DP FICTION #66A: “Finding the Center” by Andrew K Hoe

Content warning: racism, including racial slurs.

I brought Annie to my math-racist’s because I’d stolen a laptop from the Syndicate. I’d stirred the vipers’ nest. Their reach was long, and I didn’t have anywhere to take her. Last year, they’d killed Annie’s mother—a trained policewoman—using crooked cops from our own precinct. So Annie went where I went—even to Sanger’s beat-down porch.

I asked her to wait by the streetlamp, but she fingered her backpack. “Dad, why do you work with people who hate you?”

I winced internally: my nine-year-old knew about my racists. Like her mother, I used to be an upstanding officer. I’d repressed my ugly power. But now, I used racists freely. Last thing Annie’s mother would’ve wanted was for me to bring her to one.

Annie hadn’t asked why we ran when the black SUV approached our home this morning, why I’d smashed my phone, grabbed the laptop. But what she had asked was worse.

Why did my power work with people like Sanger?“Practice your Tai Chi over there, Annie.” She knew about my racists, but she didn’t have to know how I used them.

“But—”

“Please, pumpkin.”

She sighed and plodded to the streetlamp, started forms, the most graceful nine-year-old finding her center. Tai Chi helped me manage my power, so I’d taught it to her.

I tapped the doorbell, squeezing the briefcase containing the pilfered Syndicate laptop.

Sanger cracked open his door, peering out at me. My ability involved sensing prejudice, and Sanger’s pulled at my insides like a noose. Goosebumps riddled my skin, bones quivering underneath—and he hadn’t said anything yet. That’s how potent he was.

“Hiya,” I grunted.

When he opened fully, I gasped: his resentment practically squeezed my intestines. He grinned, relishing my discomfort. “Back for more, are we?”

I’d encountered him in town weeks back, ranting about “Chinks” overtaking American jobs. Sensing his math-potential, I’d followed him here, clutching my gut the whole time.

Now, I stood before him, letting him seethe at my Asian features, providing him with as much ammunition as possible. “Sanger,” I said, “are Asians accounting whizzes, or what?”

He snatched the bait like we were still in the same dialogue from last visit. “Chinks are so damned good at math! What else them slanted eyes for ‘sides counting beans?” He paused, eyes alight. Waiting.

I hated this part.

My eyes compressed into tight lines… but my mind quickened with mathematical know-how, accountancy laws. Sanger continued in a rapid-fire scree, my body shifting to obey. How nearsighted “Orientals” were!—my vision blurred; how short!—my height shrunk. He mentioned abacuses—one settled in my pocket.

I had what I needed.

Then Sanger paused. He enunciated his next words carefully, something he’d probably been rehearsing for weeks. “You need good bookkeeping… to track paddies like the bow-backed rice-picker you are!”

Goddammit.

My spine crooked, shoulders crunching. I was suddenly ankle-deep in water. Rice plantings shifted below me on a phantom breeze.

Sanger cackled at the paddy now consuming his lawn. He was a math-racist with job-racist tendencies, never varying from those themes. But sometimes racists changed, like hurricanes shifting direction. I’d been too distracted; I hadn’t sensed his food-racism.

Sanger saw Annie doing a Tai Chi toe-kick. “What the—?”

“Goodbye, Sanger.” He’d had his show. He could say whatever he wanted about me, but my daughter was off-limits.

He moved towards Annie, but I snarled. “I said goodbye.” Sanger swallowed, retreated behind his door. I paused to let my contortions settle, but a wet-sounding laugh fell around me.

“What are you—Racism-Man?”

I stumbled in my Sanger-given body.

Annie called over from the streetlamp. “Dad?”

“Stay there, pumpkin!” I sloshed round Sanger’s house, out of sight. I panted, too-thin eyes searching Sanger’s bushes, his cigarette-littered walkway. “Show yourself!”

White mist coiled toward the paddy’s edge, to what I realized were a trench coat and fedora, inflating them like some obscene balloon. As he solidified, a pulling sensation formed in my gut. Wispy hands produced sunglasses for a featureless face.

Rinehart. The Syndicate’s super-powered fixer.

I clutched my stomach. “You… like my power?”

“It’s definitely entertaining,” Rinehart said in his weird, wet voice, like he wasn’t using vocal cords. He indicated the paddy. “Similar to mine. More powerful, even, if you transform your surroundings.”

“First time that’s happened,” I admitted.

“Ah. You don’t understand your abilities yet.”

“There’s no manual. How’d you learn yours?” I wasn’t just stalling. Sometimes, super-powered people could learn from those with similar abilities. Experienced fliers could more or less teach newer fliers. Some super-powered people even teamed up, their abilities complementing each other in unexpected ways.

Rinehart shrugged. “Like you, following others’ dictates. Bowing to perceptions. But I wrested back control. It requires… a certain surrender…” He extended smoky fingers that roiled against the sunlight, digits wavering like flames, narrowing into talons, then becoming human fingers again.

I shivered. Rinehart definitely had more control over his body than I did mine. I needed people like Sanger, but Rinehart appeared able to mold his physicality any which way he wanted. Seemed he’d found his center. In Kung Fu, the center referred to one’s gravitational balance, and, by extension, one’s self-realization. If I kept using racists like Sanger, would I end like Rinehart?

“Surrender the laptop, and I’ll finish you quick. Your daughter doesn’t have to see you die.”

“You’re confident.”

“You’re a Chinky old farmer. You asked to be a Chinky old farmer.”

He’d tracked me, waiting until I was vulnerable before revealing himself. Yet judging from this stomachache he was giving me… “Ever see The Karate Kid? Remember Mr. Miyagi?”

Rinehart tilted his head, as if narrowing eyes behind his sunglasses—even though he didn’t have any.

“He was old, too. But he was formidable.”

My ability responded better to spoken or written slurs, but oftentimes my body shifted to racialized mental images. Sudden confidence streamed into me. I smirked, taking a Karate stance. He had seen that movie. He was a fight-racist.

Rinehart laughed. “That how your power works, Racism-Man?” His hands became smoke-tentacles, shooting for me.

