My boss crosses his arms and narrows his eyes. “Liberty Johnson, late again I see. That’s the last straw.”
“I need this job!” I say, “please, one more chance. I’ll never be late again. I promise.”
“Fine, don’t blow it. This is your last shot.” He glares at me and walks to the back room. “Teenagers,” he mumbles under his breath. He doesn’t understand my busy schedule. Ever since my dad lost his job as an accountant, my life has never been the same. I knew my parents couldn’t afford to pay rent anymore, and I left them to minimize the cost. I’ve been on my own since, barely scraping by.
Being under eighteen, I’m lucky to have my hacker friend, Regina, who altered my age on my birth certificate. Without her, renting an apartment would be impossible and I’d be on the streets. The teenage genius already has an internship at Chip Industries, the largest tech company in Chicago.
I push open the back door, lugging two giant trash bags. The alley behind the restaurant reeks of week-old wasted food. I set the trash bags on the ground and lift the lid of the rusty dumpster. Waves of rotting stench penetrate my nostrils, a surge of coughs and gags convulsing my body. I heave the trash bags into the full dumpster. Before I can shut the lid, I hear the backdoor creak open.
My boss told me to take out the trash on my before-school shift, and this is my after-school shift. He doesn’t accept procrastination. If I’m caught, I’ll lose my job, my only source of income. I look for a hiding place, a crevice, a stack of boxes, anything. The nearest practical hiding spot is too far away. I have one option. I grit my teeth and cringe as I leap into the piles of slimy glutton and close the lid.
Sticky wet substances squish beneath me, the scraps of the rich coating me in a thick blanket of grime. Bile rises in my throat. I swallow it. I can’t make a sound. A slit of light funnels through the dumpster where the lid doesn’t shut all the way. I distinguish the outline of my boss leaning against the building, a cigarette balanced in one hand.
The sputtering of a large engine blares into the alley along with the constant beeping of a large truck backing up. It’s trash day. If I jump out, my boss will fire me and my life will be over, but if I stay, my life will be over for real. I groan, placing my hand on the cover and raising it. My boss stares off into space, several puffs billowing into the sky. The noisy truck might conceal my get-away.
I swing my legs over the bin with extreme caution. Before I reach solid ground, the arms of the trash truck clamp around the bin. It jerks up and knocks me face-first into the trash heap. The remains of a banana smash against my face and get in my eyes. I flip on my back and grab the bin, trying to steady myself so I can jump to the ground.
“HELP! HELP!” I lose sight of my boss as the dumpster tips and I plummet into the hopper. Trash from above rains on top of me, bashing my head, my arms, my legs, my entire body. I thrash, digging my way to the surface. I refuse to let it end like this. My body shakes as I slam my fists on the metal sides. The roar of the truck is too loud. Metal screeches to my right and mechanisms click, the sound of death.
“GET ME OUT! HELP, SOMEBODY!” My relentless screams accomplish nothing. A metal wall grinds against the sides and lurches toward me—the packer blade. I scramble to the far wall and squeeze my eyes shut. Trash swarms at my legs as the pressure increases. A loud pop explodes in my face along with a thick sticky substance. My eyes flash open. Orange goo soaks my shirt and drips from my face.
Another pop. This time, I’m sprayed with a brownish liquid. A single drop lands on my tongue—soda. I flatten myself against the wall and hope the packer blade will stop. It doesn’t.
“HELP!” I yell, my last effort. Trash compresses against my legs and up to my waist. In moments, it will crush my legs. I bury the thought. I will get out of here. My eyes scan the dark interior. The only light seeps in through a penny-sized hole on the left side. I peer through it, catching sight of my boss leaned against the building, oblivious to my predicament.
Pressure squeezes around my lower half, too uncomfortable to bear. I shut my eyes and wait for the never ending force to flatten me. The pressure increases, but pain doesn’t follow. The wall squeals and the crushing pressure retracts. Is the packer blade stopping? Did someone hear my screams?
I yell and pound on the metal walls of the truck. Where my fists contact, the metal warps outward in the shape of my hands. What’s happening? I step back and examine my hands, then revert my eyes to the bent metal. I throw several more blows until a gaping basketball-sized hole forms. I pull the metal apart wider and step through. The fresh air of freedom relieves my burning nostrils.
How did that—what just happened? Did I do that? My boss catches sight of me and I run. Adrenaline burns through my muscles and pushes me faster. Each stride jerks me forward at an alarming rate. The world around me slows, as if time stopped everyone except me. I skid to a stop several blocks away and time returns to normal. My feet burn so hot, they feel like they’re melting beneath me and I smell burning rubber.
I look down at my trashed sneakers and the patches of burned skin peeking through the mangled rubber. A trail of smoke leads from me to my past location. I rip the shoe husks from my feet and examine the burns streaking across them. Unbearable pain shoots up my legs and walking becomes nearly impossible. I stand there and avoid the odd glances aimed my way. Time didn’t stop, I sped up. I traveled three blocks in what? Seconds? Milliseconds? How?
A crowd forms around me, blocking me in and trapping me from escaping. A hubbub of words merge to form an uproar of gibberish. Several people stare down at my feet and my trashy appearance while others rapid fire incomprehensible questions. I stand there in the middle of the action, sweat pouring down my forehead.
