I stepped out of the University library into the brisk night air of Metropolis. The flood lights were still on around the buildings but most of the students had left hours ago. The smart people were home by now. I was studying and had lost track of the time. I was also not reknowned for being smart.
I followed the bright lights out of the campus and into the carpark. It took longer than cutting through the shadows but it was infinitely safer. I found my car in the front corner of the parking lot. I'd parked in the disabled spot and it looked like I'd already gotten a ticket. As frustrating as this was, I considered it small fry compared to being knifed trying to get to the opposite side of the carpark after dark. This didn't stop me muttering and wondering why the Metropolis police department didn't feel they had more important things to do than give generally law-abiding citizens parking tickets.
I grabbed the ticked off the windscreen then looked at my car and shuddered. My car is a 1970s Mercury bobcat. Once upon a time it's colour was bright red. Years and rust had whittled it down to a flaky drab brick colour. The front bumper was dinted and the rear one was hanging off to one side. It backfired and stalled more often than it started, and growled like a choking lion. There were graffiti tags on the driver's side door.
Every day I came out into the parking lot and prayed it had been stolen. No one was stupid enough to oblige me.
I wrenched open to drive side door with a squeel and started her up on the fifth attempt. I careened out of the lot and raced her through the orange on the next set of traffic lights, hoping to avoid a stall. It wouldn't hurt to get home soon either. The light was fading and dusk was settling in. It was a bad time to be out. Only the crazies were on the streets after dark.
It was a hot summer evening and the bobcat had no aircon so I wound down a window and prayed for a breeze. I was still sweating like a pig halfway down the freeway and instead of feeling cooler, my hair was windblown, messy and plastered to my face. I'd been having hot sweats for weeks so I couldn't tell if it was just me or the weather. Maybe I was going through early menopause. I should probably see a doctor about that, but doctor's cost money.
By the time I got home it was completely dark. I parked my car in the street and did a cursory lock of my car before hightailing it through the main door of my apartment complex.
My neighbourhood is in worse shape than my car. The street sign is missing and has been for the five months I've lived here, but I understand it's most graciously known at Smith Street. Smith Street falls in the back lots of Metropolis. It sits next to the slums and is gradually being overtaken by them. The pavement is cracked, the streetlights flicker and the road has enough resurfacing patches to look like a jigsaw puzzle.
Still, I hurried for the main door of my apartment complex less out of fear for my safety and more out of mortal embarrassment of anybody recognising me and realising the bobcat was my car.
This is definitely not my first choice of residence nor my preferred transportation but it's hard to be picky on a student budget.
Five months ago I was residing on Johnson Street in a perfectly respectable part of town. I didn't struggle to pay rent and I didn't have to skimp on the food bill just to make ends meet. Of course I was living with my boyfriend Kenny the Plumber who was helping pay bills whilst I went through law school. The theory was once I got through I'd have oodles of money to return the favour.
Then one night Kenny discovered he was special. Kenny could peel potatoes with his eyes. He could make french fries in less than two minutes and eat them in half that time. I guess that kind of stuff constitutes a superhero. Who wouldn't want a super power like that?
Of course these days Kenny trained his supersight on bag snatchers, petty criminals and occasionally the wall of the girl's changing room at the gym. The women in the girl's changing room were rarely concerned, since being a superhero was of course akin to being a god. More superheros were being born every day, but that didn't stop their popularity.
Suddenly Kenny the Plumber had more blondes dripping off him than a team of footballer's wives.
I couldn't fault Kenny for helping me through my first year of law school. However I did still feel pretty sore about being kicked out into the street on my ass when he realised he didn't need me anymore. I suppose he did me a favour really, demonstrating what an ass he really was before I could do something stupid. Like marry the bastard...
I guess when anybody can be a superhero, it leaves some room for some of the remedial personalities to slip through the cracks. Somebody should have told the superheros what a turd they were getting.
But those times of financial and residential security were over and quite frankly I hoped I'd never see Kenny again.
The lobby light in my apartment building was flickering and the super was nowhere in sight. The lift was out of order but this had never surprised me. Nothing on Smith Street was in order.
