Per Wendigo’s request, here’s the first 1k words of my NaNoWriMo project, a story about a boy that finds out he has super powers and can attend the USA’s school for gifted youngsters, a training ground for tomorrow’s super heroes. Only the protagonist’s powers aren’t the heroic kind, forcing him to rethink what it means to be a hero, and of course there’s a villainous plot lurking in the background.
The TV splashes watery light across the living room, the news reporting there’s only a 10% chance of Villainous Activity—no famous CEOs or dignitaries in town, no armored cars transporting bags of money or priceless paintings, no galas, no baseball games. My father is asleep on the couch again, in his blue scrubs, the black skull-patterned bandanna he uses to corral his silver-streaked hair knotted around his forehead. It’s been like this ever since the divorce: he spends all night stitching up heroes on the graveyard shift at Omega Hospital, and then claims can’t make it to bed when he gets home. Not for the first time, I wonder if he prefers the couch because the back cushions are there, because it feels like sleeping next to somebody.
Not for the first time, I wonder when he’s going to take the pictures with mom in them off the walls.
There’s a notepad on our coffee table, and I recognize my name in my father’s familiar, chicken-scratch scrawl:
Power does not make a hero
“Yeah, right,” I mumble.
I crumple up the paper and lob it in the trash, readjust the afghan draped over dad’s wide body, and head out the door.
The sky is unmarred by bird, plane, or hero. I’m not supposed to look up—that’s not part of the game—but an empty sky is a safe sky, and when you live in Capetown you learn to trust looking up over the news reporting a 10% chance of Villainous Activity.
I drop my backpack, sit on my stoop, close my eyes, and concentrate. Dad’s snores rumble through my front door. A cool breeze nudges my cheek, ferrying the vomit-like stench of smashed gingko bulbs to my nose, courtesy of the in-bloom trees populating the sidewalk. I hear the swell of a heavy bass beat boiling out of a car’s window—it takes me a second to recognize Alternate Universe’s latest single, Powerless. A woman walks by, laughing into her cellphone, the clomp of her heels like door knocks.
And then I catch a whiff of lavender, and I grin.
“Hey Charlie,” I say.
“Ramon Gutierrez,” she says. “Are you sure you don’t have psychic powers?”
I open my eyes and there she is—my neighbor and best friend Charlie Thompson—levitating a few feet over me, her red sneakers dangling just at my eye level and inexplicably beaten up for someone who prefers flight to walking. She’s wearing a pair of dark jeans, a pink hooded sweatshirt, and a backpack’s strapped snug to her back. Her brown hair, wet from her morning shower and saturated with the scent of her lavender shampoo, hangs like kelp off a pier.
“Positive,” I say.
“But if you did,” she says. “I could call you Psych Out, right?”
“Only if I can call you The Flying Butchess.”
“What about Pysch Ick?”
“Then I’d probably call you the… um… Airmazonian?”
“You are terrible at this.” Charlie taps her chin, thinking. “Dare I say… Telepathetic?”
“Alright, alright,” I say. It’s the same routine every morning—Charlie tries to sneak up on me, and she, unaware of just how powerful her shampoo’s scent is, speculates what powers I might have after I sniff her out. All of it is a means to gift me with power-appropriate, pun-inspired superhero names.
On any other day, I’d go with it. We’d fire jokes at each other until the bus showed up.
But today, I’m just not into it.
I stand up, shrug my backpack on, and begin walking past the narrow, pastel-painted homes of our street and toward the bus stop. Charlie twists around in midair, following me like my own miniature parade float. “I still don’t know why you won’t let me fly us to school,” she says. “It’ll be like when we were kids and we’d race the cars down our block. Except instead of me carrying you piggyback, I’ll cradle you in my arms, all heroic and role-reversing.”
I consider picking up a gingko bulb and chucking it at her head. “Have I told you recently that I hate you?”
She reaches down to ruffle my hair. “Almost every day!”
We turn the corner and spot a cluster of other 8th graders waiting for the bus. Some of them see me, and their gazes lift up to Charlie, hovering over my shoulder. She zips down to norm-altitude, so quick the dead leaves on the sidewalk scuttle away like crabs, but the kids scowl and turn their back to us anyway. I might be Charlie’s friend, but I understand their disdain; nobody likes to be reminded how normal they are, especially not today.
I stop in front of a corner store, and try to fix my hair in the window. In the reflection Charlie doesn’t look any different than anyone else you’d see in school—round face, a splash of freckles colonizing her nose, the kind of girl you’d imagine running for President of Student Council or making Captain of the soccer team. Next to her, I’m dark, gangly, in a faded black sweater and a pair of gray jeans and red Nikes, the only thing really off about me the bags under my eyes, which are the color of bruised plums.
All together, we look like two normal kids going to school.
Then I noticed Charlie’s still hovering an inch above the ground, and the normalcy of it all vanishes.
“So,” I say, and I’m unable to keep the edge out of my voice. “You ready? For the Affinity Test?”
“I guess,” she says. Charlie pokes at what looks like an incoming pimple on her cheek, and then she turns to me. “The question is,” she says, “Are you ready?”
“C’mon Charlie, that’s not funny…”
“I know,” she says. In the reflection, I see Charlie’s brown eyes shimmer. She looks away. “I’m going to miss you next year,” she whispers.
“Yeah.” I look away too. I can’t bring myself to say the same to her—keeping it inside makes it seem smaller, makes it seem farther off.
“The bus is coming,” she says, freeing us from the moment.
I join the other kids and pile on. Charlie waits for its doors to collapse shut, presses her face to the window over my seat, and then flies over the bus to sit on top of it, legs crossed. I spend the ride to school imagining Charlie scrambling to finish her homework, holding the pages of her History book down as the wind tries to rip them from her hands.