The further into the city you walked, the more increasingly active the streets became. The life of the city breathed in the constant din of running cars and the hum of conversations from all directions. You wandered through the streets like a true native, unable to feel bored. Despite having lived in New York your entire life, never had you felt as though the city’s dynamic scene would become a source of tedium for you. There was always a sense of life bubbling beneath the surface. While the intensity varied from the slow calming churn of the quaint residential burrows like the one you lived in to the boiling cacophony known as Time Square, you loved every bit of it.
As you turned around the next neat corner, you caught sight of the reason why you were out and about in Manhattan. At the corner standing next to a hotdog vender stood a fairly short young woman with deep auburn hair that was curled and styled to perfection in loose curls. Even if you were just looking at her back, one look at the hair was enough to tell you that for what was perhaps the first time in her life, Winifred Ernst was early to your rendezvous. Seeing her there was enough to force a laugh out of you halfway down the block. And here you thought you were going to be the first one to arrive and have already downed a hotdog before she got there as per the usual ritual.
Instead, you realized she was polishing off a jalapeño stuffed hotdog when you were a few feet behind her. You contemplated for a brief moment if the world was coming to an end, but as Winnie proceeded to turn around to sweep the street you decided to surprise her.
Quickly, you tapped her on the shoulder before ducking to the opposite side she had just been looking in.
Her warm brown eyes latched on to you instantly, framed by her large black glasses. “You know, I have to admit you are probably the worst when it comes to surprising people,” Winnie retorted with a smile. “But it’s nice to see you too.”
“And what sort of catastrophe is about to befall this city? Last I checked you have a chronic disease that prevents you from arriving anywhere on time.”
Stepping to the side for a minute, you ordered a hotdog before turning your gaze to Winnie expectantly.
In return she gave you a smug look that indicated she had anticipated this very conversation.
“Considering what just happened here a month ago, I think me being early should be the least of your problems,” Winnie replied sarcastically.
After a brief pause, you nodded. “Touché.”
You traded money for a hotdog before starting off at a leisurely stroll with Winnie at your side. Admittedly, Winnie had a point. You should be expecting the sky to start falling after what had happened. Nearly one month ago to the day, the city had been under attack by an alien race that had spewed out in hoards from some rift in the sky over the new colossal Stark building. At the time, you had been nicely tucked away in the comfort of your home in Brooklyn, but for at least a good four hours that day you were glued to the television with your jaw located somewhere in the basement.
That day, your entire conception of what was normal had been turned on its head. Aliens were real. They attacked Earth. On top of that, superheroes existed. A squad of unknown figures (mostly male) in uniform was the savior of the day. In as much as you had arrived at that point in your life accepting strange and admittedly abnormal things, watching a massive green man tear his way through an even more exceedingly large flying hybrid between an eel and a machine from space had easily hit the top of your list. The magnitude of change in perspective that had occurred that day, regardless of its gravity, had turned your attention to the fact that there are people who truly do great things. The heroes you had seen that day were marvelous people. Even after they disappeared once their job was done, they had your gratitude as well as the thanks of every citizen touched by that incident.
Well, the arrogant Tony Stark AKA Iron Man was a bit of a different story, but his role in stopping the aliens had been significant enough that you let his evident attitude slide. Considering how in his situation people already knew his identity and had seen just what he could do with his impressive suit you had to wonder if he was really what most would consider a superhero. Ambitious, pompous genius might have been a better description for him.
“It was a great excuse to put off finals for a week though.”
Turned from your thoughts, a smile spread its way across your face. “Yeah, that was pretty nice. Another week of cramming and scrambling to make sure students were accounted for…”
You trailed off, recalling how a campus-wide assembly had been called to mourn the loss of students in the events of that day. Luckily, no one you knew had been caught in the crossfire, but you had seen plenty of solemn, tear-stained faces that day to know that enough of the student body had been affected. Because of that, you were thankful even more to The Avengers. Without them, you would have nothing right now. Probably not even your life, including all of those near and dear that were a part of what made your life great, would have been spared.
“Sometimes I’m not quite sure if I should call that the best or the worst semester we’ve had yet at NYU,” Winnie mused.
At Winnie’s light tone the threat of gloom dissipated from the air. You found yourself smiling wryly.
“If anything, I’m pretty sure we can safely say it was the most interesting one we have had and probably ever will,” you commented before shoving the end of your piping hot mini-meal into your mouth. The minute you started eating, the hunger you had been suppressing until this moment came back to your attention. In response to feeling your stomach squeeze in anticipation you began scarfing the hotdog down and only remembered to be dainty halfway through.
