“Why are we here?” Christine asked. Her friend, Dora asked for company while she ran an errand. The pair of teenage girls stood in front of an abandoned school. She followed Dora along the sidewalk to the entrance. The tall, unkempt grass had not covered the path completely, yet. “And what happened?”
“Ballisea,” Dora replied. Christine looked up past the weathered bricks of the school to the bright blue sky.
“Why isn’t the sky red?” she asked. Dora shrugged with one hand placed on the door. Christine watched the door age, crack, then crumble out of their way.
“I was 10 at the time,” she said, stepping into the dim school. “I didn’t think to ask her what she planned for my Earth,” she said with a lighthearted tone. There was no electricity but enough light came in through dozens of evenly spaced skylights throughout the halls.
“You got away okay. Did your family too?” Dora tensed and shook her head, but managed to keep navigating the halls.
“I was here when it happened. I was so panicked; I Traversed for the first time. One minute I was screaming at skeletons in the school. The next minute I was screaming at strangers in another universe. Luckily, one of them was a Mundo. He said I shouldn’t come back.” Dora turned and entered a classroom filled with overturned desks; she made a beeline for one in the back.
“You never saw your family again?” Christine asked. Dora shook her head as she lifted the top of an upright desk. She pulled out a black spiral notebook with the word ‘DeLorean’ drawn on the cover. She opened the notebook to show Christine. A photo of a smiling family was taped to the inside front cover.
Jerry sped up his pace when he spotted the conspicuously inconspicuous white van parked outside his grandma’s house. He stopped by her house after school each day to pick up a new batch of treats to sell. Once the teenager Jerry learned her confections could reverse aging he wasted no time in finding rich buyers. He offered her the lion’s share of profits, but she never really seemed concerned about money.
It wasn’t until recently that Jerry realized he should have been more secretive. He started getting questions from random strangers in black suits with different accents. He did his best to throw them off his grandma’s trail, but as he ran into her house he wondered if a 15-year-old’s “best” was good enough. He entered the foyer in a hurry and relaxed. He heard laughter and conversation from the kitchen and guessed she wasn’t in too much danger.
“Jerry!” his grandma exclaimed the moment he poked his head around the corner. The short, elderly woman rushed to give him a big hug. After the embrace, she turned to face the table and pushed Jerry forward with her arm around his shoulder. “This is my grandson, Jerry. I guess you could say he’s my dealer,” she giggled.
His grandma introduced him to two men in black suits, both wearing sunglasses. A tall one and a short one, with almost no other way to tell them apart. Their hair color was nearly the same dark shade of brown and styled the same way on both. The glasses hid their eyes and neither stranger had any telltale blemish on their tan skin. Each man had a glass half full of speckled milk in front of him and a nearly empty plate of cookies rested between them.
“Uh, hi,” Jerry gave a half-wave. Both men nodded at him.
“Everything okay, grandma?” Jerry asked. She smiled and squeezed him closer.
“Never better! These gentlemen came to help,” she said. Jerry immediately grew worried. The one thing television taught him was that government agents could not be trusted.
“Grandma,” he leaned closer to her and whispered. “You can’t trust the government.” She slapped his shoulder playfully then crossed the kitchen to the stove; she grabbed half-empty plate from the table on her way. A sheet of fresh cookies sat cooling on the stove and she began refilling the plate.
“They’re not from the government,” she said. “They’re from the B.A.A.”
“Sounds like they are,” Jerry replied with a shrug. “F.B.I., N.S.A., B.A.A., it’s all the same.” He decided to sit in on the rest of their meeting; the fresh plate of cookies helped sway him. His grandma set the plate between the agents, then she sat down next to Jerry. “How are they going to ‘help‘?” he asked with sarcastic emphasis.
“They already did!” his grandma said with a big smile. The agents couldn’t answer; their mouths were full of chocolate-chip goodness. “They arranged it so the governments here won’t bother you or me anymore, and you can keep selling. Jerry hadn’t realized that other agents were already bothering his grandma.
“I suppose all they want is the secret of your treats?” Jerry asked as he stared at the agents.
“We already know it,” the short one said as he dipped another cookie into his milk.
“What!?” Jerry felt a pang of anger flare in his gut. He did not know his grandma’s secret. He always hoped and assumed she’d teach it to him one day. But she flat out gave these strangers the secret before him. The short agent turned to look at Jerry’s grandma. Jerry sensed something passed between them, but his grandma had a great poker face and he couldn’t see the agent’s expression at all. Then, he heard his grandmother sigh.
