Granite killed Mr. Malevolence on a Tuesday. In his defense, Mr. Malevolence was trying to destroy the entire world at the time. Defeating him was nothing new for Granite, either—they were archenemies and had been for almost twenty years now. Saving the world was a very old dance, a box step that Granite could do backwards and blindfolded.
Tuesday was different. The difference was this: Mr. Malevolence had built his newest doom device deep in the heart of a dark forest, and when Granite threw him aside to keep the device from activating, Mr. Malevolence flew headfirst into a tree. His neck broke in four places.
Nobody was very upset about this, save a nearby squirrel, startled away by the too-loud crunching of bone. Even Granite could hardly muster up any serious amount of remorse. He went home, became Adam Acker again, kissed his girlfriend, petted his dog, returned to work at the credit union, and waited for Mr. Malevolence to improbably rise from the dead.
But the resurrection never came.
A year later, Adam had lost his girlfriend, his dog, and his job. He had also lost his most recent bout with insomnia and drank coffee by the gallon to keep himself alert. On Tuesdays, he drank particularly stale coffee with no creamer. It was usually leftover from whatever support group met before his.
Adam had found the advertisement on Craigslist three months ago: Superheroes Grieving a Nemesis for the Greater Los Angeles Area. He did not attend these meetings as Adam, of course, but as Granite, Palm Springs’s patron superhero.
Granite’s armor was gray. His mask was gray. His cape was not gray because he didn’t have a cape—he couldn’t fly. Amidst the other, more colorful superheroes, he looked like a statue, like Michelangelo’s David awkwardly placed in a Skittles commercial.
There was only one person who stood out more than he did: a newcomer dressed in a sleeveless, vinyl jumpsuit with a matching black half-mask. The jumpsuit was common enough, but black vinyl without even a splash of color smacked strongly of supervillain. Or else dominatrix, but if that was her game then she was definitely sitting in the wrong support group.
Granite was on his fourth cup of stale coffee when the newcomer walked up to the stage. Her name, she said, was Lady Obsidian. Started out evil, he figured. Probably reformed.
As it turned out, he was half-right.
“You’re a supervillain!” Captain Justice said, outraged. He jumped up from his chair, and others jumped with him. Captain Justice wasn’t the founder of the group, but many considered him the leader anyway, possibly because he had the squarest jaw. Not everyone followed his lead, but even those who remained sitting leaned back in their chairs, as if villainy might be contagious.
Granite leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands.
“My nemesis was Huracán,” Lady Obsidian said, completely ignoring Captain Justice and his shaking fists. “He died six months ago. He didn’t escape from my lava pit.” She shook her head. “He always escaped from the lava pit.”
Granite nodded. He always escaped the death traps too, just like Mr. Malevolence always broke out of maximum-security prisons. Certain things were supposed to happen. There were supposed to be rules.
Then again, if this Huracán couldn’t even escape from a simple lava pit, he clearly hadn’t been much of a superhero. How awful it must have been—Granite couldn’t imagine being condemned to forever battle such a worthless amateur; although, clearly, Lady Obsidian’s arch-rivalry had fallen well short of forever. Maybe Huracán’s death had been for the best.
Ruby Hawk cleared her throat. “It’s not that I’m unsympathetic,” she said unsympathetically. “But aren’t there support groups like this for your people?”
“You misunderstand me,” Lady Obsidian said. “I’m not interested in grieving. I’m interested in recruiting.”
The superheroes stared at her blankly.
Lady Obsidian sighed. “Listen, I’m a villain without a hero. You’re heroes without a villain. Surely I could come to some sort of arrangement with one of you?”
There was a brief, stunned silence. Then the room exploded into flying coffee cups and rage.
“You can’t just replace your nemesis,” Captain Justice said. “He’s not a—a flat tire or something!”
Reluctantly, Granite agreed with him. You could recruit an enemy, perhaps—like lovers, there were always more fish in the sea, and certainly any number of those fish might be interested in killing you—but a nemesis was much, much more than someone who simply wanted you dead.
