This story is by Michelle Pak and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
As it turns out, it’s kind of hard to propose when you’re strapped to a chair. Even more so when you’re so far from civilization only a friendly sasquatch or two will hear if you scream.
“Nebula.” My voice is croaky in the dry air, my lips trembling with frost. It’s the first word I choke out when I open my eyes, fingers dragging down the armrests, grasping for my straps. That’s how you know your life is screwed, kids, when you wake up and the first thing you do is check for ropes around your wrists. “Nebula, Nebula, Nebula.” My eyelids burn like I stuffed them up with gravel and Tabasco sauce. I roll my head back and groan. Even squinting, all I can make out are the oil smudges on the floor and the faint outline of my nose in the low, white glow of the moon. “The hell I go through for you.”
And it isn’t much hell I suppose, not really. The kidnappings are all in the fine print anyway. You partner with a superhero, you’ll get knocked out and kidnapped, and one day, you’ll wake up in a warehouse somewhere, dark and dank, spinning in a broken spinny chair until you get sick of all that spinning and start talking to yourself.
“I wanted it to go smoother than this,” I tell Nebs, though she’s miles and miles away. “With our anniversary and all. I wanted to get you flowers. Blue ones. Because blue is your favorite, you know, with your suit and all, and red is cliché and you aren’t a cliché woman. You’re…” My voice drifts into a sigh. Can’t finish the sentence, not here. Not in the dark, with her far from me. My head lolls back toward a busted ceiling. Pricks of moonlight seep through a sponge of black clouds. My breath wisps in curls, like smoke from a dragon. Not that I’m feeling very dragon-like at the moment. Or even hero-like.
“Guys?” I lift my voice. The sharp smells of leather and steel, two very scary and very unlikable smells, mingle in my nose, making my heart twist up inside. The straps dig into my wrists, the leather thick and heavy, holding my arms in place like the plastic twisties that keep expensive dolls posed in their boxes. I wriggle my shoulders. Doesn’t help all that much. I raise my shot voice even louder, words scraping at my raw throat. “Can we call a truce? Please? Just for tonight?”
I squirm my toes in my dress shoes. I was half transformed when they caught me. The mask on, the hair mussed a little, buttoned shirt open and skin-tight armor out. From the waist down, though, I’m still old Cecil Brooks. Same pants and belt and scruffy dress shoes. A relief, because the ring’s tucked away in my back pocket, sitting in its box, waiting to find its way onto Neb’s finger or to the Walmart display. I dig my shoes into the floor and inch forward, kicking, my best shot at making a break for it. The chair tips forward on its front wheels, spinning, spinning, spinning, until—
The long, cool shadow of a pair of wings spreads over me, blotting out the moon. The chair steadies. My stomach lurches around like a bag of rolling marbles, and for the first time in a long while, I’m almost glad to live the life of a starving college kid with a Psych major. If I didn’t, I’d lose my Ramen all over my shirt.
“Taurus,” the super-villain says, and his voice is deep, like he’s impersonating Sinatra. “You’re awake, hey.”
I shiver. His face hangs in front of mine from behind, almost nose to nose. With a tap of his knife against my throat, he smiles, all white teeth and pursed lips. The blade is almost warm against my skin and I can’t help but flinch.
“I am awake,” I say after a second of contemplation, clenching my fists around the armrest. “Can you let me go, please?” I raise my head and meet his eyes. Black paint rings them like a mask, dripping down his face like the world’s cheapest makeup. This is me trying to be diplomatic, here. There’s a reason us supers settle our differences with punches instead of hugs.
The super-villain snorts, greasy black hair tumbling in a curtain over his eyes. He has an angled sort of face, his chin drawn to a point, his nose slightly upturned. There’s an elegance to the man, even if he’s more than a little crazy.
“You’re sassy today.” His smile tightens into a wicked little smirk. “What? Are the straps too tight for you, princess?”
I shrug. Usually, they cut so deep I risk splitting open a vein with every move. Now my arms just ache.
“You know,” I say with a practiced smile, “I think you like me, Fallout. And I think you don’t even want to kill Nebula that much. You just like to keep me around.” I force a smirk, and it makes my cheek hurt. “Cause I’m so neat.”
“You are not neat.”
“I’m very neat. And you love me.” I wink, shrugging my shoulders with an extra wriggle. “Now, can I go? I’m going to propose to Nebula, and I can’t exactly get on one knee when I’m tied to a chair.”
He blinks once, twice. I keep count. “What?” he says. No emotion, all mechanical. Like a robot.
I scratch my ankle with the toe of my opposite shoe, shifting this way and that, this way and that, the corner of the ring box digging hard and making sitting painful. “Nebs. I’m gonna propose to her. I mean, I’m kind of nervous. Like, what if she says no, you know? What if we aren’t meant to be together, or like, I’m moving too fast.” I swallow hard. “Holy hell, Fallout. This is…” My breath quivers. “This is kind of scary.”
