New Rourke Unmasked
The Rise and Fall of Conduit
In-duction | Pro-duction | Con-duction
When I woke up, Lana was looking down on me. Her eyes and nose were red from crying. I groggily blinked, said, “Mmmnuh?”, and she brightened up.
”He’s awake!” she said.
”Excuse me, miss.” A nurse edged into view. I was vaguely becoming aware of a hospital room I had no memory of as she started shining a light in my eyes.
”Follow the light.” she said, as if I didn’t know the drill. I’d been on the other side of that flashlight plenty of times. I'm no nurse, but paramedics know enough about checking vitals.
”Do you know your name?” she asked.
”Bradley Norton.” I said. My throat felt dry.
”What is your birthday?”
”It looks like he has some stuff in his eyes reflecting the light.”
Lana spoke up. “He’s always had that.”
”Little sparklers.” I said, then Lana grabbed my hand and squeezed.
The nurse nodded. "Any sight problems?"
"No." I answered. "Just weirdness whenever someone looks in."
”Alright,” the nurse said, “I’ll get the doctor.”
Lana stared at me, somewhere between worry and relief. Her auburn hair lay in limp curls down to her shoulder, she didn’t have any make-up on so her light freckles showed, and she was in that faded teal Mickey Mouse shirt I knew she would never be caught dead in outside the house. She must have been out in the rain.
”Hey.” I said, trying my best to reassure her.
She breathed out a little and said, ”Hey.” back as color slowly coming back to her cheeks. “Are you okay?”
I looked down and didn’t see any tubes; that was a good sign, although my skin looked a little redder than I remembered it being. Everything felt like it was in the right place. I could easily wiggle my fingers and toes. There was an odd little buzzing in the back of my head, but that would probably pass. “Yeah. Could you get me some water?”
”Sure.” Lana said, with a weak smile, then poured a cup from the pitcher on the night table.
I drank the whole thing. It tingled as it went down.
”What’s going on?” I asked.
”Well, Brad,” Dr. Prater said as he came in, “you are one lucky SOB.”
”Hey, Jay.” I answered. “I’ll buy you a lotto ticket.”
After a hearty giggle, he gave me his serious black man face. “What is the last thing you remember?”
I pressed the button to incline my bed, so that I wouldn’t have to constantly stare up at everyone. “Uh, It was night. Rico and I were returning from a call-off when were told we could get some dinner. Um…We went to go grab a pizza. Last thing I remember is walking from the ambulance to the door. What happened? Is Rico okay?”
”Rico’s fine.” Dr. Prater said. “He’s the one who brought you in. You were struck by lightning. You’ve been out for the last six hours. We weren’t sure when, or if you would wake up—there was concern about brain damage, but you appear to be perfectly cognizant.” He flipped through the papers on my chart. “But, as far as we can tell, apart from the slightly singed hair, lack of eyebrows, and flash suntan, you came out of it without a scratch.”
Lana tried suppressing a smile. ”A craker with spikey black hair, fake bake, and a constant expression of surprise? It’s not a good look.”
”It was a one in a bazillion chance.”
”So, I guess I’ve used up my lottery win?”
Dr. Prater smirked. “I wouldn’t put a down payment on anything.”
* * *
Twelve hours later, after a few tests to make sure I wasn’t a vegetable, I was released and on my way home. Sure the brush with death was, for lack of a better word, shocking, but, no matter how much I said I was fine, the boss put me on four days of medical leave. Excessive, I know, but it’s hard to complain about paid time off. Rico came by that night with a six pack to help “console me”, which ended up being a chill little party at the house with Lana playing some of her favorite songs on the guitar and some of my favorite songs of hers that I made her play. Rico spent a fair amount of time bitching about the kid, fresh out of EMT training, he’d been partnered with and how if St. Emeric’s wasn’t so understaffed he’d be on vacation with me. It was about the time that he mentioned they were “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” that Lana and I became suspicious of the fact that Rico had yet to mention the “kid’s” gender. Turned out, she’s a blonde.
I still had that weird buzzing in the back of my head. I thought it was just an aftereffect, but everything else seemed normal until two days later when the weirdness started.
I heard Lana come in the front door, calling out to me. “Hey, babe, could you help me with the groceries?”
”Uh, yeah, but come in the bedroom first. I wanna show you something.”
”It’s three in the afternoon, Brad. Work first, nookie later.”
”Lana, just come in here, please.”
I heard her let out an exaggerated sigh. “I swear. Two days of cabin fever and you turn into a fiend.”
”I was using the vacuum.”
”Do you really want to show me what you were doing with the vac—Oh shit!”
Lana stood in the door dumbfounded. Her eyes were probably as wide as mine. I stared at her, then at my hand, then back at her.
”Uh…” she said.
”Yep.” I said.
”Huh.” she said.
”Yep.” I said.