I live on the second floor. I slunk up the stairs past the drug dealers on the first floor landing and old Mrs. Flanderstine passed out in a drunken stupor on the second. She issued a moan while I fumbled with my keys and all seven deadlocks on my apartment door.
I didn't see much point in helping Mrs. Flanderstine. The first night I had tried, she'd stolen my wallet. The second night she'd thrown up on my jacket. After that, I wasn't sure if I was really helping. She'd only be there again tomorrow night.
I got inside, sank into the couch and congratulated myself. I'd made it home safe, my car hadn't broken down (which was as unfortunate as it was fortunate) and my television and dvd player were still there and hadn't been stolen. All in all a rather successful day I thought.
There was a knock on the door so I got up and spotted Donnie though the peep hole. Donnie lived in the apartment next door. He had orange-red hair, a solid personality, and he was a copper.
He was holding up a pizza box up to the peep-hole. It steamed up the glass meaning it was fresh and hot.
Donnie is the one light in my life.
I flicked the deadbolts and both chains and let Donnie in. He was grinning as he came through the door, "You watching the game?"
"Yes," I lied, and flicked the channel, "Donnie I love you!"
"Yeah right," he said, handing me the pizza box. I opened it up to a whiff of large Supremo with extra beef and exhaled with pleasure. Donnie plonked on the couch and turned up the volume on the game. I didn't bother to ask who was winning. His team always lost.
For five months, every Friday night without missing a beat, I could count on Donnie to come over with pizza and bribe the use of my television. Donnie didn't have a television. I guess he was worse off than I am in that regard. I didn't wonder how that happened on a policeman's salary, because I knew.
Besides the fact that the Metropolis City police were paid bubkiss, Donnie also had an ex-wife called Valerie.
And Valerie had Donnie's house, his car and his fifty inch television. By the sound of the screaming matches they still regularly had either on the phone or in person, I gathered she also still had Donnie's nuts in her french nail polished claws.
Donnie had come into my life at the exact right time to truly demonstrate to me the abject hopelessness of romantic relationships. He'd been out there standing in the hall when I'd moved in, and helped me lug my furniture up two flights of stairs when I was only a stranger. Within minutes we had discovered a mutual dissatifaction with our prior relationships and an eerily similar slovenly attitude towards evenings in front of the television munching on junk food. As far as I was concerned, it was a best friend match made in heaven.
Not to mention in this part of town it couldn't hurt to have a cop living next door.
Donnie stayed until his team lost. He bitched about the umpires and the scoreboard, and I nodded and made sympathetic noises as if I understood the rules of football and was capable of forming an opinion. Then I fed him icecream straight out of the tub with a spoon and told him it would go straight to his waist. Donnie told me sugar was a great weapon in the fight against evil before sauntering back to his apartment. It was our little Friday night ritual.
At about 3am my car alarm went off. This surprised me greatly. I'd had to have it installed to keep my insurance, and I really wanted to keep my insurance. When someone was finally stupid enough to steal my car, my insurance was going to buy me a new one.
Of course I usually forgot to turn the damn thing on. In some ways I was noncommittal to the whole car alarm concept, having given up months ago on the possibility of anyone taking my car. I wasn't sure if I was more surprised that my car alarm had been triggered, or that somebody had actually tried to steal my car.
Within seconds, two more car alarms started up and added to the cacophany. The noise blared through the neighbourhood scaring dogs and startling strays.
I got up and tried to check through my bedroom window bars if it actually was my car. Unfortunately the angle was wrong and it was too difficult to tell from the second story. Damn. I contemplated whether I should go down to the street and turn off the alarm.
I didn't want to stay here and try and sleep through three car alarms, but even if I turned mine off that was no guarantee that the other two owners would. Going out into the streets at night was a bad idea. The risk of getting mugged, raped or murdered was signicantly higher than during the daylight hours, especially in the slums. My house and my car and my life were a tragedy but I still had enough sense to desire avoiding criminal bodily harm.
In the end, going outside won out, but just barely. I decided whatever was out on the street would be less scary than my neighbours tomorrow morning on no sleep and armed with the knowledge that it was my car that had been the cause of their temperament.
