Hero nibbled at the remains of Duffy’s half-eaten chicken salad sandwich on her lap.
“So what’s up?” Edwin’s casual tenor caught her off guard. Duffy snickered frostily and replied, “You tell me. How do you know me?”
“Well… I work at Senedelphi University, too; I tutor undergrads. I assumed you were the new girl, Duffy.”
Duffy bristled. “Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we? Why do you care so much? Hmm? You don’t know me.”
Beaming patiently, Edwin replied, “I don’t know… you seem a bit misunderstood.”
Duffy rolled her eyes. She wasn’t quick to trust, nor was she comfortable with the thought of him so suddenly befriending her. After everything she had been through, another guy was the last person she wanted to talk to.
“From what I saw back there in the library-“
“I don’t want to talk about it. Besides, were you following me or something?”
“You feel so angry.”
Feel so angry. The words echoed strangely. As if he knows how I feel, Duffy thought scornfully. Edwin took a deep breath, and shook his head as if shaking away a chill; Duffy’s knee-jerk anger subsided quickly.
“From what I saw in the library, it seems we have something in common.”
Shooting him a razor-sharp sideways glance, she asked, “What do you mean?”
A roguish grin spread across his bright face, and his eyes twinkled with excitement. “I’m like you… in a way. I thought I was alone.”
Duffy stared. What the hell is he talking about? Yet, she couldn’t help but feel so at ease… Edwin chuckled.
“I’m an empath. I can feel any human being’s emotion and, if I want to, alter it.”
Astounded yet again, Duffy’s mind raced. A million curiosities rushed through her… as well as a creeping feeling of apprehension. She had found someone like her… someone who was different, and it gave her a sense of belonging. However, being so close to someone who could sense her every sentiment was not comfortable, to say the least.
“I felt all the things you were feeling when Todd-“
“I don’t need your help. In fact, I don’t want you poking into my mind or whatever.”
That was the moment that Hero decided to crawl onto Edwin’s lap. Edwin froze, and his face began to contort with disgust. He stared at the rat with fire (and fear?) in his eyes, and he shouted:
“Get… that goddamn… rodent… off of me!”
Duffy was shocked. She felt like she had been slapped across the face. Hurt and angry, she levitated Hero off of Edwin, who was trembling with disgust, grabbed her bag, and briskly walked away. How could he have said something so cruel after being so kind to her? Duffy kicked a stray soda can out of her way; he was just another person who could insult her being.
“Duffy… wait… I’m sorry… I can explain…!”
She pretended not to hear, as she made her way back to her apartment.
The weeks crawled by. The only fun Duffy experienced on a regular basis was seeing Todd nervously scoot by her in the library, likely fearing for his life; she smirked coldly, knowing that he would never approach her again. Every so often, she would see Edwin tutoring in a distant corner of the library, and he’d gaze at her with the intention of reconciling, but she wanted nothing to do with him. She could feel his power working on her spirit as she avoided him, which irritated her further. What right did he have to make her feel how he wanted her to feel? She was furious with him. First he forces me how to feel, and then he insults my best friend, Duffy angrily thought. Oh well… at least I don’t have to tell him. He already knows.
After work, Duffy grabbed her usual chicken salad sandwich from the deli and headed to the park bench. As she shared with Hero, she wondered why Edwin had reacted so strongly to her friend. It was hard to admit, but she was a little angry with herself for avoiding him.
“I’m sorry Hero,” Duffy mumbled. “Not many people like creatures like you. Or me, for that matter.” She chuckled sadly to herself. “Maybe I’m the weird one.”
It was cold. The wind was stronger than it had been all week. Hero placed his paws against Duffy’s sweater and peered up at her, like a toddler does to his mother when he wants to play a game. Duffy smiled. Hero always made her feel like she was wanted. She gently warmed him with her amber energy. She was at ease.
“Mind if I sit with you?”
It was Edwin. Duffy didn’t even look up. She knew he had been tapping into her emotions. She let him in… just so he could experience her irritation with him.
“I wasn’t following you-“
“I don’t care.”
“No. Listen. I know you are upset with me… well, obviously.” Edwin shifted his weight uncomfortably. “And I’d like to apologize and ask for a chance to explain myself.”
Duffy closed her eyes. She didn’t know what to think, feel, believe. She said nothing, but gave Edwin the silent permission he wanted. He slowly sat down next to her.
“I don’t usually talk about this,” Edwin started hesitantly. “Just hear me out, OK?
“I was 6 years old when I realized my abilities as an empath. I didn’t understand that I was different… I thought feeling emotions was something everyone was able to do. Because I was so young, I didn’t know any better, and I was very open about it. Sometimes it was a great asset to have… if my any of my friends were having a bad day, I could fix it in a snap. If I wanted to get out of chores, I could charm my mother into letting me play video games all day.”
