Prologue – The 28th of January – [Snakefly: A Superhero Story]

(Content warning: violence, gore)

Even though he knew it probably made for a disastrous electricity bill, Mon was grateful that the school’s thermostat kept working even when school was over. There were a lot of things he wanted to distract himself from tonight, and at least being cold wasn’t one of them.

Rain thrummed against the rooftops of James Gibbons High, and its rhythmic ambience was the only audible sound besides the clacking of keys. Empty chairs at empty tables highlighted the vacancy of the classroom, a space that felt even more vast with Mon sitting as far from the front of the room as possible. Ms. Mikols sat tiredly at her desk and typed away on her laptop; on the other end of the room, where the illumination of the fluorescent lights was weakest, Mon sat alone at a table meant for four.

He dragged the cursor and scrolled down along the National Geographic article. The chromebook’s light cast shadows on his face, shining in the lenses of his glasses and on the parts of his dark skin where acne really needed to be taken care of. His eyes, brown as bark. darted through the paragraphs, and his messy dark hair concealed the earbuds blasting music into his ears. He moved to another tab, typed a few words, then moved back, already having forgotten what he’d just read.

His foot tapped the ground in annoyance. He couldn’t focus. The sound of the rain didn’t match the rhythm of the song he was listening to. 

The phone vibrating in his pocket didn’t really help.

Scowling as much as someone can when their face is already locked in a tired frown, he exhaled and wrenched it from his pocket.

Beck.

He paused his music and opened up an ear. “What’s up?” His voice came out in a weary mumble.

“Hey, are you still at school?”

He looked up and around the empty classroom. Ms. Mikols looked down from a curious glance.

“Yeah.”

Beck sighed quietly. “Okay, well, Ma just called me. They’re getting a lot of people coming in tonight because of the storm, so she’s not gonna be able to pick you up. And I’ve still got class until seven, so I can’t either.” She paused. “You think you can get yourself home?”

Mon took a bit too long to think before saying anything. 

“Yeah. I’ll catch the bus.”

“Are you sure? I can skip class today, it’s not a big deal.”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s all good. It’s just the 61 and the 77. It won’t take me that long.”

“I know.” She took a breath. “I just don’t want you to be alone. My professor won’t care. It’s just one more class, I can skip i—“

“Beck, it’s fine,” Mon said, unsure of why he had. He’d stayed after school so Ma could pick him up and he wouldn’t have to wait alone in the rain for the bus. But Beck shouldn’t have to worry. “Go to your class. I’ll see you in a bit.”

In the silence on the other end, Mon read over the same paragraph he’d read earlier. Something on meteorites.

Beck sighed. “Okay. Just go now, okay? It’s getting late, and I know the buses take longer at night. Pull your hood. Stay dry. Text me when you’re on the bus and when you get home.”

“Okay.”

“Be safe. Did you eat yet? I’ll pick up something after class.”

“Okay.”

She stayed on the line but didn’t say anything else. He stared blankly at the table for a few moments, thinking about how all of them were acting differently today. No jokes. No sarcasm. Just care.

“See you at home.”

“See you.”

He waited until she let out a breath to hang up. Then he put his earbud back in, resumed the song, and packed up his things as it finished.

A minute later, he said thanks and goodbye to Ms. Mikols and navigated the desolate campus of James Gibbons High to reach its northern exit. He drew his hood and made sure his backpack was zipped, then braced himself for a blast of freezing wind and rain as he pushed open the door. It slapped him across the face anyway, a vicious downpour where every raindrop felt like a bullet and the wind like an angry shove. He cringed and shuddered in the cold. 

The remaining light of the hallway’s fluorescents stretched his shadow far enough to reach the street until it blended with the evening darkness that, aside from a few remaining cars, was fairly unoccupied. James Gibbons High rested on some empty land in central San Jose, and no one had bothered to fill the other expanses of open field around it with anything other than grass that was long overdue a trip to the barber. Mon pulled out his phone as he walked, regretting having not done so earlier, and checked the Transit app as he shielded the screen from the rain.

6:54 pm. Route 61. Next bus in . . . 0 minutes. 

He’d barely made it a few steps past the door. His gaze shot up, then to his right, and he squinted to see a bus driving down Hedding Street, distant streetlights to its fame and not another car around. It was too far away for him to read the orange letters glowing on its sides, but he didn’t need to see it to know it was bus 61. And he was about to miss it.

