Some of the character study stuff written for X, early during development. Call it an issue #0.
Target Acquired #0
Xavier Zimmerman lunges for the grenade as everyone else dives for cover.
His mother crouches before him, her right eye still swollen, the whole side of her face nothing but a sickly green bruise. She tucks in his shirt and unzips his backpack to slip a brown paper bag inside before resting her hands on his shoulder. “Now tell me, just like we practiced. What is your name?”
“No cariño. We talked about this, yes? It is pretend. We are fooling todo el mundo, recuerdas? We change one letter, and you get a secret identity. Tell me your name.”
“Perfecto. You remember: Xavier Z.. One letter change.”
“Xavier Z.,” he repeats. It is not a hard change to remember. They have played this game before. He is not Javier Zorilla, not anymore. Xavier is easier to remember than Gavin and Steve and no one in elementary school uses a full last name. Xavier Zimmerman, his secret identity. A new person for every new school.
“Te amo,” his mother whispers, wrapping her arms around him and raining soft kisses into his hair. “Te amo, te amo.”
He says, “Where is Papá?”
“He will not find us,” she says, standing abruptly. “Te prometo. He will not find us again. And if you see him, you do not speak to him, de acuerdo?”
“Inglés, Xaiver. Like we practiced.”
“And when the teacher asks of you, what is your name?”
“Xavier Z.,” he replies, taking his mother’s hand.
He can’t feel his right hand. He can’t uncurl his trigger finger.
There are other prongs to the prognosis. His face has a distinct downward slant to it and his smile makes him look like the Two Face, but the other part, that seems like the sticking point. He lays awake missing the sounds of the desert, the gunfire in the distance and the feel of the sand beneath his feet. He stares up at the ceiling, nothing but the beeping of the heart monitor in the air, closes his eyes and imagines pulling the trigger to the steady rhythm.
They won’t be sending him back to war.
The first time he’s beaten bloody, he’s only nine years old. He’s not sure of the reasons, just that he’s small and skinny and his mamá has an accent when none of the other ones do. “I should have hit them back,” he says, wincing as Mamá dabs antiseptic against the cut on his forehead.
“What did they say to you?”
“Don’t matter what they say. Should have fought.”
Mamá always looks tired these days, but she doesn’t look sad anymore. She changes her hair as often as her clothes, tries to be a hundred different people all at once, but with this look on her face, it’s impossible to see her for anything but who she is. And Xaiver’s mamá is a smart woman, is someone who has seen monsters, but she’s also someone who runs. “I will not have any boy of mine fighting.”
“Why not? Better than getting beat on. Better than running.”
“Mírame,” she says. “Running may not be the proud thing to do, but I am still here and I am not broken. I have not broken anyone in return. Your papá, he fights and he breaks everything he touches. Claro? Do not be like your papá.”
He’s seventeen years old the first time he picks up a gun, halfway through basic and half terrified that he’s going to kill someone.
It turns out that’s the point.
It turns out he’s very, very good at it.
They give him the jobs no one else can do. Pull him out of basic for more intense training. Black ops. The sort of thing that doesn’t get stories in the newspaper. The sort of thing that gets his hands dirty. Important for winning a war, but not the kind of person who talks about his work back home.
He loves it and he hates that he loves it.
When he’s sixteen he’s in love with a girl called Janie Perrault. She’s tall and gangly, her hair cropped short with a temper that could shape the world. She hasn’t been in more fights than he has, but she’s won hers. She’s the one who scrapes him off the ground and teaches him how to punch, how to win. She’s his first kiss, his first girlfriend and even years later, he’s absolutely sure that he loved her with every piece of himself.
He loses his virginity the night after his junior prom to Janie’s older brother.
They pin a medal on his chest and he shakes a general’s hand from the wrong side. The sling hugs his dead arm to his chest and there’s sweat dripping down his collar despite the chill in the air. He can see Janie waiting for him in the crowd. He’s been writing to her for the better part of four years, but he’d never thought she’d come to see him. Janie’s brother hasn’t been in contact, is—according to his sister—a low level drug dealer living in some hole on the west coast.
After he spots her he doesn’t hear another word of the ceremony. Janie’s standing with her hands shoved in her pockets and even when the rest of the crowd starts to disperse, she refuses to move toward him. Xavier moves to her instead, rubbing the back of his neck with his good hand. “Wasn’t sure you were coming,” he says. “Didn’t think you were going to wait for me.”
“I was never waiting for you, Xavier.” She bounces onto his toes and plants a kiss on his cheek. “And you sure as shit weren’t expecting me to wait. But I got the invite and you’re a friend.”
“Not my girl though?”
“Shit, no. I jumped off that train. Should have jumped it sooner than I did. I’m going out with Scotty Gauge.”
“You should see how the boy filled out. I mean the ass alone.” She whistles. “He’s probably just as much your type as mine.”
