I married too young. I was fresh out of high school and still going by “Mighty Girl,” even though I was technically a woman. HOUSE—the Homeland Organization of Undercover Super Enforcers—assigned Mighty Man, one of their first recruits, to check out all the places where super-phenomena had been reported and track down more superheroes for the program. Tales of a seventeen-year-old meteor crater and mighty me drew him to Anytown, Illinois.
Looking back, it seems inevitable I’d fall for him. I loved everything about him—his broad shoulders, the deep cleft in his chin, his super-strength (finally I had a wrestling partner!). He even helped me recover memories of my alien origins by having Karma Boy hypnotize me.
Added to this was the thrill of our work for HOUSE, flitting from one continent to another, joining forces to fight terrorism and promote liberty and justice everywhere. Of course I said “Yes” when he asked me.
Only later, on maternity leave with our daughter Ampeera, did I take a hard look at my super-mate. We were arguing a lot. He didn’t like it that I wanted to change my superhero name to “Mighty Woman.” He said it wasn’t catchy—but really he believed that my quest for personal growth was damaging superhero solidarity, and, more importantly, our daughter. Though she liked to run around the house playing “save the world,” Ampeera hadn’t exhibited any actual signs of mightiness, and worse, she had unexplained seizures. My husband thought I, as the mother, should stay home with her more.
I wasn’t admirable, either, mind you. Even though neither of us was a super-geneticist, I suggested that his genes were most likely to blame for Ampeera’s problems, since he had become super by playing in a chemical dumpsite, whereas my powers were hereditary. I told him he was bossy and overbearing, and I very grandly insisted he was the one hurting superheroes by proclaiming his mightiness all over the place instead of recognizing the sacred duty we all had to work together for good.
Inevitably, we grew apart. When I went back to work part-time—a compromise—he discouraged me from taking the highest-risk jobs. To humor him, I stayed home fighting street crime, while he reined in lawless corporations and put the kibosh on dangerous underworld organizations all over the globe.
One day he came home, asked me as usual if there’d been any mightiness from Ampeera. He was always much more concerned about this than her seizures, which he rarely saw. When I could report nothing encouraging, he told me he’d met someone. I guess it shouldn’t have come as a shock, but it did.
A few months later, he and Helicopter Mom were engaged, and after a few more months and an ugly custody battle (even though Helicopter Mom already had three super-kids of her own), they got Ampeera every other weekend. The rest of the time she and I were on our own.
In my bid to gain custody, I’d agreed to go on reserve with HOUSE. I would only be called in emergency situations when no one else was available, so I’d be able to devote my time to our daughter’s “problems.” I’ve always enjoyed my time with my daughter, and I still did, but suddenly losing my husband, my job, and most of my social life with superhero colleagues definitely made a big hole in my life.
Austin, my only close friend and confidant from Anytown High, suggested I try the PowerPairs app. Apart from my family and some high-up government officials, Austin was still the only non-superhero who knew that impatient, often irritable single mom Laurie Sedlak was really Mighty Woman. One night we met up at a bar in Megatropolis and sat in a dark booth at the back. He listened patiently as I told him of my aimless studies, my fears that Helicopter Mom would push my ex to make another bid for custody, and my deeper fear that Ampeera would be better off with her dad and a super-involved stepmom than with washed-up, neurotic me.
Finally, he raised his hand like a traffic cop. “Stop! Just stop,” he said. “Get a grip. You are the only mom Ampeera has, and she is a lucky little girl who loves you. Am I right?”
“I guess,” I said miserably, taking a big gulp of my mojito. He wasn’t going to cheer me up that easily, but it wouldn’t hurt to let him try.
“Listen,” he said, getting down to business. “The only thing wrong with you is that, for some reason totally beyond my comprehension, you can’t see that getting rid of the pompous Macy’s Parade balloon you married is the best thing that ever happened to you.”
I raised misty eyes from the depths of my empty glass. “You really think so?”
“I know so,” he said, pouring me another. “Tell me again how many times you had to wash his cape after he insisted on changing in a porta-potty.”