He broke into a dead sprint faster than his mind processed why exactly he needed to rush. Puddles splashed beneath his stride and motion-activated streetlamps flickered to life as he ran, leaving a trail of determined illumination in his wake. The bus arrived at its stop, waited for way too short of a time, and continued on before Mon had even passed the signpost at the edge of campus. He urged it to slow down as he barreled down Spring Street, hoping that the driver would see him and wait.

That didn’t happen.

By the time Mon, already tired and warm from the blood pumping through him, made it to the intersection, the bus was pulling away from its next stop, apparently too impatient to spend more than three seconds at that one either.

“Come on,” he panted, cutting the corner, stumbling, and gathering his momentum to propel himself down the road. There were no cars, and he took the risk of running on the pavement to give himself a beeline. 

For a few moments he actually believed that he’d be able to catch up with the bus. But as it drove away from its stop, it got faster, and whatever distance Mon had yet to close grew too big, leaving him coming to a staggering, panting stop smack in the middle of the street.

Out of breath, with his heart hammering in his chest and his hand numb from squeezing his phone so tightly, he frowned and watched the first half of his ride home drive off into the distance. The rain continued to tumble onto him like it wanted to remind him that today’s was the worst weather to have missed his bus during. After a few moments of bitter defeat, he wiped the screen with his sleeve and checked the Transit app again.

33 minutes.

He was too winded to swear. 

Sighing and panting in the same breath, he turned around and spotted the last bus stop. It didn’t have a canopy.

Mon took the first step in his walk of shame. Then he tripped.

He kicked his foot out and caught himself, but that wasn’t enough to balance him, because it wasn’t just him that was teetering. The ground was shaking.

What had been a mere tremor in the road beneath him suddenly became an immense, violent jolt. Then everything was moving, a blur of rapid motion, and a cacophony of crashes echoed from every direction as the force of the earth slammed him onto the pavement. He gasped desperately to reclaim the wind he hadn’t even had and scrambled to get up, stumbling with each movement as everything shook.

Mon got to unstable footing, fearful eyes thrashing about just as much as the ground under his feet. What was happening? Was this a bomb? An explosion? 

No, he realized. This was an earthquake. 

In a paralyzing moment the world became everything but him. 

Concrete cracked. Windows rattled. Debris bombarded the quaking ground. The streetlights began to flicker, almost as if they were wheezing, sputtering for air, and one by one but all at once, they went out, yielding evening to the night and leaving Mon blind in the dark as he struggled to stay afoot. He staggered, flailing again and again, overwhelmed by the surge of cracks and booms from every direction, an assault of noise where his eyes could do nothing. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t stand, and there was too much, too much shaking, too much noise, and —

Then, in seconds, the shaking came to a stop.

Mon lurched and kept his arms precariously at his sides. His entire body felt like molten glass, warm, fluid, like he still should’ve been shaking, like the earthquake was anything but over. He knew about aftershocks. He knew any moment it could happen again, and he prepared himself, fully ready to fight, blood racing through his body from a heart that shook just as much as the ground had before. 

But nothing happened. Everything stayed still. Without the deep rumbling of the earth, a jarring silence filled the air, occupied only by the persistent patter of the rain, the occasional howl of the wind, and Mon’s terrified panting.

His breathing slowed and his tension lessened. One thought entered his mind. 

He found his phone only by the light of its screen as it feebly tried to reload the Transit app. Sure, the screen was cracked enough to pull thread from his sleeve as he wiped off the rain. Sure, it read No Service at the top left corner and was stuck in a limbo of loading. Sure, the lights were off almost everywhere and the power grid was probably wrecked. None of that stopped Mon from dialing Ma.

As it rang, he crouched and searched the street for his glasses. One ring. Two rings.

Silence. Silence for way too long. 

He felt like throwing up. 

He tried calling Beck. It didn’t ring at all. 

Frantic, he called Ma again. Nothing. No ringing. But he stayed on the line, waiting, hoping. 

His eyes welled with tears that the rain washed away as the call failed. 

Not today. This can’t happen today.

Whatever cold he felt turned into painful false heat, like needles stabbing his skin, and he felt his lungs and throat tighten, every breath heavy. His phone was a magnet to his ear, but he forced himself to rip it down, end the call, and turn on its flashlight. Moments later, he found his glasses and donned them, wiping his eyes and nose in a single motion. 

