The taxi pulls away from the curb with a wheeze of exhaust, lifting the edge of my cape and rousing a lone, unraked leaf from its slumber on the yellowing lawn. Down the street, a child laughs, her bicycle weaving down smooth asphalt flanked by identical red brick facades.
She is too far away to offer me the comfort of recognition.
The house, however, peers down at me as if it knows me all too well; the gables over the upper-floor windows quirk upwards like heavy eyebrows, wondering why I’m here.
I’m not sure I can answer that. Duty? Masochism? My fingers pick nervously at my uniform, the spandex snapping back softly against my skin.
I’ve faced worse than this in the last months. In the last two hours. There’s no reason to stall.
A deep breath, then: ten steps down the path, three steps up, another two to cross the patio. A jab at the doorbell summons the familiar too-happy jangle. I imagine her peering through the peephole and uncross my arms.
When the door swings open, she blinks up at me, her narrow frame tense with the energy of a coiled spring. In the year since I’ve seen her, the silver strands at her temples have multiplied beyond her ability to pluck them. A wrinkle has lodged itself between her eyebrows.
“Jessie,” she says, arms open wide. “Welcome home.” The warmth and brightness that has charmed neighbours and friends for decades flood her eyes.
I had planned to be cold. I had planned to be distant.
I find myself folded into an embrace.
“Hi, Mom.” My voice is muffled against the wool of her sweater; I press into it, breathing in the scent of childhood. Citrus and rose, a cigarette smoked on the sly.
“I thought you’d dress up,” she says, her expression cooling as she inspects the black and purple spandex of my uniform, plucks at my cape. “Do your regular clothes not fit?”
“There was a bank robbery—” I start to say, sucking in my stomach despite myself.
“You couldn’t take the time to change?”
I could have, after the stand-off. Peeled the bulletproof material away from my bruised skin, switched it for a respectable white sweater and, blue jeans, and soft leather boots, a tan hat perched on my head just so. The traditional costume of daughters of mothers like mine. But I’d seen the robbers’ eyes widen behind their faded woolen balaclavas, watched their hands tremble as they trained their guns on me. They’d known what the uniform meant.
I should have figured it would make no difference here.
“Sorry,” I mumble as my feet go through their practiced ritual, kicking off rubber-soled boots and nudging them neatly to the side. My socks leave steaming footprints against the tile of the foyer.
She deposits me in the living room and walks off, murmuring something about getting my sister. Sunlight filters through the bay windows, catching on the tastefully arranged throw pillows and a white couch, more than half my age and still pristine. It faces a fireplace with five photographs on its mantle. I pad around the room, pointedly ignoring them. So what if one of the frames is clearly newer and bigger than the others? I won’t give in to their gravity.
Almost too late, I feel a drag against my cape and turn to see a vase tipping toward the ground.
In that moment, I am five years old again and trying to reach a plate of cookies on the kitchen counter. I dive. My fingers slip against the vase, against the plate. It is heavy, and I will drop it. It will crash to the floor, and my mother will scream into the room, and I will be grounded.
My training finally kicks in, hands reaching for the vase, pulling it to my chest as I land with a muffled thud on the carpet. The lavender glass warms against my fingertips.
I scramble up and set it back on the side table. Five small dents have appeared on each side where I gripped it, but they’re not noticeable unless you’re looking for them. Probably.
Get it together, J, I think and fumble with the clasp of my cape, drape it across the back of an armchair. The cape’s always heavier than I expect it to be, prone to seeking out loose nails and door handles, and Mom’s right; there’s no need for it here. I drop into the armchair to await her return, remembering too late that the cushions are harder than they look. The landing is unpleasant.
I remind myself it’s just a few hours for dinner: eat some turkey, drink some wine, take some pumpkin pie for the road. I can do this.
I can do this without fucking something up.
My eyes flicker to the fireplace reflexively, skittering across the photographs, hook on one with an unexpected surge of pleasure.
Those five frames have always been testaments to my and my sister’s biggest victories, and it’s always Angela’s successes that counted the most. First place in the state spelling bee; high school lacrosse championships; high school valedictorian, then college. Whatever I’ve achieved, Angela’s done it better and first.
Now, all but one are of my sister: her white coat ceremony at Harvard; her first day as an emergency surgeon (The youngest in the hospital’s history, I can hear Mom repeating to friends, neighbours, anyone who will listen); her third Ironman finish; and a new one with her boyfriend that I hadn’t seen before.