Then again, a nemesis was supposed to be a lot more than someone who broke his neck on a tree trunk, too.
The mood in the room shifted: Captain Justice started talking about duty and heroics, and Lady Obsidian wisely departed before the superheroes could come together and storm the stage. Granite waited until the meeting was adjourned before he made his way over to the box of donuts. There were a lot to choose from—the donuts were actually worse than the coffee.
Lady Obsidian had left a stack of red business cards just beside the napkins. Her name was typed neatly across the front, along with a phone number and an email address. Granite picked up one of the cards and turned it over. There were six words printed on the back: THE WORLD WILL END IN FIRE.
“Frost,” he snorted. “Typical.”
He pocketed the card anyway.
(Also a donut. Because, stale or not, Granite had a weakness for maple.)
Adam didn’t immediately lose everything after Mr. Malevolence died. That happened six months later, and it happened because of the dreams. The dreams led to the insomnia, and the insomnia led to missing work, and missing work led to getting fired, and getting fired led to getting dumped. The dreams didn’t have anything to do with his dog, though. His dog got hit by a truck. It might have made for a good country song, but no one wrote country songs about men who wore spandex.
The dreams went like this: Adam was in the middle of a ballroom, and superheroes danced all around him, waltzing with their arch-foes. He was the only one not dressed in uniform; instead, his suit was black with a red rose pinned to the breast pocket. Only one other person wore the same rose.
Mr. Malevolence looked different without his goatee and glasses. Adam only recognized him by how his head hung awkwardly, almost sideways, from his neck.
“Coming?” Mr. Malevolence asked. Adam took his hand, and they spun around the floor together, somehow dancing without either playing lead.
But then he could no longer hear the music. The too-loud crunching of bone drowned it out, and Mr. Malevolence fell to pieces right through Adam’s hands. Adam tried to put him back together, but the flesh turned to blood and the bone turned to ash. The other dancers spun straight through it, sweeping red and white all across the floor.
Adam stood and tried to dance alone, but the blood—suddenly tacky and cold—glued his feet fast to the ground, and he screamed and screamed and screamed.
He woke from these dreams crying. His ex-girlfriend, Elise, had been horrified by this and assumed he was dreaming of his dead parents, or, at the very least, dead children. Elise wasn’t terribly bright. She congratulated him on killing Mr. Malevolence, said she was tired of being kidnapped. She had even baked a cake.
The cake was gray and tasted terrible. Adam pretended to enjoy it, shoveling it in his mouth to avoid telling her to be quiet. What was so awful about being a hostage? He protected her from any real harm. All she had to do was sit there.
He had loved Elise, of course, but Adam couldn’t say he missed her boohooing.
After he came home from the meeting, Adam set Lady Obsidian’s business card down on the coffee table and proceeded to stare at it for the next three days.
He stared at it while eating his donut. He stared at it while working out. He stared at it while making telemarketing calls and contemplating ways he could kill himself.
Finally, when he could stare at it no longer, he went into his bedroom to stare at the box instead.
The box was small and black and only held one item. Adam did not open the box. Instead, he reached out two fingers and stroked the lid, gently, as if he were soothing a nervous bunny.
“Something needs to give,” Adam told it quietly. “I need to make a change.”
He slid the box back under his bed, turned on his laptop, and began a new email.
Dear Lady Obsidian:
I was at the support meeting three days ago, and I am interested in your proposal. My nemesis died last year, and I’m tired of fighting petty criminals with no sense of panache. My ability is super-strength. I have saved the world on seventeen separate occasions. Attached is a resume for your consideration. Please contact me as soon as possible.
PS: “Fire and Ice” is an uninspired poem, cited primarily in self-indulgent fanfiction. If you insist on using Robert Frost to punch up your business cards, please at least consider superior work like “Out, Out.”
