Ethan Lin | Art by Julia Wang
The spear thrust isn’t too hard for Sirena to dodge, but the wind blade that follows it slams into her chest like a tidal wave. Stumbling back with a grunt, she regains her footing just in time to deflect a green blur with her cutlass. Ethereal claws scrape along silver, screaming like a hull against sea-soaked steles; a hollow, dreadful ring. Sirena leaps back, somersaulting over the fountain with the leaping fish. Her cavalier boots land gracefully on the marble tiling of the now-deserted mall floor.
She glances back at the pathetic worm of a man cowering behind the podium, that putrid yellow tie still binding his hands to it. Everything had been going according to plan. Sirena raises her blade at the two heroes, cursing her luck.
Why did it have to be them that showed up? Of all the heroes left in this godforsaken city after the Cataclysm, why them?
“Stand down, Sirena.” Odessa lowers the point of her glowing red spear, a pained look visible under the visor. Sirena scowls, shoving down the memories trying to surface, the flashes of a saccharine era long past.
“Please, don’t do this.” Heston steps out from behind his shimmering, emerald apparition of a bear. The great beast almost looks gentle now, sharing Heston’s familiar warmth.
The villain prepares to unleash her superpower, the anger at the bottom of her stomach coalescing into energy that twists and trembles in her vocal chords. But she can’t. Gazing at her enemies from across the fountain where they had shared so many memories, Sirena can’t bring herself to use her curse against her childhood best friends.
SEVEN YEARS AGO
The three stone fish had always looked like the happiest things in the world to Sirena. Maybe it’s how they leap through the air, their bodies escaping–if temporarily–the realm they are eternally bound to, with such wide-eyed thrill. Maybe it’s how connected they feel, their forms seeming to interlock as they soar together, the bonds between them stronger than the gravity that pulls them back to the watery depths. If they could smile, Sirena thinks, they would surely have the widest smiles in the sea.
And, as always happens when she finds herself staring at them for too long, Heston is there to pull her back to reality. Sirena feels his hand on her shoulder, the sounds of the sea fade back into the lively din of the shopping mall, and the leaping fish are just stone statues in a fountain once again.
“Are those fish really that interesting to look at?” Heston teases gently, taking a seat on the granite lip of the fountain. A whole inch shorter than Sirena, he more than makes up for it in both smarts and heart. They’d met in middle school and formed somewhat of a symbiotic relationship. By which she means they did each other’s homework. Anything past algebra was a struggle for Sirena and reading comprehension was not exactly Heston’s strong suit.
“I guess I like the idea of them more than the actual statues themselves.” Sirena shrugs. “Nothing like three ol’ pals just enjoying their time together.”
The boy leans back, stretching his legs with a breathy laugh. “That’s so on-the-nose that even I got it. And that’s not a good thing.”
She sticks her tongue at him and starts walking off. “So where’s Odessa at?”
Heston hurries to catch up. “Ah yea, that’s why I came to get you. You know that knight hero, Ironheart, right?”
“You ask that as if I haven’t fangirled over him for the past three years.”
“Yea, well, he’s doing a surprise fan meet-up at the theater and Odessa’s near the front of the line now.”
Sirena did not hear the second half of that sentence, on account of the fact that she had started sprinting through the crowd.
“Two minutes and forty-one seconds. Must be some kind of record for how quickly someone can get from one end of this mall to the other.” Odessa remarks as Sirena skids to a halt alongside the line. “If I didn’t know you don’t have your power yet, I would’ve assumed you had superspeed.”
“Oh, ha ha.” Sirena squeezes in alongside her, eyes tracing the queue as it extends into the distant horizon. “How long have you been here?”
“Too long. But anything for your eighteenth, my queen.” The towering girl gives a grand bow. The two of them had been friends since elementary school. Odessa, always the funny, beautiful Amazonian icon, was everyone’s target of infatuation, Sirena included. But, as feelings tend to do, that passion washed away like the tides, leaving behind a strong foundation upon which they built their decade-long friendship.
Sirena punches her arm. “My birthday’s next month, you ass.”
They turn to hear the gasping sounds of Heston finally arriving. “You alright, Heston?” Odessa asks, walking over and patting him on the back.
Sirena raises an eyebrow. Even though the three of them are close, this is uncharacteristic of her. But the gears turning in her head come to a halt as the person ahead of them steps aside, revealing the glowing figure of her idol himself, sitting behind a folding table in a plastic chair.
Brave, powerful, and most importantly, hot as hell, every teenage girl dreams of being saved by the knight hero himself. No less radiant in person than he is on the screen, Ironheart smiles and gestures to them with his gauntleted hand. It takes all of Sirena’s willpower not to collapse of excitement on the spot.
