5 Page Challenge
Would you be able to tell if one of your friends was a superhero in his spare time? After all, every hero started out as a seemingly normal person. When Anna meets Davin, she can tell something's going on with him. But is he a hero, a villain, or just a troubled, mysterious guy?
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I knew right away that Davin Kowalski was different. For one thing, he was kind of impossible to miss: a tall, scruffy guy in a long black trench coat, often seen sprinting to his next class. He wasn’t known for saying much; but then, he wasn’t really known at all. If anyone could have guessed what was going on in that brain of his underneath his unruly mop of hair, I think we all would have looked at him differently.
As it was, he took great pains to isolate himself and keep his thoughts a mystery. In class—when he made it on time—he sat in the corner, hunched over his desk, always reading or writing something. He was a loner and kept to himself. He was so good at it that most people passed by him without a second glance—unless it was to whisper about him. Most people thought he was sort of scary and went out of their way to avoid him, and he certainly was intimidating. Always dressed in dark clothes and wearing combat boots, he seemed a generally disheveled mess towering over the rest of us.
At first I was no different, no more privy to his thoughts than anyone else. I was a bit on the shy side myself so we’d never actually had a conversation, even though we’d been in a study group once or twice. We had World Civilizations together, one of those liberal arts prerequisites they assign half the freshman class to attend, and our study group was easily a third of that. Even for a small school like Dubsy, that was too many to get to know anyone well right away.
I don’t know exactly what it was about the way he’d come stumbling in late and looking half-asleep that caught my interest. There were cuter—and probably saner—guys in my class that would have been a whole lot easier to get to know. And it wasn’t like I made a habit of trying to salvage hopeless causes. I’d given that up ages ago. But there was just something in his expression that reminded me of my own loneliness and homesickness. Whatever it was, my heart went out to him. Of course, I should have known right then that I was in for a world of trouble.
We were walking out of class one day, and I was by myself. Tiffany, a girl who lived down the hall from me, usually walked to class and lunch with me but had skipped that day. I didn’t really care. I’d eaten plenty of lunches by myself in high school.
It was just an ordinary, crisp fall day and students were milling around, walking over to Phelps Dining Hall. I was not particularly in a hurry; I knew that by the time I got there, the line would already be out the door. Just steps away from reaching the parking lot, I began digging through my bag for my ID card. I rifled through its murky depths and irritably pulled out the folders and notebooks I’d so neatly tucked away just moments earlier. I heard footsteps behind me, but I wasn’t really paying attention. Then I was jostled: an elbow bumped my own and sent my books flying all over the sidewalk. “Hey!” I yelled after the culprit, but he was still moving—running—past.
“Sorry,” he called over his shoulder, his black trench coat flapping behind him like a cape.
Then I saw what he was running to.
Across the street, on the lawn next to the cafeteria, a group of students were playing Frisbee. I watched as a long throw sent one of the guys running backwards into the street after it, oblivious to the car that was backing out toward him. From where I stood, I could see what was about to happen, but it was obvious neither party was aware of the other—a large van was blocking the view.
That was when Davin caught the Frisbee, threw it back to the group, and pushed the guy out of the way just in time. He himself didn’t quite make it out of harm’s way; the car had a bike rack that snagged his forearm and tore his sleeve.
“Hey, keep your game out of the parking lot, morons!” I heard the driver yell as she drove away.
The Frisbee guy, too, was yelling at him. “What was that for?”
By that time, I’d crossed the street as well. “Are you blind? That car would have hit you,” I snapped. “He did you a favor.”
The Frisbee guy frowned and backed away. “Whatever. Just...keep your hands off me, man.”
“You’re welcome,” Davin called after him mildly. He shook his head.
“Jerk,” I muttered; he seemed to suddenly notice me. “Not you. Him,” I clarified.
“You…saw all that, did you?”
“Yeah.” I faced him, looking stern. “Are you crazy? You could have been killed! Or at the very least, seriously injured.”
He glanced over at me. “Well, luckily, no one was. You’re all right, aren’t you?”
“Yes. But if I hadn’t stopped to pick up my books...” I looked at him, curiously. Surely he hadn’t knocked them out of my arms on purpose.
He was looking at my folders. “Star Wars and Spider-Man, huh? Your boyfriend got you carrying his stuff, now?”
“What? These are mine,” I exclaimed indignantly.