I parried them. “Wax-on, wax-off!”

So many people insisted they didn’t have any racist bones in their bodies. Truth? That was like saying they’d never had any impure thoughts. Everybody contained a little racism. Granted, there were people like my past wife who didn’t give my power much to work with.

But Rinehart was potent. Boneless, maybe, but typical of what I encountered daily. I just had to keep feeding him cues. “Asians are brilliant martial artists—right, Rinehart?”

Whenever I struck, he became intangible—I hit mist, empty fabric—but he always solidified to attack. He quit laughing, intensifying his strikes.

“Remember Miyagi’s crane kick—KIYAH!”

My kick connected. Rinehart flew into the paddy, fedora and coat suddenly empty, floating on the water. A mist column plumed upwards, dissipating. Probably running to his SUV-driving minions.

I wheezed, straining under the weight of Asian-martial-mystique and mathematical stereotypes.

I grabbed the briefcase, shuffled to the lamppost, beckoned Annie over. The paddy reverted to browned grass, but my contortions remained.

“You okay, Dad?”

Before her mother’s passing, I never entered the house until whatever prejudices I’d gotten during the workday faded. Nothing big, maybe thinned eyes or a Manchurian queue. I’d practice Tai Chi until I normalized. As parents, officers, protectors of the community, we dreaded explaining racism to our daughter—something we couldn’t protect her from. How would the talk go? Pumpkin, people might treat you differently because of your appearance. Your race. But since the funeral, my contortions didn’t fade so quickly. In fact, they’d intensified, persisting despite hours of Tai Chi. In the past few months, I’d limped through our doorway countless times, cumbrous with slurs…

…and Annie never noticed. I should’ve been relieved. What parent wanted the world’s ugliness reflected in themselves before their children?

Today, like always, her eyes skipped over my stoop, my painfully slitted eyes.

Her mother wouldn’t see my contortions immediately; she’d have to really stare—but she saw eventually. Maybe, one day Annie would look at me, do a double-take. Maybe she’d cry at what she saw.

“Dad?”

“I’m fine, pumpkin.”

*

At a crosswalk, Annie side-eyed me. “This is about Mom, isn’t it?”

“No, pumpkin. It’s about…”

About unraveling why my transformations were worsening. It’d started when the Syndicate killed Annie’s mother. Maybe, if I put the Syndicate away, my body would right itself. But payback was a powerful side motivation.

“Yes. It’s about your mother’s murder.”

Annie nodded. She grabbed my crinkled hand and led me downtown. If Rinehart followed, he did so invisibly.

We made it to a café, where I activated the laptop. Time to deploy Sanger’s slurs. Last night, I’d read a technology-racist’s blog about Japanese programmers hacking (pun intended) America into “dericious” pieces. Like Sanger, the author was potent: I gained expertise to break the laptop’s encryption. But I also got buck-teeth making it hard to breathe. I fell asleep waiting for my body to re-center—awakening to the black SUV’s screech.

Annie stared out the window as I traced Syndicate sums through labyrinthine accounts. “Where’d you get the abacus?”

My fingers paused over the beads. “Where’d you learn that word?”

“Abacus? Maybe Mom said it once?”

I blinked, remembering the day she was referring to. Memories of the three of us together still hurt. I taught Annie Tai Chi so she’d find her center, but her mother was my self-realization. With her, I always knew who I was. On days when my body was being stubborn, she’d remind me Asians could speak English clearly, that our eyes were beautiful. Her words didn’t affect me, but they helped. Turning in my badge wasn’t just about hunting the Syndicate. It was also because I couldn’t identify as a cop anymore—as that honorable man my wife saw.

Nowadays, my keyring of racists dictated my identity.

“You’re my hero, Annie. You know that?”

This wasn’t a redirection. She was my hero. This invincible, shining light who kept me going, just by virtue of being herself.

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry… about mentioning Mom just now. I know how you get whenever she comes up—”

“Annie. You never have to feel sorry about mentioning her. I’ve been so focused on… um, work. We should talk like we used to.”

I had more to say, but my blurry vision sharpened. Odd. I should’ve had hours yet in this form. Suddenly, I was sitting straighter, my eyes returning to their original shape.

“What if you quit the Mom-thing? What if you stopped dealing with bad people?”

“You… want me to quit?” My insides trembled. I returned to the laptop; I needed to find the accounting aberration before Sanger’s words fell off completely.

“Dad?”

“Now now, Annie—”

She pointed to the black SUV pulling up. With a tingle, my Sanger-given body and Miyagi-prowess vanished. But I’d gotten what I needed.

My wife had led the anti-Syndicate taskforce, and they’d killed her for that, but I saw to it—through my “dericious” technology-racists—that her file listing her family was redacted. Just in case, I’d switched Annie’s picture with a computer-generated image. I refused the official funeral, blocked our names from the press. I removed the house pictures, all visual evidence of Annie’s connection to us. I’m going after your mother’s killers, I’d explained. She’d nodded somberly.

Me, though? I’d been plumbing the Syndicate’s dens and safehouses.

I focused on the different pulls in the café: job-racism, politics-racism, movie-racism…

People thought racism was a white-vs-non-white thing. An upbringing thing. A class thing. Something happening in some-city in something-state.

Truth? Prejudice was as old as day, plentiful like dust. Outright racists like Sanger were most potent, but friendly racists also worked. People who’d never say Chink. People who thought themselves immune to prejudicial thinking (not a racist bone in my body!) because they voted for this proposal, kept diverse friends, married someone of this race. People who thought you couldn’t be racist against your own race—you totally could.

Annie packed the laptop while I spoke to a woman who thought all Asians looked alike. She meant it as a compliment. You Asians are youthful-looking!

I shuddered. Friendly racism didn’t yank as painfully as outright racism, but it prickled. Under the friendly intentions poked barbed micro-aggressions: Asians are youthful-looking—Inhuman; Asians are scientifically inclined—They’re only scientifically inclined; Asian females are so endearingly submissive—slavish.

