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Empathy

Ironworks Gym sold itself on always being open. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, rain or shine, holiday or disaster.

And every morning, without fail, the girl was there first.

She ran, three miles, sometimes four. Punched the bags, the pads, the speedballs; circled, weaved, kicked. Push-ups. Pull-ups. Endless sit-ups. Barbells, dumbbells, machines and ropes. No rest. No days off. Didn’t matter how hard she pushed one day or hurt the next – she was always back, always training. Never saying a word to anyone, not a syllable. Even if someone was crazy enough to come in early and use something she wanted, she never spoke – just moved on, did something different that day. She was the ghost of 5am. A tall, lean, bronze-haired ghost in a grey hoodie and worn sneakers who entered, trained, and left.

Nobody engaged her. The few staff there avoided her, never giving more than a nervous glance in her direction. Theirs was a mutual, unspoken agreement: you don’t see me, I don’t see you. I pay my bills, you leave me alone. Nothing more needed saying.

Because the tattoo on the girl’s cheek said it all.

*****

It was raining this morning – cold, wet and miserable. When the girl stepped through the gym door she was sopping wet, drenched through and thorough head to toe. She didn’t complain, just removed the old ragged towel from her backpack with the missing zips and dried herself off as best she could. Pulled off her hoodie in the showers, then put her sneakers and socks next to the heater where it was warm. Then she started; running, then punching, her bare feet barely whispers as they struck the ground.

An hour and a half later the rain hadn’t let up. Her socks were dry but her shoes were still damp. She put them on anyway and made for the door as a middle-aged man entered wearing a Gold’s singlet, balding but muscular. He started to hold the door for her with a friendly smile – but the second his eyes touched her face, his colour drained and he froze. He stared at the girl, wide-eyed and breath held. The girl didn’t stare back. She saw him, but she tried not to see him, because he didn’t matter. None of them mattered.

She ran home in the rain with her hood up, keeping the rain from her face and her face from the world.

*****

Her home was not close. Not to the gym, not to anything. It was a bad house in a worse neighbourhood, a worn-down fibro box with a brown lawn and weeds pushing free between cracks in the cement. Empty driveway. She pulled open the rusty screen door and turned her key in the lock.

The house was dark and quiet, and the girl did nothing to change that. Her leggings were flecked with mud, her sneakers covered in it. She took them both off in the doorway and carried them to the sink – the smell of the kitchen musty in her nostrils and her wet socks slippery on the linoleum. She flicked the switch on the kettle, then started rubbing the mud off with her hands. By the time the last shoe was close to clean, she’d realised the kettle wasn’t working. She flicked the switches, pulled the plug out and tried the toaster. No the kettle was fine – the power point wasn’t working. Fine. The girl rippled her fingers as if rolling an invisible coin between them. Then she clenched and made a fist. She uncurled in a slow release – and a blue line of electricity flickered between her thumb and forefinger. She fed it gingerly into the prongs of the power plug and the kettle began to boil.

The girl ate her porridge in silence and dust on a small metal table with uneven legs.

There wasn’t any hot water – she only realised this after she’d gotten into the shower. Maybe the heater had busted again, or maybe the power bill hadn’t been paid. It didn’t matter. She rippled her fingers, the invisible coin rolling to a different gap, then she raised her hand to the spluttering showerhead and opened her palm into a disc of fire. Her arm stayed up, the disc kept burning, and the water that spat through it was as hot as steam. She washed the sweat from her bones.

She dressed, quickly and quietly, into ill-fitting jeans and a shirt that still smelt like a thrift store. Pulled the knots from her hair then tied it up back and tight. A jumper over the top and a dry pair of socks that wouldn’t last a second against the wet sneakers she was putting them into. Done. She turned to leave, but her eyes caught the mirror.

The girl couldn’t help it. She stopped. Paused. Caught by the eyes of the person looking out at her from the little black and white photograph tucked into the mirror’s frame. Punched in the stomach again by the stunning, smiling woman.

Look at how grown up you are. Look at you. My beautiful baby girl.

The girl’s eyes flickered onto the reflection staring back at her – this grey, brown, wry soaked creature with the hideous mark on its face. Then she turned and walked away, leaving the photograph behind.