“They didn’t come to learn my secret,” his grandmother reached for his hand and squeezed it. “They came because they already knew, and they wanted to make sure I was safe.”
“Huh?” Jerry did not understand what she meant at all.
“When I bake,” she squeezed his hand again. “I add a secret ingredient that you can never learn to use. It’s way more complicated, but we can get away with calling it magic,” she said. “I can’t teach you, it’s something I was born with.”
Jerry almost scoffed at the notion of magic until he looked at the bigger picture. He felt like an idiot. He believed the right combination of flour, baking soda, and chocolate chips could reverse someone’s aging. Right until she said the word “magic”.
“These nice gentlemen know what I can do. They wanted to make sure I was doing it intentionally and of my own free will.
“And we have,” the short one said as both men rose from their chairs. The tall one stuffed handfuls of cookies into the pockets of his black coat. “Let us know if you have any other issues,” he said. Jerry stood out of his seat expecting to walk them out, but a large black hole appeared in his grandma’s kitchen. With a nod, both men walked into the hole then it disappeared.
“I’m sure you have questions,” his grandma said. “It’s time you knew everything. From the beginning.” Jerry turned to give her his undivided attention. He knew she had secrets, but he never imagined magic or black holes. The greying, wrinkled woman took in a slow, deep breath. The inward airflow added warm color to her pasty skin and plumped her wrinkles. Dark black flowed from her scalp to recolor her silver hair. When she exhaled again, Jerry’s grandmother looked more like a young aunt. Her dark hair had a vibrant lustre to it and her skin seemed to glow with youthful energy.
“The first thing you need to know…,” she said with a strong, young voice. “…is that 14 is my favorite number.”
“That’s it? That was easy!” Valentine jumped out of the black portal carrying a pizza box. Emily followed her out and onto the cracked, aged walkway. Old grey and brown cement led directly to the single-story house. The yard on both sides of the path was over-grown with waist-high weeds and the house itself looked abandoned. The sun was setting in the purple sky but no lights were on inside the house.
“It’s easy, but don’t forget to reclaim it,” Emily said. The silver-haired girl put her hand into the portal. The hole began to shrink until it was a small black business card in the palm of her hand. “Kirk forgot a couple of times and we needed to call for a ride.”
“Is that why he couldn’t come with you?” Valentine asked. She wouldn’t call Emily a friend quiet yet, they’d only met a few days ago. She was surprised when Emily asked if Valentine wanted to join her for work; her usual partner couldn’t make it. She eagerly agreed when she found out Emily delivered pizza to different universes. Emily shook her head; loose strands of silver shimmered in the sunlight.
“Nah, Mundo said he needed more training with Frost and Keys,” she said. “Speaking of…,” Emily added as she started up the path to the door. “… Mundo said she offered you a spot on the team too. Are you going to join?” Valentine shrugged. They reached the door and Emily pressed the doorbell.
“I don’t know… I haven’t even picked a class yet,” she whined. “I don’t-” Valentine stopped speaking when the door opened. An older woman with stringy gray hair opened the door. She wore tattered denim overalls and her mouth dropped at the sight of the two girls.
“You ordered a pizza?” Valentine asked and held up the box.
“I’M NOT ALONE!” the woman wailed and rushed forward to hug Emily, because she did not have a pizza box to fend off the woman. The old woman began sobbing as she embraced Emily. For her part, Emily rolled her eyes at Valentine.
“It’s okay, Ma’am. You’re safe,” Emily said as she tried to gently push the woman off of her. “Are you the last person on this Earth?” she asked.
“Whoa..,” Valentine whispered to herself in surprise. She never considered the possibility of running into the last person on Earth.
“Yes.. I think so. I haven’t seen anyone else in years…” her voice cracked. Emily nodded and reached into her pocket for her node.
“Well, you brought us to the wrong place,” she told Valentine with a smile. “But it’s okay because we can help her real quick…,” Emily said while tapping at her node. “…and then get the pizza to the right place.” She turned her attention to the old woman.
“Go pack anything important to you, your ride will be here in a couple of minutes,” she said.
“R..really?” she asked with wide, tearful eyes. Emily nodded and the woman rushed back into her home.
“Are they going to be mad you need another ride?” Valentine asked, Emily shook her head.
