By Ilana Masad
On the morning of the day that Flor Celestin attained her superpowers she still drank a mug of black tea with milk mixed into it. She’d been making bad choices for a while, but drinking tea wasn’t one of them. It just was. A comfort, a morning blessing. An ablution.
Flor had been planning for some time. It was just like she’d imagined it. She nodded at the sky’s mix of clouds, creeping down the greyscale to a blackened horizon hovering above the ocean. By nightfall, Flor knew from experience, the water would be rising and falling in heaving swells and she would attain her final power.
She didn’t wash the mug. She kissed it for luck, though, smoothing her lips on the nose of the fading painted cow baked into the sheen.
Leaving the apartment was easy. Flor stretched in the elevator on the way down, trying to get loose, underarms dribbling stains into her shirt. The golden doors of the elevator slid open. The lobby blasted air-conditioning in her face. She closed her eyes and spread her arms. She wished that this could become her trademarked position: spreadeagled, a picture of animalistic humanity, a premonition of her fully fledged self. She was beautiful. She felt beautiful.
The doorman was coming in as she stepped into the lobby. She knew immediately that he’d been out smoking, could smell it on him from yards away. His eyeballs appeared to float in tears caused by the wind outside. Flor heard the rattle in his chest before he coughed and for the first time saw freckles on his dark cheeks.
He never opened the door for her. Their mutual enmity belonged, Flor felt, to a less important time, and she smiled at him as she left. She felt miniscule flakes of skin drift off her face as her cheeks moved into and out of the gesture.
Her smile widened, baring teeth, as she realised that her senses were unnaturally sharp, heightened. This was it, the first superpower. She walked towards the corner of her street, to the drug store.
The stench of medicine mixed with cleaning supplies shot up her nostrils as another set of doors slid open for her. As she paced down an aisle, the candy-bar wrappers looked especially beautiful, and Flor appreciated their specificity of colour and typographical perfection.
A woman in a silvery cloche hat had a shopping basket filled to the brim with beauty products. She was staring at the chocolate gift boxes with one hand pulled low with the basket’s weight and the other buried under her hair, presumably holding a cell-phone. She was talking loudly at someone.
‘But are they allergic to anything? You know some people – yes, to coconut. Uh-huh. No, it’s a real thing, like Luke had this, what do you call it, an anaphylactic shock or something?’
Flor turned to the wall of candy bars, trying not to laugh. The woman’s accent was verging on fake-British and Flor was reminded of the old black and white movies she’d watched late at night when she couldn’t sleep, the ones in which all the actors had that strange transatlantic way of speaking that was reminiscent of both New York and England. She hoped the woman was an actress. Flor vaguely remembered wanting to be an actress once.
Other than the woman, there was no one around. Flor didn’t know whether there were cameras, but she felt it was time. She was pretty sure it was already happening. To try it out, she took a Butterfinger off the shelf and looked straight at the maybe-actress.
The woman now held a long brown box tied with a red ribbon and stared absently down the aisle, not so much at, Flor was certain, but through her. Slowly, deliberately, Flor put the Butterfinger into her back pocket. Their gazes locked. And there it was – the woman had seen nothing.
Flor turned around, and walked out of the store. The clerk behind the only open register didn’t look up from his chirping phone. He didn’t react to the doors opening. Flor felt her skin tingle, goosebumps rising. It felt right. She had achieved invisibility.
She ate her Butterfinger as she walked towards the boardwalk. The sun wove through clouds and the wind had relaxed into a breeze. People were out, but no one spared her a glance. She knocked into someone on purpose, a suited man hurrying towards a bus that was waiting at a station, and he kept going, eyes front. Things were going well.
The sticky gooeyness of chocolate and caramel felt exquisite in her mouth, her heightened senses letting her absorb the flavour like never before. She closed her eyes and kept walking, step after step, blind. She wasn’t scared of anything for the first time in months, maybe years.
She paused to lean on the stone balcony that separated the raised boardwalk from the beach. She sucked the wrapper clean. The waves and the seagulls called to her. How many hours of her life had she spent watching this vastness? She didn’t want to count. The tally would be too plentiful, too painful.
Today, though, the view was far more dangerous. She could stay here forever, unnoticed, alone. Reality could stop right here. The moist scent of salt permeated her breaths and the rhythmic surf sang its lullaby.
