It was the night Alyssa Liston humiliated Katrina Gawain in front of the whole cafeteria over her total “lessy crush” on her.
Not really a good night for crime fighting, but hey, you win some, you lose some, and then you end up recreating the iconic image of a vigilant crusader perched atop a gargoyle.
Cape softly fluttering in the wind with the perfect flair of drama, flapping almost too in tune with the popularized image of the watchful crusader.
Car horns and sirens overcame the soundscape below. Thousands of little yellow squares pasted on each building were a gateway to thousands of stories.
Yet the sting of Alyssa Liston hadn’t gone away quite yet.
“I don’t even know where to start,” the Nightmare muttered to herself, readjusting her heavy utility belt that had slipped onto her hip, forgetting that someone was listening to her at a constant.
“It can be intimidating,” the dark voice of her mentor stated bluntly through her earpiece. The First Nightmare, the anonymous old man guiding her on this journey to hero-dom.
Nightmare blushed behind the crimson bandana and straightened her neck, elongating it as much as she could.
“Yeah…” she responded, lips flubbing against each other. “But it’s important to see them all like this, right?”
“Of course,” he chided and she shook.
“I don’t know if I can do this, uh,” she paused, crossing her eyes to think of a silly name for him that would seem in character for her to call him. “Maestro.”
One of their running gags.
“It’d be different if you were standing with me,” Nightmare quickly added, “But it’s just me in your old suit.”
The Suit was built with a Kevlar body, thick enough to protect her but light enough to allow her youthful energy to be presented. Her gauntlets were thick, heavier than anything else she had ever worn, with scallops rising from her forearms, blades intended to protect her from harm.
There were hundreds of functions of the Suit. Flight, super strength, a fire extinguisher, cloaking devices, tracking devices, what have you. So many that in her lessons with the Old Man, features were constantly skimmed over and forgotten so that while in the midst of combat with thugs, a voice would trickle into her ear.
“You know this would be an amazing time to spread out a smoke screen I think.”
And all of a sudden, she would be tossed into the air as he took over control of the thought-operated suit, rockets flaring in her boots, and she would somersault downward and slam into the floor as if she had fallen ten stories, and an incredible wave of dust and smoke would spread around her, protecting her.
“You can handle this, Katrina,” he would say to her and something about — the way his voice became clipped at her name — Kah-tree-na. Something about it made her feel small. Because she was the Nightmare now.
“I guess,” Nightmare responded, slumping backward into the crook of the gargoyle, legs wrapping around the thick neck of the beast. “I don’t really see the point of being up here. I’m hearing sirens but those are things being taken care of, I can’t do anything about it, right? But they’re so loud — I just have no idea what to even pay attention to.”
“You are just one person, Katrina, it’s okay,” the First Nightmare said in that same soft voice imitating a father.
“Yeah and one person isn’t going to make a difference, I don’t see why you are having me do this,” the Nightmare said, letting her foot unhook from the gargoyle and dangle over the fifty story drop. “You can still control The Suit from — wherever you are — I don’t see why you can’t just do all of this.”
A heavy lapse in the conversation followed, one that the Nightmare had become accustomed to by now. She blinked at the lateness of the hour, wishing she could wipe her eyes, but the rough Kevlar would likely make her bleed.
Her neck suddenly turned, a surge of convulsion, and her head pushed her gaze to the western section of the city.
“You know, you can just say Look over there! instead of — ” Nightmare sighed.
“Sorry, there’s a situation,” the First Nightmare responded with a newfound alertness. “Follow the rainbow.”
Nightmare’s eyes narrowed, quickly finding the rainbow he had referred to. A myriad of colors draped over a smaller building in a dingier area synonymous with the LGBT Center.
“We’ll pick this up later,” Nightmare lightly said, attempting to be an authority, as she flipped off of the gargoyle and fell into the sky, the air wafting between her splayed fingers and throwing her hair into the gentle movements of a fire.
Nightmare grinned at the sudden feeling, the need to brush her eye erased with the rush. She extended her arm towards the passing buildings. A hatch popped open in her arm and rods of steel emerged, folding into a vicious looking metal claw. The grapple shot off her arm and soared across the cityscape until latching onto a building.
The line caught and the Nightmare’s descent curved into a joyous ascent. Hitting the peak of her flight, she fired a second line and retracted the first one, soaring through the city like George of the Jungle, something that never quite got old.
The Nightmare landed on a damp city street, cape falling to her sides and dipping into a nearby puddle, heart pounding as she looked up at the bright lights of the LGBT Center. It was very quiet, the soft passings of cars in the distance joining into an imitation of a breeze.