“This isn’t work,” She tilted her head at the house. “I’ve run into the ‘the last person on Earth’…,” Emily said with air quotes. “…a few times. Enough that I wanted to be ready if it happens again. I found someone at the Star Academy that’ll take them in and get them settled on an Earth they like somewhere.” As Emily finished her explanation a tall black portal opened next to them.
A lithe, lean, tall woman walked out of the portal. She wore a tattered, faded green backpack on her back, and golden stars glowed in her eyes. Valentine’s mouth dropped when she saw the woman and she made a choking sound in the back of her throat.
“Cassiopeia….,” she whispered in awe.
“Hey Cassie!,” Emily smiled at the woman. “Sorry for the short notice, but I still have a delivery to make,” she said apologetically. Cassie nodded and smiled at the two girls.
“That’s alright, keep up the good work,” she said, then glanced at Valentine.
“Hola, Corazón,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“#27 El Corazón!” Valentine stood up straighter and nervously blurted out her number. Emily and Cassie both chuckled.
“I know,” Cassie said then pointed at her glowing eyes.
“This is Valentine,” Emily said. “I guess she’s a fan.”
“Oh?” Cassie asked. “Are you on a team?” Valentine shook her head.
“That’s a real shame,” she said. “There aren’t enough Corazóns in the league.”
“Hello!? I’m ready!” the old woman shouted from within the house, then she appeared at the door.
“Ma’am, this is Cassie. She’ll get you somewhere safe and populated,” Emily said then pulled out the black card.
“I’m on a team!” Valentine shouted once the portal was opened. “I’m on Emily’s team!” Cassie smiled at her and nodded.
“That’s good to hear,” she said.
“C’mon,” Emily said and dragged Valentine into the portal.
“First match…,” Coach Haste said. His voice echoed around the mostly empty gymnasium. The small class of 25 students sat on wooden bleachers as murmurs of excitement flowed between them. It was the first chance they’d have to demonstrate their abilities to each other and the coach. “Valentine versus…”
“Not me, not me, not me,” Frost panicked in his mind. As much as the 14-year-old was looking forward to showing off, he was afraid of Valentine’s power. Mostly because he did not understand it. He’d seen dog-sized chocolates and pony-sized gummy bears moving around campus on their own. Anytime he asked about them all he got was shrugs along with the occasional, “I think they’re Valentine’s.”
“…Frost,” the coach finished. The coach was a pale, athletic man with a coppery-red mohawk striping his bald head; and, he was looking right at Frost. The teenager sighed and stood up as Valentine reached center court. Valentine had a long red ponytail that almost reached her waist. Her red hair was a different shade than the coach’s. Haste’s hair looked like bright flaming copper while Valentine’s hair color resembled a dark red wine. She wore black cargo shorts lined with dozens of pockets and a pink blouse decorated with black hearts.
Frost reached up and tightened his own light-blue ponytail when he joined the Coach and Valentine on the court. His only reached his shoulders. He was in blue jeans and a black t-shirt. Coach Haste raised his arm and showed the seated class his wrist; his watch glowed bright green.
“No nanos today, I want to see what you can do out of the AlterNet,” as he spoke the watch’s glow switched from green to red. He lowered his arm then pointed at Valentine. “Valentine is #27, El Corazón,” then he turned and pointed at Frost. “Frost is #42, La Calavera. Let’s see what they can do.” The coach walked off the court to sit with the rest of the class and Frost heard plastic rustling. He turned to see Valentine opening a bag of candy and he stepped back. Valentine reached into the bag and pulled out two gummies; she popped a long green worm in her mouth, then dropped a red bear to the floor. The one she dropped grew incredibly as soon as it left her hand; it landed on the floor as a bright red, translucent gummy cub that was still growing.
“I can’t wait for it to grow,” Frost decided. He charged at Valentine hoping to land a punch. As he covered the short distance to her, he coated his legs and fists with a layer of icy-frost. The growing cub, now slightly larger than a bulldog, attacked his legs when he was close enough. He felt a soft pressure around his leg as gummy jaws closed around it; Frost wondered if he even needed his frozen armor.
Frost cocked his fist when he was a step away. Valentine smiled at him, took in a quick breath, then spit out the gummy worm from her mouth. The shiny, slick worm ballooned to the size of boa the instant it left her mouth
Frost tried to stop but his momentum carried him right into it. The snake wrapped around his head and neck and immediately began squeezing. He stumbled forward another step before managing to stop. He could almost see through the translucent green snake, but he could not breathe.
