Cast of Wonders 466: Badass Neon Sparkle Powers
Badass Neon Sparkle Powers
by Cara DiGirolamo
There’s a fine line between getting shit done and eating it. I’d crossed that line.
I’d spotted Mr. Khaki Shorts, Mr. Popped Collar, and Little Miss Ugg Boots weaving and laughing on their way out of the Blue Moon. It looked like nothing really, undergrads joking around, but the body language felt a little off. When Khaki Shorts pressed Ugg Boots into the brick of the darkened shoe store, and she cried out, I figured I’d say hi.
I never planned my heroing gig. I didn’t roam around in a mask and spandex or anything. But I work closing at a pizzeria in the heart of Collegetown, and walking to the bus stop at three, four am, you see things.
All heroing is, is just not walking by.
I never expect things to turn violent, but I guess I’m a bit glad when they do? If they didn’t, then I’d just be that crazy lady who sticks her nose into other people’s business. When Khaki Shorts tells me to fuck off and takes a swing at me, suddenly I’m not overreacting. I’m right where I need to be. And that buzz fills me up: adrenaline, or crazy, or whatever it is.
I used to think it was my powers. That’s how they felt, buzzing through my veins, fizzing out of my palms in a neon green and magenta burst of pop-rock energy, dealing damage that I–tiny Michaela, with my tiny fists–-could not.
Only, it clearly isn’t them. Because although I had that same feeling this time–fizzy, wild, excited–when I put up my hand to zap Khaki Shorts, nothing happened.
I stood there like an amateur crossing guard, groping around inside myself for the power I’d been living with for nearly a year.
It was gone.
The shock kept me standing there long enough for Popped Collar to grab my outstretched arm and wrench it out of its socket.
Right. Superpowers, out of order.
Serious pain, coming right up.
Khaki Shorts grabbed me by the throat. Popped Collar snagged my wrist and jerked enthusiastically, yanking my shoulder even further out of joint.
Ugg Boots scrunched the hem of her skirt between her hands, shifting from side to side like she had to pee. “Jamie?” she said, “Jamie, please stop it. Let’s go?”
Khaki Shorts’s breath stunk of Cheetos. I almost wished he was smothering me, just so I didn’t have to smell him. Tomorrow, I’d have ugly neck bruises that would look like I’d gotten hot and heavy with a vacuum cleaner.
The grip on my throat tightened. I wasn’t going to win this one.
Still, even if my fuchsia and lime superpowers of nut-crunching were gone I wasn’t going to roll over and play dead.
I had one shot. It was going to hurt. I dropped back, grateful for the numbness in my shoulder that came from too much pain, and twisted towards Popped Collar, bringing up my knee. Khaki Shorts went into ‘protect the jewels’ mode. I kicked out. He screamed and grabbed his leg.
“J!” Popped Collar exclaimed and shoved me into the wall. I slapped into it, face first, arms out, embracing its cold and hard solidity like a lover back from the war.
“I think she got my ACL!”
“Shit, man! You were supposed to be resting that!”
That sounded bad. That sounded like promises of vengeance bad. I propelled myself along the wall as quickly as I could and squeezed in behind the dumpsters. I wasn’t coming out of this smelling like roses; adding the stench of rotting pizza and stale beer couldn’t hurt.
“Where’d she go!” yelped Popped Collar. “Where’d she go? I’m gonna kill her!”
I ducked out of the other side of the dumpsters, my vision starting to sway in time with the synth waves of a New Age soundscape, then ran like a half-mauled gazelle through the tangle of off-campus housing, stopping only to puke on a frat-house lawn already decoratively strewn with Solo cups.
I made it to the bus stop and collapsed on the bench inside the shelter to catch my breath.
My powers were gone. Alex was going to give me hell. All of that sucked, but I couldn’t give it a lot of thought right then.
There was too much passing out to do.
So, I make bad choices.
I always have. But the truth is, I don’t regret them. “You’ve gotta make some bad decisions,” I’ve told Sprout more than once. “Otherwise you never get to have real ‘life experiences'”–the juicy ones, like public embarrassment, or no-anesthetic stitches, or discovering you really can survive for three weeks on beans and one mysterious can of lychee fruit. (I don’t remember buying lychee fruit, but that can of fruit kept me from getting scurvy, so I’m grateful to whatever being put it in my cupboard. I’m pretty sure it was fairies. I mean, after waking up with sparkly neon handblast superpowers, fairies are a totally reasonable explanation for things.)
Sprout was the result of a bad choice. Sprout’s dad was one of my worst choices. How I ended things with Sprout’s dad wasn’t a golden moment of clear-headed decision making either.
The powers, though. Those were great.