The super-villain rolls his eyes. “Taurus, buddy. I want to kill her. I don’t care. But still.” His smirk returns. “That’s kind of cute. It’s too bad you won’t get to propose. ‘Cause you’re here and Nebsies isn’t.”
I glare. My arms itch to cross over my chest, twitching on the armrests. It’s my signature move, arm-crossing, that is. The same one as Nebula’s. Every superhero has one, a pose that makes him or her ready to kick butt. I think that’s why Fallout ties me up. My arm-crossing is simply too much for him.
“She isn’t. I’ll get away, first.”
“Without Nebula’s help.”
“I’m her partner. Not her sidekick.”
My wrists tremble under the straps.
Fallout snorts, propping his knee on mine.
“Tell that to Nebula.” He gives the chair a spin and I lurch around, thinking of her to force down the fear that threatens to devour me faster than the nausea.
Her name is Rider, Rider Clemens, a college woman who never leaves home without two sticks of licorice in her mouth, a can of mace at her side, and a volume of manga tucked under her arm.
And I, well, I kind of love her. I think.
And loving someone isn’t something you can really put into words, I guess, nor why you like them. It’s like, like trying to describe the majesty of the sea or the thrill of reading your favorite book. You can say it’s the color of the water when the sun hits, how cool it is when the aliens explode and the heroes kiss. But the emotion itself, the flutters in your stomach, the way you and her just sync when you lie there on the floor, music blasting from the apartment across from yours as you, exhausted, squeeze her hand and all you can see are the white of her eyes, and smell cherry licorice on her lips, and feel the heat of her skin and think, this. This has to be love. That can’t be explained. At least, not without John Green’s help.
I kick out. The chair hits the ground with a crash, adrenaline surging through my veins, the straps cutting, cutting, cutting. Deep pain. Sharp aches. I gasp. Fallout’s grin is close to mine, the knife still at my throat.
“You and Nebula can’t get married,” he says, and his voice is deep and matter of fact. “I won’t let you.” He swings the knife down, right by my wrist. The strap falls away. I tear my arm free and grab for him, about to throttle him. His smile widens.
“But maybe I will give you a truce, just tonight. Just so you can get rejected and you and Nebula can be back on hero and sidekick terms.” He shrugs. “It’s easier to get at you two when you’re miserable, you know.”
Fallout flicks me on the nose and I snatch his fingers, about to crush them. He looks up, eyes wide, as if I’m a grumpy pet cat that finally slashed the mother-trucker.
“Tell me where she is.”
He jabs his elbow into my collar bone.“Who?”
“Here.” The voice is so crisp, so clear. My heart drops into my stomach. I whip my head round and watch, just watch as she approaches out of the darkness. Fallout howls, laughing so loud I pluck the knife out of his hand and slice at the straps, sawing myself free in the sort of reflexive way superheroes have to save their own butts. Because I’m not thinking about him or the restraints or anything else of the likes. I’m thinking about Nebs, the shadow she drips on the floor, the silhouette of her suit, the way the lycra shimmers like scales. She races toward me.
“Cecil!” I lean forward so far the chair tips back with an ear-piercing ‘creeaak,’ a wheel crunching. I hit the ground on both knees. Her voice, so soft, so smooth, surrounds me. A singer’s voice. “Look, I’m here.”
“Happy anniversary, huh?” Fallout chuckles. I smack him in the face, and he makes a little cry and slinks back. Nebula drops to her knees and skids, mace can in hand. She shakes it and Fallout bolts, like a cat faced with a water bottle. I look up. Her mask shimmers, ponytail bouncing over her shoulder.
“N-Nebs?” My voice cracks.
Rider tilts her head, eyes so deep and dark when I look into them I think I’m falling. She speaks in a rush, words tumbling and tripping over themselves in a stampede, little gasps coming choked in between. “Fallout told me he had you and I came as soon as I could and I-I didn’t want to do anything until you were safe.” She speaks breathlessly. My stomach knots up. “And I heard what you said.” She touches my cheek. I blush. “About proposing.”
I reach for the ring, but she stops me, a hand over mine. Her glove is warm.
“Rider.” I’m choking up, like there’s a rag jammed down my throat and it turns out it’s kind of hard to propose when you’re choked up like this, about to laugh or cry or hug the darn woman. “I-I wanted it to go smoother than this.” The words come out in such a nervous tumult, my voice so shaky, so quiet. “With our anniversary and all. I wanted to get you flowers. Blue ones. Because blue is your favorite, I know, with your suit and all, and red is cliché and you aren’t a cliché woman. You’re—”
She brushes her hand across my face, and she kisses me, just a light peck on my cheek.
“Hey, hey, relax. It’s okay.” And I don’t know what to say, tingly where she touches me, warm despite the chill, except:
“Will you marry me?”
She pulls away and grins. “Sure. But first, let’s get home before the sasquatches eat us alive, partner.”