Cold (a Uni7erse Short)


[AUTHOR’S NOTE] This is a short set in the Unlucky Seven universe (or Uni7erse). If you like what you read here and you’re not familiar with the source material, check the links on the sidebar to buy/borrow Unlucky Seven and the Obligatory Sequel. You won’t regret it!

She had destroyed two cars in a matter of weeks.

Two identical cars, to be precise.  Down to the fade of the stickers on the bumper.

For all the faults of that tiny, white, imported hatchback, she loved that car.  It brought her freedom from everything happening in her house.  It was an escape vehicle from a terrible situation.  It didn’t have to be anything flashy.  It rolled her away from it all, which was the most important thing.

Both times it died, she had been paying attention to something other than the road.  She was lucky that she had survived the accidents.  She felt a certain amount of guilt over it, like she’d murdered her trusty steed.

She had spent enough time in mourning for that vehicle and had finally used some of her large government settlement to replace it with another unremarkable, but much newer, car: a mid-sized sedan in silver with a few nicer bells and whistles.  Nothing that would stand out, just something of her own again; a new vehicle to escape new pressures from time to time – superheroing, government agencies, traitorous friends and their armies of android ninjas.

That all seemed easier than escaping the place she had been staring at for the last three hours from her front seat.

It was strange to stakeout the house that was once her home.

There was no car in the driveway.  She didn’t know if this was because the car that used to be there was now a burnt out wreck in the middle of the woods after Zoey had smashed into an immovable giant rock person or if no one was home.

She didn’t want to go up and knock.  She didn’t want to face her abuser.  The more she thought about it, the more she realized that she had no idea why she was here in the first place.  Did she want to check up on him?  Make sure that he was still the horrible alcoholic ball of anger and depression she’d run away from?  Did she want to find out if he’d moved?  Died?  Changed?  Had her departure had any effect on what was left of his life?

Her stomach churned as memories came flooding back.  She swallowed hard and clenched her fists and tried to push all of that down.  She was just here to look, she told herself.  She wasn’t here out of revenge or spite or anger.  She wasn’t here to confront him.  She was here because he was her father and she felt some sort of obligation to see if he was still breathing.  Once she had proof of life – or even death – she could go and she would never have to come back again.

Something was different about the old place: it looked clean.  Someone was doing upkeep beyond the level she had to do when she was here.  The lawn was maintained.  The roof had been fixed.  The exterior had been pressure washed.  It made her wonder if he still lived here.  It made her wonder if he still lived at all.  This was the kind of clean that realtors used to sell houses.

A car pulled into the driveway.  A middle-of-the-road silver four-door of a different make and model than hers, but still surprisingly similar.  She waited, her heart dropping only slightly when she realized that the current resident of this place was likely no relation to her.

The car door opened.  A man in business casual attire stepped out and approached the house.  It took her a moment to focus, but she realized it was, indeed, her father.

Her jaw dropped.  This was not the sloppy drunk she’d knocked out and left tied up with an extension cord and gagged with a pillowcase.  He was clean.  His car was clean.  He looked sober and normal, like some sitcom father.

He stopped at the door to check the mail.  Zoey removed her seatbelt and readied herself to jump out of the car.  She had to talk to him now.  She had to find out what exactly was going on here.  Was it a front?  Did he suddenly change his ways now that he didn’t have a daughter to abuse?

He was inside and the front door was closed by the time she stepped out.  She slowly approached the house, feeling like this was some kind of trap.  Fear burned in her guts and crept up her throat.  She pulled a bottle of water from her purse and clutched it behind her back, the bottle crinkling in her grasp, ready to defend herself if need be.  She changed her ice hair into something smoother and less spiky, as close to the last hairstyle he’d seen as possible.

She took a deep breath and pressed the doorbell.  To her surprise, it actually worked.  It never had before.

The door opened.  He stood for a moment in silence, his face stern but not angry.  Her eyes widened.  She was anticipating the worst.  What she got was:

“Can I help you?”

Her head canted.  Her right eyebrow raised.  This was her father, for sure, and she didn’t look that different than the last time he saw her.

“I’m… I’m sorry?” she muttered, her voice dry and raspy due to nerves.

“Is there something I can help you with, young lady?” he asked.  His look remained serious but with a true glint of curiosity.

“Dad,” she said, her face contorting with confusion, “Dad, it’s me.”

“Dad?” he said, his befuddled look mirroring hers in an eerily familial way, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Are you sure you have the right house?”

