Patricia hadn’t planned on being alone for Christmas. It just sort of ended up that way. She’d planned on staying home for a quiet few days with Suzie, until Suzie got the strong-arm to join the rest of the clan Up East. She wasn’t ready to take Patricia with her, she said, and Patricia tried to seem disappointed about that to save Suzie’s feelings. In reality, she was relieved. She wasn’t looking forward to the whole in-laws thing. She’d avoided it for the first fifty-eight years of her life and could happily do so for all her remaining years. Heck, she wasn’t even used to being with Suzie herself yet.
She didn’t spare a thought for her own family. What remained of it was spread out and not what anyone would describe as close. In fact, some of it was downright contentious.
Jessica was doing the newlywed Christmas with Walter, probably embarrassing the heck out of her boys with mistletoe and the whole shebang. Sure, they’d invited her to come by, but she wouldn’t be going. God no. She’d rather stab herself in the eye with a fork. Same with Leonel and David, for different reasons. Things were already tense between the two of them. She definitely wasn’t going to walk into that family drama. No way. No how.
She didn’t let herself think about Cindy either. It was time to let that friendship go and admit that she might never have known her best friend as well as she thought she had. Besides, Cindy never celebrated Christmas much anyway, saving her holiday energy for Chinese New Year’s.
So, here it was, nearly midnight on Christmas Eve. Patricia had tried holiday movies, one cheesy and one heartfelt, and popcorn, but it all seemed to leave a bad taste in her mouth. She eyed her phone, but the screen stayed stubbornly black. Suzie would probably try to call later, but, even if she did, Patricia knew their conversation would be stilted and awkward. If she called at all, it would be late, after the rest of the family had finally gone to bed. And Patricia had no idea what she’d say.
Patricia looked out the window. The city of Springfield was awash in lights. Some of the buildings had done up full holiday displays and she could see the flashing reds and greens from across the river. Looking at it, she felt she had to get out. Her spacious condo suddenly felt as tight as a closet and she needed air.
She pulled on her long coat and stepped out into the night. It wasn’t supposed to snow, but the air was crisp and felt good against her skin, clean and fresh. She realized she hadn’t been outside the entire day. No wonder she felt so cooped up. Indiana farmland girls like her needed a daily quota of fresh air. She got weird when she spent too much time inside.
Shoving her hands in her pockets, she headed for the pond on the other side of the complex. There was a wooden bridge over the man-made watering hole, and it was a pleasant place to stand and look at the water, especially late at night when most of the inhabitants of the complex were sound asleep. Patricia often went there when she couldn’t sleep.
The water was very still. The fountain was turned off for the season and there was no wind to speak of. The lake was probably quite shallow, but the way the surface was reflecting the surrounding buildings and streetlights made it seem miles deep. Patricia wished she had brought some bread to toss out for the koi. The ducks and geese were already gone for the season. It might have been nice to see another living thing.
Leaning against the railing, she turned and surveyed the buildings around her. There were five identical buildings. The condos on this side all had patios or balconies facing towards the lake. Patricia’s own apartment had a big window at the end of a hall that afforded her a glimpse of the lake, but she preferred the view from the wall-sized windows in the living room overlooking the city. The lake, in her opinion, was better enjoyed up close.
A breeze came up and Patricia let her scales rise on her neck and cheeks. Her alter ego was less sensitive to the cold than she was. Patricia hadn’t quite figured out why that was, but it was helpful sometimes. She was careful to limit her transformation, though. No reason to ruin a good coat by letting her spikes come through.
As her scales came up, her vision changed a little as well. Her lizard-eyes could see better in the night than her human ones. She spotted the man standing on the other side of the lake. She hadn’t noticed him before, and, so far, it didn’t look like he had spotted her. He was standing under a small tree, one of the ones that flowered white in the springtime, but was bare this time of year. He had his back to the lake and Patricia and seemed to be watching one of the apartment windows. She couldn’t have explained why, but Patricia felt there was something off about the guy. She watched him more closely.
