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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Phone Booth

Holli Mintzer lives in College Park, Maryland, where she reads, writes, and attempts to knit. This is her second appearance in Daily Science Fiction.

***Editor's Note: A bit of adult language in the story that follows.***
Mark works at the northeast edge of the city, in a red-brick warehouse that used to be full of cloth or wheat or spare parts before it was an office building. His commute sucks, but he likes the job and loves the view out his office window: the piers stretching out over the water, the mooring masts stretching up into the sky. There aren't a lot of zeppelins these days to anchor at them, just like there aren't many ships in the harbor, but the masts are still there: two or three big freight elevators apiece, caged in a lattice of iron struts and steel cable. There's one in the courtyard between his building and the next one over, the one where they're doing web design, or possibly mad science; Mark went to their launch party, but only for the open bar and to see the D-list cape they hired to sign autographs.
His apartment's clear at the other end of the city, where the hills get steeper as you go farther inland, in a neighborhood full of row houses going over to condos. He brings his portfolio or a tablet on the train with him most days, and gets a little drawing done on the ride home. The new maglev trains make it easier to keep his hand steady.
Of course, half the time he ends up playing cellphone Tetris instead, and he's twenty points from beating his all-time high score when the train shudders, grinds to a halt and settles down to the track with a metallic thud. Most of the passengers groan and flip their phones open to check the news; the rest just scowl and hunker down into their books or knitting or newspapers.
There's a family of tourists at the front of the car, though, who had been looking panicky even before the train stopped. Mark figures them for first-timers, in town to snap pictures of a cape waving to the kids in Rose Plaza. Then maybe go see the arboretum, the zoo, watch the IMAX movie at the Science Museum, and end the day lining up in front of the League of Nations building, smiling into the lens as the late-afternoon sun catches the bronzed statues of dead mystery men and science heroes. Tourists always think of super villains as something that happens to other people.
But there's a woman sitting next to them, who smiles at Tourist Mom and murmurs something to the Tourist Kids that makes them look less frightened, and then a guy in a business suit says "It's okay, it's just those goddamn Things from the ninth dimension; the League's already got it," and Tourist Dad relaxes, too.
The woman says "See? Nothing to worry about--oh, excuse me, I've got to take this," and flips her phone open as the train starts picking up speed again. "Hello? No, I know, I got the page, I'm just stuck on the train." She rolls her eyes. "Yes, because I could totally just hop off a stopped train in a tunnel, nobody minds when you do that--oh, look, I'm at the station, whoops, got to go--" and snaps the phone shut with a flourish.
Mark gathers up his coat and scarf and messenger bag, and sees the woman walking with the tourists, giving them a few last pointers before they head up out of the station: don't go to the zoo at lunchtime, try the Science Museum early in the day. Tourist Mom thanks her profusely, before scurrying to catch up with her husband and kids.
It turns out she's switching to the same train as Mark, and they wind up sitting next to each other. He's got a good half-hour until his station, so he takes out the illustration he's been fiddling with, and draws until he catches her looking over his shoulder at the screen. He angles the tablet a little--the fluorescents in the car suck, but the glare won't be as bad. Better yet, she notices it, and smiles at him. She has great dimples. "What are you drawing?" she asks.
"I have to make some kind of gummy snack food look appealing. It's for work." He clips the stylus to the side of the tablet, and offers her his hand. "I'm Mark."
She takes it, and he gets to see the dimples again. "Lisa. I'm in PR, and they tell us the commercial art just appears, by magic. I should have known it was a crock."
"You know, that explains a lot about our clients," Mark says. "Hey, um. What station are you? I know a great coffee place, a couple stops down the line."
She looks him over thoughtfully, and Mark looks back with his illustrator's eyes, noticing details: the way her hair isn't red enough to be red or blonde enough to be blonde; that the green fringe on her scarf matches her glasses frames; that she has a row of tiny silver studs marching up the curve of each ear.
He wonders what she's noticing about him. Whatever it is, he passes muster, because she nods and says, "Coffee sounds nice."