“Oh. That’s cool.”
“No, it’s geeky,” I contradicted. “But I don’t care. Anyway, I don’t have a boyfriend.” I shoved them back in my bag, feeling flustered and self-conscious; for an awkward moment we just stood there. “Your arm is bleeding,” I frowned, suddenly noticing.
He glanced down. “Oh.” He shrugged. “It’s just a scratch.”
“That’s what they all say. You know, even little scratches need to be taken care of, or they’ll get infected,” I said.
“What, are you pre-med or something?” He sounded annoyed. “Is that like, Minor Wounds 101?”
“No. Mom Lectures 101.” I reached back into my bag and pulled out my travel first aid kit.
“You carry around a first aid kit?”
“Believe it or not, it comes in handy.” I ripped open an alcohol pad, pushed up his sleeve, and began cleaning his scrape, even though he clearly didn’t want me to. He didn’t exactly stop me, either. “You never know when you might need a band-aid here, some Tylenol there. I like to be prepared.”
“You don’t really strike me as the hypochondriac type.”
I looked up at him, about to apply a band-aid. “I’m not. It’s everyone else I worry about.”
“So...you’re a Boy Scout and a nurse.”
I laughed. “Nope. Neither. Just a concerned citizen.” I crumpled the band-aid wrapper. “All done.”
He inspected my handiwork and flexed his arm. “Good as new. Thank you, Doctor...” He looked at me curiously. “I know I should know your name.”
“Right. You’re in Howard’s class, right?”
“Yeah. World Civ.”
“I’m Davin. Kowalski.”
Of course I was aware of that, but I wasn’t about to let him know it. Even if he was conscious of how his looming presence made an impression on his classmates, it might come off creepy and stalker-ish. And he clearly already thought I was weird. Best to just keep things polite and friendly. “Well, Davin Kowalski, are you headed to lunch?”
“I am,” he replied, but there was something guarded in his tone.
I ignored it. “Okay then,” I said, and I began walking. He fell into step beside me, sort of. I could sense a subtle apprehension on his part, as though he was unsure of himself. I decided the best way to deal with it was to pretend like nothing was wrong, and to talk to him like I would talk to anyone else.
This was harder than it sounds for two reasons: one, it normally took me a while to open up to new people. And two, Davin didn’t exactly give off a vociferous vibe himself. Before when I’d been around him, he’d always given the impression that staring at him too long was a bad idea. As was asking him inane questions like what time it was or if you could borrow a pencil.
I always imagined that if I ever got near him, in an actual conversation, I’d be able to tell what was simmering below the scruffy, dark-clothed surface. Rage? Apathy? Broody emo angst? But up close, the only thing I sensed was deep sorrow. And not ‘life sucks I want to die’ self-pity. I got the sense he’d been through an honest-to-goodness tragedy. What exactly do you say to someone like that? How do you even strike up a conversation? Or, in my case, once you do manage to start a chat of sorts, how do you sustain it?
We stood in line in silence for several awkward moments, only moving about two feet closer to the cafeteria doors. In other words, we were sort of stuck together—at least until we got inside. We shuffled forward a few more inches and I sighed.
“Something wrong?” he murmured, and I glanced at him in surprise.
“Not really,” I replied, allowing myself to look a little closer at Davin. He was not exactly what people thought, that was for sure. “The queue is just moving really slow today.”
“Queue?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Line,” I corrected myself. “Sorry.”
“I knew what you meant,” he replied. “And they’re probably just having technical difficulties. Any minute now it will pick up.”
I let a scoff escape.
He regarded me calmly. “You disagree?”
I shook my head. “It’s not that. I just didn’t peg you as the glass-is-half-full type. But I get it now: you’re a good Samaritan and an optimist.”
The corners of his mouth quirked up slightly. “Not exactly. Just a realist.”
If I hadn’t watched him help the Ungrateful Frisbee Guy with my own eyes, I doubt I’d ever have begun to figure him out. Pushing someone out of harm’s way doesn’t exactly scream “I don’t care.” He might have been tall and imposing, but I was quickly noticing that there was, in fact, more to him. Up close, he was surprisingly better-looking than I’d realized—in a scruffy, messy, unkempt way. Underneath the stubble, trench coat, and unbrushed hair, there was a certain quiet strength. “Right,” I said. “A realist who takes crazy risks to help strangers.”
