Penelope’s Test

“They told her she was a superhero, and whispered that she was a villain behind her back.”

– McNelis

   I.

The Senior Class Elective was a secret thing, even at Kent’s Academy for Superheroes, where secrets were usually common knowledge, thanks to half the student body being able to read minds or turn invisible, or in my case, persuade people. It was whispered about but no one actually knew what it entailed. Seniors were sworn to an oath of secrecy before they could participate.

At first, I was excited for the elective. Electives were supposed to teach you about the world, right? Show you ways of living in this world that weren’t the standard ‘working undercover with the police force or FBI to catch the bad guys.’ This assumption was probably what did me in.

Maybe if I hadn’t been expecting anything, I wouldn’t have been disappointed. But seriously, I never would have guessed they meant this. 

A desk job. In an office. With humans.

I’d complained immediately to my roommate, Penelope, but even though I could tell she was disappointed too, she tried to tell me it was a good thing what they were doing.

“It’s to make sure we remember what it’s like to be normal,” she said.

She was sitting cross-legged on the stone wall outside of the dining hall, even though the sky was cloudy and it smelled like rain. I watched as she used her thumb and forefinger to crush rocks into dust for the janitor’s kid’s art project – she was helpful like that. “They don’t want us getting a God complex or something.”

“But we’re not normal,” I said, collecting rocks for her to pulverize – because I was helpful like that. “Besides, what are we supposed to do? Do they really expect us to make copies and get coffee all day? What if the office burns down? Or someone chokes? What if there’s a zombie apocalypse while we’re there? Are we supposed to pretend we can’t do anything?”

“A zombie apocalypse?” Penelope said, raising one delicate eyebrow at me. If I hadn’t seen her superhuman strength, I would have thought that her eyebrow raise could’ve been her superpower. It was just that good. “Seriously Isabel. It’s going to be fine. They’ve clearly been doing this every year for years. Don’t you think they know what they’re doing?”

“How do we know they’ve been doing this for years? Maybe they’re just doing it to us.” I didn’t want to say what I was really thinking, which was that maybe they were doing it because of me. Maybe there had been another elective originally, but they changed it to this. Because they didn’t want me learning special skills that I could later use against them. I pushed off the wall, accidentally scattering a pile of stones. Maybe I could talk to someone about it. “What if I…”

“Sit down, Iz. You’re not going to persuade the headmaster to change our elective.” After nearly twelve years, Penelope knew me better than anyone.

“But I could,” I said, because it was true. It wouldn’t be that hard. I could see myself doing it already, walking over to Thor Hall, knocking on the headmaster’s door, asking him in my persuading voice if it wouldn’t be better to change the elective to something more useful. Asking him to forget who I was, who my family was, so that the rest of the class didn’t have to suffer.

“Iz,” Penelope said. “Don’t be a villain.”

I froze. For most people, Don’t be a villain was just a saying. Like, Don’t be ridiculous or Don’t be so naïve. But Penelope knew me, knew who my mother was, knew what everyone always whispered about me, and so she knew that the saying meant more to me than it did to most people.

Penelope sighed through her nose. “That’s not what I meant.”

I wrapped my arms around my chest, and then unwrapped them, because I didn’t want to look smaller than I already was. “Forget it.”

And because I said it, she did.

The sky started spattering rain then. Penelope pushed off the wall to gather her pile of dust into a plastic bag. With a sigh, I bent down to retrieve the rocks I’d scattered, wishing, like I always did, that I could tell her that I was afraid.

 

 II.

I toggled my mouse to wake up my computer screen, even though I knew my inbox would be empty. It had only been four days into the internship and it was already turning out to be a disaster.

All morning, I’d been contemplating whether I should just drop out.