Desperately avoiding dread he knew would sink in if he stopped moving, he looked around, waving the flashlight around and staring at his surroundings. Long, snaking fissures gaped in the pavement and swallowed rivers of rainwater. There were only three buildings near him, all pitch black with windows shattered and walls cracked. The building on his left was an employment office that usually closed at 5:00. Mon didn’t know about the building on his right, just that it looked business-y, and it was clear from looking that the last one was a house.

After a few cautious steps to test the ground beneath him — it seemed safe — Mon ran up to each building, flashlight in hand, and called out for occupants. No one responded. No one was visible. 

When he reached the house, two people cautiously stepped through the damaged door, a father and son covered in dust. The kid, probably elementary school age, stood wrapped in a blanket with an emotionless look of fear on his face. The father held him close.

“Are you guys okay?” Mon hurriedly asked.

The father nodded, eyes moving to Mon’s hand. “Yeah, we are. Does your phone work?”

“No. No service. Is there anyone else inside?”

“No, just us.” He gulped and stared at nothing, holding the kid even tighter. 

Mon processed this and looked away.

His gaze fell on the highway overpass up ahead. Or, more specifically, what was under it.

Motionless in the tunnel in a position that could only be a crash, bus 61 lay idle, internal lights still on and bright enough to catch Mon’s eye. He couldn’t see if it had any occupants, but immediately he knew there was at least one person in that bus. 

Instinct gripped his body and revved him to run, but something held him back, and he tensed as thought arrived in second place. Between here and the highway, the street crossed over the Guadalupe River, and he couldn’t see how sturdy that bridge was now. Right now the road, although cracked, was stable ground. There was no telling if the same went for the bridge.

But nor was there any telling how structurally sound the overpass was. And if the bus had crashed, the driver could be hurt and unable to drive out of the tunnel. And if the highway collapsed onto the bus, then—

Without looking, he muttered, “Stay here,” and took off down the street. 

“Wait!” the father cried. “The bridge!”

Mon wriggled out of his backpack as he ran and flung it backwards to the ground, winding himself up with every step that urged him against the rain. He saw the bridge’s edge and the cracks in the road ahead, heard the man trying to chase him, felt himself and his steady speed and the blood boiling in him.

He reached the bridge. Then he pushed himself to sprint as fast as he possibly could.

He barely thought. He just ran. He didn’t feel the storm pressing against him, didn’t feel the ground, didn’t feel the dark, didn’t feel anything but the need to hurry so he could make it across and reach that bus and the person inside.

His feet stopped moving when his eyes saw the overpass directly in front of him. He tumbled to a stop, skidding on damp pavement and lurching forward in exhaustion. Short of breath, unwilling to rest, he looked back. The bridge was still standing. The man hadn’t followed. 

Wiping his sleeve over his face in a futile attempt to clean his glasses, Mon lifted his phone up to point at the ceiling of the tunnel. 

The rain dripping through thin cracks in the concrete was probably not a good sign. Mon stared with wide eyes and traced his light to follow the cracks, settling on a patch of missing ceiling. Directly below it, roughly where the bus would have been headed, a pile of rubble littered the ground. It didn’t look more than a few inches deep but was surrounded by way too many cracks for comfort. 

He turned his head to stare at the bus as he put together how it had arrived to crash into the left wall of the tunnel. Then he psyched himself up and ran inside.

The first and only passenger he saw was a young woman in the seat behind the exit door. Her head slumped against a pole, a bloody gash on her forehead and her eyes half closed. 

Chills ran down Mon’s spine. Holy shit.

He pressed himself against the doors and banged his fist against the metal. “Hey! Hey! Are you okay?!”

Her lips moved slightly, but otherwise she didn’t move or stir. Mon watched, horrified, then took a step back and faced the bus. He stuffed his phone into his pocket, squeezed his fingers between the doors, and pulled as hard as he could, grunting with muscles painfully tight. They didn’t budge. Panting, he paused, then lifted his arms and tugged again, planting his foot into the side of the bus and giving it everything he had.

Nothing.

The impulse to see if the woman was okay and the desire to absolutely not see her injury again clashed violently in his mind and he urgently turned to face the front of the bus. In a second he was there.

