My friends raised their glasses in yet another celebratory toast, and a half-second later my raised drink joined theirs. My smile was as fake as Stacey’s hair and nails, and I worried I looked as green as I felt. No one said anything, not even Ashleigh, and I had the feeling she was watching me more closely tonight than she usually did.
I understood their wanting to celebrate, and I couldn’t let my dour mood rob them of their joy at what they’d achieved, but none of them seemed to have realised I didn’t want to be here. Even Ashleigh seemed to be thinking I should be happy it was finally over, and not sad that I’d completely failed.
I sipped at my vodka. The draft coke was flat and stale, and I wasn’t keen on the chemical taste of the ethanol, or the way it burned my throat, but the pleasant warmth as the vodka hit my chest kept me drinking. That, and the fact that I really didn’t want to be here.
Stacey was saying something, but Stacey was always saying something, and at least half the time it was just repeating things she’d already said. I gazed around the drinking establishment, only partially listening to the conversation. This venue was nothing like I’d been imagining since Stacey had suggested coming here to celebrate the end of our Test Year, and the Citizenship we’d gained. Where I’d expected sawdust on the floor, and mismatched, broken furniture, there was polished mahogany, gleaming brass, and black so shiny it was partially reflective. My imagination had peopled it with rough-hewn labourers still in their work clothes, faded tattoos of topless mermaids, and anchors on their grimy, hairy arms; and loose, immoral woman, led by Stacey, dancing on the tabletops and throwing their clothes to the crowd. Instead, the majority of the drinkers were people I knew from our Test Year, out celebrating their new Citizenship, and not being wild or debauched.
I was a little disappointed.
Only a little. I’m a self-respecting, God-fearing, moral Christian, and there was no way I’d be removing my clothes in front of anyone, and dancing on tables would just lead to falling off tables. Still, it would have been interesting to see the kind of debauchery I imagined atheists and agnostics got up to on nights out. For, uhh, science purposes.
There was another toast. I raised my glass in salute, drank some vodka, and looked at my companions. My mother would have a conniption if she ever found out I was in company like this. To my left, my best friend in the world, the first friend I’d ever had, was a lesbian with bright pink hair, ripped up clothes, and a ring in her nose. Across the table from Ashleigh and I, Stacey was the most beautiful and glamorous woman I’d ever met, and she used her looks and glamour to have an apparently unending string of random relations with men. I worried about her health and her soul. She didn’t seem to worry about anything in the world. At the outside of the table, on Stacey’s left, Zaheera was drinking a straight coke. I didn’t know Zaheera very well, we’d only met a handful of times before this, but I respected her a lot. She was always calm, always serious, and she always had a plan. Of course, my mother wouldn’t care about any of that, she’d see the light brown skin, the dark eyes, the hijab, and she’d hate what Zaheera was without ever bothering to find out who Zaheera is. On the other side of Stacey, MaryJoy was the one I knew the least. She was actually Zaheera’s friend, and from what I’d heard, Zaheera had practically dragged her here in a last ditch attempt to make her socialize before we all said goodbye, and spread out across the country, going home. She was small, and Asian, and I knew very little else about her. She’d barely said a word tonight.
Thankfully, Stacey talked enough that there was hardly ever any awkward silences. Zaheera answered her frequently, but my side of the table was noticeably mute. Ashleigh would only really talk to me, and I’d been quietly depressed since we got here.
“How are you?” I asked, using one of the rote conversation starters I’d memorised, and turning to grin at her. She was squatting with her chin resting on her bare knees, the rips in her jeans stretched into huge, frayed holes, shoes off and odd socks resting on the padded bench beneath her. Her leather jacket made a cushion for her butt. She met my gaze over the top of her bottle of cheap, foreign beer, and didn’t move.
I froze in horror. How was I supposed to respond to that? Ashleigh had just ended my attempt at a conversation with a single word. Was she not interested in talking? No, because she was maintaining eye contact, and after sharing a room with Ashleigh for a year, I knew her body language well enough to know that eye contact wasn’t something she did lightly. If she didn’t want to talk to someone, she didn’t look at them, and if they thought she was rude, well, she was.
Ashleigh was fine. No, she said she was fine. Would she say if she wasn’t? Probably not. She didn’t admit to ever having emotions, which Stacey insisted made her an honorary man, a comment that was usually followed by Ashleigh saying Stacey was a, well, the s-word, and that she could f-word off.
I only have two friends. It would be amazing if they got on with each other, too, but Ashleigh was the orange juice to Stacey’s toothpaste. I guess they only saw bad things in each other, and not the good things in them that I saw. Ashleigh’s had my back all year, and she cares about me, but I know she can be abrupt with others. Stacey looks and seems so superficial, but when it comes to friendships, she likes who she likes and she doesn’t care about anyone’s opinion.