Little jolts of electricity were arcing from the wall socket to my fingers. We both stayed like that for a bit, neither of us moving. At the time I was a little too…again shocked to immediately notice that the buzzing in my head had subsided to a low hum.
”Are you doing that?” Lana asked.
”I don’t know. I guess.”
”How should I know?”
”Well, you’re the medical guy!”
”So? You’re the…musician.”
Again we paused to reflect on these facts, but for some reason they didn’t supply any answers.
”Does it hurt?” she asked
”Actually, no. It feels kinda good.”
Her voice had a tremble to it. “Does anything look different?”
”It’s a little brighter in here than usual. Why?”
”You’re eyes are sort of…glowing…slightly.”
I walked over to Lana’s vanity and stared in the mirror. I could just barely see what looked like a luminescent lattice through my pupils.
”Brad, your hand!”
I held my hand up to my face and saw sparks of electricity jump between my fingers. On a whim, I picked up the cord for the vacuum cleaner. It started up, and ran for a about thirty seconds before stopping. The room dimmed to the normal level, and the hum turned back into a buzz.
”Huh.” we said together.
* * *
Over the next few weeks, I began to experiment with whatever the hell this was. I had no idea where this ability came from; it didn’t seem possible, but then again, people who can fly or stop bullets are in the news all the time. I figured that, if this was something I was going to live with from now on, I should get used to it. Lana asked if I would see a doctor, but I told her I felt fine. Besides, this was outside of the field of conventional medical science. There was no way I was going to sit in a hospital bed for the rest of my life getting poked and prodded as some sort of novelty, let alone submit myself to one of those “super science” kooks. With her usual manner of caring support Lana said, “Just don’t burn the house down.”.
I found that I could control how much electricity flowed into me. As long as I was about a foot away, I could even pull juice from batteries. At first I could only hold in a little at a time, but that quickly grew to the point where I could drain and recharge car batteries. It was like a muscle; the more I worked it, the more I could manipulate it. I’d suck up a lot of energy and see how long I could run something by giving it just the right amount to keep it going. I could even send out little blasts of energy like a taser, but after I accidentally fried the toaster my work out was banished to the garage, where our other exercise equipment was. So, I just worked practice into my normal exercise routine. Lana came out from time to time to watch, though I assume it was because she felt she needed to get used to it as well.
As long as I kept a bit of a charge in me the buzz stayed away, replaced by a soothing low hum. But the longer I went without any juice the worse it got, so I just grew accustomed to holding on to some. Sure my eyes glowed in proportion to how much I had in me, but tinted contacts managed to keep awkward questions away.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’d never felt better, but I sure didn’t feel worse. I had more energy and stamina, which I liked. I became more confident in myself, which Lana liked. And, well, I figured out a few new bedroom tricks, which we both liked.
When I returned to work, I kept my mind on the job. I wasn’t sure if I should tell Rico yet. I didn’t want him to freak out on me. I knew he’d mean well, but he would probably tell the boss, which would probably get me shit-canned, more mandatory medical leave, or possibly a shrink.
A little more than a month later (when my eyebrows finally grew back in) the powers had become common place. Sure, I could move around electricity, but that didn’t define me. I wasn’t about to go leaping rooftops because I didn’t have to bother with plugging in my appliances. That would be stupid. I was a paramedic. I already saved peoples lives daily. Nothing needed to change, but I probably should have known that they would.
* * *
Lana’s band had a gig at The Foundry. It wasn’t the best venue they’ve played, but the club packed in a big crowd and the drinks were comped.
I was running late, because I just got off shift. Rico and Janice, the cute blonde EMT, had been smart enough to bring their club clothes to work. I had to go all the way back home to change and then show up with flowers to make up for the fact that I was missing the first half of Lana’s set. Fortunately, it did give me the chance to pick up a bit more of a charge for the night.
On the way in, I passed a homeless guy wearing a sandwich board that read, “STAIR YE NOT INTO THE ABBEYS!!”. He smiled toothlessly at me when I gave him a dollar, though I don’t quite think he understood me when I said, “Lest the nuns stare back.”.
I waved the flowers at Lana from the back of the club as she finished her last song. She gave me her I-know-what-you’re-doing face, and then she started into one of the more mellow songs in the set, her own version of House of the Rising Sun. She always liked to slow things down a bit after thrashing around in order to give the audience a rest.
I dropped the flowers off at the merch table while looking for Rico and Janice. But when I spotted them in a dark corner near the side door, I decided to leave them be. Rico had been annoying me lately with all of his lovey-dovey giddiness. There was no way I was going to spend my night stuck as the third wheel while watching people in the audience ogle my girlfriend. I was going to get nicely drunk and listen to good music. I told one of the bartenders who I was, then after checking the list, he made me a god-awful highball.