“Um, are we too late or did something — ”
“Lobby. Take the elevator to the fourth floor.”
A slight chill ran up her spine from his business like order.
“You don’t want me to just fly up and break — ”
Her cheeks became flushed again as she began to realize what the situation could be. This likely wasn’t going to be about thwarting a robbery.
“Well, while we’re going, can we continue our talk?” Nightmare muttered under her breath as she slid open the door and stepped into the front lobby of the Center.
“Straighten your posture, please,” the First Nightmare responded curtly.
Nightmare took in a deep breath and straightened her back, unclenching the fists at her side, and forced a bright glow into her eyes as she waved over to the shaken Front Desk Receptionist.
Dropping the facade as she pushed the button for the elevator, chills running up her spine from the eyes that were on her, she eagerly hit the button again and looked up.
“This is embarrassing,” Nightmare slipped between closed teeth.
“Hey, um,” a nervous voice chattered behind her.
“Say hi to them,” the First Nightmare said seriously, and after a thoughtful pause, weakly injected, “Please.”
Nightmare turned to the person behind her to see someone whom she could maybe place to be in their thirties, some ambiguously gendered fellow with thick framed glasses. Because her mask covered everything except her eyes, she had to make sure to smile extra big so that the corners of her mouth could crinkle the red enough.
“Heeeeeeey, you,” Nightmare said awkwardly, somehow tangibly feeling the subsequent eye-roll from the First Nightmare’s side of the radio.
“Whatcha doing at the Center?” they asked her in a high voice.
“Stuuuuuuff,” the Nightmare shrugged, “Hangin’, ya know.”
“That’s cool,” the person nodded. “My name’s Joey. Can we take a selfie? Is that okay? Like, okay if you’re seen here?”
“What do you — ” Nightmare started, then froze as a tinkling feeling washed through her heart, and a shortness of breath came to her. “Right, oh, um, I think it’s okay.”
“You’re really young,” Joey said as they wrapped an arm around her shoulders, unintentionally eclipsing her. “You’re really brave to do what you do. I lead an activist group here and we really look up to you.”
A whole head shorter than them, they had to angle the phone higher to get the two of them in the shot. Her throat closed up and some strange fuzziness screened over her eyes.
Seeing herself in the screen — beside someone so confident and out — made her feel —
Well it made her want to cry.
The elevator doors opened.
“Sorry, gotta go,” she blurted as she slipped from Joey’s hold and into the elevator, mashing the fourth floor button to escape. “Sorry,” she muttered, offering a tiny wave to them. “Have a good night.”
“You too!” Joey chirped back before the doors finally slid shut.
The hum of the elevator went unheard to her as she patted her chest.
“So what’s on the fourth floor?” Nightmare asked.
“Oh, um,” the First Nightmare said, seemingly distracted. “Yes, you’ll see. You can handle it, just calm down, alright?” he added on tentatively.
“Of course, I’m calm,” Nightmare said out loud as the elevator beeped the second time. “I’m calm.”
The third beep and the doors opened to the clinic. People of all ages and races were scattered around the waiting room, a generic movie playing on two TV screens, with a soft blue carpet and a line of Receptionists waiting at the front bar, each seated before a computer.
But one of the computers had been bent downward on its stand, the screen smashed in, and pamphlets had been scattered everywhere, Someone was shouting.
Nightmare turned her head to see a young man with bloodshot eyes hurling more pamphlets across the room. A similar looking woman, likely his older sister, was screaming at him, but it was hard to make out anything.
“I’m calm, I’m calm, I’m calm,” Nightmare chanted to herself without drawing any attention. “I’m here and I’m awesome. I’m a hero to these people I guess.”
Closing her eyes, she stepped out of the elevator, and then snapped awake, completely and whole heartedly present.
“Hey!” Nightmare shouted, strutting across the waiting room. “Can you cut that out? You’re hurting people!”
No one seemed to have heard her except one old queen who shook his head at this; what she had said was a pretty obvious notion.
Putting a hand on the sister’s shoulder, she took a moment to listen, the angry youth blinking rapidly at the sight of the superhero in the waiting room.
“Can you not fucking act like this right now?!” the sister shrieked at him, overcome with emotion.
“Well they aren’t fucking helping me! No one fucking helps me!” he shot back, eyes darting between his sister and the vigilante.
Okay. So…maybe he’s an abuser. He’s upset, he’s lonely, he doesn’t know how to — okay. Go.