Winnie laughed, looping her arm through one of yours. “You’ve got a point there. Interesting might be putting it lightly though. But you know what the worst part about it all is?”
You covered your mouth to hide the fact that you were licking ketchup off your upper lip. “What?” you asked, speaking through your hand.
“That Ryan went back to Michigan early,” she said in return instantly, reaching up to grab both sides of her head and groaning. “Do you have any idea how much that threw a wrench in my plans? I was going to ask him to come with me to Maine where my uncle owns that one lighthouse. And y’know what happens? He goes back home. Bam! Not even so much as a goodbye.”
You rolled your eyes at Winnie’s blatant despair. Naturally when it came to her two-year crush any sort of “wrench” was the worst imaginable. It wasn’t to be said that you were unconcerned with it, but you had to admit that at times Winnie seemed a little lacking in the art of looking ahead for another opportunity. She’d come around to it though…eventually.
“I think any parent would want their kid home ASAP after something like that,” you pointed out. “And is that supposed to imply that you aren’t going to talk to him all summer? In this modern age of frantic social networking and the leading king of them all Facebook?”
Winnie’s grip on your elbow tightened and she began to swing your free arm back and forth. “Don’t put it that way! Then I sound pathetic! I just…” She stopped swinging your arm abruptly, her gaze trained on the ground below. “I just thought I had a good plan and it went up in smoke… Stupid aliens. They could have waited until June.”
“Again. Facebook,” you replied, smiling and resuming your eating. “That’s what it was invented for.”
“Yeah yeah yeah,” Winnie grumbled.
A small pause took place after that as you finished up your hotdog and disposed of the flimsy foil wrapper in the nearest trashcan. In turning away from the trashcan you noticed a bright expression had suddenly dawned on Winnie’s heart-shaped face.
“Did a light bulb just go off in there?” you asked, gesturing to your own head. “Or is there a seriously gorgeous hunk standing behind me ready to sweep me off my feet?”
Winnie’s face melted into an indignant pout. “Hush you! I just remembered what I was going to talk to you about.”
The two of you started walking again, dodging a woman in the midst of walking a considerably large group of eager dogs.
“And that is?”
Winnie took a second to adjust her glasses before raising a finger.
“So, I was thinking we could enroll in a self-defense class like kickboxing or something, y’know?”
You nearly tripped over the sidewalk.
“Self-defense class? Winnie, who spends most of her time in labs and watching The Universe on repeat, wants to take a self-defense class?” you asked, unable to keep an incredulous note from becoming painfully apparent in your tone. Winnie was what you would generally consider a shut-in. She really only left home to see her friends, go to school and work. Now a third-year physics major, you could hardly see her getting into any sort of martial art aside from an eagerness to study the exact mechanics behind it.
Winnie took to pouting at you again, but took the opportunity to push you in the shoulder. You laughed as you stumbled, raising your hands in defense.
“Hey! I can be interested in that kind of stuff too!” she shot at you defensively. “And to say I thought you might be interested in it, too…”
“I’m not saying I don’t think it’d be interesting,” you replied swiftly. “It’s just kind of surprising to hear it coming from you, that’s all. Have you got anything in mind?”
She took a minute to stare at you as though she were judging your sincerity. You raised an eyebrow at her as though to suggest that she doubted you in light of the steady six-year friendship between the two of you. She made a sassy face back at you before her countenance broke back into her usual lackadaisical grin.
“So, there’s this small boxing studio near where I live, right?” You nodded even though you had no idea what she was talking about. “And I was just walking by there the other day and thought that since we really aren’t doing anything this summer, wouldn’t it be nice to pick up something like that? It’s good for your cardio system. And and and I was thinking Fiona might wanna join us, too! She’s come back into town next week or something I think.”
Fiona Williams was another one of your friends from high school, but she had gone off to St. Louis to attend Washington University for premed. You didn’t envy her workload or anything, but sometimes you found yourself wondering if maybe you should have broadened your scope a little bit more to get you out of New York. Maybe you could even be attending the same school as her; Lord knows you missed Fiona like mad every once in a while. Most of time, you were fine just where you were, enjoying the last few years of being considered an irresponsible youngster.
“If you want to give it a shot I don’t see why not,” you said thoughtfully, glancing off to the side for a minute as you considered the mental image of seeing yourself in a pair of boxing gloves knocking down the big guys like it was no one else’s business. The thought was entertaining enough to give you a reason to smile. Without so much as a drop of history in the art of fighting in your past, giving it a whirl didn’t sound half bad. Even if you failed you could at least say that you tried, right?
“Awesome! I’ll text you later when we’ll be meeting and we can go check it out,” Winnie said brightly, clapping her hands enthusiastically. “But watch out or I might start knocking you down to size.”