“Relax,” Frost thought to himself. In the back of his mind, he vaguely remembered reading that constrictors squeeze more if there’s a struggle. “Think it through,” he held out hope that he could get himself out of it. The moment he relaxed, he realized his mistake. The more he relaxed the more the snake squeezed tighter. It wasn’t a real snake, it was something she was controlling. “Aw hell,” he whined to himself, then mumbled something through the snake covering his mouth. The snake moved away from his mouth, but it still held its grip around his throat.
“What was that?” Valentine asked with a broad smile. Frost sighed.
“He has another phone?!” Sasha whined to herself as the well-dressed gentleman pulled out a third phone from his coat. The thin glassy cellphone did not look like any phone Sasha recognized. That, along with the gentleman’s apparent wealth made him an easy choice for her. The teenage girl found herself wishing she could check the other two she stole because the third one looked so much like them. But those phones were long gone; handed off to couriers that already disembarked. Internally, Sasha fumed that he had so much money that he didn’t seem concerned about losing two phones already. “I’ll just have to take that one too,” she decided. Hitting the same mark a third time was risky, but she did not have any evidence on her.
Sasha glanced around the train and found a scrawny jr-high student in a red beanie playing on his phone near the rich man. A pin shaped like a hand was affixed to his beanie. She’d never met the kid before, and probably never would; but, his pin advertised him as a courier. Sasha whistled casually, seemingly to herself, and the kid looked up. They locked eyes and Sasha glanced at the gentleman. The kid nodded then focused on his game again.
The next stop was coming up and Sasha started to work her way to the stranger. As the train began to slow, the student in the red beanie stood up and put his phone away; he caught Sasha’s eye and nodded again. The train came to a full stop and Sasha moved with the crowd.
“Oh, sorry,” Sasha apologized. She bumped into the gentleman, dipped into his pocket, then handed his phone off to the passing kid as he left the train. In less than 10 seconds the man’s third phone was off the train.
“No problem, it happens a lot,” the gentleman smiled at her. Sasha felt bold. Stealing from the same mark three times, with no evidence left her feeling cocky. She returned the gentleman’s smile and sat down on the seat her anonymous partner left open; directly in front of the man. She wanted to watch him freak out when he discovered all three of his phones missing. Sasha knew he’d suspect her, but she had nothing to worry about.
When the train started forward to its next stop; Sasha felt a furious fire growing in her stomach. The stranger pulled out a fourth phone, exactly like the others; without even wondering about the first three. He even pulled it from the same pocket. Sasha didn’t feel anything else in there each time she stole a phone. She clenched her teeth and balled her fists.
“How much money does this guy have?” she wondered. “That’s a cool phone!” she said out loud before she could think about what she was doing. She stood from her seat to stand closer to him.
“Thanks,” he smiled at her. “It’s not a phone, though, it’s called a node.” He willingly handed the small glassy rectangle to her, Sasha noticed a tattoo of the number 21 on his hand. The node was slightly larger than a playing card but almost as thin, and completely transparent. He tapped the screen and the display lit up to show the time, like a regular phone.
“Oh, so you can’t make calls on it?” Sasha asked. She decided since she was already in the conversation she might as well learn about it.
“You can,” he said. “You can do everything that can be done on a regular smartphone, or even a computer.”
“So why not just call it a phone?” she asked. She returned the node.
“Because, unlike smartphones, it works with other nodes. Sasha narrowed her eyes and tilted her head at the gentleman.
“I make calls to other phones all the time,” she said. The man chuckled and shook his head.
“Not like that, I mean it works with other nodes. They share processing power. The more nodes you have, the more you can do.”
“Ohhhhh,” Sasha realized why he had so many.
“I’d show you how it works, but I only have the one,” he said with a shrug. “But it’s great. Everyone can set a public allotment to share their processing power with anyone around them.” Sasha could not hold back a giant grin. She only had one more to steal. She could do that and get off at the next stop. He might be able to identify her, but he’ll never be able to prove it.
“Oh, you only have one? Why? What happened to the rest?” The man laughed.
“Unfortunately I only have the one right now. I haven’t been able to save up for another one yet.”
“What?” Sasha was confused enough that the question actually left her mouth. “What?” she asked. “I mean, uh, WOW. That’s a really cool gadget.” He nodded, smiled, and slipped the node back into his pocket. Sasha realized the train was slowing down again for the next stop. “He’s probably putting it away so no one walks off with it,” Sasha smiled to herself. She focused on the task at hand; the mystery of the other nodes could wait. She knew she could get the one that he had.