Most of the way through the song, and all the way through my drink is when things went to shit.
Two men burst in from the entrance behind me, and two more from the side door, wearing surgical masks and leather overcoats caked in dried blood. They slashed people away from the doors with the long knives they carried. The band stopped playing when they heard the screaming, but then a nightmare walked onto the stage.
Vitae was one of those things you heard about on the news, but never really expected to see in real life. It wasn’t something you could call a person, not anymore. I’d heard it was originally a lady who got addicted to plastic surgery, but even if that was true, I couldn’t tell what it was anymore beyond a hermaphroditic monster that grafted parts of its victims onto itself. It wore a floor-length, red-latex, frock coat buttoned to the chin. It was a thin, long-limbed, freak with patchwork skin, hair trailing down its back, woven with a random assortment of colors, and fingers tipped with implanted scalpel blades. Its henchmen were known as the Barbers; a cult of serial killers who viewed Vitae as some sort of living idol.
The crowd freaked. People were shoving and squeezing, trying to get as far away as they could, but that only resulted in them swirling around like frightened cows with nowhere to go.
”Stop!” Vitae shouted into a microphone, in that inhuman voice like three people talking at once. This caused most people to stop running around, more out of creeping fear than obedience.
When the Barbers chained and padlocked the doors, blubbering cries started up from the crowd. There may have been some coming from myself as well. I’ve seen all kinds of disturbing things in my line of work, but nothing really prepares you for malicious horrific insanity turning its gaze on you.
”Now, now, I can’t take all of you.” Vitae said. “That simply would not be practical. Besides, most of you perverts have nothing I want.” It ran its hands down the sides of its body in a grotesque fashion. “As you can see, I have much more refined tastes.”
The crowd quieted down a bit.
”Prepare the first patients.”
People started screaming again. The guys at the entrance reached into the crowd and pulled out a man and woman at random then pushed them toward the stage. The two at the side door grabbed Rico and Janice and did the same.
I stood there, frozen, watching. I felt so helpless.
Vitae looked Janice up and down then casually said, “Strip.”
”Like hell!” Rico shouted.
Vitae peered at Rico. It seemed confused. “I did not speak to you.”
”You won’t touch her, freak!” Rico growled.
Vitae leaned back with its head to one side and tapped out a measure of some tune on its scalpel fingers in a pensive manner before finally saying, “No. No I don’t like this one. Find me another.”
I watched as the Barbers stabbed my friend repeatedly and threw him off the stage. Janice wailed. Lana stared wide-eyed and breathing heavy. The hum in my head started to thrum a deep steady rhythm, and my hands tingled.
”Someone please shut her up.” Vitae said. “I can’t think with such noise.”
I grabbed a shirt off the merch table.
One of the Barbers clasped a hand over Janice’s mouth and stuck his blade to her throat.
I tied the shirt around the lower part of my face like a bandana.
Vitae turned to Lana. “Play some music. I like music while I work.
Lana stared into its face, like a deer caught in headlights. Her chest was heaving.
I shouldered my way through the crowd.
”Play!” Vitae sneered, and sliced one finger across Lana’s cheek. She squeaked a little.
Lana screwed her eyes closed, gritted her teeth, and shakily strummed a note.
”Vitae!” I shouted from the stairs to the stage.
The creature turned its head to me. “Yes?”
”You like interesting bodies?” I said, climbing the stairs.
”Yes?” Vitae said, turning fully to me, its eyebrows furrowed.
I walked right up to the creature. I didn’t know if I was afraid or angry, I was just on autopilot, following the rhythm in my head. “I’ve got something under my mask you’ll find real interesting.”
”Goody!” Vitae smiled mismatched teeth. “What is it?”
I slapped my hand onto Vitae’s chest at the same time as I pulled as much voltage as I could out of the Peavey 5150 next to me. The dark club became suddenly bright. The amplifier screamed and burst so loud you could barely hear Vitae fly into the drum set with a huge, black, scorch mark where I had made contact. The Barbers rushed at me swinging their knives, and I destroyed another amplifier putting them down.
The room was silent for a moment. It was either that, or my eardrums were too fuzzy to register sound. My head swam with adrenaline, endorphins, and a soothing hum that blotted out all other input. Time sort of drifted for a little bit before I came back to my senses.
I jumped from the stage went to Rico’s side. There was nothing I could have done. My friend was dead.
I looked back on stage to see Lana staring at me. She’d ripped the trim from her skirt and was holding it to Janice’s neck.
She gave me little nod, that told me all I needed to know. “Go. I’ve got this.” the look said.
She shouted at the crowd, “Somebody call 911!”
I took the padlock keys off one of the Barbers, unlocked the doors, and rushed out into the night with most of the crowd. They ran for fear. I ran, but all I could feel was numb…except for the hum, and a little of what I’d have to admit felt a lot like excitement.