On Sunday, Leland drove Getrude to the orphanage with a large-sum check, her arms each a Christmas tree dangling with toys, books and snacks for the kids. Getrude scowled at him the whole way through. Every so often, when she thought he wasn't looking, she would side-eye him, as if he were bringing her to some remote location to be butchered.
She got off on the side of the road. Standing there, with the passenger's seat between them, she spoke, frowning. "What's with you?"
Getrude was shorter than him, but this way she could finally look down on him as she's wanted to since January. It made Leland speak a little more lightly than he would have otherwise. "Nothing."
The bags swayed in the air as she whipped around, scoffing. He waited until she was a flame-coloured dot on the rickety steps to the orphanage. He imagined them creaking. When the door opened, there was a rallying cheer from inside, dampened just slightly by the autumn wind, which sent red leaves careening forward from the bed of birch trees, star-shapes slapping against the windshield or flying away.
Leland pulled his jacket tighter around his shoulders.
Down the street, a father and son came jogging. The father was old and withered - Leland could smell it on him. The son, meanwhile, ran in squeaky sneakers and would die within five years from a hereditary disease.
Leland snapped his fingers. The wool of his scarf hid the blue glow nicely. That was the only reason why he'd bought this plush luxurious thing, really, he thought, as a thump resounded behind him. A loud terrified cry pierced the air. Leland dialed an emergency number on his phone to come pick them up - both the kid and the body.
Then he drove away, as he promised Getrude he would. He waited for her in a small back lane, shielded by the pale morning shadows. His hands did not shake as he cracked open the dashboard and begun to sort through a lifetime's worth of files and newspaper clippings.
The Phantom gave him an instinct for the dead and dying. His own siblings had perished one by one, in the order in which they were born, until there was only him left. Their gravestones lay in the cemetery opposite the Alabaster Park, up on the hill, as if peering down on the affairs of the living. This chill he felt, it was all a part of the Phantom. And also a part of him.
From the other side of the hill, he could hear the sirens going as police and other authorities came to investigate the scene. He imagined the child would go home to his mother. They would live together for a long time yet, living off of recycled years from an old man who waited too long before starting a family.
Leland contemplated the cold, bluish skin on his palms. With this power of his, he could medicate such situations.
He lay his hands on the steering wheel, they shivered still, but it sapped less of his strength to sit this way, and that was the reason why he did most things, these days.
On his phone screen, from two hours prior:
G: Hey gremlin, you're 21. Why do you talk like an old man?
G: Srsly, it's like you can't even read a map! Where are you right now?
G: Nvm I see your car. Be there in two.
As he waited, he spent his time deleting all his old messages and contacts. For the first time in a long time, no new ones arrived. Even his mole in the news agency had gone silent. Leland sat back, watching the clouds arrive and blanket the sun.
G (two minutes ago): hey I heard the police - are you okay?
G (one minute ago): hello?
It was time to tell her.
Later, she squeezed into his backseat without a sound, gaze distantly watching the beginnings of a drizzle patter lightly on the windshield. Inside the car, he showed her clippings of all the different Blue Phantom cases, all of which lined up with locations from their community service activities or things from uni.
"Nadia?" In the rearview mirror, he could see Getrude had picked one photograph out of the many. "I remember that girl. She came to our centre after her father was arrested . . . So you're saying - "
"I just transferred his years to her. He wasn't going to live long, anyway. It was a small change." A small change, but a better one, if you asked him. Otherwise, the girl would have died after the stabbing.
"So you've - killed - people with this power?" Her teeth bared sharp and white. "That's insane!"
Her neck seemed to bristle with the fear he would kill her, too, in this meeting he arranged alone with a trusting person. He was so very tired of fear. "I don't just kill anyone," he said quickly. "Quite the opposite, actually."
Would she call the police? He watched silently as she seemed to struggle with what he'd just told her. A million different things seemed to flash across her face. Her dark skin blanched slightly, and he turned up the heating, watching her with furrowed brows.
Getrude's voice went quiet. "Why are you telling me this now?"
"My remaining years . . . I want you to have them."
It was a good place, the Alabaster. The way out of the park was a meandering, winding one, one that carried them through corridors of crimson autumn birch trees. Wind swept the leaves this way and that, so life-like, it seemed the air was filled with red butterflies, fluttering en masse fresh from their split cocoons.
As he drove, he could see the park's stone paths inclining like a spiral staircase above him, seeming to rise relative to their descent from the hills. Tar flowed in, substituted the grey cobbles. And all was doused in the runny grey light of a gentle rain.