But one frame, larger than the others, announces that a LOCAL HERO SAVES THE DAY. It’s from one of the first cases I worked in New York, when a domestic abuser had held his wife and children hostage for trying to flee. I’ve had bigger victories, tougher battles, but this one felt the most real.
“The neighbours love that one,” Mom says from behind me. She wanders to the frame, straightens it imperceptibly. A warmth of pride spreads through my chest. I imagine her standing next to it, regaling Mrs. Vandette from next door with the story.
“It’s the only one I can put up,” she adds, turning back to me. “You’re not very photogenic.”
She watches my breath catch. I turn it into a laugh.
“I’m still learning the whole ‘action shot’ thing,” I say.
She smiles, opens her mouth to say something else; it is forestalled by the kitchen door swinging open. A dozen smells follow my sister into the living room: candied yams and garlic, cinnamon and cloves.
“Jess,” she says, a wine bottle in one hand and a cluster of crystal glasses in the other. Her blonde hair is ironed and styled, and I’m grudgingly impressed that her cream-coloured sweater is unblemished.
“Hey, Angie.” We hug, the barest hint of a squeeze. A car passes the house as we separate, the soft swish of its tires filling the living room. Angela busies herself with the corkscrew.
“How’s it going?” I ask.
She shrugs, flicking a strand of hair behind her ear. Something glitters on her left hand. “Busy. Long shifts at the hospital; don’t get much time off.”
“But she’s the best in her cohort,” Mom says. “So she got today. She’s been cooking since the crack of dawn.”
“It smells delicious in there,” I say, ignoring the subtext. She was here. Where was I?
Angela shrugs again. The cork creaks, comes loose with a quiet pop. “I’m just glad I can help out. The turkey should be done soon enough. Did you bring red or white, by the way?”
Angie’s always been good at pointing out what few mistakes Mom somehow overlooked. I wince, thinking of the bottle of champagne shattered across the floor of the bank. I’d splurged on something way outside my budget, hoped the gesture would impress Mom. I hadn’t expected one of the robbers to open the box, thinking there’d be some secret weapon inside. He’d lobbed it at my head a moment later, so I guess he’d been right.
“I got champagne,” I say. “Except—”
“You don’t have to make excuses,” Mom cuts in. “We didn’t expect you to remember.” Her smile is small and sharp and hurts somewhere just beneath my right ribs.
“I did remember,” I say. “The robbers—”
“Never mind, Jessica,” Mom says, waving me to silence with an impatient flick of her hand. “Angie, did you tell her the news?”
Angela hands a glass to me and extends her free hand to display a square-cut diamond mounted on a gold band. I know just enough about rings to get a sense of how expensive it must have been.
“Steve asked me to marry him,” she grins. The aloofness from earlier has melted away: her smile is radiant. It’s the same happiness I’ve only caught glimpses of before when Mom would leave us home alone for date nights or book club. Ms. Ballanger said I had the best poem in class today, she’d whisper, like it was a secret. Mr. Taylor said I could be an actress if I wanted. Those moments grew fewer and farther between as we got older: she, ever more perfect; me, ever more in her shadow.
“Congratulations,” I say, glancing to the new photo of her on the mantle. Mom had received professional prints of the engagement shoot and had them framed before I’d even found out. “When’s the big day? And where’s Steve?” He of the too-strong jaw, good family, trust fund, proclivity for sweater vests. Mom had been thrilled when Angie had brought him home.
“Stuck in surgery,” Angie says. “He’ll come by after dinner. And we’re still deciding, but I’d love fall, somewhere upstate. That beautiful foliage…” She and Mom launch into the minutiae of wedding planning. I watch them bat ideas back and forth, refill the wine when Mom thrusts her glass out to me.
“I can turn on the fireplace,” I say during a pause in their conversation. When they don’t respond, I kneel next to the logs, angling myself so they’ll be able to see my hands. The warmth builds in them slowly. I’ve learned to take my time when I don’t need to be a weapon, to feel the power collecting just beneath my skin, ready to do my bidding. The air shimmers beneath my palms before erupting in flames, shooting a jet of fire to the base of the logs. They catch immediately.
I glance at my mother and sister. Neither is watching.
“There we go,” I say, standing with a grunt.
My mother peers at the fire with a frown. “Did you add enough kindling?”
“It doesn’t need kindling,” I say. “I—”
“Every fire needs kindling,” Mom sighs. “This’ll go out in no time.”
“No, it won’t,” I say, trying to keep my voice pleasant. “It’s going just fine.”
“You don’t need to get so defensive.”