  • Pro: I wouldn’t have to deal with this mind-drudgery for another day.
  • Con: I wouldn’t graduate school.
  • Pro: If I got kicked out, I wouldn’t have to deal with the sideways looks from my classmates anymore, or the whispered conversations my professors had about the fate of my future, if I did get kicked out.
  • Con: What sort of future could I even have once the world knew that Isabel McNelis had been kicked out of superhero school?
  • Pro: I could work with my father to hunt down my mother. Maybe I could even finally learn who my mother is. Maybe we could have a real family.

Stop it, I told myself. I didn’t come this far or put up with my classmates’ stares and comments for the past twelve years, just to drop out a semester away from graduation.

When I’d gotten my assignment for a publishing house, I tried to hope that it wouldn’t be terrible. I loved books and reading, and being in a place where I’d be surrounded by them couldn’t be all that terrible, right? Then they told me that Penelope would be assigned to the same internship.

It wasn’t completely unheard of for multiple students to work at one internship. After all, there weren’t many businesses where the CEO was an alum of Kent’s Academy. But it was unheard of to have roommates assigned to the same internship.

Part of me wanted to think it was because internship choices were slim this year, if it was even true that they did this internship thing every year. But a larger part of me, the part that whispered villain in my dreams, knew that it was because they needed someone to watch me.

I couldn’t even blame them for it.

Ever since the project manager told me that she’d leave her wife for me, just because I’d told her I was there, in the office, to do whatever she needed, I’d been waiting for the school to pull me out of the program. Possibly they’d decide that I needed more training before being let into the world. Maybe they’d just never let me back into the real world again. Or maybe they’d just decide that I wasn’t fit for being a superhero – since it was turning out that I couldn’t be trusted around normal humans.

But how was I to know that humans weren’t as immune to my power as the school had hoped?

I’d been instructed to sit and wait, and let Penelope handle things for me, until they could figure out what to do with me, and never, under any circumstances,ask for anything. Talking was bad enough. Asking, they assumed, was the same thing as persuading. And possibly to these humans it was.

Across from me, Penelope’s desk had been empty for the last thirty minutes. She’d said she had a meeting about a project, though I couldn’t help but think the project was really me. I’d promised her that I wouldn’t do anything while she was gone, but I was bored, and I was afraid someone was going to come over and talk to me if they saw me just sitting here.

I pushed out of my chair and picked up my coffee mug.

There wasn’t anyone in the tiny kitchenette when I got there, which was a relief, but there was a cup blocking the machine, which meant that someone would be coming back for it. Crap, I thought, turning around and nearly colliding with the man who’d just come into the kitchen.

He was a tall, thin man, hair desperately pushed from one side to the other, as if he could hide his shiny scalp. There was something unkempt looking about him, almost ragged. His shirt was in bad need of ironing. I searched my memory from Monday and our orientation in the office for his name.

Calvin. He worked in IT or processing. Something that required a dark office and coffee stains. He’d only been with the company for a month.

“Uh, hi,” he said, his voice was reedy and startled. “I…Do you need…?”

Don’t ask for anything. I supposed this extended to the coffee machine too.  Instead, I just glanced at the machine and his cup, hoping he’d get the message.

“Oh!” he said, grabbing his mug so quickly that coffee sloshed over the sides. “Sorry. Here you go. Do you need cream?”

I shook my head, even though I did need cream. I just didn’t think it would be right for him to get it for me.

As I brewed my coffee, I realized that he was still standing in the kitchen, eyes on me. The look made my neck prickle. Sophomore year, we had a section on sexual predators and how to deal with them. I wondered if one day one of us would be dealing with this guy.

“Do you ever wish you could be something else?” Calvin said, suddenly, and it took me a moment to realize he was talking to me.

Before I could stop myself, I said, “What?”

His face turned eager and I inwardly cursed. Of course my response would encourage him. “Like, do you ever feel that maybe if you were different people would like you more? Like maybe you could make them want to like you?”

“I don’t…” I started, but stopped, because I didn’t know what I was saying and I didn’t want to accidentally say something wrong. 