As the woman talked, my skin shifted. Since my wife’s death, my ability had gone haywire, but my contortions eventually dropped. What about Asians who’d been told over and over how exotic they were, how obedient—for decades? How long did that kind of conditioning take to drop?

“If your hair were parted,” the woman continued, “you’d be my Vietnamese neighbor. He’s very handsome.”

“Like this?”

She squinted. “He has a beauty mark.”

“A mole? Around here?” I checked my reflection on the window. As expected, my face scrunched into this amalgam of Asian features, what she imagined as her neighbor’s face.

“What if your neighbor dyed his hair? Grew a beard?”

She couldn’t help but picture my suggestions; my body couldn’t help but react.

I left her gaping, collected Annie, and together we walked past the suited men exiting the SUV. One of them did a double-take at Annie. “Hey!”

Dammit—they’d uncovered my protective measures.

“Behind me, pumpkin. Take the briefcase.” Could I pull another Miyagi-contortion?

But Annie stepped forward. She was… glowing. I remembered telling her she was my hero. I remembered what I’d thought.

This invincible, shining light…

The Syndicate men flinched, backing away, like they weren’t hardened killers. I gaped as they retreated into their SUV, squealed off.

“I’ve… been meaning to tell you, Dad.”

She’d transformed to how I imagined her. She had power. No, not just that. I reacted to racial slurs and thoughts, but she’d reacted to my non-racial imagining. What did that mean?

“It’s… okay, pumpkin. We’re going to the police now.”

She squeezed my hand, and I faced her. But whatever words I’d started to find inside the café had disappeared.

“C’mon, pumpkin.”

*

I led Annie through streets thick with the pulls of job-racists who’d swear Asians were excellent cooks, camouflage-racists who thought Chinese and Koreans interchangeable, fight-racists who’d make me Bruce Lee if needed. We were the model minority, soft-spoken, subservient. We drove rice-rockets, and I’d led some crazy car chases. I told a teleport-racist I was Filipino; he demanded I return to my own country—I was transported to the Philippines, where I infiltrated the Syndicate’s Manila operations. An M. Butterfly fan, a gender-racist, talked me into becoming a lotus-flower woman. A sex-racist told me how beautiful Asians were. I’d gasped, grabbing my tightening crotch—she imagined Asians as well-endowed.

Other super-powered people levitated, walked through walls. They flew, shot fireballs. Me? I rode stereotypes.

Talking to Annie about racism—that she might suffer it, that she needed to resist doing it to others—would’ve been hard enough. Academics had written books trying to demystify the bewildering, tragic subject. But if Annie could access prejudice as a tool? What if, like me, she got overwhelmed by its brutal weight? Had she, all alone, experienced the gut-wrenching confusion of shaping to another’s will?

Before the police station’s entrance, I turned to her. “How long have you had your ability?”

She looked at me like I was the only thing in the universe. I wasn’t completely surprised by her power. Some abilities were passed genetically. That was why I’d insisted she practice Tai Chi.

She bit her lip. “Not long.”

I realized what I’d missed earlier. If Annie saw the abacus, then… my new mole… my beard…. “You see what I become,” I said dully. “You’ve seen all along.”

What if you stopped dealing with bad people?

What had it been like for her, hearing people call me things like “slant-eyed gook”? Then to see me actually become that?

She looked down. “You’re disappointed, aren’t you?”

I hated that anyone would call her “slant-eyed gook”. I especially hated that with her powers, her body would contort. But I had something to offer: my experiences with my ability, learning to think quickly, to twist prejudice into something useful. Questions I could answer for her, while I had to be my own clumsy teacher.

“I’m disappointed because I didn’t want you to see me at my worst. But I’m never disappointed in you, Annie. Nothing’s changed. You’re my hero. You’re always my hero.”

She smiled at that, a natural smile I hadn’t seen in a while. We entered the station—one different from my former precinct. I’d vetted everybody here for corruption, but nobody knew me. I shoved a coded note into the drop-box at the windowed reception grill. The attending officer shot me a look before hurrying off.

“Annie, do you know why finding your center’s so important? Your mother was mine. She reminded me who I was.”

“Dad, I—” she started, but a sergeant interrupted from behind the window.

You’re the undercover asset? The one dropping us Syndicate intel?”

I nudged Annie back, lifted the laptop. “I’ve got the evidence.”

“I thought you’d be taller.”

I grunted as my spine started stretching. I’d tell Annie first that prejudice hit you without warning. You couldn’t feel every racial pull. Only tall people—of this skin color, this gender, this biological composition—did things that mattered. I gritted my teeth as I elongated to obey that premise.

In that unhinged moment, Rinehart struck.

Vapor streamed from a ceiling vent, sluiced through the grill, a human-shaped smog pulling a gun from the drop-box—the sergeant yelled, grabbing his empty holster—

I threw myself around Annie. She breathed into my ear. The gun barked, like the “Chink!” shot from Sanger’s lips, demanding my body obey, that I form holes and blood.

I looked up. Rinehart appeared confused.

Officers clamored against the reception window’s other side. Rinehart had jiggered the door. Why wasn’t I dead?

Then I registered what Annie had said into my ear, what my body couldn’t help but mirror: “You’re my hero, Dad.”

What exactly did my daughter imagine a hero could do? How potent was her belief in me?

The bullet, mashed against my back, pinged onto the floor as I straightened. Rinehart fired his entire clip, bullets thunking off me.

He tossed the gun. “The key to controlling my ability, Miyagi-sensei—” my bones started warping— “was to embrace people’s dictates. To surrender to smoke.”

He slammed me into the window, stunning me. “It’s wonderfully freeing.”

I grabbed his solid shoulders. But Rinehart reformed, shoulders becoming tentacles that hurled me into the ceiling. “Surrender, Fu Manchu!” He’d learned from our last encounter, was trying to overload my body. I dropped to the floor, sprouting a Fu-mustache. “Surrender, dragon-lady!” Torn between stereotypes, my limbs creaked… my fingertips flaked… bleaching of color… whitening… like smoke…

“Surrender, Racism-Man! Ssssssurrender!”