Coffee winds up being dinner, too. They cover all the basic get-to-know-you stuff by the time their food arrives: schooling (him, Kelly School of Design; her, state college back home), family (him, city native, parents retired to the suburbs; her, transplant from the West Coast, adopted), favorite movies (him, too indecisive to choose, really, but swordfights always a plus; her, the noiry pre-Code detective films the Emerald Eagle did in the '30s before his secret identity got outed). They both admit to being secretly fond of the huge new League building, even though it takes up the better part of two city blocks and is widely regarded as an architectural abomination.
"I still don't like the statues, though," Lisa says as the waiter deposits their food in front of them. "Half of them don't even look like the real people, and they left out a bunch who should have been there."
Mark's heard or participated in that argument a dozen times. The city's always treated its capes and masks like Hollywood treats its stars, just with more vicious gossip, and only the ones in favor when the memorial went up in the '60s got statues. Every new mayor talks about adding more, but they were built out of some invulnerable space metal that no one can get these days.
So instead the Emerald Eagle got a bas-relief on the front of the Spiegel building, where the university has its film department, and the city filled up with little memorials, scattered all over, for the heroes who hadn't made it into the big tableau in Nations Square. Mark kind of likes it that way, somehow; having reminders in every park and plaza appeals to him a lot more than one showy pile of metal in the middle of the city.
He says as much to Lisa, and she looks thoughtful for a moment; after that, though, the conversation segues into the kinds of stories everyone in the city has an abundance of. Like the time the guy behind Mark in the sandwich line turned out to be a ninth-dimensional Thing, who nearly gave him donkey ears because he got the last of the avocado. Or Lisa's friend who had her baby in the back of a taxi because giant robots were tearing up the Charlton Bridge. As it turns out, Dr. Proton is in fact a licensed MD, "which," Lisa says, mopping up the sauce on her plate with a piece of bread, "did not make up for the lack of an epidural. Poor Charlene."
After dinner, they walk through Biro Park, towards the apartment towers on the west side. Lisa lives in one of the older ones, built in the big late-'40s housing boom, with stucco balconies looking out over the river and the wide green commons. She doesn't invite Mark up, but she does ask him if he's busy next weekend. "Really, really not," he says, except he totally is.
"Wait, crap, my friend's in a gallery show on Saturday," Mark says, smacking himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand, "and I have to help him manhandle enormous canvases on Friday. But if you want to come to the show, there'll probably be, you know, a really bad DJ, and food."
Lisa laughs, and says, "That sounds nice. Not the DJ, I guess, but I have a friend who's a sculptor, I'm used to those."
She leans in quickly and kisses his cheek, almost too fast for Mark to register, and by the time he raises a hand wonderingly to his face she's vanished into the building. Her doorman gives him a long critical look, crosses his arms over his chest, and says, "You know, buddy, the concierge and I think Miss Roberts is a real sweet lady."
"Uh. I think so... too?" says Mark, not really sure of where this is going. The doorman just glares and looms at him some more, and doesn't say anything else. Mark gives up, and turns to leave; his apartment's only a couple of train stops away, over the river, and if he takes the Oak Street line he can be home before his downstairs neighbor can go through his mail. It's not like she does anything other than steal the interior design catalogues the tenant before him subscribed to, but it's the principle of the thing.
On Saturday, Lisa turns up an hour into the party. She threads her way through the gallery to where Mark is sitting, on one of several strangely-shaped ottomans in shades of screaming Technicolor which may or may not actually be art. She's wearing a blue dress and silver shoes, and a long string of beads wound around her throat. "I dropped a canvas on my foot," Mark explains, when she asks why he isn't mingling. "I didn't actually break my toe, but I'm making Neil feel as guilty as possible."
"Makes perfect sense to me," Lisa says, laughing. She plops down on the ottoman next to his, which is violently purple, and tells him about how her friend Danielle's last show had been vandalized by a wildly misguided animal rights activist who didn't realize that Danielle made fake taxidermied animals, so she and Lisa and a bunch of their friends had spent the entire night before the opening trying to make the splashed paint and broken sculptures look intentional.