Looking back, I probably should have just shrugged and walked away without saying anything. But instead, I swallowed, wishing his question didn’t hit home so hard, and said, “I think everyone thinks that.”

Calvin looked at me and then down at the phone in his hand. “But then, what do we do about it?”

“I don’t know,” I said, because I didn’t. “Do what you think is right, I guess.” It was a superhero saying, something that was drilled into us the moment we set foot on campus. If you didn’t know what to do, do the thing that seemed right.

“Isabel.”

I jumped, nearly spilling my coffee. Penelope was standing in the doorway of the kitchenette, looking between me and Calvin. Her open laptop was balanced on one arm, a coffee cup gripped in her other hand.

“Hi,” I said, feeling immediately guilty.

“I was looking for you. I need your eyes on a spreadsheet for that project we’re working on. I’m not interrupting, am I?”

There was no project, but the implication was clear. I shouldn’t be wandering around this office by myself, talking to susceptible humans.

“I was just getting coffee,” I said, picking up my mug. I didn’t look back at Calvin as I followed Penelope out of the room. It was only when I got back to my desk, Penelope settling in across from me, that I realized I’d never put cream in my coffee. I’d been too afraid to get it with Calvin watching me, after I told him I didn’t need it.

One day and three weeks, I thought to myself. Just get through tomorrow and the next three weeks, and you can graduate and do whatever you want. Unless, of course, the school decided to pull me out.

“Everything okay?” Penelope asked.

“Yep,” I said, knowing she’d believe me when I said it.

Still, as she turned back to her computer, content that I was controlled for the moment, I couldn’t help but think about what Calvin said. If I was different, if my power was different, would people still dance around me? If I wasn’t the daughter of a notorious villain, would people stop assuming my power was an evil one? Or, and this thought was dangerous, if I embraced my own villainous inheritance, would I be as lost as I was now?

 

III.

 Even before I got off the elevator – super late because I accidentally persuaded the barista at Starbucks to fall in love with me, and the whole world wanted videos of his spontaneous proposal – I could tell something was off. The world felt wrong in a right sort of way, like suddenly things were about to make sense.

Maybe they had decided to kick me out of the program, and were just waiting for me to show up to bring me home again. Probably my advisor had called and explained the situation to the CEO. How I couldn’t be trusted around humans – they were sorry, they didn’t realize the full extent of my power – and that it would be in everyone’s best interest if I went back to school where they could figure out what to do with me.

I was so caught up in my thoughts that, at first, I didn’t even see the cowering people or the terrified faces as I stepped out of the elevator.

“You.”

Standing in the front of the long room, on top of a desk, and wearing an expression I recognized immediately from all of the case studies we’d analyzed in school, was Calvin.

“I did what you told me to” he said, and in his voice I heard desperation, something a little deranged, like he knew what he was doing was crazy and he couldn’t stop himself. A gun shook in his hands. “I’m doing it. What you said.”

Shit, I thought. Shitshitshit. I spared half a second to glance around the room and realized that the everyone was down on their knees. Directly in front of Calvin was Penelope, looking like she was trying to shield the humans nearest her. For a single, brief moment, I wished that I could raise an eyebrow like she could, if only so I could send a semi-telepathic message of What the hell are you doing? You’re not bulletproof. But even her face was scared, rather than its usual calm determination, and when her eyes met mine, there was betrayal in them.

With a sudden, terrible realization, I understood. She wasn’t just afraid of Calvin. She was afraid of me too. Here I was, walking into the office right before the carnage happened, and I was the last person she’d seen talking to Calvin, and here he was, telling me, telling the room, that he’d decided to hold up the office because I told him to.

No, I wanted to say. This isn’t what I meant. Penelope, please, this isn’t what I meant.

It wouldn’t matter that I’d told him to do the right thing. Her face told me what she was thinking – I’d always toed the line between superhero and villain, and here I was, apparently standing on the other side of it.