“No!” Annie shouted. She was glowing again. Rinehart flinched from her light.

“Stop listening to bad people, Dad! Just stop! You’remyhero.”

Her mother couldn’t talk me out of transformations. Even the image in her mind couldn’t erase what strangers said about me. Yet Annie thought I was bulletproof. She’d made me bulletproof. Why had her words worked?

Sometimes, super-powered people could learn from those with similar abilities.

Some super-powered people even teamed up, their abilities complementing each other in unexpected ways.

When my body had mysteriously normalized in the café, I’d been opening up to Annie. That was it. I had to listen to her. “Keep talking, pumpkin! It’s helping!”

“Oh, just die already!” Rinehart stretched smoky limbs towards Annie’s light, but snatched them back, as if scalded.

“I want you to hang our pictures again!” she said.

That wasn’t what I’d been expecting. But hearing my daughter’s words felt good. My warped limbs started loosening. “I’m listening!”

“I want to talk about Mom without worrying it’ll make you sad!” A dam had broken loose. She was crying, but my flaking hands solidified, normal color returning.

And I was crying too. I’d thought I was protecting her, but I’d been blocking her out.

“Sad? I’ll show you sad!” Rinehart rose like a storm cloud.

“I want to remember things like Mom showing you how to build a campfire!”

Campfire?

I stood, and breathed fire—yes, fire—at Rinehart. I was a quick thinker, after all. He spilled to the floor as a blackened, human-shaped fog.

“I know who I am, Rinehart. I’m a hero. I’m her hero.”

He growled. “Whatever, Hero-Man.” He vaporized, wafting slowly through the ceiling vent, as if wounded. Rinehart couldn’t be solved in one decisive battle. We’d face each other again.

Officers burst into the reception area. The laptop lay where I’d dropped it. Hopefully, it still worked, but destroying the Syndicate on my own terms seemed much more appealing to me.

Annie took my hand. “I… have more to say.”

In Kung Fu, you knew you’d found your center when you found a place with no pull, where you just were. Maybe the key to finding balance wasn’t destroying a criminal organization or getting revenge, or hiding racism from my daughter, but with something as simple as hearing her out.

I looked into Annie’s eyes. “I’m listening.”


© 2020 by Andrew K Hoe

Author’s Note: I remember my parents trying to explain to me, a Chinese American child in the 1980s, what racism was. I remember that talk being so difficult, and tried picturing how I might explain racism to a child of my own in the 21st century. Racism is extremely nuanced and difficult to verbalize. It’s far more complex than a collection of verbal slurs, and being anti-racist takes much more than vowing never to say certain ugly words. In my daily experiences, I’ve encountered people who passionately decry racism, but don’t realize they enact, through their everyday speech and actions, the very racist behaviors they denounce. When confronted with evidence of their racism, they’re the first to claim “I’m not racist” or “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” The tragic circumstances of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests have forced many to acknowledge that “systemic racism,” “white supremacy,” “microaggression,” and “implicit bias” are actual dangers that continue to threaten BIPOC, trans-, and other marginalized peoples. Yet there are stories of victimized groups having turned the tables by using their oppressors’ racism against them. For example, David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly deals with the real life Chinese male spy who successfully used stereotypes of Asian women to fool a French diplomat into thinking he was a woman. The two had sexual relations with the diplomat being none the wiser. Rinehart is a character from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who forsakes his racial identity to adapt to white society. In writing this story, I wondered—what if a hero could weaponize the racism used against him? What would happen if he could use racism as a superpower?

Andrew K Hoe practices Kung Fu and writes fiction in Southern California. He has been an assistant language teacher in Japan, is currently an assistant professor of English, is also an assistant editor for the Cast of Wonders podcast, and basically just loves assisting. He is thrilled to have a story featured in Diabolical Plots, one of his favorite speculative fiction venues. 


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DP FICTION #43A: “Glass in Frozen Time” by M.K. Hutchins

I freeze time. The frothing soap suds in the sink become glaciers. Dust motes hang in the air like stars. And I move.

I catch Sadie’s plate of mac n’ cheese before it splatters to the floor. While I’m there, I wipe down the table, fix Sadie’s pigtails, then — what the heck — I run downstairs and start a load of laundry.

Then I’m at the kitchen sink, water streaming, motes spinning, and Sadie’s three-year-old voice bubbling merrily on. “— I so happy to go to my Nana’s house!”

“Me too, sweet pea.”

She tells me about her grand plans for the day, including raiding the freezer for cookies. In the middle of it, a wild gesture knocks her juice cup. I freeze time and catch that, too, before any damage is done.

A warm thrill spreads over me as I finish the dishes. Tiny catastrophes make other parents late, but not me. We’ll arrive on time and spotless.

At least in my own home, I can control all the variables.

***

Eli comes home late. I can stop time, but I can’t stop his limp. My throat tightens, just hearing the uneven thud-thump of his real and his prosthetic foot. How can he be safe in the field now? He can still turn invisible, but he’s not exactly stealthy anymore.

Eli doesn’t glare at me. He folds me against his chest and kisses my cheek. Like always. “Did Sadie have a good time at your mom’s?”

“Of course.”

Eli glances around the house. My immaculate house. I alphabetized the spice rack today and organized the picture books by word count, starting with Moo, Baa, La La La! and ending with The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.

But a frown creases Eli’s face. “I don’t think this is what the League had in mind when they gave you vacation time.”

“Mandatory leave time,” I correct, my breath twisting in my chest like an over-tightened screw. “Don’t lecture me again, Eli. I’m just…I’m just a little perfectionist. That’s all.”

Eli holds my gaze and speaks in his calm, rational voice — the one I’m used to hearing during mission planning meetings, not at home. “That isn’t all and it’s not a little. It’s not good for you or Sadie.”

Now he wants to bring our daughter into this? “Sadie’s safe. Of course that’s good for her.”

I slow time to watch his reaction: a tiny shift of his head, the tightening of the corners of his mouth. He disagrees, and he’s not ready to drop this yet. I wish he would. I let time flow.