By the time the story's over, the DJ has finished his predictably awful set, and Lisa's cellphone beeps at her. She flips it open, frowns at it, and flips it shut again without responding to the text. "You know," she says, "I just finished this huge project at work, and I was expecting a break, right? But even when I--now that I'm not in charge of anything major, they still call me every time there's a crisis. It's really annoying." She scowls, a little theatrical. Mark suspects he shouldn't find it that cute.
"So what you're saying is, you have to go?"
She nods. "I have to go."
He's a little buzzed, since he's been drinking and the food's at the other end of the gallery; his injured foot is throbbing in time with the music. He offers an expansive shrug. "S'okay. I had a really nice--it was really good to see you again."
Lisa's smile warms him up more than the tequila shot Neil had offered him as penance. "Yeah. It was nice to see you, too."
Over the next couple of weeks, they catch half-hours at lunchtime and most of a Sunday brunch, but nothing Mark's willing to call a real date. It's still nice, even that--Lisa is funny and smart and inexplicably willing to spend time with him, all qualities Mark appreciates in pretty girls. She gets called away for work a lot, but that's okay too. Mark's dated girls who hated their jobs, or who tried to put him first even when they didn't need to, and it always made him feel like somewhere his mother was shaking her head at him. And then when he said as much to his mother the next time they had lunch together, she did shake her head at him. Anyway, when Lisa leans her head on his shoulder as they walk together, and they make Friday night plans for Thai food and a double feature, well. That's good enough for him.
After their first actual, finished date, they make out on Lisa's couch, like teenagers, all sly grins and fumbling; the TV on in the background makes it even more of a flashback. But then again, Mark didn't get to do this much for most of high school. Most of his teen years he spent Friday nights alone, actually watching things like the quiz show that's droning away, and apparently he picked up more than he thought because he mumbles, "The Oort cloud," into the side of Lisa's neck in response to a question he only half-heard. She only giggles harder when it turns out the answer was the moons of Saturn.
In the morning, Mark wakes up curled around Lisa, still on the couch, her elbow digging insistently into his ribs. He untangles himself carefully, without waking her, and looks out the windows as he stretches the kinks out of his spine. Lisa's apartment is fantastic, totally justifying her work schedule--the open-plan main room is huge, with the kitchen at one end and the bedroom door at the other, the wall behind him filled with built-in bookshelves. There's a window onto the balcony that runs nearly the length of the apartment, a huge span of glass, and they're on a high enough floor that the park, the river, most of the eastern half of the city all unfold into view as the sun rises. As he watches, a tiny caped figure detaches itself from one of the tallest buildings and flies away over the skyline.
After that, they just sort of settle into dating gradually, taking up more and more of each other's time. Lisa comes to a couple of his work parties, and laughs at how Neil's still buying him guilt drinks. They spend a lot of time at the movies, at Mark's apartment, on a bench in the park overlooking the river that Lisa loves. It's not long before Mark loves it there, too, for the perfect light that shimmers on the water, turning crew teams into silhouetted long-limbed water insects, glinting off Lisa's glasses and bringing out the red-gold of her hair. Girls with cat's-eye frames and masses of curls creep into Mark's drawings, even at work. He finds that every woman he draws has some feature of hers: her chin or her hands or her waist or her legs. They have really great sex, though not on her couch after that first time, which Mark is mostly grateful for. He also finds it weirdly cheering to be buying condoms on a regular basis again, after what had been a long enough drought that he tries not to think about it. He's not sure how he feels about the encouraging leer the guy at his corner drugstore has started giving him when he's ringing Mark up, however.
After three months, it's coming up on Lisa's birthday, and he gets a call from one of her friends a few weeks in advance. "We're planning it," the girl on the other end of the line tells him. "So you can just show up with a gift. And dress nice." Lisa's friends can be a little brusque, she's warned him: apparently most of them have known each other since they were pre-teens and have wildly tangled personal lives.
"You might be the only person there who's not, you know. Part of the group," she says, before they leave. "Although that does give you the almost unique advantage of not having to have any awkward conversations with your exes at any point during the night."
"Hmm. I don't know how I feel about that," Mark says, teasing a little. "These exes--are they better-looking than me?"
"Ha, right, like I'm going to answer that," Lisa shoots back. "Anyway, I think Rachel had the decency to leave my exes off the guest list. Or at least the ones I dated after the age of sixteen or so."
