by J.M. Frey
From in “HERO is a Four Letter Word” (Here There Be, 2020).
Bullets fired into a crowd. Children screaming. Women crying. Men crying, too, not that any of them would admit it. The scent of gun powder, rotting garbage, stale motor oil, vomit, and misery. Police sirens in the distance, coming closer, making me cringe against old memories. Making me skulk into the shadows, hunch down in my hoodie, a beaten puppy.
This guy isn’t a supervillian. He isn’t even a villain, really. He is just an idiot. A child with a gun. And a grudge. Or maybe a god complex. Or a revenge scheme. Who the hell cares what he thought he had?
In the end, it amounts to the same.
The last place I want to be is in the centre of the police’s attention, again, so I sink back into the fabric, shying from the broad helicopter searchlights that sweep in through the narrow windows of the parking garage.
If this had been before, I might have leapt into action with one of my trusty gizmos. Or, failing that, at least with a witty verbal assault that would have left the moron boy too brain-befuddled to resist when I punched him in the oesophagus.
But this isn’t before.
I keep my eyes on the sky, instead of on the gun. If the Brilliant Bitch arrives, I want to see.
No one else is looking up. It has been a long, long time since one of…us…has donned sparkling spandex and crusaded out into the night to roust the criminal element from their lairs, or to enact a plot against the establishment, to bite a glove-covered thumb at ‘the man.’ A long time since one of us has done much more than pretend to not be one of us.
The age of the superhero petered out surprisingly quickly. The villains learnt our lessons; the heroes became obsolete.
A whizzing pop beside my left ear. I duck behind the back wheel of a sleek penis-replacement-on-wheels. The owner will be very upset when he sees the bullet gouges littering the bright red altar to his own virility.
I’ve never been shot before. I’ve been electrocuted, eye-lasered, punched by someone with the proportional strength of a spotted gecko and, memorably, tossed into the air by a breath-tornado created by a hero whose Italian lunch my schemes had clearly just interrupted.
Being shot seems fearfully mundane after all that.
A normal, boring death scares me more than any other kind—especially if it’s due to a random, pointless, unpredictable accident of time and place intersecting with a stupid poser with the combination to daddy’s gun drawer and the key to mommy’s liquor cabinet. I had been on the way to the bargain grocery store for soymilk. It doesn’t look like I’m going to get any now.
Because only the extraordinary die in extraordinary ways. And I am extraordinary no longer.
I look skyward. Still no Crimson Cunt.
Someone screams. Someone else cries. I sit back against the wheel and refrain from whistling to pass the time. If I was on the other side of the parking garage, I could access the secret tunnel I built into the lower levels back when the concrete was poured thirty years ago. But the boy and his bullets are between us. I’ve nothing to do but wait.
The boy is using a 9mm Barretta, military issue, so probably from daddy’s day job in security at the air force base. He has used up seven bullets. The standard Barretta caries a magazine of fifteen. Eight remain, unless one had already been prepared in the chamber, which I highly doubt as no military man would be unintelligent or undisciplined enough to carry about a loaded gun aimed at his own foot. The boy is firing them at an average rate of one every ninety-three seconds—punctuated by unintelligible screaming—and so by my estimation I will be pinned by his unfriendly fire for another seven hundred and forty-four seconds, or twelve point four minutes.
However, the constabulary generally arrive on the scene between six and twenty-three minutes after an emergency call. As this garage is five and a half blocks from the 2nd Precinct, I estimate the stupid boy has another eight point seven minutes left to live before a SWAT team puts cold lead between his ribs.
Better him than me.
Except, probability states that he will kill another three bystanders before that time. I scrunch down further, determined not to be a statistic today. This brings me directly into eye-line with a corpse.
There is blood all around her left shoulder. If she didn’t die of shock upon impact, then surely she died of blood loss. Her green eyes are wide and wet.
I wonder who she used to be.
I wonder if she is leaving behind anyone who will weep and rail and attend the police inquest and accuse the system of being too slow, too corrupt, too over-burdened. I wonder if they will blame the boy’s parents or his teachers. Will they only blame themselves? Or her?
And then, miraculously, she blinks.
Well, that certainly is a surprise. Perhaps the trauma is not as extensive as I estimated. To be fair, I cannot see most of her. She has fallen awkwardly, the momentum of her tumble half-concealing her under the chassis of the ludicrously large Hummer beside my penis-car.
I am so fascinated by the staggering of her torso as she tries to suck in a breath, the staccato rhythm of her blinks, the bloody slick of teeth behind her lips, that it’s all over before I am aware of it.
This must be what people mean by time flying.
I’m not certain I’ve ever felt that strange loss of seconds ever before. I am so very used to being able to track everything. It’s disconcerting. I don’t like it.