“She’ll never learn to be careful or clean up after herself if you’re always making things perfect,” he says. “You can’t actually control everything.”

“I know.” But I can control my home. I have to be able to control something.

Eli lays a hand on my shoulder. “That card’s still on your nightstand, Allison.”

The card our League general gave me right before he kicked me out on mandatory leave. My throat constricts. “I don’t need it.”

“You ought to call,” Eli persists. “Go in.”

Eli should be the one having a hard time adjusting, not me. “You know,” I try to joke with him, “most people would be thrilled to have a spouse who never nags them to do the dishes. I can’t believe you’re complaining about a clean house.”

Eli doesn’t laugh. He holds me closer and strokes my hair.

***

I set down my water glass and get back to scrubbing the window track with a Q-tip. Soon, it will be as shiny as League Headquarters. No dead flies. No spots of grime.

“Thirsty,” Sadie declares, hopping down from the table and her crayons. Her feet patter across our spotless tile floor.

“Water, milk, or juice?” I ask, still bent over the window. It’s almost finished. Almost perfect.

The tinkle of broken glass and a sharp little “Ow!” cut through my ears and stab down at my heart.

Reflexively, I freeze time. I turn. My water glass is nothing but shards now between Sadie’s feet. A drop of scarlet blood wells up on her heel.

I am too late.

I freeze, too. My lungs refuse to work. Air becomes concrete in my lungs. My stomach tightens and tightens into a black hole. My tongue is a boulder, clogging my throat.

This isn’t a mission. There are no villains here. I should be able to control it.

But I can’t even hold onto time. It slips away. The glass skitters across the floor, Sadie turns her head, the motes spin.

But I am still frozen as panic crushes my throat.

Sadie turns her foot to look at the small gash. “Mommy!” she wails.

I can’t answer.

“Mommy!” she demands.

I couldn’t stop her from getting hurt.

Sadie plants two fists on her hips. “Mommy! You pick me up now!”

A thread of breath cracks through my throat, into my lungs. I can’t think straight, but I can obey her simple order. I pick up my child.

“To the sink!”

I step carefully around the glass.

“Wash it, Mommy.”

I wash.

“Now dry.”

I dry.

“Band-aid!”

I set her on the counter and pull the first-aid kit down from the cupboard. Sadie holds still while I smooth the bandage over the tiny, angry wound.

“Kiss it better.”

I give her a tiny kiss. She smells like soap and cotton.

Sadie pats my cheek, smiling. “Mommy, you are silly. Nana knows how to do all that without being tolded.”

“Tolded?”

“Yup. And she has kitty band-aids.” Sadie glances at the floor. “Do you need help cleaning up your messes? Nana helps me.”

“You make messes at Nana’s?”

She giggles. “When you go on your last mission with Daddy, I open all the paints! I paint me, I paint the walls, I paint the carpet!”

My mother didn’t tell me that. Maybe she knew I had other things to worry about, after that mission.

I grab a broom. I sweep up the mess. I make cookies with Sadie and then build towers of blocks for her to crash. I ignore the window track. As soon as I get her nestled down for quiet time with a few books, I pick up the card on my nightstand.

Emily Perez, LPC. The League’s recommended counselor for traumatic stress. My throat squeezes tight, but I imagine Sadie’s voice giving me instructions.

Pick up your phone.

Dial the number.

Wait.

Say hello.


© 2018 by M.K. Hutchins

 

Author’s Note: As a mom and as someone who daydreams about magic and super powers, this story came easily.

 

M.K. Hutchins regularly draws on her background in archaeology when writing fiction. Her YA fantasy novel Drift was both a Junior Library Guild Selection and a VOYA Top Shelf Honoree. Her short fiction appears in Podcastle, Strange Horizons, IGMS, and elsewhereA long-time Idahoan, she now lives in Utah with her husband and four children. Find her at www.mkhutchins.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #30B: “Typical Heroes” by Theo Kogod

Tony started training the new girl the day before the world ended.

It was the third apocalypse that year.

The others had occurred when the dead all rose to fight the frost giants, and then again when the President’s new cyber-security tracking program became sentient and started sending combat drones against registered voters of the opposing party.

Tony was registered with the opposition, and had actually gotten to see the drones up close and personal as they descended on him, but then one of the supers had flown in and saved him, so he’d ended up still having to go to work.

He’d worked at NuremBurger for a little over a year, ever since New York had raised the minimum wage and the shoe store had let him go to cut costs.

The restaurant paid him all right, but he needed more hours. He hadn’t been able to get a real date in ages, since everything he owned now smelled like fry oil, sauerkraut, and chemically-treated pseudo-meats. His boss, Mr. Schulze, was one of those “I’m not racist but—” racists who was forever making people uncomfortable by trying to show how enlightened he was.

Yesterday, his boss had introduced Tony to his newest hire—a cute freckly twenty-something whose figure Tony guessed was half the reason Schulze gave her the job. “Antonio, I want you to meet someone,” Schulze had said in that merry I’m-excited-but-in-control voice that was a staple of white people’s professionalism. Tony had long ago stopped trying to get Schulze to stop calling him “Antonio,” which the balding middle-aged man seemed to think was a display of cultural sensitivity. Tony needed more hours, so he put up with it, and instead of saying “Please, just call me Tony,” he said, “Yes?” at which point he was introduced to “Patricia Strauss, though she prefers we call her ‘Trish,’ don’t you, ‘Trish?’”

He had shaken Trish’s hand. “Tony,” he said, holding her gaze long enough that she wouldn’t catch how he eyed her up and down. Trish had a slim fit figure, which her low cut shirt and skinny jeans accentuated enough for Schulze to honor her preferred nickname. In fact, she had the hard-lined athletic build of a gym rat, and he guessed she was probably into weightlifting or rugby or one of those other tough-people sports rather than the usual pop-music Pilates and celebrity-of-the-month yoga. Her freckly face was halfway between cute and “don’t call me cute,” with her blonde hair pulled back into a short-cropped bun.