The next morning, Adam had a new message in his inbox:
Dear Literary Snob,
Your resume is quite impressive. I must admit that I am newer to the business and have only worked at the national level, but I can assure you that I am no amateur.
I am the result of a lab experiment gone wrong, and my body has three separate forms: flesh, magma, and obsidian. In magma form, I can shoot lava from my palms. In obsidian form, my whole body is stone and invulnerable to harm.
Do you know Bartleby’s Coffee downtown? I’d like to meet you face-to-face, presuming you can hold off on any poetry diatribes long enough for us to get some work done.
PS: “Out, Out” is cool, but it doesn’t exactly scream villainy, does it? And Frost is awesome. “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is my favorite, and yes, I’ve written Outsiders fanfiction. Ha!
Dear Lady Obsidian,
I know Bartleby’s. Shall we say Thursday, five or six p.m.?
PS: I am going to pretend your last post-script never happened because I still want to respect you.
Mr. Stick Up His Ass,
6 would be great. See you then.
PS: That’s fine. I’m still trying to pretend you have a sense of humor.
PPS: Don’t forget a disguise!
Any superhero worth his salt had at least four different civilian disguises. Adam had thirteen standbys, but this was something of a special occasion. It took three different thrift stores and a costume shop to put together Professor Nathan Goodfellow. He looked just like an English professor ought to: wrinkled pants, tweed jacket, thick glasses, and an Einstein wig. His old age makeup was not particularly convincing, but it at least concealed the contours of his face.
Adam wanted to pin a red rose to his jacket, but decided, reluctantly, that Goodfellow wouldn’t wear one.
Lady Obsidian was already there when he arrived. Despite the red wig and large, dark sunglasses, Adam recognized her immediately. It would be hard not to: she was wearing dark jeans and a black T-shirt that said “ROBERT FROST IS MY HOMEBOY.”
There was a rose on the table. He tried not to stare at it.
Adam ordered a large coffee, black, and sipped it as he walked over to her. Lady Obsidian grinned as he sat down. “So you do have a sense of humor,” she said.
“Occasionally,” Adam said. He took another sip of his coffee and realized he had no idea what else to say. It was like being on a blind date, but worse. “With Mr. Malevolence,” he started . . . but that was probably rude, talking about your dead nemesis with your potential living one.
Lady Obsidian just laughed. “Let me guess,” she said. “He killed your parents.”
Adam smiled ruefully. His story was so traditional it was practically vintage. “I never wanted to be a superhero,” he admitted. “Not even when my powers manifested. I just wanted to be a cowboy. But when a supervillain murders your parents . . .”
“Tell me about it. I wanted to be a pop star.”
He could not imagine her as a pop star. “What happened?”
“I was kidnapped by a secret branch of the government who decided that my test scores made me a good candidate for their experiment in radical gene therapy.”
Adam nodded. He wondered if Huracán was another test subject. “Which branch of the government was it?”
“Why? Are you going to punish them?”
“Maybe.” He had dealt with government agencies before, and if he even suspected that they were responsible for child abductions in Palm Springs—
But Lady Obsidian shook her head. “That’s sweet,” she said. “Really, but there’s no need. They’re all gone now.”
She smiled at him over her cup.
Adam leaned forward. “What did it feel like?” he asked quietly. “Killing them all, getting revenge?”
She took a sip and considered. “A lot like this hot chocolate,” she finally decided. “Warm and sweet. Why? How did it taste when you killed your Mr. Malevolence?”
She probably expected him to say bitter, but it hadn’t tasted bitter at all. It hadn’t tasted sweet, either. “Wrong. Like ordering a steak sandwich and getting a fish one instead.”
“Why do you think it felt like that?”
“Because maybe . . . maybe . . .”
He finished his coffee instead of the thought. “Listen,” he said. “I want this to work; I do. But we’re probably kidding ourselves here. It’s not supposed to be like this.”
“No,” Lady Obsidian said. “It’s not. They weren’t supposed to die without us, and we shouldn’t be here without them. But they did, and we are, and I am ready to move on.”