“I’m not defensive. I’m just saying—”
“Jessica, really.” Mom shakes her head. “If you’re going to make a fuss, don’t bother doing anything at all.”
I grit my teeth and grab the wine bottle.
“More?” I ask.
“Thank you, yes,” my mother says, her smile returning. After refilling her and Angie’s glasses, I tilt the bottle into my own and get a trickle of dregs for my effort.
“Anyway, Jocelyn has been the perfect maid of honour,” Angie says as I tune back into the conversation. “She’s already got the bachelorette party on lock.”
“Jocelyn’s your maid of honour?” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them. Something has curled itself through my stomach and squeezed sourness into my throat.
“Of course,” Angie says, more incredulous about the question than the fact I’d created literal fire with just my hands. “It’s her, Faith, Caroline, and Alison in the bridal party. Weren’t you listening?”
“I just… I thought I would be a part of it.” My voice is as small as I feel: age twelve, this time, asking Angie to take me with her to the beach with her friends. I spent that day in the garden, sprawled on the grass, trying to find consolation in existing under the same sky.
There is a flicker of something in Angie’s face before her lips settle into a dry smile. “You’re just so busy with WHIP,” she says.
“LASH,” I say. “L-A-S-H. The League of American Super-Humans.”
She gives her hand a wave; her resemblance to Mom is uncanny. “Whatever. Either way. The day has to be perfect. There are just too many details to keep track of. Not just a bottle of wine.”
“Right.” I turn to pick up my cape, blinking furiously until the blurriness in my vision passes. “Speaking of,” I say, turning back to them with a smile. “We’re out. I’ll stop by the store and grab another bottle.”
“There’s more in the cellar,” Mom says.
“I could use the walk.”
Mom shrugs. “Suit yourself, if you want to be in a mood. But please change; that outfit looks ridiculous.”
There’s no use arguing, so I trudge upstairs, to the sewing room that had once been my bedroom. The closet still has a few leftover bits of clothing, and I pull out a pair of black jeans and a serviceable V-neck. I’m glad, at least, that I didn’t change into a skirt at home; there’s a gigantic welt on my thigh where a shotgun round hit me. I’d appreciated the robber’s gumption even as I grabbed the barrel and turned it into a molten puddle. I’m less impressed now that I have to deal with the aftermath. Why had he bothered? He should have known he was going to lose.
The wine shop is two miles away, in a strip mall at the intersection of suburbia and the highway. I set a pace that should get me to the store in ten minutes without breaking a sweat. Everything else was an accident, but my endurance, at least, is my own. True, it’s been forged by hundreds of hours of training with LASH; they’d carted me off right after the first incident. But I’d done well enough that General Huang had commended my grit, and that was something.
The man behind the counter does a double-take when he sees me. His hair is grayer than I remembered, but the hint of a Texas twang in his voice hasn’t changed.
“Hi, Mr. Patel,” I say. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
He peppers me with questions while he helps me choose a couple of bottles: details about the times he’d seen me in the news; the interview I’d done on the Tonight Show a few weeks back. He hadn’t seen reports on the robbery, and his eyes widen at the story. I wonder what he’d say about the nuclear apocalypse I’d helped prevent, but NDAs from three separate governments mean that particular story will go untold.
“It’s wonderful to see you again, Jessie,” he adds, scanning the three bottles we’d picked at the register (red, white, and bubbly, so that I don’t get told I picked the wrong thing). “I keep telling people I’ve known Galaxy Girl since she was a kid. Even got a picture up.” He gestures behind him, where a framed photo of me hangs above the entrance to the back room. “You should come by more often. I know you’re busy, but your mom’s just so proud of you. She must miss you.”
I make a strangled noise somewhere deep in my throat that seems to pass for agreement.
“Can I ask you one last question?” he adds, handing over two bags.
“Your transformation,” he says. “What was it really like?”
My heart curls around the memory. I still dream of it sometimes: stepping into that three-foot-by-three-foot plywood box, Mina smiling behind me. She’d made it look like a living room, with a recliner and standing lamp set on a faded pink rug. Only one person could go in at a time. I’d been the first and last to do so.
I had talked a little about it in my first interview before I realized I wasn’t ready to share it with the world.
“You can’t talk about being opened up by it like that,” my publicist had said afterward. “The passive voice makes it sound like you didn’t want it.”