And yet the boy is downed, the police are here, paramedics crawling over the dead and dying like swarming ants. I wait for them to find my prize, to pull her free of the SUV’s shadow and whisk her away to die under ghastly fluorescent lights, too pumped full of morphine to know she is slipping away.
I wait in the shadow of the wheel and hope that they miss me.
Only, in missing me, they miss her, as well. She is blinking, gritty and desperate, and now the police are leaving, and the paramedics are shunting their human meat into the sterile white cubes, and they have not found her, my fascinating, panting young lady.
Oh dear. This is a dilemma.
I am reformed. I am no longer a villain. But I am also no hero and I like my freedom far too much to want to risk it by bringing her to the attention of the officials. What to do? Save her and risk my freedom, or let her die, and walk free but burdened with the knowledge of yet another life that I might have been able to save, and didn’t?
I dither too long. They are gone. Only the media are left, and I certainly don’t want them to catch me in their unblinking grey lenses. The woman blinks, sad and slow. She knows that she is dead. It’s coming. Her fingers twitch towards me—reaching.
A responsible, honest citizen would not let her die. So I slink out of my shadow and gather her up, the butterfly struggle of her pulse in her throat against my arm, and slip away through my secret tunnel.
I steal her away to save her life.
It occurs to me, when I lean back and away from the operating table, my hands splashed with gore, that I’ve kidnapped this woman. She has seen my face. Others will see the neat way I’ve made my nanobots stitch the flesh and bone of her shoulder back together. They will recognize the traces of the serum that I’ve infused her with in order to speed up her healing, because I once replaced the totality of my blood with the same to keep myself disease free, young looking, and essentially indestructible. The forensics agents will know this handiwork for mine.
And then they will know that at least one of my medical laboratories escaped their detection and their torches. They will fear that. No matter that I gave my word to that frowning judge that I had been reformed, no matter that the prison therapist holds papers signed to that effect, no matter that I’ve personally endeavoured to become and remain honest, forthright, and supportive; one look at my lair will remind them of what I used to be, what they fear I might still be, and that will be enough. That will be the end. I will go back to the human zoo.
And I cannot have that. I’ve worked too hard to be forgotten to allow them to remember.
I take off the bloody gloves and apron and put them in my incinerator, where they join my clothing from earlier tonight. I take a shower and dress—jeans, a tee-shirt, another nondescript wash-greyed hoodie: the uniform of the youth I appear to number among. Then I sit in a dusty, plush chair beside the cot in the recovery room and I wait for her to wake. The only choice that seems left to me is the very one I had been trying to avoid from the start of this whole mess—the choice to go bad, again. I’ve saved her life, but in doing so, I’ve condemned us both.
Fool. Better to have let her died in that garage. Only, her eyes had been so green, and so sad…
I hate myself. I hate that the Power Pussy might have been right: that the only place for me is jail; that the world would be better off without me; that it’s a shame I survived her last, powerful assault.
When she wakes, the first thing the young woman says is, “You’re Proffes—”
I don’t let her finish. “Please don’t say that name. I don’t like it.”
Her sentence stutters to a halt, unsaid words tumbling from between her teeth to crash into her lap. She looks down at them, wringing them into the light cotton sheets, and nods.
“Olly,” I say.
Her face wrinkles up. “Olly?”
The confusion clears, clouds parting, and she flashes a quirky little gap between her two front teeth at me. “Really? Seriously? Oliver?”
I resist the urge to bare my own teeth at her. “Yes.”
“Okay. Olly. I’m Rachel.” Then she peers under the sheet. She cannot possibly see the tight, neat little rows of sutures through the scrubs (or perhaps she can, who knows what powers people are being born into nowadays?), but she nods as if she approves and says, “Thank you.”
“I couldn’t let you die.”
“The Prof would have.”
She nods. “Okay.”
“Are you thirsty?” I point to a bottle of water on the bedside table.
She makes a point of checking the cap before she drinks, but I cannot blame her. Of course, she also does not know that I’ve ways of poisoning water through plastic, but I won’t tell her that. Besides, I haven’t done so.
“So,” she says. “Thank you.”
I snort, I can’t help it. It’s a horribly ungentlemanly sound, but my disbelief is too profound.
“Don’t laugh. I mean it,” she says.
“I’m laughing because you mean it. Rachel.” I ask, “How old are you?”
She blushes, a crimson flag flapping across a freckled nose, and I curse myself this weakness, this fascination with the human animal that has never managed to ebb, even after all that time in solitary confinement.
“Twenty-three,” she says. She is lying—her eyes shift to the left slightly, she wets her lips, her breathing increases fractionally. I see it plain as a road sign on a highway. I also saw her ID when I cleaned out her backpack. She is twenty-seven.
