The thing that showed up on Thursday evening had six sticky appendages and a lot of eyes. It marched straight into town center and started wrapping itself around the capitol building. Every station is broadcasting it while I work overtime trying to finish the paperwork for month-end close.
Just your average weekday.
Everyone on the accounting team is huddling in the break room, drinking mugs of coffee or tea or sipping from flasks snuck in and watching the flat-screen TV, which is currently showing the six-armed horror trying its best to make origami out of Fourth Street.
“You coming, Bonnie?”
Stacy Mckee is peering at me from her cube, with that look she always has when she knows I’m going to say no. I say no every time, but she keeps asking. She likes to tell everyone I said no so they can start their usual remarks about me. They have a lot of remarks about me.
“No,” I mutter. “I, um, have a lot of work to do.”
“Oh come on,” she says. “You can come watch with us this once, right?”
I shake my head and keep my gaze on my computer screen. Stacy sashays past me to the break room and I hear her telling someone loudly, “Bonnie’s not coming.”
“Well, can’t be helped,” says Craig, the department head. He looks in my general direction and pushes thick glasses up his bulbous nose. “Some people just have a weak constitution.”
I pretend not to hear and secretly wish him ill under my breath.
My episodes first began at age twelve. What was initially assumed to be puberty-induced jitters due to a sudden influx of hormones quickly proved to be something more. By my thirteenth birthday I was a ball of anxiety, suffering headaches, shakes, cold sweats, and on occasion narcolepsy, all centered around one event.
This surge of fear in monsters had everyone baffled. After all, it is not exactly a rare event. I’d seen monster attacks all my life. Our city, as most major ones in the world, suffers from them regularly. They’re as common as flash floods. The city is usually a bit worse for wear after, but it recovers, as cities do. Monster attacks are as natural as the falling of the leaves or the rising of the tide.
As a child I regularly watched the monster attacks on TV with my family, waiting with bated breath for our superhero to arrive on scene. Most cities have superheroes. Most of them wear capes. I’m not a fan of capes, which was why I was always glad our hero did not wear one. Back when my episodes first began, the protector of our city was Cinder Ella, who defeated her enemies with beams of burning ember. She was beautiful, and she had a lot of fans who cheered for her and didn’t care who she was or where she came from. Superhero logistics were never that important.
As I hit my preteens, the sight of monsters began to make me ill. First mentally, then physically. I vomited and broke out in hives whenever they arrived. I didn’t want to see them on TV. I didn’t want to talk about them. I didn’t want to acknowledge them. When monsters arrived, I shut myself in my room with the lights out and hid until it was over.
Doctors insisted it’s psychosomatic. Nothing else was wrong with me physically, at least not that they could tell. I began to see therapists, who floated a lot of theories, most of which involved my concern over my own and my family’s wellbeing.
She’s afraid, they all said. Wouldn’t you be, if you always feel the monsters will take your home and family?
They were wrong but I couldn’t really explain why they were wrong. Eventually Cinder Ella disappeared, or died, or retired—no one knows. Superheroes can be very flighty; no pun intended. For a little while the police and emergency response teams dealt with the monsters, and one or two superheroes were contracted from other cities, but things were rough. Apparently the monsters hitting our city were of a higher caliber variety than average. Just as the city began to worry about its resources, a new hero arrived, one even more magnificent than her predecessor. She lit up the sky with fire like a phoenix. The city rejoiced and celebrated in her name.
And I began going to therapy twice a week and taking four kinds of mood-menders. And one stimulant, as by age fourteen my body was dealing with the fear and anxiety by falling asleep.
My head is getting swimmy. I reach into my desk drawer and find the stimulants the latest in my long list of doctors had prescribed. I take two. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.
No, that’s a lie. They never work. I just keep hoping.
Someone in the break room is shouting. Sounds like the monster has taken a break from the capitol building to fling a few cars around. Everyone is commenting on how it’s throwing them a good distance, but not quite as good as the green telepathic specter with no face that showed up back in April.
“Now that guy could really go long.”
“I don’t know,” another voice says. “Does it count if it’s levitating them? I mean, aren’t we talking about muscles here?”
“What muscles?” the first voice retorts. “This one’s practically made of jelly.” Then, just for good measure, I hear, “What do you think, Bonnie?”
I don’t respond. The question wasn’t actually aimed at me. I hear the rest of the room chuckling. I’m a joke and I don’t blame them for making me one. I’m Bonnie-Who’s-Afraid-of-Monsters.
My head is pounding now. I stand up and briefly think about getting a cup of coffee, but that would mean going into the break room and squeezing past about fifteen people sneering at me. So instead, I head to the bathroom. From the hallway window, I can vaguely make out the mayhem happening downtown. Just looking at it makes me nauseous.
