I stapled the last two papers, slipped them into the manila envelope, and sealed it. That was about it; I took the next two hours to practice my marathon kazooing.
My boss, Captain Keratin, poked his head around my door.
“Sounds good,” he said. “Are you playing the parades this year?”
“Maybe. I can’t seem to get the extended low hum for the bass line.”
“Keep practicing, you’ll get it. Speaking of practice, check this out.”
He wore his usual outfit, which meant shirtless to show off his now extremely impressive chest and abs. As I watched, he held out his arm and, visibly straining, grew a little tree from it. The tree wasn’t perfect; it was flesh-colored and the leaves drooped with weight, but it looked pretty good.
“I’ve been practicing the fine details,” he said. “Hold on–”
He gave a shudder and the tree fell from his arm. He caught it and held it up. “If you look close, you can see the texture of the bark. Still can’t control my pigment, though.”
I held my gorge down. “Cool. How long does it last?”
“Day or two. I’ve been working on making small things for the office.”
“Oh, yeah, I noticed the coasters in the break room.”
“What about the cups?”
“Cups? No, I didn’t notice them.”
“Smoothing them took forever,” he said. “Too bad you didn’t see them; I think the last one decayed this morning. I’ve been working on a larger piece, too, but I can’t tell you about it yet.”
“That’s great,” I said. “Here, I finished the last tax forms.”
“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”
“Go on, you look beat. I’ll be in the office till five if anything comes up.”
Down on ground level, things were pretty quiet. Almost no traffic; people don’t need cars and buses when they can fly, or teleport, or run faster than sound. The city’s SuperCops keep the runners and flyers from breaking the sound barrier too often, but glass is quickly falling out of fashion.
My place is off the main row, a few blocks back. It’s small, but it’s mine outright, and I have pride in that, at least.
Shawna the Magnificent was home, flexing in front of the mirror.
“Too bad about the cups,” she said, as I walked through the door. “They sounded kind of cute. I’d love a unique set to display.”
“If he can make them permanent,” I said, “I’ll put in an order. I think it’s gross.”
“I know.” Shawna shifted her weight, outlining the muscles in her thighs. “What do you think? Green’s my color but this orange isn’t so bad.”
I went along with her pretense, but I could see her jaw flexing as she restrained herself from answering her own question.
“It’s nice. You might think about piping the hems with something flatter, to accent your hips.”
“And my chest,” she said, twisting and shaking. “I talked to Doctor Op today.”
“Your boobs are beautiful,” I said. “You don’t need them enlarged. I love them, and you know I mean it.”
“I know, she said, and turned from the mirror to embrace me. Her chin bumped affectionately against the top of my head. “I just love to hear it.”
“Any chance of staying in tonight? I’m feeling–”
“–kind of down. I know. I can’t, but I have a show and a patrol right back to back. Oh, honey, I’m sorry! Don’t feel like that.”
I didn’t say anything. It wouldn’t make any difference; she picks the thoughts out of my head almost before I think them.
“You’re so good to me,” she said. “And you know I tell you everything. I don’t hold back.”
“It’s not too bad to wish you had everything but that, right?”
“Love you.” She kissed my forehead. “Gotta run. Dinner’s in the fridge. I’ll tell The Tailor what you said about the piping! See you tomorrow!”
“Love you too,” I said, and I meant it, and I knew she wouldn’t say anything about the slight irritation and frustration that colored the feeling. We Normals can’t help what we feel; I’m just lucky Shawna is understanding. Any other E-Norm would have left me long ago.
The mutations started slowly. Just a few around the world; some of them robbed banks and others hid from the public and still others put on costumes and started raking in money from endorsements and media deals. The rest of us watched, secure in the knowledge that Extra-Normals were outnumbered by Normals.
And then the scales started to tip. More and more people developed powers far beyond those of mortal men. Apartment buildings burned as Pryos woke up in flames, and Invulnerables ran into the blaze to rescue children and pets. Airplanes spun from the sky as practicing Flyers jammed up flight patterns, and were caught in the air or on the ground by Brawners and Affectors. Jaunters leaped inside bank vaults and Dampers kept them from escaping.