Duffy didn’t see how this had anything to do with the way he treated Hero… before she could ask, Edwin held up his hand.
“It wasn’t until my dad overheard me bragging about it to my friends that things started to go bad. He told me I was a freak, and convinced my mother that I should be ‘fixed,’ like something inside me was broken and wrong. He applied to ‘home school’ me, and when his application was approved, my house became a prison. I wasn’t allowed to see any of my friends, and if we had company, I was confined to the basement. Our house is relatively old, so there were always… rodents.” Edwin twitched. “Sometimes I was locked in the cellar for days at a time with the rats, sleeping with them, getting scratched and flea-bitten.” He shivered.
“Couldn’t your mom do anything?” Duffy was baffled.
“She tried, but she had always been intimidated by him. After all, he had been beating me for months, so I don’t blame her for being afraid of what he might have done to her. I guess the most upsetting part of it all for me was that I could somewhat soothe my mother’s emotions, but for some reason I couldn’t reach dad to turn off whatever was fueling his hatred. Maybe he just never had a heart for me to feel.”
Edwin finally fell silent. Duffy could see that this was something very hard for him to talk about; a hot wave of shame washed over her, recalling how she had given him the cold shoulder. Edwin placed his hand on hers and smiled.
“Don’t worry about it, Duffy… I was the one who was inconsiderate. You had every right to feel the way you did.”
His hand was warm and comforting, and Duffy felt a jolt of energy well up inside of her, which she promptly shook away.
They stayed on the bench and talked for hours. Duffy felt as if she had known Edwin forever, despite the fact that they had only spoken a few times.
It was just reaching 1 AM when the awkward silences began – the type of hush that falls when everything has been discussed.
”So… what about you?” Edwin inquired. “What’s your history?”
Duffy paused. Her background wasn’t nearly as interesting as Edwin’s, but it was still something she wasn’t sure about telling. What the hell, she thought. He told me his, after all.
She began to speak. Her parents had divorced when she was 14 years old, “which was the best thing to ever happen to them.” Despite the fact that they were separated, they still fought like animals over who Duffy would be with on what weekend.
“It really affected me… I started hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting into self-destructive stuff. I got with a guy who didn’t respect me, and he ended up… hurting me.
“One weekend at my dad’s, he saw the bruises on my arm. Instead of trying to help me, he started berating me for hanging with the wrong people. He threatened to take me away from my mother, and I just… snapped. That was the first time I experienced my own powers. I just remember getting really hot, and everything turned red, like on an infrared camera. And I just walked up and put both of my hands on his chest, and… I hurt him.”
Duffy stopped. She remembered the scene too clearly: her father crumpling to the ground, then she running, up the driveway, down the road, until she reached her mother’s house. She remembered looking in a puddle in a pothole on the road and seeing a jagged black stripe forming in her hair. She suddenly felt a hand on her cheek. Edwin was wiping away a tear she was not aware had fallen.
“I’m sorry,” Edwin frowned. “I shouldn’t have asked…”
Duffy shook her head. “It’s fine. Like you said, it’s not something I really talk much about.”
Edwin smiled, stroking her cheek, as warm vibes of comfort rolled over Duffy.
“You are beautiful when you cry, ” he said. “But I like you even more when you’re smiling. Let me walk you home.”
Upon reaching Duffy’s apartment, Edwin asked, “Will you be OK tonight?” She nodded. “Take care, love,” he said. He hugged her tightly, filling her with warm waves of energy. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
As Edwin dissolved into the shadows, Duffy found that her key had melted into a shapeless silver blob in her hand. As she mindlessly retrieved her spare from one of the countless pockets in her denim bag, something began to grow inside her… a sweeping tenderness that she hadn’t experienced in ages. Duffy knew that it could very well be one of his emotional mind tricks, but she didn’t care; she wanted to feel it. She indulged in the warmth, the glimmer of a smile creeping throughout her weary face. As she turned the key in the lock, her eyes grazed one of the long, thick scars that wrapped around her arm. She froze, and a nauseating vulnerability crept through her being. No, she thought. He ruined everything. But it wasn’t Edwin she was thinking of…
She was suddenly stranded in a dim high school hallway… alone? A voice cried out for help… was it her own? Lifting her hands, she tried to light the way, but a strange fatigue overcame her, and she couldn’t produce any energy. The voice screamed frantically, but its echoes resounded into his voice… Freddy. A perverse apparition, he swaggered from the shadows toward Duffy, his greasy black hair matted to the sides of his pale, scarred face. He smirked menacingly.
”You know how this goes, don’t ya, baby,” he hissed through his joker grin. Duffy knew… but how could she endure another attack? She could make out the glint of steel in the flickering light as he leisurely made his way toward her. She tried to run, but her feet would not move. He was too close, and coming still nearer, his sneering face inches from hers.