“Twenty-three,” I allow. “I was put into prison when you were eight years old. I did fifteen years of a life sentence and was released early on parole for good behaviour and a genuine desire to reform. The year prior to my sentencing I languished in a city cell, and the two before that I spent mostly tucked away completing my very last weapon. Therefore, the last memory you can possibly have of the ‘Prof,’ as you so glibly call him, was from when you were six.” I sit forward. “Rachel, my dear, can you really say that at six years old you understood what it meant to have an honest to goodness supervillain terrorizing your home?”
She shakes her head, the blush draining away and leaving those same freckles to stand out against her glowing pale skin like ink splattered on vellum.
“That is why I laughed. It amuses me that I’ve lived so long that someone like you is saying thank you to me. Ah, and I see another question there. Yes?”
“You don’t look old enough,” she says softly.
I smile and flex a fist. “I age very, very slowly.”
“Well, I know that. I just meant, is that part of the…you know, how you were born?”
“No,” I say. “I did it to myself.”
“Do you regret it?”
I flop back in my chair, blinking. No one has ever asked me that before. I’ve never asked myself. “I don’t know,” I admit. “Would you?”
She shrugs, and then winces, pressing one palm against her shoulder. “Maybe,” she admits. “I always thought that part of the stories was a bit sad. That the Prof has to live forever with what he’s done.”
“No, not forever,” I demur. “Just a very long time. May I ask, what stories?”
“Um! Oh, you know, social science—recent history. I had to do a course on the Superhero Age, in school. I was thinking of specializing in Vigilantism.”
“A law student, then.”
“Yes, it sort of is, isn’t it?” She smiles faintly. “What is it about superheroes that attracts us mousy sorts?”
“I could say something uncharitable about ass-hugging spandex and cock cups, but I don’t think that would apply to you.”
“Cape Bunnies?” she asks, with a grin. “No, definitely not my style.”
“Cape Bunn—actually, I absolutely have no desire to know.” I stand. I feel weary in a way that has nothing to do with my age. “If you are feeling up to it, Rachel, may I interest you in some lunch?”
“Actually, I should go,” she says. “I feel fantastic! I mean, this is incredible. What you did. I thought I was a goner.”
“You nearly were,” I say.
“And thank you, again. But my mom must be freaking out. I should go to a hospital or something. At least call her.”
“Oh, Rachel,” I say softly. “You’ve studied supervillians. You know what my answer to that has to be.”
She is quiet for a moment, and then those beautiful green eyes go wide. “No,” she says.
“I am sorry. I didn’t mean to trade my freedom for yours. I thought I was doing good. For once.”
“But…but,” she stutters.
She blinks and then curses. “Stupid, I’m not talking about that! I mean, they can’t really think that about you, can they? You saved my life. This…this isn’t a bad thing!”
I laugh again. “Are you defending me? Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Don’t condescend to me!” she snaps. “That’s not fair. You’ve done your time. You saved me. Isn’t that enough for them?”
“Oh, Rachel. You certainly do have a pleasant view of the world.”
“Don’t call me naïve!” The way she spits it makes me think that she says this quite often.
“I’m not,” I say. “Only optimistic.” I gesture through the door. “The kitchen is there. I will leave the door unlocked. I’ve a closet through there—take whatever you’d like. I’m afraid your clothing was too bloody.”
“Fine,” she snarls.
I nod once and make my way into the kitchen, closing the door behind me to leave her to rage and weep in privacy. I know from personal experience how embarrassing it is to realize that your freedom has been forcefully taken from you, in public.
I built this particular laboratory-cum-bolthole in the 1950s, back when the world feared nuclear strikes. I was a different man then, though no less technologically apt, and so it has been outfitted with all manner of tunnels and closets, storage chambers, libraries, and bedrooms. The fridge keeps food fresh indefinitely, so the loaf of bread, basket of tomatoes and head of lettuce I left here in1964 are still fit makings for sandwiches. I also open a can of soup for us to share.
She comes out of the recovery room nine thousand and sixty-six seconds—fifteen point eleven minutes—after; a whole three minutes longer than I had estimated she would take. There is stubbornness in her that I had not anticipated, but for which I should have been prepared. She did not die in that garage, and it takes great courage and tenacity to beat off the Grim Reaper.
“I’m sorry, Oliver,” she says, and sits in the plastic chair. I suppose the look is called “retro” now, but this kitchen was once the height of taste.
“Why are you apologizing to me?” I set a bowl in front of her. She doesn’t even shoot me a suspicious look; I suppose she’s decided to take the farce of believing me a good person to its conclusion.
“It sucks that you’re so sure people are going to hate you.”
She pouts miserably and sips her soup. It’s better than the rage I had been expecting, or an escape attempt. I wasn’t looking forward to having to chase her down and wrangle her into a straitjacket, or drug her into acquiescence. I would hate to have to dim that keen gaze of hers.