The strange thing was, no one really paid much attention until one election day, when The Powerful Ben became our first Extra-Normal President. He lasted two weeks before it came out that his psychic abilities had turned entire states to his advantage; his successor, the entirely Normal Vice President Albert Jenquist, started the Extra-Normal Congressional Quorum.
With fledgling laws in effect, and general opinion from most — even E-Norms — that a newly superpowered public needed a superpowered government, the status quo returned.
I took a walk. The City is meticulously clean; trash is burned at the curb or flown to one of the new volcanic vents created — on purpose and accidentally — by Phasers and Disruptors. Dust is easily controlled by periodic gusts of localized, superpowered wind. And crime?
Two Norms approached me.
The larger one blocked my path and said, quietly, “Hand me everything in your pockets and walk away.”
“Not interested,” I said.
“Come on, man,” the smaller one said. “We need some scratch for the week! There’s nothing at the Public Works, and nobody’s hiring Norms!”
I didn’t say anything about my job. It was Pre-Change, and Captain Keratin (formally Bill Jones, middle manager) lets me stay on because even without powers I’m pretty good at math.
“Keep walking,” I said. “You don’t want to mess with me.”
“Shit, dude’s smaller than you,” the larger one said. “You threaten us? You don’t got nothing on me, little man.”
I closed my eyes and felt the wind move. When I opened them, the two thugs dangled from a lamppost. A beacon blinked from the large one’s chest, summoning the SuperCops.
No reason to stick around. Whichever public hero had rescued me would have already sent his real-time videolog to the local Powered Precinct, and they’d find me if they needed a statement.
So not much petty crime anymore. There are certainly Super Villains, but they keep a low profile. Some of the Public Heroes are very pragmatic when it comes to justifiable homicide.
I shouldn’t be sad. It’s great for Norms, not that there are many left. I used to fantasize about what powers I’d get, and how I’d use them, but now I just move through life at a slow walk.
I shouldn’t be sad. I just wish I didn’t feel so helpless.
“E-Norm IDF forces are fighting a pitched battle on the banks of Gaza today…” “Bad Blake is holding two world leaders hostage, but Judd the Impossible is on the case…” “Two natural disasters in Africa are holding the attention of the entire African Ultra Peace Coalition…” “John the Altruist finished his year-long project to aerate and hydrate soil in the Gobi desert…” “Two new E-Norm classifications were announced today, bringing the total up to three-hundred fifty.”
I wandered downtown. It scared me to see everything so deserted. No reason to head home until later. Shawna’s patrols were legendary in our little circle; she had limitless strength and stamina, and I can’t remember the last time I saw her sleep. She leads a loose group of other Heroes in the area, and things are safer than they’d ever been. My brush with the muggers was typical; there wasn’t even any point in yelling for help. Everyone and his brother is on the lookout for crime.
A poster, stapled to an anemic tree poking from the sidewalk, caught my eye.
“Old Art! Come see the Finest Collection of Pre-Change art in the City! Over Six Hundred Pieces! Remember the Old Times, when Everyone Was Normal? Now We Can All Remember Together! E-Norms by request only.”
The address was only a few blocks away.
While walking, I saw two Speedsters practicing on the empty freeway. With my Normal eyes, I could only see them when they stopped. Little sonic booms echoed. I saw a Flyer floating between two trees like a hammock, reading the newspaper. I saw a group of Reactionaries sparring in an empty lot, blurring as they anticipated every move; saw a demolition in progress, no machines, just Invulnerable Brawners punching the walls down; was bumped by an Invisible; was saved from a falling air conditioner and lifted over a river and given a thousand dollars cash “just because I can, and enjoy it!”
It would almost be easier to sit back and do nothing.
But if we don’t work, we die.
The Norm Art Exhibit was in a little gallery, set into the side of a building with wide glass windows. I dropped my extra thousand dollars in the donation slot and walked in.