In the space of the few minutes she watched, he began and abandoned six cigarettes. Each time he threw the half-smoked cigarette into the grass and twisted his foot on it, moving like he had made up his mind and was going to go do something. Each time, he took a step, then stopped, swung his arms back and forth a few times and retreated to the space under the tree. Patricia began to walk around the lake. She wanted to be within reach, just in case. She continued to watch him as she walked, keeping her steps light and as quiet as she could, glad that her coat was black and wouldn’t show up well in the darkness. He never turned.
By the light of his next cigarette, she was able to make out some details of his face and appearance. She made note of them, practicing better observation as they were training her to do at the Department. He was thirty-five or forty years old by her estimation. White, with dark brown or black hair, worn long enough that it stuck out in wings beneath his knit cap. He had an indeterminate beard, one that could mean he was just a few days unshaven or that he kept his facial hair at that Miami Vice level that had been so popular for a while. His coat was nice, but frayed at the cuffs and missing a few buttons, so that could mean he had fallen on harder times or just that he loved the coat and wore it even though he should be replacing it. He was broad in the shoulders, but not particularly tall. Patricia was sure that if she stood beside him, she’d tower over him by at least four inches.
The man hadn’t done anything except for seem tense and smoke some cigarettes, but Patricia still felt that he bore watching. Maybe she was just bored and looking for something to do. Or maybe there was trouble. Watching him repeat the cigarette-decision-dance two more times, she grew frustrated with waiting. Patience had never been her strong suit.
Pulling in her scales, she walked up to the guy, being careful to crunch a few leaves along the way, so she wouldn’t sneak up on him. “Can I bum a smoke?” she asked. Patricia didn’t smoke, but she thought she could fake it, at least as a way to start a conversation. The man jumped. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you,” she offered, hands spread. The man pulled out the pack of cigarettes and handed her one without comment. Patricia played with it in her fingers for a moment. “Can’t sleep?”
The man turned and looked at her then. Face to face, Patricia could see that he was tired. His eyes were red and watery and the circles under his eyes were deep enough to suggest more than one sleepless night. His eyes flicked over her quickly. Patricia was sure he had categorized her as a harmless middle aged woman, too old to flirt with and unlikely to do him damage. Little did he know. “Yeah,” he finally said.
“Which one is yours?” she asked, gesturing at the windows in front of them. “I’m across the lake, myself.” She hoped it sounded like a regular nosy-neighbor kind of question. She also hoped he had a ready answer. He didn’t. The hesitation wasn’t long, but the sigh that accompanied it spoke volumes.
“If you don’t mind, I don’t want to talk about it.” His voice was even, though the words were clipped. Patricia didn’t like the tension she saw in his jaw. She laid a hand on his arm. He jumped back as if she had stung him.
“You sure? You seem like a man with something on his mind. I can be a good listener.” Or at least she thought she could fake it long enough to figure out if someone was in danger here.
“You got kids?” he asked.
“Me? Hell, no.”
He laughed in a way that showed he didn’t find it funny. He lit another cigarette, the last in the pack. He didn’t seem to have noticed that Patricia wasn’t lighting hers. “Maybe that’s for the best, sometimes. Me, I got four of them. Up there.” He gestured at a second story balcony just to the right of the place where they stood.
Patricia followed his finger. She flipped up the collar just slightly to hide her cheeks and brought up her scales again. She really only wanted the night vision, but, at least so far, she couldn’t get the eyes without the facial scales. She’d need to work on that some more. Once she could see, she could see some signs of trouble. The glass door that led to the balcony was taped, as if it had been broken and hastily patched by someone without the tools or skills to do it right. A jagged impact was evident in the glass. It looked like the glass had been punched from the inside. “What happened to the door?” she asked.
The man looked her way and Patricia took a step backwards into the shadows while she schooled her face into its normal, middle-aged woman aspect. “I think he hits them,” the man said, his voice bleak as the gray afternoon had been.
“Damn.” She thought it might be something like that, but she had so wanted to be wrong. She’d seen this story more than once, and not just on the evening news. She remembered her fourth stepfather, the one she’d had arrested. Her mother never forgave her for it. But even at sixteen, Patricia had no tolerance for bullies. He’d bruised her littlest sister, gripping her arm so hard it left finger marks. Of course, they both said it was “just an accident” and that he’d “been drinking” like any of that made it even remotely okay. She wasn’t going to let that man hurt one of the littler kids worse before she did something about it. She wouldn’t let that happen now either. “What’s the apartment number?”