Thankfully, the crowd around her helped once the train came to a stop. The flow of passengers forced Sasha to rub against him as they moved toward the exit. Sasha smiled and shrugged apologetically, keeping his attention on her eyes. Her hand dipped into his pocket again, grabbed the node, then it was back in her own pocket.
“Uh, see you around, I guess!” she half waved at the stranger while fighting against the crowd with exaggerated motions. She let them force her off the train.
“I look forward to it!” he smiled back. The doors closed and Sasha turned around. She pulled out the node, grinned at it, then put it back in her pocket. She debated keeping it for herself as she climbed the stairs out of the subway. She stepped out into the sunlight and the kid with the red beanie came running at her. He was wheezing and panting.
“Where’d it go!?” he asked her.
“Where’d what go?”
“The phone you handed off, it’s gone!”
“What do you mean it’s gone?” She asked him but reached back into her pocket to double-check. Instead of the cool, solid glass she expected, she felt a flimsy scrap of paper. “What the hell?” she pulled it out and noticed writing on it in pen. The paper looked like it was torn from the corner of a full sheet. Sasha read the note.
“Stop stealing my node, please,” it said. “I’m just going to steal it back.”
Dale tensed when the woman walked into his bar with her black leather trench coat flowing around her. Her purple crewcut and the tarantula inked on her neck hinted to him that trouble tended to follow her. Not that she herself would cause any trouble. He was sure of that; 20 years behind the bar sharpened him into an excellent judge of character. He watched her move as she walked up to the bar. The long coat hid most of her movements but she moved with the spindly grace of a long-legged ballerina. Dale could tell that she knew how to take care of herself.
“Strongest bottle you’ve got,” she said when she reached the bar. She slapped down two hundred dollar bills on the bar; then, she lifted the back of her coat to sit down on a stool.
“Rough night?” He asked as he placed the bottle down on the counter with a short glass of ice. The bar opened at 11 and it wasn’t noon yet. The woman unceremoniously, and effortlessly broke the neck of the bottle to open it. She tossed the glass neck into a trash can behind the counter that made Dale wonder how she saw it. Then, she poured the dark golden liquid into the glass.
“I did something stupid,” she said. Dale chuckled. That phrase was like, “Once Upon a Time” for bartenders. He knew he was in for a story.
“Should I expect to be questioned by the police about your whereabouts?” he asked with his best smile. She pulled the now alcohol-free glass from her mouth and set it on the bar to refill it, but she shook her head.
“Nothing illegal, just,…” she lifted the glass to her mouth again, but held it there until she found the right word. “…uncharacteristic,” she finished her thought, then downed the drink.
“How so?” Dale asked. His bar did not get much in the way of a lunch rush; he didn’t serve any food. He was in for a slow few hours until business picked up in the evening and thought her story would help him pass the time. She took another swig then gave Dale the once over.
He was a bald, stocky guy, but his arms seemed out of proportion to the rest of him. His biceps bulged under his white bartender’s shirt, and he had a nice smile.
“You got friends?” she asked. Dale smiled.
“Yeah. My group’s pretty tight,” he replied. The woman shook her head.
“I don’t,” she sighed. “I didn’t, until last night.”
“Friends are good, right?” Dale asked.
“Not if you have a possessive boss that doesn’t like you having friends.” She emptied the bottle into her glass. “When I say ‘boss’, think supervillain,” she pointed to herself. “Henchman,” she said then emptied the alcohol. “It wasn’t an issue before,” she shrugged. “Didn’t need friends.” Dale narrowed his eyes trying to gauge her. She seemed sincere and honest; but, he’d never heard of a supervillain outside of fiction.
“So, what changed?” Dale asked. “Why did you suddenly need a friend last night?”
“I didn’t need a friend…,” the woman said. She added another hundred dollar bill to the bar and gestured at the empty bottle. Dale was quick to replace it, but he took the liberty of opening it for her first. He didn’t want to deal with broken glass. “…she did.” In the back of his mind, Dale congratulated himself for spotting her as a soft heart. He enjoyed the warm feeling of vindication for a moment until the door opened again. The trouble he feared earlier walked in.
Dale had a group of rowdy regulars that liked nothing more than giving women a hard time. It didn’t usually get bad, and he was quick to warn anyone they might target. Unfortunately, they would almost certainly target the purple-haired woman. Dale knew she could handle herself, but he was worried about the damages to bar while she did. Thinking quickly he grabbed a third bottle and placed it on the bar.
