This was the second time I had levitated while dozing off at work.
I would have had better control if it weren’t for the fact that I had pulled yet another all-nighter alone. But as my boss Leonora liked to say, “Time stops for no archaeologist-to-be.” She also liked to think she was funny.
There were plenty of career options out there, and definitely more tolerable working hours. But Leonora gave me a roof over my head and asked no questions as long as I worked hard. So what was a few late nights in exchange for that?
Problem was, if I didn’t get enough sleep, my powers were soon going to start acting up again. And I would be right back where I started, a dirt-broke Classics graduate taking to busking on the streets after getting fired from my last job for “indecent behaviour” and from the Superhero Association for misconduct. Even Leonora wouldn’t be able to cover my ass, if she had any intention to.
I plunked back into my seat as discreetly as I could without alerting Kass, my desk-mate. He had his gaze glued to his computer screen, but I knew he noticed more than he let on. Last week, he had caught me muttering, “Song dynasty, my ass. Just another cheap knockoff from Maghabar,” as I scrutinised a chipped ceramic pot. (People were always digging up random junk, hoping it’s worth a solid pop. But they hadn’t seen the kind of things emperors and generous leaders bestowed the Superhero Association.)
“Mega-what?” he had said.
“Nothing, Kass. Get back to your work.”
“Never heard of that name. Is it from another of your travels? It seems like you’ve been to places no modern man or woman can ever go.”
I had to kiss him to shut him up. I’m not proud of it, using my powers for something like this (it was, after all, one of the reasons why the Association kicked me out), but at least it got him to stop prying. He was silent in the days that followed, but all week this week he had been eyeing me like a hawk, as though I might suddenly give up that sliver of memory I had stolen from him. Maybe he was just waiting to catch me if I slipped up again, although he couldn’t possibly know what I was.
And there was no way in hell I was going to let history repeat itself. It was bad enough that my ex broke up with me because I accidentally flooded his apartment after watching The Fault in Our Stars and he found out my secret identity. My expulsion from the Superheroes Association was one more slap to the face, even though I managed to do sufficient damage control and erase my ex’s memories of me entirely.
Callum said I was far better off on my own, anyway. “You’re not suited for this clan,” he told me. “We need our heroes to stay in line, to do what superheroes are supposed to do. We don’t tolerate wild horses.”
So you really can’t blame me for giving him the finger and promptly walking away.
I was fine, better than fine – I would show them that I didn’t need to belong to some stupid association run by crusty old men who set archaic rules to be happy or successful. I could fit into human society just fine. Even if I was currently relying on the vending machine and shower room in the office for necessities so that I could pay off my student loans as soon as possible. (What good were superpowers if they couldn’t even keep you alive?)
When eight o’clock came and Kass was still sitting before me, I tried to still my tapping fingers. “Aren’t you going off?”
“In a bit,” he murmured, his attention fixed on his computer screen.
By nine o’clock, we were the only ones left in the office. With him still here, I couldn’t raid the vending machine or take a shower before the security guard made his usual rounds.
“Does the lion woman know you’re working chronic overtime?” Kass said, doggedly remaining in his seat.
Leonora was the one who offered me the sofa-bed in her office and stocked the pantry with cup noodles and biscuits just so I could help undo the mess the last person did made with filing. It was more than what the Association gave me, even though Callum liked to call us all a family.
“If you’d just let me help you with those files, you’d be able to go home,” Kass said, though he had to suspect I didn’t actually have one.
“I don’t want to bother you with my work –”
“No bother at all.”
“Thanks, Kass,” I all but snapped. “I’ve got it covered.”
A beat passed. Kass shrugged. “If you say so. It’s just a job, Amber. Don’t kill yourself over it.”
I gulped down the remains of my stale, cold coffee and tried not to gag. I was getting the shakes again, on top of the persistent headaches, and the lack of sleep wasn’t helping.
Which was why I thought I had misheard Kass when he said quietly, “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone you literally just drifted off.”
He left in the time it took for me to react. The office suddenly felt much bigger, and it was all I could do to not run after him and beg him to stay.
My sister Esther told me the life of superheroes was always a lonely one – the less you opened your mouth, the less you gave away. Esther was the kind of superhero the Association loved: she played by the book, did at least one good deed a day, kept a low profile.