“Sixteen B,” he said.
“Is he in there?”
“I think so.”
“And the mother and kids?”
He shook his head. “At her mother’s. They won’t be back until morning.”
Patricia smiled. The man gasped. “What’s wrong with your face?”
Patricia smiled again, her scales filling in fully. “This is the face of justice.” She took off her coat and tossed it over a nearby bench, then sat down and took off her shoes. The man just stared at her as she loped off across the lawn and jogged up the steps.
A few second later, she was standing in front of sixteen B, listening. She could hear a television playing. Taking a moment to concentrate and focus, she brought out her full transformation. She heard the cloth ripping as her spikes came out and tore up the back of her shirt, but the top still held together well enough to keep her covered. She almost never wore anything anymore that wouldn’t. Raising one taloned hand, she knocked on the door. She was tempted to joke, “Avon Calling,” but she knew it was just adrenaline making her giddy.
Through the door, she heard some muffled cursing and heavy footsteps as someone moved to the door. “What do you want?” the man said as he threw the door open. Patricia didn’t give him time to react to the sight of her. She placed one hand on the door and one on the man’s chest, flinging him back as she pushed the door open, then slamming the door closed behind her.
The man landed on his butt in the middle of the rug. His eyes grew wide as he took in Patricia. She knew that look. She’d seen it on many different faces in the year since her transformation took place. It was part disbelief and part fear. “What are you?” The man stuttered as he crawled away and got to his hands and knees in an attempt to stand.
Patricia leaped at him, knocking him onto his back, then standing with a heavy, taloned foot on his chest. “Me? I’m your worst nightmare. A woman who fights back.”
The man tried to sit up, but she didn’t give him a chance. Using the new moves she had learned in training, she rolled him over and hauled him up, tugging his arms behind his back so he was held low and awkwardly, unable to quite get his balance. She duck-walked him to the balcony door, shoving his head against the doorframe while she shoved the broken door aside. She wanted to make sure the father of these children got to see what happened here. She pushed the man so his torso fell over the railing, then let go of his arms and picked him up by his legs, so that he flailed into open air. He’d be fine if he didn’t struggle too much. He tried to scream, but threw up instead.
“You like to hit people who don’t hit back, don’t you?” The man didn’t answer her. He just sort of groaned. She lifted him a inch or two higher. “I asked you a question.”
“They made me mad,” he said. Patricia nearly let him fall then, but she didn’t really want to make the family deal with a corpse and the police.
Instead, she pulled him back and let him fall into a heap on the balcony. “You know what makes me mad?” He didn’t answer, though he seemed to be gathering himself for an attack. Patricia took a ready stance, just in case he really was that stupid. “Men who think that violence makes them men.” Just as she’d suspected, he charged her, telegraphing his move as he clumsily got back into a crouching position, then hurling himself at her knees. She stepped aside, letting him collide with the doorframe. There was a crack. Patricia wasn’t sure if it were the man or the doorframe that cracked but it didn’t matter. The man was howling on the floor at her feet.
“Come on, bud. You’ve got a note to write and some packing to do.”
An hour later, there was a note on the table, held down with a water glass. The handwriting was shaky, but legible. It was full of apologies, and a promise not to come back. It was a promise he’d keep. Patricia had taken his driver’s license, just in case she needed to find him.
By three o’clock, Patricia and the man she’d found by the lake had managed to patch the broken door well enough to hold for a few days. When they had locked the door and replaced the extra key in the flower pot outside, they went back down to the water’s edge and stood looking at the water together. Patricia could feel the man’s incredulous gaze on her, but she didn’t turn to look at him. She handed him back the cigarette she had never smoked. It was still inside her coat pocket. “Merry Christmas,” she said, then finished her walk around the lake and headed for home. She might have something to say to Suzie after all, if she called.
If you enjoyed this holiday glimpse into my superhero universe, you might want to check out the books! They’re both on sale for 99¢ (kindle edition) on December 15th and 16th, 2016.