“You’re not,” Ashleigh said.
“What?” I asked. Seven words into the conversation, and I already didn’t know what we were talking about.
“Fine,” Ashleigh said. I must have looked lost, because she clarified. “You’re not fine.”
I glanced down at my hands. Stacey had painted my nails yesterday, but the light blue nail polish had already flaked off in several places. “I didn’t think you’d noticed.”
“Because you’re going home?”
“No. I just don’t see the point in celebrating Citizenship. None of us got what we wanted. Everyone should be down.”
Ashleigh shrugged. “You’ve got reasons to be down. The others?” Her eyes flicked over to them, then back to me. “They don’t get to be superheroes, it’s not like the reasoning isn’t sound. The only one who would be any use in a fight is a pacifist who wouldn’t go into combat if the world depended on it. They expected this outcome, Bee, that’s why they’re not all mopey, like you. Now Zaheera and MJ go home to loving, supportive families, Stacey goes home to a rich playboy dad who’d do anything for his darling princess, and you end up back in wacko central without even…” her voice trailed away, and for once she actually looked abashed.
I ignored the last comment, not wanting to cause Ashleigh any more embarrassment. “Not being Sanctioned is still bound to sting a bit. Doesn’t it sting you?”
Ashleigh watched me with her solemn eyes. There’s always so much sadness in them, like she’s personally witnessed every bad thing that’s ever happened in the world, more sadness than any one person should ever bear. “I wasn’t rejected,” she said, finally. “I never wanted to be Sanctioned in the first place.”
Hearing those words, I realised they made perfect sense. Ashleigh had issues, with authority, with boundaries, with rules; she’d been pushing against the SNDA staff that oversaw the Test Year since the very first day. Being a superhero would be a struggle against her own nature.
I turned back to the table to get my vodka just as Stacey leaned across towards us. “You two got any plans?” she asked.
“For?” I replied.
“Life. The future. What are you going to do now that you are Citizens in the greatest country in the world, eligible to vote, marry, have kids, drink, work, or whatever you want?”
Ashleigh shifted in her seat. “Something will come up,” she said, so defensively that I had to stop myself from turning and staring. Defensive was not a word that could often be applied to Ashleigh.
“To something,” Stacey said, lifting her drink in what was probably the twentieth toast of the evening. Zaheera clinked her Coke against it, and a moment later MaryJoy had joined in.
I knocked my vodka against Ashleigh’s beer bottle. “To something,” I echoed. “Do any of you know what your somethings are?”
“Marriage,” MaryJoy said immediately. “I’m going to find a nice, stable guy, and settle down.”
Stacey rolled her eyes. “Your plan for the rest of your life is to find a nice guy and marry him? Let’s say that takes five years, what’s your plan for everything after you turn twenty-four?”
MaryJoy blushed. “I said marriage, not a wedding. A marriage lasts a lifetime. And we’d have kids, we’d raise them, we’d have grandkids, we’d grow old together.”
“That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard,” Stacey said.
“Naw, it’s lovely and romantic and monogamous,” Ashleigh replied. “Wait, I just realised why Stacey doesn’t like it.”
Stacey scowled at her.
“I hope you find someone perfect for you,” Zaheera said, just as Stacey was about to start ranting at Ashleigh. Stacey blinked, but didn’t say anything.
“Thanks,” MaryJoy replied. “So do I. I’d be a great wife and, honestly, I think I’d suck at anything else.”
“A great wife sucks, too,” Stacey said, and I felt my cheeks heat up as I realised what she was implying. I took a quick drink, hoping to hide the colour of my face. “Wait,” Stacey said, turning to Zaheera. “Did you just use your power on me?”
Zaheera smiled sweetly. “My plan is to get married, too,” she said, ignoring Stacey. “Although I do have a slight advantage in that I don’t have to find a man.”
Stacey didn’t take being ignored lightly. With a mischievous grin towards me, she addressed Zaheera. “Oh, you sly little mongrel, you have a boyfriend?” she asked. “You kept that quiet. All year.”
Zaheera’s smile widened. “No, I mean my parents will find a man who is suitable for me.”
“Okay,” Stacey said, returning her attention to her drink, “now that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“It’s barbaric,” Ashleigh said, for the first time seeming to agree with Stacey. Stacey met Ashleigh’s eyes over the table, and raised her eyebrow at the comment.
I had to step in and do something before they panicked and started insulting each other by reflex. “Actually, my parents will probably decide who I marry, too,” I told them.
“Yes, but your parents are wacky religious nutjobs, and you should have been fostered for your mental well-being,” Ashleigh said. I gave her a tired smile. She makes a comment about how psychotic my parents are at least once a week, and I know she does it because she cares and worries about me, but she’ll never understand. Sure, they might be – okay, are – ‘wacky, religious nutjobs,’ as Ashleigh terms it, but they’re also my parents. I can never get mad at Ashleigh about her comments, though; it’s not only that she cares and worries, I think she’s been an orphan so long she’s forgotten how important parents are, or that you love them even if they are weird, because they’re your parents.