I couldn’t help smiling a little at the memory. “Not his finest moment.”
Austin shook his head. “Believe me, you can do so much better. You just have to get out there.”
“How?” I asked. “I can’t just start seeing someone. Besides the fact that your average guy is intimidated by just an ordinary woman, never mind one who can crush a car with her bare hands, there’s all the security hoops he’d have to jump through to satisfy the government, and even then there’s always the danger that some enemy of truth and justice will take him hostage to get to me. And that brings up another problem. Even if I did meet someone willing to put up with me and my super-baggage, I would only be able to go out with him if Ampeera’s father and stepmom could watch her. You know I never feel safe unless she has a superhero to protect her, and Helicopter Mom says I shouldn’t trust super-sitters, even if I could get one, because they’re likely to leave the kid to fend for herself and jet off to the first crime-stopping photo op that comes along.”
All the time I’d been talking, I’d slumped farther and farther forward. In the end, I let my head drop facedown on my arm, so my nose nearly touched the scarred wooden table. Austin poked me gently with his swizzle stick. “Hey.”
“What,” I said into the table.
“I have a solution for you.”
“You do?” I raised my head a little. I had great faith in him, but his only super power was friendship.
He leaned forward. “I saw it on that show, Superhero 9-1-1.”
In case there’s still someone out there who hasn’t seen it, the show follows superheroes down on their luck as they try to pick themselves back up. Like when Karma Boy experimented by doing evil deeds—so self-destructive—or the time Yoga Girl got depressed and couldn’t turn herself into a pretzel or levitate anymore. People love to see extraordinary beings come to grief. I hadn’t thought I’d sunk that low, but maybe Austin had a more realistic perspective. “You think I’m as bad as that?” I asked, going for the table again.
“No!” he exclaimed. “You pick that pretty face up right now, young lady. I just saw this one episode where Hot Dude and Superbabe split up, and they both used this new superhero dating app, PowerPairs, to find new mates.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I didn’t feel ready to put myself out there like that.
“Oh come on, Laurie,” he coaxed.
I gulped down my drink and came to a decision. “I’ll do it if you will.”
He looked at me blankly. “But I can’t go on PowerPairs. I’m not a superhero.”
“Then become one,” I said, in a fit of drunken inspiration. “My ex wasn’t mighty till he played in the chemical goo. Karma Boy was just another stoner until he took up with that mystic in Tibet, Superbabe’s DNA was recoded by her crazed genetic engineer father. . . .” I shook my finger at him. “I’m telling you, Austin, most superheroes are made, not born.”
“But—I’m an art historian!” he bleated.
“Not—so—fast,” I said, waving the finger back and forth with each word. “What about that time you flew?”
It was true. All through high school, Austin had worked on constructing one of Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines. I’ll never forget how he appeared during graduation, swooping around like Icarus against the sun, just as the band struck up Pomp and Circumstance down on the football field. People craned their necks and shaded their eyes to look. Was it a bird? A plane? Nope, just a dorky kid without a helmet who was blown straight into the scoreboard when the wind kicked up. My mighty reflexes were too slow to stop him, and he had to spend graduation night in the hospital with a concussion.
He still flushed with shame when I mentioned it. “Please. Let’s not go there.”
“Now who’s selling themselves short?” I said. “It’s not important that you made an ass of yourself. What’s important is, you flew. You exhaustively researched Da Vinci’s notebooks, meticulously constructed every joint of his bird wings, and traveled through the air using nothing but air currents and your own ingenuity. I’m telling you, your mighty studying and your genius engineering abilities are already super. They just need a little—development. ”
He looked doubtful. “OK, but I don’t see how—”
“You could be ‘Renaissance Man’!” I said, way too loudly.
A few heads turned in our direction. “OK, OK. Keep your mighty voice down, will you?” he muttered.
“I’ll help you,” I whispered. “Superheroes need a lot of gadgets, but most of us aren’t dedicated or smart enough to come up with them. All you have to do is say yes.”
