Ten years ago, I stood on a rooftop alone. In front of me, a many-winged beast clung to the wires between traffic lights, drooling sparks onto the asphalt. I summoned a bright arrow from my wishing star and readied my bow. I had to defeat this false angel, rescue civilians, and heal the injured, and I had to do it all by myself, because nobody else would.
When I leapt, my leading ankle struck the roof’s edge and twisted. I pitched backward, sending my arrow streaking up into the heavens. The underbelly of the clouds glowed golden, the streetlights amber.
I saw into every apartment window as I fell. I saw the dishes and the laundry and the piles of bills. My own reflection plummeted past them, petticoats floating, star gleaming at my neck. None of the people inside looked at me.
Be not afraid, sang the beast, chewing on a street sign, but I wasn’t afraid. I was a hero, a savior, the hope of the masses. I was a magical girl. I didn’t have that privilege.
Then I died.
• • • •
Splatters of hair dye stain my hands, no matter how carefully I paint on the lavender. It doesn’t matter. It will never look the way it used to. I used up all my magic coming back to life, and even after a decade, I still can’t match that otherworldly color.
When I open my door to dry my hair, I hear the sound of chimes. Somewhere nearby, a magical girl is transforming in a cloud of luster dust and ribbons. I frown and make my way to my porch chair, favoring the ankle that never healed right. Magic in the air makes it ache. The sky is a violent pink, and a loathsome serpent paints it brighter with each swivel of its coils. A blue spark rises to meet it.
They say the magical girls will save us. I think that’s a shitty battle cry, but I don’t have a better one. After all, I can’t fight anymore.
My phone rings as the distant magical girl slices off the serpent’s head. Ichor drips down the sky, showering the city center in rose gold rain. Two more heads grow from the stump of the beast’s neck. My caller ID says Lyric.
“Hey, Plum. You’re on the news, babes. Ten-year anniversary. Wanna celebrate?”
“I could use some company,” I admit.
“I’ll bring drinks.”
Mist approaches my suburb, smelling of copper and petals. I won’t be able to catch the sun after all.
I limp back inside and wait on my couch. Wand charms with plastic moons dangle from my phone, reminding me that nostalgia is just a tap away. I’ll hold out for Lyric, though. She knows what it’s like to be a dead girl. She didn’t run out of magic in a final burst like I did, just fought until there was nothing left, but it doesn’t really make a difference. On the scoreboard of burnout bingo, we’ve both got a blackout.
• • • •
By the time Lyric shows up at my door, clutching a bottle of cheap rosé, the serpent has grown twenty-four heads. The magical girl in the sky is still slicing them off. What else can she do? She’s no Greek hero. She probably hasn’t even gotten to that myth in school.
“I see you’re purple again.” Lyric’s own hair is buzzed off, right to the root. It used to glow.
“I was going for lavender.” I undo my chain latch and swing the door open, welcoming her into the mess that is my home. “How bad’s the show this time?”
“Just the usual. Old clips, fanart, theories . . . Here, look up ‘Magical Girl Plum: A Retrospective.’” We curl up on the couch. Lyric pops the top of the rosé and uses it to gesture to my laptop as I type in the title.
“Drink when they use the word ‘prodigy’?”
“You’re on.” Lyric passes me the rosé.
The video is just what I expected it to be, and yet it makes something thrum deep in my chest. There I am on screen, holding my own, aiming my bow at the lure of a shadow-swimming angler fish, one year before I died. My arrow flies brave and true.
Fighting was a terrible burden, but the magic used to come so naturally to me. I just had to wish on my star and the power I needed would be there in my hand. I wasn’t just a magical girl, I was the best, brightest magical girl. Then I died, and nothing was ever easy again. No matter how hard I tried.
“She had so much potential,” says an academic scholar. “I truly think that if Plum had lived, she could have turned the tide of the war.”
“Hey, stop that.” Lyric takes my hand. I’ve been pressing my fingers against my collarbone again, leaving red marks where my pendant once sat.
“Why blame me? When did they ever help?” I glare, near tears, at the scholar.
“It’s all right, Plum. You were just a kid. It wasn’t your fault.”
That’s the free space of burnout bingo.
• • • •
Something loud crashes into my hazy sleep. I claw out of my tangle of blankets and peer at the hydra that has broken my roof, then reach for my wishing star.
“That’s not going to work, babes,” Lyric says.
The haze clears. My star pendant shattered long ago. The hydra’s heads are everywhere, drooling molten gold and snapping at Lyric, who is fending them off with my laptop. Pinned beneath the beast’s coils is a magical girl. Her hair is blue, but the roots at her scalp are as dark brown as mine.
“Hey, kid,” I mumble. “What’s wrong with your hair?”
“Plum, focus.” Lyric bats away another fang.
“What’s wrong with yours?” the girl croaks out. Streaks of blood and ichor coat her split lips like gloss.
“Same thing.” I step forward, dodging blows, and wedge my hands between the hydra and the girl. She glares at me until I find a switch and flip it, firing her jetpack into the soft meat of the hydra’s belly. She snatches up her sword when the beast jerks back. She’s winded, though, and her crushed arm is a wreck of gore. As Lyric and I fend off the hydra, the girl weakens further. No magic means no healing.
Unlike the middle schooler bleeding out in my living room, I’ve read the myth of the hydra. I run for my lighter and some purple hairspray. Behind me, I hear Lyric’s voice, as soft and sweet as it was when it held magic.
“Give me your sword,” she says to the girl. “You can rest now.”
The spark wheel rolls easily under my thumb, sending up a shower of golden light that comes close to the magic I remember. Then I press the hairspray trigger and send a cone of flame toward the raw stump of the hydra’s nearest neck. The wound cauterizes with a smell like gasoline and roadkill. No new heads grow.
Lyric hacks through another hydra neck with several messy chops and leaves it for me, already moving on to wrestle with the next head. She’s brutal, not efficient. I follow in her wake with fire.
We slash and burn, over and over again, doing damage no renter’s insurance will cover. The girl slumps in a corner, making calls on her phone. She has the same plastic charms I do.
The fight feels different than it did when I was young. I’m stronger now, and taller, with tricks to make up for the magic I’ve lost. I still don’t know what I’m doing, but at least I have a better idea. I feel alive again.
“Hold on, kid.” There are so many heads. My arms start to ache. Eventually, the glory fades, leaving only the fight.
By the time the hydra is dead, so is the girl. She’s not going to get my second chance.
• • • •
Lyric stands aside as I cross the room and take the dead girl’s phone. Instead of a parent, I’m greeted by the voice of another teenager.
“Aqua?” she asks, hesitant. “Is that you?”
“No.” I feel like I’m falling again. “But I’m with her. My name’s Plum.”
“Plum? No way! You’re my hero!”
“Aqua should be your hero, not me.” All I’ve done for a decade is mourn my own past while a new generation picked up the pieces of the world.
“She’s dead, isn’t she.” The teenager’s excitement has gone out like a snuffed candle.
“She knew the risks.” Familiar chimes ring out behind her hollow voice as she begins to transform, to take up the fight.
“Wait, let me give you my number. If you need to talk, or need some backup, call me anytime.” It’s time for me to grow up. I bite my lip, reaching back ten years for the words I never dared to wish for. “You don’t have to do this alone anymore.”
Spread the word!