“Oh my god, Mic. Oh my god.”
I blinked blearily up at Alex’s face. Not dead, that was good, shoulder still fucked, not so good. Alex had found me, not ideal, but better than if I’d woken up alone.
Alex pushed her cropped hair out of her eyes and grimaced in a way that suggested she was in as much pain as I was. As this was patently not true, I scowled back.
“I told you–-”
“Oh please, no I-told-you-so’s.” I groaned as I struggled to sit up on the bench without jarring my shoulder. “Pop this shit back in, okay?”
Alex knew I could handle it. She was an ER nurse, and she’d scraped my sorry ass off the floor enough times back when Sprout’s dad was still the one putting me down there. She sighed, but took hold of my arm and after a moment of screaming pain where I happily failed to bite my tongue off, things were better. Not, like, better better: just better in the way that simple pain is better than the horrifying feeling that part of your body is not attached in the normal way.
“What happened?” Alex asked while prodding my injured and swollen shoulder for breaks or nerve damage with an enthusiasm clearly borne of schadenfreude.
“Dunno, no sparkle fuchsia powers tonight. Maybe I used them up.”
Alex sat back on her heels. I couldn’t make out much of the expression on her face, but I could guess it. “Mic,” she said, her hand closing on mine, as if holding on now could keep me from having cashed it in before. “If you think your powers are gone–”
Alex’s arm wrapped tightly around my waist and I leaned on her, breathing in her scent.
“If your powers are gone, you can’t do this anymore, right? You need to remember how to keep your head down. Stay out of trouble.”
My stomach twisted at the thought. “Maybe,” I said, leaning more heavily on Alex as my whole body leveled up in hurting. “But when have I ever stayed out of trouble?”
Sprout picked up that it was a gentle morning for mommy as fast as expected for such a bright kid, and settled on the floor with her markers close enough to the couch that I could reach out from my cocoon of blankets and tousle her hair.
Alex brought me ibuprofen and milk and left for her shift but not without a ‘we’re talking about this later’ look. I restrained myself from making a face in return and burrowed further under the blanket.
Truth was, Alex was right. If the powers were gone–really, permanently gone–I had no business getting involved in stopping the petty crime and casual assault on the streets of this garbage city.
But if I couldn’t help–
Sprout turned and gave me a wide smile, holding up a piece of paper covered in scribbles, letters spelling out MOM along the top, so smart, so much smarter than I ever was, even growing up in the back room of someone else’s apartment with a single mom who worked for less than minimum wage.
–if I had to turn and walk away from the bad stuff, who would I be anymore?
I spotted the guy the moment I stepped onto the platform. Solitary woman on a train platform at night, the first thing you do is check your surroundings. The second is to move into the most well-lit position, near, if possible, to other lonely ladies or mixed groups. The guy, bundled in a beat-up duffle coat with a fur lined hood, was walking up to each person on the train platform, and holding out a manila folder stuffed with computer paper. Selling something, maybe. Asking for money.
“Hey, ma’am. Would you mind looking at my pictures?”
I looked up at him, considering his face: a short flaring black goatee melting into his smooth dark skin; a concerned expression; moderately clean fingernails.
“I’m an artist,” he continued.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted the manila folder opened. Who knew what horrors lay within? But what did politeness cost me? “What sort of art?” I asked. Perhaps a few months ago I wouldn’t have asked, I would have ducked my head, avoided eye-contact, gone, ‘oh no, I’m not interested.’ But if I’d learned anything by having the cockiness that came with the ability to throw guys twice my weight into walls it was that charming and clean-cut did not mean trustworthy, and that awkward and a bit dirty didn’t mean trouble.
“I do abstract art, on the computer. I’m selling the prints for two dollars each.”
He opened the folder.
The pictures were all computer printouts of messy splotches and patterns that looked like they’d been made in Microsoft Paint. At least it wasn’t porn.
I paged through a couple, trying to think of something to say that wouldn’t make me sound like a sucker if the guy was just messing with people, trying to sell trash as art, but also wouldn’t make me sound like an asshole if he was serious, and really hoped someone would like them and buy them.
“I’m really more into realist art,” I said.
“Oh, like people and things?” he asked, sounding earnest, like next time he’d definitely give that a try. I did not live in hope.
I was about to give the folder back to him and wish him luck with a sympathetic smile when one of the pages caught my eye. It was another mess, no defined shapes or sense of presence, but the colors . . . The page was mostly magenta, crackling with odd lines of lime green and tiny white starbursts.
It looked like my powers.
“You like that one?”
“I . . .” I didn’t like it. It was still as ugly as hell. But I felt, in a weird superstitious way, that I needed it.
