It was raining. It never rains in Olathe. Liam surmised, though, that stranger things could happen. And today, they had.
Before the rain, it was dry. All Liam knew was dry. Dry heat. Dry sand. Dry sun. The air around him was always so dry, Liam could feel it beckoning flirtatiously for the spread of flame. When Liam first discovered his powers, he almost burned the old restaurant down. But after the panic settled, the boys all had a good laugh about it. In that quirky band of four, Liam was the only “mutant”. Strange abilities like his were uncommon, but not rare. Fire bending, especially, was well documented. He remembered hearing the legend of the old man and the little girl, how the father’s wrath towards all who stood in his way manifested as roaring fire. But Liam’s fires were hardly as powerful as that. He was never very good at fighting.
He didn’t take to the gun like Benny did, but Benny was purposefully a terrible shot, always preferring to show off and intimidate rather than kill straight away. He collected guns like pennies from different printing years, and carried them all in a bag. They made a clinking clanking mess of a song. After every fight, Benny would tilt his head back so the sunlight could wash over his sunglasses, like he thought himself a kickass anime character.
Clyde became the bull after he fashioned two spears to attach to his football helmet. He fought mercilessly, charging into enemies head first, gouging them over and over again. Sometimes Clyde lost himself in the passion of it all. He wouldn’t hear Rodriguez’ orders, no matter how loud and angry the boss got. Clyde didn’t celebrate victories the way the others did, he was simply quiet. He never wanted to show too much of himself.
Rodriguez, the cowboy, was tethered to his smug ways. While he did use his one and only gun, he preferred to simply sit back and not get his hands dirty if the boys could handle it, or stomp and huff and demand they do a better job. Rodriguez was frustrated at Liam for not being a good shot, but he recognized Liam’s powers could also get the job done. Liam found himself being the antithesis to his boss most days, using his voice to cheer his friends on. That lifted their spirits when they thought a fight was hopeless. Liam was hardly eloquent or diplomatic, but he was a good friend. He would loathe to admit it to the boss, and so he never did… but his powers were only sometimes triggered by anger. More often, he would focus and remember the love he feels for his friends, and how he feels when his friends love him back. That gave him a warm feeling that spread from his stomach through the rest of his body. He didn’t fight to prove himself or to feel strong, he fought to protect the people he loved.
All fire benders’ fire comes from their emotions. He thinks Rodriguez’ disappointment in him comes from having to recognize one of his boys is “emotional”, and there’s nothing he can do to change that. Except, maybe, slap it out of him. Rodriguez didn’t often resort to that to refocus the men in a fight, but it was always an option.
The three younger men knew that Rodriguez was due to expire. He was at least 50, last they counted. And his ideas; how to discipline, how to behave, how to treat women, they were all on the way out. At least, that’s what they thought.
Rodriguez did die that day, that was the first strange thing. Liam didn’t see it happen, but returned to camp to see the bloody mess THEY had made of him, his head sliced off. It seemed ceremonial. Rodriguez was their “head”, so to speak. Their leader. Despite his meanness, he always held a certain fondness for his party. Now, without their head, where could the rest of the body go?
Liam spoke out of turn. He couldn’t stop himself from asking his stupid questions. So they knocked him out. Then he woke up, disoriented, but his friends were still there. It was dark. They were moving, or more accurately, being moved. Then a door opened and the figure there ushered the other two men out.
The last thought Liam remembers before the rain, bubbling over the fear like a drop of water melting from a glacier in an ice age, was that he wishes Rodriguez was there, to slap the fear out of him, and slap the man back into him.
It never rains in Olathe. But today, it was.
B: What is HAPPENING today, man?! Aughhh! This rain is ruthless!
All Liam could focus on was the rain. Shapes around him were blurry. Voices, distant. Even the ground underneath him fell away, his feet numb. He walked on nothing, ever since everything he understood before was rendered meaningless, nonsense, absolutely futile.