I’m not much on art. Even the best tends to go over my head; there’s something in nice lines and realistic proportions, but mostly I just stare and think “Huh.”
The first thing I saw was an ordinary two-slice toaster, fire-engine red, sitting on a pedestal.
Just past it, paintings and sculptures, non-representational art, a silent video display, and what looked like footprints leading up the wall to the ceiling.
There was no one else in the room. Despite the advertised “Finest Collection,” I didn’t seeanything that might hang in the Louvre. A lot of it was just stuff: matchbooks; theatre programs; USB mice; ergonomic chairs; a leather couch; light bulbs through the decades; a display of toothpick buildings.
“They’re nice, aren’t they.”
I was looking at an old microwave oven, the kind that took up an entire wall and cost as much as a new car.
“I don’t know Jack about art,” I said, “so maybe I’m not getting the full effect.”
“Come over here,” she said. I turned. She was my height, thinner, curly red hair and bright eyes.
“I already saw the toaster,” I said.
“Just come and look.” She wore shorts and a thin wrap, and it was very cool inside the studio. I flicked my eyes up, trying not to stare.
The toaster was exactly the same as it had been. I walked around it, looked into the top, and, at a gesture, lifted it to see the underside.
“Nope,” I said. “I don’t get it. I suppose you could define toast as art, if you’re hungry, but I’m just not seeing anything but a toaster.”
“It is exactly that.”
“Itself. The toaster has a single purpose — to make toast — and a single function, which is the making of toast. It does what it is intended to do and wastes no energy on clocks or radios, or sounds.”
She pushed the lever down. I heard ticking. Presently the lever sprang back up.
“See, it doesn’t even need electricity. Take the sides off and the electronic guts out and you can mount it over a fire. The springs will work regardless. It is a perfect, functioning thing. It is, in fact, exactly what it is.”
“And that makes it art?”
“Still a Norm?”
I shook my head. “Not here for that.”
“Why are you here, then? Not, I think, for the art.”
“Born and raised and never any different, thank you for asking. What about you? Do you fly? Do you break glass with a thought or run faster than sound?”
“My name is Lily,” she said. “And I don’t do anything but live.”
“Panic on the high seas as an Absorbent passenger on the Queen Mary II accidentally fell into the pool…” “The ENCQ is debating sixteen power sets to determine if they fall under existing E-Norm classifications…” “Union Auto Workers continue the strike into its third year…” “Five hundred people died in the worst Pyrrhic attack ever…” “Nine unrelated women in different countries gave birth to green-skinned babies…” “World’s Fattest Man gains another seventy pounds, tipping the scales over nine thousand.”
“When the E-Norms started spreading, we all lost purpose,” she said. “You remember. We waited for nothing. We are Normal in every sense of the word, and we resent their superiority.”
“I’m married to one,” I said. “Do you live around here?”
“Traveling with the exhibit,” she said. “I’ve been here a few months.”
“You might have noticed her on the news,” I said. “Shawna the Magnificent. Tall and built, but she thinks her boobs are too small.”
“I don’t watch news much.”
“She’s also telepathic.”
“That must be interesting.”
“Not the word I’d use.”
“It’s ok. She loves me, or she says she does. I love her, and I know I do, because she’d tell me if I was lying.”
“I guess that could be useful.”
She sipped her coffee, looking out the window. It was raining. No one else had come into the studio.
“Since I accepted my normality,” she said, “I’ve been trying to find purpose. Every day there are more powers, fewer of us. The worst part is that everyone just accepts it. Do you work?”
“I don’t need to,” I said. “Shawna makes so much money from endorsements….”
“But you do anyway.”
“I had the job before the change. It’s something to do. Besides, I used to room with my boss, and he’s a nice guy.”
“Any other Norms working there?”
“What do you do?”
“Accounting. Audits, taxes, checking and rechecking. I don’t need to, the computers can do it all, but he still thinks it’s better to have someone checking the numbers after. I don’t know. He’s probably just being nice.”
