TW: Hints at sexual assault, swearing.
Yellow light reflects off the window as I watch my station disappear in the subway tunnel. Blackness turns into the bright light of a train heading the other direction. I think of my little girl, Tina, with her mother, Billie.
Be a better man. No more powers. No risking your freedom.
I try not to make eye contact with anyone. Some of them have gang tattoos. I saw a kid with different colours getting on in a different car further down. Hopefully they get on and off without seeing each other. I don’t want to be caught up in their territorial pissing.
Damn, I'm late.
Rain outside the subway blesses me for keeping my head down. I weave through people with appropriate jackets and some genius who brought an umbrella. My socks are wet. My feet will be a mess by the time I finish work.
My key card lets me into the supermarket with a beep. I wipe my feet on the company logo of the doormat inside. Up two flights of stairs to the locker room where I store my bag and soaked jacket. I take out my chef’s whites and button them up as I rush down the stairs.
Half of the lights are out as I cross the shop floor. I have a hairnet to wear and a hat to cover it. The other guy is already there, already in a bad mood.
“Where have you been?” he asks, looking down at me from all six foot six inches of his height. “I’m not here to do it own my own, you know.”
“Sorry,” I say. I wash my hands. Grabbing metal trays before my hands have properly dried, I start unloading the bread from the boxes Owen got out.
“You need to be here on time, every time, Xander. They’ll just fire you. We’re nothing to them.” He waves a hand the size of a trash can lid towards the managers. They’re all chatting casually in the middle of the shop.
“I know, I’ll start leaving the house earlier.”
“You’d better. I don’t want to hear them bitching. I don’t want to talk to them at all.” Grey hairs on his brow twitch as he talks. All the while he’s laying out frozen bread in a practiced rhythm and stacking the trays, ready for the ovens when they’re hot enough.
The first oven beeps. I check the setting and load the first tray. Inside, the orange glow of the filaments promises a burn as bad as the last time I forgot my oven glove.
“How’s it going guys?” says Kenny. He’s wearing the same suit as usual but it’s almost bursting at the seams because he has two bacon burgers for lunch every day in the cafeteria upstairs.
“Good, yeah,” says Owen, not looking up. I still can't place his accent, vaguely rust belt America.
“Great stuff.” Kenny nods, he’s California through and through. His fake teeth gleam whiter than my whites that had probably been through a hundred industrial washes before I was ever given them.
The morning is slamming bread in the oven, getting it out when the oven beeps, then cooling it. Then it’s the pastries. When the full morning bake is done, I start putting paper in the display boxes out front.
“Xander, faster. I haven’t got all day, man.”
“Alright,” I say. I go as fast as I can, trying not to give myself a papercut because then I have to stop to put a plaster on and throw away anything covered in blood. I’m not doing that again. Bagging bread is mind-numbing. Fold, fold, sticker. Next.
Everything goes up on the counter and I start putting it out. I’ve been at work for two hours now and that’s the hardest part of the day done. Register staff shuffle out of the lift talking, snacks in hand to entertain themselves when there are no customers.
“Here come the vultures,” Owen says. The store doors open, and the customers pour in. “You wearing your badge?” He asks.
“Where is it?”
Instead of answering I find it in a drawer by the sink.
“Hello,” says a blonde woman I see every Monday. “Can I ask something about this bread?”
Please don’t, I think. “Of course. How can I help you?”
“Does it have gluten?” I see a bunch of gold teeth when she talks. I try not to look. She reminds me of the dolls or toys from horror movies that kill people with blank smiles on their faces.
“Yes. We only have one loaf and one baguette that are gluten-free.”
“That’s a shame,” she says. “I’m trying to go gluten-free.”
You and every teenage girl who saw it on YouTube or TikTok. “The store does have a gluten-free section,” I say. Don’t ask me to show you where.
“Could you show me where?” She gives me the dead inside smile that turns my stomach.
“Of course.” I hang up my apron because I’m not allowed to wear it beyond the bakery. I walk her three aisles to the bread I wouldn’t eat unless I was paid. Sucks to be gluten intolerant, the bread is so dry.