“Daniel Howlett,” she said, plainly.

“Yes, that’s me,” he said.

“Zoey Howlett,” she said, tapping on her chest, “Your daughter, remember?”

“Daughter?” he said, his expression going blank, “Daughter.  Daughter.  Daughter.”

His right eye twitched and he cocked his neck quickly before returning his eyes to her.

“Yes, come in,” he said, his voice calm.

Zoey clenched all over and kept a tight hold on her bottle of water.  She had been hanging around Justin too long and was now going over all the narrative possibilities in her head as her dad’s blank face ushered her in the front door.

The house was pristine.  She barely recognized it.  She had done her best to clean the place when she lived here but often fell behind due to lack of time or motivation.  Besides, her dad barely noticed the mess back then.  She was lucky for that.

“Please, sit down,” he said, motioning to the couch.  It was not the same furniture she’d left behind.  Most of the stuff had been replaced.

She did as he asked, still keeping the water bottle hidden behind her back.

He sat opposite her on a love seat, his back straight and his hands on his knees.  They were separated by a coffee table which contained a few large books full of fine art illustrations based on their spines.

“I suppose you’re wondering why things have changed so much around here,” he said, his voice a very different tone and pace than she was used to.

“Y… yeah,” she said, her eyes narrow.

“I should probably let you know,” he said, “This isn’t really your father talking.”

The water bottle crinkled under her grip.  It began to freeze.

“Who are you, then?” she asked, “One of Kurt’s?  Someone from the Project?  I’m getting tired of all of this crap.”

“It’s Jess, Zoey,” said her father, “Not, like, real-time, though.  I left an echo in your father’s brain in case you ever came to find him.”

“Wait, what?” Zoey asked.

“I know,” he said, “Confusing right?  It’s another part of my abilities I discovered.  I coded him to the words ‘Zoey’ and ‘Daughter’ in your voice.  I instructed him to go into this… ‘mode’… for lack of a better term if he ever heard those two words from  you.  I knew you would want an explanation.”

“Jess?” Zoey asked.

“That’s right,” he said, “Just a temporary version of me here to explain this little gift to you.”

“Gift?” Zoey scoffed.

“You’re being a bit more monosyllabic about this than I’d hoped,” he said, a frown that wasn’t his crossing his mouth.

“How exactly is this a gift?” she asked.

“I read your mind,” he said, standing and pacing, “I read it about a million times, same as everyone else in our little group.  I knew you were having trouble feeling like you belonged.  You have always been kind of an outsider and you, like the rest of us, had recently acquired another reason to feel othered and live in secrecy.  You had a long history of abuse with this man and I wanted to make sure you wouldn’t wind up in your old life again.  People who are under a great deal of social anxiety often go back to their routine, even if it is unhealthy, just to feel safe.  I didn’t want that to happen to you.”

“So, what,” Zoey said, throwing one arm up in disbelief while maintaining a grip on her water bottle with the other, “You came here and screwed with my dad’s head?”

“Exactly,” he said, “I chose to alter his mind rather than eliminating him from yours.  Your memories of this – that anger, the rage inside you… Phalanx and I thought it made you better for the team.  I figured it would be best if I left it intact.”

“Eliminate him from my…” Zoey shouted, stopping to adjust, “What the hell gives you the right to go messing around with people’s minds?”

“Look at him!” he responded, “Look at me? Him… me?  Whatever.  Look.  Your father is clean and sober.  He has a job now.  I took all that tragedy from him – everything about your mom leaving, his abusive behavior toward you… well, all I really had to do was remove her and you from the equation completely, pop in some false memories and boom.  New man.”

“New man?” Zoey shouted, “He should be the same man!  He should have to live with what he’s done!”

“He didn’t really have any remorse,” he said, “I mean, you should have known that before, but I can confirm it now.  He blamed you for a lot of his issues, including your mother leaving him.  He was convinced.  There would have been no talking him out of that.”

“Then why not just remove that part?” Zoey asked, “Why not give him remorse?”

“He would have just sat around all day and moped,” Jess said, “It would have worsened his alcoholism.  Trust me, I know.  I could see his line of thinking.  He would have drank himself to death or just outright committed suicide if he didn’t feel justified in what he did, so I just took it all.  Trust me, it is better this way.”

“Spare me your self-righteousness,” Zoey said, standing up, “Why?  Just, why in general?  Why do you think it’s your place to alter the minds of people to suit your needs?  And, Phalanx?  Was this really his idea?”