“Or he wants your help because you’re good at it.”
“I’ve thought that, but there’s no reason to have me over someone else.”
“No such thing, you know that.”
“There’s no point anyway. There are so few Norms left it’s easier to just ignore us.”
“What does your boss do?”
“He’s a Transmuter. He can produce material from his own body mass and form it into objects. First thing he did when he got control was change all his fat into muscle.”
“What use is that?”
“He can make coasters,” I said, and giggled. It sounded so stupid.
“No one argues with the boss.”
“Does he at least go by his real name?”
“He doesn’t even go on patrol, he just styles himself like a hero. Shawna is a real hero. She risks her life every day.”
“She sounds like a wonderful person.”
“Magnificent, even.” That got a chuckle. Lily sat back, looked out the window. Aside from the rain, there was nothing to see. I couldn’t guess her age. Her face was smooth except for a few lines around her mouth, and her eyes were very blue.
“What are you doing later?” she said, still looking out the window.
“Later? It’s already later for me,” I said. “I usually take a walk and then make an early night. Bill — Captain Keratin doesn’t care what time I get to work as long as the checking gets done.”
“I’d be closing the gallery soon anyway. Do you want to get dinner?”
“I usually eat at home.”
“Don’t you have any friends?”
I didn’t answer.
“I’ll buy,” she said. “Someone put a thousand dollars in the slot today.”
“An eight-year-old boy set fire to his school today, manifesting the first signs of Pyrokenesis…” “Six men were arrested by the Gulf City Power Police for attempted murder and robbery…” “An unidentified man in a yellow jumpsuit buzzed the Garber building for two hours…” “Two more cars were found in their parking spaces crushed to shoebox size, time still left on the meters…” “The Scintillating Hypnotist is in court today with his third jury, attempting to make his case without powers. His Honor Phil The Unbribable presides.”
We ate at a small cafe down the street; it still cooked food the old-fashioned way, on a grill, instead of Transmutation by the resident T-Chef. They usually don’t use their own body mass, preferring clean sand and organic mulch. There’s nothing wrong with the food — in fact it tastes amazing — but I like to support the few real restaurants that remain.
“I lost my husband in the Chicago Massacre,” Lily said, cutting her steak into tiny triangles. “He worked in the DMV, and the lines went berserk with their new powers. I was out of town. When I got back, the whole complex was gone.”
I didn’t say anything.
“It was just bad luck, really,” she said. “When they reimbursed me I think they expected I’d get my own powers soon and then I’d never look back.”
“It was a bad policy,” I said. “Paying survivors to keep out of the news.”
“But it worked. The only reason we know about so many incidents is because of the free press, even freer now. Reporters who don’t need food or sleep, X-ray vision, everything’s out more than ever.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.
“I barely even think about it anymore. He was a good man, simple, just what you got on the surface. Good at his job, just worked hard and kept me happy.”
“Do you run the exhibit all by yourself?”
“These days. I had a crew when I was putting it together, but they all moved on or got Powered. It’s not hard. I was looking for purpose and here it is.”
“Showing toasters?” I said, adding a smile to show that I was joking.
“Well, I was hoping to get a convection oven for the next location.”
“How’s your steak?”
“Good,” I said. “Just perfectly grilled.”
“So many things are.”
“Do you want to sleep with me?”
I shrugged. It felt completely natural. Looking back… but I’ve learned to never look back.
“I didn’t want to ask,” I said. “It’s not the sort of thing you go for on a first date.”
“Well, I want to,” she said. “Now. We’ll go back to the gallery.”
The steak went wherever old food goes. I went with her. The rain had stopped and the sun was out, filling the streets with mist.
Inside the gallery, Lily pulled blinds down over the windows and locked the door. I sat on the couch and she started to undress, no seduction or dancing, just taking clothing off. Her body was thin, and I saw old scars. We all have some; Norms don’t heal like they do.