Essentially, that is how I found myself surrounded by superheroes in the ballroom of the Xpress Motel in Sprawl, a community just south of Megatropolis. Outside the room, a plain black sign with white lettering read, “Rotary Club Masquerade Ball,” but built into the signboard was the complex security system designed by Renaissance Man and his partner, Nerdy Guy. Each super-single PowerPairs user bent down to look at the lettering and was admitted through the electro-magnetic barrier on the basis of a retinal scan, while Austin and Nerdy Guy looked on like proud parents. I was happy PowerPairs had helped my friend find professional and personal bliss, but I didn’t feel so optimistic about my own chances that evening.
The drab, off-white walls, fluorescent lighting, and stain-concealing carpet inside the ballroom did nothing to boost my confidence. At least I was not alone. The throng of us stood around in our high-tech designer super outfits, eyeing each other furtively through our masks and trying to look busy by sipping under-spiked drinks and popping tiny shrimp and cocktail wieners into our mouths.
I imagined my peers’ experience with PowerPairs had been like my own—mixed. After an unpleasant date with The Fly (six sticky appendages he couldn’t keep to himself), I nixed any dating candidates with ties to the insect kingdom. Things seemed to pick up during a fling with Surfer Dude, but since then my dates had been decidedly un-super.
Tonight was looking like more of the same. I had spent the first half hour trapped next to the cocktail wieners while Gamer Man detailed his successful capture of hitherto unknown Pokémon. I tried to get him off the subject by asking him if Grand Theft Auto created any moral dilemmas for him as a superhero, but I don’t think he understood the question. In a fit of super-genius, I ditched him by casually mentioning rumors of an Articuno sighting out in the parking lot, but before I had been able to imbibe even a single hard-earned sip of my mojito, I heard a hearty, “I know what you’re thinking!” at my elbow and turned to find Telepath smiling his ingratiating smile.
Telepath can read and keep track of up to fifty thought streams at once, and he’s kind and easy to look at. But I always feel embarrassed knowing he can hear my involuntary X-rated responses to his physique as clearly as if I were on speakerphone.
Sensing this, his face fell. “Sorry—I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. But I could hear your thoughts on Gamer Man across the room. Anyway, I won’t bother you for long.” He lowered his voice and spoke in my ear. “I was just wondering if you could check out that guy talking to Yoga Girl over by the bar.”
I looked where he was pointing. There, in an inconspicuous but well-fitting gray suit, was an ordinary looking man. He was about six feet, maybe a little under, with curly black hair just starting to thin and fashionably large glasses, which he was pushing up. Yoga Girl seemed to be asking him for advice, and he was listening to her with earnest consideration.
“See what I mean?” said Telepath, reading my response. “There’s nothing superhero-ish about him, and he keeps thinking, “Why am I here?”
I shrugged. “Don’t we all? But OK, I’ll check it out.” It’s not that we superheroes are snobs, you understand. Most of us are involved in at least some top-secret government projects, so we have to be careful for security reasons.
“I knew I could count on you,” said Telepath, patting my shoulder, and he went off to try his “I know what you’re thinking!” line on Superbabe, who just looked puzzled.
By the time I got over to the man in the gray suit, Yoga Girl had left in a hurry—major showdown with her evil nemesis, Metabolic Syndrome—and her friend was sipping a white wine and looking a little lost. His suit didn’t tell me anything about his identity, but he had a nametag. “Gutman.”
Interesting. I moseyed over. “So,” I said. “Are you a super eater?”
He laughed nervously and pushed his glasses up his nose again. “No. Why is everyone asking me that?”
I was taking another look at the tag when he put out a hand. “Doctor Michael Gutman, at your service,” he said, pronouncing it like “Goot-man” not “Gut Man.” “And you must be Mighty Woman. I’m a huge fan of your work. I’ll never forget how you rescued those kidnapped schoolgirls. Not many superheroes would have made sure they got medical attention before running off to capture the terrorists. ”
“Thanks,” I said. There was an awkward pause. “Did you not get the memo?” I asked.
“Sorry, I thought—” I might as well come right out with it, seeing as how my super foot was already wedged in my mighty mouth. “Is ‘Doctor Gutman’ your cover? We were supposed to come as our true selves tonight.”