I sit down opposite her and point to her textbook, propped up on my toaster oven for me to read as I stirred the soup. It had been in the bloody backpack I stripped from her, and seemed sanitary enough to save. Her cell phone, I destroyed.
“This is advanced, Rachel,” I say. “Are you enjoying it?”
She flicks her eyes to the book. “You’ve read it.”
“Nearly finished. I read fast.”
“You didn’t flip to the end?”
“No,” she blurts. “No. Go at your own pace. I just…I mean, I do like it,” she said. “Especially the stuff about supervillain reformation.”
I sigh and set down my spoon. “Oh, Rachel.”
“I’m serious, Oliver! Just let me make a phone call. I promise, no one will arrest you. I won’t even tell them I met you.”
“You won’t have to.”
She slams her fists into the tabletop, the perfect picture of childish frustration. “You can’t keep me here forever.”
“I can,” I say. “It is physically possible. What you mean to say is, ‘You don’t want to keep me here forever.’”
She goes still. “Do you want to?”
I can. I know I can. I can be like one of those men who kidnaps a young lady and locks her in his basement for twenty years, forcing her to become dependent on him, forcing her to love him. But I don’t want to. I’ve nothing but distaste for men who can’t earn love, and feel the need to steal it. Cowards.
“No,” I say.
“Then why are you hesitating? Let me go.”
“Not until you’re fully healed, at least,” I bargain. I’m not used to bargaining. Giving demands, yes. But begging, never. “When no trace of what I’ve done remains. Is that acceptable? But in return, you must not try to escape. You could hurt yourself worse, and frankly I don’t want to employ the kind of force that would be required to keep you. That is my deal.”
I sneer. “I don’t break promises.”
“I know,” she says. “I read about that, too. Okay. It’s a deal.”
I spend the night working on schematics for a memory machine. I’ve never tampered with the mind of another before—I respect intellect far too much to go mucking about in someone’s grey matter like a child in a tide pool—but I have no other choice. Rachel cannot remember our time together.
Rachel sleeps in one of the spare bedrooms. She enjoyed watching old movies all afternoon, and I confess I enjoyed sitting beside her on the sofa. We had frozen pizza for dinner, and her gaze had spent almost as much time on the screen as on my face.
In the morning, my blueprints are ready and my chemicals begin to simmer on Bunsen burners. I leave the lab and find her at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and flipping through my scrapbook. It’s filled with newspaper articles and photos, wanted posters and DVDs of news broadcasts. I’ve never thought to keep it in a safe or to put it away somewhere because, besides Miss Rachel, no one has ever been to this bolthole but me.
“You found the soymilk, I see,” I say. She nods and doesn’t look up from her intense perusal of a favourite article of mine, the only one where the reporter got it. “And my book.”
“It’s like a shrine,” she says. “I thought you’d hate all these superheroes, but there’s just as much in here about them as you.”
“I’ve great respect for anyone who wants to better the world.” I touch the side of the coffeepot —still warm. I pour myself a cup and sit across from her.
“See… that’s what’s freaking me out, a bit,” she says. “You’re such a…”
“You seem like such a sweet guy.”
I laugh again.
“Don’t mistake my youth for sweetness.”
“I’m not, but…I don’t know, you’re not a supervillain.”
“I’m not a superhero, either.”
“You can be something in the middle. You can just be a nice guy.”
“I’ve never been just a ‘nice guy,’ Rachel. Not even before.”
“I think you’re being one now.” She leans across the table and kisses me. I don’t close my eyes, or move my mouth. This is a surprise too, but an acceptable one.
When she sits back, I ask, “Is this why you were studying my face so intently last night while you pretended to watch movies?”
She blushes again, and it’s fascinating. “Shut up,” she mumbles.
I smile. “Are you a Cape Bunny after all, Miss Rachel?”
“A Labcoat Bunny, maybe,” she says. “I’ve always gone for brain over brawn.”
“Who are you lashing out against,” I ask calmly, my tone probably just this side of too cool, “that you think kissing the man who has kidnapped you is a good idea?”
Rachel drops back down into her seat. “Way to ruin the moment, Romeo.”
“That is not an answer.”
“And, that, dear Rachel, is a lie.”
She throws up her hands. “I don’t know, okay! My mother! The school! The courts! The whole stupid system! A big stupid world that says the man who saved my life has to go to jail for it!”
“I am part of the revenge scheme, then,” I say. “If you come out of your captivity loving your captor, then they cannot possibly think I am evil. You have it all planned out, my personal redemption. Or perhaps this is a way to earn a seat in that big-ticket law school?”
She stares at me, slack jawed, a storm brewing behind those beautiful green eyes. “You’re a bit of a dick, you know that?”
“That is what the Crimson Cunt used to—”
“Don’t call her that.”
“Why not? The Super Slut won’t hear me say it. Not under all this concrete.”