There’d be no getting out of this. I’d be cast out as a villain no matter what happened now. Still, I couldn’t just sit here and let him hurt anyone. I had to do something. I had to stop this. What were the words to stop this?

“Calvin,” I said, slowly, like I’d seen in our case studies, hoping that he wouldn’t decide to use the gun on me, since I wasn’t bulletproof either.

Everyone always said that eventually I’d become a villain, that it was in my blood, that I wouldn’t be able to help myself.

But I’d never asked for this power. I’d never wanted to have a villain for a mother. At the same time, though, I’d never asked anyone to let me into the superhero club. Other people had decided that. People like Penelope and my advisor. People like my dad, who was afraid I’d wind up like this. Like my mother.

On the other side of the room, a phone went off. Calvin’s gaze swung from me, his grip tightening on the gun, and I knew he was going to shoot.

In the case studies we’d looked at in class, this was the moment when the superhero was supposed to swoop in and save the day. Look for an opening, Professor Flint always said. It might be tiny, but it will be there. Find it. Take advantage. But I wasn’t a superhero. Not really. Today proved that. No matter what, I was always going to be my mother’s daughter. The villain blood would always run stronger.

I looked to the real superhero in the room. But Penelope wasn’t moving. Why wasn’t she doing anything?

Move, I wanted to shout at her, and I could have, and she would have listened. Be a superhero! Do the right thing! 

The same thing I’d said to Calvin. The same thing that the school had said to us. The same thing Penelope always said to me. Be a superhero and do the right thing.

But what if the right thing wasn’t always clear?

Calvin’s face was scrunched and he was sweating, and I knew if he was going to act, it would be soon. I’d told him to do what was right, and this was what he chose. Not to leave this job, not to be different, but to bring a gun and hurt the people who’d hurt him. He was doing what he thought was right. You couldn’t argue with right, could you? Even when you knew it was wrong?

And suddenly I realized something. As Calvin started to pull that trigger, I understood why my mother had run, why she’d left us, why my father had let her, why he’d pushed me into a school full of people who didn’t trust me.

There were lots of ways to be right, to do right, to find rightness. And they didn’t always follow the same path, they were rarely the same thing. Rightness was a label thrown on things, just like superhero or villain.

I’d never asked to be a superhero, but I’d been called one anyway. I’d been told how to act, how to behave, how to swallow down my power, how to fight against the blood in my veins.But even though I’d done all that, at the end of the day, they’d still think I was a villain and I would let them. I’d given them that power a long time ago.

But not anymore. No. I wasn’t a villain. Maybe my power wasn’t always right, wasn’t always the definition of a superhero, but that didn’t make it automatically wrong either.

I wasn’t bulletproof. I didn’t have superhuman strength. I couldn’t fly or run faster than the speed of light. I couldn’t freeze time or shoot lasers from my eyes. I couldn’t resurrect the dead or break through any vault.

But I did have my voice. I had my ability to persuade. I could do what I thought was right with that. I could say what needed to be said.

“Calvin,” I said, and I put the full force of my power behind it. “This isn’t right. Put that gun down.”

And because I said it, he did.

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9 thoughts on “Penelope’s Test

  1. “And because I said it, she did.”

    That entire theme, throughout the story, was fantastic. And lines like that one packed such a punch, yet they were so simple. Yet so effective and so moving. Killing it as usual, Becky!

    Like

  2. Awesome story! I’ve nominated you guys – as a blog – for the Blogger Recognition Award (my post for it is here http://azpascoe.com/?p=756), but of course there’s no requirement to participate or not. Hopefully some people who read my blog will come over and check out the great work going on over here!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I like how you portrayed the moral dilemma of superheroes in this story, and kept ambiguous the fate of the narrator, like her life could go either way as a superhero or villain. It’s always the formative stage of superheros that is most interesting (one of the reasons why I loved Smallville), because that’s when they’re figuring out who they are and what light they choose to shine on others with the powers they have. Love this piece, Becky! 🙂

    Like

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