He frowned at me sharply, but as we moved forward, he merely mumbled, “And you’re a med student who’s far too easily impressed.”
“Not a med student,” I reminded him. “And stop acting like Clark Kent getting caught using his Kryptonian super strength to stop a car or something. It was nice, what you did. Even if the guy didn’t appreciate it.”
Davin stopped walking forward, and a gap widened between him, me, and the people in front of us. Even as a couple impatient classmates bypassed us to enter the cafeteria, he just stared at me. “Who are you?” he asked, in a bewildered tone.
I cocked my head at him, totally baffled. “I told you. Anna Fisher. And I happen to be starving, so let’s go.” I tugged at his arm and led him back in line. He didn’t say anything else as we swiped our cards and got our trays and silverware; I glanced at him a few times as we chose our food, wondering if our strange time together had come to an end. I’d seen the way he ate—he sat alone, for one thing. Usually reading or writing. Sometimes both. Practically at the same time.
After I got my drink, I stood with my tray, scanning the already crowded dining hall. Where to sit? I watched wistfully as a table of girls waved a friend over. Two whole months of college, and I hadn’t made a single real friend. Then I squared my shoulders, reminded myself I was a big girl, and prepared to go it alone. Before I took a step, however, I was startled by someone tapping me on the shoulder; it was Davin, tray in hand and looking awkward. “Um, you don’t have to join me, but if you’re looking for a table, there are a couple good seats over there.” He nodded toward the far end.
“Okay,” I said, and I ignored the stares of a few classmates as I followed him to a mostly deserted table near the back. I sat across from him and just studied him a moment before eating. He noticed and swallowed a bite of his meatloaf before returning my gaze.
“I know you probably think I’m weird, just like everyone else at this school does,” he said abruptly. “You don’t actually have to sit here if you don’t want to. I’m sure you have other friends you’d be more comfortable with. It’s okay, really. I’m fine with being alone.”
“So am I,” I replied. I watched him a second longer. “You’re wrong, though,” I went on. “There isn’t anyone I’d rather be eating with. And the truth is, I don’t exactly know what to think of you. Yet.”
“Let me save you the deep psychological profile,” Davin said. “I’m a mess. Simple as that.”
“If that’s true, I highly doubt there’s anything simple about it,” I returned evenly. “But anyway, you asked me to sit here, remember? It’s not polite to uninvite me now. Especially since we’re already eating.”
“I wasn’t really—I mean, I was just letting you off the hook. In case you just sat here because you felt sorry for me or something.” He shook his head. “But you’ll have to forgive me. You’re the first person—besides my roommate—I’ve had lunch with all semester.”
He nodded. “And this is one of the longest conversations I’ve had. That fact is, Anna Fisher, you bewilder me. With your band-aids and Star Wars and superheroes. You took me by surprise.”
“Oh,” I said, not really sure how to respond to that.
“And since you’ve declined my offer to go sit with more respectable citizens of the Phelps Dining Hall, you might as well tell me more about yourself. Like, where are you from? What brought you to Dubsy?”
I might have been only a freshman, and an out-of-stater on top of that, but even I knew he was talking about our school. Dub-C, or Dubsy, was the nickname students had given Western Pennsylvania College, given that even the initials WPC took almost as long to say as the full name. Apparently the ‘P’ was silent.
“Well,” I sighed, stabbing salad with my fork, “Let’s see. I’m from a couple of places, actually.” I fidgeted shyly, never one to enjoy being in the spotlight. “I was born in San Diego, but my parents are missionaries in Brazil. I’m actually half Brazilian myself—my mom is from São Paulo.”
His eyebrows rose. “Really?”
“Yeah.” He glanced at me again, and I could see him taking in my dark curly hair and light olive skin like I was a puzzle he was mentally putting together. I twisted a strand of my long hair around my finger self-consciously. Sometimes I hated having my mom’s Brazilian genes; they kept me short (my mom and I topped out at 5’2”, while my dad and brother reached 5’9”—so unfair), and I lived in fear of turning out like my aunts. The de Silvas were large (though lovely) women, and by the age of twelve I’d already had more curve than most girls, especially for my height. I’d been particularly insecure about my weight in high school, when we’d moved back to the States and I’d found myself surrounded by tall, wispy blondes. “So,” I went on, “I lived in Brazil half my life, and here the other half, when we were on furlough.”