“If I give you this will you leave without damaging the place too much?” he asked. Just as the woman looked up to ask him why, she was surrounded by a pair of muscleheads in muscleshirts.
“Hi there,” the one on her right said. He leaned close enough to rub his elbow against her. “Why’s a pretty girl like you drinking so early?” he asked. “Maybe we should get some lunch in that stomach first.”
“How bout it, beautiful?” the one on her left asked. “Want to join the four of us for a nice meal?” She glanced up at the mirror behind the bar and saw two more meatheads grinning at her.
“Sure thing,” she replied. “But first, let me finish talking to the bartender, and I’ve got a couple of bottles to finish. As I was saying…,” she looked at the bartender. “My new friend asked me to join her guild, and I said yes. But first, I have to leave my current one; I need to ask my boss.”
“Quitting?” the thug on her left asked. He scooted his barstool closer to her. “We got a job for you,” he grinned.
“Your boss, the supervillain?” Dale asked. She nodded. “What’s he like? Superpowered or anything?”
“He’s a giant spider,” she giggled. “Bigger than this bar.”
“Hey, Earl,” the one on her left called the one on her right, talking around her. “Crazy broad thinks she works for a giant spider. Do we want her that messed up?”
“I don’t know, Jim,” Earl replied. He craned his neck around the front of her to try and see her clothing under her trench coat. “Hard to tell if that body’s worth it.” Dale nudged the unopened third bottle at the woman.
“Please?” he asked softly. She winked at him, then spun in her stool to face away from the bar. She stood up.
“You guys want a better look?” she asked and began sliding her black coat off.
“Yeah baby!” they called. She pulled her arms out of the jacket but held it in place. She turned back to face them while still keeping herself hidden behind the jacket.
“Catch!” she shouted and tossed the jacket at them. Jim and Earl both collided together trying to catch it; and, immediately started screaming. As the black coat flew through the air it fell apart. It disintegrated into black balls and each ball had eight legs. A swarm of pitch-black spiders landed on Jim and Earl and almost blanketed them entirely. Their two friends that weren’t covered with spiders screamed and ran out the door while Jim and Early frantically tried to brush them off. Dale scooted back against the bar and watched with his mouth agape. All doubts about whether she worked for a giant spider or not were dispelled.
She walked to the bar, grabbed both remaining bottles and smiled at Dale.
“Thanks for the booze,” she said and turned around. The spiders climbed off of Jim and Earl as she passed them and started climbing up her. By the time she walked out the door, she was wearing a black leather trench coat again.
Morgan stretched her arms upward and used the action to lift herself to a sitting position in bed. The 18-year old woman yawned and rested her back against the headboard, then finally checked her cards. It took her almost three months after her 15th birthday to get used to the fact that she woke up with an assortment of cards. She splayed the five cards in her hand and flipped them over to check the backs, then sighed. She’d woken with a wide variety of cards over the past few years, but she narrowed them down into categories sorted by the artwork on the back.
“Druid and Healer,” she mumbled. She saw three green cards with elegant linework that made her think of a dense forest, and two white cards with red crosses on them. “Boring,” Morgan rearranged them by group, then turned them over to see what they were. The druid cards on the right side sparkled with golden text on a forest-green background. Each card showed different artwork illustrating the general concept of the card.
“Spider Climb, Hawk Form, and Rat Swarm,” she read the names and glanced at the rule text on the lower half of the cards. She shrugged at the duration then looked at the two healer cards. They had no artwork and consisted of red text on a clean white background that reminded Morgan of a hospital. “Handy,” she smiled at the pair of cards. “Infinite Stamina and Revive Death, whoa!” It was the first time she’d seen the Revive Death card. Seeing the new card invigorated her. She was starting to think she had seen all the cards already. Suddenly excited about her day, Morgan hopped out of bed to get ready.
When it became clear the cards would keep appearing, Morgan assumed the cards were meant to guide her day somehow. She tried to find uses for the cards to make sure she used them all every day, but over time it became clear they were entirely random. If the Revive card appeared when she was 15 or 16, she would have been worried sick the entire day.
“I guess I’m going to the park,” she decided while showering. The park had several rock-climbing walls and a giant jogging track around it that passed some very scenic views. She’d used both Spider Climb and Infinite Stamina several times to get a good workout, but this would be the first time she got to use them together.