I padded to the door in my pink and blue pajamas. I popped my door keys in my pajama pocket but left my phone and my wallet in doors. Even if I'd had one, I wouldn't have taken a weapon. Any valuables I had on me were likely to get stolen and any weapons would probably just be used against me. I figured there's nothing like losing your pride whilst being beaten over the head with your own baseball bat.
The stairs were studiously quiet, filled with the emptiness of a building full of people pretending to be asleep or otherwise too engaged to see what the commotion was. I opened the front door cautiously and stared out at the street.
There was a group of young metalheads to my right. Some of them were lounging around the doorway of the neighbouring building and one was sitting on top of the car next to mine. He was tossing a tennis ball in the air.
The whole lot boasted multiple tattoos and enough piercings to give a security metal detector a melt down. I reminded myself that none of these things made them bad people and edged out onto the street towards my poor little Mercury. The alarm wailed desperately like a frightened child.
One of the metalheads in the doorway saw me and stretched his arms up lazily. He was decked out in black leather with buckles and spikes. There was a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He couldn't have been more than nineteen.
"What have we got here?" he asked leisurely.
Suddenly all eyes turned to me. I held up my car keys as if they might be a shield between me and the darkness.
"Just shutting off the alarm," I apologised.
The metalhead kid smiled at me. I really didn't like his smile.
"Pretty lady," he said, and started walking towards me. I took a few steps back around the car, trying to put it between me and him, and mentally calculated my odds of reaching the apartment complex door safely. The odds did not come up in my favour.
By the time he was a few steps away I'd decided to risk it anyway and bolted for the stairs. I barely got two steps before he whipped me around and pinned me front first against my own car. The alarm kept pitifully wailing.
Mr. Metalhead had my hands pinned at my back. He leaned in towards me, neck spikes sticking into my skin, and brushed the hair from the side of my face.
"I like your pajamas girly," he whispered into my right ear.
"Thanks." I really hoped that he was just after money and would be more understanding when he discovered I had none. I seriously doubted my luck would turn in that direction.
Metalhead's spare hand whisped over my behind and further down towards other places. The lump in my throat became dry like the Sahara desert.
He was just padding me down for valuables, right?
"How 'bout I show you a man," he said just before I heard the distinct sound of a fly being unzipped. I guess today had not been a good day to tempt fate.
"Why," I said, before I could think, "Do you know one?"
"Very funny." He even sounded amused, but I guess he could afford to be. He clearly had the upper hand.
He dropped his cigarette on the pavement. It flickered and started dying.
"You should remove your hands before you do something you regret," I warned, but it came out sounding pathetic and strangled. At this point I figured my only hope was to wait for one of our newly contrived superheros to magically appear out of the shadows and save me from my impending doom.
Of course, superheroes couldn't be everywhere and my luck wasn't holding well tonight.
For a second I contemplated what I'd do if Kenny the Plumber showed up. God I did not want to be saved by Kenny the Plumber. I might almost prefer to be murdered and strung up to the lamp post, left dangling over my car. That sounded more fun.
Thinking about Kenny only got me pissed off. Ok I might not have brought much income in whilst studying, but I spent years cooking and cleaning and scraping his drunken ass up off the floor. Not to mention the three years of working in a dingy down town cafe on minimum wage.
Kenny was a slime and he could burn in hell for all I cared.
There was a little whoosh of something catching alight and suddenly Mr. Metalhead shouted in alarm in my ear. He pushed himself away from me, shoving me into my car door as he did.
I did a 360 and found him jumping up and down on the sidewalk. His pant legs were on fire, and it was licking its way up to his jacket. He was beating at the flames rather ineffectually. I checked myself over but I didn't appear to be burning.
"Shit," said one of the other metalheads through a doped up haze, "Stop, drop and roll dude."
Kenny took his advice and dropped to the pavement. He beat his arms around on the sidewalk to put out the flames.
"Freakin' bitch!" he shouted, "You burned me."
I so did not. I had nothing to burn him with.
"You dropped your cigarette," I said, "You probably burned yourself."
"She got a point," said the guy on top of the car. Metalhead didn't look all that convinced. He looked pissed off. I started wondering what I was still doing standing there with my mouth hanging open.