“Oh? What’s a fur-low?”
I smiled. “A fancy word for a missionary break. It’s when we’d come here for a while—we always called it ‘home’—and tell the churches that supported us about what was going on in our town. You know, raise more money, and stuff like that.”
“Yeah.” I took a bite. “It was weird, but it was my life.” I shrugged. “Anyway, I came here because—well, I got a scholarship—but also, it seemed small and quiet, and in a good community. Not to mention a decent international student population. It was an open door.” I smiled.
“How do you like it?”
“It’s fine,” I nodded over another mouthful. “A bit small.”
“So, are you like, super religious, then?”
I grimaced. I’d been asked that question numerous times since moving back to the states, and I never knew quite how to answer it. “Um, not really,” I said finally. “I mean, I have faith in God, and my family’s beliefs are important to me. But I’m not going to preach at you or tell you you’re going to hell or anything. If that helps.” I took a sip of water. “So what about you?”
He laughed briefly. “Am I super religious?”
“Well, that’s not what I meant, but I take it that’s a no.”
He shook his head. “I mean, we grew up Catholic, but I don’t know. Some days I want to believe in God, but most of the time I just wonder how the world could be so screwed up if He really existed. Why would He let bad things happen to innocent people, you know?” He tightened his jaw as he avoided my eyes and I knew he wasn’t being argumentative or rhetorical. Something had happened to him—or someone close to him—that had shaken his childhood faith.
Throughout my life I’d heard ways to answer this particular problem. But in my experience, those cut and dried, black and white responses didn’t usually make anyone feel better or closer to God, and he’d probably heard them anyway. I didn’t even bother with them. All I said was, “I know. And the truth is, I wonder about that stuff, too.”
“And here I thought you’d have the answers,” he smiled grimly.
I shook my head. “Nope. Still figuring stuff out, like everyone else.” I took another bite of my salad and changed the subject back to him. “Anyway, what I really wanted to ask was what your story is.”
He shrugged and picked at his meatloaf—what was left of it. “Nothing interesting. I grew up near here in the North Hills of Pittsburgh and came here because I got an academic scholarship.”
I knew instinctively that there was a whole lot more to his story than that, but I simply nodded again. Some stories can’t be pried out of a person; they have to be earned. So I went for a safer question. “Academic scholarship, huh? So, you’re more intellectual than athletic. Interesting.” It was a nosy question, I admit. But now that his trench coat was off, I thought I could discern the outline of a fairly toned body under his dark shirt. It was one of the many seemingly contradictive things about him which made me curious; he wasn’t the only one trying to put a puzzle of a person together.
“I don’t know if I’d say that. But I kinda gave up on school sports,” he replied. “I tried wrestling and track for a while, but they weren’t for me. I found other athletic outlets outside of school.”
“Um, I did karate, tai kwon do, stuff like that. A lot of martial arts. Last year I started jujitsu.”
“Jujitsu? Cool.” I grinned admiringly at him. “Isn’t that the discipline Batman likes to use?”
“Um….” He chuckled dryly. “I don’t know. Is it?”
“I think so.” I nodded. “Of course, he’s supposed to be an expert on pretty much every martial art there is. Maybe every fighting style? I can’t remember. Something like that.”
“That certainly would explain why he’s so formidable,” Davin agreed. His brow was wrinkled thoughtfully, but there was a hint of a teasing smile around his mouth.
I shot him a friendly glare. “Don’t mock, okay?”
“I’m not mocking! I didn’t say anything.” He was trying hard to hide a smile.
“Then don’t act like it’s strange for me to talk about Batman. Everybody likes Batman, right? I’m not saying he’s my favorite, but he’s pretty cool. I mean, psychologically he’s kind of a mess, but at least he’s trying to help.”
Something flickered in Davin’s eyes. He leaned forward over his tray. “I can see you feel pretty strongly about this.”
I swallowed another mouthful and put down my fork. “I mean, it’s not on the same level as world poverty or global climate change, but yeah, okay, fine. I like to talk about superheroes.” I folded my arms protectively against myself. “If that makes me a weirdo, so be it.”
“Look who you’re talking to,” he grinned gently. “Around here, I’m practically King of the Weirdos. You’re fine. I just haven’t met many girls who talk about superheroes. Again, you bewilder me.”
I sighed. “I don’t mean to.”