It's kind of awkward, anyway. When Lisa's at his side, he's fine: everyone is friendly, the conversation's not stilted or uncomfortable. But on no less than three occasions, groups of people stop talking mid-sentence as he joins them, or even just walks past. And Lisa's friend Brian, who may or may not be one of the exes--no one's talking--at one point gives him a mildly slurry and weirdly paternal talk on how Lisa's not just some girl, you know, she's special, and she ought to have a boyfriend who's worth her time. This continues until Lisa appears from nowhere behind him, smacks Brian in the back of the head, and orders him to go sober up. Mark is grateful for the save, and says so.
"You don't need rescuing, honey," she says. "But Brian probably should have been cut off a couple drinks ago, so."
Life in the city being what it is, it's inevitable that, sooner or later, aliens invade the Earth while Mark and Lisa are on a date. Mark's been through it before--he remembers a really bad one, when he was just ten, and he got through it fine--but it's always scary to see the sky fill with threatening lights, and the streets fill with panicking crowds. He stays calm, though, until he and Lisa get separated. He watches the League fight the fleet of drones that descend from the mothership, watches the Engine of Progress buzz past overhead and Shooting Star take out drones two at a time, ducks flying debris and corrals a small child until her mother is found. Through it all, his heart doesn't really stop hammering until the lights fade from the sky and, signals restored, his phone buzzes with a text from Lisa: IM OK. GOT STUCK BHIND PLICE BRICADE. MEET ME @ YR APRTMNT.
It's another hour before Mark gets home, through the post-invasion traffic. Lisa is pacing in his living room when he opens the door, and they fling themselves at one another in relief. Only then, for the first time, as he reassures himself that she's okay, as she does the same, does Mark think that he might be in love.
He doesn't say so, though, not yet, just starts leaving his sketchbooks out where Lisa can see them. He's not embarrassed to be caught filling up blank pages with her anymore. In the end, it's Lisa who says it first, out of nowhere, while they walk along the bike path by the river on a fall morning. She leans into him, presses her head against his shoulder, says the words: "You know, I really love you." And Mark is caught too off guard to do anything but beam at her. He thinks she knows what he means by it, though, and later, that night, he manages to say it too.
Things settle, after that, to Mark's mind like oils curing on a canvas. Everything gets brighter, somehow. His birthday passes, marked by a watch he wears everywhere, its weight reassuring on his wrist. Lisa starts a new project at work, and for three weeks they see each other at breakfast and not much else. It sucks, but Mark's boss comments on his productivity; really it's just that he's got nothing else to do but draw. His friends make fun of him for still being in the annoying-new-couple phase six months into the relationship, which Mark has to admit is kind of fair. He starts to think about asking Lisa to move in with him.
Lisa's away on a business trip that weekend, so Mark spends most of Saturday rattling around his apartment. He doesn't even need to clean, he's spent so little time there lately, and finally he decides to come up with some errands to run, just to get himself doing something. Which means that he's standing in line at the bank when four guys wearing ski masks and jet packs burst in through the back door, and one of them lets off a shockingly loud burst of machine-gun fire. Everyone with a brain in their head drops to the floor, as two of the bank robbers herd people away from the windows, and the fourth starts going down the line of tellers. Mark just stands there, numbly, for a long moment, before he comes to his senses and hides behind a chair. The tellers are emptying their cash drawers, and the bank's guards are nowhere to be seen.
"I told you, we cut the phone lines," the smaller, more nervous-looking bank robber is saying, and though it's hard to tell through the masks and the heavy padding of their clothes, the lead robber looks pissed. "The silent alarms don't work, we're jamming wireless, there's no way anyone can get a signal out of here until we're gone."
"Then why the fuck does this say someone is, huh?" Lead Robber snarls, shaking a little tablet computer in Nervous Guy's face. "We'll be up to our asses in capes, Jesus--guys!" he barks at the other two. "We're gone in two minutes, forget the vault!" He kicks Mark's chair out from in front of him, and tries to haul him up off the floor as he says "Sorry, pal, but we might need a hostage to get out of here--"
The bank's front windows shatter inwards in a flash of green light, which streaks towards the robbers almost too fast to see. Three of them are out cold on the floor before Mark's eyes can even register that the light is, in fact, coming from a person, and that she is holding Lead Robber by the collar over her head, one-handed, and her feet are not touching the floor.