An hour later she arrived at the park and headed straight for the rock climbing walls. Twelve walls of varying heights lined a broad cobblestone path; six on each side. Morgan stood in front of the tallest wall and pulled the cards out of her pocket. She did not bother with being discrete, it never mattered before.
It was a sunny, cool Saturday morning and plenty of visitors milled around the park. Dozens of joggers and others simply taking a stroll walked along the path in different directions behind her.
“Infinite Stamina!” a deep, booming, male voice spoke when Morgan ‘played’ her first card. She didn’t know where the voice came from, but she knew she was the only one that could hear it. She used cards several times in front of her parents, friends, and in public, and no one ever seemed to notice the voice. When the voice spoke she felt a tingle travel down her spine, then radiate out into the rest of her body. “Spider Climb!” the voice said when she used the second card. She returned the rest of the cards to her pocket, then shook her hands and legs to loosen them up and took a step forward to start her climb.
“You’re wasting cards on a wall?” a girl asked as Morgan reached for her first grip. She pulled her arm down and turned to face the voice. A young girl in a blood-red hoodie smiled at her. “Don’t you want something more challenging?” she asked Morgan.
“Wh-what?” Morgan asked. “What are you talking about?” She knew what the girl was talking about, but she wondered what exactly the girl knew about the cards.
“It’s kind of overkill, isn’t it?” the girl in the hoodie shrugged. “I mean, unless you need infinite stamina and spider climb to get up the wall,” she gave Morgan an appraising look up and down. “I don’t think you do.”
“You..heard,-” Morgan started to ask but changed her question. The girl obviously heard the card names. “Why aren’t you surprised?” she asked. The girl shrugged.
“What’s surprising? Card Mage is pretty much the de facto class for Manos,” she said.
“Wh-what?” Morgan needed to ask again. She didn’t understand any of the words in that context.
“#21, La Mano? Your abilities fit perfectly with the Card Mage class.”
“How’d you know my favorite number? What’s a Card Mage?” The girl’s eyes widened and she giggled.
“Now that is a surprise. You don’t know what you are or where you are?” she asked. “Does ‘The AlterNet’ sound familiar?” she added when Morgan didn’t respond right away. Morgan shook her head.
“Whoa…,” the girl replied, then she stuck her hand out. “I’m Cherry,” she said. Morgan shook the girl’s hand tentatively.
“Morgan,” she introduced herself.
“How’d you like to do something more fun with your cards?” Cherry asked.
“Mom,” Kurt said with a firm tone. “I told you work keeps me too busy to date.” He glanced at his father. “You remember, right dad?” The pot-bellied elderly man waved at them from his recliner without taking his eyes off the TV.
“Leave me out of it,” he mumbled.
“No one said anything about dating,” Mrs. Stevens replied from across the feast-laden table. A perfect golden-brown turkey took up most of the center and it was surrounded by several colorful side dishes. Bright yellow corn, creamy white mashed potatoes, vibrant green beans and more made Kurt’s stomach growl. Dinner was ready and served, but Kurt’s mom slapped his hand away when he reached for a serving spoon. “He’s a nice young man and I couldn’t bear the thought of him spending Thanksgiving alone. It’s not always about you,…” she added an exaggerated shrug. “But.. if you happen to hit it off would that be so bad?”
“MOM,” Kurt whined again but the rest of his argument was interrupted by the doorbell. “At least I can eat now,” he reasoned. Mrs. Stevens hopped up from her seat and took the long way around the table to get to the door. The detour allowed her to pass behind Kurt and adjust the sloppy collar on his crisp white shirt. It was at that moment that he realized why she asked him to “look nice” this year. The elderly woman with silver hair disappeared into the foyer while Kurt sat and brooded.
He did try dating on a few occasions, but being a supervillain wasn’t quite the selling point he hoped it was; even with a name as cool as GrimDeath. It seemed like the couple of men he revealed his secret to didn’t believe him; they laughed at him like it was a joke.
“That’s my husband, and this handsome young man is my son, Kurt,” Mrs. Stevens said as she walked back into the dining room. She was followed by a lean, tan, handsome young man in a dark suit. “Kurt, this is Michael,” she introduced them. Kurt rushed to his feet to shake the man’s hands.
“Thanks for joining us,” Kurt said with a smile.
“Thank you for the invite!” Michael replied with his own grin and a firm grip that left Kurt’s knees weak.