The world was safer with more Esthers in it.
On Friday, we had our month-end party where people got drunk on too much beer and hotdogs and played stupid games and then laughed at how dumb they looked playing those games. And because this was a get-together of archaeologists, a treasure hunt was inevitable.
I steered well clear of the merry-making and lingered by the keg table while the teams from the heritage and excavations department made their way to the front where Leonora stood.
Kass sidled over to me with a half a mini hamburger in his hand and half in his mouth. “Not a fan of parties, I see,” he remarked.
I sipped on my drink. “Just not used to it.”
With her whistle raised to her lips, Leonora declared, “First one to find the incense box wins.” She blew hard on the whistle, and the cheering began. Blindfolded, Roshani and CJ from their respective teams set off, inching around as their team-mates worked out the clues and gave them directions.
I turned to look Kass in the eye, making it clear that I knew he was trying to pry. “Almost non-existent,” I replied. Which wasn’t technically a lie. Apart from Esther, who was too busy saving the world to care about her homeless errant sister, I had no other kith or kin in the world.
“That’s tragic,” Kass said. “What happened?”
I sighed, eyeing Roshani as she came dangerously close to my desk. “Nothing happened, Kass. Sometimes even family is just a title. It’s perfectly fine.”
“Perfectly fine,” he echoed. “Is that why you always look like you don’t belong anywhere in this world?”
I turned to face him. “What?” The crowd roared as CJ got warmer towards the treasure, drowning out Kass as he repeated himself. But I heard him just fine the first time.
He leaned closer to whisper, “You’re not really fooling anyone with that half-human pretence.”
Before I could formulate a response, CJ let out a whoop. “I found it!” He rattled the incense box in the air and whipped off his blindfold.
Roshani whirled around, knocking over the stack of files on my desk. On reflex, I threw my hands up. But instead of freezing time like I intended to, the files went up in a burst of flames and the keg next to me exploded, drenching me and Kass in a spray of beer.
Everyone screamed and ducked for cover. Roshani yanked off her blindfold and ran for safety. I could only stare in horror. I would try to freeze time again, but could I really trust myself to not blow anything up again?
This was why the Association had expelled me. This was why they called me wayward and incompetent, why they couldn’t believe that Esther and I were even related. This was why I was a hazard to anyone who got close, not a superhero but a menace as long as I was unable to control my powers.
CJ and a few other guys tried to put out the fire, but met with little success until they eventually they upended the fishless fish tank from Kass’s desk onto the flames. The fire died with an indignant hiss.
Kass grabbed my arm. “Let’s go,” he hissed urgently in my ear, ignoring my protests as he dragged me towards the fire escape.
Outside, the cool air was a welcome relief. Night held a stillness that I could never feel deep in my bones.
“Don’t worry,” Kass said when I cast a worried look behind us. “Leonora’s got it covered.”
It seemed more likely that Leonora would kill me, but I thanked him for his optimism anyway. Then I backed him against the wall and tried to press my lips against his. But before I could attempt to erase his memory of what happened earlier he grabbed my shoulders and held me at arm’s length.
“Amber, please stop trying to erase my memories,” he said.
“You’re one of them, aren’t you? Those superheroes the lion woman adopted.”
“Leonora,” he said with a conspiratorial smile. “I think she collects outcast superheroes.”
“You’re one too?”
He grinned, loosening his grip on me. “What would I do with all those powers? No, I’m just human.”
I sank to the ground and pulled my knees to my chest. “It seems easier to be human.”
“That’s debatable.” Kass settled against foot of the wall next to me. “Superheroes are not meant to go into hiding. They’re supposed to save the world.”
“Superheroes are just humans with really tiresome abilities. Besides, I’m not really qualified to save the world right now. I can barely keep a job longer than two months. One month for this job, since Leonora’s probably going to fire me.”
“If I fired every superhero whose powers went wonky, I would have no team left,” Leonora said, stepping out onto the fire escape, her wild auburn curls framing her face.
“Leonora, the files –” I started, as Kass helped me to my feet.
“Undid the damage, wiped out the memories,” she replied without missing a beat. “Thanks for looking out for her, Kass.” She sent me a beatific smile. “Welcome to the Alter-Heroes Club. The Superheroes Association has no idea what they’re missing out on.”