BILLIE looked out across the car park, it had white lines to the left and right, behind her and in front and made her feel trapped inside a strange binary grid. Beyond the four gravel-laced edges of the lot, the 10 year old couldn’t see a great deal to excite her. Billie’s parents had brought her here for the walk in centre, just around the corner apparently, yet there was no sign of life in any guise save for herself and the two adults exiting the car to lead her.
“Come on pal, five minutes walking and guess what we can do then.”
“What, dad? What?”
He smiled, absently stroking his daughter’s hair as he stooped before her.
“Queue up and wait all day!” he said.
Billie groaned and jabbed her dad in the soft of his gut, he feigned immense injury and she giggled before skittling away in the direction he had motioned whilst speaking to her. Mum and dad caught one another’s eyes, away from where Billie could see them. Mum had tears very close to the surface and dad countered the look with a smile. It’s going to be fine, he was trying to say, but he knew those five short words would be enough to trip him into a deep lake. Dad straightened up, squeezed mum, and she took his hand to lead Billie to the walk in centre.
Where everything would be fine, nothing to worry about, probably something completely normal.
At the perimeter of the dead car park long straggles of wispy grass stood sentry, ceding only to a paved footpath that cut a deep purple line through the arid tufts of green. Billie cantered down the way, aware that there was something wrong because the walk in centre was where she had gone when she had trapped her thumb in the car door last year. But it must be something else, not an injury because she had not had an accident. She thought she must have a ‘condition’ like Edith in her maths class. She had to have all her schoolwork printed on yellow paper or on a yellow screen, otherwise she couldn’t spell any words. That’s when Billie felt the knot tighten in her stomach, no pain, and she knew how to spell loads of words she was the best reader in her class, always had been. A man leapt out of the grass wearing a cobalt blue kimono and burnt orange espadrilles. She almost screamed, but then realised who it was.
Somewhere behind her she could hear mum and dad shouting, their feet pounding down the path. The thundering of their rubber hooves grew in Billie’s ears until she couldn’t stand it anymore. She asked Monitum to do the hip and bloom, like in the Warser comic books he appeared in. He smiled at the little girl, and then asked her if she had any money. His voice was not the voice of the character in the books she read and as she considered him more closely his skin was mottled red and coarse with a rash, spots ringed his lips. The character in her comics was tall, athletic, heroic. This man was none of those things to Billie, who began to recede into the safety net of her parents. It was not him and so she felt foolish.
“Billie?” said mum, “come here darling, we’ve got to get going.”
A large hand closed over her body, shielding her and steering her all at once. After a little while she noticed the hand was not there anymore, she was walking beside her mother. She looked over her shoulder and saw her father, face scrunched into a puggish pout, hissing something at the strange man who was outside in his dressing gown. She took her phone from her pocket as they entered through the sliding doors and opened the app.
There was a new issue waiting for her.
Mum went to the counter and said Billie’s name, the man sat behind the desk which Billie could only just see over told them to wait in the upstairs hall and so they did. Dad joined them briefly afterwards but she didn’t notice. In this one, Monitum had been cornered by the Institute. They had dogged him throughout this run of comics, now in the penultimate issue. One panel showed the hero’s eye close up and through a red filter.
“You’ve made a terrible mistake, son,” said Monitum.
His blue robes stretched into the wind, defiant in the face of the greedy, grey ocean and the soundless siren that blinked between pages as they faced off on the stern. The Face of the Institute produced an intricate sharp blade as fine as a single thread, brandishing a meter long needle at her hero. He drew his katana from the sheath on his back, steadying himself as the ship lurched drunkenly at the end of sunset.
“Bill,” said dad, “Bill? Come on, put that away please.”
They were standing now beneath the harsh fluorescent strips. There was a short, stout woman perched between them, only smiling. The nurse asked them to follow her. They passed two other rooms with the doors closed before going into the doctor’s office. They were asked to take a seat and did so. The door was closed as the nurse went out. Billie felt a great anxious rush overlapping her thoughts. None of them spoke until he arrived.
“Afternoon,” the Doctor said, “do I have Billie here?”
Mum said that he did, running a hand through her daughter’s hair in case he was wondering which of them was the 10 year old subject of the appointment. Billie watched him sit down and felt that nauseous pull in her gut again. She saw him look at the monitor and the pull became a wave. He withdrew his glasses from the bridge of his nose and the wave became a quaking fear. What she saw was the Face of the Institute, unmistakably brought to life.
He didn’t speak to Billie again. Dad was answering a couple of questions here, mum was elaborating on a few points there. The Face nodded to them, his expression was serious and his eyes were always looking into those of the speaker. Every now and then his lips would pull into a pained grimace and he would nod more profusely. Eventually the talking was done, they had said what they could, and his gaze finally fell on her, sat between them, flanked.
She screamed. It wasn’t supposed to happen but when he had finally looked into her eyes, the itch in her legs, the primary impulse to run became strong. Still she remained composed. When her eyes could not bear to remain locked with his she had cast her glance elsewhere to the instrument table behind the desk.
To the needle.
She found the wail and the tears came rushing out. There was a stunned synapse between the three adults in the room, breached finally by the nurse who cracked the door open an inch and asked if everything was all right. Dad said that it was, everything was okay and mum was saying the opposite. The Doctor pointed out that it might be a good idea if Billie went outside for a moment and waited for mum and dad, that it was clearly difficult for her and if the nurse would be good enough to get her a glass of water and make sure she was all right then that would be brilliant.