He took a deep breath and pushed his glasses up again. “Actually, I’m just a normal guy,” he said, in a low voice. “I was working on a superhero biometrics app with Renaissance Man, and I just asked him if he knew how I could meet you. I hope you don’t mind.”
Austin! I was going to stuff him into the tank of his Da Vinci-Mobile and use him as biofuel. This Gutman seemed perfectly nice and not bad looking, but he was clearly a civilian. Besides, not everybody was OK with his party crashing. Telepath was striding in our direction. But before he could reach us, a meteoric streak came through the door, narrowly missing an attendant with a tray of cocktail wieners, and stopped in front of me. Despite his impressive entrance, my ex-husband looked far from mighty. He was white as a sheet, his mask was crooked, and his square jaw trembled a little. “It’s Ampeera,” he said.
I clutched my mojito glass, accidentally crushing it into a fine, slightly damp sand that dribbled onto the carpet. “What’s happened?” I asked.
He threw up his hands helplessly. “We don’t know. One minute she was participating in a positive socialization activity with Helicopter Mom’s kids, and the next she was having a violent seizure. Helicopter Mom rushed her to the hospital, but she says the ER doctors don’t know how to treat superhero children. She sent me to get you and try to find a specialist—ever hear of a Doctor—uh—Guts Man?”
Gutman set his wine down and sprang into action. “I’m Gutman. Come on,” he said, running for the door. He tried to grab my hand, but I shook him off. “You just take care of my daughter, Doctor. I can take care of myself.”
Out in the parking lot my ex pointed to the sky, his signature take-off move. “I’ll meet you at the hospital,” he said. Either out of habit or to reassure himself, he couldn’t resist spouting his tagline: “Take heart, people of good will. Mighty Man will win the day!” A second later he was off in his signature silver streak—a silent, meteoric flash, followed by a sonic boom like a thunderclap.
Gutman turned to me. “With all due respect,” he said, “your ex is a putz.”
“Never mind that,” I yelled. “We’ve got to get to the hospital!”
“We can take my car,” he said, gesturing toward his gleaming Lexus convertible.
I wasn’t thinking clearly. “Whatever you say, Doc.” Taking hold of the bumper, I picked up the car with one hand and the doctor with the other, and we were off.
Out of consideration for his non-super constitution, we traveled at sub-sonic velocity, but Gutman still lost his cocktail wieners when we landed outside Emergency Admitting. He recovered just in time to grip my hand and gasp, “You’re magnificent!” before turning to confront the dozen security officers barring the door.
The leader stepped forward. “I’m sorry, Doctor, but we got a situation in there. Word is, a cyborg with some kind of a blade is spreading chaos. There’s a SWAT team on the way.”
I rolled my eyes, recognizing Helicopter Mom from his description. She means well—just gets carried away and forgets to control her propeller. “I think I can handle this,” I said, stepping forward.
“You heard the lady, Stallwart,” Gutman said to the officer. “Whatever’s going on in there, I think Mighty Woman can deal with it.”
After a beat, Stallwart nodded. “OK, but I’m keeping the SWAT team on standby. Mighty Man just barged in there, but so far no change in the situation. Let’s hope two superheroes are better than one.”
They made way for us, and we hurried to the entrance. I could tell Gutman was enjoying himself. At the door he turned and threw some keys to a young officer. “Do me a favor, Kyle, and put my car in the garage. You know where my spot is?”
“Yes sir,” Kyle said, already jumping into the driver’s seat.
The ER was in chaos. Helicopter Mom hovered over a doctor, peppering him with questions while the whirring blade in her back sent charts and medical instruments flying everywhere. I was touched by her concern for my daughter, but she was way out of line, and my ex was slumped on a chair by Ampeera’s bedside, hors de combat. I stopped his wife’s propeller and brought her back to earth.
She seemed relieved. “Mighty Woman! Thank goodness you’re here,” she gasped, before turning to the ER doctor. “This is the child’s mother, who also happens to be Mighty Woman, Dr. Neel. I think you’ll find she agrees with me that we should page Doctor Gutman, the specialist.”
