Origin Stories (Sara Kate Ellis)
“Your Dad shot you into orbit?” asks Invisia. “Like, alone?”
“He went off his meds,” I say. “Thought the planet would explode and all that.”
“That’s so sad!” Invisia pats my hand and I feel appropriately tragic, noble even, until Epiphany with her perpetually befuddled expression, opens her mouth.
“Yeah,” I say. Invisia’s fingers go translucent and she pulls away. “Why?”
Epiphany jams a tongue thoughtfully into her cheek. “Well, what I mean is, why shoot a baby into orbit if the planet was going to blow up and hit you with debris? Plus, there’d be like nowhere for you to land, right?”
She stares at me like she’s actually expecting me to answer right there in front of everybody. Invisia gets up and steps into the aisle.
“Unless…” Epiphany fixes her eyes on my insignia, the exuberant double Ds scrawled in a rich, earthy damson.
“Unless what?” I say.
“Yeah, what?” Arsonette, our resident firebug, shifts around in her chair to face us. Sinister curls of smoke trail from her lips. “Making things up, DD? Taking after your old man?”
“It’s Damson Damsel,” I say, watching helplessly as Invisia quietly makes for a back row seat before blipping out of sight. “And what’s it to you?”
I direct my glare back at Epiphany, but she’s turned away, brushing a strand of auburn hair from her eyes as she sinks deep into that brain that supposedly harbors her superpower. I still can’t figure out what she does or how she got into this school.
Arsonette clears her throat and we all twist around to the familiar sound of sleigh bells. It’s our mentor, the Caroler, Super Heroine Emeritus at Calliope City’s Institute for Unusual Abilities, and as usual she’s been eavesdropping like a bugged sprig of mistletoe.
“Flung out of space. That is a sad story, Damsel,” she says, wisps of silvery tinsel trailing behind her. “Worthy of the pulps. Or perhaps an overwrought abuse memoir.”
There’s a brief silence before my classmates howl; everyone but Epiphany, who’s always the last to get a joke, but none of their origin stories fare much better. Caroler blasts Rod Iron’s doping mishap during the 2048 Olympics as pure reality show, and calls Invisia banal for getting her powers in a lab accident. The only origin she likes is Arsonette’s, but only on the condition her street urchin past “steers clear of any Dickensian sentimentality.”
None of us knows what that means.
I gaze up at the stained glass skylight behind the podium, a gorgeous splash page of the Institute’s founders: Catscratcher, Fever Pitch, and my idol—the late Girl Friday, last survivor of planet Killdrake. They’re all flying in tandem, fists raised, with the sun at their backs. It’s how things were before Friday’s murder at the hands of Le Morte, before faster-than-light travel sent our villains off to sure-thing dictatorships on developing worlds. Now superheroing’s gone aesthetic, become a choice between lean workmanship and ironic self-deprecation.
The Caroler’s elfin features contort with a mix of disdain and resignation. “It’s time to do away with childish things, candidates. You might be intergalactic orphans or harvested from space incubators, but you can’t skate by on a flashy origin anymore. And forget those hackneyed notions about secret identities or, god forbid, moonlighting in journalism. That won’t pay off your loans.”
On days like this I wonder why I’ve decided on this career, but I always remember my Dad. The last words he spoke from the Calliope Asylum for the Criminally Insane:
“Make up for all the wrong I did, Dammie. Do it for your mother.”
Not that Dad was a criminal really, just a little too smart mixed with a little too unstable. After the whole shooting-me-into-orbit thing, there was a social worker at our house every week, and Dad’s inventions—the nuclear nose hair remover, the spackling paste made from runaway nanoparticles—only managed to dig him deeper into trouble. As for my mother? Never met her, and Dad kind of changed his story a lot. Sometimes she was a cook in a diner, sometimes his lab assistant. What I do know, the one consistent thing about her is that she was special.
* * *
If you think that at the last remaining super school in Calliope City, we’d be learning how to deflect our heat vision off rear view mirrors or how to knock a giant armored Murgatron out of commission, you’d be sorely mistaken. Mostly we sit around, discuss the hegemony of secret identity or the diaspora of the reboot narrative while the police go about the real business of nabbing criminals and reveling in glory.
Combat training and crime patrol at the Institute are a joke compared to the old days. Our mentor is a guy named Jeb Dempsey, a faux longshoreman who eschews the tights for flannels, and slouches off after each rescue to get into a drunken brawl and negate his good deeds. Then there’s his sniveling TA, Little i, who only wears a mask as meta commentary and—when he can be bothered to fight crime—takes out opponents with the measly kicks and jabs he calls footnotes.
