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Paul Flitch's Slap-Bang Fracas With Mister Delusio

E. Lily Yu received the 2012 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her stories have appeared in F&SF, McSweeney's, Clarkesworld, Boston Review, and Uncanny, among other places, and have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards.

It was a summer of superheroes. Children's dreams peeled themselves off the backs of cereal boxes and shimmering TV sets and thundered upward, ululating with joy and desire. Three-inch crusaders swarmed between skyscrapers, firing lasers from eyes and floss from wrists. Paul sketched their battles from window to office window, pressing so hard his pencil point snapped.
"Hold still--"
They didn't oblige. Dazzling as stunt pilots, they flew barrel rolls, scissors, zoom climbs, eights, or yanked each other's masks and raspberried as their victims dove, wailing, after them.
His rushed, blurred sketches missed them all.
"Not saleable," Reggie said, examining them. "How far are you on the picture book? The one with rabbits?"
"Screw rabbits. This is important."
All day long, diminutive heroes buzzed traffic and bounced off windshields, giggling, indestructible. They were worse than mayflies. They wove plastic bags into nests and mated in the air, like eagles, with loud squeaks. Criminals died by pinching.
Though he wouldn't admit it, Paul was envious. He was the kind of man who rolled nickels and racked his toothbrush, whose feet stayed flat on the ground. When Mattie came to him white-lipped and trembling, he did the math and offered two hundred every month, but did not, despite her peony mouth and cataract of chestnut hair, marry her.
"I'm an illustrator," he had told her. "How could I afford it?"
When he reached home, failures furled under one arm, he found two amorous superheroes squirming on his doorstep. He nudged them aside, and one sank her teeth into his ankle.
Shaking her off, he retreated into the house.
After Mattie packed her bags and climbed a bus to her grandmother's, dinners had become monotonous. Out of the ten odd saucepans, skillets, soup pots, and stockpots she left in her wake, Paul only ever used one. But as he scraped the bottom of his casserole, inspiration struck.
Leaving dinner on the table, Paul rooted in drawers for rubber bands and nubs of tinfoil and dropped them in a pickle jar. Then he sat on the stoop with the jar between his legs, the lid in his hand, and pantomimed a doze.
For twenty minutes that oozed like molasses, nothing happened.
Then he felt his nose pulled.
Then, under his ribs, a jab.
He didn't move. Through lowered lashes, he watched a homunculus in lemon spandex clamber into the jar. It stretched a rubber band over its chest. It kneaded a lump of foil.
Paul pounced, screwing the lid tight, and braced for lasers.
None were forthcoming. His superhero battered the glass.
"I'll let you go," he said. "Afterwards."
In the morning, frowsy with sleeplessness, he showed Reggie his new portfolio: twenty sketches and three inked comic panels.
"Not bad," Reggie said. "Sixty-dollar work, easy. What's that?"
Paul produced the jar. The hero sat, sulking.
"Huh. Looks like you."
"Don't joke."
"How are you getting rid of it?"
"I'm not--" Paul stopped. It knew his address. It probably had friends. He studied his captive, whose boxer's nose did resemble his, but only if you squinted. "What do they eat? Spiders? Bubblegum?"
"You're not serious."
"I can't kill him."
Reggie shrugged.
"No. You're right." Paul pressed his temples. "Chloroform? Cement? A river?"
The superhero watched him silently. Paul had posed him in scenes of valor, bubbling words: I Will Protect You, Ma'am. Just Doing My Duty.
"What does it do?" Reggie prodded the jar, rocking it backwards.
"I didn't see anything."
"X-rays? Electric shocks? Migraines? Hypnosis?"
"You're lucky you're not slag and ashes."
"I know."
The superhero's cool blue gaze itched at the back of Paul's neck. Mattie came uninvited into his head, elbow-deep in the dishes, her damp hair flying. What would she have said? What would she have done?
"They sell cement at three dollars a bag around the corner," Reggie said.
Somewhere among the corn towns of Illinois, at an address he never asked for, a brown-haired woman rocked herself on a porch, fanning the sweat from her face, the boards creaking under her. She might have been holding a child, rashy with the heat. Or perhaps there was no child.
Paul picked up the jar and squeezed it to his chest. Rocks and the river. A twelve-story drop from the office window.
He couldn't keep it. He couldn't let it go.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, September 8th, 2016
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