“It was an idea we shared,” he said, still seated, “But it wasn’t one he wanted to implement.  I kinda went out on my own for this one.”

“How dare you,” Zoey said, narrowing her eyes, “My father may have been an alcoholic abuser, but it should have been up to him to get the help he needed after I left.  It should have been his decision, not yours.”

“His decision,” he pleaded, “Would have been the wrong one.  Can’t you see that?  He would have gone on staggering around, barely able to help himself with anything but getting to and from the liquor store.  He would have been a stain on the carpet of an abandoned house, Zoey.  I saved his life.”

“You took it from him,” Zoey said, “Put it back.”

“How can you be so blind?” he said, “Acknowledge that this is a good thing.  This is what you wished for in any prayers you could muster; for your dad to be sober and normal.  You can’t lie to me, I’ve been inside your head enough times to know.  I gave you what you always wanted.  You should appreciate this.”

“I don’t appreciate you violating someone’s humanity,” Zoey said, getting into her father’s face as it spoke in a different voice, “Have you done stuff like this to the rest of us?  To me?  To the people you call your friends?  Your family?”

There was a brief moment of thought.  Her father’s face was pensive.

“I mean,” he said, “Maybe?”

“You’re disgusting,” Zoey said, turning away.

“I think you’re still missing the point,” he said, “I haven’t done anything that didn’t improve a situation.”

“In your opinion,” Zoey shouted, “And your opinion alone.  That’s megalomaniacal, Jess.”

“Ok, I can see where you’re coming from there,” he said, “But, seriously, how was making your dad a better person the wrong thing to do?”

“Because you robbed me of my closure,” Zoey screamed, “You took from me something that could have healed me inside; something that could have helped me to move on with my life and shed at least some of my negative emotions.  Put him back the way he was.  You give me what I need or so help me…”

“So help you what?” he asked, sneering.

The water bottle burst open, freezing and transfiguring itself into her ice katana in an instant.  The blade was at the neck of her father’s body as tears streamed down her face, freezing to her cheeks.  Her face was resolute.  Her watery eyes wild.

“I don’t think that’s something you want to do,” he said, not moving, “You’re upset.  I anticipated this.  Why don’t you come meet the real me and I’ll take him out of your head, too.  That should solve everything.”

“We don’t know where the real you is,” Zoey said, “Or else I would find you and put this sword to your throat in person.”

“Oh,” he said, looking a bit confused, “Didn’t anticipate that outcome.  What happened?”

“I’m not having that conversation with whatever you are,” Zoey said.

“Psychic ghost echo inhabiting your father’s mind,” he spat out quickly.

“Whatever, don’t try to change the subject,” Zoey said, through tears, “Why did you do it?  Just because you could?  Didn’t you ever think to just ask me?”

“You would have said no,” he said, his eyes looking down at the blade, “You should really get this away from your father’s neck before you hurt him.  If you want to be mad at me, that’s fine, be mad at me.  There’s no reason your father should suffer any more for your mistakes.”

“My mistakes,” Zoey said, the room growing cold, “You did this.  You brought this on.  I promise you, I will find you and I will end you.  Who knows what else you’ve done?  What kind of damage.  To all of us.”

“I promise,” he said, throwing his hands up innocently, “Whatever I’ve done, it was for the greater good.”

“I’m getting really tired of people saying that,” Zoey grumbled, the glass of the coffee table frosting over from where she stood.

“There’s no reason to be this angry,” he said, his hands starting to shiver, “If you don’t accept this, if you want him back the way he was, you’re just as selfish as he ever was!”

The cold stopped.  Zoey moved the sword away from her father’s neck.

“You’re right,” she said, collapsing back into the couch, “My fight isn’t here.”

She stood up and started walking toward the door.

Her father sighed in relief and put his hands down.

“I’m glad you’re finally seeing things my way,” he said.

“Oh, I’m not,” Zoey said, “I am going to leave my father with this better life because, you’re right, Jess, it’s what I always wanted for him.  I’m not going to continue to be mad about losing my opportunity for closure because, really, I got that the minute I walked out this door the first time.  But, rest assured, you have stepped over the line with me.  You’ve stepped over the line with the all of us.  I have the confession of your little psychic ghost to confirm that.  So, when I see you – when we see you – next, don’t expect it to be a happy reunion.

“Now get your gross little ghost out of my father,” she said, opening the front door, “And don’t ever come back.”

The screen door swung closed behind her.  She would never see her father again.

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