by Suphala Nibhanupudi
Art by Vivian Huang
Issue: Paracosm (Winter 2017)
Sybille wasn’t being creepy, staring at a bunch of kids in an abandoned apartment.
Nope. Not creepy at all.
She’d debated between moping at her house with her heartbroken mother and her devastated brother, or sulking on a fire escape with no one to give her reproachful looks. After careful consideration of every little pro and con in her mind for a total of two seconds, Sybille walked out.
She’d gotten caught in an attack on Incensa Boulevard, and it had taken everything for her not to leap into the fray like she would have before. You quit, she reminded herself, You are done being a superhero. You made a promise that you’re never going back. She bit her lip, tossed her hood over her hair, and got the hell out of there.
And now, perched on the rickety fire escape, with her face and hands discreetly smushed against the fingerprinted window, she was ogling a bunch of children in jackets and jeans running around, brandishing styrofoam swords and Nerf guns.
It beat some weepy telenovela anyway.
The pile of weaponry on the ground made her lean back onto the cold railing and think.
Galacticia’s eyes roved over the impressive stack of armour and artillery, their toggles and switches glinting with arrogance in the fluorescent lights. “We don’t need all this stuff,”she said, turning to her cat-themed superhero partner. “I have myself, and I have my team, and we can do much more damage than all these little trinkets combined.”
Chaton walked to her side, “Flinging around a gun that I don’t know how to use could be fun.”
Galacticia shoved her playfully. “We’d look like a bunch of little kids.”
The memory made Sybille’s lips tug themselves into a frown. She backed away, carefully rolling on the balls of her feet so that the creaking balcony didn’t give her away. It was late, and she should be returning home, she scolded herself. And admittedly, it really was creepy staring into some kid’s apartment. She took one look at the kids with capes and tights and turn—
She snapped her head back, now staring at five young superheroes waving their bulky weapons in the air.
She scrubbed at her eyes with her palms, because there was no way that those little kids tottering around were superheros.
And she was right. Their superhero attire vanished, and it was the five kids laughing with glee.
Sybille exhaled, then tossed one foot over the railing and pushed herself off, careening towards the concrete of the alleyway. She landed in a crouch, dusted herself off, and walked away.
A couple days later, unable to brush away the black clothing and black curtains and the black atmosphere draped over her family, she grabbed the brightest hoodie she could find (a very unflattering, minion shade of yellow) and speed-walked to her fire escape. She hauled herself to the top and perched on the balcony.
The kids were there again. Sybille, faced with the choice of them, or a brick wall adorned in bird feces, directed her attention to the group inside.
Her brain kept sketching costumes and powers over their normal clothes, so that for a slight second, she could believe that they were real, that they were superheros. But every time she blinked, the drawings were erased, leaving normal children.
Sybille strung a hand through her dark hair. Maybe she needed to see a therapist.
Every child gripped a floppy katana in their hand, sweeping it around as if there were pesky flies buzzing over their heads. Their screams of victory and cries of defeat made Sybille emit a dry chuckle. If anyone in her regimen had used a sword like that, their heads would have been cut clean off in a matter of minutes.
Groups of superhero trainees were scattered all over the cove, sparring with their neighbor with varying results. There had been no call to missions today, so the boss had deemed the day a training day, and had decided that they would practice the “lost art” of swordfighting.
Galacticia swung, at least remembering that she should be holding the sword with two hands. Chaton sighed, watching as the blow didn’t even come close to her.
Galacticia grumbled, flinging her sword to the ground. “I don’t get why I have to learn this weapon stuff. I fry buildings with my hands.”
Chaton stopped, scooping up the hilt of the fallen sword. “Right. When we are in the middle of nowhere and up against some villain,” she patted her on the shoulder, “remind me to go find you some skyscrapers to destroy.”
Her comrade harrumphed, “Well, when someone tries to mug me, I’ll just pull out my convenient super-duper handy sword and it’ll solve everything!” The sarcastic comeback grew into a scream as her sword flew back at her. From the palms of her hands, a bright red beam shot out, frying the blade to oblivion, and in turn, burning a hole in the training hall roof.
Chaton pulled off her hood, her dark hair spilling out as she gazed in awe at the destruction above her. She snorted.
“Don’t laugh!” Galacticia protested, shoving her bent-over partner beside her, “Training swords can be dangerous! They…have splinters! I was protecting my eyes!”
Chaton guffawed as she stumbled away from the scene of the crime. They were going to get into so much trouble.
She snapped back into the real world as a child inside started protesting an adult’s orders to come back home. Wondering if she had been caught, Sybille leaped off the balcony, as elusive as the black cat.