At that point, I’d only had my badass sparkle powers for maybe two months, but I already felt the difference. I could stand on my own feet. I’d relearned how to breathe.
“Yeah,” I said. “Two dollars?” I didn’t have two dollars. I gave him a five, and then took another print out–black and white, mostly not hideous–when he only had a dollar in change.
“Thanks,” he said, gaze intense.
“Thank you.” I glanced back down at the magenta print-out. “Good luck with the art.”
“He’s here again,” Tana muttered to me when I came up to the pass to grab the order for table three. I spotted the blazer-wearing asshole sauntering in the door. The manager had said he’d do something about him, but he hadn’t.
He sat down at an empty table in Tana’s section. All my tables were full.
I sighed. “I’ll take him.”
“No, Mic. You’ve got enough to do.”
“You just keep an eye on my six-top for a bit, okay?”
I strode over. Tana had shown me some of the notes this guy left on the bill, and he was a real creep. He was sitting idle, playing with the rubber band that held the box of sugar packets together.
“Hey, what can I get you?”
He looked up, his sleazy charming smile suddenly melting off as he saw it was me. “I want to sit in Tana’s section.”
“Sorry, she’s full up,” I lied. “Wanna order?”
“I’ll move to the bar, then.”
He stood. I stepped to the side to block his path. “I’m asking you not to,” I said. “You can stay here, and I can bring you a drink, or you can leave.”
The muscles in his face went tense. He was a good foot taller than me, but I stepped toward him, lifting my chin and meeting his gaze.
His lips drew back from his teeth. “You’re a little bitch, aren’t you?”
“Now I’m just asking you to leave.”
He huffed out a laugh and brought up his hand, which had the rubber band stretched between his thumb and forefinger. I didn’t realize it was there until it snapped into my face, zinging off my cheek.
I flinched back. Something both hot and cold boiled up in me. “Okay, man. You’re out of here.” I grabbed him by the arm and started him toward the door.
“Mic! Need a hand?” Joey, one of the big bar-backs had finally taken an interest. His looming form hurried Rubber-Band’s feet.
“This guy doesn’t get served here again. Ever,” I said.
We were out the door on the narrow street. I gave Rubber-Band one last shove and let him go. “Don’t come back,” I told him.
He scowled at me, brushing off his jacket where I’d grabbed him. “You tell Tana I’ll be looking for her.”
My hands balled into fists, and I leaned forward. “If I hear anything about you doing that, I will come down so hard on your ass that you’ll be picking shrapnel from your colon. Got it?”
He spat at me, and left.
It took me another run-off-my-feet hour before I realized that I should have been scared. That would have been the normal reaction, the right reaction.
I had to sink onto a bar stool to breathe when it hit me. Maybe I could have taken him, if I was lucky. Just because he had a foot and nearly a hundred pounds on me didn’t mean I couldn’t find his weak spots. But say he had a friend, say anything.
When Tana’s shift ended, I took my break.
“You want me to walk you to the bus?”
“No, I’m fine.” Tana waved her hand. “It’s no big deal. He’s just a big talker.”
“I’ll walk you to the bus.”
The relief on her face made me sick. I could feel the singing in my veins that said, hey, I’m ready to go. But when I tried to get a touch of power out of my hand, hidden under my jacket sleeve, nothing happened. The powers were still gone, just like they’d been for nearly a month now. But it was a numbers game. He wouldn’t walk up when there was a witness.
He didn’t. Tana got on the bus and waved goodbye, and I went back to finish my shift. I kept an eye out, but saw no sign of the creeper.
Alex was passed out on the couch when I stepped into the apartment, Sprout sprawled over her knees. I tiptoed, trying not to wake them as I took off my shoes, set down my keys, and hung my jacket on the hook by the door. When I turned around again, Alex was blinking sleepily at me.
“What are you two doing out here?” I whispered.
“Sprout wanted to wait up, say good night.” Alex’s mouth lazily stretched out into a smile. “She’s as stubborn as you already. Wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
My little girl looked like she belonged in Alex’s arms. I’d always been told to be grateful to my parents, because parents gave you everything. But Alex was the one who gave Sprout the good part of everything. I barely made rent most weeks. I hadn’t been able to get us away from her dad.
Alex had done that. When I’d been crying on the phone, telling her not to come, she’d ignored me, distracted him by sending a pizza delivery to the front door, then showed up to bundle us out the back. She’d put up with me until I stopped saying it was my fault, until I stopped begging her to let me go back so I wouldn’t have to wait for him to come find me and hurt me for leaving.
I touched the place on my cheek where the rubber band had left a sting.
“Hey,” Alex murmured, extracting herself from under Sprout. “I can’t babysit like usual on Friday. Can you ask your mom?”