You raised eyebrows at her for the second time. Between the two of you, Winnie was considerably shorter at just a few inches above five feet. By comparison, you had a good four inches on her. You weren’t terribly tall, but that didn’t stop you for at times poking fun at Winnie for being a “shrimp.” Hence, your teasing appeared to be the source of her apparent determination to “knock you down to size.” Not that that was anything new. Jokes about height were quite common between the two of you. Sometimes you even lamented the fact that you were taller, but at the end of the day you couldn’t find the will to mope about it.
“We’ll see how well that goes for you,” you said with a laugh, shoving your hands into your pockets. “Maybe I’ll let you take one free shot if you’re nice. We’ll need to get you a stepping stool first.”
Winnie pushed you again, the two of your breaking out in a fresh peal of laughter.
As you walked home later, you couldn’t help but feel like the sun was chasing you back into Park Slope. When you turned onto your street you contemplated running the rest of the way, but instead wound up just skipping your way down the deserted street. Well, the street was deserted until a silver Lexus pulled up to your house, one among many that looked just like it shoved in a neat line down the street. You knew the arrival of the car meant your mother was home from her outing with your neighbor and picked up the pace to meet her as she exited the car.
“Mom!” you hollered as you got close, slowing down once you reached the nose of the car to catch your breath. Looking over the car to your neighbor Karen you tossed a friendly greeting her way as well.
Your mother’s head turned in your general direction, her unseeing eyes trained listlessly on a spot to your left. She smiled at the sound of your voice and closed the car door.
“_____! And what have you been up until now?” your mother asked. “I thought you would be getting home before me.”
“Oh, you know how it goes,” you replied with a grin she couldn’t see. Not that she would have seen it anyway as she turned away to open the back seat of Karen’s car and begin to rummage around for what sounded like groceries.
“Time flies when you’re having fun,” you continued, coming over to lean against the car to see how much was in the backseat. “Though, I guess in my case it’s more like Winnie knows how to talk your ear off and then some.”
“In other words, the two of you were busy off terrorizing the town,” Karen said teasingly from across the car. “I know how the two of you play it. I’m surprised they didn’t call The Avengers to shut the two of you down.”
You beamed, reaching around your mother when she pulled out of the car to grab the last fabric bag you recognized as being your mother’s.
“Yes, because we have nothing better to do,” you said back, following her example in sarcasm. “Watch out or I’ll sic my minions on you when you aren’t looking.”
“Now now,” your mother chastised lightly, busy herself with making her way up the steps to the front door with her arms weighed down by grocery bags. “No need to be threatening the neighbors like that. You’ll set a bad example for her kids.”
“I think I’m a great role model,” you retorted with a smile, joining your mother on the small landing before the front door. As your mother messed with finding her keys you turned back to see Karen closing up her car. “Do you need any help?”
“I’m fine, dear,” Karen replied, waving you off and heading to her own home next door. “Be a dear and help your mother with all of that. She kept me quite busy all afternoon with her litany of groceries.”
With the door now opened you bid your farewell to Karen before stepping inside, grumbling to the side how it was completely implausible that food for two people plus one cat could warrant a list long enough to be called a litany.
For the past few years, it had been just you and your mother. Your brother had moved out several years back and now lived in Seattle; your father had passed away not too long after that in an accident with a drunk driver. Despite being blind since she was a young girl due to glaucoma, your mother actually worked from home as a medical transcriptionist and was quite the social butterfly in her group of friends. To all her friends, you were extremely grateful. The untimely death of your father was probably one of the most pivotal moments of your life emotionally. It was quite a long time before any of you could speak about your father without the mood plummeting into the pits of grief and despair, but through his death you could safely say that you had become even more attached to your mother. Especially after having seen emotional sides to your mother that you had never known about before, you were determined to be the daughter that she could always depend on.
Sometimes you wondered what your mother would do once you became independent enough to leave the house, but between Karen living next door and family that was more than willing to stay with her you weren’t too worried about it. If anything, maybe you would wind up staying here until you got married. There was no telling what would happen.
Hearing your mother calling out that you should probably bring the bag you were holding to the kitchen so all the cold things could be put away, you kicked off your shoes by the door and followed her orders.
All in all, between seeing aliens, superheroes and Winnie suggesting something completely out of character on top of being early, you felt pretty confident in saying you were about ready to take on anything. Actually, if you were to be truly honest you would have to admit that your entire life seemed to be based on one absurdity after another. Because of that, you preferred to think of it all as a gradient of strangeness.
If only you had known then just how strange things were about to get.