Humor Science Fiction superhero

In the End, You Get Clarity

By Laura Pearlman
3,559 words · 13-minute reading time


The first time Leopard-Print Girl killed someone, it was an accident.

She wasn’t Leopard-Print Girl then. She was Nicole Davis, an urban studies sophomore at the University of Chicago, home for Christmas break.

On the way home from the airport, Nicole's mom confided that things weren't going well for her at work. She'd taken her fourth-grade class on a field trip to the Springville Winter Festival the previous week. The kids had enjoyed the sleigh ride and were looking forward to meeting a local celebrity: Andy Childe, one of Mrs. Davis’ former students, was a contestant on a new ice-sculpting reality show.

They were about to say hello to him when his sculpture crashed to the ground. He yelled something about sabotage and threw a ballerina head (not the severed head of a ballerina, Mrs. Davis clarified, but the broken-off head of a ballerina ice sculpture) at one of the other ice sculptors. Then he grabbed a ballerina arm and swung it, missing his target and hitting an actual ballerina who was visiting the festival on her one day off after twelve consecutive performances. Passers-by grabbed ballerina parts (from the broken statue, not the live ballerina) and joined the melee. Nicole’s mom rushed the children away, but one of the boys was hit by a flying ballerina nose and got a black eye. She received a written reprimand for endangering the children.

Nicole interrupted the story. “What? Wasn’t the field trip approved?”

“Yes, of course. The Tyrant is saying I didn’t move quickly enough. And since I’d had Andy in my class fifteen years ago, I should have known he was unstable.”

The Tyrant was the principal at East Springville Elementary School; his real name was Hiram Banks. Nicole had him for third grade, back when he was still a teacher. Nicole hated third grade. She’d hated it since the day she said her mom was a superhero, and Mr. Banks said she wasn’t.

Technically, he was right. “Superhero” is a registered trademark of the League of Superheroes, and to qualify, you need to have a superpower and use it in at least one documented act of heroism. Mrs. Davis’ superpower was the ability to project low-powered lasers from her eyes. Pointing things out on a whiteboard and entertaining cats at a distance are not considered heroic acts.

Instead of explaining this to Nicole gently, Mr. Banks made her write “My mom is not a superhero” (and, since her mom taught at the same school, “Mrs. Davis is not a superhero”) on the blackboard 100 times. She had to write a lot of things on the blackboard that year.

Nicole and her mom had a tradition of taking a long walk together whenever one of them got home from a trip. This time, Mrs. Davis wasn’t feeling well, so Nicole went alone. She’d been walking about twenty minutes when it began to rain. Ahead of her, a small group of men spilled out of a bar. She recognized them: three school board members and Hiram Banks.

Nicole had no desire to speak to Mr. Banks, but as she watched the men go their separate ways, she realized he was headed in her direction. He stumbled, he wove, and finally he stopped. He fumbled for his keys and pointed them at a car. A different car, behind him, chirped in response.

“Mr Banks,” she called, running up to him.

“Do I know you?”

“I’m Nicole Davis. I went to East Springville Elementary. And my mom works there. Lily Davis. Look, why don’t you let me have your keys, and I’ll get you a taxi?”

“Nicole Davis… your dad was Tyrone Davis, right? Drove the school bus?”

Nicole nodded. “Give me your keys.” She held out her hand. “You shouldn’t be driving.”

“Nothing wrong with my driving.” Mr. Banks said. “I’m an excellent driver. Better than your dad, anyway.”

Nicole bristled. The accident hadn’t been her father’s fault. The brakes had failed; the accident investigators confirmed it. Principal Banks had come to Nicole’s house and presented her mom with a $10,000 check, a nondisclosure agreement, and his personal assurance that, effective immediately, the bus would be serviced by someone other than his alcoholic brother-in-law.

Nicole was furious. A weird, cold energy flowed up her spine, into her arms, and out through her fingertips. Mr. Banks collapsed.

Nicole screamed. One of the school board members, Mr. Logan, ran back across the street to check on Mr. Banks. He was dead.

The official cause of death was “lightning strike.” Nicole didn’t remember hearing any thunder.

The first time Leopard-Print Girl flew, it was an impulse.

She was still Nicole then. It should have been the start of her junior year, but her mom’s illness had turned out to be serious. Nicole had moved back home and taken a job at the Springville public library.

She was leaving work one day when a mouse fell on her head. On closer inspection, it was a catnip mouse. She looked down and saw at least a dozen cat toys. She looked up and saw a cat.

“Pyewacket!” she said. “Come down off the roof.”