The rain soaked through all of their clothes, even Benny’s leather jacket couldn’t keep him warm for long (Benny was loath to admit it was pleather). The cold was all-consuming, sticking to their bones. Water sloughed off Clyde’s helmet, drops bounced off his shoulder pads. They pushed through the open swampland ahead of them, searching for any kind of shelter. Even a tree would be a sight for sore eyes. But no respite materialized for what seemed like miles. And the rain kept coming, so furious as if the sky wanted to cut them. The drops were hard and sharp.
Near the end of sunset, they were all shivering. Benny was blue-lipped. Clyde’s teeth were clicking against each other. Liam kept his head down, but nothing could keep his face dry. Then, they found a cave. They ran for it like men returning home from war.
Inside the cave, they found everything needed for a campfire but the fire: logs and sticks in a pile, in a dry, sandy location. But they had no matches. Rodriguez had held on to them. But they were able to get away without using them most of the time. Liam’s powers were easily flared. But now, Liam was ice cold. He didn’t feel anything but fear. Glacial, totally encasing him.
C: Bro, we are gonna fuckin freeze to death if you can’t start this fire. Are you tapped out or something?
B: Clyde, he doesn’t just tap out.
C: Well why ain’t he tapped in?
Benny sat next to his forlorn friend.
B: How are you feeling?
Liam didn’t move his head. Didn’t acknowledge Benny’s presence physically in any way.
L: I don’t know. I just… I don’t know anything anymore.
B: Why? What’s going on?
Benny searched for his eyes. He pulled his sunglasses down, and reached a slick, shivering hand for one of Liam’s shoulders. Liam let Benny touch him. This was enough. Anything more would have been too much. Benny pressed his fingers gently into Liam’s flesh. Benny waited in the quiet with him. Clyde chided, still at a distance.
C: Come on, man. You’re supposed to be good at this. This… emotional shit.
Benny rolled his eyes.
B: Give him a break. It’s been a long day.
C: You don’t think I know that? I had to wait and worry while the both of you were off being-- Well, I don’t know. Vulnerable.
Before Clyde could regret his choice of words, Liam raised his head, genuinely surprised.
L: Clyde… you were… scared?
C: I wasn’t scared. I said worried.
L: What were you scared of?
C: Not scared. I just thought, fuckin, they were gonna axe murder you two or somethin’. I didn’t wanna lose you dumbasses. That’s different. That’s not scared.
L: You felt… alone?
C: I was alone. You came back but you didn’t say anything to me. And then Benny came back and was like, let’s get the fuck out of here. So we did.
Liam’s hands are pressed tightly together, his voice low and slow.
L: So... you were alone, and ‘worried’... You were vulnerable.
C: Yeah. I guess I was… vulnerable. But, not the way you two were.
Benny’s tone changed to one of offense.
B: Oh yeah? And what way is that?
Clyde sat up straighter, rolling his shoulders back. He took a deep breath in as best he could, despite the shivers racking his body.
C: You know, there’s a reason they singled you two out and not me... It’s probably because I don’t look like a fag... And if ya’ll don’t want to be targeted again, I suggest you stop preening your hair and slouchin’ all the time.
It was quiet. Benny pulled his hand back from Liam’s shoulder and crossed his arms. Clyde watched this, and then groaned, holding his head in his hands.
C: Look. I don’t make the fuckin rules. But all I know is we ain’t supposed to break ‘em.
The rain continued to rage outside, unabated.
B: Well, I think that’s fuckin pathetic. We shouldn’t be afraid for our lives.
L: Our lives?
Liam stares at his hands. Cold, damp, shaking. Useless.
L: We’re... we’re always fearing for our lives. But... that, with umm, with them… that was, like... different, you know?
Neither friend comments. Liam sighs, hollow.
L: I’m so fucking cold.
C: Ah-hum. Yeah. We all are. So, can you cut to the chase with the fire-making now?
A beat. And then, a lightbulb appears. Metaphorically speaking.