“Antonio here is one of my best cooks,” said Schulze. “Antonio, I’m gonna have her watch you cook a bit, okay, and let you two get to know each other some. Meanwhile, I’ve gotta go deal with all the drama out there,” he gestured toward the dining area, where a tangle of stressed-even-for-New-York-rush-hour customers dressed in Stars-‘n’-Stripes T-shirts were shouting.

Tony shook his head at them once his boss’s back was turned. He’d never understood how people could be patriotic. His own father had been a proud US citizen after emigrating from Chile, and had carried a small tourist-sized American flag folded in his wallet until the day he died. But Tony never got it, any more than he got how people worshipped all those American celebrity heroes, All-Star and the Twelve Stripes, flying about to rescue babies and fight aliens on TV. They weren’t any different than any of the other televangelist Congressmen or born again reality-TV-stars he’d seen, except they had powers, which supposedly symbolized the American dream. Hearing a bunch of crazy tourists make a scene while wearing shirts with All-Star and his super-groupies annoyed Tony almost as much as the American Heartland-types who came all wide-eyed to stare up at the Statue of Liberty and Times Square as if the crass monuments still had meaning.

The real America was the same here as anywhere else: flipping burgers, selling Chinese-made clothes, mowing lawns, and doing real work while just barely paying the bills. The only difference was that here you could occasionally catch a glimpse of the supers flying over Wall Street to keep the suits there safe from the shitstorm that rained down on everyone else.

He tried to drown out the noise of a particularly vocal banshee-tourist and focus on training the new girl.

“So, is this your first cook job? What all do you know?” Tony asked, flipping two of the patties sizzling on the griddle.

“No. I’ve had a number of them,” she said, and began listing restaurants ranging from a high-end steak joint to a few chain stores that made McDonalds look like fine dining. Altogether, she named eight different restaurants before trailing off.

“Jesus, that’s a lot! How many jobs do you work at once?” Tony asked her. She couldn’t be more than twenty-five, and yet she’d worked at more places than he had.

“I spend a lot of time supporting my family. It’s made me change jobs a lot. And, I mean, you know how it is in this economy,” she said, fidgeting and looking away.

He agreed, and they got talking as he taught her how to defrost the burger patties, fry the “Frank Fries”TM, and coached her on the subtleties of the menu’s German dishes.

Eventually the tourists got too loud, and Tony couldn’t help but mumble “fucking cape-chasers” a little too audibly.

“What?” said Trish, giving him a look. “They’re not so bad. And besides, it’s not like the supers don’t serve and protect us.”

“No, they serve and protect you! People like you. The rest of us get lucky sometimes, but pale skin and good looks go a long way toward getting saved. I grew up being stopped and frisked and profiled by cops and capes alike every day on my way to school, and not much has changed since I became an adult. So no, I’m not a fan, and don’t buy into the whole line about them keeping us safe,” Tony said.

“Oh, come on! First, there are plenty of supers of color! Time Cube and Conqueroot and Black Turner, for starts, and oh, Olmech is Mexican! And second, don’t you watch the news? Tomorrow everything could be gone! Our reality is about to be invaded, and it’s the supers who are keeping us safe! Without them, we might not even be here!” Trish fumed, furious and passionate.

It was a more serious reaction than Tony had been expecting.

He took a breath before responding, collecting himself. “Look, I don’t like talking politics at work, okay. But since you care so much, let me put a few things out there. I don’t care about supers, whatever their color. It’s just not my thing, any more than I care about the Kardashians or Brangelinas or any other celebrities. They don’t affect me, and for all the tragedies they miss, the world keeps turning. They don’t change the things I go through, y’know. I’ve got rent and child support to pay and I’d like to get through a day without being told some dumb shit about how Olmech being Mexican should be important to me. I’m Mapuche, not Mexican.” He sighed. “Now, can we just get back to work?”

The rest of the day at the restaurant progressed with only minor incidents. Trish overcooked a plate of spätzle and a tourist ripped off their server with a 2% tip. When Tony left, he agreed to help train Trish some more the next day.

On the train home he squeezed into a seat between a Hasidic couple speaking Yiddish and a trio of over-pierced teenagers excitedly discussing the news that tomorrow the Twelve Stripes would join forces with the other supers to help repel an incursion from the fifth dimension (or was it the fifth sphere of hell? He couldn’t tell from how they babbled on in nonstop manic slang). He remembered being that age, and actually being excited by the supers and the big events of the world, as though anything ever changed. That was before his uncle had been brutalized for an unpaid traffic ticket, before his cousin had been shot while cosplaying, before Marianne had taken their son.

Until Marianne, he could deal with it. He got that the world just wasn’t fair. He had no heroes—not capes, not politicians, not entertainers—yet he still took care of things. But when she left him for her new job doing IT for All-Star and the Twelve Stripes, she’d taken Dante.

She’d taken their son.

Tomorrow—Friday—the world would end.

And so what? His world ended every Friday, when he got his paycheck and there was that little bit missing for child support—when all he wanted was to actually be there to support his child in person. On Thursdays, he should’ve gotten to see Dante after work. It was his visitation day, and he should have gotten that day—all of it. But Schulze always changed the schedule at the last minute so he had to work until the mid-afternoon. The last time he’d argued with Schulze about this, the man had threatened to fire him, and cut his hours so he only worked Thursdays for the next two weeks.

Normally, he’d be picking Dante up from daycare on a day like this, but Marianne wouldn’t let him “endanger himself spending an evening with his damn burger flipper of an absent father when there are things going on in the world.” He’d called, texted, Facebooked, and Skyped her, and she’d still denied him, which meant there was pretty much nothing he could do about it since she got off before him. Dante was already with his mom, and Tony didn’t have the codes into her apartment building. Maybe it was better for Dante, being stable and all. What did he need with a father who could see him only once a week?

There was that old saying about how the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Well, the more they stayed the same, the worse they got, but at least Dante’s mom might be able to shield him from some of that.

