Niall Espen

Holding Out for a Hero: The Wastes

Leaving Home

Caelan paced through the streets. The trees blocked his view of the moon, but it didn’t matter, it wasn’t a full moon. There wouldn’t be enough light, anyways. Not for him, or for the neighbours. He scratched his elbow, glanced over both shoulders, and zeroed in on his favourite lawn. He hadn’t been here in a few weeks, and he missed it. ‘Go ahead. Do it. You want this. It’s been so long.’

Caelan tried to shake the voice from his mind. ‘C’mon, don’t be so… proud. You deserve a little emotional healing.’

It nipped at the edges of his mind, all morning, then crawled into its hiding place, and had only gotten louder since. He didn’t have a name for it, but it had slipped into his life after his ability. He rattled out a breath as he thought twice about what he wanted to do. Then he walked away from the lawn. The ridiculous faces of the garden gnomes lingered in his mind. ‘Where you going? Don’t you want to break those horrid bobbles?’

Caelan pushed the questions away, as he stared down the neighbourhood. Gingerbread-style houses on either side of the street, little picket fences, and even in the dim light of midnight, he could see the overly green, manicured-to-perfection lawns. Caelan rolled his eyes at the poshness as he bundled his arms around himself. He hummed his mother’s favourite song to himself. ‘That won’t help. Just talk to me. Tell me where you’re going.’

Caelan clenched his ribs, tightly, as he hummed louder. A resounding, guttural howl richocheted around his skull. ‘Answer me boy! I might be tempted to spare your father, if you do.’

A shuddered breath, as he dug his nails into his ribs. ‘How cute. You think you can hold me at bay. That I’m just a voice in your head, but you know it isn’t true.’

Caelan looked back at the park that he loved. It was three streets down, and around the bend from his home. A small semi-maintained chunk of field with old, slightly rusted playground equipment. It was filled to the brimmed. Two slides next to a row of swings and teeter-totters, a merry-go-round, monkey bars, and a large sand pit.

The gnome-filled lawn was a street away, and as he took the bend, Caelan stopped and turned around. He got close enough that he had the gnome-filled lawn in sight, once more, and counted the gnomes. He groaned as he counted the thirty-fifth. His stomach dropped, and pitched forward as his face paled. He gritted his teeth, snarled, and shook his head. With a breath, fifteen shattered. Plumes of dark clouds rose from their hollowed cores, latched onto the nearest shadow and disappeared into them. Caelan felt like he’d floated up from a deep lake bed, as he drew a long breath. The shadows didn’t seem as dark, anymore, but he knew that wasn’t right. It wasn’t midnight, yet, and the trees blocked most of the natural light. The streetlights were dimmed by creeping ivy, and most were in bed or had their curtains drawn. He dug his nails into his ribs, again, and forced himself into motion.

‘Good job, lightweight.’ A croaky, hysterical laugh that sounded more like a submerged barge as it creaked, and echoed. ‘It’s a shame that you didn’t get them all…’

Caelan walked home with his nails still carved into his ribs. Niles was on the stairs. His whole body tensed as his face darkened when Caelan walked in. Caelan didn’t acknowledge him while he took his shoes off, and jammed his hands into his pockets. He stared at his shoes, as he whispered, “I don’t think I can stay. It’s getting worse.”

Caelan didn’t mind Niles’ silence. It was a security blanket, even as he felt Niles wrap his arms around his shoulders. Caelan cried. He tried to whisper through his sobs, as he said, “please. Don’t tell my dad. I don’t want him to think there’s hope. Not after mum.”

Niles stroked his hair, and opened his mouth. Caelan heard a dusty croak; he buried his face as he returned the man’s hug. His tears slowed, he quieted himself, and listened. The man’s voice creaked as he forced it alive with a whisper, “you know I can’t keep a promise like that, but I’ll wait until you’re gone.”

Caelan had to slog through the cackle that he heard from his right shoulder. He didn’t dare look. “I’m sorry, Niles.”

Caelan broke away from the embrace, gathered shadows at his feet, and bound up the stairs, silently. He packed his large gym bag as quickly as he could. Toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, deodorant, some clothes, extra socks, his favourite hat, his sock-drawer money, notebook with important information, pens, Magic: the Gathering cards, a warm blanket, a small box of family photos, and the hand-made mask from his mother. He changed into his least favourite outfit, and grabbed his keys. Then charged down the hall, down the stairs, and to the door where Niles waited with a plastic grocery bag. He signed, ‘take this. You won’t have to stop for food, right away. You’ll get farther.’

Caelan hugged him, took the bag, and thanked him before he slipped out the front door. He looked back as he grabbed his motorcycle. Niles signed, ‘we love you, and next time, call me dad.’

Caelan nodded, maneuvered his motorcycle down the drive, and walked with it until he passed the park. He bit his lip when he thought he felt a tear. It was time to go, and he refused to give that thing anything more to use against him. He hopped on the motorcycle, revved the engine, and set off.

When he settled in for the night, at a hotel, Caelan opened the grocery bag, and pulled out several PB and banana sandwiches, three bottled waters, two apples, and a note. He unwrapped a sandwich, opened the note, and read as he ate.