The neighbors adopted Pyewacket when he was a kitten and Nicole was in second grade. It was love at first sight. The two of them developed a routine. He’d hide behind a rosebush, waiting for her to get home from school. She’d walk by, pretending not to notice, and he’d zoom out and tag her ankle. She’d throw a toy; he’d chase it and pick it up. Then he’d drop it and run back over to her. She tried to explain that the game would work better if he came back to her and then dropped the toy, but cats aren’t known for listening to reason.

Pyewacket was thirteen years old now and still as unreasonable as ever. Come down, Nicole said, and I’ll play with you. She waved the catnip mouse at him to show she meant it. She knew he could climb down easily; he’d claimed half the roofs in the neighborhood as his personal territory. She gave up and, without thinking, flew towards the roof. She was almost there when she realized she was flying. Then she realized she didn’t know how to land.

In her panic, she began flailing her arms and legs. This sent her crashing down onto the roof, leaving her with some bruises and scrapes but no serious injuries. The catnip mouse landed a few feet away, unharmed. Pyewacket pounced and batted it off the edge of the roof. Then he walked over to Nicole and looked at her expectantly.

When she failed to throw the mouse for him, he decided he had urgent business elsewhere. He strutted across the roof, leapt into a nearby tree, and climbed down. Nicole flew to the ground, landing on a hard-shelled plastic ball with a little bell inside and twisting her ankle.

She practiced, of course. She learned her limits. She couldn’t fly more than a few miles at a time or carry anything weighing more than a few pounds. The wind dried out her skin, irritated her eyes, and did terrible things to her hair. Still, she could fly, and that was pretty cool.

The first time Leopard-Print Girl deflected a bullet, it was a footnote in someone else’s story.

When Pablo Winterly slept, he dreamed of ice sculptures: caterpillars that transformed into butterflies as they melted, working bicycles, violins that produced music sweeter than any he’d heard while awake. He spent his waking hours carving ice and studying everything remotely related to his craft: botany, anatomy, and art history for inspiration, architecture, chemistry, and physics for technique. He played with the optical properties of ice, carving prisms that projected rainbows onto nearby objects and lenses that produced comically distorted views of the world. He lived a comfortable life, supplying ice sculptures for weddings, parties, and charity events in the greater Springville area.

At Winterly's 60th birthday party, Andy Childe struck up a conversation. Andy had just graduated with a fine arts degree and wanted to learn to sculpt ice. Winterly had been thinking, on this milestone birthday, about his legacy. He was proud of his creations, but they were ephemeral; the only thing of value he could leave to the world was his knowledge. He agreed to take Andy on as an apprentice.

Winterly taught Andy everything he knew. He taught him to use chisels and chainsaws, to create designs that were delicate-looking but structurally sound, and to calculate a piece’s melting rate based on its shape, the ambient temperature, wind, and degree of sun exposure.

Andy learned quickly. He wasn’t interested in understanding the theories behind Winterly's techniques, but he was good at executing them and memorizing any formulas he needed to know. After three years, he was a competent sculptor, but he wanted more. He wanted to be famous. When he heard about a new ice-sculpture reality TV series, he was one of the first to apply.

Andy did well on Ice Wars. He was good-looking, did beautiful work, and always had a funny story to tell. Everyone loved Andy’s stories. Everyone except Winterly.

Andy’s stories stretched the truth well past its breaking point. They painted Andy as patient and creative and Winterly as a doddering old man well past his prime. During the semi-finals, Andy used one of Winterly's newest techniques and claimed he’d invented it himself.

Andy returned to Springville for the break between the Ice Wars semi-final and final rounds. He invited Winterly to his home for a chat to smooth things over. Andy offered Winterly an insincere apology; Winterly offered Andy his insincere forgiveness. Then the two men moved onto a more comfortable topic: their designs for the upcoming Springville Winter Festival.

Andy’s sculpture was a gravity-defying ballerina, standing en pointe with arms curved overhead. Winterly's was a fantastical bird, with the head of a hawk and a vast plume of feathers like a peacock’s, with row upon row of grooves carved into the plume to form concentric circles. The entire bird was tilted forward as if pointing at something beneath it. Winterly positioned his bird to face Andy’s ballerina. Together, the two pieces made a striking tableau; the bird looked as if it might swoop down and attack the ballerina at any moment.

If Andy had bothered to study any of the optics texts Winterly had made available to him over the years, he might have noticed something odd about Winterly’s sculpture. He might have known that a commercial Fresnel lens can melt copper at its focal point on a sunny day. He might have guessed that a Fresnel lens hand-carved out of ice and made to resemble a plume of feathers could accelerate the melting of an ice ballerina’s ankle enough to seriously degrade its ability to bear weight. But he didn’t know any of these things, so he didn’t object to the bird statue’s placement.