L: … we all are… yes, we’re ALL cold, together… we could ALL die tonight, if we don’t find heat soon… Do you know what that means? This cold, and maybe us dying, it’s like… it’s, it’s like… well, it’s like what happened to me. It... it can happen to anybody.
C: Liam, no. Everybody gets cold. That’s just biology and nature. But do you think just anybody can get RAPED?
Benny jumps reflexively.
B: I WASN’T RAPED!
Benny looks at Liam, alarmed. Then he grimaces.
B: Ahhh, fuck. I don’t mean to say, like, it’s a bad thing if I was. It doesn’t make me any less of a man, you know, if I was... You know what I mean, Liam? Like, in this “I statement”... that I’m making?
C: Soooo, I’m right then.
Benny whips his head around fast as a lightning strike.
B: HOLY SHIT, CLYDE. Can you SHUT UP? I’m sick and tired of LISTENING to you!
Clyde’s single eye stares at Benny unflinchingly, but with a tired glaze.
C: Benny. It is a bad thing if one of us was raped, because men like that, they can smell it on you. They know what a victim looks like, and if one of us looks like that, it’s more likely to happen again.
B: So Liam’s a victim now?
C: He’s only a victim if he acts like one. He can get over this. Both of you can.
B: I wasn’t raped.
C: You almost were, Benny, and it shows.
B: ... Is this “advice” you’re so generously giving meant to show you’re the leader now?
C: Who’s gonna be the leader if it ain’t me? We need a leader that makes an example. That would be me, since they were too scared to try one on me.
B: Pah! They weren’t scared of you. If they were scared of you, they would have left us alone! If they were scared of you, that would have protected us. You know what, Clyde? The rape? It’s YOUR fault. Because the fault sure isn’t mine or Liam’s!
Benny looks so angry he could spit at Clyde. Clyde is barely visible in the deep darkness of the cave, but it seems he would prefer it that way now; if he could make himself disappear.
C: ... It’s my fault I couldn’t be there for you because I was scared shitless? It’s MY fault I didn’t try to stop them? Because I didn’t want them to kill all of us on the spot? Because I didn’t want to be seen as anything less than the bravest, toughest motherfucker around or else they’d do something worse? Listen to me, Benny... Liam was right. I was scared. I was terrified. I can’t stop fucking thinking about what I could have done differently. This shit haunts me, Benny, as much as it haunts you.
Benny lets the shame from his unwarranted statement wash over him, bowing his head. In that moment, Clyde realizes how far he’s put himself out there. Then he does exactly what he preached not to do; curling inward on himself. He lowers his voice.
C: Well. I can’t say it haunts me more than it haunts you, can I?
A terrible wind screams outside the cave. Little streams of the air catch the edges of the cave’s entrance, snaking into the room and across each man’s skin. Liam holds his arms with his opposite hands, digging his nails into his flesh. His lips are so numb he can barely form words.
Liam leans forward, too far forward. Clyde and Benny move quickly to either side of him. Benny throws his arms around him and then Clyde pulls the both of them into his broad chest.
They all exist together, then, inseparable.
For a long time, they shiver against each other. For a long time, Liam feels their heartbeats pulse in rhythm with his. For a long time, he almost feels like crying.
And for a short time, he does.
No one says anything. No one moves. No judgement is passed in any form.
And then the strangest thing of all happens. Liam starts to glow. An orange light spirals out from his midsection, streaks of light spreading across him like vines, until the light blooms and glitters all over his body. And with this light comes heat. Layers of heat, passing over him like waves on the beach at low tide.
Benny and Clyde open their eyes and see this, and even more potently, feel it.
C: Hooooooly shit.
B: Man... this is beautiful...
C: Hell yeah.
Liam is utterly calm. For a short moment, fear is the furthest thing from his spirit. He’s not happy, yet, but he doesn’t need to be. All he needs, for right now, is safety. And in this cave, with his best friends forever, he’s safe.
B: I think it’s safe to say we’re not gonna die after all?
C: Not tonight.