Before Billie knew what was happening, the nurse had laced an arm through hers and was petting her shoulder, letting her know that it was okay. The two of them sat down back in the upstairs waiting room. After a couple of minutes filled with talking lots and saying nothing the nurse left to fetch Billie a drink. Thirty seconds passed, then a minute, then two according to the perfunctory white clock ticking on the wall opposite her, a long red hand striking the seconds off. Billie couldn’t stand the noise it was making nor the infinite time in which the red hand stood still before climbing another moment. She took her phone out of her pocket and unlocked it. She picked up the story again. The Face was shortly backed up by an army of what he called little helpers, with each passing panel more of them had miraculously materialised behind him, his face twisted now into a grin.
Monitum levelled his blade in a stance he always adapted against a large number of enemies. It allowed him to strike swift and shallow across a dozen adversaries at once. In the next frame his eyes had moved, only those eyes, and they were looking out of the screen. He began to speak, and Billie could hardly read it between her trembling hands.
“They are going to hurt you,” he said.
The panels eloped into a drastic skirmish where he scythed down multiple little helpers and in each tiny square there was a line of dialogue. Her trembling hands became paired with a low moan.
“The Face is going to take you to them, to the Institute, and if you think your parents will save you, then you haven’t been paying attention.”
She turned the page.
A room full of concern now enveloped her, she thought the elderly lady sat beside her had asked if she was feeling okay, and someone else may have asked if her parents were with her.
She was looking out of the window then and could see the paved path that had led them here. He was looking up at her, Monitum, he was beckoning to her.
“They’re not who you think they are, Billie.”
She put the phone in her pocket, stood up on sailor’s legs, and began to move out of the building. She couldn’t go to the man lingering around the car park, because it wasn’t really him… she kept reminding herself that it wasn’t really him. Instead she made her way down the stairs and beneath a glowing green sign hanging from the ceiling, and with numb hands she pushed the fire door open. It began to scream at once, lights on the ceiling began to hose red streaks around the entire centre and the commotion was fraught behind her, fading away significantly as she pelted across the embankment. The rush of traffic from the main road just over the brow of the hill she was climbing began to defeat the sounds of pandemonium behind her. A shiver crawled up her side and she noticed that the man was running alongside her. She was afraid at first, remembering the awful sores on the man’s face, but when she shot a look to her left after a period of trying to outrun him she noticed that they were gone.
It was him. It was really him.
He told her that he had hidden from her because of her parents, they were not nice people. Her heart was in her mouth as she came to a halt, the shapes of the cars now easily defined, the heads of drivers passing-by occasionally turning in their direction. Calm began to fall on her. It was really him, she could see that now, and if he was going to hurt her why hadn’t he done it already? This was reason enough for her but she still had a yearning to go back, to race back to her mum and dad and hope for everything to be all right.
“I can keep you safe,” said Monitum. “Follow me.”
He began to glide away, his robe hanging on the breeze just as it had so many times before. She watched him, entranced by the sensation of unreality washing over her, when a voice cried from the peak of the green ledge at her back.
She looked back, saw her mum charging down the hill. Her dad, she noticed, was tearful and it made her feel guilty. She had never seen him cry before and she didn’t like it. Monitum was still running away, now close enough to the road to begin waving at the cars as they passed by. Billie took her breaths in frantic sips as everything became too bright. Clarity returned and she began to walk back to her parents, her mum and dad.
She took half a dozen steps back, the gap between them closing faster than the flick of a finger when she noticed him. Emerging from the brow of the embankment, the Face of the Institute observed the scene beneath him, saw Monitum at the edge of the road now too far away. As Billie stopped her legs, breath locked in her chest, they began to rise behind him. Their smocks were navy and their eyes watched her. The little helpers had arrived.
Billie hung between the two casts, suspended in a moment that stretched infinitely like the pause of the red hand on the waiting room clock. Monitum was calling to her now. She noticed that the Wing was uncanny, so akin to how it was in the comics. It had screeched to a halt and he was sliding open the side door, beckoning to her again.
Billie cried out as mum’s hand began to close around her wrist. She snatched it free and saw that the man on the hill still had it in his hand. Casting a shadow over her from the peak, the Face of the Institute balanced a twinkling point between his fingers. That was enough.
Billie was calmed, she had time to realise that she had never felt as sure of herself as she did then. She apologised to her mum who had tumbled to her knees, and turned her back on them. She did not heed any more of the voices behind her as she darted toward Warser Boulevard. Monitum was frantic now, the Wing beginning to slowly pull away and for a moment she thought it was too late, he hadn’t been able to save her, she hadn’t listened in time. A hand descended on her chest now, and she tumbled into the cracked earth. Billie saw her dad’s face rolling away from her, contorted into an expression that had never once tucked her in at night nor dropped her off at school, an expression that had never chastised her when she had forgotten to do her homework or even when mum and dad were arguing. It was that same puggish pout that had hissed at Monitum. It was his true face, she thought.
The last thing she heard before she leapt into the moving van was the sound of her mother’s scream. It was every bit as awful as her father’s tears and bent her to the core. She lay in the Wing weeping now that it was over. She couldn’t see him in the dim red light of the cabin but Monitum’s silent presence was severe and formidable. She felt safe.
As they watched the van disappear from their lives, they cried and shouted and fought with the nurses who should have been watching her. Mum was the one who noticed the cracked screen, already coated in a thin film of dust. She entered the pin to her daughter’s phone and what she saw made her feel sick. She saw it very well.
The phone exploded as she hurled it at her feet.