Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Day Between The Panels: Short Fiction

A Day Between The Panels
Chris Costello

The life of a superhero always seems attractive at first glance, but then again, everything does. You go into it expecting to do good. I mean, who doesn’t want to fly around the city unaided and punch cybernetic lizards in the face? Who would pass up the opportunity to have drinks with the president, or do security at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Saving the world has its perks, there’s no doubt about that.

In practice, however, it is far less glamorous. Take me, for instance. Apart from flight, super strength is the answer everybody gives when asked the obligatory, “If you could have one power...” question. Being able to lift a semi truck over your head without even getting winded certainly appears to be a valuable skill, and nobody would fuck with you if they knew you could snap them in half with your pinkie finger. In reality, having superhuman strength is a lot like owning a pickup truck. Once word gets out, everyone and their mother is going to ask you to help them move.

They don’t show that in the comic books. Maybe all the boring stuff takes place between the panels.

“Be careful with that!” Henry shrieked as I hefted the sofa over my head.

“I got it,” I grunted, though that was purely for effect. I started the walk towards the moving van that was parked in Henry’s driveway.

“You said that about the coffee table, and now it has a nick where you banged it against my wall. I had to get the whole thing refinished.”

“You’re a clairvoyant,” I shot back. “You should’ve seen it coming.”

The ambient crinkling sound stopped, and I could tell that Henry had paused in wrapping dinnerware in newspaper. “Don’t say that, Janine,” he said. He sounded like I’d just told him that his childhood pet had passed away.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not funny. Do you have any idea how hard it is to ignore the thousands of potential futures I see, and focus on the most important and probable?”

I rolled my eyes, though Henry couldn’t see it. I’d heard this speech a thousand times before, and yet he still wouldn’t shut up. I increased my pace, carrying his precious Ikea couch down the short flight of stairs that led from his deck to the driveway. Henry, for his part, kept right on talking. Soon, however, his voice faded into the distance. It became little more than a buzzing in the background, like that of a mosquito.

I placed the couch in between two towering stacks of boxes in the back of the van, then began the trek back up to the patio. I was in good shape, sure. It came as part of the hero lifestyle. But a day trudging up stairs, arms laden with boxes, was beginning to take its toll on my knees.

I tossed a reproachful glance to Eugene, who was sitting in a lawn chair near the sliding glass door on the patio. There was a glass of iced tea on the table beside him. “You could help, you know,” I said.

“I am helping,” He jerked a thumb at the clear blue sky. “I’m keeping the rain away.”

“The weatherman said that there was no rain in the forecast. Nobody thought it was going to rain today.”

“Well, now it definitely won’t.”

“We have to hurry up,” Henry said, wringing his hands. “If we don’t get out of here by three, we’re going to have to contend with some hellacious gridlock.”

“That, you see,” I said.

“No, I just know traffic in this city.”

I grabbed his refrigerator. “I still don’t know why this couldn’t wait for the weekend.”

“Professor Hubris is going to release his army of cyborg zombies on Saturday.”

“About time,” Eugene chimed in, taking a long pull on his drink. “He’s been threatening that for months now.”

“What about Sunday?” I said.

“I have yoga class,” Henry said.

I sighed heavily and placed his fridge in the truck. It was all I could do not to hurl it against the side of the house. Eugene smirked at me, ostensibly keeping the clouds away. I never did like that guy.

“You know,” I said to no one in particular. “This would go a lot faster if we had Barry to help us.”

“Not a chance,” Eugene replied. “For one thing, he’s in New York fighting a giant plant monster or something. Also, he’s kind of a dick.”

“You’re just saying that because he got a movie deal, and you didn’t.”

“That is...” Eugene had raised his voice, but now it was steadily lowering. “Not entirely untrue.”

“If it’s any consolation,” Henry said. “Barry wins the fight today.”

“Oh, goody,” Eugene groused.

I gave him a playful punch on the arm.

He winced, rubbing the spot where my fist had made contact. “Jesus, Janine,” he said, clearly holding back tears. “Super strength.”

I smiled sheepishly.” Oh, right. I’m sorry.”

“Whatever.” Eugene took a sip of his drink, and then fell silent.

My further attempts at apology were cut short by a flash of brilliant white light, as well as the distinct smell of lilacs. A woman materialized in the middle of the patio. She was completely bald, and her skin was tinted pink. She had catlike slits for eyes; with huge ears that were shaped like leaves.

She landed a pile of Henry’s things. They were mostly clothes, but I heard something fragile break.

“Whoops,” the alien said.

“Goddamn it, Dementra,” Henry screamed. “Did you travel a million lightyears through hyperspace just to step on my commemorative plates?”