“You two go ahead and get started,” Mrs. Stevens said and smiled at Kurt. “Your father wants to eat by the TV.” She grabbed a plate and began piling on little bits from each dish. Kurt gestured at a seat for Michael and the two men sat down across from each other.
“So how’d you meet my mom?” Kurt asked while filling his own plate. In the corner of his eye, he caught a smug grin from his mom.
“We’re in the same fan club,” Michael laughed.
“SnowBlitz fan club,” Michael explained. “They have meetings every month, and I met your mom when she first joined a few months ago.”
“Oh,” Kurt said softly. “That’s nice,” he quickly shoved a forkful in his mouth so that he didn’t have to talk. SnowBlitz: the city’s most popular hero and Kurt’s sworn nemesis. His mom used to talk about SnowBlitz so much it bothered him. It got to the point a few months ago that Kurt actually asked her to stop. He was surprised when she did, but it seemed she found another outlet for her fandom.
“How’s the food, boys?” Mrs. Stevens asked as she joined them at the table.
“So delicious!” Michael exclaimed. “I’m so glad I’m eating this with you kind folks instead of pizza alone tonight. I can’t thank you enough.”
“Well, no one should have to spend the holidays alone. Even if they are single, right Kurt?” she asked her son. Kurt nodded and shoveled more food into his mouth; he was thankful there was enough to keep him silent the whole night. “Did Michael tell you he works for SnowBlitz?” Kurt shook his head. Michael chuckled and shook his own head.
“It sounds a lot better when you say it like that,” he said. “I just work for the messaging service that SnowBlitz uses.”
“It’s practically the same thing,” Mrs. Stevens replied. “Have you ever met him? What’s he like in person?” she asked. Kurt’s mood was in free-fall. He wanted a nice meal with his parents. Instead, he got blindsided with a blind date and now his mom is focusing on SnowBlitz again.
“I got to talk to him once, just on the phone. He seems like a nice guy,” Michael said.
“I’ll bet he is. He seems like a great man, I’m sure his mother is very proud of him.”
“Excuse me,” Kurt said quickly. He did not have a plan, but he needed to leave the table. He wandered into the kitchen hoping to find some alcohol. After a moment the door swung open again and his mother entered the kitchen.
“Everything okay, dear?” she asked. Kurt found himself trapped in a corner between the sink and the stove; his mom walked closer and put a hand on his shoulder.
“No, mom,” he said. “You know it bugs me when you fawn all over SnowBlitz, and I don’t need that on top of a blind date that I wasn’t ready for.” Mrs. Stevens sighed and squeezed Kurt’s shoulder.
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, we should have talked about this when you brought it up.” She let go of his shoulder but stepped closer. She lowered her voice to a near-whisper. “At the time, I thought it was better to let you have your way, but I’m starting to think that didn’t work.” Kurt narrowed his eyes and tilted his head at her.
“What are you talking about?”
“This whole SnowBlitz business, it’s gotten silly. Do you honestly think your father and I care more about some famous superhero than our own son?” Kurt shook his head. When phrased like that, it did sound silly.
“It’s complicated,” he answered. He didn’t really think they cared more for SnowBlitz, but it bothered him that they couldn’t be proud of him the way they would be if he was SnowBlitz. Mrs. Stevens sighed.
“It’s not complicated, you’re making it complicated,” she said. “Do you think we’re stupid?” she asked.
“..What? Where’d that -“
“Do. You. Think. Your. Parents. Are. STUPID?” she asked.
“No! Of course not!”
“I’ve been waiting years for you to come out to us,” she said.
“Mom, you set me up on a blind date with a man. You already know I’m gay.” She slapped his shoulder.
“Not that, dummy. Your father and I are VERY proud of you, GrimDeath,” she said. Kurt’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open. “That’s why I’ve been needling you, to make you admit it to us. We can’t exactly brag to anyone that you’re our son, but, we can tell you how proud you make us. At least, we planned to once you came clean to us.” Kurt’s eyes filled with water and he hugged his mother tight.
“Thanks, mom,” he croaked. After a few more comforting minutes, Kurt spoke again. “So you know why I can’t date anyone, why’d you invite Michael?” Mrs. Stevens giggled.
“He thinks we’re stupid too,” she said.
“How so?” Mrs. Stevens rolled her eyes. “You’re going to tell me you don’t recognize him? Picture him in a blue snowsuit with some silver goggles.” Kurt did then gasped.
“SnowBlitz!” Mrs. Stevens nodded with a gleam in her eye.