From the author: Miss Smith is an administrative assistant at Darren Bane's accounting firm. Actually, Miss Smith is a glorified secretary. Actually, Miss Smith is beginning to suspect she's something else entirely.
I was not sick before I came here.
The room is quiet except for the soft buzz of electronics—a ticking clock, a beeping monitor. The bed is soft, the linens comfortable, if thin. The opposite wall has a chart on a whiteboard that I can't quite read from where I lie. I wake up and instantly know this is a hospital room, but I don't remember how I got here. I try to be calm. Someone will explain all this.
Sure enough, a nurse comes in and bustles around the bed, checking monitors just outside my line of sight. I don't have any tubes or wires connected to me. No needles, no sensors. I brush both my arms and feel all around my head to be sure. None of this has anything to do with me.
I ask her why I'm here.
The nurse is a short woman, auburn hair primly tied back in a bun. Her scrubs have tiny cartoon rabbits on them. "You fell, don't you remember?"
Of course I don't. She knows I don't.
"You don't remember anything about the accident? Falling off the horse?"
I don't even remember going riding.
"You weren't wearing your helmet," she adds. "Why weren't you wearing your helmet?"
"But I always wear my helmet." I wouldn't ride without wearing my helmet; I never don't wear my helmet.
"Well, never mind, loss of memory is common with head injuries," she says and bustles back out of the room without explaining anything.
I don't even have a headache. I feel fine.
A doctor comes in next, a man in a white lab coat wearing a serious expression. I must have fallen asleep because I wake up when the door opens. I don't remember falling asleep.
"How are we doing?" he says, wearing a condescending smile. We? He's on his feet, I'm in bed, apparently with a head injury. There isn't any we here.
"I'm fine. I think I feel fine. Can I get up, walk around a little bit?"
"Not so fast," he says. "We're still making sure you're stable. For now I'd like to ask you a few questions."
"Okay." My voice sounds small. I'm not sure I can sound anything but small, lying in this bed.
"What do you remember about the accident?"
"I don't remember anything," I say, even though I know that's the wrong answer, an answer that will keep me here, in bed.
He tsks, shaking his head. Consults a clipboard sitting on a side table. "What's the first thing you remember, then?"
"I woke up when the nurse came in. I . . . was that a few hours ago? This morning? I'm not sure."
"So you're having trouble keeping track of time."
"Maybe if you could put a clock in here--"
"Has your boss been in to see you yet?"
My boss? "I'm not even sure he knows I'm in the hospital."
"Oh, he's been alerted. His information was listed as your emergency contact."
That doesn't sound right—my mother is my emergency contact, and why hasn't she been in to see me yet? I really want to see her. To see any familiar face.
"Do you have my phone?" I ask. "I'd like my phone. I could call him. And my mother. I'd really like to talk to my mom."
His smile is a kind mask. "We don't want you to get too excited, not yet."
"But I'm not—"
"Never mind that for now. With a head injury like yours, we don't like you to read anything or strain your eyes too much."
It sort of makes sense. Sort of.
He takes out a light pen and shines it in each of my eyes, clicking his tongue as if he's found something there he doesn't like.
"How are you feeling?"
I'm starting to get a headache. "I'm okay. I think I'm okay."
"But you weren't wearing your helmet."
I hadn't been riding, I know I hadn't. My horse died ten years ago. I still miss her.
The doctor holds my wrist, taking my pulse. I assume he's taking my pulse. "What do you remember from before the accident? What was the last thing you remember doing before you woke up?"
"I think I was going to work . . ."
"What kind of work is it you do?" he asks conversationally, that fake smile still in place.
"I'm an administrative assistant."
"Oh? For what kind of business?"
"An accounting firm."
"You must get a lot of questions at tax time."
"Not really. I'm not an accountant myself, I just run the office."
"So you pass folks along to your boss?"
"He isn't really that kind of accountant," I say. Darren is an auditor and forensic accountant. Tax time isn't really a thing—he goes out on jobs year-round. "It's all pretty dull."
"Oh, I imagine not. If you're his assistant—"
"I just answer phones, stuff like that. Keep the office running."
"It would all fall apart without you, hmm?" He makes it sound like a joke but also sort of not.
The blandness of the questions and intensity of his stare make me nervous. I don't want to talk anymore.
"Your pulse is a little elevated," the doctor says seriously.
I look for a name tag. I don't find one. I don't know what to call him. "I might be a little nervous," I admit.
"I think we'd better keep you sedated for the next few days."
"But I'm feeling better." In fact, my new headache is getting worse.
The doctor pushes a button, and a nurse comes in with an IV stand and bag. I don't argue, because what if they're right?