A loud boom interrupted us before Metalhead could do anything else. I looked up to see Donnie in the doorway with the long barrel of a shotgun in his hands. He'd plastered on the serious, dead eyed look that all Metropolis City cops have.
"That was a warning shot," he said, "You boys don't get lost in the next twenty seconds, the next shot won't be a warning."
"Shit," said one of the punks in the door way and scrambled to his feet, "Why the cops always gotta rain on our good time."
Donnie pumped the handgrip of his weapon and pointed it at my attacker, "Piss off."
Mr. Metalhead responded by giving him the finger.
"Fuckin' coppers," he said, and started walking off with his gang, "You'll be sorry when me missus comes to play." I doubted Donnie would be too daunted by any Mrs. Metalhead. Donnie's ex-wife was virtually demonic. You couldn't get much scarier than that.
"Geez," he said, lowering the shotgun, "You ok."
"Yeah." I tried not to let the shaking of my body show in my voice, and failed, "Thanks."
"No worries. C'mon. Step away from that piece of shit car of yours and get inside." Donnie held out a hand.
"What this?" I faked surprise, looking at the bobcat, "That's not my car."
I gave up the fight and took a few step towards Donnie before remembering the alarm. It had been blaring in the background all this time and I'd completely forgotten about it. The noise had been drowned out by the sound of my heart drumming in my ears.
"Hold on a sec," I told Donnie, "Just let me turn off this alarm in the car that's not mine." He looked bemused but waited.
I crossed back over the street and unlocked the Mercury's door. I punched in the code to turn off the alarm. The other two cars in the neighbourhood kept beeping, but at least mine was sweetly silent.
Locking the car, I looked back up at Donnie and thought I heard a slight whining sound in the distance. Donnie had a frown on his face.
"What's that?" I had time to ask, before my car exploded in an enormous fireball.
The shock wave of the explosion sent Donnie flying down the street. It didn't do a damned thing to me and I was standing right next to it. Donnie landed with a thud against the side of a building and slid down next to a dumpster. He looked unconscious.
Pieces of my car clattered around me, spilling all over the sidewalk. The bobcat had been scrap heap before, and now it literally was.
I was about to go help Donnie when there was a vicious cackle behind me. I turned to see a woman in black spandex with a rocket launcher on her shoulder and a grin plastered to her face. Her hair was wild and untamed and her eyes matched her hair.
I took three guesses and came up with Mrs. Metalhead.
She cackled again and did a little power dance in the street. Then she hefted the launcher and pointed it back at Donnie.
I didn't know about reload, but I didn't think Donnie deserved this kind of ending. Besides he'd kinda been saving my butt.
I picked up a triangular piece of bobcat debri and hurled it at Mrs. Metalhead. I didn't really expect it to do much except divert her attention. It whizzed through the air and a landed pointy side with a thunk in her forehead. She blinked and blood started oozing down the side of her face.
Ick, I thought, blood. Then I applauded my car for being more useful in death than it ever was in life.
Mrs. Metalhead looked at me and growled. She was clearly one fry short of a happy meal and a blow to the head didn't appear to be slowing her down. She dropped her rocket launcher and launched herself at me instead.
We went tumbling to the ground, rolling over the debris of my Mercury. Mrs. Metalhead growled and snapped. A hyena worrying its prey. Her hands were around my throat trying to strangle me. I wanted to repay the kindness but she was wearing a spiky studded collar like her boyfriend.
I gasped and fumbled, trying desperately to get her off. Flailing my arms about didn't seem to be doing any good and I was quickly losing oxygen.
A few second more and I got my feet up underneath and kicked out at her stomach. Bitch-face was flung over the wreckage of my car and onto the pavement on the opposite side of the street. She lay on the ground, winded.
I blinked in surprise. I hadn't really wanted to do permanent damage, just wanted to get her off me. I wondered how she had moved so fast.
Mrs. Metalhead rolled and slid fluidly to her feet. She narrowed her eyes at me. I stood like a deer in headlights.
Like WTF mate?
Half a dozen shots rang out and I turned to find Donnie back on his feet. I couldn't see the shotgun but he was holding a handgun and sighting down the barrel at Mrs. Metalhead. He must have had the pistol tucked in his jeans when he'd come out earlier. He certainly hadn't been holding it.