“I didn’t,” I’d responded, then gone back to prepping for the next interview on my schedule, this one a panel with a few other LASH heroes. What I’d wanted was to impress the girl across the genetics seminar table. What I’d wanted was for her to like me, too. What I’d wanted was to be the first to see her RISD thesis show, bouquet in hand, even though I had my first final exam an hour after the show opened, to prove to her that I was serious. That I could be forever.
Her fingers on mine as she took the flowers were warm and soft, her whispered Thank you a breeze against my ear. I could sense the curl of her lips, and I thought I could die happy, right there.
Twenty minutes later, I lay among the smoldering remains of Mina’s thesis work, screaming.
Jessica Piszczek had burned red, the newspapers wrote. Like a dying star. Mina wasn’t even mentioned. I haven’t heard from her since; couldn’t get a single call through in the aftermath, didn’t even see her at graduation. I’d destroyed the single most important work of her life till then, so I suppose I can’t blame her.
“Jessie?” Mr. Patel prompts.
“Yeah,” I respond. “It was a projection in an art pop-up. The walls lit up with all sorts of symbols scrolling through. The artist – Mina Takeshi-Smith – was exploring the balance between the mundane and the profound. It seems she ended up opening some sort of portal instead.”
Mr. Patel frowns. “That’s exactly what you said on The Tonight Show.”
“I know,” I say, doing my best at an apologetic smile. Her agent had told my publicist to tell me to use those precise words. I hate them; they don’t do justice to the beauty of what Mina had created. But how can you explain the feeling of ripping through a blur of space and time and stars, feeling your soul, your being, whatever it was opening up to the maw of some great unknown? “I’m not allowed to disclose any more information to the public.” I nod to the photo before he can press the matter. “Want me to sign it?”
His face lights up.
“Would you? And,” he adds sheepishly, “Could I get a selfie?”
“Of course,” I say, smiling at the phone he’s already lifted over our heads. I nod acceptance without looking when he shows it to me; I’ve never been good with photos.
“I wish you’d been wearing your uniform,” he says, looking at his phone. “People might just say it’s a lookalike.”
“I’ll come back in full gear soon,” I promise, knowing it’s a lie.
Mom is reading in the living room when I get home. She inspects the wine before grunting her acceptance; Mr. Patel had pointed out the vintages she always buys.
“Put the white in the fridge,” she says, so I head to the kitchen. It’s newly renovated, all modern steel and marble. My sister leans over the far counter, her hair cascading around her shoulders.
“Everything okay, chef?” I’m distracted by a tray of cookies on the nearest island, each delicately iced in the shape of a miniature turkey. She’s made ones like these, each more intricate than the last, every year since my failed attempt at cornucopia cookies. I break off the corner of one.
Too sweet, I think, smiling. There’s no sense in pointing it out later; Angie can do no wrong in Mom’s eyes. But it’s a small, private victory for me. As a treat.
My ears catch a sniffle.
“Angie?” I ask.
“Go away.” Her voice is thick.
I make myself walk over to her anyway, steps measured. “What’s wrong?” I ask again, but I’ve already seen the answer. The turkey sits in its dish, gloriously large, stuffed and trussed, salted and oiled—and still bright pink. “Did you—”
“I forgot to turn the oven on, yes,” Angie snaps.
I can’t help myself. I laugh. It’s the same mistake I made two years ago. Except this time, nobody caught it fast enough. Dinner’s supposed to be in less than an hour. The meal won’t be late; it’ll be ruined.
“Get out.” She doesn’t raise her head.
“Ang—” I reach for her shoulder automatically.
“Out!” She smacks my outstretched hand away, her voice a hiss, and I catch sight of her face. Her eyes are puffy, her makeup streaked with tears.
I don’t think she’s ever messed up this badly before. I want to laugh, to dance. Mom will ask me soon why I can’t be more like my sister, and I’ll get to say, You mean, the sister that tries to give the entire family salmonella? That one?
“Fine.” I turn my back on her with a shrug, still grinning.
“Is everything okay in there, girls?”
Mom’s voice comes from just behind the kitchen door. She’s always been drawn to argument with preternatural ability. Her very own Spidey senses.
I glance back at my sister, who’s turned to look at the door. Her expression is the same one I saw three weeks ago during a three-alarm fire in Brooklyn. The sound of crying had led me to a bedroom on the verge of being engulfed in flames: a young woman with a tearful child, smoke billowing around them. She’d thought this was the end until I appeared.
I want, suddenly, urgently, to save my sister from the inferno of my mother’s disappointment. Not for the tears of relief as I carried them to safety. Not for the incoherent thank-yous when they were back on solid ground.