“Yo, Damask Rose!” Jeb spits a glob of tobacco on the floor. “I’m putting you and Epiphany in Westhaven tonight.”
“Damson Damsel, Sir. And Invisia and I usually…” I glance over at Invisia. She shrugs apologetically before turning her attention back to Little i.
Epiphany steps up and shoves me gently aside. “Permission to request a more challenging post, Sir.”
She’s right. Westhaven is a posher-than-posh bedroom community. Other than the pranks played by the brats at the Westhaven Psy Academy, a hive of pimply future investment bankers, it’s virtually crime-free.
“Relax,” Jeb clamps a knobby hand on her shoulder, nods at my cape. “Get bored, and you and Damson can have a picnic on that nice little blanket.”
I feel my face go hot, but I should be used to this by now.
Costumes, unless you’re an old timer, are strictly passé. Lightning Bug’s replaced his gilded shoulder bolts with a tasteful monogram, and Rod Iron now hides his physique beneath the sober black leotard of a modern dancer. But I won’t give up my cape, even if my classmates snicker at me, even if Jeb accuses me of nicking it from the bargain bin at Bed, Bath & Beyond the Galaxy. It’s not one of those dainty over-the-shoulder numbers, but a full on mantle that trails after me as I walk. Old fashioned? Sure, but it was my father’s last gift to me, lovingly stitched together during his final stretch in the Asylum, and the one thing that still ties me to my mother.
“You see this color?” Dad asked me, running his finger over the insignia. The Ds were stitched in a deep blue that shifted into tones of purple and magenta. There was something uncanny about the way the colors melded, otherworldly yet familiar, and they dazzled my eyes as I examined the needlework.
“It’s from a rare flower where your mother was born. She wore it on her wedding dress, and I saved it, used it to dye the thread.”
He never told me where Mom was from. After he died, I ran searches for flowers in similar shades. I never found one to match.
* * *
“Look, this isn’t fun for me either.” Epiphany glares across the table of the Westhaven Hotcake House. “Your moping doesn’t help.”
We’ve been up half the night waiting for someone, anyone, to hit a parking meter or break a window, but so far not even a scofflaw. She sighs and reaches up to signal the waitress, her sleeve falling back to reveal a forearm covered in a dazzling tattoo: a woman in a mask and tights, her chest emblazoned with a star in stoplight yellow.
I sit up; remove my face from my palm. “When’d you get that?”
“Just after my acceptance,” she says, tugging up her sleeve. “It was supposed to be a reminder, you know? The ‘me’ I’d hoped to become here. Guess that didn’t pan out.”
She looks at me defensively and slips her sleeve back over her skin.
“Hey, you don’t have to…” I stammer. “I mean, I like it. It’s neat. Makes me feel a little less old school, you know?”
Her expression softens just a little. “Thanks,” she says, and I lean in, try to find the right words. Instead, I feel myself color under her gaze. There’s something warm about her. Real.
“So…” I start, “so what is the deal with you? Are you psychic? Is that it?”
Epiphany averts her eyes. “Everyone thinks that.” She turns her cup over for the waitress.
“Sorry. I just really don’t get your powers.”
“It was worse when I was little,” she says. “Teachers said I was slow, had ADD. But it’s more like there’s a part of my brain that’s busy taking everything in, working things out slowly, and then bam!” She slaps a palm to the table, sends her coffee sloshing over into the saucer.
Epiphany freezes, her face flushed, her smile quietly dissipating as our eyes lock. “Nothing,” she says.
She lowers her eyes, lifts her cup to her lips and takes a long, slow drink like she’s trying to hide behind the steam. “Why don’t you tell me more about your parents.”
“You heard the Caroler. My origin’s a dud.”
“I don’t think so.” Epiphany glances at me, her expression suddenly shy, and I notice the hint of green in her eyes, a depth I hadn’t seen before.
Just then, the door swings open and three Westhaven dandies make a beeline for our table.
“Make yourself useful, heroes!” one of them yells. “Our goddamned school is on fire!”
* * *
When we get there the east wing is engulfed in smoke, flames jabbing outward like kids shaking their fists in a mosh pit. I drop Epiphany in the courtyard and shoot toward the roof, ash scattering in my face, my eyes. I can see them now: seven kids, huddled in the far corner of the rooftop garden. They’re coughing, crying out on stolen gulps of air as the blaze licks at them like some homicidal tickle monster.