“Why?” I sneer. “Protecting a heroine you’ve never met?”
“She deserves better, even from you!”
“Oh, have I ruined your image of me, Rachel? Am I not sweet and misunderstood anymore?”
“You still shouldn’t—”
“What, hate her? She put me in jail!” I copy her and slam my fists on the tabletop. My mug topples, hot liquid splashing out between us. “I think I’ve a right to be bitter about that.”
“But it was for the good! It made you better.”
“No, it made me cowed. I’ve lost all my ambition, dear Rachel. And that is why I am just a normal citizen. I am too tired.”
“Don’t say her name, either!”
Rachel stands and pounds her fists on the table again, shaking my fallen mug, and I stand as well, too furious to want to be shorter than her.
“Asshole!” she snarls.
“And she was a ball-breaker on a power trip. She was no better for the city than I! The only difference was that she didn’t have the gumption, the ambition, the foresight to do what had to be done! I was the only one who saw! Me. She towed the line. She kept the status quo. I was trying to change the world! She was just a stupid blonde bimbo with huge tits and a small brain—”
“Don’t talk about my mother that way!”
I drop back down into my seat, knees giving way without my say-so. “Well, this is a turn,” I admit.
“Everyone knows!” she spits. “It’s hard to miss. Same eyes, same cheekbones.”
“I’ve never seen your mother’s eyes and cheekbones.”
“What, were you living under a rock when she unmasked?”
I smile, and it’s thin and bitter. “I was in solitary confinement for five years. By the time I got out, it must have been old news. And I had no stomach to look up my old nemesis.”
Rachel looks away, and her eyes are bright with tears that don’t skitter down her cheeks. I wonder if they are for her mother, or for herself, or because I’ve said such terrible things and her opinion of me has diminished. They are certainly not because she pities me.
Nobody pities me. I got, as I am quite often reminded, exactly what I deserved.
“What does your mother do now?” I ask, after the silence has become unbearable. There is nothing to count or calculate in the silence, besides the precise, quiet click of the second hand ticking ever onward, ever onward, while I am left behind.
“Socialite,” Rachel says. “Cars. Money. Married a real estate developer.”
“Is he your father?”
She swings her gaze back to me, sharp. “Why would you ask that?”
“Why does the notion that he might not be offend you?”
Her lips pucker, and with that scowl, I can see it: the pissy frown, the stubborn thrust of her chin. There is the Fantastic Floozy, hating me through her daughter.
“It doesn’t,” she lies. She twists her hands in front of her again. “Fine, it does. I don’t know, okay? I don’t think she knows. She wants it to be him.”
“So do you,” I press. “Because that would make you normal.”
She looks up brusquely.
“Please, Rachel,” I say. “I am quite clever. Don’t insult us both by forgetting. The way you do your hair, your clothes, the law school ambitions, it all screams ‘I don’t want to be like my mother.’ Which, if your mother is a superheroine, probably means that you are also desperate to not be one of…us.”
“I’m not,” she whispers.
“I dare say that if you have no desire to, then you won’t be,” I agree. I lean forward to impart my great secret. She’s the first I’ve told and I don’t know why I’m sharing it. Only, perhaps, that it will make her less miserable. “Here is something they never tell anyone: if you don’t use your powers, if you don’t flex that extra little muscle in your grey, squishy brain, it will not develop. It will atrophy and die. Why do you think there are so few of us now? Nobody wants to be a hero.”
“Really?” she whispers, awed, hatred draining from her face.
“Really,” I say. “Especially after the sort of example your mother set.”
Rachel rocks back again, the furious line between her eyebrows returning, and yes, I recognize that, too, have seen that above a red domino mask before.
“Why do you say things like that?” she asks, hands thrown skyward in exasperation. She winces.
“Don’t rip your stitches, my dear,” I admonish.
“Don’t change the subject! You wouldn’t talk about the Kamelion Kid that way, or Wild West, or…any of them! You’d have respect! What about The Tesla? You respect him. I’ve seen the pictures on your wall and you—why are you laughing?”
And I am laughing. I am guffawing like the bawdy, brawling youth I resemble. “Because I am The Tesla!”
She rocks back on her heels, eyes comically wide and then suspiciously narrow. “But you…Prof killed The Tesla.”
“In a sense, he did.”
Her eyes jump between me and the door to my lab—the only door locked to Rachel—and back to me. “You were a hero first.”
“And it didn’t work, did it?”
“Because people…people don’t want to change. Don’t want to think.”
“Yes. My plans would have been good for society. Would have forced changes for the better. But people just want a hero to keep things the way they already are.”
She looks at her law textbook, which rests exactly where I had left it the night before, propped on the toaster oven.
“So you made it look like The Tesla was dead.”
“Heroes can save the world. But villains can change it, Rachel.”
She looks up. “I think I want to hate you, Olly, but I can’t figure out if I should.”