Right before I lose my mind, a hand from the crowd pulls me into the street and beckons me to jump in a black van to safety. I eye the vehicle warily. Should I trust a stranger I just met? I look back at the crowd turning toward me. This is my one chance to escape. I can’t let it pass. I sit against the black leather seat and shut the door. The driver pulls away from the curb and swerves into traffic.
“Who are you?” I ask the driver.
“Name’s Hank, Charles Hank.”
“Thanks for saving me back there.”
He tips his chauffeur hat, his eyes never leaving the road.
“Can you take me back to my apartment on—”
“No can do. Got orders from the boss to move ya elsewhere.”
“N-n-n-no. Let me out now! Where are you taking me?” I ask, “and who’s your boss?”
“I’m tight lipped. See, tellin’ ya’s against orders.”
I shift in my seat and glance out the window. If we stop at a stoplight, maybe I’ll have time to jump out and run. I peer down at my pathetic feet. Running won’t be an option, but I have to try. My eyes study the upcoming road, scanning for a stoplight. I see one up ahead. I put my hand on the buckle and my other one on the handle, ready to spring out to safety. The light flashes green right as the vehicle reaches the intersection.
Minutes later, the van stops in front of a building labeled Chip Industries, the same building where Regina interns. Is she here? Can she help me? I unbuckle myself and unlatch the door. The driver grabs me by the wrist before I can escape.
“What do you want with me?”
“I dunno. Ask the boss.”
A stout middle-aged man pushes a wheelchair out from the skyscraper. The driver shoves me into it and clamps two braces around my legs so I can’t get out. I open my mouth to scream, but the driver’s accomplice jams a gag in my mouth. Overtop, he ties a bandana around my nose and mouth to hide the gag. He reaches for my arms next to tie them to the chair.
I flail my arms wildly, aiming for anything in my reach. I pound the driver in the chest. He flies across the pavement and slams into the black van. Glass shatters and his limp body slumps to the sidewalk. My thoughts revert to the bent metal in the trash truck. Even then, my brain refused to believe, refused to comprehend what happened. I have powers.
I rip the metal clamps from my legs and toss them out of the way. I remove the bandana and gag and fling them to the cement. The driver’s accomplice stares at me in disbelief. He backs away from me as I stand on the hot pavement and wince. Each step hurts more than the last. I slowly make my way across the sidewalk. I make it five agonizing steps before the front doors of the building fly open and a tall, thin man strides into view.
“Welcome! Welcome!” He walks up to me and places a bony hand on my shoulder. I flinch away as far as my feet will allow.
“Leave me alone!”
“Let’s get you inside and wrap those feet of yours.” He lowers me back into the wheelchair.
“What do you want from me?”
“All I want is to help. No alternative motives. I promise.”
“Right.” I stay put. Walking is too painful for me to resist him.
“My name is Josh Chip. What’s yours?”
“Liberty Johnson,” I say. He grabs my hand and shakes it.
“Now that we’re acquainted, let’s get you inside.”
He wheels me into the building, past the receptionist desk and into an elevator. Two people already stand inside, a man and a woman. The elevator descends three floors down to a lab cluttered with test tubes and pages of notes. My attention drifts to a dark-haired girl in the corner, typing away at a computer.
She turns and her expression changes from focused to horrified. “Liberty? What are you doing here?” Regina averts her eyes to the floor. “No. She can’t be the one.”
“What do you mean ‘the one’?” I ask. Mr. Chip wheels me into the center of the room next to a counter of test tubes. Each one contains an orange liquid. I look down at my trashed T-shirt plastered with orange goo.
“The serum works.” Mr. Chip brandishes one of the test tubes.
“Wait… that orange stuff gave me powers? How?”
“Years of experimentation.”
“I thought this was a tech company, not a chemical plant.”
“This,” Chip makes a swooshing motion with his hand, “is just a hobby.”
“How did you know where to find me?”
“Like you said, this is a tech company. We manufacture everything, including the security cameras mounted around the city.”
“What will you do with me?”
He waves his finger at me. “That’s a good question. The best you’ve come up with so far. I will extract your blood and create an army of powered henchmen.”
“But you have the serum.”
“We already tested it here in the lab. It doesn’t work. How do you think it ended up in the trash?”
“If it doesn’t work, why do I have powers.”
He strokes his chin. “Don’t know. That’s why your DNA is key. Now, enough questions.” Mr. Chip jabs a needle in my arm and the world swims into inky blackness as my eyelids block out reality.
* * *
My eyes blink open, and nausea hits me at full force. I groan. My body lies on a hard bed surrounded by a circle of onlookers.
“Finally,” Mr. Chip says, “now I can show you what you helped me accomplish.” He turns to the crowd. “Demonstrate.”
I sit up and watch, dizziness nearly overtaking me. A man in a vest lifts a table above his head.
“You helped me perfect the serum. Now, I will rule the world. Take that everyone who doubted me. No one can stop me.” He rips a bolted counter from the floor and chucks it across the room. The far wall caves in upon impact.
As the nausea clears, I scoot to the edge of the bed and stand. My feet don’t hurt anymore. Do I have a healing power too?
I don’t know much, or anything, about being a hero, but I can’t let Mr. Chip proceed with his plan. Too many innocent lives could be harmed. I stand my ground and look him straight in the eye.
“I will stop you!”
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I really enjoyed your submission.