This story is by Rebekah Fernandez and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
She stepped up to the microphone, fists clenched. Behind her, eminent members of the city proper sat in a semi-circle on the outdoor platform. She ground her teeth for a long second. Through a forced smile her voice rang out, “Thank you all for coming. Every year since I first saved this illustrious city, you honor me with more—” her breath caught in her throat, “—than I deserve.”
A cheer erupted from the crowd. Thousands of citizens flocked to honor her every year on the anniversary of her debut: The Nemean Lioness. A corny title, but it fit. Her suit hugged her curves in the golden color of a lion’s hide, the symbol of a roaring lioness branded on her chest. Long ago the feline constellation, Leo, had bestowed a gift that changed her life forever.
She hadn’t wasted her powers. No, she served her people well for decades. Always a new battle to fight. The constant threat of evil men, natural disasters, and the occasional mass disruption labeled an “accident.” Her shoulders slumped at the thought of what might come next.
Running a hand through her untamed hair, she told herself to finish the speech. One more year, one more speech. “I—”
Say how proud they make you.
“I’d like to—”
Tell them how much you adore them.
“I—I can’t do this,” she whispered.
The mayor at her elbow choked and sputtered. “What did you say?”
She fixed her golden eyes on his. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore.”
The mayor threw his hand over the microphone. “You most certainly can!” His voice dropped to a dangerous octave. “And you will.”
A flash of heat seared her blood. “What’s the point?” she shouted. Her fist came down on the podium with a crash that echoed off the tall buildings in the city center. It left an unfriendly imprint in the steel. In an instant, the crowd’s cheering morphed into mumbles of confusion. Her eyes welled with tears. “I’m done.”
“Wait!” The mayor’s plea faded into the roar of the masses as she fled the celebration.
Dark shadows clung to every surface of the inner city. Each brick and stone marked a history of struggle. A history she had played a lead role in. The whole city was in her debt a million times over.
And yet, it never ends. Peace never comes.
Goosebumps crawled over her arms as she strolled down a dilapidated street. Could she abandon her city? I’m the one they call to contain the bombs, put out fires, direct citizens to safety. Never giving in to my own exhaustion, my own fears. Holding tight to the strings that keep the city afloat.
What would happen if I dropped those strings? What if I let the city burn, let the bombs go off, let the citizens find their own way out? Would that be so bad?
An explosion across the street rocked the ground. Shrapnel from an ancient apartment building rebounded off her indestructible skin. Flames clawed their way from floor to floor, waving from the windows. From the front doors, hundreds of citizens ran. Some screamed, some cried, all singed and covered in ash and smoke.
An angry twitch emerged over her right eye. She flung her face to the skies, in hopes that some higher power was listening. “A burning building? Are you serious? That’s so cliché. You’re not going to bait me with that, you hear!”
She slipped around the corner of a nearby alleyway and pressed her forehead to the cool brick.
“It’s you!” a voice called out.
Not two feet from her stood a girl of about thirteen. A fierce red wound covered her left ear and shoulder. Blood dribbled down her neck.
The hero sighed. “Please, go away.”
“But you’re the Nemean Lioness. You have to help us!”
The thought of running through another burning building put a familiar ache in her joints. “No.”
“What do you mean, no?” The girl’s face dropped.
“Not anymore. I’m done.”
“But Mr. Carchino is still in there!”
“So?” Her stomach twisted, but not enough. She swallowed the desire to save Mr. What’s-His-Name. Let him find his own way out.
The girl fell against the alley wall, wracked by a coughing fit. When she caught her breath, her eyes narrowed at the hero. An accusing gaze like a steel arrow. “Fine. I’ll do it myself.”
The girl dunked her jacket in a puddle. She tied the wet cloth around her nose and mouth, and disappeared into the flames.
Told off by a teenager. Is this what her life had come to? The girl had not only told off the most powerful human alive, but she’d run into a burning building to save her neighbor. . . The girl’s audacity intrigued the Lioness. What else could the girl do?
Sirens blared in the distance. They won’t get here in time.
“Ahhhh!” she screamed to the skies. “You’ve got to be kidding me! Okay, fine. One more job. One more, and then I’m done for good!” No voice answered.
Scorching heat engulfed the Nemean Lioness. She breathed through a scavenged cloth and climbed a wooden staircase. From apartment 2C, the acrid tang of burning flesh caught in her nostrils. She paused and bowed her head in respect.
On the third floor, she jogged toward cries of alarm. Halfway down a smoky hallway, the girl banged on a support beam that had fallen. It blocked the doorway of a flame-filled apartment. Around her shoulders hung the arms of an elderly gentleman who held the girl’s wet jacket tightly over his nose and mouth.
As soon as the hero made eye contact with the girl, she stopped banging. “We don’t need your help. I’m going to save us.”
“Sure you are.” The Lioness hefted the beam and tossed it like a matchstick.
“Maya?” Mr. Carchino tightened his grip on the girl.
Maya nodded and shoved past the Lioness, the old man trailing in her wake.
“The stairs are a no go,” she called after them. “Fire followed me up. We’ll have to take the elevator.”
“So, we take the elevator in a fire?” Maya scoffed.
She shook her head. “We’re not going to ride it. We’ll have to climb down the shaft. There are rungs for the maintenance men.”
“Oh.” The girl’s resolve weakened, but she steeled herself. “Let’s go. But I lead.”
“Be my guest.” She waved Maya forward.
Each breath through the cloth burned. Years of narrow escapes and near misses flashed through her memory. She hadn’t realized she’d stopped until it was too late. A decimated door crashed into the hall, showering her with embers. Stunned out of her memories, she dropped the cloth from her mouth. Flames dove down her throat, searing her lungs. She shook off the debris but as she gasped for air more embers saturated her lungs. Nothing compared to the agony that spread through every nerve.
Maya and Mr. Carchino made it to the elevator shaft and prepared to descend. At last, the girl spied the Nemean Lioness doubled over amidst mounds of rubble. Maya made to come back but the Lioness shook her head.
After another moment’s hesitation, Maya descended the elevator shaft with Mr. Carchino’s tiny frame wrapped around her.
The hero slumped to the ground and rolled onto her back. Her vision blurred, fingers and toes painfully numb. Funny, she thought, wasn’t I just saying I was done? Is this some kind of cosmic joke? “Does anyone up there hear me?”
“I hear you.” The girl was back, her jacket wrapped around her face again.
“You came back to save the hero?”
“Yeah, can you believe it?”
“Looks like you’re the hero now.”
“That’s great. Get up.” Maya locked their arms.
The moment they touched, a spark jumped between them. The Lioness’ feline instinct flared. A cosmic flow of energy flooded her veins, and she knew what to do.
“You’re the hero,” she whispered.
“What?” Maya asked.
“You’re the hero!” The Lioness caught a hold of the girl’s hands. She focused with all the mental energy she could summon.
A white, heatless flame surrounded the two heroes. It swirled with a life of its own, driving away the ash and smoke. Maya raised her chin and inhaled a deep breath of pure energy. She stood, taller than before, her face shining brightly. She flexed her fingers and bounced on her toes.
Once all the swirling energy had bonded with the girl’s DNA, the hero released her grip. She had never been weaker, but she also had never felt lighter. Decades of unease melted into nothingness.
Somewhere in the building another support beam crashed. A shudder rippled through her and pain returned in full force.
“You have to go now,” the Nemean Lioness rasped.
“I’m done, for good. Just like I said.”
Maya gave the Lioness’ hand a quick squeeze. “Thank you.”
The Nemean Lioness closed her eyes and smiled. “You’re the hero now.”