“Sure,” I said. “Got a hot date?”
Alex’s slight turn of the head and hunch of the shoulders told me that I had, in my stupid joke, hit the nail on the head. My throat closed up.
“Wait, what?” I asked, my voice going all funny and high pitched. “You actually have a date?”
“Shh!” Alex hissed at me. “And yes. Why is that so surprising?”
“You haven’t had a date since college!” Since I dropped out of college to get married, really.
Alex glared at me. “Maybe I was too busy dealing with all of your shit to worry about my own. Now that you’re not a vigilante anymore, my schedule has really opened up.”
I just stared at her, ashamed of the hollow feeling her words had left in my chest. “Okay,” I said. “You’ve got a date. Nice guy?”
Alex’s frame relaxed. “Maybe a little too nice,” she said.
“Sounds like a good place to start.”
Back when I still had my powers, I’d told Alex that whoever she got with had better like kids, because she was going to take Sprout when I bit it. Alex had punched me for saying that. She didn’t like me talking about dying. But back then, whatever I did, I didn’t really believe I could die.
I’d had powers. I could back up my wild show of bravado. I walked straight ahead, and people got out of my way. I’d been fearless.
Not being scared felt like being able to breathe after drowning. If I had to go back to being careful, watching my ass every minute– I could already feel the pressure on my chest, a broad hand pressed tight over my mouth and nose.
Living scared might just kill me.
Friday night I didn’t walk Tana to the bus stop. I was taking the trash out when I heard it.
“No, nonono, no . . .” all breathless and pleading down the alley.
I booked it down there, looking, looking, until I saw Rubber-Band Guy, pressed up against Tana in a door-well.
“Do you think you’re that cute? You’re not. You’re not hot enough to say no to me.”
Her breath hitched, the gasp before a sob.
“Get the fuck off of her!”
He didn’t even seem to hear me. His hand was doing something down low. I didn’t want to know what.
I don’t remember the fight. I don’t remember the concussion. But there was definitely a concussion. That’s why I don’t remember coming up with my genius plan to stagger the three blocks to where Alex was having her date, bleeding profusely from a head wound.
Having the walking wounded lurch into the restaurant where you’re having a nice dinner, causing your date to boot his salad and getting you banned from the restaurant permanently, well, I can get why Alex was pissed. I’m glad the memories are mostly muddy.
The memories of the morning after are pretty sharp though.
“You lost your powers. You’re going to lose me. You’re going to lose your life if you don’t give it up! Give it up, Michaela! The world doesn’t need you!”
I waited, pressing an icepack to my cheek, as guilt smeared across her lips and into the lines by her eyes, as vivid as the blood that had poured from my nose. Her lips parted, but she didn’t speak. She didn’t take it back.
“You didn’t see her face.”
“Mic–” Her voice cracked. “I’m sorry.”
I walked away and shut the door behind me.
It had been two months since I held out my hand and a bang burst splat of energy slammed out of it.
Rummaging in the closet, I found the terrible abstract print I’d bought from the guy on the train station platform. I hung it on the fridge.
Alex sighed into her tea. “Sprout’s drawings are better than that.”
I nodded. “I like it though. It’s a reminder.”
“Of the joys of going off at night to beat on fratboys and drug dealers, or fratboy drug dealers?”
I looked at the picture for a long time.
I felt Alex watching me. I knew what she was scared of. I was scared too. I was terrified of all the things I could not control, of those moments, balanced like a coin on its edge, which could turn a normal encounter into a fight, a fight into a loss, a loss into a funeral.
Alex was an ER nurse. She’d seen the worst of it.
Alex saved people every day.
I looked at her. I didn’t say anything.
She sighed and stood, walking around behind me to wrap her arms around my shoulders and squeeze. She pressed a kiss to the top of my head.
“Be safe, Michaela. I need you.”
I was minding my own business when I heard it: the thuds of something solid hitting flesh, the reedy hiss of air being forcibly expelled from someone’s lungs, grunts of hate-filled invective.
I shut my eyes and clenched my teeth, then carefully set down my bag of groceries and slipped on the brass knuckles I kept in my pocket.
I had nothing but my own strength, strength I had worked for, cultivated as best I could. I didn’t know if it would be enough.
Even if it wasn’t enough to win, it was enough to fight. I was going to fight.
It was probably a bad decision.
No regrets, though.
About the Author
Cara Masten DiGirolamo
Cara Masten DiGirolamo is a recovering Linguistics PhD student, a fictional language consultant, and a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Her fiction can be found in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fantasy Magazine, Cast of Wonders, Daily Science Fiction, NewMyths.com, and is forthcoming at Deadlands. Read more at caradigirolamo.com.
About the Narrator
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.