HEROINE

You’d never guess it to look at me, but I’m totally a badass, butt-kicking superhero.

“You?” you’d say, “Superhero?”

Okay, well, technically superheroine if we’re being all gender-specific about it. The point is that all it takes is one dose of Power Serum to transform me from boring old Laura Lerner with ratty hair and chewed up fingernails, too many freckles and a flat chest they don’t even bother manufacturing bras for into a buff, stacked, bronzed goddess with enough raw might to kick any supervillain’s ass halfway across Centralia City.

You should see my costume. It’s hot pink spandex that starts halfway down my chest, wrapped tightly around my Double-D’s, and runs down to the bikini line, leaving my thighs exposed to the knee where my jet-black boots start before finishing in three-inch stiletto heels. I’ve got black gloves to match, going up to the elbow, and a pink eye mask that only covers my eyebrows and the top half of my high cheek bones.

My girlfriend Kitty tells me I look like a slut about to pop out of a cake. I tell her she’s just jealous that I can look smoking hot while beating any man in the world into submission and that my cleavage once distracted mad scientist supervillain Professor Malice long enough for me to cross his dungeon lair in a super-speed blur and level him with a haymaker that almost separated his skull from his spine.

Kitty just shakes her head and makes that annoyed clucking sound. “Couldn’t you at least put some pants on?”

“And cover up these beauties?” I ask incredulously, proudly displaying my muscular, tanned thighs.

“Talk about being brainwashed by patriarchal society,” Kitty responds, “You’re objectifying yourself!”

“You’re so right,” I say, “I should fight crime in a burka.”

“That’s not what I–, damn it, Laura. You do realize that you are…” she pauses for a moment, looking for the word, and failing, says, “whatever is farthest from a feminist, right?”

I snort at her and say, “Wouldn’t that make me a man?”

“Men can be feminists!”

“They can be effeminate…”

She laughs. “You’re a female… masculinist! Is that a thing? Has to be, if there can be male feminists.”

Kitty doesn’t understand how my nipples aren’t constantly slipping out of my top or how I manage to run and jump over buildings in those impossible heels or why I would want so much of my skin exposed when I’m dodging battleaxe-toting minions and alien warlords’ laser swords on planets with subzero temperatures. She doesn’t see what saving helpless men from burning buildings, battling sea monsters from the great beyond in the middle of downtown Centralia City, or inserting myself in between rival gangs as they attempt to mow each other down with semi-automatic weapons has to do with looking like, as she puts it, “a showgirl on steroids.”

I tell her that in a world where a magical Power Serum can grant me invulnerability, super speed, enhanced agility, and the strength of five hundred bodybuilders, what strikes her as gaudy, excessive or improbable lacks some serious perspective.

But whatever. Kitty is my best friend, and sometimes I think that if I didn’t have her in my life, nagging about my choice in wardrobe and my lack of respectability, I’d turn to the dark side and become some crazy super-bitch like Demi-Matrix or Baroness Viper. It’s okay for best friends to argue about things… even though she’s totally wrong.

She’s just never understood my obsession with superheroics and flashy fashion. We met after my dad died. My mom had left us a long time ago, run away with some lawyer or doctor or something. It’s been so long, I honestly forget. Hell, I don’t even remember what she looked like. Anyway, my dad died–and it wasn’t something really dramatic or anything. He didn’t push a kid out of the way of a meteorite falling from the sky, or get in between an armed thief trying to escape a bank robbery. He wasn’t wrestling an alien conqueror into submission when one of the henchmen came up behind and zapped him with a pulse rifle.

He just had a heart attack. A random, out of the blue, boring old heart attack. Just one of those things. One moment you’re alive, and the next, you’re dead for absolutely no reason.

I came home from high school that afternoon and found him in the bathroom, his heart a silent weight, his skin still warm. It had happened moments before I’d opened the door. If I hadn’t paused to pick up some milk and eggs at the grocery store… if I’d taken the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator… if I hadn’t bothered talking about that new Darkstars album with that cute, leather jacket wearing punk kid…

…I might have been there when it happened… and still been absolutely helpless to prevent it.

Anyway, I remember the first thing I did when the sirens finally disappeared into the distance and they had taken him from me, and I was completely alone in the apartment for the first time in my life. I went to his bedroom and pulled out the dusty old longboxes of comic books he had kept and began to rifle through them. I could smell his scent in the withered, old yellow pages, his fingerprints remained on a glossy, gimmick cover from the 90s. An old eyelash of his had become entangled in between the bag and board of a favorite issue of Action Comics.

Dad had always tried to get me into comic books, but I had rolled my eyes. I had always thought they were stupid. A lot of macho, chest-pounding idiots getting into violent, chaotic fist fights with one another for no good reason. Men dressed in gaudy primary colored circus spandex with capes and utility belts and pouches, inexplicably, around their thighs; and women who might as well have been naked, the artists always trying to draw them in impossibly awkward positions where you could see both their rounded asses and enormous tits at the same time.