She tugged herself away with a euphoria that convinced her she was doing the right thing. She was so close to the final step, her absolute superpower. Just one more to go and she’d be ready.
She began to run. Jogging at first, taking her time, letting her diaphragm get used to the bouncing of her body. She passed the walkers easily, those who meandered through the lovely afternoon. How was it afternoon already? She must have stopped for longer than she realised at the drugstore, or maybe she’d lost herself watching the sea again.
The stress in her legs felt good, as correct as it had been when she’d run cross-country in high school. She sped up, fists clenching tighter. Quicker. Faster. Zipping by the other runners with the sound of the wind in her ears. Her hair streamed behind her. She surpassed everyone, running further and farther, down to the lighthouse at the end of the boardwalk where there was nobody. And she knew, as she ran, that she had attained her penultimate superpower: inhuman speed.
The lighthouse door banged onto the metal piping that ran down the inside. It wasn’t a romantic spot. It was dirty, full of human excrement and empty fire circles. The walls were covered in poor graffiti. A few human-shaped coats slumped in a corner behind a few metal barrels. Syringes were scattered around them. Flor wasn’t sure whether they were breathing or not.
She didn’t pause to check. It wasn’t her job. She wasn’t that kind of superhero.
She began to climb the rickety metal stairs that hung on the inside of the tower, looping around up to the top. This place used to be a tourist site until a few years ago a bad hurricane ruined the tower’s peak. The city hadn’t gotten around to funding its repair. The stairs were still sound, more or less, from years of health-and-safety maintenance. It meant she could get to the top, outside, to test her final superpower.
By the time she reached the topmost platform, she was panting. Other than the Butterfinger, she hadn’t eaten anything all day. Her ribs ached and her throat tasted coppery. Her legs wobbled. She slumped against the wall next to the top step and felt the blood pulsing through her body, the drumming in her ears, the fluttering of her eyelids. She was exhausted.
She was ready.
There was no door, only a gap-tooth of an entryway onto the platform that ran around the top of the lighthouse. It was much colder up here. Flor shivered and clung to herself, expectation mounting. She was solid in her own embrace, her body so real and present that it made the storm clouds moving nearer surreal, as if they were painted onto a canvas of her own imagination.
Right here, facing the sea, was the place. This was where it would happen. She leaned on the stone wall that ran all around the circular platform. It was waist-height, so she could let her head dangle freely in space. The long way down made her dizzy, just as she’d planned. As the blood rushed to her head, she felt her final superpower crashing into her.
Green and red splotches filled her sight as the day everything had happened came back to her in a whirl. She was time-traveling, the last three years of her life melding together in their similarity, uneventfully lonely. The day of the attack thrust itself forward and she straightened up. Instead of the ocean, she saw it all again.
The man with the white eyebrows, red lips and trench-coat strolling around the lighthouse platform. Her parents, holding hands and grey-haired, telling her for the nth time the story of how they’d met on a cruise ship, very like the one just visible on the horizon. The man with the white eyebrows pausing a dozen yards from them and leaning on the stone wall, looking in at the people instead of out. Thinking that he reminded her of a balloon salesman from her childhood. The dreamlike serenity that engulfed her, even as it dissolved into a terrible reality.
The shots. The screams. The rush to the hospital. The identification of things that used to be her parents. The trial. The pointlessness of the trial. The way her mind seemed to have been rendered mute and her ears rang with static and her eyes fuzzed with images of television snow.
Flor stopped the zooming events unfolding. She opened her eyes to see the stains on the concrete that had never been washed away.
Down at the bottom of the tower again, one of the coats had gotten up and was urinating on a wall. ‘Hey, lady!' he yelled at her. 'Shouldn’t go up there! It’s haunted. Bunch o’ people got shot there a few years back.’
Flor walked into the square of light by the door. The coat laughed. ‘Oh. It’s you.’ Flor ignored him. Her parents had taught her not to talk to strangers.
‘See you tomorrow,’ the coat called after her.
She let the door hang open and walked home, a superhero.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer living in NYC. She is the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast dedicated to new, emerging, and struggling writers. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney's, The Toast, Printer's Row, and more.
You can find her at ilanamasad.com, slightlyignorant.com and @ilanaslightly.
Enjoyed this story? Sign up to Unsung Shorts and get a new short story delivered to your inbox every fortnight.