“Listen.” Lady Obsidian tilted her head. “‘We must continue our course with the rest and learn to think ourselves fortunate whilst one remains who the spoiler has not seized.’”
Adam frowned. “Did you just . . . quote Frankenstein at me?”
“Yes, and you actually recognized the quote. We’re the same, you and I. Admittedly, you’re a bit pretentious—”
“It’s not pretentious if your opinions are accurate.”
“Like I was saying. But that’s okay. Heroes should be smug, condescending bastards. You’ll give speeches about doing the right thing, and I’ll tempt you to the dark side by hurting the ones you love. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?”
It did. God, it did.
“We’re the same,” Lady Obsidian said again. “You have no idea how refreshing it is to say that and actually mean it.”
Adam laughed despite himself. He drummed his fingers against the empty cup.
“Pop star, huh?” he asked. “Can you even sing?”
“No,” Lady Obsidian said. “But why would that stop me?”
For the first time in months, the dream changed.
The dance was strange, hurried. Mr. Malevolence was leading, and when Adam pulled back, he saw that his partner’s rose was missing. He got on his hands and knees, frantically searching, until he saw it dangling from Lady Obsidian’s wrist.
She was standing across the room, holding a Venetian mask close to her face. He only made it a few steps before something sharp sliced up his spine, and then Mr. Malevolence was picking him up and awkwardly dragging him around the room. “She can’t cut in,” Mr. Malevolence said. “This dance belongs to me.”
But Adam couldn’t belong to him because he kept slipping in his own blood trying to keep up.
Adam woke up slow and found his fingers already reaching for the business card. He looked at it for a while and then pulled the little black box out from under his bed. He set it in his lap. He opened it. Inside was a pair of broken glasses.
Adam carefully slid them on his face. The black frames were so mangled that they barely hooked over his ears. The glass in the right lens was completely gone, the glass in the left cracked from the force of impact. It was incredibly hard to focus. Mr. Malevolence’s eyesight had been terrible.
Adam walked to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. He thought he might see something significant, but he just looked like a crazy person.
These couldn’t be the glasses of his nemesis because his nemesis wasn’t dead because his nemesis wasn’t Mr. Malevolence. Why had they become archenemies in the first place—simply because the man had murdered Adam’s parents? They had nothing in common, and yet they still weren’t opposites. Mr. Malevolence didn’t have abilities. He was just a mad scientist with an abnormally high kill count. He certainly couldn’t quote Mary Shelley—Adam wasn’t convinced the dead doctor had even liked to read.
Granite versus Mr. Malevolence? It made no sense at all.
But Granite versus Lady Obsidian . . . super-strength versus invulnerability . . . how could he have been so blind? Why hadn’t he seen it before?
Adam couldn’t toss the glasses in the garbage. Nemesis or not, Mr. Malevolence had been dear to him, the first stage in a journey to finding his lesser half. Instead, Adam took the glasses off and placed them back inside the box. Then he slid the box back under his bed and sat down at his computer.
Dear Lady Obsidian,
Perhaps we should try staging a couple of fights in order to get into the rhythm of things. I know an abandoned warehouse in the desert that would be quite suitable. Does Saturday morning sound good?
Sat at 8. Sounds good. Send directions.
PS: “I no doubt deserve my enemies, but I don’t believe I deserve my friends.”
On Saturday, Adam brushed his teeth, put on his uniform, and became Granite. He arrived five minutes early, but Lady Obsidian still beat him. He considered saying “hello” and instead said, “Walt Whitman.”
She grinned. “I’ll give you something harder next time.”
Granite and Lady Obsidian met at the warehouse twice a week for eight weeks, testing out their battle chemistry and planning the scope of their first narrative arc. Granite was itching for the big stuff—the world in peril, nuclear bombs—but he knew they had to start small. They drew up a basic outline: Lady Obsidian would commit six small-scale crimes, all leading up to one master plan that would threaten everyone in Palm Springs.
