Everyone fails the first time. It’s what Tucker told you, morning after morning, as you and he sipped coffee from the same old mugs, preparing for another day of training. A flight pattern would be a little crooked, or your x-ray vision wouldn’t permeate that particular thickness of steel, or the simulated baby rescued from the fire would have a have a slight cough. If being a hero were easy, he’d say, everyone would do it.
Packing the mug was dumb. It was fragile, breakable. It wasn’t a stowed bag kind of thing. But you told yourself you couldn’t be your best on Styrofoam coffee. You told yourself that it’d done its time, and it was already chipped anyway, and you didn’t care if it smashed. You told yourself a lot of things.
The truth is, you never intended to fail. Your training group spent the summer clearing pines, tossing them into the back of the rig with a flick of your fingers. You and Tucker raced farm kids in their souped-up trucks, letting them eat your dust on those hot gravel roads. With the strong track records of Gotham and Metropolis, no one looked to Idaho for heroes, but you were determined to show them why they should. Tucker suggested you rethink that, adopt a fake city, sharpen your look. You insisted, hometown was your brand.
Tucker had already tried out twice and refused to believe that the third time held any kind of charm. Sure, he could go freelance, but then you were reliant on tips for daring dos. Go through the show, and you were in the union making union wages. You’d watched each of Tucker’s seasons umpteen times, recorded off NBC, trying to understand why they hadn’t taken him. Lean as he was, he faded perfectly into his alter ego look. Glasses on, and he was a nerd, a wimp, a background guy no one noticed slipping into the phone booth. He was someone out of Queer Eye or the Jeopardy contestant everyone forgot the instant he’d won his hundred thousand. Loosen the tie, though, and he was a lean, mean, ass-kicking machine. The panel of heroes had to have seen that.
You wonder now, as you sip and sip, if he was too alter ego, too middle America. No one wants a hero who’s relatable, Tucker said. In hind sight, you could have ordered custom tights, had your hair done at a salon, consulted with a graphic designer on a logo, or Christ, even had your artsy sister mock something up, but honestly, this was supposed to be about skill. You chose to wear that summer’s faded yoga pants and over-sized cotton tee, pit-stained and rank, under a worn flannel.
You don’t know if you are more aggravated at your lack of vision (super-powered in every sense but the figurative) or at theirs. You saw it in the women’s looks from the moment you entered: disgust. The men (super-, bat-, aqua-, spider-) were merely bemused. The women, though? Their faces said it all. They’d worked too hard to get any kind of respect, and here you were, a mockery. It didn’t matter that you’d aced every test they threw your way. You would be judged by the same standards they’d had to pass. Diana Prince asked your cup size. Natalia Romanova ran a tape around your hips and frowned at the number under her thumb.
Who exactly do you think you are? Did she speak the words, or was it her thoughts you heard? Sometimes, it is hard to know, particularly with that kind of proximity. You thought you’d be Cougra or the Mountain Lioness, something lithe, something inspired by the big cats that slunk from the woods blending with the tawny color of ripened wheat. You were to be the one they never saw coming. Now, you have no idea who you are.
You think of Tucker and his endless reps, bench-pressing semi trucks, flexing afterward, hoping this time the muscles would bulge enough to tear his shirt. You reminded him about scrawny Peter Parker. Tucker said he was the exception that proved the rule. You shot back with Dare Devil, the old rules were shifting, the old prejudices were breaking down. Tucker: Keep telling yourself that.
“We’ll let you know your results in six to eight weeks,” Bruce said, but his eyes and the camera were already on the next candidate. The next candidate’s legs.
So here you sit, back in the humming hotel room with the old coffee mug you’d packed for luck because sometimes all the superpowers in the world are not enough, though, as it turns out, neither are lucky mugs. Your mother bought it as a gift when you were five, filled it with cinnamon Jelly Bellies. A little sweet, a little spicy: your favorite. You cradle it, hot in your hands, plain and white except for your initial, a single S in large block font, like might appear on a football uniform (a man’s sport, but it never felt off limits before). The ceramic is chipped on the lip, exposed and unglazed where it touches you. Objects, you tell yourself, have the right to expose their vulnerabilities, just as people do, and if those vulnerabilities cause inconvenience or discomfort, whose right was it to label the thing flawed?
If you get the job, if they’ll only give you a chance, you’ll emblazon the old mug’s S on your chest, pair it with ring-striped sleeves, lycra knee pants, and sneakers because you never could bear running in boots. So much about heroism needed a rethink.
You glance at your phone, not quite ready to text Tucker back, though you’ve watched it lighting to life every few minutes for the past few hours.
Six to eight weeks, you tell yourself, as if they haven’t already given their answer, as if there’s enough time for the world to change.
Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she directs the graduate program in English at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Cincinnati Review, American Short Fiction (online), Ninth Letter, Indiana Review, and The Rumpus, among other publications. Her debut novel, Borrowed Horses (New Rivers Press), was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial team at Barrelhouse. For more information, please visit sbgriffiths.com.