”I’m going to rip your insides out.” His ashtray-tainted breath choked her. “Let’s have some fun, baby.” With all the force she could collect, she spat in his face. With an incensed snarl, he threw her into the lockers. Gasping for air, Duffy tried to shield herself, but he was already upon her, slashing her skin, violating her very life force, laughing hysterically. Help me, somebody! she screamed, but nothing came out. The agony, the fury, the tears all came simultaneously, in a sick duet with Freddy’s sadistic mirth. I can’t take this again… I can’t. Duffy eyes rolled back…
When she awoke, the carpet was drenched with sweat and tears… but no blood. She gingerly sat up – no cuts on her body, no ripped clothing, no Freddy. A bad dream. She sighed, and cautiously peered at the damage she had caused in her sleep – the goldenrod wallpaper had been scorched, a window was cracked, and her furniture had been upturned. Shaking her head, she called for Hero.
Silence. That’s unusual, she thought. Typically he would come scampering into her lap if he wasn’t already there. She called again, but no response. A grave feeling sank into Duffy’s stomach.
”Hero!” she waited with bated breath – and she heard a muffled scratch. Panic-stricken, she began to overturn her room, flipping chairs, levitating blankets from the floor, scanning every corner of her studio apartment. Finally, her eyes fell upon a small black furry mass in a distant crook of the room. Fearing the worst, she precariously made her way over to the corner. She dropped to her knees as her worst nightmare was realized: Hero was dead. Cradling her beloved friend’s body in her hands, she sobbed. She had known this day was coming; after all, Hero had lived two full years with Duffy, and she couldn’t have asked for more. But it didn’t change the fact that her heart was breaking. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, and couldn’t function; she had killed him. She wept until her eyes smoldered with silvery energy normally directed from her hands. Everything dissolved around her, and she was adrift in the pitch black, with the vacant shell of her best friend, lifeless, in her hands. Losing all track of time, she did not recall who she was, or what her responsibilities were; she only knew a vast meaninglessness was swallowing her whole.
A crack of thunder shook her. Thunder? She was slung back into reality, and someone was knocking. Not wanting to be seen in her muddled state, she tenderly placed Hero’s battered body in his old cage, wiped her face and made her way slowly to the door. The door swung open, and there stood Edwin, concern lining his face. His eyes fixed upon hers, and she could feel him probing at her spirit.
“Hey… you didn’t show up for work… and I felt… what’s going on?” he cautiously inquired as he took in the destroyed state of her room. Duffy could not speak; she merely hung her head as tears spilled over her cheekbones and dropped onto her shirt. In a sweeping gesture of compassion, Edwin held her tightly, stroking her orange hair soothingly. Despite his efforts (supernatural or otherwise) to soothe her pain, Duffy’s sobbing continued. He helped her over to a worn down futon, where she collapsed, helpless.
Slowly but surely, Duffy’s story came out: about the nightmare of her abusive ex, the destruction she had caused in her restless sleep, and finally, the accidental death of her long-time companion, Hero. Edwin listened wordlessly, as Duffy talked until she had nothing left to say. She sat, trembling, full of anger, grief and frustration, her aura flickering feebly.
Edwin was a statue on the couch, one arm around Duffy, and the other hand resting against his jaw. His eyes pleaded with hers; it was agonizing to see-and feel- her so low.
“I’m really sorry about this, Duffy… if there’s anything I can do…” Duffy’s umber eyes shimmered with tears. “I just wish I could bring him back.”
Duffy closed her eyes, remembering the way it felt to have Hero in her hands, his smooth fur bristling against her fingers as he wiggled about on her lap. She thought of the tickle of his sniffling nose against her skin, and how they shared their meals everyday. It truly began to sink in that he really was gone… forever. Her heart broke.
That’s when she heard it. It started softly at first, and then grew louder and louder. Upon opening her eyes, Duffy was surprised to find Edwin weeping. His muscular body shook with every ragged sob, as he covered his face with one hand.
”Edwin…?” It was such a shock to see his handsome face contorted with grief.
“He meant that much to you,” Edwin whispered. “It’s overwhelming.”
“Well, change me! I won’t mind. Take over my emotions…” Duffy didn’t care any more; she just couldn’t stand the thought of him suffering.
Edwin raised his head. “Duffy, I won’t.”
“Why? If my distress is hurting you so badly, please, just-“
“No. You need to grieve. I have no right to change the way you feel about anything.”
Duffy stared. “Well… can you just block me out then…?
“I could.” Edwin took her hand. “But I won’t. I want to be there with you, through all of this.”
He blinked away tears and smiled reassuringly. “Be yourself, Duffy.” He tenderly kissed her cheek, and they wept together.
And the mysterious dark streak in Duffy’s hair faded away. Duffy had found her true hero.