The bus had slammed wholly into the wall of the tunnel, smashing its windshield, cracking the concrete, and, most horrifyingly, leaving the bus driver bent over the dashboard, blood pooling around his head and seeping between shards of glass and mangled metal.

Mon stood petrified for God knows how long, daze only ended when he found himself shouting to the man and desperately trying to pull the entrance doors open. But they were broken, crushed, and felt even harder to move than the exit.

He reeled away from the bus, trembling as if the earthquake had focused all of its energy into rattling his heart, and shot back and forth in his panicked mind for a plan. He had to get inside. Those people needed help. What if they were dying? Holy shit. Holy shit. The doors wouldn’t open. There had to be some sort of emergency protocol for the bus, right? Another way in?

He looked up.

Or another way out.

Mon took a few steps back and wound himself up, then sprinted towards the bus and leapt up into the air. His chest rammed into the side and his arms clasped onto the roof, and he heaved, grunting past the blunt pain and urgently throwing his legs up to pull himself aboard. 

He scrambled on all fours and crawled towards the emergency exit hatch. Gasping to breathe, arms quivering, he dug his hands into the gap and pulled.

It worked.

He flipped the hatch open and wriggled his legs inside, lowering himself with as much care as he could in his haste. His knees flared with pain at his landing, and he swayed to support himself on the seats, shuddering against the injury and willing himself to stand again.

Turning around, he saw the young woman still strewn behind the exit doors, head now slouched and dripping blood onto the cushion. At the front of the bus, an elderly woman lay unconscious on the floor. Mon couldn’t see blood but was deathly afraid it was there.

“Hey,” he croaked, “Hey.” He shook the young woman’s arm, and her head lolled slightly. “Are you okay? Are you awake?”

She groaned and rolled her head back, eyes partially open. 

Mon’s eyes darted up and down her face. The gash was wretchedly bloody and left tears visible in her skin. Streams of blood had already trickled down and left more crimson on her expression than beige. 

Medicine. Medicine. He had to have learned something from Ma. What could he do? He frantically looked around the bus. They had to have a first aid kit, right? They had to. Where — there.

He bounded through the bus, knees screaming in protest, and he stooped down beside the elderly woman as he approached the front of the bus.

Blood seeped into the hair on the back of her head. Not much, but still, blood. 

“Miss? Miss? Wake up. Come on.” He panted. “Come on, you gotta wake up.”

No response. He pressed two fingers to her neck to check for a pulse. He felt it. 

He gulped and stood again, rushed to the front of the bus, and saw the bus driver.

Was it safe to raise someone’s head if they were injured in this position? He should’ve known that. He didn’t know that. He decided to do it, carefully reached his hands around the man’s neck, and slowly, warily, guided him into an upright sitting position.

Another head injury. A face soaked with blood.

The phobic stupor Mon collapsed into didn’t last as long as those before it. He felt his fear become motion, and his body had turned before his eyes had, hands frantically scrambling for the red and white box hanging on the fractured glass panel behind him. He yanked it down and painfully kicked up a knee to hold it against the slanted wall, then urgently pulled it open, rifled through its contents, identified the things he impetuously decided would be helpful, and spun around to face the man bleeding out in the imprisoning seat beside him. 

How many times had Ma gone over this when she was still in medical school? Mon had to have picked up some of it. Something. He knew how to do this. He had to know how to do this.

He sheepishly placed the first aid kit on the dented farebox, pulled out a roll of gauze, and unraveled it over the driver’s head. Fingers trembling, mind numb, Mon scanned the gore before him, staring at the waterfall of blood that had seeped out of the man’s forehead.

He didn’t know what else to do, so he just did it.

Nausea rippled through his body. His muscles tensed and his stomach churned, dizziness and weakness oozing through his racing perception.

It was so warm. And thick. He reached too far and his fingertips prodded the raw flesh beneath the blood. His entire body screamed in protest, every sense bombarded with uncomfortable heat and discordant sound and powerful vertigo that sent him stumbling backwards, bloodied gauze in his bloody hands peeling from the driver’s skin.

Mon caught his foot and steeled himself. 

He kept going.

One loop. Two loops. Three loops. Wrap it tight. Seal the wound.

He was crying. He didn’t realize it until his vision blurred, but he was crying.

His head was burning and heavy like a lava flow. He stared wide-eyed at the man and the damage around him, decided there was nothing more he could do, grabbed the first aid kit, and stumbled through the bus.