Tony got off at his stop, walked the three blocks from the station to his apartment, and settled down with a beer and leftover Chinese takeout as he watched old episodes of Sabado Gigante on his tablet. Normally, he’d spend Thursdays cooking a special dinner to share with Dante, asking about his week, and then (if the boy had done his homework) they’d watch cartoons together on the tablet, but tonight, he just didn’t want to think.

As a kid, that’s what TV was for. There weren’t so many end-of-the-world scenarios back then. The US was a safe country, “the safest America” his father used to say, as they exported all their misery to the other Americas, and because their heroes really did keep the world safe. And while he didn’t quite agree, he at least saw his father’s point.

That was back before the Twelve Stripes had changed their lineup. Back when the old All-Star—the first All-Star—championed the team with twelve other New York heroes in their brightly colored costumes, patrolling the neighborhoods and stopping the real crimes they saw every day. But then there’d been that one apocalypse where the first All-Star had been ripped in half above the city, raining blood and guts and cosmic starshine down on everyone. After that, everything had changed. Tony had decided life was too short to waste, and enrolled to take classes at CUNY, studying graphic design. But then work got in the way, and he and Marianne were always fighting, and there was Dante to think about. It wasn’t long before dreams of a career with computers had been traded for contentment selling shoes, and not much longer ‘til he was—as Marianne put it—that “damn burger flipper of an absent father.”

Tony’s Sabado Gigante marathon was interrupted when the screen momentarily froze to allow a small pop-up window—the sort of pop-up that appeared for storm warnings and bomb threats and invading armies of North Korean lobotomechs.

He closed the pop-up, continued watching his show, and fell asleep on the couch with his beer still unfinished.

When he awoke the next morning, the beer bottle was empty and the tablet had drunk itself to an early death.

He cursed, bemoaning another loss he couldn’t afford. He got ready for work, needing to hurry to make the lunch shift and help train the new girl. Outside his window, he heard screaming, the honking of New York traffic with the volume turned up, and an eerie humming sound he couldn’t place. He ignored them, buttoning on his pants and grabbing a pack of Oreos to eat on the way to work.

Outside the streets were filled bumper-to-bumper with drivers honking and shouting. Some people had gotten out of their vehicles to look and see how bad the traffic was. Others had just gotten out and fled on foot. The skies above were black—not overcast, but altered into a rippling obsidian lake that bent slightly inward like some cosmic meniscus.

But the trains worked just fine, despite delays. As he rode to work, he tried not to think that this might actually be the end of everything (or at least the end of him). He should be spending the day with Dante, not going to work. All he wanted to do was sit with his son on his lap watching cartoons and hear Dante’s laugh. But if tomorrow came, he’d need his paycheck.

Even if it didn’t, the collection agencies would still hound whatever was left of his corpse, terrorizing Marianne and Dante to collect on his debts.

The train emerged from a tunnel, and he saw that a black rain had started, inky drops splattering against the train car. Above, the dark orb had swollen, engorging into the eye of some malevolent god watching them at the hour of Judgment.

He got off at his stop, trying not to look up, and when he arrived at NuremBurger, he found Schulze, Trish, and a pair of servers already there. He greeted them, ignored Schulze’s comments asking where he’d been (like the answer wasn’t obvious), and began the day’s work, showing Trish how to use the fryer and prep the stove and the two dozen other basic tasks to start the day. She worked diligently and learned quickly, and at one point he made the mistake of praising her with a “good work, but you can take it easy. We aren’t saving the world, just working the kitchen.” She spent the next hour nattering on about how hard supers worked to save the world, and how the Fifth Dimensionalists had undermined everything with their chronaliminal engineering by bringing on an apocalypse that chronocops like Time Cube and Panthea said wasn’t due for three centuries. The girl was a cape-chaser alight, and rambled about superteams like the Twelve Stripes, U-Knighted, and the Repairmen. Then she embarked on a tangent about the hero Numen, how his suffering was underappreciated and no one understood him like she did. He remembered being in high school, watching girls obsess over capes and boybands, and figured it was just her age. Thankfully, only four customers came before noon, so it was a slow day.

Then as he finished sizzling a WurstBurger, there was a strange keening and the burger began to shake and–

The kitchen exploded!

And time slowed.

Tony was knocked from his feet as the floor split. The ceiling imploded and he rose to meet it. Gas pipes splintered in fiery gouts. Pain raked his arm—flying debris—and as flaming cutlery and shattered cinderblocks enveloped him, he realized this was the end.

He thought of Dante.

And then a force enfolded him, pressing close to him with a warm forcefulness and a moment later, it was over.

A super had him.

He looked up, seeing the restaurant in ruins. Two supers—one he recognized and one he didn’t—were embattled with a horde of what appeared to be car-sized insects, like spiked arachnids. A woman dressed like a Celtic warrior in blue-glowing warpaint bashed her fists through carapaces, riding through the wreckage aback a shining horse-sized battle-pig. Tony vaguely recalled this woman was Coventina, some British goddess reincarnate and involved in a number of controversial transatlantic security arrangements established in the Thatcher years. The other super wore too-tight black spandex and was gratuitously backflipping over the gargantuan death beetles and shooting bone spikes from his fingertips. The spikes pierced their hides, shattering shells amidst spurts of viscous gore.

Above, the sky had opened into a gaping mouth that consumed half the space between horizons, fangs and tentacles and more bugs drooling from it toward the earth.

Sirens blared. People screamed. Another super flew overhead, riding a nimbus of what Tony guessed must be nanomachines, black nanite clouds extending from his palms to catch falling debris. Groups of heroes soared high above, wrestling with tentacles the size of skyscrapers, bright blasts of light and flame flashing from their fists. A blurred streak whizzed through the streets, clearing the roads of debris as an unidentified speedster shot past, and moments later, the sirens grew louder, emergency vehicles traversing the now-clear streets.

Vaguely, Tony realized he didn’t know who had saved him. He looked around, saw Schulze standing with a perplexed look, one server beside him and both splattered with gore.

But there was no sign of his rescuer.

Somewhere in the debris of what used to be the NuremBurger kitchen (and was now a flaming outdoor garbage pile being used for gladiatorial combat), somewhere under the broken brickwork and metal shards and scattered contents of the walk-in freezer, was Trish.

