes. A minute later I was out of my suit and tie and in a hooded leather jacket and jeans. I jogged out of the park and into the adjacent block, stuffed my hands in my pockets, and blended into the foot traffic just as it started to rain.
I still couldn’t believe it. How had the magazine been empty? All of my intel had indicated that it would be there. Had Tiberius known that I was coming? Had Veronica told him?
He’s probably trying to impress me, her words echoed in my head, but I blocked them out.
At least I had his phone now. There had to be something on it that could point me to where that success magazine really was. I crossed a street with a crowd and discreetly shifted my gun to inside my jacket as I walked. I kept my eyes on my feet, trying to distract myself with the quickly forming puddles on the ground, when suddenly someone crashed into me. My legs flew out from underneath me and before I could even throw my arms out to break my fall, the assailant had somehow snatched my gun and shot me in the chest with a rejection.
I landed on my back and looked up to see my sister staring down at me.
Her eyes were wild and her hands were trembling. I couldn’t tell if she was crying or if it was just the rain, but the next thing I knew, she gasped at something down the street then ran off in the opposite direction. I held my chest and grimaced as I stood to my feet. I looked back to see what Six had been looking at and saw Veronica and Jay running through the crowd. I could feel the rejection leaking through my system, but there was no time to let myself feel it now. I had to move.
I kept my head low and ducked around the corner, still blending in with the flow of the crowd as I did. Half a block later, I came up on my black Ferrari Spider, unlocked it, and drove off with a bang. Luckily I hit three green lights so I didn’t have to attract any attention to myself by speeding through stop lights. But it didn’t matter–this baby could do 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds. No one was gonna catch me in this.
Then I heard a zoom in the distance and checked my sideview mirror to see two black figures weaving through traffic behind me. I’d spoken too soon. Ninjas. Kawasaki Ninjas to be exact. And when one of them flipped their visor up, I saw Veronica’s face glaring back at me. Was there anything she couldn’t do?
The motorcycles snaked through the lanes like heat-seeking missiles and I blasted through a red light and hopped onto the ramp to the expressway. Veronica and Jay were hot on my tail as I breezed between cars, trying to shake them off. I threw every evasive maneuver I could at them, driving up the shoulder, hopping on and off exits, even gliding underneath eighteen-wheelers, until finally Jay slid out of control and smashed into the side of a bus.
But Veronica was still right behind me. We were heading straight to the entrance of the GWB and if I didn’t do something fast, there was no telling what she’d pull once we were on the bridge. We raced onto the upper level and I decided it was time to get aggressive. I’d let her catch up and just shoot her out. But before I could slow down, a gunshot split the air in two, there was an explosion on my rear left tire, and I spun out, fishtailing into the walkway. The car crashed through the railing and my stomach lurched into my mouth as I plummeted towards the water. I had the presence of mind to unbuckle my seatbelt and the next instant the car was plunging nose first into the Hudson. I immediately lowered the window and water rushed in, flooding the car from front to back. I fought through, managed to swim out, and made my way to shore.
I crawled out of the water and flopped onto my back, gasping for air. My ribs were burning, my head was ringing, and my legs were throbbing. Every inch of my body from my head to my toes was trembling uncontrollably. Either the rejection was getting to me or I was a lot more scared from almost dying than I realized. But I couldn’t stop now. What was that Rocky had said? It’s not about how hard you get hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. So I had to keep moving forward. They had taken out my car. But they couldn’t take out my drive. Veronica was probably about to dive in after me. But what had she shot me with? Nothing short of a rocket launcher could’ve done that kind of damage.
I was just about to force myself to my knees when I heard a click above my head. I looked up and was staring straight down the barrel of a gun I’d never seen before. The barrel was as long as a shotgun, but the chamber was cylindrical like a revolver’s and it had a sniper’s scope on it. The person holding it was dressed in a black robe and a black hood with a black mask covering their face.
“It was you,” I said. “Who are you?” I reached for my gun, but was rewarded with an empty holster instead. Six had run away with it.
“The world needs better heroes, Three,” the man in the hood replied. “And I’m the solution.”
I heard something pierce into the ground nearby, but didn’t look to see what it was. I didn’t want to take my eyes off this mysterious man in front of me.
“I’m going to give the world new heroes,” he went on. “By breaking the old ones.”
“What are you gonna do?” I scoffed, ignoring the shredding pain in my ribs. “Shoot me with rejection? I eat that for breakfast.”
“I know,” the man said. “That’s why I brought something special just for you.”
What did he mean? I kept a solid poker face, not a shred of emotion betraying the panic I was feeling creeping inside of me.
The man in the hood unloaded an unmarked magazine from his gun and dropped it into his pocket. “They praise you for your achievements. Laud you for your success.”
There was a loud zipping sound and someone came rolling into view beside me. I glanced briefly and saw Veronica rising to her feet. Had she just ziplined from the bridge?
“But I wonder,” the man in the hood went on. “What will they do when they find out what you really are? Nothing but a hollow shell.” He pulled out a new magazine with one word on it etched in red: HUMILIATION.
My eyes went wide and I moved to run, but my body was frozen in pain. Veronica smirked. The man aimed at my chest.
Original artwork by Alyssa Pfingst