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art by M.S. Corley

Dark, Beautiful Force

Jessica May Lin is a student at the University of California, Berkeley, where she lives with a giant stuffed sushi and spends absurd hours of the night writing. She also pole dances (the acrobatic variety). Jessica graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop 2012, and her fiction also will appear in Nature. More details can be found at jessicamaylin.com.
I met you the summer I was nineteen. You were a shadow on the wall, tall and intimidating in a way I could never be, and you were all that stood between my first supervillain and me.
You grinned and leapt down in your black domino mask and high-top sneakers, before I even stepped past the mouth of the alley.
I hated you, because you knocked the villain out before I could, and smirked at me over the popped collar of your leather jacket as you handcuffed him.
They printed our pictures in the newspaper side by side. You, in your leather and your sneakers. Me, in my thigh-high boots and red latex skirt. The new superstars on the block.
But I was jealous and told our mentors that your superhero name made me think of candy bars, your costume of freeze-dried bats.
We kept running into each other.
The roof of the Atlanta Emerald. The alley behind that one glittering nightclub where every supervillain seemed to bury their victims. The McDonalds on Peachtree Street where we wolfed down Big Macs on opposites sides of the restaurant, each pretending the other didn't exist.
I remember the one time we cornered Magnetic Man in the women's bathroom of the abandoned Pullman Train Yard. I was bitter you found him first because it was a women's bathroom, even though no one had used it in fifty years. You put him in a chokehold, but at the last second you backed away so I could take the credit for knocking him out for once.
Only I didn't want your pity and walked away.
Eventually you followed me to my hideout, and asked me to hunt villains with you. As friends. I threatened to castrate you and chased you back out, while you laughed.
What I didn't tell you was that something about your buoyant confidence--your sincerity--made me smile when I thought you weren't looking.
When I broke my leg on the roof of The Atlantic, you let Neofelis go to help me up. I called you stupid for letting the villain escape, but you slung my arm around your shoulders anyways and helped me scale the remaining forty-six stories back to the ground.
Our mentors took my costume away for the next month while I healed. I spent those days in bed, rereading the newspaper and turning it sideways to examine the photos of you and me on the rooftops. Sometimes at night when I grew sick of flipping channels and doing curl-ups with an encyclopedia, I swept the curtains back and looked out of the window for you, hoping you were still saving the world.
I'll never forget the rainy Sunday afternoon when you caught up to me and insisted on buying me a cup of coffee. I was well enough to hunt again, and we talked long into the night about life and supervillains and how our mentor's nose looked like an eggplant.
I let you into my life.
We spent the rest of that summer hunting villains together. Warm August nights stomach-down in the subway rafters, throwing donut holes into each other's mouths as we waited for our targets to creep out of abandoned tunnels. There was something infectious about you that made me believe we were invincible.
By the time we were twenty-five, we were touring the world, making headlines on the big comics. Playing stunt doubles for our own characters on the silver screen. Living the way I'd always dreamed of.
I felt your child grow inside of me. You wrote bad poetry to him, and built a crib with your bare hands. You joked about how you could wring a supervillain's neck, but you couldn't hammer a nail into wood without smacking your thumb.
At night, you held me in your arms. We ate potato chips in bed and laughed about the summer we spent as rivals and then best friends.
A month before you became a father, we met the red-masked supervillain. You tried to kill him, but he was faster than you. And he sank that fatal blow into my belly.
I lost the child before he was even born.
The doctor told me that I could never run the way I used to, or leap over walls with that quicksilver agility I'd treasured so deeply--that my body had taken too much to ever heal again.
I stumbled out of the ER numb, silent when our mentors awarded me a medal for my bravery. Silent when Atlanta awarded me a medal for the service I'd done. Secretly, I tore up the articles in newspapers across the globe that announced my early retirement.
You noticed that I stopped responding when you kissed me, stayed expressionless when you folded me in your embrace. I had shut myself into my own prison, where I wasted away between blank walls. When you finally convinced me to leave my bedroom, I wore a dirty t-shirt and sweats, and huddled in the corner while you continued to save the world.
You would laugh as you snapped handcuffs around the wrists of your five-hundredth villain, but when you saw my face, you fell silent. I know that I broke your heart--that you missed me and wanted to help, even though you didn't know how.
That's when he took you, too.
I hadn't smiled at you in years, or told you that I loved you. Something inside me broke.
I didn't care what the doctors said, what our mentors said.
I didn't care that every inch of my body ached with a searing, blinding pain when I dragged myself up the frame of The Atlantic, the skyscraper where I first realized I loved you.
I burned down the prison I made for myself and burst from the ashes, alive and brimming with fire.
I hunted him to the ends of the Earth. I was determined to cut his heart out of his chest, the same way he'd done to me when he killed you.
The dark, beautiful life force that had lain paralyzed inside me for all these years re-ignited, so I could avenge you.
Eventually I found him, even though he was faster than both of us--in the same alley I first met you. Panting, my dark hair flying around my face, I drove my knife into the bottom of his heart.
His mouth dropped open in surprise as he sank to his knees. Even he hadn't expected me to be so strong--that I could recover after all those years of being buried six-feet deep in my own helplessness. His blood poured onto my hands, and I tore his mask off.
Only to discover that he was you.
You breathed my name and smiled, told me that you'd killed the real supervillain long ago, before taking his mask and his name. And I remembered that summer we were nineteen, when you chased me through the streets at twilight. You had worn the same triumphant smile, your amber eyes flashing with mischief.
"Why?" I asked you, as the tears rolled down my cheeks. "Why did you do it?"
And you told me that you wanted to see me act brave and beautiful again--just one more time. You wanted to see me alive, even if you had to die.
As you closed your eyes and laid your head against my shoulder, I held you and wept.
Now, it's just me.
But on warm August nights, as I lie in the rafters eating donut holes alone, I think about you.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, June 13th, 2013

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