“Rebecca,” Zaheera reached across the table to touch my hand. “I don’t mean to sound judgemental, but that doesn’t sound like a safe home environment. Your parents shouldn’t decide who you marry.”
“But yours should?” Ashleigh asked.
Zaheera pulled her hand back from mine, waving it dismissively at Ashleigh’s words. “Not at all. My parents will find a nice man, from a good family, with his citizenship, a good career, probably a little older than I am, and strong in his faith, and they will introduce us. I won’t actually marry him unless I want to. And how else should I go about it? In here,” she waved her hand to indicate the bar, “where I have no idea who I’m talking to, but it’s a good bet they’re not Muslim? Online, where I’m likely to be catfished? Even the men who say all the right things are likely only trying to talk me into bed,” that comment caused me to blush again, I felt my cheeks heating up and ducked my head so my hair fell in the way, obscuring my face. “My parents will do the ground work in finding a nice Muslim man who is looking for a wife.”
“I thought Muslims got forced to marry their cousins,” I said, ignoring my blush because I had to know if that was true.
Zaheera nodded. “It happens. Not as often as you might think, but bad news travels faster and has more entertainment value on the zines, and xenophobic news is loved online. Even the TV news concentrates on wars, supervillains, and England. Under Islamic law, forced marriages are illegal, but a very small percentage of marriages are forced, and those are the ones the media reports. There’s no story in a happy marriage, no entertainment value from two people who respect and trust and love one another. Besides, my parents love me, why would they force me to marry someone I didn’t want to? Why would they not want me to be happy?”
I was nodding at Zaheera’s words, almost involuntarily. “I… that makes sense, but…”
Zaheera smiled. “But still, all you’ve heard is negativity, rumours, and outright lies, and you’ve heard so many it’s hard now for you to identify the truth. It’s understandable, Rebecca. Even your concern is admirable, you clearly care, because you are such a nice person.”
I stared open-mouthed at Zaheera, dumb-founded. Even though the other woman was making out that I was a naïve fool, she was doing so in a way that made her seem so understanding and compassionate. Ugh. Zaheera was so lovely it was sickening, like too much cake. “You’re a nice person, too,” I said. I just wished Zaheera wasn’t always so nice, then it would be easier to actually like her.
“Enough,” Stacey said. “No one is getting married tonight, and one more compliment is going to make me throw up. Let’s not be maudlin, we’re going out in style. Oh, we should all get matching tattoos.”
“No,” Zaheera said immediately.
“I’m not sure my parents would approve,” MaryJoy hedged.
Ashleigh watched Stacey speculatively. “I’m in if Bee is in.”
“How about it, then, Bex?” Stacey asked me. “The three of us?”
I shook my head. “No, definitely not. The last tattoo I got hurt for days.”
The other four women stared at me in varying degrees of shock. “You have a tattoo?” Ashleigh finally broke the silence.
“Ah, yes. A crucifix, and a Latin phrase. My mother made me get it when I was ten, to help prevent the demons from possessing me.”
“Demons aren’t real,” Stacey said by rote. It’s not the first time she’s mentioned that to me. In fact, it’s probably at least double figures by now.
“Can I please punch that wacky bitch?”
I laughed. “You are not allowed to punch my mother, Ashleigh.”
“Because she is my mother.”
Stacey let out a heavy sigh. “She’s a fruit loop, is what she is. Right, it’s time for drinks. Whose round is it? Nevermind, I’ll get them.” She stood up, squeezed past Zaheera, and froze at the edge of the table. A hush descended over the entire crowd.
“Holy shit,” Stacey muttered, and it broke the spell of silence. Everywhere I looked, I could see people nudging each other and pointing at something. Whatever it was that had everyone’s attention, Stacey blocked my view of it.
“What is it?” I asked, straining to see past Stacey. Stacey stepped to the side.
Everyone was staring at a large flat screen TV mounted behind the bar. The barman, a grizzled, unshaven, older man in a rumpled Hawaiian shirt, stood beside it, the remote in his hand pointing at the television, his attention completely on the screen. A devastated looking newsreader stared out at us, his words too quiet to be heard. A text bar across the bottom of the screen read: Breaking News: Glorious Killed. In the middle of the screen, the volume bar moved slowly upwards.