“Placing bets on how long ‘til the hero shows up!” someone calls. People start to shout out increments of time.
I block it out and quickly run to the bathroom, where I lean over the sink and splash some water on my face. The monster is going back to the capitol building now. I somehow know this, even though there’s no window or TV screen or shouting coworkers nearby. I can almost see it in my mind’s eye. It’s always the same. They make some mayhem, they go to the capitol building, they throw some cars, and then…
I stumble into the nearest stall and then everything is dark.
I had an aunt I didn’t know very well. What little I remember about her consisted of cryptic phone conversations she had with her cousin—my mother—most of which consisted of “I don’t want her to wind up like you,” or “it’s not fair,” or “I don’t want you telling her that stuff, Elle!”
Shortly after my episodes began, I met her at a family gathering. She had tired eyes and very red hair like mine. I remember little about that day, only that my mother ushered me away from her quickly, but not before she told me, looking at me hard with her tired eyes, “It’s a tough job, but you have to learn to live with it. It’s a responsibility you have to the world and yourself.”
I didn’t quite understand her words. My best guess is that she meant I owe it to the people in my life to live as well as I can. I also suspected that she’s had similar issues herself and could on some level sympathize with me. But I never got to find out. Right around the time the city was awaiting its new hero, she passed away from causes unknown to me. I remember my mother taking it very hard at the funeral. Sometimes she cried at night when she thought I wasn’t listening.
I never found out what was wrong with my aunt, nor what’s wrong with me. Somehow the cause behind the symptoms didn’t seem important. What I did manage was to find a way to live, like she said. I found crutches to my anxiety through therapy, found some pills that sometimes work, and learned the signs of my onset episodes so I could minimize injuries from passing out. Sometimes I even read news articles and watch YouTube videos on the monster attacks, just to see what I had missed while I was out.
I heard about the new hero. They called her Blaze. They said she’s powerful, perhaps the most powerful superhero to rise in a long time. They said she’s beautiful, orange hair tinted with flame. They said she’s kind, saving more lives per incident than her predecessors ever did. News anchors raved about her rings of fire. Talk show hosts dressed up as her. Pop stars wrote songs about their “hearts burning, ablaze for glory.”
I’ve never seen her in action. I eventually went on to finish high school and attended a local college. I got a desk job that minimizes my contact with people, in a building with closets and bathrooms I can disappear to when my episodes flair up. I live my little, uneventful life, hiding from the monsters.
When I wake up I’m slumped over the toilet. Fortunately the lid was closed so I managed not to drown in the bowl. What an embarrassing way to go that would be.
I straighten up. My shirt is wrinkled and I think I knelt in something wet. I really hope it’s my own drool soaking into my slacks. I check my watch and I’d been out for at least half an hour. For a moment I’m glad to see that no one seems to have walked in on my sad display, then I remember if someone walked in, saw me, and left me there, I’d have no way to know.
Sighing, I get to my feet. My legs are filled with pins and needles and I wince as I push off the toilet, hopping a bit to loosen them. I wish I could say this was the first time I fell asleep with my face on the toilet lid.
When I return to the cube farm, my coworkers are packing up their stuff. A few of them give me knowing glances, smirking, but most ignore me. Judging by the conversation, the madness downtown has just wrapped up.
“Did you see when Blaze burned that thing up?” Craig is saying loudly. “Nobody does it like Blaze.”
“You’re telling me,” responds Max. I shuffle past him to my cube. “Say what you will about Superman, or Batman, or that fellow in the bumblebee costume over at Hive City, but our Blaze has them all beat.”
I forgot to lock my computer. Someone has changed my desktop wallpaper to a picture of an ostrich with its head buried in a hole. They also closed all my files instead of minimizing them and I don’t have to check to know they weren’t saved, which means all the overtime I put in today was for naught.
I pretend not to notice the picture, grab my purse and jacket, and slink away. Another day, another monster, another nervous episode for the paranoid narcoleptic. I sigh as I leave the laughter and conversation behind me and head to the elevator.
Someday I’ll find a different job, I tell myself.
Someday I’ll find a combination of pills that work for me all the time.
Someday I’ll be a stronger person.
And someday I’ll start figuring how the hell I keep singeing my sleeves. I didn’t even notice the black marks earlier, but I must’ve burned them making breakfast this morning. And now that I look at it, there’s a burn mark on the hem of my pants, too. Why do I keep doing that?? As if I don’t have enough to worry about besides buying new clothes every few weeks because I can’t seem to keep from freaking burning them all the time!
I head into the dark city and walk toward the bus stop with my head down. Sirens and honks of firetrucks come from the distance, racing to clean up after the epic battle like they always do. The air smells like a forest fire freshly put out. Just another wonderless day.