He had a few statues and figurines of some of the sexier super-femmes and I’d always been embarrassed when my friends came over and snickered at them; he loved those things. He was so proud of having tracked them down in some dingy flea market somewhere or at some yard sale or at one of those sweaty, smelly comic book conventions he would drag me to, and he’d display them proudly and marvel at the artistry and beauty of them as if they were the spiritual descendants of Venus de Milo.

I hadn’t understood any of his fascination until that day he died. I started pulling out old back issues and at first, I just flipped through them, admiring some of the bright colors and sequential storytelling. But then I started to read a little bit here and there, and I started to find myself pulled in by the drama and the soap opera at the heart of it, the never-ending backstories, the constantly developing threats, the mishaps and tragedies, triumphs and moral victories and that damned “To Be Continued” that ended each and every issue and made me eager to pick up the next one and the one after that.

That whole night of his death, I spent sprawled out on the floor of his bedroom, flipping through issue after issue, crying and laughing, sometimes simultaneously. The next day, I skipped school and visited the comic book store he’d always buy his issues from every Wednesday after work.

That was where I met Kitty. She was behind the counter, all punked and gothed out, looking totally radical with her nose piercings and her spiky, short black hair. She was wearing a black long-sleeved t-shirt with a big, bloody red skull in the center and the shirt was at least two sizes too large for her. She had on tight, black jeans and a pair of militaristic boots. I had gathered a pile of issues together, the kind of stuff my dad liked to read: The Incredible Hulk, Avengers, Gen 13, Vampirella, Justice League, and Red Sonja. She flipped through the stack dismissively and sighed audibly.

“Really?” she said.

“What?” I asked, confused and a little distressed.

“What are you reading this trash for?”

“What’s the matter with it? It’s what my Dad read.”

“Judging by this… stack, I’m going to guess you’re Larry Lerner’s daughter. Ugh. If you’re picking up his subscription, you know he’s got all these set aside for subscription, right? And I think his Power Girl statue came in today. He’s going to be over the moon about–”

She paused and her eyes widened a little bit.

“What do you mean,” she said cautiously, her lower lip trembling a little bit, “it’s what your Dad READ?

I took a deep breath and swallowed back the awful taste in my mouth as I said, “He… passed away. Last night.”

“Oh. Oh, my god. I’m–” she turned away from me and covered her face. “Jesus, I am such a bitch. I am so sorry.” When her hand left her face, I saw that some of her white powder had been smeared a little from the moist tear that had just left her right eye. “Larry was a cool dude. I gave him shit all the time, but he was just about the nicest guy to ever come in here. Shit, why did it have to be him? I didn’t even know he had a daughter.”

“This was his favorite place, and I was just so… I don’t know, stubborn or proud or whatever. I thought this comic book stuff was stupid, but, he really loved it, so I just…” I trailed off. I was crying now a little. Feeling pathetic and embarrassed to be crying in front of this stranger just made me want to cry more.

“Look,” she said, “Take these home with you, they’re on me. And, hold on a second.” She came around the counter and picked up an issue of an independent comic book I’d never heard of. It didn’t have people in strange costumes or anything. It was just a couple normal looking people. She handed it to me. “Take this, too. Larry would have hated this shit, but I think you’d like it. Come back and tell me what you think, okay? I never see any other women in this shop. So please come back, okay?”

I nodded and took the books. I thanked her and left.

I didn’t think I would come back. It was just too weird, right? Visiting your dad’s secret getaway, his fantasy escape from the real world? Most daughters would have ended up at a seedy bar or a strip club somewhere. But my dad loved comic books and he loved that dingy, dusty old shop with its Superman posters, Wolverine action figures, and giant shelves filled weekly with new ephemeral adventures of corporate owned characters that could never die or evolve too far beyond their origins fifty or sixty or seventy-five years ago, lest it upset the comfort food appetite of its dwindling fanbase shelling out $4 per twenty-page hit of escapism.

I mock, but I was hooked too. I wanted to be like Vampirella. I wanted to marry the Incredible Hulk and somehow tame him. I wanted to fight Catwoman to a stand-still. But I also loved the little indie book that Kitty had given me. It was called Getting There, and it was about this cancer patient who had only six months to live, and he was doing everything he’d ever wanted to do, apologizing to all the people he had wronged, and looking to go out in the loudest, most insane way possible. I fucking loved it.

It took me three or four weeks to work up the nerve, but I returned to the comic shop and Kitty saw me, and we just hit it off. Pretty soon, I was spending whole days there, just looking through longboxes and laughing with her about some lovable doofus that had just walked into the store and immediately gotten really nervous and awkward around us, because we were girls… and what were we doing here of all places?!

Kitty tried to drive me off the superhero stuff completely, but I couldn’t kick the habit once I’d started. I didn’t even know if I was loving them because I genuinely responded to something there, or if it was just that every time I cracked open an issue of Avengers, it felt like Dad was there with me, like he was getting, through me, to pick up where he’d left off, that he wasn’t missing a moment of his stories because he could somehow still read them through my eyes. He would have been so bummed if he’d known he was going to die right before it was revealed that the latest Skrull invasion was really a conspiracy masterminded by Doctor Doom, and that when Captain American and Iron Man invaded Latveria to confront him, mother-effing Ultron was waiting for them!