Granite didn’t know the details, of course. He would have to figure it out for himself and attempt to stop her, or else they were simply actors indulging in a stage play.
Their first sparring match was decent, and Granite felt confident they would improve with practice. But even he had no idea how rapidly they would evolve. By the end of the second week, they transcended from a mess of sweaty arms and legs to something else entirely, something unified, cohesive, beautiful.
Granite’s body was black and blue in places he hadn’t known it was possible to bruise, but it was all worth it. He hadn’t felt this alive in years. He was almost a little sad, when they decided they were ready to begin fighting for real. Looking forward to sparring sessions had gotten him through the mindless days of telemarketing calls and post office runs.
He couldn’t end it like this. They needed to celebrate their graduation.
“Do you want to get lunch or something?”
“Sure,” Lady Obsidian said. “Let me just grab a disguise.”
Lady Obsidian dressed as a clown. He dressed as a mime, and followed her to the park, where they walked around, playing literary charades and eating hot dogs together.
It was hard not to think of the wasted years before they had found each other. Adam wished he had the power to change their pasts. He wished she had been the one to kill his parents.
They stopped at a bench to feed the birds. “This is nice,” Lady Obsidian said softly.
Adam couldn’t help but agree.
He honked her nose. She laughed.
The first few crimes were bank robberies. Granite saved the hostages from an onslaught of lava, but she always got away with the cash. He did catch her at a research center once, but this ended up being a part of her plan. She escaped custody three hours later with rare diamonds lifted from the evidence locker.
It was a good sign.
The research center also began a change in her M.O., and Granite was grateful for the shift. Bank jobs were boring. Research centers, though—that would lead him to her ultimate goal. Whatever weapon she was building, it clearly had something to do with geology. He wondered if it would create a volcano. Volcanoes were tough. You couldn’t defuse a volcano.
He chased her around the city, and she tried to kill him twice. Their battles verged on epic, and the press started paying attention. In between the kicks and punches and witty repartee, Granite and Lady Obsidian whispered book titles to one another. To Kill a Mockingbird, he murmured when he broke her left arm. She was in too much pain for a witty comeback, but she managed to nearly melt his face off before escaping in a stolen dive-bomber.
Adam went to bed that night, the smell of singed hair lulling him to sleep, and dreamt once more of the ballroom. This time, he made it to Lady Obsidian and danced until they were the only ones left in the room. Then she leaned close and spoke in his ear. “How much do you really remember about your parents?”
He opened his mouth, and she shoved a dagger through it. He heard his teeth crack and crumble apart. She kissed him through a mouthful of blood and whispered, “You saw what I wanted you to see. Mr. Malevolence was a pawn.”
Adam woke then, fingers in his mouth, trying to catch pieces of broken teeth in his palm. He didn’t move for a long time, not even to withdraw his hand.
Could it be true? His dreams had never been prophetic, but hadn’t he known, somewhere deep down, that Mr. Malevolence was not his nemesis? He had simply wanted to believe it—maybe this, too, was merely something he had deluded himself into thinking. Of course, it seemed unlikely that Lady Obsidian could have been responsible—she’d have been a child at the time—but who knew when she’d been experimented upon? She could have been vicious from the start.
Lady Obsidian had never given any indication she even knew who his parents were, but she might merely have been biding her time. Villains liked to do that. They had a good sense of structure.
She was building to a climax, and with closing chapters came revelations.
Adam couldn’t wait to hear them. He was ready for their first last dance.
“It’s too late,” Lady Obsidian said. “I’ve rigged up hundreds of these devices. As soon as I push this button, a river of lava will erupt from beneath the city and drown every man, woman, and child.”
Granite was a little disappointed. He had hoped for an actual volcano.
Lady Obsidian’s secret headquarters turned out to be their training warehouse in the desert, a sentimental choice that Granite wanted to chide her for—but just couldn’t. He took a step toward her, eyeing the long, black fingernail hovering over the red button. “You don’t have to do this. Those people didn’t hurt you. They’re innocent.”