The next time I wake up, the doctor is waiting for me, asking more questions.
He checks the IV bag, brushes his finger on the tape holding down the needle in my arm, and pretends to take my pulse again.
"Where did you say you worked again?"
"An accounting firm," I say wearily. "It's not very interesting."
"Can you tell me who your boss is?"
"He's Darren Bane. He's an accountant. An auditor."
"I mean who he really is?"
I shake my head, confused. "That's it, that's all he is, I told you."
"And who are you, Miss Smith?"
"I'm nobody. I just run his office."
"What do you mean, 'run his office’?"
"He's good at his job but he's not very practical, you know? I have to remind him to pay bills, I make sure there's coffee for the coffee maker—"
"Are you sure?"
"What do you mean, am I sure? Of course I'm sure."
"There's nothing else?"
I wince. "He also never remembers the network login. I have to reset his password a couple times a week."
"An administrative assistant," the doctor says flatly.
"Your pulse is elevated again," the doctor says, as if disappointed. "Do you know where Darren Bane is now?"
"No. But if you gave me my phone I could call him—"
"Get some rest for now. I think your injury may be a little worse than we thought. You really should have worn your helmet."
"But I didn't . . . I don't think . . ."
"You definitely seem agitated, Miss Smith. Maybe we ought to increase the dosage."
"No, I'm fine. I'm really fine."
The doctor leaves.
This time when I wake up, I'm strapped to the bed by my wrists and ankles, nearly immobilized. I don't panic. It seems a natural progression. The room is the same, smelling of antiseptic cleaner and exhaustion. The IV needle is still in my arm, a clear liquid dripping into it.
"Miss Smith, how are you today?"
I flinch because I hadn't heard the doctor come in. "I'm not feeling too good," I say honestly. I want to get up and walk around. I want to know how long I've been here.
"Well then. We just need to find out a few things, then we'll get you fixed right up."
"I don't think you ever told me your name," I say. "I don't even know what hospital I'm at."
He looms over me, smiling. "Now, don't worry about that. Just worry about getting well."
"Are you the doctor?"
A beat, and then, "I'm wearing the white coat, aren't I?"
That doesn't seem like a good answer. "I don't know what's wrong with me."
"You fell. Don't you remember?"
I still don't remember. I've fallen off lots of horses lots of times, but that was years ago, when I was a kid. When I still had a horse. And I would have worn my helmet.
"Miss Smith, tell me about Darren Bane."
"He's my boss," I say plaintively. "You know that. I don't know what else you need to know."
"He's out of the office a lot."
"He travels," I say. "He's an auditor. He does on-site audits."
"And you handle the office while he's gone."
"Well, sort of. It's not that big a deal. I get the mail and answer the phones and stuff. I'm his administrative assistant."
"Now, Miss Smith. Tell me the truth. What are you really? Just what is it you do for Darren Bane?"
I pull my wrists, kick my legs, but caught up in thick nylon and Velcro straps, they only move an inch. "He's an accountant. I'm the administrative assistant--"
"No. What are you really?"
"That's it, an administrative—"
"What are you?"
I start crying, embarrassed and ashamed to be crying, sniffing hard as my nose clogs up.
"This doesn't have to be hard," the nameless doctor says. "Just tell me who you really are, and what you really do."
I've always been so sure that I could be strong if I needed to be. The kind of heroine I've read about. And here I am, crying wet, messy, painful tears.
"Miss Smith, I need to know—"
"All right, fine, fine! I'm a secretary! Just a secretary. A glorified secretary! I have a master’s degree in literature and mostly I just make coffee and go out for dry cleaning. That's it. I mean—I've read Finnegans Wake but this is the only job I could get! I'm sorry!"
The doctor frowns. I sniff, catch my breath. Think maybe I've stopped crying but I can't feel my face anymore. The clicking of some monitor fills the silence.
"You're lying," he says finally.
"I know, I should have said it right off, I'm a secretary, just a secretary."
"I don't believe you," the doctor says curtly.
"No one's read Finnegans Wake."
"But I did, I wrote a paper on it, on anticipatory postmodernism, it even got published, and now I'm just a secretary—"
The doctor turns and leaves. The door shuts firmly behind him.
Being scared is probably normal when you're stuck in a hospital bed. But I'm not really sick. At least, I didn't start out sick. This time I'm woken by a bright light, and the expressions on their faces are no longer kind. The questions continue, and what I learn: these people, whoever they are, are on a deadline.
"Where is Darren Bane?"
"How am I supposed to know—"
"You work for him, don't you? You must know what he really is—"
The doctor—the man in the white coat, rather—and nurse are both in on it.