Her father was walking in as she was walking out, reeking of chemicals and smoke. She looked up to meet his eyes, then caught herself. They both said nothing, just shuffled past each other awkwardly in the hallway, him coming in, her going out. By the time she’d laced up her cold sneakers, she could already hear the TV blaring away in the background.

I loved you like a brother Viktor. But the Legion of Heroes cannot let this evil stand.”

The girl left her home alone. It was still raining.

*****

The bus was six blocks away and took fifty-five minutes to get to school. She didn’t sit next to anybody, or more accurately, nobody sat next to her. She was one of the first on, so it was not her choice whether somebody shared her seat. Nobody ever shared her seat. No matter how crowded it was, how many had to stand. It was a positive, she supposed. Plenty of leg room. She could put her bag up. May as well, wouldn’t make a lick of difference.

But she never did. She always left the spot open. Because… well, she didn’t really know. Just in case.

She stared out the window at the world dripping by. She was an idiot.

*****

Someone had gotten in early and tore the door off her locker. The girl felt her jaw clench as her fingers traced the bent hinges. Trying not to care. It didn’t matter. Jokes on them, nothing in there of value. Except they’d stolen her math textbook – she’d have to go to the office and get another one. It was only a few minutes until class. She turned and walked away, leaving the twisted door laying where it was on the ground.

“You need to stop losing these,” snapped the office lady, her eyes reduced to slits at the sight of the creature before her. The girl nodded curtly, a familiar clench in her chest. It wasn’t her fault. It was never her goddamn fault. It just… breathe. Just breathe. The toad-faced woman stared at her, her jowls pursed in a sneer. “This is going on your account.” The girl just breathed.

She was late to class. Mrs Roberts looked up, her lips parted and poised to lecture, but when she saw who it was she caught herself mid-breath. The girl made her way to her seat at the back quietly and without incident. A minor miracle. Mrs Roberts’ voice wafted out towards her. “…so if we see here x’s coefficient…” She was glad she’d gotten a seat in the back. Nobody behind her to flick paper or spit or throw things at her. Eyes forward, back to the wall, just sit there and learn like you’re supposed to. Like a normal person.

The girl liked math. The indifference of it. Numbers didn’t care what you were. Numbers were detached, black and white. There were no opinions, no prejudice, only the truth, right or wrong. Maybe that’s why she was almost kind of good at math. She’d be better if they’d stop taking her textbooks. But that was her own fault. She should have taken it home, not trusted the locker. Never trust anything. Rely only on yourself. She pulled a nub of a pencil out of her pocket and solved the problem.

*****

She sat alone in the cafeteria eating her lunch in silence. She liked it better this way, she told herself. If anyone tried to sit with her she’d leave. She chewed with her mouth shut and kept her eyes forward, focused on nothing, floating alone, her own little island in a sea of people. Today’s meatloaf was chewy and the rice was mush, but it was food and it was free, so she didn’t care. Just a little longer, she thought, just a little longer. She had the grade, and the Legion would eventually notice. They had to notice. Just a little longer.

She ate everything on her plate and dropped her tray in the bin. Then she went to the bathroom, washed her hands, rinsed her mouth, splashed her face. A group of girls walked in just as she was leaving. Her steps quickened, putting distance between them, but not before she heard them muttering:

“Freak.”

By the time she got back to her locker, someone had spray-painted “PARASITE” in red on the inside.

*****

The whistle blew, and the head coach’s voice echoed around the gymnasium as children of all ages scrambled towards their designated sections.

“Remember this is Week B! You are doing your Week B activities! Look at your timetable and-”

“Sir, where do you want me?” The girl’s voice was level as she stepped forward. Firm, unwavering. She looked straight ahead, not making eye contact but not backing down. The coach, a six-foot-three forty-eight-year-old man with gym shorts and a beer gut looked back at her like he might look at dog crap stuck to the bottom of his shoe.

Every PD session, he “forgot” to designate her, and every PD session she asked him direct where he wanted her to go. It was either that or stand there, unacknowledged, waiting on recognition that would never come, and end up doing nothing. She wasn’t going to let that happen.

The man glared down at her. The girl looked straight ahead, unblinking. “Join the cryomancers,” he finally spat, “That’s one of your tricks isn’t it? East side oval.”