I swoop over; try to gauge how many I can snatch up before the flames reach them. Too many to grab all at once, but I have no choice. There’s no time.
I tear my cape from my back. It won’t put out a fire that size, but I can dampen a good corner of it. I fly low over heat, unfurling it like a picnic blanket as the smoke billows upward in protest.
The oldest girl tumbles forward, dragging the smaller kids toward the center of the cape. They clamber over one another. I swing around, the heat pecking my skin as I snatch up each corner and hoist my bundle aloft. The cloth stretches precariously with their weight, but it holds.
When I lower the bundle to the courtyard, the kids spill out, gasping and covered in soot. The youngest has left a pee spot right on my insignia.
“Piss yourself, choir girl?” It’s Jeb. He’s leaning against a fire truck, flask in hand. He gives me a once over, turns up the end of my cape with a polished work boot. “That’s real undignified.”
“Ignore him,” Epiphany says. She slips her arm through mine and pulls us out of earshot.
“What is it?” I say.
Epiphany stops and turns to face me. She stares at me for a long moment, like she remembers me from somewhere but just can’t place my name. Maybe it’s the smoke inhalation, but I go dizzy for a moment, find myself leaning in a little bit closer. She’s leaning in, too, her mouth opening slightly. Then she shakes her head abruptly and steps away.
“What?” I say again.
Epiphany slaps her hands together, starts nodding to herself like I’m not there.
“If those kids from the Psy Academy knew we were around, why not hail us telepathically? We would have gotten here sooner.”
“Lazy rich kids?” I say.
She reaches out, grabs my wrist and my skin tingles at her touch. Her eyes search mine for a moment.
“That’s not it.”
“Nothing,” she says and turns away. “I’m just going to have a look around.”
* * *
Little i presses the rewind button, takes us back through the previous night’s rescue. There I am, cape billowing as I make that first pass over the roof. I’m waiting for my classmates to cheer, to stand up and clap or whoop, but they greet me with silence, even embarrassment.
“Ostentatious, Damsel,” says Little i. “It’s almost as if you’re branding.”
“Corporate sponsor for the linen industry,” Jeb slurs through a wad of tobacco. He stands and gives a loud, theatrical clap.
“Just like you and Wild Turkey, Jeb?” the Caroler says, shooting him a look of disgust. He sneers and sits back down.
“Little i?” Epiphany lifts her hand. “Sir. Can we run that video one more time? There was a theft reported in Westhaven last night. The alien geology museum.”
“The geology museum?” Little i says in a half yawn. “We’re talking about the school.”
“Yes, Sir, but something very valuable was—”
“The police can handle that,” he says, “and speaking of police, I think it’s time I show you something truly remarkable. A beautiful example of the art of heroic transparency.”
Little i directs us to a dull, grainy video from a convenience store. It takes a good ten minutes for the gunman to enter, and another five for the only other customer to leave.
“Is anything going to happen?” Arsonette says, sparking her nails against the zipper of her hoodie. The rest of us cough and shift in our seats. By the time the police arrive to taser the crook, Rod Iron is snoring softly in the back of the room.
Little i gives a sanctimonious clear of the throat, as if we’ve talked through his favorite French film. “Look again. Note the subtle depression of the button below the cash register.”
We still can’t see much beneath the rapid-fire flicker of the monitor, but after a long, confusing minute, Little i points to Invisia. “One of our own has foiled her first crime.”
I let out an exasperated sigh and look to Epiphany for comfort, but she hasn’t even been paying attention. She’s leaning over, whispering something in the Caroler’s ear. The two of them leave the room.
Invisia though, she breaks into a dizzy, yet undeniably beautiful smile, and we stumble into delayed applause. Everyone but Arsonette. She cocks her head, her mouth quirked as smoke curls from her ears.
“You used your powers to call the cops?”
“The police? Yes.” Invisia folds her hands, and a self-satisfied primness coats her features like powdered sugar. She smiles at Little i, rosy cheeks in palms, baby blues swaying to every perfectly timed flip of his forelock, and my heart goes as green and poisonous as Kryptonite. Is this what being a hero means—doing nothing and still taking all the credit?
* * *
I’m not Jeb. I don’t brawl or vomit on the hatcheck girl. A half bottle of Jack is all it takes, and when the numbness hits, I step out and up into the city skies, whooping and playing chicken with the skyscrapers, scaring up the pigeons as they tuck in for the night. This’ll be my new identity. The Caped Drunk. The Swamp of Self-Pity. The Flying Arc of Vomit.
I hit a building.