Kneeling down gave him the opportunity to relent, at least momentarily, to the urge to collapse. 

Tenderly, he lifted the elderly woman’s head and looped gauze underneath it. And again. And again.

Touching his jacket felt wrong. But he did it. Peeled it off. Curled it up into a ball. Stuffed it beneath her head.

He couldn’t keep breathing like this. He was hyperventilating. He was hyperventilating. 

The next moment he was falling face first into a seat.

His hands slid down the pole and his eyes darted up in fear as he fell. He saw the blood loosening his grip. Blood that wasn’t his.

For an instant, paralyzing disgust. Then something else.

Mon heaved himself out of the seat and pushed up his glasses with his forearm. The young woman was stirring by the time he arrived with gauze in hand.

“W . . . What happened?” she slurred, eyes glazed but still vaguely present. 

Mon crouched to meet her gaze and gently held her head up with hands whose trembling he compelled to stop.

“H-Hey, it’s okay,” he stammered. “There was an earthquake. The bus crashed. St-Stay still, please.”

She deliriously obeyed and he wrapped the gauze around her temple. 

“W . . Wh . . Am I . . ?” she mumbled.

Stimulated by some horrible concoction of analeptic fear and motivation, Mon held a brave face and nodded as a patch of red seeped into the white fabric of the gauze. “You’re okay. Y-You hit your head, but don’t worry. B-Bandage.” 

He tightened it and racked his mind for what to do next. What would Ma do? She’d know how to help. The woman was awake. How do you check for vitals? Was that a thing? What should he do?

The woman’s eyes feebly closed and ripped him out of his mind. 

“Hey! Hey!” he cried, panickedly pushing her to jolt her back to consciousness. It worked. “Stay awake, okay? Just, uh, t-tell me your name. What’s your name?”

The patch of blood in the gauze was still growing. 

The woman tiredly said, “. . . A-Abatha. My friends call me Abby.” 

She looked dizzy. How could he stop the bleeding more?

“N-Nice to meet you, Abby. My name’s Monley. Everyone calls me Mon.”

She gave an almost imperceptible nod. What did doctors do? Pressure. Apply pressure. 

“Do you go to school around here, Abby? My older sister goes to SJSU.”

He scanned his surroundings. Something soft and thick, right? Yeah.

“San Jose City College,” Abatha muttered.

His eyes fell on the remaining rolls of gauze in the first aid kit. “SJCC? Cool. What do you study, Abby?”

He brought her the gauze as she answered. “Cosmetology.”

“Oh, cool!” he faltered. “That’s really cool. Okay, Abby, I-I need you to hold these up on your forehead, okay? Just press them down. Okay?”

“Yeah . . .” She took the gauze and did as he said.

“But keep talking to me , okay, Abby? I-I-I’m gonna try to figure out what to do. But keep talking. What’s your favorite food?”

Mon stepped through the bus with eyes darting in every direction. Would moving the people be bad? No, no, not as bad as the highway collapsing on them. Definitely not as bad. 

“Uhh . . .” Abatha droned.  

There was no way he could carry any of the passengers through the hatch in the roof. He needed to get the doors open. 

“. . . my mom makes really good tamales,” she arrived at weakly. 

The exit doors of the bus didn’t look any easier to open from the inside. 

“Mine too. I really like pork in mine. What about you?”

What about the button or something the driver always pushed? If it even still worked.

“Chicken tastes better.”

Mon hurried past the elderly woman and returned to the front of the bus with a glance at the driver, whose bandages were still containing the bleeding from his injury. The dashboard before him was damaged but still whole, teeming with buttons and switches and miscellaneous controls.

Vehicular knowledge was not something Mon had, so he resolved to try all of them as he shouted a response to Abatha. “Pork is better, but okay! What’s your favorite color?”

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

“Purple.”

More nothing. He had to wriggle past the driver to reach. It felt horrid. What if he was hurting him?

“Nice! Purple’s royal. They taught us about color symbolism in my English class! I like orange.”

What were more icebreaker questions? God, he’d done so many of these awful things in high school, he should’ve known more.

Nothing from the dash.

“Uhh . . what’s your favorite—”

Leaning over rough metal to reach beneath the wheel, Mon pressed a hidden button and heard the familiar hiss of the bus doors opening behind him.