“Thank you, sir.” Swap ‘thank’ for ‘screw’ and it’d be more accurate. But he’d relented, like he always relented and she’d won like she always won. Smash your head into a wall long and hard enough and you learn two things: the strength of your head and the strength of the wall. And her head was hard, like the rest of her. The girl rippled her fingers and started jogging towards the oval, ready to make ice from the rain.

*****

She didn’t change or shower after PD. Other people did, but other people didn’t get their clothes stolen. So she was cold and wet and hungry (again) when she got on the bus, and she stayed like that all the way home. She sat up the back, right in the corner where nobody could touch her. Most didn’t want to. Most took one look at her face and stayed as far away as they possibly could. But there were always a few who took it upon themselves to mess with her. Fear did funny things to some people – some felt it so deep, hated it so much that they had to act against it to prove they weren’t cowards, sometimes to others but mainly to themselves. To them her presence wasn’t just undesirable, it was an affront, and they would never be satisfied until they’d made sure she knew it. Generally at first not to her face. But eventually, after a few weeks or months of her not reacting, of not getting the rise they wanted, things would escalate. They’d take her inaction, her submission to their torment as a sign that she couldn’t fight back, or wouldn’t. No matter how well she took it, no matter how peaceful she stayed, it didn’t matter. She’d tried to explain that to her dad a hundred times. Inevitably, it would get worse. Insults within earshot. Books knocked out of her hands. Her stuff stolen or broken, her locker set on fire or her lunch telekinetically thrown across the cafeteria. Then came the threats, the stalking, then finally, the violence.

Was it wrong that she actually looked forward to the violence? Looked forward to the day those stupid, arrogant, preening, privileged thick-skulled scumbags finally found the guts to do what they’d been telling their idiot friends for weeks they were going to do? It was a perverse kind of anticipation, the kind where you’re looking forward to something you shouldn’t, something you know is wrong. But it was the catharsis. Those few, blissful seconds, built up to over months at a time – those few, fleeting moments of unrestrained release.

Sometimes they came with intentions of nothing but violence. Sometimes, especially if it was a group of burly, sexually frustrated knuckle-draggers, they came intending a more intimate violation, as weak men often want to inflict upon strong women. Either way, it made no difference. Once they crossed that line, the leash came off. By law, once they attacked, she could defend herself. Not even the mark on her face could deprive her of the right to fight back.

Well, not “fight back”. “Fight” made it sound like they stood a chance.

The girl got off the bus and walked home in the rain.

*****

The TV was still on – she could hear that much before she walked through the door. What a surprise. Her beloved, responsible father, snoring like an animal in his recliner, a bottle drooping from his hand, still in his overalls. It was efficient, she supposed. This way he could just wake up tonight and stumble out to work without a moment’s bleary thought. She stormed past him into her room and slammed the door.

She changed into something less wet. Sat at her rickety desk and did what little homework she could get done. Then it was almost 5 o’clock and she needed to put on her uniform, the black pants and striped shirt signifying someone who was utterly replaceable. She didn’t hate her job. It paid a wage and her manager wasn’t unkind – he let her stay out back flipping burgers, out of sight. So what if her co-workers were drug addicts and criminals? The franchise would hire pretty much anyone, and they fit the bill. As did she. Drug addicts, criminals and her. Society’s most hated, even though she’d never asked for it, even though she’d never done anything wrong, even though none of this was her fault. Her fingers dug into her fists. The sound of her father’s snoring pierced the bedroom and for a moment she just wanted to roar, to shout and scream and let loose, to destroy everything and everyone, burn it all to the ground-

But then the picture on the mirror caught her eye and once again she was staring at that face, that smile. Her heart rose up and caught in her throat.

My beautiful girl. My strong, beautiful girl.

The knot in her chest softened and the girl’s shoulders slumped. Slowly, she unclenched her fists. The house was cold. She sniffed. Then, quietly, the girl rose, tugged the blanket off the top of her bed, walked out of her room and lay it gently over her father. Then without a word she left the house, closed the door behind her and stepped out into the rain. One step at a time.

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About the author

Benjamin Keyworth

  • Australia

Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).

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