Getrude bounced her knee anxiously. She clutched the bag of recyclables she had taken from the orphanage. Each movement made the tin cans clang, but she seemed to be happy for the noise now.
Maybe he should have switched on the radio. His finger hovered, for a moment, over the power button. Then he put it back on the steering. Radio would be too easy. Getrude needed to think this over, and so did he.
A hand slapped against the cushions. "I can't think." She was looking at him. Looking at his reflection, rather. What did she see in his reflection? Just a pale, dead face.
When they pulled up at the recycling centre, he heard a cluttering of noises behind him. Getrude had leaned forward. She pressed the bag into his hand.
"You go take it out." Her jaw squared with authority. "Take it to Mal."
A drop of cold sweat broke out on Leland's neck, as the wind whistled through the open window, chilling his spine. His stiff fingers closed around the bag. It weighed heavy on his arm. Yes, Getrude had more muscle than he, at this age, and that was all the more reason why she could fill the space he left behind. Tar replacing cobbles. Day replacing night.
But the way she was staring at him now created a growing discomfort, like a sheet of rain falling onto his heavy head. A pain glowed in the space behind his eyeballs. She didn't talk about his offer. It was stupid of him to load this on her all of a sudden, especially in this place, with its too-heavy leaffall and its dreary atmosphere.
With a stuttered reply, he turned. He unlocked the car door. He stumbled outside. Swaying on his feet, he struggled to right himself, as the blood rushed down to his legs.
Mal was a small wrinkled smiling bonsai tree of a man whom he'd never spoken to. The grinning eyes, lined with crow's feet, widened slightly when they saw him.
"Oh, hello." Mal's voice was bright, surprisingly pleasant. He shook Leland's hand. He took the bags of recycling from him and tucked them swiftly into the heap piling up next to him.
Nothing about it all seemed real.
With the world swimming, all Leland could do was smile and nod. And hobble back to the car, Mal's concerned gaze on him. And he could sit down. He could do that much.
Getrude was right.
He had killed people. He had drained the years from a drug dealer who sold to teenagers. He had killed someone to let a kind elderly doctor live long enough to treat a few more patients. His dashboard was stuffed to the brim with files of these orchestrated transfers, some measured in years, some in months or days.
All of these incidents were becoming increasingly frequent. Between them, he seemed to mourn less and less. Regret less and less.
"I just think it's no good for me to go on any longer like this," he said, finally, when the silence after he'd gotten back grew too large too looming to bear.
Getrude immediately began unwrapping a granola bar. She munched on it absently, not looking at him. She waited for him to step on the engine.
They picked up slowly, rattling along the last stretch of road in Alabaster Park. A deer dashed across the road in front of them and made him - curse! - and stop short. Why had they come here again? Maybe he'd wanted to be close to his brothers and sisters for this - who knows?
He couldn't think about it, now. Instead, he drove carefully, let speeding cars go first if they wished, let pedestrians flout the traffic lights, if they wished.
At the junction, the flow paused. Someone's fuel had run out on the side of the road. He watched the stream of neon-yellow-clad traffic police amble about, herding curious crowds away and slowly clearing the road. A tap on his shoulder. Getrude offered him a sip of her drink and, without really thinking, he took it. Strawberry. It made him pause. Was everything off today? She usually preferred vanilla.
It was night-time when she got out in front of her house. By then, the rain had stopped. A pale shimmer of water coated the small cul-de-sac where she lived. On the brown garden fence, a tabby cat meowed in greeting, then impatience as Getrude lingered outside the car, pretending to adjust things inside her purse.
Moonlight sliced downwards. It lit the left side of her face, where the scar ended and the tattoo on her cheek began. Leland had never really noticed the shape before.
Suddenly, she spoke. "You know all this time I thought you were a perv or something."
Leland's head snapped backward to look at her, eyes wide. Her face flushed.
"It's cause--!" she said. "It's cause you keep all those secrets. You do all that skulking about, here and there at uni. I just assumed things, okay? But I guess you're not a perv and you're just some weird vigilante the papers won't shut up about --?"
She exhaled her frustration, seeming to pound on the air with both fists. "I still don't know what to think. But I'm not dying, you gremlin. And neither are you."
Getrude left the evidence in a pile on his backseat, wedged between the flower-shaped cushions. "We have a meeting on Monday." Then, more quietly. "Don't be late, okay?"
That meant goodbye - and, no thank you.
For a moment, Leland rested his head on the steering wheel, eyes screwed shut. Then he relaxed. He switched on the window wipers. The last of the red leaves fell from his car on her street, whisked away by the repetitive swishing of foam upon glass.
In the dim glow of streetlights, Leland hauled himself back up, pressed down on the pedal, and kept driving.