‘Caelan,

You better text me every chance you get, I’ll hide them, but I expect that you’ll send letters, and postcards, too. It isn’t as if you’ll be dead, and it isn’t unreasonable. I don’t want your father’s heart to break, again.

We might not be able to help, but at least we can be an anchor for you. We won’t blame you, or stop worrying about you.

Your adoptive father, Niles.’


Caelan folded it, gently, and clenched his teeth. His eyes locked on the vanilla white dresser. A tv blared from the room behind the dresser. In the room behind him, he could hear profane shouts, a sharp clap, sobs, and more shouts. He wrapped his sandwich up, and tucked it away with the rest. Then whispered, “next time, aw’right?”



The Loneliest Road…

The heat sizzled off his skin as he rode down highway 50. He missed the more temperate stretch around Kansas. Even the prairie lands around Cimarron were more lush and temperate than the stretch that he was on, now. The drag between Pueblo, and Penrose drained on him, as much as the day. There was still a small stretch before he reached Cañon City’s Hampton Inn. His weariness hung off him like cinderblocks, while his mind stretched the road out further than what it was, and he cranked his music to drown his Shade’s cackled remarks. It would be worth the twenty minute drive to be able to sleep in a bed, again.

When he signed in, Caelan dashed off to his room, hopped into the shower, then laid down in the cramped closet. Water lightly soaked the carpet under him. He stared at the hangers overhead. The shadows swirled above him, as he let out a yawn. ‘I don’t understand how I got stuck with such a pansy ass, so afraid of his own shadow that he’d rather sleep in a closet.’

Caelan narrowed his eyes on the ceiling, groaned, and closed his eyes. ‘What? Got no fight, puss?’

Caelan ignored it as he drifted off. When he woke that night, Caelan got dressed, packed, and set off for Green River. It was a slow ride in, but he loved the peaceful, idyllic appeal as he pulled into parking for the Sleepy Hollow Motel. He checked in, shoved his bag under the bed, and walked down the street to the thrift store. He searched the books with a heated focus.

“Don’t really get young folks around here lookin’ through our books. Too serious for the likes of ‘em.” An older gentleman peeked out from the paint-chipped doorframe.

Caelan strained at a smile. “I’ve got a bucket list, and plenty of time. Do you have Kafka, Fitzgerald, or Huxley?”

“Top-middle shelf.” The gentleman nodded to it. Caelan gave a small genuine smile and nod to the man, then searched along the shelf. He pulled four books off the shelf, and when he paid, the older man chuckled, “not many yur age tha’d read things like this.”

“My father use to say the same when I’d read Tolstoy, McCullers, Henry James, or Walt Whitman.” Caelan shrugged. “I don’t know how unusual it is, though.”

He left with a sharp nod to the man.

Days later, he passed to find the shop’s window busted. He waved the owner down, “what happened?”

“Dead Eyes, and his gang decided to pass through. They weren’t really interested in my shop. Just wanted to cause a fuss.”

“They have a haunt?”

“A rather eerie bar out in the northern part of The Wastes, bu’ don’t get any ideas. Not with that bummed leg.”

Caelan murmured, “I wouldn’t worry about my leg.”



Dead Eyes and Veiled Shade

Caelan stamped into The Elwich Hollow. His golden-rimmed white bunny mask on; the eyes were dark hollows, and his stubbled jaw faded into a gloom. His hair cloaked in a billowy shadow that wrapped down his body. A hollow, crackled cackle resounded through the bar over the caterwaul of the bar. For a beat, there was silence. Caelan forced his voice to reverberate in his chest, and echoed out into the bar. “I want Dead Eyes.”

Silence reigned.

Then a lone chuckle met him as response. “Whadd ye want with me, kid?”

“A word.”

“Lose the frilly Clint Eastwood voice, first.” The rough voice called back. “This ain’t the place for it.”

Caelan stalked up to the second floor, as people went back to their meals, but kept their eyes on him. His nose wrinkled, as he heard that familiar whisper, ‘waste him. Do it. Now.’

He looked around the tables in the loft floor. A crowd filled with ominous stares, and sour faces. At the corner table, there was a fat man surrounded by an array of middle-aged men. His right eye’s pupil was a pinprick at the bottom of his pale iris. He sat back in his chair, a leg dangled on the table, as his hands fidgeted in his lap. Gruffly, the man took a beveler from the table, and dug into a length of leather. Caelan could see the tail end that he’d finished. Poorly carved figures moved along the leather, but Caelan wasn’t able to make out what the man had in his hand. He winced when the man coughed, and said, “eyes on yeself, boy.”

Caelan’s eyes spiralled down to his feet. His breath rattled, as he heard the man’s voice too close, now. It sounded like death — hollow, tinny, and cold. “What’s the word?”

“I—” Caelan didn’t know what to do when faced with Dead Eye. His confidence diminished as he stared at his feet. His heart pounded, his lungs felt as if they’d shrivelled. His eyes floated in their sockets. The smell of alcohol stung, and the dim light felt more like an aberrant desert sun. His bête noire whispered in a guttural, wet way, as it said, ‘spineless coward can’t even do the right thing. Should die a thousand deaths for yet another sin.’