Andy flew into a rage when his ballerina collapsed. He knew Winterly was behind it somehow. He threw the ballerina’s head at Winterly and grazed his shoulder. Then he picked up an arm and swung it at Winterly’s head, but it slipped and hit an off-duty ballerina instead. The Ice Wars cameras, there to record a feel-good segment about Andy interacting with a bunch of fourth-graders at the festival, caught everything. He was convicted of Assault on an Elderly Person and spent the next year’s Winter Festival in jail. He passed the time designing weapons--ice daggers, ice bullets, ice crossbow bolts--and fantasizing about using them on Winterly.

Andy was released from jail six months later. His ice weapon designs were beautiful on paper, but when he tried to create them, the ice daggers were always too blunt or too fragile, and the ice projectiles just wouldn’t fire. In the end, he abandoned those ideas and bought a regular gun and a box of regular bullets.

Andy brought his gun to the next year’s Springville Winter Festival. He shot at Winterly, who would be dead now if a woman hadn’t tripped and fallen into the bullet’s path. The woman was Nicole Davis; the bullet tore her shirt and left a bruise as it bounced off, but otherwise did no damage.

Andy kept shooting. Nicole extended an arm towards him and, for the second time in her life, felt a surge of cold energy flow through it. He fell to the ground, dead. An onlooker caught the whole thing on video.

The first time Leopard-Print Girl met with Mayor Logan, it was the path of least resistance.

The festival video (uploaded with the title “Leopard-Print Girl Saves The Day”) went viral. “Leopard-Print Girl” became Nicole’s superhero name. The mayor invited her to meet with him.

They sat on opposite sides of his enormous mahogany desk. He thanked her for her actions during the festival and then got down to business.

“As the city’s resident superhero,” he said, “you’ll need to deal with our supervillain.”

“We have a supervillain?”

“Yes. The Leech. He’s threatened to vaporize a city block if we don’t pay him a million dollars within sixty days.”

“Oh, him. He does that every year.” The threats always made the local news. “You should just pay him. That’s what previous mayors always did. He’s done this sixteen times now, and he’s never escalated.”

“I don’t negotiate with supervillains.”

“Yes, but that’s just an arbitrary--I mean, that policy doesn’t apply to The Leech. He doesn’t have any superpowers, so he’s not a supervillain. He’s a criminal mastermind.”

“This administration has a zero tolerance policy towards criminal masterminds.”

Mayor Logan had lots of zero tolerance policies. That’s why she hadn’t voted for him. “The thing is, he’s pretty harmless. Credit-card fraud and illegal gambling. Getting rid of him is more dangerous than keeping him around. When a city rids itself of a nuisance villain, there’s an 80% chance a real supervillain will move in to fill the void within a year. I wrote a research paper about that, if you’d like to--“

“No.”

“A million dollars is a tiny fraction of the city’s budget. And it’s just a symbolic gesture, to maintain his membership in the League of Supervillains.”

“You just said he wasn’t--“

“It’s an adjunct membership. Look,” she said, standing, “the best thing you can do for the city is just pay him off. And besides, I don’t have any law enforcement training. Think about the insurance implications. And I’m only staying in town until my mom--until she doesn’t need me here. Then I’m going back to school.”

The mayor stood and walked over to the window. Nicole started to walk towards the door.

“Sit down,” the mayor said. “We’re not finished. I’ve been thinking about the way you killed Andy Childe.”

She winced. “I had to. He was shooting at people.”

“Not why. How. It reminded me of that night two years ago. Hiram Banks. I saw you.”

“That was an accident.”

“So you say. But you hated him, didn’t you? Blamed him for your father’s death? Maybe you planned to kill him.”

“He wasn’t my favorite person, but I didn’t know--“

“And your mother hated him too? Maybe she put you up to it.”

“What? No! What do--“

“I was the sole witness. If we tell different stories about that night, which of us will have more credibility with a jury?”

She sank back into her chair.

“So you’re going to take care of The Leech for me, and anything else I tell you to do. Understood?”

Leopard-Print Girl nodded.

“Good,” he said. “I’m glad we had this little chat.”

The first time Leopard-Print Girl confronted The Leech, it was on the mayor’s orders.

She flew into his compound, making what she hoped would be an impressive superhero entrance. The main reception area was spacious, with sleek modern furniture and a rust-colored carpet that looked like it would be really good at hiding bloodstains.

Leopard-Print Girl walked up to the receptionist’s desk. “Hi, I’m here to see--“

“Please have a seat. I’ll be with you in a moment.”