“—TV show?” 

He breathed a sigh of relief and pulled himself away from the dashboard. Next to him, the entrance doors weakly twitched but failed to open. Mon looked at the bus driver and the bent metal pinning his leg to the seat. In front of them, the wall of the tunnel was fractured, and tiny drops of rain were beginning to seep through the cracks.

“Uhh, Grey’s—”

Outside, a chunk of concrete fell from the ceiling and hit the ground like a missile. Mon flinched. Abatha glanced out the windows and gazed at the debris. Fear spread on her face like a match catching fire. 

“Are w—”

“Yep!” Mon shouted, already bounding through the bus and crouching to put her arm over his shoulder. 

“What are yo—”

“Just grab on!” he shouted. “Keep pushing on your head!” She slung her arm over his shoulder and he helped her out of the seat. The two of them sluggishly staggered down the steps and towards the open doors, Abatha barely seeming to keep up with what they were doing.

Mon stopped them at the threshold and stared into the tunnel. The roof was more cracked than before — or maybe it wasn’t, and he was just afraid — but the damage was still limited to the right lane. 

“It’s . . breaking,” Abatha observed, sounding weaker than before. 

Mon puffed his chest and nodded. “We have to go. Come on.”

He rushed to take the first step and pull Abatha’s weight onto himself. She slowly stepped down and achieved a wobbly landing that Mon was eager to abandon. Every part of him screamed to run, but he walked, carefully, anxiously, and took each painstaking and painful step away from the light and into the stormy darkness. Abatha dragged herself along with tangled feet and lost strength with each stride; her other arm fell and her feet barely left the ground. Mon held her like a ball and chain, with muscles quivering in fatigue, and let the cold tease of the wind persuade him to keep moving.

When they exited the overpass and Mon felt the downpour hammer his skin, he fought the urge to collapse and drop Abatha on the pavement. He kept walking. And he didn’t stop until he was confident they were in the clear.

He lowered her slowly onto her back, wincing through tightening cramps to prevent himself from falling onto her. He scrambled into a balanced position and gasped in exhaustion. Abatha had regressed to semi-consciousness and the roll of gauze was no longer in her hands. There was the rain, and there was her injury, and there was fear, but there was also the overpass and the cracks echoing behind Mon, and the next second he was on his feet and sprinting back into the bus.

As he clambered inside and swung around a bus pole, Mon rushed to figure out how he would move the woman out of the bus. He vaulted over the seats and onto the floor beside her with his mind going a mile a minute.

Pain erupted in his knees. Momentum threw him to the ground. He yelped and felt nothing but the weight of the injury. 

Mon let himself cry as he forced himself to stand.

It hurt. It hurt. Fuck. It hurt.

He stood and stooped. Hooked his arms beneath the woman’s shoulders and pulled her against his chest. Whimpered at the pain and heaved, legs shaking, slowly turning her around towards the exit doors. 

Blinking like gunfire to keep the tears from his vision, he lifted with his legs and pulled.

Stepping down from the bus hurt.

Taking each step after that hurt. 

He was so tired. He couldn’t do this. But he kept doing it.

Rain soaked his glasses. He whipped his head around to throw them off his face.

He dragged the woman next to Abatha, lowered her slowly, and collapsed to the floor. He didn’t stop moving.

He crawled over and lifted the woman’s head. He set it down on Abatha’s stomach. Keep it elevated.

Distant sirens blared. A flash of red light glinted in the rain. Mon couldn’t see where it was coming from. Firefighters? Paramedics? Police? He couldn’t wait for them.

The sirens grew louder and the lights grew brighter. Mon’s shadow stretched across the tunnel wall, moving in the stillness that quickly became motion. Running hurt even more than walking. But he needed to run. 

Mon didn’t have a plan going in. He just ran, too focused on overcoming the pain to think, and then he was inside the bus, staring down a wall of debris and crushed metal and racking his mind for a solution he wasn’t in a position to provide.

What was he supposed to do?

He had to wait for help. They’d have tools. Yeah. Right. He shouldn’t have run back in. No. He should have. 

Fingers against the man’s neck. A pulse. A pulse. 

Mon’s eyes lit up past the tears the rain had washed away. He didn’t know what he was doing, but he kept checking on the man, imagining he was Ma and this was routine and each action was calculated and driven by years of study and practice.