The windows rattle and the concrete slaps me backward as if I’ve just made an unwanted advance. I’d break my fall if I weren’t seeing stars, but it’s all I can do to squeeze my eyes shut and hope I won’t get billed for the sidewalk repair.
A palm smacks hard across my cheek.
My face is plastered to a greasy countertop, my skin still flecked with salt as I lurch into a sitting position. Arsonette’s got her hand on my back, trying to keep me from sliding to the floor.
The bar is empty, the windows broken.
“Did I do this?”
Arsonette shakes her head and the ground follows suit. I swerve around in my seat, my vision clearing in just enough time to see an enormous metal foot make a bottle cap of someone’s shiny new Prius hovercraft.
Arsonette lights a cigarette with her thumb. “They’re back. Must have gotten bored or something.”
I push myself up from my seat, but my head is pounding. This isn’t a hangover. I feel cold, almost feverish, but I’ve never been sick a day in my life.
“Pretty sweet, ain’t it?” Arsonette says.
She blows a plume of clove-scented smoke into the air, and I see she’s got something in her other hand. Mauve light seeps between her fingers as she taps the object on the countertop.
“Arsonette? Where are the others?”
By the time I get the words out, she’s opened her palm to reveal it, a jagged chunk of damson crystal. If my head were clearer I’d be able to isolate this feeling, this shock of recognition now surging through me in waves of pain and nausea. Arsonette stubs out her cigarette, holds the stone up to my face.
“Just for you, Dammie. A present. From home.”
* * *
I wake to snoring and the reek of Old Spice. Jeb is tied up next to me, his drool-smeared cheek lilting precariously close to my arm. Sweat soaks my costume, trickles down my face like the dull tip of a knife.
“Dammie? You awake?”
Invisia’s to the other side of me, bound back-to-back with Little i. I spot his fingers stretching beneath the ropes, trying to brush her thigh.
“Can you get us out?” she says.
“I can try.”
Arsonette has done a lousy job of chaining me up, like some camper going balls out
on a paperclip necklace, but I’m too weak to gain any leverage, much less pull them apart.
“Hiya!” Arsonette drops to the floor in front of us, and a shiver passes through me. I can see it as she rocks back on her heels, that burgundy glow emanating from her pocket.
“What isthat?” I say. The words are barely a whisper.
“Oh, you mean this?” She plucks out the crystal, places it a few feet out of reach. “Gee, fangirl, I thought you’d have figured it out by now. I guess it does sort of dim the lights.” She taps the side of her head. The thing glistens like a mauve river teeming with bioluminescent organisms all swirling around one another, mesmerizing me. I can feel my pulse slowing, my mouth drying up while the rest of me steeps in sweat.
“Where are others?” I ask.
“Murgatrons got ‘em, I guess.”
Arsonette’s amassed a pile of textbooks in front of the skylight. She snatches up two more and tosses them on the heap.
“I gotta say. You did a great job on that fire the other day, but these eggheads? They celebrated the invisible pipsqueak here for calling the cops.”
Little i pipes up suddenly. “Fighting crime is a critical process. We were trying to impart—”
He yelps as Arsonette, her hair a tangle of crackling flames, brings a foot down on his roaming fingers.
“Impart what exactly?” She picks up a couple of books. “The Grammatology of Emblems? The Liminality of the Sidekick? I coughed up five hundred credits. For this?”
“Where did you get the Murgatrons?” Invisia says, her voice shaking. “I thought they were incinerated after the Federation of Foul left Sol.”
Arsonette grins, takes a step back to survey the pile. “You don’t go through a street urchin past without rackin’ up a few favors. When Bong the Belligerent left to start New Pyongyang, he told me where he kept his stash, somewhere nobody would look—Stockton! It was just a matter of powering ‘em up, and I’m a one-girl frackin’ operation.”
“In heat’s more like it!” Jeb belches.
I gag as a whiff of his cough syrup wafts past my nostrils. Arsonette turns, a burning frond falling over one eye. “You know, Jeb? That Norman Mailer crap was tired when it was Norman Mailer.”
She takes a leisurely step closer and opens her palm, allowing a bright ball of flame to grow in its center. Then she puckers her lips and blows. The orb hovers like a miniature sun before descending, and I squeeze my eyes shut as the brightness enfolds us, the heat flash drying the sweat on my skin. Jeb screams once, long and loud as the heat sears my skin, and then nothing.
When I open my eyes, there’s no light. No Jeb either. Just ash and bone and the remnants of a charred longshoreman’s cap.
And something else. The crystal. The blaze has rendered it black and lifeless like an unlit briquette. Perhaps I’m imagining, but I can feel the nausea dissipating, my strength returning.