“…it seems Glorious cornered her nemesis, the alleged English spy known as Dr Death, at an unused warehouse in the city’s Old Dock area. In the ensuing battle, both Glorious and Dr Death lost their lives. As Glorious was previously believed to be completely invulnerable, the news of her death is as unexpected as it is upsetting. Police scientists revealed to us that Dr Death created a machine calibrated to Glorious, to remove her powers. There is no danger from that machine to anyone else, whether they are mundane or powered. Tune in for the full story at ten. In other news, the People’s Republic of China and the USSR have again issued warnings to the Fractured States of America, stating that any nuclear strikes even within the North American continent will be met with overwhelming force. President Putin has issued a statement that if America cannot rectify it’s problems, Russia is more than prepared to send in troops to help. For the full story on these latest international developments, and the death of our greatest hero, tune in for our news at ten.”
The barman turned the TV off, and we all watched in stunned silence as he poured a whiskey, then downed it, and poured another. This was the closest drinking establishment to the SNDA HQ, I realised. He’d probably met Glorious hundreds of times, coming in for a drink after a particularly hard day. Most days were hard on superheroes.
Suddenly everyone in the pub was talking at once. Zaheera slid along to make space, and Stacey slumped down onto the seat beside her, then ran a finger through a pool of beer on the table, dragging liquid out to form random patterns.
“It has been a decade since an active hero was killed, has it not?” I asked. “Since Splendour?”
“Splendour didn’t die,” MaryJoy said quietly. “He was injured so badly he had to retire. Prestige died four years ago.”
“Oh, yes. I forgot about him.”
“Yeah,” MaryJoy agreed. “Everyone does. He wasn’t a Sanctioned superhero for long, just three months.”
“Glorious was the reason I wanted to be Sanctioned,” Zaheera said. “My family would have been furious. I knew that. This one time I would have defied them anyway.”
Stacey huffed out a small sigh, shook her head.
“I had everything,” Zaheera continued. “The wallpaper, the bedding, the comics. I covered my school jotters with her. She was… she was what a hero should be.”
“Perfect,” I said.
“Glorious,” Zaheera replied.
“Well, someone fucking touched her,” Stacey said. She looked around the table at us, the edges of her eyes glistening. I had never seen Stacey cry before, had never seen her upset, not once during the Testing. She looked frayed.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
“I knew her.” Silence was the only response, and after a moment Stacey amended her words. “I met her.” The strain was clear in her voice. The music was still off, but there was a babble of chatter around us. Despite that, I could hear how close she was to breaking.
“We all met her,” Ashleigh pointed out, more than a little nastily. I moved my hand to lightly touch Ashleigh’s arm. Her skin was cool. I left my fingers there a moment, relishing the contact, feeling like Ashleigh’s presence was somehow calming my turbulent emotions.
Stacey stared at Ashleigh, long and hard, then her gaze softened as she turned back to me. “Before, I mean. I knew her before. It was a long time ago, and I don’t like to talk about it, okay? But she saved me,” she dropped her eyes, turned her head away and muttered something under her breath. I thought it sounded like “always.”
Glorious had always saved her?
How many times had Glorious saved her?
What evil had her father been doing that made Stacey require saving numerous times?
Why had she never mentioned it before?
Stacey surged to her feet. “I’m out of here.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To find someone to fight or fuck, and I really don’t care which.” She moved off into the crowd.
“She was an idiot,” Ashleigh said.
“Stacey?” I asked. “We all process grief in different ways.”
“Not Stacey, although she is an idiot, too. I was talking about Glorious.”
“Glorious was a hero,” Zaheera said.
“And look what it got her,” Ashleigh replied. “Killed being a damn hero.”
“No,” MaryJoy said. “She wasn’t…” her voice was quiet, but we focused intently on her words. “She wasn’t killed being a hero.”
“What do you mean?” Zaheera asked.
“The news presenter was lying when he said that. Almost the whole thing was a lie. Well, not the bits about Russia and China, but almost everything he said about Glorious was a lie. I can see when people lie, it’s a part of my power. It doesn’t tell me what the truth is, but I can always tell if the truth is being hidden.”
I stared into her eyes, the question burning inside me. “Glorious is alive?”
This chapter was extensively edited on 06/09/2016 (September), and replaced. The previous version was first published online at Legion of Nothing and you can presumably still read it there, if you want.
I considered a few different openings before settling on this one. I feel it gives the right amount of time towards establishing them as characters, before introducing what will be one of the main narrative plots: Glorious’ murder. It’s my first time attempting to write a Muslim character, and I worry that I’m handling her badly. If any of my readers are Muslim, please don’t hesitate to contact me or leave a comment with your opinion of Zaheera. I do realise Muslims don’t socialise in pubs fairly often, but I felt that in the circumstances – they are all expecting to move away from each other in the next few days; she doesn’t know how long it will be until she sees them again; after the events of the past year, some of them are very close. I think Zaheera would be willing to bend the rules enough to say bye to her friends, but she does stick to coke the whole night. There is a difference between bending rules and breaking them, after all. I hope you’ve enjoyed the first instalment. Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts, even if it’s been a while since this page was uploaded. Thank you for reading.