Dementia whirled on him, eyes blazing with white hot energy. “You would do well to hold your tongue, whelp,” she said. “I am the Warrior Queen of Galandron, and I will not hesitate to give you a taste of my power.”

Henry grumbled and retreated inside the house. He looked like he had just seen a ghost.

“Bet he didn’t see that coming,” Eugene said.

“I would like to see him open a transdementional portal and see how well he hits his mark,” Dementra seethed.

“I understand,” I said. “But did you have to be so hard on him? You nearly gave the guy a heart attack.”

“He disrespected the Galandronian ambassador to Earth,” she replied. “What was I supposed to do?”

“Forget it,” I said. “I’m just glad you could make it.”

She nodded, telekinetically hoisting a few boxes into the air. They floated leisurely over to the truck, then touched gingerly down on the floor. “I must admit, however, that I do not understand this earthling ritual of ‘moving day.’ On my planet, we simply burn our possessions when we relocate.”

“Maybe that’s why you guys are having a food crisis,” Eugene quipped.

Dementra turned on him, clenching her fists. “Did you hear what I said to Henry? The same goes for you. Talk to me like that again, I will pull your eyeballs out through your nose.”

Eugene put up his hands. The gesture of peace was so common that even an extraterrestrial could understand it. “Okay, okay. Jesus.”

“That is what I thought,” Dementra said, moving a bundle of clothes to the van. I pushed an entertainment center in front of the pile.

“Oh, put it in a box, you lazy ingrates!” Henry called, sticking his head through a third story window.

“Will do, fair maiden Juliet.” This, of course, came from Eugene.

“All you need to know is that at the end of the day, we get pizza and beer,” I said to Dementra.

A smile played at the corners of her mouth. “Now that is something I can get behind.”

“Can I come?” Eugene said, sitting up a little straighter in his chair.

“Don’t you need to stay here?” I shot back. “Keep the rain away?”

The only sound was Henry’s distant laughter. That, and Eugene muttering expletives.

“You coming, Henry?” I asked.

He stuck his head out of the window again. There was a sleep mask pushed up on his forehead, near his hairline. I could see that he was wearing a red silk robe; I stifled a laugh. “No,” he said, sounding royally pissed off. “I have to see about repairing what were once some commemorative plates.”

I prodded Dementra in the ribs. She damn near broke my arm, but she got the message, so I couldn’t really complain. “Oh, right,” she said. “Sorry.”

“Whatever. You have done quiet enough today.” Henry slammed the window shut with enough force to knock even me on my ass. “Please, just go.”

Eugene shrugged. “His loss is my gain, right, guys?” He started to get up, but halted when I glared at him.

“Not a chance,” I said, taking Dementra by the hand. “Come on. I know just the place.”


“The place” was a bar on the West side, better known as The Fortress. It catered almost exclusively to a metahuman clientele. It had been designed to look like a medieval castle, but the passage of time had turned it into a rough gray blob. It was a total eyesore, but they served the best beer in town, so I wasn’t about to take action.

“I have heard of this establishment,” Dementra said.

“Great beer,” I said, making my way to the door. There was nobody in line but us. I attributed that to the fact that it was five o’clock on a Friday. Most of the big-shot superheroes were out saving the world.

Despite this, there was a bouncer posted near the door. He was huge, at least six feet taller than I was. There was some kind of metal alloy covering his skin, and a frown was etched deep into his face. 

“Will we get in?” She sounded worried.

“Of course we will,” I said, crossing my fingers behind my back.

Dementra looked at me, incredulity evident on her face “Are you positive? We are not as renowned as many of the heroes who make use of this establishment.”

“Oh, come on. We’re the only people in line. Stay optimistic. Just hang in there.”

“Those phrases are redundant, are they not?”

“At the risk of sparking an interstellar war, shut up.”

Dementra shot me a look that could’ve melted steel. If she had heat vision, that is. I had seen that look before. It meant that she wanted to hurl me into outer space and let me drift there aimlessly forever. Thank God that was impossible. She could only lift things telekinetically that she would have been able to lift physically. With my mass, she couldn’t have levitated me more than an inch off the ground. I was safe for now.

“I’m sorry,” I said, meaning it. “I just really need to get drunk right now.”

Dementra’s steely gaze softened into one of worry. “I believe I am supposed to inquire further as to the nature of your predicament,” she said.

I let out a deep sigh. “That is the human custom. But really, I don’t want to talk about it.”

“All right. If you change your mind, I will be right by your side.”

I clapped her on the shoulder. “Look at you,” I said. “You’re really getting the hang of this human culture thing.”

Dementra took a small bow.

“What was that for?”

“It is my understanding that when one is complimented by a superior, one should take a bow.”

“I’d like to revise my original statement,” I said.

“Is that an outdated practice?”