“It’s okay if you hate me,” I say. “I won’t mind.”
“Yes, I think you would,” she says. She flattens her right palm over her left shoulder.
We sit like that for a long moment. I forget to count the seconds. Time flies when I am around Rachel, and I find that I am beginning to enjoy it.
Rachel sulks in her room for the afternoon, which bothers me not at all, as I’ve experiments to attend. When I come back out, she is sullenly reading her textbook on the sofa, and she has found the beer. One open bottle is beside her elbow and three empty ones are on the floor.
“It’s not wise to drink when you’re on antibiotics,” I say, wiping my hands on my labcoat. They leave iridescent green smears on the fabric, but it’s completely non-toxic or I would not be exposing her to it.
“I’m not on antibiotics,” she mutters mulishly.
“Yes, you are,” I counter. “There is a slow-release tablet under your skin near the wound.”
She makes a face and pushes away her textbook. It slaps onto the carpet.“That’s just gross.”
She looks up, gaze suddenly tight. “What else did you put in me?”
I walk over and take away her beer. And then, because it would be a waste of booze to dump it down the sink, and I have been on a limited income since I ceased robbing banks, and because I enjoy the perverseness of having my lips on the same bottlemouth as hers after having so recently admonished her for kissing me, I take a drink.
“Not that, if that’s what you’re implying, my dear Rachel,” I say. She blinks hard, my innuendo sinking home.
“What? What, no! I didn’t mean…”
“I’m more of gentleman than that.”
“I get that!” she splutters. “I just mean…where did you get the replacement blood? What kind of stitches? Am I bionic now?”
“No more than you were before,” I say. “Nanobots are actively knitting the torn flesh back together, but they will die in a week and your liver will flush them from your system. The stitches and sutures are biodegradable and will dissolve by then. The rest of the antibiotic tablet will be gone in two or three days, and the very small infusion of my vitality serum only gave your immune system a boost and your regenerative drive a bit of extra gas. You are in all ways, my dear Rachel, utterly and completely in-extraordinary. Your greatest fear is unrealized.” I finish off the beer with a swig, liking the way her green eyes follow the line of my throat as I swallow, and then go to the kitchen and retrieve two more.
I hand one to her and flop down onto the sofa beside her. She curls into a corner to give me enough room and then, after eyeing the mess on my coat, thrusts impertinent—and freezing!—toes under my thigh. “Dear me, Rachel, stepping up your campaign?”
“You started it,” she says. “Re-started it. With the…bottle thingy.”
I arch a teasing eyebrow. “Bottle thingy?”
She shakes her head. “I think I’m a little drunk.”
“I think you are,” I agree.
“Enabler,” she says, and we clink beers. She drinks and this time I watch her. Her throat is, in every way, normal. Boring. I cannot stop looking at it. Her toes wiggle. “How can you read me so well?” she asks. “I mean, I didn’t even have to say, ‘I’m scared of turning into my mom,’ but you knew.”
I shrug. “I’m a great student of the human creature. We all say so much without saying a thing.”
“Do you ever say more than you want to?”
I smile secretively, a flash of teeth that I know will infuriate her with its vagueness. “Rarely, any more. I’ve had a long time to learn to control my, as poker players would call them, ‘tells.’”
“Hmph,” she mutters and takes another drink. I swallow some of my beer to distract myself. She wriggles her toes again, and pushes them further. Soon they will brush right against my…but I assume that is the point.
“Careful, Rachel,” I warn. “Are you certain this is something you want to do?”
“You are drunk and you want revenge on your mother.”
“Maybe. Maybe I want to thank you for saving my life. Maybe I want to reward you for being a good guy.”
“What if I don’t want your thanks, or your reward?” I ask.
She smiles and her big toe tickles the undercurve of my testes. “Don’t you?” she asks, and her expression is salacious. I provided her with no bra, I had none to give, and under my borrowed tee-shirt her nipples are pert.
“I do.” I set aside both of our beers and reach for her. She comes into my arms, gladly, little mouth wet and insistent against mine as she wriggles her way onto my lap. Iridescent green smears up her thighs. “But maybe…oh!” I gasp into her mouth as clever little fingers work their way inside my waistband. I return the favour. Intelligence must be rewarded.
“Maybe?” she prompts, pressing down against my hand.
“Maybe I just want revenge on your mother, too.”
She jerks back as if I’ve bitten her. “Oh my god, how can one man be such a dick?”
I press upwards so her pelvis comes in contact with the part of my anatomy in discussion. “I am honest, Rachel. There is a difference.”
She sits back, arms crossing over the breasts I hadn’t yet touched. “An honest supervillian,” she scoffs.
I stand, dumping her onto the floor. “I think we’re done here.”
“Are we, Profess—”
“I’ve asked you not to call me that!”