It takes a minute, but Mark realizes that this isn't some two-bit cape. Shooting Star is in the League, she eats invading alien armadas for breakfast. She probably hasn't bothered with a bank robbery since she was a teenager in the Junior League. But this is definitely her: green domino mask, big silver star holding the cape in place, lots of reddish-blond hair, hissing "I swear to god, if you think you can get to me--" and shaking a bank robber like a carton of orange juice. And then she looks down at Mark, eyes wide behind the mask with something that has to be fear, and Mark gets it.
"Fuck," Shooting Star says, and sucker-punches the bank robber. "This is--"
"Business trip?" Mark says, because it's all he can think of. Everyone else in the bank has made a run for it; the last couple of tellers are picking their way out of the broken windows. It's just him and Lisa.
"I never--" Her hand flies to the League communicator on her ear. "Calcutta's on fire, I have to go," she says, and is gone in another streak of green light, leaving Mark standing alone in the middle of a wrecked bank with four semiconscious robbers, dimly aware of the sound of sirens Dopplering towards him.
It's hours before Mark is done talking to the cops, who didn't actually believe at first that Lisa had been there at all. "Are you sure it wasn't Adventurine?" the officer taking his statement asks again. "It's just that banks aren't exactly the Shooting Star's beat, is all." But the bank's security cameras back him up, and when the officer says "It looks like she's saying something, right here," Mark lies through his teeth, so finally he comes out the big double doors of 12th Precinct and just keeps walking north on Oak, down the long gentle slope to the river. He doesn't feel like taking the train, somehow, and the walk gives him time to think. He takes off the watch Lisa gave him, and studies its face as he walks; in the end, he slips it into his coat pocket.
When he lets himself into Lisa's apartment, she is sitting at her kitchen table, turning a green domino mask over and over in her hands. Her costume's singed and torn, the white gloves streaked with ash, and he can smell burnt hair and gasoline and cooked meat. She doesn't look up as he crosses the room, as he sits down opposite her.
"This explains more than it doesn't, you know," he says. "Once I thought about it." Lisa manages a short laugh, but she still doesn't look at him.
"I really wanted to tell you," she says, finally. "For a long time, I have. It just never works out when I do."
"I get it. I think I do, anyway," Mark says. "I'm just"-- freaking out, more than a little; kind of horrified at how unobservant he'd been; trying to forget that his high school girlfriend had a Shooting Star poster on her wall, underneath which he very nearly lost his virginity; a thousand million insignificant things--"processing."
Lisa nods at that, and keeps staring at the table, like she's trying to divine something from the grain of the wood. "I need--I smell like a disaster area. I'm gonna shower," she says. "Are you, is that okay?"
"God, yeah, go ahead," he says, and when she stands up he realizes that her costume's mostly burned off all down the left side. "You--you didn't get--"
"I'm fireproof," she says, and walks back into the bedroom. Her long green cape is slung over the chair, not much more left to it than a collection of charred, bloody tatters. After a minute, Mark hears the shower go on. The pipes clank and rattle as the water heats up. He puts a pot of coffee on, and takes some pizza bagels out to defrost, just to have something to do. Then he sits back down and stares at the table, buffing at a sooty smudge with his thumb, and waits. He thinks: he loves her. She wanted to tell him. She lied to him.
He picks his sketchbook up, and starts to draw. The Shooting Star looks out of the page at him, powerful, shining, wearing a face he knows.
In the bathroom, the water cuts off.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 19th, 2012

Author Comments

I adore superheroes and superhero stories, but superhero stories that claim to be "for adults" frequently just crank up the sex and ultraviolence without changing much else. I wanted to try writing a superhero story about a relationship between grown-ups, people who are mature enough to fall in love in a sensible fashion. I also had a wonderful time coming up with Mark and Lisa's city--I may have actually drawn maps of the place at one point, to work out the geography.

- Holli Mintzer
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