“It’s not fair!” Jason yelled. “When do I get to be a superhero?”
Frankie winced in anticipation of the slammed door that followed his thumping footsteps up the stairs. The answer to his question would likely be never, if that kind of attitude carried on much longer. She glanced down to see that lightning was crackling between her fingers and she clenched her fists down on it viciously until it went out. Unconscious power flaunting like that wasn’t going to help the situation in any way. She had always known having a teenager in the house wasn’t going to be easy, but adding powers to the mix made it infinitely more complicated. Where were the parenting books for that?
She briefly contemplated following Jason up the stairs and trying to talk to him about the situation, rationally and calmly, but she quickly dismissed that idea as a bad one. Neither of them were in the right frame of mind for sensible discussion at the moment, so it would be much better just to let him – and herself – cool down, and address the issue later. Maybe if she went out and got pizza for dinner, he might be prepared to listen to what she had to say.
Frankie slipped her gloves over the livid scars on her hands, grabbed her bag and left the house. She walked briskly to the store at the end of the road and was soon perusing the pizza options in front of the freezer near the back. A commotion over at the counter caught her attention, and she spun to glimpse an agitated youth brandishing a handgun. The guy behind the counter had his hands up and was visibly trembling in the face of the weapon.
Frankie glanced up at the security camera that was currently recording all the events in the store. Anyone viewing it afterwards would clearly be able to see her face, as well as that of the robber, but it was understood that such footage would never be used to compromise superhero identities, and that rule was rarely broken. Shrugging off her apprehension, Frankie reached into her bag and pulled out a light blue face mask with yellow lightning bolts embroidered along the sides. She pulled off her gloves, fastened the mask over her dark hair, and strode out from behind the shelves of chips and guacamole.
At the sound of her approach, the youth with the gun spun around and aimed his weapon right at her.
“Stop!” he cried, his voice cracking with barely restrained panic. “I’ll shoot you!”
“Not if I shoot you first,” Frankie quipped, and let rip with some lightning from her left hand.
The bolt of yellow light shot out from her fingers and enveloped the robber almost instantaneously. He convulsed, the gun falling harmlessly from his grip, then collapsed in a heap on the floor. Frankie closed the distance between them in two quick strides and knelt beside him, checking for a pulse. The beat was strong, letting her know she hadn’t been over-zealous with the use of her powers. She rolled the unconscious youth over onto his stomach, retrieved a zip tie from her jacket pocket, and secured his hands behind his back.
Then, finally, she looked up at the shop assistant, who had emerged from behind the counter and was staring down at her in awe.
“Thanks, uh…?” he stammered.
“Bolt,” Frankie replied with a grin. She had never been one for the over-the-top fancy names that some heroes operated under. “And it’s no problem. Can I leave you to call the police and get this cleaned up?”
“Uh, sure,” he said, his eyes never leaving her as she stood and strode out of the shop.
It was only when she reached the front door of the house, mask surreptitiously removed and stuffed back in her bag along the way, that Frankie realised she had forgotten the pizza.
Over a dinner of fish fingers and chips from the freezer, which seemed to mollify Jason to a certain extent, Frankie raised the subject tentatively.
“Can we talk about this superhero business, please?” she asked, raising an eyebrow in a plea to avoid further teenage tantrums.
Jason sighed. “I guess,” he shrugged.
Frankie decided this was as good an opportunity as she was going to get, and forged ahead.
“Do you really think it would be a good idea for me to pass my powers on to you now?” she asked, fixing him with a stern gaze.
Jason stared back at her defiantly for a few moments, then deflated and dropped his eyes to his plate. He moved a few of his chips around a bit, before eventually answering her.
“There’s a girl at school, whose sister got their dad’s powers as a graduation present,” he said, sullenly.
“High school or college?” Frankie probed.
Jason crossed his arms over his chest and slumped down further in his chair.
“College,” he muttered.
“Well, there you go, then,” Frankie said.
Jason looked up eagerly. “Does that mean you’ll give me yours when I graduate college?”
Frankie briefly considered saying yes, since this might be a major incentive to her less than academic son, to do well in school and actually get into college in the first place. She decided, though, that making that promise now would be a dangerous thing to do, since she knew she would have no intention of keeping it.
“Um, no,” she said, then backpedalled slightly as she saw a glower start to form on Jason’s face. “Well, maybe. I don’t know, okay? It’s not a decision to be made lightly, and I don’t want you to base all your life decisions on when you’re going to get my powers. You need to build a life outside being a superhero first, and then maybe I’ll let you add the extra layer.”