She cowers back from my anger. Then it fuels her. “Fuck you, Olly,” she says, standing.
“I thought that was the idea,” I agree, “but apparently not.”
“You’re nothing like I thought you’d be!”
I laugh again. “And how could you have had any concept of how I’d be? Did the Dynamic Dyke tell stories? I bet she did. And you felt sorry for me. The poor Professor, beat up by mommy, hated – like you were. An outcast, like you were. Not good enough, like you were. Was I your imaginary friend, Rachel? Did you write my name in hearts on your binders? Did you fantasize about me?”
“Shut up!” she screams.
Her cheeks are red again, her eyes glistening, her mouth bruised, and I want to grab her, kiss her, feel her ass through the borrowed sweatpants. Instead I fold my hands behind my back, because I told the truth before—I am a gentleman. I say nothing.
“You’re not supposed to be like this!”
“Be like what?” I ask, again. “Explain, Rachel.”
She collapses. It’s a slow folding inward, knees and stomach first, face in her hands, physicality followed by emotion as she sobs into the carpet. I stand above her and wait, because she deserves this cry. Crying helps people engage with their emotions, or so I’m told.
When her sobbing slows, precisely one thousand six hundred and seventy-three seconds later—twenty-seven point nine minutes—she unfolds and stands, wiping her nose. I offer her a handkerchief from the pocket of my labcoat, and she takes it and turns her back to me, cleaning up her face.
She picks up the textbook. She opens it to the back, to those useless blank pages that are the fault of how books are bound, and for the first time in a very, very long time, I am shocked.
The back of the book has been collaged with photographs. Of me.
Computer printouts of me when I was the Prof. Newspaper clippings of my trial. Me, walking down the street, hunched into the shadow of my sweater’s hood. Me, buying soymilk. Me, through the window of the shitty apartment on which Oliver Munsen can barely afford to pay rent. Me, three days ago, cutting through that same parking garage.
Genuine joy floods my blood. A small shot of adrenaline seethes up into my brain and I can’t help the smile, because I missed this, I really did. “Oh, Rachel. Are you my stalker? How novel! I’ve never had a stalker before.”
She snaps the cover shut. “I’m not a stalker.”
“Just an admirer?” I ask, struggling to keep the condensation out of my voice. “Or do you want me to teach you how to be a villain? Really get back at mommy dearest?” Her expression sours. “Ah. But you already know that you can’t be. You knew before I told you that you were born boring. So this is the next best thing.” I reach out, grasp her elbows lightly, rub my callused thumbs across the tender flesh on the inside of them. She shivers. “Tell me, how were you going to do it, Rachel? Were you going to accidentally bump into me in that parking garage? Were you going to spill a beer on me in a bar? Buy me a coffee at my favourite cafe? Surely getting shot was not in the plan.”
“It’s not like that!” she says, but her eyes are closed, her lashes fluttering. Her chest bobs as she tries to catch her breath.
“Then what is it like?”
“I don’t know! I just…I just saw you one day, okay? I recognized you, from mom’s pictures on the wall, and I thought, you know, I should tell her. But I thought I would follow you first, you know, figure out where you live, or something.”
“Except that I wasn’t being dastardly and villainous.”
“You sat in the bookstore and read a whole magazine. And then you paid for it.”
I smirk. “How shocking.”
“For me it was.” She tips forward, breasts squishing, hot and soft, against my chest. “The kinds of stories I heard about you as a kid…”
“And you were fascinated.”
“And I was fascinated.”
“And so you followed me.”
“I followed you.”
“And then what, my dear Rachel?”
She wraps her arms around my neck and pulls me down for a kiss I don’t resist.
“You seemed so lonely,” she says, breath puffing into my mouth. “Are you lonely, Olly?”
“Oh, yes.” I pick her up and carry her off to her bedroom.
The mattress is new, she is the first person to ever have slept on it, but it still squeaks. After, she drops off, satisfied, mumbling amusing endearments about how wonderful it is to make love to someone who is so studious, makes such a thorough examination of his subjects.
Tonight I decide to sleep. I don’t do it very often, but I don’t want to be awake anymore. I don’t want to think. I close my eyes and force my dreams to stay away.
In the morning, I’m troubled. I think I’ve made a very bad choice, but I’m not sure how to rectify it. I am not even sure how to articulate it.
Rachel was right. I am lonely. I am desperately, painfully lonely. And I will be for the rest of my unnaturally long life. But Rachel is lonely, too. Desperate in her own way, desperate for the approval of a mother I can only assume was distant and busy in Rachel’s youth, and then too famous and busy in her adolescence. Rachel wants to be nothing like her mother, wants to hurt her, punish her, and yet…wants to impress her so very badly that she is willing to take the ultimate step, to profess love for a man her mother once hated, to ‘fix him,’ to ‘make him better.’ To make him, me, good.