Caelan relaxed his shoulders, eyed Dead Eyes, his nose wrinkled, and he growled. “I don’t have anything to live for… So let me join your gang.”



Hero Crossing

Caelan gawped at the paper. His eyes scanned an article about an invisible hero who could create shields. The paper rattled in his hands. The words blurred, in and out. His body became an accordion as he breathed. This was it. His solution. He stared at the hero’s age. College-aged… He was young, but no one knew his identity. An over-achiever who was out for justice, and likely surrounded himself with similar people. Caelan assumed he was the kind who volunteered at soup kitchens, fought bad guys, regularly talked to cops, and was an exemplary student. Caelan bristled at the thought. It meant that this hero was probably a vapid, self-righteous, and popular type. He sank the paper back in its dispenser with his Shade.

He cocked his head as a crash sounded from a block away. His foot clipped into place on his custom snowboard; the buckle snapped into place. His rabbit mask glinted in the golden light of sunset. His patchwork shirt blazed a crimson trail as he rode a shadowy wave through the packed crowd of locals and tourists.

A few feet into the crowd, Caelan snarled, clipped his board’s nose up, turned to the nearest building, and latched his board to the building front. Caelan rode the building fronts above the crowd. His eyes fluttered along the scene ahead of him. A pale brunette in a green jackal mask waved him down. Caelan used his Shadow Eyes, and stretched his view. He wouldn’t be able to close the thirty foot gap before she’d be apprehended by the Reno PD. Caelan’s heart thumped for a moment, then decided to pull a shady Spider-Man. His wrist flicked upward, middle and index fingers curled under his thumb. A string of shadow shot at the sack in the woman’s arm, and he yanked hard enough to steal it from her. He sped to the roof above him as the sack chased him. Three roof jumps, and he had the sack in hand.

His phone rang, but he didn’t slow. He pulled it from his pocket, breezily. Accepted the call, and in Dolly Parton’s voice, trilled, “hey, hun. Sorry to leave ya high and dry, but I remembered that I have a nail appointment. I just couldn’t cancel, again.”

Caelan had to pull his ear away from the phone as her shouts crashed through, while he splashed off onto a wide stretch between the outdoor mall, and nearest neighbourhood. He sighed, and continued in Dolly’s voice, “look, sugar pie, I had to make a risk assessment. Wish it could’ve been different.”

He hung up, and slammed his phone into his shirt’s breast pocket, as Stradella Way came into view. He rattled out a breath, as he noticed a few stars in the sky. Awkwardly, he ran a hand through his hair. It was still silky soft, but it was so long, now. Already down to his chin. He knew he’d find another large streak of grey, soon enough. He hooked North to Manciano Way, aimed for the wooden fence at the end that would empty him into a large span of desert greenery. He hovered there as he breathed the dusty air, and hummed a few bars of Jolene. Hidden Valley National was South-East, but the mountains to the North-East would mean distance. Caelan caved. He had to go to Hidden Valley, and get his motorcycle and bag. He’d be able to ditch the sack, and take the cash. ‘Not as if the RPD would try to track you. They’re not worth the dirt in their fingernails. They’d rather gorge their faces, gaslight, and bully. May as well take the money.’

Caelan sighed, and rolled his eyes while the disembodied voice cackled. “Should’ve known you’d have something to say… You’re as cliché as they come.”

‘…Ironic.’

“Shut up.”

Another cackle. ‘That pint-size can’t help you. Resign yourself and let me take over.’

“I know he can’t help me, but he could kill you.”

‘You’d be killed, too…’

“Don’t care. You’d be gone, and no one else would be hurt.”

Caelan managed to get his things, and retreat back onto Route 50, through Tahoe National Forest, as he heard sirens blare through Northwest Reno. Amy Winehouse on the stereo while she sang about how she cheated herself of a loving marriage. His helmet’s visor clouded as he smoked an L&M blue.

He pressed his left thigh into his motorcycle as a cramping pain hit his stump of a leg. ‘Why not drive into one of these bloody trees. Who knows, maybe you’ll topple it on your way out.’

“Idiot.”

‘From the man who thinks some runt can do it.’

“Still better than dying an empty, dull way.”

‘How do you plan on getting his help to euthanize you?’

A few long drags, and he spit the cigarette over his wrist. “Put on a show.”

‘Oh, how queer.’

“You got something better?”

‘Just kill yourself. It’d be better for everyone.’

“You’re right. I will get myself killed, but I won’t leave without taking you with me.”

When he stopped in Sacramento, Caelan double-checked another article about the hero, and his maps. He smirked as he circled Foxview on the map, between Rockport and Whitethorn. He tossed the map in his bag, tossed out the bag from his fast food lunch, and took off. A smile on his face, as he went over his plan.

Apply to the colleges and university in Foxview. Get work as a singer and pianist. Masquerade as a shadowy monster on nights that he could afford. Somehow, he’d find the hero dubbed, ‘Invisible Shield’.