“Big fans, I assume?” The hero chuckles, noting their starstricken expressions. Sirena quickly finishes drinking in her awe and manages to gasp a response.
“Yes! Yes, HUGE fans.”
He laughs warmly and reaches forward with his hand outstretched. “And will you guys become heroes too?”
“Of course.” Odessa shakes his hand assuredly.
“Great! Got any powers?”
Odessa beams. “Wind control.” The memory of when her superpower manifested plays back in Sirena’s head. The shock on the other team’s face when the giant goalie kicked the soccer ball straight into the net from across the field was glorious.
Heston sheepishly scratches the back of his neck. “It’s complicated.” Emerging from his arm, a green bear’s paw clasps the hero’s gauntlet and gives it a firm shake, much to Ironheart’s amused surprise.
He turns to Sirena. “And you?”
She bites her lip and pulls her eyes away from his face. “Mine… hasn’t manifested yet.” But his gauntleted hand is firm; confident yet comforting. Sirena smiles, basking in the warmth of the moment.
But when it does, I’ll be a great hero that’s loved by everyone like you.
“Let him go, Sirena.”
Odessa steps forward and the cutlass flashes. The man with the yellow tie winces as the cold blade comes to stop, centimeters away from his neck.
“Don’t come any closer.”
The warrior heroine freezes, gripping her spear tightly. “At least tell us why you’re doing this.”
Sirena turns her eyes to Heston and Odessa; eyes as dark and turbulent as the swirling depths. “Since when did you care? If you won’t help me, leave me alone. You had no problem doing it before.”
Sirena isn’t quite sure when it started. Perhaps it was when a side glance was held for two seconds instead of one. Perhaps it was during one of those quiet moments in the car as they drove away from Sirena’s house after a night out. Perhaps it was when their text messages started being sent to each other directly instead of in the “three pretty best friends <33” group chat. Whenever it was, it marked the beginning of a beautiful time for them, and a terrible time for Sirena.
She frowns as she stares down at her phone, a long chain of unread messages sent to their group chat, shining bright blue in the dark backstage of the choir recital.
6:59 PM: hey, any of you guys need a ride to the concert hall? (Delivered)
7:04 PM: heading out now!! last call lol (Delivered)
7:27 PM: show’s starting soon, use the tickets i emailed y’all yesterday to get in (Delivered)
Sirena’s head slumps into her hands, her heart sinking. Not again.
She had been happy for them when they told her. Nervous about what it would mean for their friendship, but happy nonetheless. Even if Heston and Odessa no longer saw each other as friends, at least Sirena knew they would always be her friends.
A person’s time is a valuable thing. There’s only so much of it–only so many people it can be shared with. It’s only natural that you would want to share your time with the person you love alone. And for that, Sirena couldn’t blame them. She didn’t want to be the clingy friend, the third wheel. On the increasingly rare occasions they sent messages to their once-thriving group chat, it would be pictures of them doing what couples do. A funny moment together. A heartfelt gesture one had given to the other. And Sirena would smile and tell them how cute they looked. But still, she longed for when they shared their time with her. She longed for it more than she had ever longed for anything.
“Showtime, ladies and gents.” The conductor raps on his clipboard. “Good luck out there!” The performers begin to take the stage, and as Sirena passes, he whispers in a hushed tone: “Happy eighteenth birthday, Sirena.”
Her eighteenth birthday. She had been so wrapped up in her swirling emotions that she had completely forgotten. Sirena’s breath catches in her throat, mind racing. Maybe they’re planning a surprise. That would explain why they didn’t respond to her messages, so she would think they hadn’t showed up. She takes her place at the end of the row. As the choir begins to sing, her voice follows along, but her focus is on the audience. She scans the rows, looking for the two familiar faces. Maybe they had brought flowers and balloons, maybe even one of those decorated boards to wish her a happy eighteenth birthday. She reaches the end of the audience, and starts scanning again. Maybe she had missed them. Maybe… Maybe…
Maybe they’re not here.
Maybe they’d forgotten.
No, that’s impossible.
But… maybe they didn’t care enough to come.
Maybe Odessa and Heston would rather be without Sirena.
The choir’s song begins to crescendo, their voices raising steadily. But Sirena’s voice wavers, the pain audible in her voice. The agony in her heart drips acid, leaking upward until it reaches her vocal chords. There, as she sings the symphony with anguish, her superpower manifests.