One evening, Kitty and I were hanging out at the store when she had to close up, and she invited me to join her for dinner down the street at this Korean BBQ place she knew. I told her, sure. I didn’t really have any friends anymore besides Kitty. I’d kind of turned into a recluse at school ever since Dad died. I dropped out of the swimming team and stopped coming to literary magazine meetings. I went to school intermittently, just enough to keep up appearances and hopefully graduate at the end of the year by the skin of my teeth. I had no plans for college or anything. I had no plans at all, really.

After the meal, we went out and watched a really dumb Hollywood movie with a bullshit, predictable happy ending and then visited this little dump of a bar near Kitty’s place where they wouldn’t card you and we had a couple cheap cans of beer. We just loved to shit talk with each other and complain about life.

Kitty was a few years older than me, and she’d left home when she was really young, like twelve or thirteen I think. She just ran away and her parents hadn’t even cared enough to look for her. I told her about my mom doing that to me and Dad, and we bonded some over that. Kitty had gotten the job at the comic book store, because she had no experience doing anything else. She said that she wanted to be a writer or something at some point, and I had read some of her poetry and it was pretty good, but really dark and depressing. I realized it was really tough for her to share that kind of stuff with anybody and that she must have really trusted and liked me to let me see it.

By the end of the night, Kitty was acting kind of weird. At first I thought it was the beer, but it was like at one moment, she was so energetic and excited and happy and the next, she wasn’t saying anything. She was just licking her lips, staring at the sidewalk, while I tried to goad her into a conversation. She shivered, even with the big, longsleeve t-shirt she was wearing on that warm, summer night, but her face was flushed and glowed under the intermittent street lamps. I said goodnight to her at her apartment and we hugged, her kind of weakly as I squeezed and felt her thin, fragile body through the giant t-shirt. Her hair smelled like smoke and ivy.

After that evening, we started hanging out after her work almost every night, and I noticed that she’d disappear for extended periods of time, either to go to the bathroom or because she said she had to make a phone call. I started to get worried about her after I noticed the pattern and eventually worked up the nerve to confront her about it.

“Are you using?” I bluntly asked one night while we were sitting in her kitchen, drinking beer. “What’s going on?”

A look of shame and guilt and shock crossed her face almost simultaneously. “It’s not like that,” she tried to say, but her voice cracked under the lie.

“Yeah,” I said, “It is.”

“But look, you can’t judge, okay? It does things. It makes things better. I makes me a better person… I don’t know, it’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t know.”

She tried to explain anyway. She called it Power Serum and told me that it transformed her, turned her into someone that couldn’t feel pain, couldn’t be beaten, that real life was just a mirage and that Power Serum revealed the Truth. I doubted her at first. I told her that she was wrong to use that garbage, that it would destroy her. But she just insisted that it was the only way she could get through life.

She described how the first time she’d taken it, she’d been able to see the moments between time, the pauses between seconds. That when she was on it, she could smother a flame with her bare hand and not feel a single thing. That it was better than sex. It was an orgasm that went on for hours. She said that Power Serum affects everyone differently, that there was no telling how any particular person might respond to it. It might just give you a buzz, or maybe it would kill you. It might cripple you, or it might transform you into a goddess.

She had gotten Power Serum from a friend of hers, a genius scientist who had developed the mixture in a top-secret laboratory. The government was after him, to get the serum for themselves, to use it to breed a whole new race of super soldiers.

I told her this was crazy talk, absolutely insane. Impossible. I knew it was bullshit. And she knew it was bullshit and we were just talking hyperbole, because that’s what we like to do, right?

But she took my hand and led me to a secret compartment in her apartment. She touched a button inside and the bookshelf against her wall slid to the side to reveal an opening and a staircase. We walked down into the dark and when we got there, I saw her hoverbike, the supercomputer, the assembled trophies of the adventures she’d been involved in, ever since being exposed to Power Serum. I saw her purple and blue costume hanging in a floor-to-ceiling rounded plexiglass tube with a gentle light casting dramatic shadows over its every elegant fold.

She took out a small metal case and inside, a hypodermic needle glistened a bright hazy gold. She used a lighter’s flame to burn the tip of the needle and then took out a small jar of snow white powder. She took a pinch of it and dropped it into a petri dish and then with a dollop of Centralia City tap water, stirred and mixed it together. Finally, she took the needle and drew the Power Serum into it and pulled up her long sleeved shirt to show off a tapestry of war wounds and scars.

She was a superhero, or technically a superheroine, if we’re being all gender-specific about it, and she’d just revealed her secret identity to me, just exposed me to the history of her thrilling exploits, the origin story of her daring acts of derring-do. She passed the needle to me and asked me if I wanted to answer the Call To Adventure, too.

I took one look at her, badass and cool, confident and beautiful. The serum was already working its magic.

How could I refuse?

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