He pressed his hand over the man’s temple. He panted. His legs shook. He kept standing.

A police cruiser pulled up in front of the overpass, sirens quieting but lights still flashing. Hope carried Mon’s expression into a fatigued, incomplete smile, and he watched as two officers stepped out of the car and rushed to the two women laid on the street.

KrrrkkkkKK— 

Mon’s head barely turned fast enough. His arms moved faster.

A torrent of concrete caved in like a landslide, surging with a blast of water and the instant weight of collapse. It shoved Mon back with a force he wasn’t strong enough to fight, and his back slammed against metal, his motion cut off as quickly as it arrived. Blunt pain burned everywhere; he cried out and thrust out his hands to shield himself from being crushed.

The concrete stopped falling. Slowly. Barely.

Mon wheezed and strained to keep his arms rigid. The cold of the evening storm wasn’t there, only the warmth of desperate fear and a thundering heart that boiled his blood and made each breath louder than the raining debris. Every second the broken wall pushed farther in, squeezing a suffocating tightness into the air Mon breathed and anything he could see. He could feel each muscle tearing beneath the pressure. It hurt. It hurt. 

The driver lay inches away from his face, unconscious, stuck. Mon could leap out of the way. Dash back into the walkway. He’d survive. The driver would be trapped. He’d be dead.

Mon kicked up a foot, afraid of the movement, and stomped on the metal pinning the driver’s leg. He pressed as hard as he could and whimpered as the wall pushed down harder, and through the fear he steeled himself to be strong against both. He could do this. He had to do this.

Each limb felt like it was going to break. He kept pushing. 

In the corner of his eye, a figure appeared outside, cast in the jagged shine of the bus’s lights.

Mon screamed for help.

The officer was sprinting to the exit doors before Mon could glance at him fully. 

Footsteps rumbled in the back of the bus.

Mon felt himself start to shake. Not just fear. Not just weakness. Everything was shaking. 

Not an aftershock. Not now. Not right now.

He willed his foot to bend the metal, to move it, to free the driver, to let them go, to let them escape. It didn’t budge. 

“Kid, let go!” came the officer’s shout.

The concrete fell deeper. Mon’s arms began to bend. 

The quaking grew stronger in flashes of a life that could’ve been his. He could feel it in his bones, in every muscle he begged to keep going, to stay strong, to give him another second and the strength he needed to save this man. All the air shook in a dance of swords. All the concrete roared with the booming voice of the angry earth. Everything moved, vibrated, violently leaving no space for anything but the pure ichor of fear and the impossible power that lay within it.

Beneath the tremors, his heartbeat slowed. 

The metal snapped beneath his foot. Mon moved like a bullet and heaved the driver out of the seat. They flew to the ground with a tsunami of rubble crashing in their wake. 

He twisted the driver to fall onto him. Pain. Concrete pounded their legs. 

His mind was a blur. Somewhere within the fog, the shaking stopped. 

Then the crushing weight on his chest vanished. Someone swore.

“. . . Christ . .” the officer muttered as he lifted the driver off of Mon. “Kid. Kid! Say something.”

Mon groaned. Everything hurt. 

The officer laid the driver down in the walkway and knelt down beside Mon. Hands. He stared at the concrete and grit his teeth.

“Kid, hang in there, I’ll be back in a second. ROLLINS! GET IN HERE!”

Mon watched through the peripheral of his blurry vision as the officer hoisted up the driver and left.

As he lay there in the bloody, dirty walkway of the bus, stewing in blunt, reverberating pain, Mon felt the cold return and pierce his skin. Each muscle felt numb and raw as tension seeped away. The sounds of distant footsteps, of hurried commands, of thundering rain, of howling wind, and of damaged structures all echoed in the night. The bus’s engine still hummed, gently massaging the floor like a quiet tide. The scent of blood, disgusting and metallic, lingered in the air, fresh and horribly potent. Clarity returned to his sight and he stared at the dents in the roof. So many dents. 

The officer returned and carefully pulled Mon’s legs out from the rubble. They weren’t broken. 

He staggered alongside the officer and collapsed at the edge of the police cruiser. The two officers hurried back and forth to help the four civilians.

Mon felt his own blank expression as the officer spoke to him and administered first aid. 

He didn’t hear a word. He was still processing the fact they were alive.

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