The audience doesn’t notice anything wrong at first. But as the singing continues, some feel more moved than they’re used to. Strange, they think. The choir sings well but not that well. Then the crying starts. One after another, cascades of tears begin to fall from each audience member’s eyes. Confused, they move to wipe the tears aside, but the streams swell as their hearts are clenched by an impossible force.
The symphony comes to an abrupt stop as screams echo through the hall. Waterfalls of tears flow freely from bloodshot eyes. Sirena puts her hands over her mouth, looking into the puffy, red faces of the panicked audience members.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
So this is her superpower. A terrible, horrifying power that forces others to suffer her pain.
Who could possibly love a hero with this kind of power?
“Well done, Disciple Sirena.”
The young woman looks away, disgusted by her handiwork. However, the grayscale monitors all around the dark room prevent her from being able to avert her eyes from the destruction and death.
All of it, her fault.
The voice coming through the speaker coughs, rustling some papers.
“Now, it says here you’d like to transfer out from our fine educational institution? Tsk, tsk, come now, you can’t possibly expect me to approve this, no? Especially after such a wonderful show you’ve put on. Your talents would be wasted anywhere other than here.”
“I didn’t ask to be made a tool for your plans. I want out.” Sirena grits her teeth. “I’m not a villain.”
The spider-like speaker crawling along the wall laughs hoarsely. “Villain, hero, those labels mean nothing now. After the Cataclysm, any distinction is purely subjective. And…” The machine comes to eye level with the glaring Sirena. “…who was it that harbored the infamous Recital Hall Fugitive? That trained her to fight like no other? That made her the nightmare of the society that wanted nothing more than to see her dead? Don’t you think that ‘villain’ deserves a little more appreciation than you’re showing now?” The cold camera eyes reflect her hateful stare.
“I’m not a monster like you. Do your own dirty work.”
The twisted machine tilts its head, its metallic lips curled into a horrible smile.
“Such harsh words from the disciple who killed the legendary Ironheart.”
Sirena bristles, hand tightening around her cutlass. The memories flood back as she stammers. “I…”
I was just trying to defend myself.
Her panicked, supercharged shout ricocheting down the street as Ironheart charged towards her.
I didn’t mean to.
The blood, so much blood, flowing freely from his eyes.
The sight of the beloved hero, her idol, dead on the street, screams and sirens receding as she stumbled away.
Her hand shakes, remembering how it had gripped that hero’s hand years ago, filled with hope and promise and a desire to do good. But now, that hand is stained. Stained with the hatred she felt for a world that had shunned her. Stained with the guilt of countless missions that she had carried out. Stained with the loneliness of having only an ally that lurks in the dark and torments and destroys.
Two faces flash in her mind, two faces that she had failed to find in the crowd on that day. She glances at a monitor displaying the sprawling map of Metroplex City, a city gutted of its heroes. Where are they now?
The arachnid slides back into the darkness. “Done reminiscing, Disciple? I have a new assignment for you.”
Sirena ducks just in time to avoid a swift strike from Heston’s apparition, pivoting with a counter-attack that sends the bear flying through a storefront. She turns to see a dual flash of red and gold, as Odessa’s spear and Heston’s gauntlets fly toward her. Drawing upon her years of training, she sidesteps Heston’s punch and lands a low kick that sends Odessa sprawling.
The villain raises her cutlass to slash at the heroes, but stops. She glances at the struggling man in the yellow tie, and looks back at Odessa and Heston. Though their bodies are battered and bruised, she knows they will keep fighting until the fight is done. She lowers her blade.
“Where were you?”
Heston, helping Odessa to her feet, glances warily at her. “What?”
“Where were you when the whole world turned against me?”
The heroes look away, unable to and unwilling to come up with an excuse. A tear drops from the corner of Sirena’s eye. Her sword slides back into its scabbard with a weary sigh.
“Where were you when that monster made me what I am now?”
Sirena stares at the blood on her combat suit; the blood that fades but can’t be washed away.
“We… had become heroes. We had people to save.”
Her spear rests on the ground, worn and battle-hardened. His gauntlets retract, revealing the callouses and scars on his once-soft hands. Sirena gazes at their features; features that she had once known like her own. Features that now belong to people she no longer knows. She turns.
“Why couldn’t you save me?”
Odessa and Heston watch her walk away. They glance at each other, and bow their heads.
Sirena passes the familiar fountain. She pauses, glancing down at the leaping fish. The stone rod holding one of them in the air had crumbled away, leaving it to lay alone in the water, at the bottom of the fountain. Submerged, it gazes up at its former companions. The other two stare ahead, to the horizon, with a misery in their eyes.
None of them smile any more.