Jason rolled his eyes. “That’s not what you did.”
Frankie sighed. She had known this was coming.
“And that’s one of the main reasons I don’t want to burden you with powers too early,” she said. “You know that. They came to me way too young, and I had an awful time coming to terms with what I could do, and what I should do.”
She held her scarred hands up in front of her, forcing Jason to look at them. “This is what happens when you don’t know what you’re doing with powers.” It wasn’t a new argument, but it was the strongest one she had at her disposal.
“But that was because you didn’t have anyone to help you!” Jason protested. “The sooner you pass your powers on to me, the longer you’ll have to train me up and help me with them. What if something happens to you, like it did to Grandma? I’d be in exactly the same position as you – or, worse, you won’t get the chance to pass them on at all, and they’ll be lost forever.”
Frankie thought back to her early teenage years. It had been hard enough dealing with the regular trials and tribulations of puberty and high school. She had been a quiet, bookish girl, with few friends and practically no social life. Losing her mother and suddenly gaining the ability to shoot lightning from her fingers, on the same day, had made everything infinitely more complicated. Trying to gain control of her powers, which responded badly to unexpected bursts of emotion, had caused some rather awkward, not to mention dangerous, situations, and there had been no-one to help her, as Jason said.
The last thing she wanted was for Jason to have to go through anything like that. If she was honest, Frankie thought it wouldn’t be too bad a thing if her powers were to be lost without being passed on, but she wasn’t going to say that.
“What’s your rush?” she asked, a little plaintively. “Why would you want to jump into the extra responsibility, when you’ve already got homework and chores and a part-time job to worry about? You should count yourself lucky you don’t have to deal with being a superhero on top of all that!”
She winced inwardly at how stereotypically parental she sounded. Telling a teenager they should be grateful for their lot was never going to be a successful route to persuasion. Sure enough, Jason snorted.
“If it’s such a lousy gig, how come you’re so keen to hold onto it?” he asked.
“Because it came to me, and I will do my duty by it until the time comes for me to pass it on,” Frankie said, painfully aware of how self-righteous she sounded.
Jason sighed and the topic subsided again, the argument ultimately unresolved, as usual.
Frankie might have spouted the line about duty to her son, but it wasn’t as if she was out pounding the streets every night, looking for crime to fight. Some superheroes managed to make an actual career out of using their powers, through sponsors and clever marketing, and spent all their time doing good in the community and making a big splash thwarting criminals.
Frankie had her mask, and a full costume for the rare occasions when she wanted to blow off steam with a crime-fighting session. But, usually, she only stepped in when it was really necessary, like the incident in the corner shop. And, even then, she preferred to slip out unnoticed before the police arrived. Sometimes, they would identify her from security camera footage or witness statements and call to follow-up, but mostly the police were happy to let her involvement go unrecorded.
She sometimes wondered if she ought to do more with the gifts she had inherited.. But then she thought of how she had grown up without a mother, and she knew she couldn’t deliberately put herself in danger and risk that happening to Jason. If anything ever happened to her, he would have no-one to turn to, since his father had left when he was just a baby.
When she thought about passing her powers on to Jason, Frankie most often felt it would be better if she didn’t, but she knew she would probably have to, sooner or later, or he would never forgive her. She pictured handing over the mantle to him in ten years’ time, and wondered how it would feel to train him. It hadn’t been something she had really thought about when she’d decided to have a baby. As there were so few people with powers in the world, it was generally considered a superhero’s duty to procreate in order to pass their powers on, but Frankie had wanted a family for more traditional reasons. Raising a son alone, on top of holding down a full-time job and dealing with having powers, hadn’t been part of her plan.
The thought of getting rid of her powers was quite tempting, but she knew she couldn’t pass them on to Jason until he had established himself in the world without them. She also thought his school wouldn’t appreciate a teenage boy with the ability to shoot lightning from his fingers. Jason wasn’t violent as a rule, but he did lose his temper sometimes, and Frankie knew from experience that controlling powers on top of teenage emotions was not an easy task.