I want to save her because I can. Because this is who I am now.
I run to the kitchen door and stop Mom from opening it. “Everything’s fine,” I say. “I’ll be out in a sec with some hors d’oeuvres. Just helping Angie.”
“Don’t mess it up,” she says. The pressure leaves the door.
I turn back to Angie, trying to ignore the snipe. “I can fix it,” I say as gently as I can.
“You don’t even know how to cook.”
The words are a spell. The image of the woman and her child disappears.
“Neither do you, it seems,” I fire back. It’s easy to slip into the usual cadence of our conversations. Like putting on well-worn shoes.
“At least I learned what little I know the honest way.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That I didn’t cheat and benefit from someone else’s skill.”
“Mina didn’t know what would happen!”
“So it’s dumb luck for both of you,” Angie sneers.
“I’ve worked my ass off for this.” I bite off my words before they become a shout. “You think you’re special because you were born Mom’s favourite?”
I barrel over her as she opens her mouth to respond.
“You are,” I say, fists clenching. “You know you are.”
Her eyes widen as she notices my right hand and the flames that engulf it.
“Do you have any idea how much control it takes to do this?” I ask, raising it to stand between us. Angie winces against the light, the heat. “To be a walking fireball and not burn everything you love to the ground? To know that, if you make a mistake, people will die and that their last feelings will be those of flesh and fat melting off their body?”
Angie says nothing, and I lower my arm again, letting the flames go. The smell of burned cotton reaches my nose; I’d forgotten that I was wearing regular clothing. The side of my right leg feels suspiciously cool.
“I’m trying to deserve this, Angie,” I whisper. “I am.”
She turns to the turkey, gripping the edges of the pan.
“I’ll fix it,” I say to her silence. “It’ll be cooked. If it’s dry or burnt, just say I wanted to make it better and ruined it. As usual.” I hear the bitterness in my voice and swallow it. “I want to help, Angie.”
She says nothing for a long moment, then steps aside. I think I hear her whisper Thank you.
In the end, Angie is right: I don’t know how to cook. Even with her guidance, the turkey’s skin comes out a beautiful gold in some places and a black so deep in others that Angie has to run to the smoke detector and flail a tea cloth at it before it can scream.
It is a mercy when the meat thermometer finally reads 170ºF.
“Good job,” she says, voice dry.
“Shut up,” I retort, but we’re both grinning. I can’t remember the last time we exchanged a smile like this.
“I’m gonna go upstairs and change,” I say. I’m already turning away when Angie lunges for me, wrapping me in a hug.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
For what? I almost ask, but I don’t think she’s ready to answer that question, and I’m not sure I’m ready to hear it.
“It’s okay,” I say instead, then slip out of the kitchen. Upstairs, I bundle what’s left of my jeans into the trash. Mom is already seated in the dining room when I return, her eyes flickering to the kitchen. The room smells vaguely of smoke; I know she didn’t come to see what the fuss was for dramatic effect.
Sure enough, when the turkey is brought out, she gasps, hand flying to her cheek.
“It’s awful, Angie,” she says, her disgust edged with glee.
“I…Jessica…” Angie starts to speak, then glances at me. “Jessica thought…”
There it is.
Jessica thought she could help her sister out without getting thrown under the bus for once.
Jessica thought wrong.
“I told you not to mess it up,” Mom says, not bothering to let Angie finish. She passes the Brussel sprouts with a pointed look in my direction.
“Sorry,” I say reflexively and scoop the greens and bacon bits onto my plate. There was no point in looking at Angie, at trying to understand how she’d shifted so quickly back to business as usual. I had wanted to help her because it was the right thing to do; I did that. Now, I just have to eat some turkey, drink some wine, take some pumpkin pie for the road, and then I can go. I can make it another hour. “Everything else looks amazing, though.”
“It does,” Mom says. “I don’t know how you do it all, Angie.”
“Jessie had to cook the turkey because I forgot to turn on the oven,” Angie blurts, the words tumbling over themselves as if she had to force them out of her mouth.
My head jerks up in surprise; I try to play it cool. Lopsided grin, single-shoulder shrug. “I could’ve been a better backup oven,” I say, passing her the dish. “Not used to being a broiler.”
“Just don’t burn the wedding down,” she says, “And we’ll be fine.”
Her smile is small and shy and real.
“Well,” Mom says, bringing the attention back to herself. “Let’s see what you girls have concocted.”
She cuts into the most charred piece of turkey on her plate and lifts it to her mouth. We brace ourselves for what she has to say.