“Yeah, it’s lonely sometimes, right?” Nightmare said and pulled off a gauntlet, letting her dainty bruised hand fall onto the sister, gently massaging her back as she continued. “I don’t feel like I’m getting any help either sometimes. But we’re here for each other, right?”
The man blinked and edged his way towards a table where a steel placard held another assortment of fliers.
Palm shooting upwards, Nightmare cried out, “Please don’t throw that. I don’t know why you’re upset but — just calm down, okay? People here want to help you. Th-this is a space for that.”
His eyes shot over to the computer screen he had shattered, and he grimaced, jaw dipping downward, teeth bending into something ugly.
“That’s okay, don’t worry about that right now,” Nightmare said.
He shrieked and scooped up the metal placard and hurled it straight at the Nightmare’s head, causing pain to ripple through her skull as he scooted past the two of them and shot towards the elevator.
Turning to the exit, hand quickly lightening its impact on the sister’s back, the cool voice of The First Nightmare echoed in her mind. “It’s done. Focus on what’s here.”
Giving the sister a sudden hug, Nightmare looked up into her eyes.
“You okay?” Nightmare asked as the woman’s body became increasingly weaker with sobs. “Does he do this a lot to you?”
“I just want to help him!” she replied in a scratchy voice, her hands clenching the cape as if they were bedsheets.
Pulling the woman close in, she nuzzled her head in with her.
“It really sucks that you have to put up with him, but hey, you know, we’re all here for you.”
A quick glance around the room showed everyone on their hands and knees, scooping up the scattered fliers and such, reorganizing them back into the way they once were, the clinic receptionists smiling from the relief. “Does he live with you?” Nightmare asked.
“Yes,” the woman responded back. “Why are you here anyways?” she asked while brushing tears out of her eyes.
“Oh, uh,” Nightmare paused, collecting her thoughts. “Uh, doing the whole guardian angel of the LGBT community I guess.”
The woman chuckled and drew herself closer to the Nightmare.
Looking over the woman’s shoulder, Nightmare saw a youthful physician with a warm smile leaning against the door to the offices. Nodding to him, she turned to the woman and said. “I think one of the doctors here wants to talk to you. There’s gotta be some kind of service here to get you out of this situation.”
As their grip on each other loosened, Nightmare’s glassy green eyes fell onto the girl. “Let me know how it goes!”
“How will I do that?” the girl asked with a raised eyebrow.
Again, the old queen shook his head with such tremendous sorrow.
“Um,” Nightmare said slowly as all eyes fell on her. “Do—uh—you have an email?” she shrugged, voice peaking at the top.
“So I set you up with a fake identity and an email address we can use for this kind of stuff, just make sure to only use the email at libraries and places like that,” the First Nightmare instructed after the long silence that followed her journey on foot out of the Center.
“Oh,” Nightmare responded, caught a little off guard. “That was fast, how did you manage that?”
“Slow night,” he sighed.
“What — are you like at work or something?” she asked.
Another heavy silence and she rolled her eyes, this was likely to be another unfollowed thread of conversation.
“Yes,” he said finally. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m very busy, I do lots of — I guess you could call it field work — but it’s easy for me to work with you when I’m taking care of paperwork.”
“Huh,” Nightmare responded, unable to say any of the planned responses she expected to use with him. “That’s kinda funny — I like picturing you in a shirt and tie working with me while like — signing your name ten thousands times in a row.
“Sometimes I’m in my pajamas,” the First Nightmare joked, “You did an incredible job tonight by the way, and thank you for the sensitivity.”
“No problem,” Nightmare said in a soft voice, a slight pull in her stomach begging her to ask the next question. “Are you — um — I feel weird asking.”
“Yes, I am,” he replied, straight-forward as a politician at the stand.
“Part of the LGBT community?”
“Yes, those people you saw tonight are my family,” he said with a sparkling bit of love that was unusual for him.
“That’s cool,” Nightmare replied simply. “It must be — um — cool — to be part of something like that. They all seem really nice.”
“It is,” he said.
She had a sneaking suspicion that there was more he wanted to say.
She bowed her head humbly, still standing outside the Center, grateful he respected her enough to not ask the question that was already burning on her own lips.
A lightness came through her head and the reality of having to return back to school the next day made her vision go fuzzy. She breathed in and out, and it passed.
“I think one of the interns just jammed the paper shredder again,” the First Nightmare said in a delicate tone. “I better go. Great job tonight.”
The soft crackle of the walkie finally emptied from her ears, and while it would have made sense for her to feel alone in this sensitive moment, she for some reason, standing before the Center, felt no pressure of loneliness.