Doctor Neel patiently pointed to my daughter’s bed. “He’s here, ma’am.”
Gutman was bending over the bed, quietly examining Ampeera. Now he straightened purposefully. “I don’t mean to embarrass you, but has anyone close to the child exhibited any manic symptoms—boastfulness, delusions that they can save the world, that sort of thing?”
Sheepishly, my ex raised his hand. “That would be me. I just can’t seem to stop myself.” He clenched his fist and beat his forehead dramatically. “None of you have any idea of the pressure I’m under—”
“Mr. Mighty!” Gutman interrupted, raising his voice a little. “This is about Ampeera.”
He turned to me. “We’ll have to do some tests to confirm, but it’s most likely Hubris Syndrome. It’s a neurological disorder caused by a genetic abnormality. Only observed in superhero families so far. Presents as a mild mania, usually not requiring treatment, in adults, but can be passed to children, where it causes seizures.”
We all looked anxiously over at Ampeera, except for my ex-husband, who suddenly jumped up as if the world’s super-villains had all taken early retirement. “Listen, Doc, if my daughter got my superhero condition, she must have gotten some powers as well, right?” he asked.
Gutman shook his head. “No guarantee of that, I’m afraid. For reasons we don’t yet understand, the disorder can be inherited even when no powers manifest in the phenotype. But perhaps,” he added witheringly, “you will be happy to hear that we have been very successful in treating this condition with a combination of drugs and meditation techniques.”
“So update me,” said Austin, as we settled into our booth. “How’s Ampeera doing?”
“Great,” I said. “She hasn’t had any seizures for a few months now, and she should make a full recovery, thanks to Michael.”
“Oh it’s Michael now?”
I shrugged. “We’re playing it by ear. It’s complicated. I’m not Jewish, he’s not a superhero.”
“You could make him a superhero. I’ve never looked back.”
“I’m glad it worked out for you, but you know, this whole experience with PowerPairs and Ampeera’s illness and Michael—it’s really made me question my values.”
After the waitress had taken our order, I explained. “Since I met Michael, I’ve started to realize how many people are out there doing amazing things every day without any super powers.”
Austin raised his impeccably waxed brows. “Oh my God. You’re in love.”
I blushed. “Maybe. All I know is, my whole sense of identity has shifted. I always used to think I was ‘really’ Mighty Woman, and Laurie Sedlak was just a cover. But Mighty Woman and Renaissance Man could never get together and dish like you and I do. I’m not giving up my super identity, but I think I’d like to see what kind of powers Laurie has. I talked to Michael about it, and he encouraged me. I’m thinking of making a career change. I want to go to medical school.”
“Wow. That’s great, Laurie. And are you learning Hebrew? Going to temple?”
I shrugged again. “I think I have to figure out who I am, first.”
The mojitos came. Austin filled up my glass. “I’ve been waiting till you had a drink in your hand to ask this,” he said. “What’s the word on your ex and his bride? Still giving you trouble on the custody front?”
“Nope, and they’re not going to for some time.”
“Mighty Man embarrassed about his Hubris Syndrome? Or has Ampeera shown signs of super powers?”
I smiled. “He is embarrassed, and he’s started doing the same relaxation exercises Michael prescribed for Ampeera. But also,” I continued, seriously, “Helicopter Mom had her blades enlarged, and something went wrong. They’re in Germany right now, seeing a specialist.”
“Well,” Austin said, stirring his drink, “I never liked the woman, but I’m sorry to hear that. I guess we all have our problems.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “But to answer your question about Ampeera, she does have a kind of super power. And I think it’s getting stronger, too. Maybe watching me go through the process of finding myself is inspiring her.”
He leaned forward, his voice low and excited. “What can she do?”
I leaned in too. “The other day she came up behind me when I was researching med schools. I asked her what she thought of Mom becoming a doctor, and she corrected me. ‘You mean a super-doctor,’ she said, and that’s when she did it.”
“What?” Austin asked, breathlessly.
“She gave me a hug, and then she smiled. It lit up the whole room.”