There were no cameras around, but some things had to be said, even if no one was watching. There were supposed to be rules—life meant nothing without them.
Lady Obsidian laughed. “No one’s innocent,” she said. “You should know that better than most.”
She lowered her finger. Granite lunged for the remote.
Lady Obsidian became obsidian just as their bodies collided. The controller flew out of her hand, bouncing and skittering to a stop, but she barely took a step backwards, while the force of the impact had him on hands and knees. She kicked him under the chin, soccer-style, and he landed hard on his back, only barely managing to roll away before she brought her stone fists down on his skull.
He leapt up and charged, his fists a gray blur, but she easily absorbed each blow as if he was hitting her in the face with a feather pillow. His knuckles seemed to shatter and pop underneath the skin and blood dripped down his fingers to pool on the floor, but still he kept hitting because he had to, because good always triumphed in the end.
Lady Obsidian’s left hook caught him on the temple, and he stumbled backwards, falling to the ground and bouncing his head against a wooden crate. By the time he got to his feet, Lady Obsidian was almost at the controller. He lunged for her again, this time catching her by the left arm and gripping so hard that anyone else’s bone would have exploded into white confetti. She barely seemed to react, still turned away, reaching for the remote with her other hand. Her fingers skirted just over the button that would spell the demise of Palm Springs.
Granite twisted Lady Obsidian’s arm back as hard as he could.
And the sound . . . it was not the crunching of bone, but a snapping, impossibly loud, a tree breaking in half. Lady Obsidian stopped pulling away to turn back and look.
The stone arm had torn clear from her shoulder. It was still in Granite’s hand.
Lady Obsidian’s lips parted, but the rest of her face stayed still. She didn’t seem to recognize the arm as a thing that belonged to her. Granite watched the black stone drain from her skin, leaving her face bone white. Blood spurted twice from the hole where her arm had been and then flooded down her side. “But,” Lady Obsidian said, and then slowly slumped to the floor.
Granite stared at the arm in his hand, now milk flesh with long, delicate fingers. He gently set it aside and lay down on the floor beside Lady Obsidian. Her mouth was still slightly open. She rolled her eyes to look at him, sluggishly blinking once, twice. Then she was still.
He stared at her for a long time, only inches from her face. Her blood pooled across the floor, seeped through his costume, cooled against his skin. He didn’t shy away from it. Eventually, he lifted his fingers and gently cupped her face.
“‘My mother was dead,’” Granite said, “‘but we still had duties which we ought to perform. We must continue our course.’ Frankenstein. You know the rest.”
He kissed her on the forehead. It was unpleasantly cold.
Granite buried her body in the desert, a few miles away from the warehouse. Killing a supervillain wasn’t exactly a crime, but ripping a woman’s arm off never looked good, no matter what she had been planning to do to the city. Better no one ever know about her death or their arrangement.
Granite went home, took off his uniform, and became Adam Acker again. He washed the blood off his skin and brushed his teeth and flossed. There was an episode of Jeopardy waiting for him, but he wasn’t up to watching it yet. Instead, he went to his computer, deleted Lady Obsidian’s emails, and stared at her red business card.
“We weren’t wrong,” he told it. “Not entirely, anyway. We were just wrong for each other. That has to be it.”
Granite and Lady Obsidian, they had been too similar. Both young, both booklovers . . . they would have made better allies than enemies. His real nemesis would be his polar opposite, the dark to his light, the yin to his yang.
Adam didn’t know what the opposite of granite was, but it was out there somewhere, waiting for him.
He went into his bedroom, pulled out the little, black box, and slid Lady Obsidian’s business card inside. Mr. Malevolence’s broken glasses took up a lot of space. Adam hoped finding his true nemesis wouldn’t take too long.
Otherwise, he’d need a bigger box.
© 2013 by Carlie St. George.