Ten years old.

I was ten years old when it happened.

My home life was never what one might call conventional. I lived with my mom and dad. That might not be weird enough, but I also lived with four other adults. Dad called them co-workers, but that’s not what they called themselves. I overheard them talking a lot. It’s easy to ignore the ten-year-old kid playing Tomb Raider while scarfing down Mac and Cheese. You get used to being ignored. It gives you a chance to eavesdrop, which was a skill I had mastered long before I became what I became. When I listened in, I heard one word mentioned over and over again.

The Collective.

That’s what my dad and the others referred to themselves as. Since this was what I was used to, I never questioned it as weird until I was older. The Collective wasn’t a band name from college, nor was it some inside joke for a group of friends.

The Collective were warriors. My dad was very careful to keep all potential weapons out of my gaze and certainly out of my reach, but I spotted them nonetheless, concealed beneath beds, within dressers and occasionally waistbands. I might not have put all the pieces together, but on some level, I knew what the Collective did.

They killed.

There were other signs. The late-night meetings I’d stumble into, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes when a loud noise awoke me. The way every member of the Collective peered outside the window in search of potential danger. Whenever a Collective entered the house, there was always one right at the door to greet them. No one ever came into the house unannounced. Whenever there was a knock on the door, everyone froze – no matter if it was girl scouts or a pizza delivery guy.

There was one knock at the door I’d never forget.

My father was on the phone, pacing back and forth angrily. He raised his voice until he caught sight of me. Then he would turn away and start whispering, only to pace back in the opposite direction and start shouting when he thought I wasn’t paying attention.

I was always paying attention. It’s what you do when you’re a kid, even when your attention span is limited to cartoons. You connect the dots when you get older.

“Are you sure you were followed?” my father said. “What do you mean it didn’t feel right? We need to know for sure!”

That’s when the knock happened. Up until that point, I thought the clear hollow rapping was the loudest noise I’d ever heard. But I was about to be proven wrong.

Very wrong.

As expected, everyone froze. They turned off the television. My mother put down her magazine and slowly rose from her seat. My father looked at Eric, a young man in his mid-thirties. I liked Eric – he always shared his comics with me. Eric cautiously approached the door. Everyone was on edge.

My father pulled his revolver from his waistband and slowly fell in line behind Eric as he reached for the door. He gestured for my mother to take her place next to me. She did so without question, and I felt her warm hands on both of my shoulders.

By the time Eric was within three feet of the door, a loud boom shattered my eardrums. It was so loud I heard wood splitting and metal bending as the door lifted from its hinges. Eric barely had time to get out of the way.

My father and another man, Samuel Adams, were knocked down by the sheer force of the explosion. I watched as they fell to the ground like rag dolls thrown by an angry toddler. Another Collective man, Gabriel Bright, received the full force of the explosion, and the debris punctured his lung seconds before the door crushed him. He died almost instantly.

Three figures entered the room. They were supers, but not the kind you saw on lunch boxes or T-Shirts. These were the bad kind of supers; back in the day, I truly believe there was a line separating the two. I recognized them from TV. One was a ninja named Red Assassin, while the other was a large man named Knuckler along with a cyborg called Autonomous.

Eric ran forward with a shotgun, pumping a full range of buckshot into the oncoming supers. The unexpected burst caused all three supers to stumble back if only to assess the incoming threat. This gave my father and Samuel a chance to return to their feet and dash toward the super.

When you’re a kid, you think your father is awesome at everything, but this was the first time I really realized it was true. My father raised his fists like a prize fighter and started trading blows with Knuckler, one of the toughest bad guys around at the time. He dodged any punch from the brawler and landed a few of his own. Eric kept the red ninja busy with a steady stream of fire from his shotgun, while Samuel gracefully used the lumbering mechanical momentum of Autonomous against him, taunting him like a foul-mouthed ballerina.

The scent of burning dry wall reached my nostrils seconds before the wall behind me exploded. My mother turned to see Solar emerging from the back of the house, a fireball shooting from his hand. I watched as my mother dodged the incoming fireball and then produced a pistol from beneath her Good Housekeeping magazine. She unloaded several shots into the fiery super, who staggered back in pain.

“You’re going to run out of ammo eventually, girlie,” he grinned, and I could feel my mother shuddering for a brief second. Then she reached for the cupboard and produced several more magazines – ammo, not Good Housekeeping. She loaded one into her handgun and continued to fire.

“This is my house, asshole!” her voice rang. I had never heard my mother swear before.

It was awesome.

Then the wall beside came crashing down. Sam had outmaneuvered Autonomous, sending the massing cyborg crashing through the kitchen. It didn’t take his systems long to reboot, however, as the cyborg’s blood-red eye piece zeroed in on a new target.

Me.

I sprinted out of the robotic man’s reach, and my mother did the same. It was her last mistake, as it gave Solar the opening he needed. He raised both hands and unleashed a steady stream of fire right onto her. I managed to turn away, but I’ll never forget the scent of my mother’s perfume intermingled with the burning scent of her skin roasting.