Only, Rachel doesn’t understand. I don’t want to be better, or good, or saved. I just want to live my boring, in-extraordinary life in peace and quiet, and then die. I don’t want to be her experiment. And yet her fierce little kisses…her wide green eyes…
I look down at the schematics under my elbow and sigh. The scent of burning bacon wafts in through the vents that lead to the kitchen, and the utter domesticity of it plucks at the back of my eyes, heating them. I ‘m still a fool, and I’m no less in over my head than I was two days ago.
I abandon the lab and rescue my good iron skillet from the madwoman who has pushed her way into my life. When she turns her face up for a kiss, I give it to her, and everything else she asks for, too.
And I can have this, because I am not a supervillain any more. But I am not a superhero either. If I was, I could turn her away, like I should.
After lunch, I hand her my cell phone. It has been boosted so that the signal can pass through concrete bunker walls, but cannot be tracked back to its location.
“What’s that for?” she asks.
“Call your mother,” I say. “Tell her you’re okay. You’re just staying with a friend. The shooting freaked you out.”
She frowns. “What if I don’t want to?”
“You were arguing that I should let you call.”
“Rachel,” I admonish. “Do you really want her frantically looking for you?”
She pales. I imagine what it must have been like for her when she ran away from home for the first time. “No, guess not,” she mumbles and dials a number. “Yeah, hi Mom. No, no, I’m cool. Yeah, decided to stay with a friend instead of coming home from campus this weekend. No, no, it’s fine. I’m fine. There’s no need for the guilt trip! I said I’m fine! God!…okay. Right. Sorry. Okay. I’ll see you next…” she looks at me. “Next Saturday?” I nod. “Next Saturday. Right. Fine. I love you, too.” She hangs up and places the phone between us. “There, happy?”
“Yes. I am curious Rachel, how do you intend on springing me on your mother? And how will you keep her from punching my face clear off?”
She picks at her cuticles. “I hadn’t really thought that far ahead.”
“I gathered.” I stand from the table and go to do the dishes. I can’t abide a mess.
She comes up behind me and wraps her arms around my waist and presses her cheek against my back, and asks, “What do you want to do this afternoon?”
“Whatever you want,” I say. “I’m all yours.” I turn in her arms to find her grinning. She believes me, whole-heartedly, and she should. I never lie, and it’s the truth. For now.
When the week is over, I sit her down on my operating table and carefully poke around the bullet wound. In the x-ray, the bones appear healed without a scar. Her skin is dewy and unmarked. The stitches have dissolved and a scan with a handheld remote shows that the nanobots are all dead and ninety-three percent have been flushed from her system. I anticipate the other seven percent will be gone after her next trip to the toilet.
I do another scan, a bit lower down, but there is nothing there to be concerned about, either. We have not been using prophylactics, but I’ve been sterile since I used the serum. It was a personal choice. I had no desire to outlive my grandchildren.
Rachel hops from the table, bare feet on the white tile, and grins. “It’s Saturday!” she says.
“Yes, it is.”
“Time to go!”
She takes my hand. “And you’re coming with me, Olly. You’re coming with me and then they’ll see, they’ll all see. You’re different now. You’re a good man.”
I smile and close my fingers around hers and, for the first time in many decades, I lie. “Yes, I am, thank you.” I use our twined fingers to pull her into the kitchen. “Celebratory drink before we go?”
She grins. “Gonna open that champagne I saw in the back of the fridge?”
I laugh. “Clever Rachel. I can’t hide anything from you.”
Only I can. I am. When I pop the cork she shrieks in delight. Every ticking second of her happiness stabs at me like a branding iron and dagger all in one.
I thought I would need a whole machine, a gun, a delivery device, but in the end my research and experiments offered up a far more simplistic solution: rohypnol. Except that it is created by me, of course, so it’s programmable, intelligent in the way the cheap, pathetic drug available to desperate, stupid children in night clubs is not. My drug knows which memories to take away.
Clever, beautiful, dear Rachel trusts me. I pour our drinks and hand her the glass that is meant for her. I smile and chat with her as she sips, pretending to be oblivious as her eyelids slip downwards, giving her no clue that there is anything amiss.
I catch both her and the glass before they hit the floor. Tonight she will wake in her own bed. She will honestly remember spending the week with a friend she then had a fight with, and no longer speaks to. She will wonder what happened to her backpack, her cell phone, her law textbook. She will not remember the Prof, or The Tesla. Her mother will be annoyed that she will have to tell her the stories over again, stories that Rachel should have internalized during her childhood.
And I will shut down this hidey-hole and go back to my apartment and cash my welfare cheque and watch television. And it will be good. It will be as it should be.
The stupid boy with the gun might have been the bad guy in our little melodrama, but I am the villain.
I am the coward.The Maddening Science