Xavier hides his wince, the weight of the medals on his chest heavy. “You can’t be saying that. Not here.” He reaches up to clamp a hand over her mouth. Janie narrows her eyes and licks it making him snatch it back in mock disgust.
“Just because I wasn’t going to wait for you, doesn’t mean I won’t have your back.” Janie blows her bangs up out of her face and looks an arm through his. “It is good to have you back, Z.”
And he’s back for good. The medical discharge isn’t official, but he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that the next assessment of the physical therapist will guarantee it. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do but…
He’s glad he’s alive.
He’s glad his team is alive.
He leans into Janie’s shoulder and tries not to think about how a desk job will probably kill him.
Mamá dies when he’s fourteen years old and out of respect for her, the bullies wait a whole two weeks before the next time they corner him.
“What’s a matter, Xavier, no daddy to come pick you up.”
“Te caigas mierda,” Xavier mumbles.
“We’re in American, dickwad. We speak the English.”
“Eat shit,” Xavier translates, louder.
The foster family doesn’t like him. He can tell. Troubled teens aren’t the kind of people who get adopted, they’d the types to bounce between families. The types that ended up in homes. Mamá never wanted him to resort to violence, but he’s tired and angry and he’s not going to be here for long. It’s not like he has anything to loose.
“Sound like this little piece of trash has something to say.” The biggest boy steps in front of him and pushes him lightly in the chest.
“Go ahead.” Xavier rocks back on his heels and feels hands curls into fists. “I dare you.”
“For a man of your skill,” Major Jollay says, “there are certain options available that may not be known to the rest of the ranks.”
“I’m useless and I know I’m useless,” Xavier says. “I don’t have a head for tactics, no one would respect a drill sergeant who can’t do a chin-up and I ain’t teaching anyone marksmanship with this kind of trigger finger. I’m here to sign my discharge papers, sir.”
“You’re nothing outside this unit, soldier.”
Every bone in his body goes rigid. This is a truth said plainly and Xavier can’t help but believe it. No matter how nice it is to have Janie again, he’s not meant for this kind of life. He starts every time a car backfires but… “I don’t appear to have other options, sir.”
Jollay smiles and says, “Son, there is a place in my program for you. ”
“Sketchy as fuck,” Janie says. “You realize this, yes?”
“He’s a commanding officer,” Xavier replies. His beer is on the table getting warm. The dart board across from him has too wide a spread.
Janie takes a swig from her beer and then grins, leans forward and grabs a sip of his too. Xavier can’t move to stop her one arm is in a sling and the other holding a dart. “The whole military is sketchy as fuck.”
“Steal my beer, insult the marines. I’ve seen people killed for less.”
“Fine, tell you what. Make that shot and I’ll get the tab for the night. Anything you like.”
“Not a fair bet. I never miss.” But his voice breaks on the statement. His dominant hand doesn’t quite work anymore, only the barest sensation in his fingertips. He turns the dart over in his left hand, searches for a grip. One of the requirements in qualifying for a handgun is doing it with both hands.
“Go ahead, hotshot,” Janie says.
It’s all the same principal. Muscle memory. He’s been doing trick shots since he first picked up a gun. Darts are the same. Precise projectiles. Just a flick of the wrist.
Janie whoops, punching a fist into the air. “Look at you. One handed wonder. You’re unstoppable, Z. Sign up for a circus or something. They eat shit like that up. No use almost blowing yourself up again.”
Xavier hesitates before moving up to the board to collect the darts from the game, putting the last two in the sling when his hand isn’t quite big enough to grip them all. “They said they might be able to fix me.”
Janie quiets for a minute, finishes off her beer. “It sounds like experimentation pure and simple. You’re signing on as a test subject and they’ve got your life for at least another four years.”
He looks down at the hand, the dead nerves, the scars. He’s never minded putting his life in someone else’s hands. “They could fix me.”
“Z, you ain’t broken.”
The weirdest part is he’s not supposed to be here. Sergeant Zimmerman is a sharpshooter. He takes out his targets long range, adjusts his sites for the wind condition and then eases the trigger back. He’s not someone for close fighting and it’s rotten luck he’d missed the transport out of this miserable desert. His tour’s supposed to be over.
He’s supposed to be home by now.
His fingers curl over the grenade.
There are two dozen people in the blast radius.
He throws it.
He signs on the dotted line. Jollay escorts him to the location, a facility in the middle of the woods that spans ten stories below the ground. Xavier hikes the bag up on his shoulder with his good arm, trying desperately for the strength to wiggle his fingers. He’s been on military bases before. He knows the kind of security that goes into a top secret project. He’s just not used to seeing it pointed in this direction. It seems like this is a facility designed to keep people inside.
What if Janie was right?
He makes a motion for the door, but Jollay’s hand curls around his shoulder. “Xavier, my boy. Welcome to the Superhero Project.”