She touches my arm as she thanks me. I see memories of a boyfriend when she was my age, twenty years ago. I see it blurred with fantasies about me. I’m as flattered as disgusted.
“See you next week,” she says. Her badly applied lipstick cracks into a smile.
Sadly. “Until next week.” I smile back.
“She likes you,” says Owen. His face is as happy as I’ve seen it all morning.
“Don’t, please.” I shake my head. “Oh, shit. Can you smell him too?”
“Can’t smell much, but yeah.”
A man who must smoke a thousand unfiltered cigarettes per day comes to get his usual baguette, without looking at us. Thank goodness he’s not a talker.
Hours pass like that. Owen has his morning break. Then me. We always save them until late because all of the work needs to be done early, and the rest of the day is just maintenance.
Kenny swaggers back at one o’clock. “Looking good, guys. Having a good day?” He wanders around the counter and comes into the food prep area, which is a health code violation because he’s not wearing a hair net. Not that Owen or I are going to bring it up with a manager who’s younger than either of us.
“Doing good work here, boys,” he says. All I can see is his orange hair which should have a black hairnet like mine over it. He claps Owen on the arm. The big man gives the kid a look that says he’d crush him if it was legal for even a moment. “Great work, Xander.” Kenny grabs my hand and I get a flash of a recent memory.
He’s cornered a girl from another department in one of the offices upstairs. He says he wants a kiss. She’s a rabbit in the headlights. She asks to go but he’s not backing off. He pushes her against the wall and forces his tongue into her mouth. He grabs her backside then tells her to keep it to herself if she wants to keep the job.
“You alright, Xander?” He gives me a smile as if I’ve just declared my love for pink unicorns and pillow fights. “Easy, buddy.”
I must be glowering at him. He backs up with his hands raised and a half-joking smile on his face. He walks away, glancing back at me. I unclench my fist when I realise every muscle in my right hand is aching.
“What was that all about?” Owen asks, concern under his gruff barking voice. “You can’t act like that around him. He can fire us.” Now it’s an accusation.
“Sorry. Just had a weird moment,” I tell him.
“Better be the last one, he’s a mean piece of shit that boy.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” You don’t know the half of it.
I look for the girl from Kenny’s memory when I’m done for the day. She should still have two hours of her shift but the other women in her department are gossiping about her. Carol left, saying she felt sick. After having a creep’s tongue in her mouth I can’t blame her.
The train ride home is more depressing than ever. I need my job, but I can’t let Kenny get away with what he did. It clearly wasn’t the first time.
I open the front door as slowly and quietly as I can. As expected, Billie and Tina are asleep. My little girl is drooling into Billie’s cleavage. She’s an interesting combination of us. Her hair is the dark brown that mine is now, maybe she’ll have black hair when she’s older. Though my eyes are blue Tina has a light brown closer to her mother’s.
Our baby giggles in her sleep and turns towards me, still out for the count. Her foot is barely longer than my finger. She smiles when I kiss her. My depression drops from a nine out of ten to a five. Her hair, what little she has, is as soft as kitten fluff.
“When did you get back?” Billie whispers.
“Just now,” I say as softly as I can. Tina turns again.
“Good day at work?” asks my wife.
“Standard. Early morning. Hard work. Grumpy workmate. Found out my manager sexually assaulted a colleague using my powers and can’t do anything about it. The usual.”
Billie’s eyes sprung open. “We’ll need to do something. Who did he attack? Who is he?”
“His name’s Kenny. Her name is Carol. She left work early after.”
“Be careful. We need that job. Maybe Nunez can help.” She rubs a hand down the downy hair of Tina’s head.
“Former Detective Nunez? I’m the reason he was fired. What can he do now?”
“Ask. Just ask. We need a way for you to help without getting yourself fired. We need to look after Tina. I love you, Xander.”
“I love you too, Billie.” Maybe I’ll ask the man whose career I destroyed for help. First I need a shower. I have to wash off a hard day’s work and guilt.