When she was naked, she came over to the couch. I still had my clothing on, and she took my hand and pulled me up and kissed me, tangling her fingers in my hair. I ran my hands down her sides, feeling the scar tissue, and she overbalanced me and we went tumbling to the couch.
After, she stood and walked around the gallery, still naked. It was warmer, or I was, and I watched and thought about things and wondered why I had never cheated on Shawna before. She’d know, of course, but I thought she might understand… but maybe not. And she’d know about this before I could make any sort of explanation. I could find a Wiper, perhaps, and pay him to erase my memories….
Lily completed her circle, back at the couch, and sat down beside me. I leaned up and pulled her into an embrace, and we lay there, two Norms in the world.
Until she stiffened and pulled away. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You can’t stay here.”
It was expected. “Do you have guests coming?”
“No, I just — I have something to do. Please, it was wonderful, you’re a wonderful person, but you need to leave.”
Is sixth-sense considered a power? There are Forecasters and Seers, but they work more on accurate probabilities, bolstered by their powers rather than created by them. Norm I may be, but sometime I feel things.
I got up and pulled my pants on. Lily stayed on the couch, head down, and made no move to dress.
“Are you ok?”
“Please,” she said. Her voice was different, a little hoarse, a little higher.
“You’re not a Norm, are you,” I said.
“The sun is going down. I’m going to change. I don’t want you to be here.”
“Are you dangerous?”
I didn’t say anything, and I watched as the room dimmed, slivers of sunlight running up the wall until they vanished completely, the only light now from the street lamps outside, and I watched Lily’s body change, and what happened to her eyes, and when it was done I looked at — her — and nodded and left.
The City streets were the same. I walked, hands in pockets, and saw all the same things I’d seen yesterday, and last week, and last month. The big changes had come and now the world would adapt, as it always did. More violence, but fewer crimes. More accidents, but fewer deaths.
More anger. More ability to act on that anger.
“Is Transmuted food toxic? Reports from the Organic Farmer’s Union tonight suggest elevated levels of hemotoxin in fast-food burgers…” “Protect your home from spying eyes! Genuine lead foil, guaranteed non-toxic…” “A Manchester man took his own life after the ENCQ classified his perfect color-matching ability as non-powered…” “An abandoned shipping container was found to contain over ninety thousand dead rats, all perfectly preserved, each missing their liver.”
Shawna got home in the early morning. I hadn’t slept, just sat at the table, thinking. She walked into the room, sat across from me, and said, “I knew it had to happen sooner or later.”
There was nothing I could say that she wouldn’t pick out of my head faster.
“She was pretty, at least. Are you happy? You’ve tried out a Norm and now you’re feeling bad about it, so that’s good. What do you want to do now?”
“I don’t know what that bit at the end is,” she said. “Fine. All right, but you have no right to think that.”
“I can think whatever I want,” I said. “You’re always in my head and I love you but if you can’t get out of my head I want a divorce.”
“No, you don’t,” she said. “You’re just talking to avoid the issue.”
“I’m talking to keep you from talking over me. You always talk over me. I never get to say what’s on my mind because you always know what I’m thinking. So, tell me!”
She shook her head. “I don’t overpower you.”
“So why have you stayed with it for so long? Because you love me? No you don’t, and I wish you’d just let your real feelings out.”
“I am! I am very special! Just because there are more of us around than before–”
“Stop! Stop it!”
“Don’t you understand? What I am? What happens when everyone is special? Everyone who isn’t special, isn’t special! Is sub-special! Norms, all of you!” Shawna glared at me. “How dare you pretend to love me?”
“I don’t love you! I used to but not since I changed! You are nothing compared to me, nothing at all, just some sort of biological process with no basis in useful reality! I am special! I always was, just never knew it! Stop lying to me! You know you don’t really love me, you never did, you just loved the idea of me! Stop trying to make me your ideal woman and GROW UP!”
Tears ran down my face. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak, and Shawna spoke for me.
“You did,” she said, and her voice broke on the words. “I wanted you to hate me for being your superior, but you never did. Godammit, stop loving me! I don’t deserve it, I don’t — stop it! STOP IT!”