Frankie might not go out in search of situations where she could use her powers, but there was one scenario where she never failed to do her duty. Every powered person was given an identification code, which the local emergency services could use to call upon them in certain situations. If an alert came through using her code, Frankie was expected to go to help, and she didn’t regard this as an unacceptable burden. She had plenty of community spirit, and was more than willing to help people if she was able. She just didn’t see it as her particular duty to put herself in the path of danger unnecessarily, when it was likely she would end up in a position where her specific powers were of little use. But each police precinct had a register of the powers of those who lived in their area – unless the person in question was actively hiding their abilities – and could use that to call upon people with appropriate powers for any given situation. The ability to shoot lightning from her fingers wasn’t specific to many emergencies, so Frankie was only very rarely called, and that was how she liked it.
It was 2am when the call came in. Frankie fought her way out of sleep, the insistent buzzing of her phone dragging her upwards and into awareness. She reached blindly for the phone and peered blearily at the message on its screen. It contained only her emergency identification code and a location about ten blocks from the house. Snapping into alertness, she jumped out of bed and stepped over to the wardrobe. Generally, she just carried her mask, in case she really needed it, but she did have an entire superhero suit in her closet, for occasions just such as this.
It was sleek and striking – a one-piece of blue and white with her lightning bolt motif at wrists, ankles and collar. It accentuated her slender frame but covered her entire body; practical, yet stylish. She didn’t hold with those superheroes who wore ridiculous outfits that revealed unnecessary amounts of flesh, or indulged in fancy capes. It just seemed to be asking for trouble on so many different levels. Besides, she wasn’t looking for media attention; she preferred a life of virtual anonymity, with only occasional and quickly forgotten bursts of excitement.
Frankie scrawled a hasty note to Jason and left it on the kitchen table. He was old enough to get himself to school, if the emergency situation ran long. Then, she slipped her house keys and her driving licence into a concealed pocket and headed out into the night. She was in pretty good shape, all told, but she was still pretty out of breath by the time she had jogged all the way to the site of the emergency. A disturbing orange glow in the sky as she drew close told her it was a fire long before she actually got there. Then, she turned a corner to see an entire apartment block ablaze.
There were several fire engines already on the scene, along with ambulances and police vehicles. It was clear that the firemen were struggling to control the blaze, while the police were busy setting up a barrier to prevent the inevitable eager onlookers from getting too close. Frankie was confused as to why she had been called, but jogged up to the nearest policeman and identified herself as Bolt.
“Great, you’re here!” he exclaimed. He was young, and looked harried. “Go speak to the Fire Chief, and he’ll tell you what we need. He’s over there.” He gestured towards one of the fire engines.
Frankie ducked under the tape and made her way in that direction. A big, burly man in a bulky jacket was shouting instructions, so she approached him and waved to catch his attention.
He turned and looked her up and down.
“You’re the superhero?” he asked, rather unnecessarily, then threw his hand out to encompass the burning building. “Well, you can see what we’re up against. Get to it.”
Frankie was still confused. “Get to what? What exactly is it that you want me to do?”
He scowled at her. “You can control fire, right? Well, go control it!”
“What? No, I can use lightning,” Frankie said, bringing up one of her hands and letting the yellow light play between her fingers as a demonstration.
The Fire Chief looked at her, aghast. “Shit!” he exclaimed. “There must have been a screw-up at Dispatch. You’re the only one that’s turned up. I’ll get onto them and see if they can get in touch with the right hero and send them over here pronto.” He looked about in desperation. “Is there anything you can help with, since you’re here?”
Frankie regarded him helplessly for a moment, then took a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”
She made her way towards the building, weaving between the vehicles and the various men and women running frantically about. As she got close, one of the firemen spotted her and waved her over.
“Hey!” he called out. “We can’t get access to the west side of the block. What can you do to help us?”
Frankie took in the situation. She could see the problem immediately, and her spirits rose when she realised it was actually something her powers were suited for..
Somehow, a power line had come down across an alleyway that ran down the side of the building. It was snaking around on the ground, sparking magnificently, and effectively blocking access to the side door of the apartment block. The fireman looked at Frankie expectantly.
“Stay there,” she said, “but be ready to go through as soon as it’s safe.”
He nodded, wide-eyed.
Wishing she had thought to ask the Fire Chief for a protective jacket and hard hat before coming over here, Frankie approached the jumping power line slowly. She could generate lightning bolts from the electricity contained in her own body, and direct them as energy from her fingers. As a result, it was also possible for her to absorb electricity from outside sources and channel it through her body without it harming her. Or, at least, she had done so before, but not with this much raw power.