I nodded, sauntering up the bouncer. I threw my shoulders back, trying to look more confident than I felt.

“How do you do, sir?” I asked.

The bouncer grunted and looked down at the clipboard. It looked microscopic in his huge hands. “Names?”

“Um, I’m Bulwark. This is my partner Dementra, Warrior Queen of Galandron.”

He consulted the list again. “You guys aren’t on the list.”

“What?” I demanded. “Are you serious?”

He shrugged. “Sorry.”

“There’s, like, six people in there. Will letting two B-listers in really hurt your standing all that much?”

The guy screwed up his face at me. “Sorry. Can’t do it. Against the rules to let people like you in.”

“People like me?” I said. “What does that even mean?” Anger flared up in my chest. I wanted so bad to knock this guy on his ass and just walk through, but that was impossible. Hitting him would only result in a broken hand on my part. Still, I needed some way to vent all that anger. I was just about to put a hole through the wall when Dementra spoke up.

“You know, there is a vendor that sells alcoholic beverages on the outskirts of town. I think it is near a lake. Shall we...” She trailed off, trying to think of the right word. “Relax there for a little while? Perhaps it will help you forget about those troubles you do not wish to discuss.”

“I’d like to revise my statement again,” I said, slipping a pair of huge, bug-eyed sunglasses over my face. “You’re really good at this.”

Dementra took another bow, and I decided not to say anything this time around.

As we drove, the density of the city gave way to the ratty motels and strip malls that were typical of the nearby suburbs. Soon, even those vanished, replaced by gas stations and truck stops clustered around the interstate highway. We stopped at a store to pick up some beer.


Bringing Dementra, Warrior Queen of Galandron, to a convenience store in the country was my first mistake. The second mistake was refusing to let her stop by the apartment to get her armor. In it, she was a seven-foot-tall alien warlord, a force to be reckoned with. Out of it, she was a bubble-pink space prison with the body of Jessica Rabbit. The young, acne-ridden guy behind the counter couldn’t take his eyes off of her as she picked through a rack of novelty T-shirts. Big shock.

“What about this one?” she asked, holding an ‘I’m with stupid’ tee over her slender torso. “Is it suitably amusing?”

“Only if you wear it next to Henry,” I said, placing a six pack on the counter. “Or Eugene.”

“Humorous,” she said, grinning hugely.

The clerk rang me up, still ogling my friend. “I know her. In’t that the space amazon who came to conquer the Earth?”

“That’s her,” I said dully, digging around in my purse until I found my wallet.

“She’s part of that superhero team in the city, isn’t she?” Recognition flashed across his face. “You’re that lady, right? Strong Girl.”

I lowered my sunglasses. “Bulwark,” I corrected. I’d made a dozen trips out to the countryside and had yet to be recognized. I didn’t have a secret identity; nobody bothered with those anymore. But I liked to maintain a modicum of privacy. I’m only five foot six and if I let my hair down, most people didn’t put two and two together. “Just the beer, please.”

He sized me up. “Yeah, sure. So how strong are you?”

“Strong enough,” I said, narrowing my eyes.

“So, like, how many cars can you lift?” he asked. 

In spite of myself, I was impressed. That line was usually enough to scare supervillains into submission, but this kid was plowing right on ahead. Judging by the slack-jawed look on his face, he was probably just too dumb to realize that I was threatening him. 

“One? Two?”

I had, in fact, thrown several buses over the course of my career. And things that were bigger, as well.

“Just the beer, please,” I repeated.

Dementra dropped a T-shirt on the counter. It was emblazoned with the words ‘Female Body Inspector.’ “And this.”

The clerk nodded. “Are you strong enough to break my bed?” he asked me.

“You’re an ass,” I growled.

 He eyed the shirt. “Are you guys into a three-way, or what?”

“On my planet, three-way is a term for a very specific kind of honor combat,” Dementra said before I could speak. “We would most definitely be interested in something like that.”

The kid went chalk white. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.

I handed him a ten dollar bill. We left before he was able to come to his senses and ask any further questions.

 We exited the store, and Dementra pulled the shirt out of the bag. I wasn’t sure it would even fit her. Put bluntly, she had a ridiculous pair of tits. Eugene’s words, not mine. They became even more ridiculous once you figured out she wasn’t a mammal.

“Have I done something wrong?” Dementra asked as we got into my car.

“Other than being you?” I asked. “No. You can’t really help that, anyway.”

I turned down the dirt road that led to the lake, though it was probably pointless now. I’d never be able to enjoy myself after the fiasco in the store. I came out here to get away from the superhero game, and now everybody knew. I was in solid shape, but my physique was nowhere near as impressive as Dementra’s. I’d never gotten down to zero percent body fat, and I looked awful in spandex. Luckily, that trend was long gone by the time I’d discovered my powers.