She leaped to the ceiling and broke through, and I remained, normal, ordinary, no powers or purpose.
Captain Keratin showed me his latest when I arrived at work. I hadn’t slept for two days.
“It took me forever,” he said. “And I had to keep eating to get the mass right, but it’s my best yet!”
Fleshy, smooth and hairless, and draped over the conference table.
“It’s a tablecloth,” I said.
“And the best part,” he said, “is that I think I can keep it from decaying! I’ve been experimenting with a nutrient injection.”
“You mean,” I said slowly, “that it’s still alive?”
“Well, not like you or me–”
I puked. I couldn’t help it. Mostly water. I sank to my knees, coughing.
He knelt next to me, laid a hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right?”
For a moment, I could hear a little of the old, Normal Bill Jones in his voice, but the touch of his hand brought the nausea back.
When I stopped choking, I stood and waved off help, and went to clean up in the washroom.
An hour later, I handed Captain Keratin my resignation.
“Are you sure about this?” he said. He didn’t seem to be offended.
“I need to get out and get away from the city,” I said. “Shawna’s left me and… well, I can’t say I’m happy at work anymore.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“It’s not you,” I said. “Don’t think I find you disgusting. It’s just what you do.”
“You’ll get a top recommendation letter,” he said. “But I wish you’d think about it.”
“It’s all I’ve done for the past day,” I said. “I can’t think about it any more.”
As I was packing up my things, he came running in, and not as Captain, but as Bill. I could see it in his eyes.
“You need to hear this,” he said, and placed a small radio on my desk.
“…of the population. Again, our top story today, independent testers have been combing and polling the country for the first Extra-Normal Census, and the numbers have been staggering. In the last two months, incidences of Normal vs. Extra-Normal have dropped dramatically, and according to the latest reports, Norms may be as few as one in five hundred thousand worldwide. At these levels, it is possible that we may soon become a world of entirely Extra-Normal humans. With no Norms left, decisions made by the ECNQ will be informed entirely by E-Norm needs….”
My mouth had dried up by the second sentence. I dropped everything and staggered for the door. Bill called my name, but it registered only as a flat sound across my brain.
No Norms left!
The thought was physically painful. Bad that I had never developed powers, worse now, if the census report was accurate, that I might be the last Norm in the world.
Wait, though, I’d been mugged by two Norms just the other day! I stopped in our computer lab, blessedly empty, and opened a public-access terminal for the police blotter.
“…two men arrested for a street crime are now claiming protection under ECNQ rules for newly changed E-Norms–”
When I opened my eyes, I was on the roof of the building. There was no one to see me. The skies were clear, the sun setting. I didn’t know where the time had gone, didn’t know where I’d walked or who I’d seen.
All I knew was that I was alone. For the first time, I looked over the City, saw the sterile world that Powers had created, no smog, no dirt, but no life or energy either. The problems of the Powered were larger than our Normal, small concerns. We — I — had no place here.
As the sun shone golden over the skyline, I took one little step.
And she caught me, matching my falling speed so I felt nothing but a little bump, and she was crying, sobbing my name, “–sorry I’m sorry so sorry I never meant to say those things, I do love you, you know I do, we’ll work it out and I don’t care a bit about her, I’d never lie to you, I can’t, love you so much please please don’t hate me–”
And we rose above the city, and I saw Flyers in the sky, making patterns, and down below the streetlights started to flicker on, outlining the blood of a City, creating a new society from the ashes of the old.
I held on tight, and I knew that my life would never be more than this.
But it might be enough.
Asher Wismer graduated from the University of Maine at Augusta in 2007, and is a former college-level tutor, computer technician, and 35mm Film Projection Manager. He currently works as an Editor at eNotes.com, answering questions from dozens of educational fields. His story “December in Florida” appeared in the anthology Holiday of the Dead, from Wild Wolf Publishing in the U.K., and his flash fiction has appeared on the website 365tomorrows.com. Asher lives and works in Augusta, Maine.