He squeezed off a few more rounds. I'm pretty sure every single one hit our assailant square in the chest. Her eyes glazed over but other than that she barely blinked. I started mentally writing my will.
Donnie had cop-face again.
"Put your hands up," he shouted at bitch-face, "You're under arrest." I had the sudden fleeting thought that the real superheroes of Metropolis were the police officers. They were underbudgeted, understaffed, no special superhero abilities, and every day they faced the worst scum of the universe whilst dreadfully underpowered. In my world, Kenny the Plumber would always be toilet scum and Donnie the Cop the dishevelled superhero.
"You're starting to really annoy me," Miss crazy-eyes announced. Saliva went flying from her mouth when she talked. I wished she'd just leave us alone.
She picked up the launcher and hefted it over her shoulder. For a moment I thought she was going to fire it. I didn't know what happened to Donnie but I figured he'd run out of bullets.
Suddenly Mrs. Metalhead slackened. She lowered the rocket launcher and the fire went out of her eyes. Perhaps she realised that between the bullet holes and the wound to her head she was not as invincible as she'd previously believed. Perhaps she had a change of heart, but I doubted it.
"You haven't seen the last of me!" she declared in classic evil-doer cliche. She was walking away and I almost vomited with relief. I hoped I had seen the last of her. I hoped I never saw her again. I hoped she disappeared and choked on her own spittle.
Mrs. Metalhead got half way down the street and then stopped. I frowned, eyebrows digging together. She wasn't coming back was she?
She'd raised her hands to her neck and was clawing at her spiky studded collar. Maybe she was just taking it off. Then I realised she was choking. The sounds of coughing and gagging filtered down the street between alarm wails.
"Shit," said Donnie. He hefted me up from the ground by my collar, "She couldn't do that five minutes ago?"
Mrs. Metalhead slumped to the ground. For a few minutes she clawed at the bitumen, then went deadly still.
"Oh my god," I said, and stared. Then I looked at Donnie and said quietly, "I was just hoping she'd choke to death."
Donnie looked at me.
"Me too," he said.
I looked at him and narrowed my eyes suspiciously, "Did you do that?" I didn't have a good track record with blokes who suddenly aquired superpowers.
Donnie looked back at me and arched an eyebrow.
"Dunno," he said, "Did you?"
I didn't know, and that was confusing. I figured someone who could make another person choke to death using only the power of their mind would surely know when they were doing it. I didn't think Donnie was the kind of guy to hold out on me either. Maybe it was just pure coincidence. Maybe my luck really was that good.
Donnie looked down at the street strewn with the wreckage of my car.
"She levelled the Mercury," he said seriously.
"I know," I replied, distraught, "I never got to thank her for it!"
Donnie chuckled and motioned inside, "Let's get out of here." I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do more.
"I need a weapon," I said as Donnie picked up his shotgun and walked to the door, "In the morning, you're taking me out to buy a gun. No. Two guns."
"Sure," said Donnie, "I'll show you how to get properly licensed too."
"Sure. I meant to do that."
"Yeah right," he said, "By the way, I like your pajamas."
Probably you're wondering how even then I could be so completely blind to what was happening to me. It was only then that suspicion had come fluttering through the corners of my mind. Something wasn't quite right with me, but I still couldn't put my finger on what.
It took another three weeks for me to realise I had choked Mrs. Metalhead. I'd been the one to set Mr. Metalhead on fire too.
True realisation only came to me the day the insurance company put a cheque in my hand. The Mercury was a piece of junk. The insurance payout on junk was probably not enough to buy Donnie a second-hand television set.
I stood in the office nervously waiting for my insuring agent to return with a cheque. I wished for a $10 000 cheque. I wished for it more than I wished for my refrigerator to be magically stocked and for my skinny jeans to mysteriously start fitting me again. I even wished for it more than I wished for Kenny the Plumber to be caught on national television with his dongle caught in a drainpipe.
Nobody gets a $10 000 cheque for a car that already had two tyres in the grave.
But I did.
It's kind of scary to know what one can do with the power of only a stray thought.
My name is Kate Lowe, but these days people call me Subliminal Charm.