But people didn’t tend to forget once they put two and two together. The clerk would never be able to resist telling his friends about me, and soon everyone in town would be asking me for a demonstration. It was always cars. The most common request being to pick one up while posing for a photograph.

“You forgot the bait,” Dementra said as we drew closer to the lake. “Don’t we need it to fish?”

“We’re not here to fish,” I said.

“Then what are we here to do?”

“You said it yourself: relax.”

“How does one relax without first establishing dominance over the forces of nature?”

“You’ll see. We’ll sit by the lake, enjoy the quiet, read a book.”

“That sounds-what’s the word-boring.”

“What are you talking about? You’re the one who suggested this in the first place.”

“I was hoping for a bonding experience.” She said. “On Galandron, boon warrior companions such as ourselves would enter the pit, fighting without weapons until one of us yields. Or, more commonly, dies.”

I blinked. “This is Earth. We sit by a lake and talk.”

“If such is your custom.”

We drove on. “Boon warrior companions, huh?” I asked after a moment.

“I believe the Earthling equivalent is besties.”

I chuckled. She drove me crazy at times, sure. But that was the nature of friendship, particularly if one friend wasn’t even from the same dimension as the other.

In my rearview mirror, I caught sight of a cop walking towards us. I pulled over to the side of the road and cut the engine.

The cop approached the window, wearing a big, shit-eating grin on his face. He tapped the window with his knuckles; I rolled it down.

“Problem, officer?” I asked.

“No, ma’am,” he said. “My partner and I were just wondering if you’d do us a favor.”

The other cop was standing near the cruiser, which was parked on the other side of the road, a few feet away. Another man in uniform stood in front of the car, camera at the ready. I could crush that thing into a powder without even breaking a sweat.

I glanced at Dementra, and she nodded, almost imperceptibly.

“My pleasure, sir,” I said, stepping out of the car.

We snapped about ten photos, for which all three of the cops thanked me profusely. I told them it was no trouble at all, and then Dementra and I were on our way once again.

“That was very gracious of you,” Dementra said once we were spread out on a picnic blanket on the grassy field by the lake. The field was surrounded on three sides by pine trees, so we were in no danger of being spotted here. That is, as long as no one was out fishing.

“What was?” I said absently. I was engrossed in a mystery novel and a bottle of cheap beer, so Dementra’s words sounded like they were coming from very far away.

“Taking those photographs,” she replied.

“I know,” I said, brushing a wayward strand of hair from my eyes. “I just wish I could be doing something more.”

“What do you mean?” Dementra cracked open her fourth beer and popped the cap off. She tossed it up in the air, catching it in her mouth and chewing thoughtfully. I wasn’t worried about her alcoholic intake. I didn’t think her species could even get drunk.

“I mean, take today, for instance. So far, I was hit on by a teenager, I took photos with three police officers, and I helped a neurotic clairvoyant move. That’s not exactly heroic.”

“Is that why your tear ducks were activated earlier?”

I chuckled. “Yes, that’s why I was crying. When I discovered my powers, I was elated. I thought I might actually be able to help people. I thought I would save lives, make the world a better place.”

Dementra swallowed the bottle cap. “You wanted to be a hero.”

“Exactly. But it hasn’t been like that. All I’ve done is posed for photos and lifted heavy things. I fell like a tool, like an object. I feel used.”

Dementra sat up, putting her arm around my shoulder. “On my planet, we have a word for people like you.”

“Oh, yeah? What is it?”


“What does that translate to?” I asked. “Fearless leader? Warrior princess?”


I nearly sprayed my beer all over her face. “What?”

“I am sorry, perhaps that was a bit harsh.”

“That’s putting it mildly, sister.”

“Look at it this way. You were a hero to Henry when you helped him move. He might not have shown it, but it is true nonetheless. You were heroic to those police officers when you took those photos. I read their thoughts, but I didn’t need to. You could see it on their faces.”

“You can do that?” I shouted. “Read their thoughts, I mean.” The idea that my best friend could poke around in my brain was more than a little disconcerting. Then again, I told her everything already, so what did it matter?

“That is unimportant right now,” she said. “The point is, you made all those people feel amazing. Their happiness was like nothing I have ever felt before. There is no word, in any language, that is a suitable descriptor for that emotion.”

“Wow,” was all I could think to say in response.

“That is what makes a hero. There are very few people who can make people feel as they did. You can. Be proud of that.”

“What about that kid in the store?” I said, getting all misty-eyed. I was glad Eugene wasn’t here to see me, or I’d never hear the end of all this. “Was I a hero to him?”

“He is different. I believe the Earthling equivalent is ‘raging asshole.’”

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