"Is he nice to work for?" the nurse asks conversationally as she changes out the IV bag. Like this is normal.
"I guess. He gives out Christmas bonuses and things."
"Do you ever travel with him?"
"No, I take care of the office." I've said this a dozen times already. "So are you a neurosurgeon or what?"
The doctor seems taken aback. "Why do you say that?"
"You keep saying I have a head injury, that I fell off a horse. So I figure you must be a neurosurgeon, if there's something wrong with my head, you must know what—"
"Miss Smith, I need to you tell me everything you know about Darren Bane."
"He drives a BMW," I say. "And even if he asked me I wouldn't date him."
He blinks. "Why not?"
"Because he's never around. And when he is he's irritable. I don't think he gets enough sleep."
The doctor leaves, and even the nurse looks after him, surprised. But he returns just a moment later carrying what looks like a phone, and I think, finally. I can call my mom, I can call Darren and tell him these people really want to talk to him—
The nurse's eyes widen. "Are you sure?"
"We're running out of options."
He holds the device—which is not a phone, it doesn't have a screen—flat in his hand and presses a button. A light comes on in the center and projects up. Within the light blurry shapes appear, then resolve into a clear image. A movie plays in full color and three dimensions.
"What is that?" I say, gaping. "It's . . . it's a hologram, isn't it? I've never . . . is that even possible?" Clearly it's possible—it's right in front of me.
The holographic movie shows a fight. A group of maybe six men wearing leather jackets and balaclavas are gathered on a dark, damp street. At night, the details are obscure, but their reactions to a powerful figure dropping into the middle of them are plain. They try to overpower the man, but he's too fast, delivering a roundhouse kick even as he smacks two heads together, and those movements flow into a smooth pivot, another kick, and a clean punch that flattens its recipient.
The man, the amazing fighter, wears a form-fitting suit of black tinged with silver. It might be made of leather, sleek and supple, with some armored plating. He has on a mask that covers his head. He's like a shadow given form, and in short order all his opponents lie writhing on the ground.
"Is this a movie?" I ask. It's probably a movie.
"No, Miss Smith, it isn't."
He's right. The angle's all wrong, taken from too high up, as if from a security camera mounted on a building, and the frame never moves.
"Who are you people?" I demand. "How are you even doing this?"
"Can you tell me who that is?" the doctor asks.
"How am I supposed to know?"
"The man in the mask is Darren Bane. Now can you tell me where he is?"
I blink at him, then stare at the image, which has started over again, the masked figure punching and kicking his way through the mob of thugs again. That my boss, the accountant Darren Bane, is some kind of masked crime-fighting vigilante is the least surprising thing about all this. All the business trips, his apparent lack of social life and yet also lack of free time, the occasional days he comes to the office with bruises and stiff joints and blames it on racquetball—
"I don't know anything," I say. Maybe I should have seen it. Maybe I should have known. But really, what makes more sense, crime-fighting vigilante or racquetball? "He told me he was playing racquetball."
"The problem," says the man who I'm pretty sure isn't really a doctor, "is that crime-fighting vigilantes usually have sidekicks. And you know Darren Bane's business better than anyone. No one is closer to him than you."
But I'm just a secretary. No, that isn't right . . . I'm the administrative assistant. I manage the office. Does that make me a sidekick?
"But I'm not—"
There's an explosion just then. But I don't remember it, not at first. Head injury. They tell me about it later.
"What's the last thing you remember?"
I don't actually remember the last thing I remember, not anymore. I woke up in a hospital bed, and before that I woke up in a hospital bed.
"I think I got kidnapped," I say groggily. My head hurts, for real this time. It's not my imagination. "These guys, I have no idea who they are but they made me think I was in the hospital, and they kept asking about my boss, and they showed me this video only it wasn't really a video, it was a hologram. They kept asking questions but I swore I didn't know anything."
A man in a white coat is standing by my hospital bed. A different man than the last time, ten years older and thirty pounds heavier, and maybe this one really is a doctor. The tight set to his jaw suggests he is frustrated. "Do you remember the explosion?"
I have to think for a moment, and realize that yes I do remember. I remember the explosion that blew the side wall of the hospital room inward. A man appeared. I couldn't see his face, he wore a form-fitting armored suit, his face obscured behind a mask. He came straight to the bed and unfastened the restraints. I was free, I was finally free. And I was sick. Really sick. "I don't think I can stand up," I'd told him, and he seemed prepared for this, carefully sliding out the IV needle, taping over the wound, pulling out other wires and monitors. The medical devices were all screaming, shouting came from down the corridor, and the masked vigilante scooped me up into his arms and there was no place I more wanted to be.