With horror, he looked back up at the chunky red stains smeared across Schulze, and wondered how much of that could be her. Schulze opened his mouth and closed it again wordlessly. The server cried, shaking.

Coventina leapt from her mount and delivered a roundhouse kick to the last of the bugs, catapulting its broken body into the horizon. Then she remounted and rode away toward some other threat, her companion already gone.

A shadow fell across Tony, and he looked up.

Floating above him was another hero he recognized—All-Star’s teen sidekick, Americana. She just hovered there for a second, her muscular slim frame exaggerated by the red-white-and-blue uniform that seemed cut to emphasize more assets than just her patriotism. She flashed him a familiar freckle-faced smile, and he smiled back, waving to show his gratitude.

Then she was off, darting into the air without any regard for Newton’s Laws. Somewhere above the rooftops, he saw her join with a group of a dozen other patriotically dressed supers helmed by what even Tony could not mistake for anyone other than All-Star. As one, the group shot straight up toward the open jaws above.

Typical heroes.

Still, looking about him, he could not deny the immensity of what was happening. The world was a blur of screams and debris and mangled bodies. The heavens had been swallowed by hell.

He realized what he needed to do. What a real hero would do—not some steroids-and-cosmic-power super— but the kind of hero the world actually needed in times like this.

“Mr. Schulze!” he shouted. The old man stared at him, blinking in half-recognition. The man was probably in shock. Hell, Tony probably was too, but it’s not like it’d be the first time. “Mr. Schulze!” he repeated, louder.

“What is it, Tony?” Schulze asked, and Tony realized it was the first time the man hadn’t called him “Antonio.”

“I’m going,” Tony said.

“What?”

“I’m getting out of here.”

“You can’t,” Schulze said, his focus apparently clearing. “The police. They’ll need to interview you, to take a statement about the damages.”

“The police have better things to do right now,” he said, gesturing toward the events unfolding all around them. “Besides, there’s somewhere I need to be right now.”

“You need to be here. This is your job!” Schulze shouted, sounding hysterical, as though if Tony left now, then he truly would have lost everything.

“My job is to be a dad. My boy needs to know there’s a real hero there to look after him when the world is falling apart.”

With that, Tony turned his back on the older man, walking through the chaos to find Dante.


© 2017 by Theo Kogod

 

Author’s note: Do you remember that scene at the end of the first Avengers film where the heroes all get schawarma?  It’s a great scene, but what was going on in the personal lives of the restaurant workers that they stayed at work amidst an alien invasion blowing up the city?  And what do people grow accustomed to in a world with such horrors and wonders as superhero comics present?  This story explores some possible answers to those questions while showcasing the struggles (both absurd and very familiar) of life in the shadow of superheroes.

 

Theo Kogod is a teacher, scholar, wanderer, and the Resident Writer for 3 Feet Left.  He has spent time living in Greece, Japan, and the United States.   He currently resides in North Carolina with his two cats, an amazing spouse, and a small mountain of books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #28A: “The Existentialist Men” by Gwendolyn Clare

Kris has a talent for making toast come out perfectly every time. Never burnt. The rest of us yearn for a superpower so practical.

Ryan has incredible parking-space karma, but only after he has already parked. He’ll circle round and round the block, finding nothing and more nothing, and eventually give up and take that one empty space six blocks away. He’ll bundle up against the cold, scarf wrapped all the way up to his chin and hands shoved deep in his coat pockets, and walk the six blocks to the restaurant. And without fail, just as he opens the door, a parking space will open up directly in front. Once, he ran back to his car to move it closer, but the empty space had been claimed by the time he drove there. The parking spaces are taunting him.

Technology always behaves itself in the presence of Candace. If someone has a computer problem, all she has to do to fix it is walk over and glance at the screen. Of course, as soon as she walks away, the computer begins malfunctioning again. She doesn’t understand what the rest of us are always complaining about.

Julie could disappear, but only once. We all miss Julie.

Hiro is never, ever, in a situation where he might have the opportunity to be a hero. One day he slept in, and that was the day someone lost control of their car on the ice and plowed through the glass front of the café where he usually got his morning coffee. When the flu prevented him from going holiday shopping downtown, a chunk of limestone façade spontaneously fell off a building onto a crowded sidewalk, killing one person and injuring six. If he declines to join us for lunch, invariably someone in the restaurant will nearly choke to death. The rest of us got trained to do the Heimlich, and we try to take him along with us whenever we can, like a shield against the bad luck that seems to cluster in his absence. Hiro, for his own part, tries to stick to his schedule so he’s never not somewhere he’s supposed to be.

Brianna gets improbable injuries. It’s true that she enjoys her share of dangerous activities—rugby, skiing, roller derby—but that’s never when she gets hurt. She sprained her wrist in her sleep. She broke a bone in her foot getting out of the desk chair in her home office. Once, she actually slipped on a banana peel and broke her elbow. At an improv comedy show, she laughed so hard she cracked a rib. Most of the ER nurses know her by name. She has to be especially careful when Hiro’s not around.

Nick always knows exactly what time it is without looking at a clock. This would have been incredibly useful back in the 18th Century. But we all own watches and cell phones, and don’t really need him for anything.

Carlos says he has consistent, reliable precognitive abilities. Unfortunately, his precognition only senses one or two seconds ahead, so he never manages to react in time to change the outcome. This means no one else can really confirm whether or not he has a superpower at all, but we choose to believe him anyway. With everything else we’ve seen, why not? At least he knows what’s coming.

My superpower is that I’m friends with all these people, and nothing extraordinary ever happens to me.


© 2017 by Gwendolyn Clare

 

gwen-clare-headshotGwendolyn Clare’s debut novel — INK, IRON, AND GLASS — is the first in a YA steampunk duology forthcoming from Macmillan/Imprint in 2018. Her short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others. She holds a BA in Ecology, a BS in Geophysics, a PhD in Mycology, and swears she’s done collecting acronyms. She lives in North Carolina with too many cats, too many ducks, and never enough books.

 

 


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