Wearing the Cape
Cape (plural capes): literally, a sleeveless garment hanging from the neck over the back and shoulders; figuratively, a superhuman who has chosen to act as a superhero. Synonyms: hero, mask, super, superhero. Connotations: 'cape' is used as both a familiar and derogatory term for superheroes, who often casually refer to themselves as capes but generally consider it a demeaning term when applied to them by the press.
Barlow’s Guide to Superhumans
I was driving east on the Eisenhower Expressway when the Teatime Anarchist dropped the Ashland Avenue overpass on top of me, using enough C4 to bring the whole southbound span down at once.
My day had started normally enough. I gulped coffee and grabbed scorched toast, exchanged kisses with Mom on the way out the door. The September chill nipped around the edges of my coat and at my legs, making me glad I’d worn tights under my skirt. Driving one-handed, I scanned my schedule with the other: I’d be playing Mom’s Girl-Friday at the gallery, getting ready for Thursday night’s foundation event. Julie had texted; she planned for us to take the University of Chicago by storm our freshman year, and wanted us ready by Orientation Day. We’d ruled Oak Park High till graduation, and she didn’t see any reason our college years should be different.
I passed a gray Suburban with a red-headed munchkin in the back seat, and she waved at me while her mom talked business on her hands-free cell. I stuck out my tongue, making her laugh, and my pad launched into Julie’s new call theme: the UofC fight-song. Wave the flag of old Chicago—
Overhead explosions shattered my thoughts and I looked up to see blooms of blasted concrete and falling bridge. I screamed and ducked, lost control. The car slid. A flash of yellow and I hit something hard. I screamed again at the second, world-ending shock as falling roadway flattened my car. The tires blew. The buckled roof hit my head and flying glass stung my face as my vision exploded in fireworks. Choking off the scream, I found myself lying stretched across the front seat, the gearshift digging into my stomach, in smothering darkness. I tasted blood on my tongue.
Alive. I was alive.
The car roof pushed down, inches above my head as I lay there in the dark, my seat belt cutting off my air. Lightheaded, clawing blindly, I unbuckled but still couldn't breathe without choking. Cement dust. Pulling my coat open I yanked my sweater up, taking shallow, sobbing breaths through the wool and fighting to think around the rising fear.
Twisting around, I felt my legs, wiggled toes. Nothing broken? Emergency kit under seat (thanks Dad!). Pen-light—I almost wept with relief. Broken e-pad, damn it. Still, breathing okay, not bleeding out. Help. Help would come.
But would it come in time? What about the munchkin and her mom? Were they under the road now? Could they wait, if they were alive? I choked on panic as thick as the dust. I had to get out. I had to know. They had to be alive.
Gasping, pulse pounding, I pushed against the roof above me and felt something deep inside me change. Cold fire ran through my bones. I shrieked and my next breath filled me with the whole world. Tearing through the roof of my car like it was tinfoil, I heaved aside the chunk of roadway above my head as easily as clearing cheap drywall. I stood, blinking at the disaster around me, and saw what had saved me; I’d slid into a huge earth-moving machine traveling in the next lane and it shielded me. Around us cars had fallen with the span and lay broken among shattered chunks of road and twisted steel frame. Dust-clogged air carried the smell of spilled oil and gas, the first bite of burning rubber. A white sedan screeched to a sliding stop at the north end of the broken bridge. The world went far, far away as I looked at my shaking hands, unable to believe what I’d just done.
Oh God. Oh God.
I pushed the screaming panic down. Okay. Deal now, freak later.
I started digging.
I started behind the earth-mover, pushing broken roadway back as easily as wading into fallen leaves till I found the munchkin’s car. They were there but not alive, and I crawled out of the hole before vomiting into the dust.
After that I focused on what I could do, scrambling over the shattered chunks of road to check the passengers in the cars that had fallen between the wrecked spans. I ripped open one crumpled family van to gently remove a baby seat and its wailing occupant. Then I dug for more buried victims. Wherever there were cracks in the fallen overpass I could actually see their body-heat and hear them breathing, crying. Screaming.
I worked hard to ignore the awful details, tossing concrete slabs aside and pulling out anyone I thought I could move safely. A few I didn't do more than quickly examine. Very quickly. News footage of disasters hadn't prepared me for an up-close view of what tons of falling concrete could do to flesh and bone, and I tried not to think. I barely heard the wailing sirens and the air-beating percussion of the police and news helicopters; only when the capes arrived, moving me out of the way to get to work themselves, did I begin to take stock of myself.
I hadn’t broken a single nail, but cement dust and spattered engine oil covered my coat, hair, face, mixed into a black grime. My tights were in no better shape, and my boots... weren't touching the ground. The concrete slab I'd been standing on had shifted lower while I took stock, but I hadn't. I "stood" a few inches above the unstable surface. I looked around, carefully stepped down. Nobody seemed to notice.
Breakthrough, I thought. I’m a breakthrough. I realized I was laughing like a loon and cut it off quick.
Atlas found me there atop the ridge of rubble. His dirtied costume and cement-dusted hair matched mine, but he still managed to look impossibly noble.
"Atlas, ma'am," he said with that famous Texas drawl, as if the whole world didn't know who he was.
"I know. I mean—” I shook my head. “Hope. Hope Corrigan."
His gaze sharpened, as if I had suddenly become more interesting. He extended his hand.
“Will you come with me, ma’am?”
When I took his hand he shifted his grip, pulling, and I followed, rising again.
"We've done all that we can here with muscle," he said when I looked down. "And I'll be back for the cleanup. But we need to get you out of here and away from the cameras until you decide what to do."
Later I saw news footage of us, Atlas in his blue and white leather jumpsuit and cape, me an unrecognizable disaster victim, flying away from the fallen span. That was the last time I'd be unrecognizable.
Part One of Wearing the Cape (chapters 1-7) is available at wearingthecape.com.