I ran away from the battle scene, but there was no escape from it, not really. I saw Eric fighting off the Red Assassin. He had traded the shotgun for a combat knife, dodging the strikes from Red Assassin’s sweeping blades and dealing multiple stabs to the Assassin’s shoulder. The Assassin made another futile jab at Eric, which he effortlessly deflected with his knife alone. The Assassin was losing blood. Whoever was in the armor was losing blood and focus. I watched on, thinking the Red Assassin would tumble down, but I was wrong.

At that moment, Knuckler saw what was happening. He launched a haymaker. My father had little trouble dodging it, but it wasn’t meant for him. Instead, it caught Eric in the side of his cheek, sending blood all over the wall. Knuckler followed through with an uppercut that was so powerful Eric was lifted off the ground and into the ceiling. I heard his body hit the ceiling with an awful crack, and he remained airborne. I didn’t hear him land outside.

They found his body a block and a half away.

The Red Assassin stood up straight. Maybe he had some sort of medical kit within his armor, or maybe he was just feigning the damage Eric had been doing. It didn’t matter. What did matter was the barrage of throwing knives which flew from his hands. Samuel couldn’t dodge what he didn’t see coming. The knives impaled themselves deep into his throat, and he fell back, gasping for air as the blood drained from his throat. I heard him die slowly, futilely calling for help, as I stood and watched, paralyzed with fear.

The last domino fell as the Red Assassin stabbed my father in the shoulder. With a grunt of exertion, he lifted my father to the wall and pinned him there. I turned away as my father cried out in pain, but I couldn’t turn away anymore, as all supers turned towards me.

“What about the kid?” my mother’s murderer Solar asked with a hint of indifference.

“I didn’t sign up to kill kids,” Knuckler said.

“The orders were clear,” said Red Assassin, turning to me with blades drawn. “No survivors.”

I bolted towards the window. Like my late mother had said, this was my house. I knew the advantages. I knew this window never locked properly, mainly because Eric never fixed it, even though my dad always pestered him about it. I slid open the window and dashed onto the front lawn.

And then I ran as fast as I could. I was surprised at how far I had gotten. I had expected to be torched by Solar and impaled by Red Assassin in moments. Instead, I kept running until someone stopped me. I fought against them, expecting them to be another super. Through I thrashed and tore and even bit at the hand.

“Easy, son, it’s okay! Stop, it’s okay!” a deep voice rang out. I looked up to see a man with skin as black as my own. He was wearing a tan overcoat. Another younger light skinned man appeared behind him.

“We’re looking for John and Mary. Are your mother and father home?” he asked. The mention of my mother brought tears racing down my face. The man in the overcoat saw it.

“Dammit, we’re too late,” the younger man said.

“Stay behind us,” the man in the overcoat said. “It’s going to be okay.”

Autonomous appeared, gazing out the window, his red eye scanning for signs of my retreat. The man removed a futuristic pistol from his overcoat. It looked so strange; I was sure it was some kind of toy. He fired off several rounds. I watched as the separate blasts caught Autonomous in the chest and spent him spiraling back into the window.

We entered the house with the two mystery men standing in front of me. The supers looked visibly shaken by their arrival.

“You shouldn’t be here, Watcher!” he said.

“Neither should you,” the man in the overcoat said as he unloaded several more energy rounds into Solar. He fell against the door, thankfully dead. He reloaded and then fired at the downed Autonomous, reducing the cyborg to rubble within the span of a couple of blasts.

Knuckler rushed forward, but the younger man met him head-on, revealing two chrome gauntlets on his hands. He dodged the first two blows and then punched Knuckler in the torso with such a force the brawny villain actually launched back. The young man kept at it, delivering an uppercut with just as much force as Knucker had delivered to Eric. The villain crashed to the floor. The young man raised his boot and then brought it down on the super’s neck, killing him.

Red Assassin engaged with both men, cutting wildly at them. He managed to knock the young man off balance, but the man in the overcoat punched him square in the jaw. The Red Assassin staggered back, but the older man delivered a chop to the hand, forcing the Assassin to drop his blade. He pivoted back to my father, retrieving his blade from his shoulder. My father slid back to the ground, leaving a trail of blood lining the floor. With the rise of his sword, the Assassin cut deep into my father, ripping his chest asunder.

My father and I screamed out at the same time, but within seconds, he was torn in half.

“This contract is done,” Assassin said defiantly before disappearing in a burst of smoke.

“God, they’re all dead. All of them,” the younger man said. “Except him.”

He looked at me and then back at his boss.

“What do we do with him?” he asked.

“He’ll be safe with the others,” he said, and then he looked down at me.

Safe. In ten minutes, that word now seemed millions of miles away.

“You’re going to be alright son,” he said. “My name is Frank and this is George. We are…were…friends of your parents.”

He said were, and he didn’t know it, but Frank’s phrasing cut me deeper than any blade from the Red Assassin.

It made it all so real.

“You’re not alone. There are others just like you. We’re going to take you to them. You’ll be safe there,” he said.

I was numb. I had just watched my mother immolated and my father skewered in half. How could there be anyone out there who knew my pain?

But I was young, and I was wrong. 

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