She automatically flinched away when the sparks sprang in her direction, then steeled herself against those protective instincts and strode forwards until she was only a foot away from the cable. She reached down and grabbed hold of it, feeling the physical tug of its movement before the rush of electrical power into her body took over all her senses. It flowed through every part of her, until she felt entirely filled by its delicious energy. There was more of it than she could hold, however, and it just kept coming. Frankie glanced around frantically for somewhere safe she could direct it, but there were people, vehicles or flames in every direction. So, she chose straight up.
Keeping the cable under control and turned towards her body with one arm, Frankie extended the other one to the sky, tilted her head back, and released the pent-up energy. It streamed out of her fingers and up into the darkness, illuminating the sky above her. The clouds rumbled loudly in a reverse reaction, and she could see the energy crackling through their stored water vapour. A few moments later, it started to rain, gradually getting heavier as the stream of energy kept firing upwards.
Frankie felt the raindrops on her face, a welcome relief from the heat of the electricity, but it was a tiny amount of wetness in comparison to the intensity of the wild energy coursing through her. That wasn’t slowing down, either. The flow was relentless, and she quickly became aware that she had taken on more than she could handle. She was committed now, though, and would have to see it through, or risk compounding the disaster by losing control and letting the electricity free again to rampage unchecked.
So, she stood her ground, even when the exhilaration of the electricity turned to searing pain. Even when she felt the skin on the outside of her hands blister and the flesh on the inside start to melt. She took every bit of the power the cable threw out, and redirected it safely into the sky. At last, after what felt like an eternity, the flow suddenly cut off, and Frankie dropped like a stone into blackness.
Frankie’s entire world was pain. It snaked in and out of her breathing, it enveloped her mind and encompassed her very being. There was nothing but pain – until she felt pressure on her fingers and heard hitching sobs at her sides. She fought through the haze towards the surface of the world and somehow managed to open her eyes.
Jason sat beside her, gingerly holding her hand and crying unashamedly.
Frankie summoned what little energy she could muster and opened cracked lips.
“I’m dying, aren’t I?” she croaked, the words barely comprehensible, even to her own ears.
Jason’s gaze met hers and she didn’t need his anguished nod to tell her it was so.
A different kind of pain flowed through her, then; the pain of history inevitably repeating itself, in spite of everything she tried to do to prevent it.
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry,” she whispered, a void opening in her heart at the thought of leaving her son alone in the world.
He shook his head slowly. “I won’t say it’s okay, because it’s not,” he said, his words soft as a pillow against her cheek. “But they got another fifteen people out of that building because of you, and that’s worth something.”
None of those people mattered to Frankie at all, not with Jason sitting beside her, his bravery and his grief battling on his face.
“You have to pass it on,” he said next. “Now, before it’s too late.”
Frankie was stunned. After everything that had happened, to her and now to him, how could he still want to take on the powers that had caused so much suffering to their family? He must have seen the confusion in her eyes, because he squeezed her fingers slightly and his expression turned determined.
“I still believe in the importance of what heroes do,” he said, “and I want to carry on your legacy. Please.”
Even in the midst of her pain, pain that was caused by the very powers her son was now asking for, Frankie could not deny him. The sense of responsibility was too strong, and she knew that, ultimately, he would use those powers wisely, and do good with them. She felt herself slipping away, but focused just long enough to let the essence of the lightning flow out of her body and into his, before finally letting go.
And thus a new superhero was born, in the wake of an older superhero’s death, as it had happened for hundreds of years. Created out of loss and grief, Jason’s resolve to do justice to his mother’s memory was forged like steel, and the mantle of Bolt was passed on to the next generation.
Annie Percik lives in London with her husband, Dave, where she is revising her first novel, whilst working as a University Complaints Officer. She writes a blog about writing and posts short fiction on her website (www.alobear.co.uk). She also publishes a photo-story blog, recording the adventures of her teddy bear (aloysius-bear.livejournal.com). He is much more popular online than she is. She likes to run away from zombies in her spare time.
Annie has won the weekly Hour of Writes competition four times, and been runner-up on several more occasions. Her entries are due to be published in two anthologies next year. She won second place in the writing competition in author Michael Brookes’ Cult of Me competition in February 2016, and was shortlisted by Writing Magazine for both their New Subscriber Short Story and New Subscriber Poetry competitions. Her writing will appear in two short story anthologies by Centum Press also coming out next year. Her story ‘Safeguarding the Future’ appeared in the October 2016 issue of the Lorelei Signal, and ‘Falling Sand’ is due to be published on eternalremedy.com before the end of the year.