Maybe I will say yes if Darren Bane ever asks me out on a date.
"Hold on," he said, but I was already clinging to him, arms around his neck. He was close enough that I could smell him, some kind of spicy aftershave blended with the sweat of heroism. A gun fired. I grit my teeth and hid my face. Which meant I didn't see what happened, but I felt flames, heard more gunfire and a muffled voice shouting, "This way!" Then we were in sunlight, I was outside, in fresh air, away from the hospital stink. But all my limbs felt like butter and I couldn't move. The masked vigilante, who sheltered me all this time, whispered that everything was going to be all right, that I was safe now, and I believed him, and we were moving away and away—
And I passed out again. I hadn't had anything to eat in days and I hadn't even noticed. Now I'm here. In a hospital bed. Again.
"Do you have a phone?" I ask. "I really need to call my boss. I really need to talk to him." I have so many questions.
"Your boss knows you're here. That's what I'm trying to get you to remember. There was an explosion at the office."
"A gas line," the doctor continues. "You were working late. You were able to call 911, but you have a very bad concussion—"
But that would mean— "I really need to call my boss. Can I have a phone?"
"With a head injury like yours we really don't like you to strain your eyes too much."
"But. Maybe. I could just tell you the number, and you can call—"
"All in good time. For now, I'd like to ask you a few questions. What can you tell me about Darren Bane?"
"He's my boss," I say. "He's an accountant, a forensic accountant. At least I thought he was." My brow furrows.
The doctor takes my wrist with chilled fingers and frowns. "Your pulse is slightly elevated."
"Of course it is!" I'm groggy this time, really groggy. And maybe it was all true, maybe I really was sick, and I should just lie back, let it all fade, but I get out of bed anyway because I don't really have a choice.
"Wait a minute, Miss Smith!"
I walk right past him. Or rather I kind of sway and stumble, with a hand on the bed, then a wall, then the doorknob. A cloth hospital gown hangs loosely on me, flapping around my legs, open in the back, and I don't care. The doctor reaches for me but doesn't actually take hold, which makes me think he really is a doctor. He really is worried.
I open the door and walk out, and I don't know what I'm expecting. A sound stage. A warehouse. A wall held up with two-by-four struts, proving that this is all a fake, a sham. But I'm in a hospital hallway. A normal, institutional hospital hallway with a tile floor and fluorescent lights and cheerful signs on the wall ordering people to wash their hands. And in a chair shoved up against the wall, reading a magazine, is Darren Bane. He looks like what he is, what I always thought he was, a slick hotshot businessman filling out his perfectly tailored suit. He looks up at me and raises an eyebrow.
"He told me you weren't here," I exclaim.
"He thought you weren't strong enough yet for visitors."
I start to say something angry, close my mouth. Glare.
"Out with it," he says.
"This is a stunt." I try to yell, but I'm too tired for that. "You brought me here to try to make me think this was all a hallucination so that you can convince me you aren't really a masked vigilante, that I somehow imagined the whole thing, when it's not true. I mean it is true. And you have enemies, and you were probably keeping all this secret because of some idea that if I knew, I would be in danger, but, well, look what happened, I'm in danger anyway! And here I've been keeping up your front this whole time and . . . and . . . I want a raise. And a better job title. I want to be office manager. I mean, you don't even know the office email login, you need me to do that. And I'm sorry, I'm getting dizzy, I need to sit down."
He deftly stands and guides me to sit in the chair. I put my head between my knees for a minute and when the floor stops shimmering, I straighten and look at him. He smells like aftershave and heroism.
"Office manager, hmm?"
"Yes," I say.
This seems easier than I was expecting. "And the raise?"
"Of course." He names a number that makes two hospital stays, even if one of them was fake, seem worthwhile. "Okay then. I'll see you at work, when you're back on your feet."
He brushes his jacket off, smooths back a strand of hair that wasn't out of place, and walks away to the elevators.
The doctor is standing at the doorway. "What did you say your job was?"
Both of us are still watching Darren Bane's departure, the suave poise of him. When I open my mouth to answer, to state my relationship to my boss, I realize the terrible truth. My actual new job title.
I say instead, "It's complicated."
This story originally appeared in Unfettered III, edited by Shawn Speakman.
The only daughter of Captain Olympus and Spark, the world's greatest superheroes, Celia West has no powers of her own. When her parents' archenemy, the Destructor, faces justice in the "Trial of the Century," Celia finds herself sucked back into the more-than-mortal world of Captain Olympus―and forced to confront a secret that she hoped would stay buried forever.
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