“It’s not a bad thing,” he assured me, but there was something else, something unidentifiable in his expression. His dark brown eyes were fixed on my face, making me feel like the center of his attention for one exhilarating, uncomfortable moment. He took a deep breath, looking like he was about to say something—maybe something vital, when It happened for the first time.
All of the sudden he blinked and sat straight up. He glanced down at his tray, then up at me. “I’m really sorry, Anna, but I’ve got to run.” He stood and began getting his stuff.
I stared at him. “What? Why? You’re barely done with your lunch.” I looked at the clock. “I-It’s not even twelve thirty.”
He looked apologetic. “I just can’t stay. There’s something I’ve gotta take care of before my next class.”
“Oh, okay.” I was surprised at how disappointed I felt, but tried not to show it. I felt like the cliché: Was it something I said?
“Yeah. I’m sorry. Listen, maybe—y’know….” He hesitated and I looked at him expectantly. Finally, he shot me a sad smile and shook his head. “Well, anyway, it was nice to meet you, Dr. Fisher. Hope I’ll see you around.”
And he was gone. I stared after him for a moment, baffled and somewhat irritated. What possibly could have been so important that he would rush off in the middle of lunch? I sipped my ice water slowly. I wasn’t even sure what bothered me more: him leaving, or his lack of reason. I was alone then, even though my table was beginning to fill up as more students came in. Suddenly a tray slammed down in front of me and I looked up to see Tiffany.
“I almost couldn’t find you, way back here,” she said breathlessly. We usually walked from class to lunch together, and ate together, too. She hung her backpack on the back of her chair and sat down. “You have to tell me if I missed anything important in class,” she commanded, “but first, you are not going to believe what I just heard. On the way in, I ran into Lisa’s boyfriend, Nate? Who said that weirdo in the trench coat shoved him in the parking lot for no reason.”
“Wait, just now?” I frowned. Had Davin left merely to pick a fight? The idea alarmed me.
“Well, no,” she shook her head and I relaxed, “he said it was like fifteen minutes ago.”
“In that case, I happen to know there was a reason,” I informed her. “A good one.”
“It sure didn’t sound like it,” Tiffany insisted.
“Well, there was, okay?” I snapped. “I was there.”
“You were? Why? What happened? Spill!”
I sighed. With more patience than I felt, I explained the whole story: that Davin had been saving ungrateful Nate’s life by pushing him out of the way. “He even got scraped by the car, so I gave him a band-aid,” I added.
“And then you had lunch with him?” she grimaced as I finished.
I frowned sharply. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, you know. He’s….”
“What?” I demanded.
She shrugged and made a face like she’d smelled something unpleasant. “Weird. Scary.”
I scoffed and rolled my eyes. “He’s not scary. And what exactly makes him weird?”
“He’s a loner. Always by himself. And he dresses badly. He always looks like he’s been out all night, or down in a basement, building a bomb. And he talks to himself all the time.”
“So what if he likes to be by himself?” I scowled, wondering if she thought the same sorts of things about me. “And who cares how he dresses or looks? I thought we were out of high school.” I wasn’t even going to dignify the bomb-building comment.
“You know they say he went to jail for stabbing a guy,” she persisted. “Just for sitting in his seat.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. Oh, wonderful. The rumor mill certainly had been productive. “And just who is ‘They?’ Anyone who can actually verify this story?”
“All I’m saying is, you should be careful,” Tiffany said, completely ignoring my question. “You don’t know anything about him.”
That’s not true, I wanted to say. I know he’s a realist, he’s okay with being alone, and he helps people when he thinks no one is watching. But of course, I didn’t say any of that. Because despite my protests, Tiffany had a point.
Her attitude about Davin might have been petty, shallow and annoying, but there was a kind of objectiveness about it. Granted, she was judging him solely on his outward appearance, like so many classmates I’d known in high school. I wanted to feel smug about the way I’d delved beneath the surface, trying to find out who Davin really was, instead of glancing at the externals, filling in the blanks and putting him in a neat little category. But the unsettling thing about deciding to look deeper at someone is that once you start, there’s really no end. I’d basically plunged headfirst into a bottomless trench. One band-aid, a bit of conversation, and a half-eaten lunch, and I was done for. The worst part was, for all my lofty goals of digging deeper, I had the strange and paradoxical feeling that I actually knew less about him than before.