“You know, I liked you, Dammie. You and that slow chick, wherever she is,” Arsonette says. “I’m sorry it has to end this way, but I need to make this town safe again, safe for stories where things can happen.”
Drunk on her own audacity, she floats to the top of the pile of textbooks. She doesn’t even notice her handiwork, doesn’t see the color returning to my face.
I make quick work of the chains as blue sparks flicker from her fingertips. She sets the heap alight, sending tendrils of flame zigzagging down the pile.
I get to my feet, pluck up the stone and hurl it at her, clocking her in the back of the head. She whirls around, eyes wide, shock and pain melding into rage.
“Who says nothing happens?” I say.
She slings a volley of molten buckshot at me as I charge her, but she’s not fast enough to build up heat or momentum. She thrashes about wildly as I get her in a headlock, but the pile has become a bonfire now. It’s spreading closer to Invisia and Little i, licking at the skylight, at the beams overhead.
I have to let her go, get the rest of them out before the fire takes the building.
Arsonette slithers from my arms, smashes fists first through the skylight, leaving only a slim black trail of smoke behind her. The stained glass shatters, ushering in a blast of air that will feed the flames.
I feel it then, a welcome chill fluttering over my skin like a department store entrance in summer. Something cold touches my nose, wets my tongue like a tiny kiss of hope.
The Caroler and Epiphany descend on a strand of tinsel as snow drops on us in great sloppy confetti, dousing the flames, coating our skin with welcome damp as sleigh bells ring and the scent of candied mint smothers the reek and smoke.
“She said the Murgatrons got you,” I say. I close the distance between us and fall into the warmth of Epiphany’s arms.
“There weren’t any Murgatrons,” she says. She presses her fingers lightly to my temples. “They were psionic hallucinations cooked up by those Westhaven brats. They were in cahoots with Arsonette. They wanted to create a market panic. She wanted that.”
Epiphany nods over at the blackened crystal and my breath stalls in my throat.
“That’s what was stolen from the museum,” Epiphany says. “It is, or was, the only specimen of Killdrakium. The very substance Le Morte used to kill—”
“Girl Friday.” I remember my father’s last words. Your mother.
Epiphany takes my hand, presses it in her own. “I’m sorry. I should have told you my suspicions sooner, but I was still fitting the pieces together and, unfortunately, Arsonette’s psychic preppies were keeping tabs on our thoughts. She got to the Killdrakium, and to you, first.”
“So the whole orbit thing wasn’t true.” I’m reeling now. I take a step forward and find my knees going weak, but Epiphany’s arms are there to steady me.
“Girl Friday left many enemies behind,” the Caroler says, sawing at Invisia’s bonds with the broken end of a candy cane. “He had to protect you, and to do that he needed to create a convincing explanation for your powers. Hence, the old baby in the rocket story.”
“You knew?” I say.
“I hoped,” says the Caroler. “That’s quite a bit different from knowing. I’ll admit it is why I critiqued your origin so harshly. I can understand hiding you in the limelight, but you’d think he’d come up with something a tad less cliché.”
“Imagine,” Epiphany says, flashing me a wry grin, “someone slower on the uptake than me. Must be fate.”
“Excuse me,” says Little i. He’s put his mask back on, but the flaring nostrils are anything but ironic. “Shouldn’t we go after that monster you just let go?”
He thumps his finger into my chest and slips a proprietary arm around Invisia. She shrugs him off and turns to me, her eyes dewy or maybe just watery from the smoke. Whatever the cause, I don’t care. I lace my fingers through Epiphany’s, feel the pressure as she gently tightens her grip.
“And why should we do that?” the Caroler says. “Rather ostentatious, don’t you think? Kind of like branding?”
“You can’t be serious!” he says.
The Caroler raises an eyebrow, fixes Epiphany and me with an impish smile. “As much as the aesthete in me is loath to admit, heroes of mettle require proper villains. I know no one likes a binary around here, but capture her now, and what will we do for a nemesis?”
“You hear that, Damsel?” says Epiphany. “We’ve got a nemesis.” Epiphany reaches up and slips her arms around my neck, her sleeve falling back to reveal that brilliant tattoo, a future bright and unashamed.
We’ve got a nemesis, I think. And I’ve got a past, and an epiphany—small e—about missing the Epiphany right in front of me. The Caroler would groan at that, but as we lift off into the cinder-lit sky, it’s hard to worry about clichés or branding or even getting my origin story just right. All I can think is that some things take time.