Leopard-Print Girl took a tissue from the box on the desk and blew her nose. She appreciated the toasty warmth of the office after flying through near-freezing air at 200 mph, but the sudden temperature differential made her nose run.

The receptionist scowled at her. “Step back, please. I don’t want to catch whatever--“

“I’m not sick,” Leopard-Print Girl said. “It’s just that I flew here and--“

“Do you have an appointment?” The receptionist squirted hand sanitizer onto her palm and rubbed her hands together vigorously.

“No, but I think he may be expecting me. I’m from the mayor’s office.”

“And what is this regarding?”

“Um, extortion?”

The receptionist sighed. “Don’t you people read instructions? We stopped accepting hand-delivered cash years ago. Do you have any idea how filthy paper money is? Here.” She handed Leopard-Print Girl a card. “Wire transfer instructions are on the back. Have a nice day.”

“I’m not here to make a delivery. I need to talk to The Leech.”

“Do you have--oh, right. Let me see if I can pencil you in.” She tapped a few keys on her computer. “How does 10:30 this morning sound?”

“Um, it’s 10:38 now.”

“Yes. You’re late. I’ll have someone escort you in.”

An armed guard led Leopard-Print Girl to The Leech’s command center, which turned out to be a large office with a door in back that, according to the blueprints she’d studied, led to The Leech’s living quarters. She counted eight computer monitors spread across a variety of desks: a mahogany desk just like the mayor’s, a minimalist white desk, a standing desk, and a treadmill desk. Velvet Elvis paintings and a menagerie of stuffed animal heads adorned the walls.

The guard left Leopard-Print Girl alone with The Leech. He was sitting at the mahogany desk. His chair looked like the kind with thirty-seven adjustment points--but no control interface, because it senses the optimal settings for each individual and adjusts itself accordingly.

“Stacey tells me you’re here to ask for a payment extension.”

“You should fire her. The mayor sent me to kill you.” She paused for dramatic effect. “I’m hoping we can work out a compromise instead.”

“You can’t kill me. The countdown has already started, and only I can stop it.”

Leopard-Print Girl rolled her eyes. “Your security practices are pathetic. You shouldn’t download games from untrusted sites, and you really shouldn’t play your pirated copy of Candy Bird Sudoku Wars on the same system you use to control your superweapon. And seriously, ‘birdseed’ is too short to be a good password, and it’s in the dictionary, which is even worse. Changing the e’s to threes doesn’t help nearly as much as you seem to think.”

“You mentioned a compromise,” The Leech said.

“Basically, if you stop extorting the city, I won’t interfere with any of your other business. In fact, I can help you.”

The Leech leaned forward. “As a spy in the mayor’s office?”

“Well, no. What I’m proposing is that I help you shore up your security, and you pay me 20% of your net income.”

“You want to work for me?”

“It can’t be any worse than working for the mayor. Do you know what my primary responsibility has been for the past six weeks? Hand-delivering his daughter’s wedding invitations. Apparently a flying messenger is a status symbol.”

“That doesn’t sound--“

“The worst are the out-of-town guests. I have to take a commercial flight and then fly the last couple miles under my own power. I almost missed my mother’s funeral because my flight back from Tampa was delayed. Anyway, what do you say?”

“I say no. You can work here as an unpaid intern if you like.”

“And the annual extortion demands?”

“Are a tradition.”

She could see now that her plan wasn’t going to work. None of the plans would work. Not hers, not The Leech’s, not the mayor’s. She wasn’t cut out to be a superhero.

“Look, Leopard-Print Girl--”

“Why does everyone call me that? My name is Nicole Davis. It’s not a secret. You can’t reduce my entire identity to a single ill-advised fashion choice I made when I was trying to hold it together while my mom was dying.”

She hated being Leopard-Print Girl. She hated working for the mayor. She’d probably hate working for The Leech even more.

“Okay, let’s not get hysterical--“

“This isn’t hysteria. This is clarity.” She let out a small laugh. “That’s what they should call me. Clarity Girl. Clarity Woman. Clarity.”

###

The first time Clarity killed someone, it was a step on a path of her own devising.

She took a deep breath. And another.

She zapped The Leech.

She stepped over his lifeless body and aborted the weapon launch.

She sat in his chair. Her chair.

There was a lot she needed to do. Change the passwords and security codes. Get rid of any disloyal minions. Hire new ones. Redecorate. She’d definitely have to redecorate. Get rid of things. The stuff on the walls, some of the desks, the dead body on the floor.

She’d keep the chair, though. She liked the chair. She couldn’t remember ever feeling as comfortable as she did in that chair.

 

This story originally appeared in Unidentified Funny Objects.


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