“You can’t just resign,” Galacticia had argued from her post. The cosmic themed superhero flared from her seat and waltzed towards Chaton on the defendant’s pedestal, whose costume had been replaced in favor of a black hoodie. “You’re a crucial member of our team.”
“I’m not talking to you ‘Ticia.” She faced the frowning Commission, lifting her head in faux confidence. “My contract has expired—”
A minority judge stood. “The contract is only a mere courtesy, it’s binding for as long—”
“This job is interfering with my life. Great Commission—”
“The job is your life, not something you can just leave—”
Chaton’s chin trembled. “This team hasn’t been making good on their promises.”
The heros on the bench whispered feverently among themselves.
The gavel banged on the desk repeatedly, to dispel the noise.“We are sorry for your loss, Chaton, as we have told you a million times—”
“You killed my father!”
“Who was a dangerous villain, if you might have forgotten!”
“Didn’t you always want him to burn in hell?” Galacticia questioned from a corner of the room.
“You’ve enforced a no-kill policy for decades!” Chaton cried, ignoring the questioning looks her friends gave her.
The murmuring in the hall swelled to a roar as the heroes around them dissolved into bickering with their neighbors. Chato—Sybille stood for about two seconds until it was clear that the fighting was about ethics of the no-kill rule and its implications rather than her, then pivoted on her toes and slinked out of the room.
No matter where they are, or where they came from, a hero loves to fight.
“Dinner was ready half an hour ago,” Gabriel scolded, boring holes into his little sister as he slammed the door. Their mother rushed to protect their silverware from a tragic demise on the floor.
Sybille just grumbled—no use arguing with her brother—and pulled herself a chair. Gabriel must have decided that the leftovers needed some sort of punishment too, for they were flung on her plate with a unearthly vengeance.
“Where have you ever been! I have been calling you for the last five minutes, and you didn’t pick—” his eyes widened in realization, and the dish he held hit the table with a clang as their mother whimpered softly. Sybille flinched. “You’ve been with those superheros, haven’t you?!”
“No!” Sybille whined, clutching at her head, “For the last time Gabriel, I haven’t been galavanting with superheros, I haven’t gone anywhere close to my old base, and I really DID QUIT!”
His fork stabbed the chicken.“You’ve better.” Their mother, deeming it safe, slipped into her seat. The air turned brittle as they dined, the siblings’ silverware banging against their plates.
“I guess this is what happens when you care about your family wants and needs,” Sybille pointed an accusatory fork at her brother. “They constantly hate you, make you quit your job, and make you look like a terrible person.”
“So you don’t love our father? You think being a crooked hero who kills dads for a job—”
“I will tell you the exact same thing that I told you at the funeral; I pray that he has a nice time all the way down there rotting in hell.”
A few days later, Sybille was squatted in the shade of a grocery awning, gawking up at the battle. Passerbys had been ushered far away from the two blocks the skirmish had occupied. There was still the brave/stupid onlooker who were saved from blindness via explosions thanks to the rectangular shape of their cell phone, but there were too little of them for anyone to care.
A distant, shrill scream made her invisible cat ears spring to life. A young child, gripping to a balcony railing was yelling for help from that apartment. His toy gun lay discarded on the floor.
Sybille reasoned that a hero—any hero—would pull him from that building and bring him down soon, but minutes went by and not one noticed the little boy screaming his lungs dry. Sybille’s frantic eyes swivelled around the battle. Everyone was too entranced with the punch-fest to have heard the boy. She seethed in her corner for a moment, and the boy cried again.
Stupid superhero instincts.
Sybille pushed herself off the wall and ran to the building. She bounded up the building, hooking her arms around staircases, jumping off balcony railings. The boy had hushed, staring at her in wonder. Sybille wrapped one arm around his torso, letting his head fall on her shoulder. A earth-shaking crash made the building swing, and Sybille made to descend as quickly as possible, carefully launching herself from balcony to balcony, praying that cats really did land on their feet.
The boy’s laughs were euphoric as they landed. “That was awesome! So cool! I got saved by a superhero!”
Sybille forced a smile of her face as the replied “I’m not a superhero.”
The boy’s head tilted back, a huge smile on his face. “Of course you are.”
The boy’s grin still hovered in her mind two months later, when she decided to pay a visit to a certain superhero hideout. Sybille let out the breath caught in her mouth, then knocked on the locked gates of the training cove. Let her brother lose his mind and curse her existence to the moon and back. She was a superhero. She saved lives. She couldn’t stalk five-year olds in imaginary superhero costumes forever.
The barricades inside squawked from old age. Sybille smiled at the familiar wind chimes above her. They reminded her of the happy little kids inside the apartment.
But satisfaction brought it back.