Fern slashed the curtains closed as fast as their squeaky sliders would allow, “We need a better plan.” His hand glowed a dark red, a smoky stain grew from his fingertips on the faded, yellow shades.
“Hey!” shouted Blackout from his spot on the floral-patterned love seat, “Would you stop trying to burn my grandmother’s house down, please?!”
Fern looked down at his hand, considered razing this entire, elderly neighborhood to prune-smelling ashes, but then took his hand from the drapes. This was their hideout, now. Not that anyone was looking for them. He turned around and ran his palm across his forehead.
“Tell me you have another idea, C.K.” Fern pleaded. They had been at this all afternoon, and the sun was setting, creating a quiet serenity completely unfit for villainous brainstorming.
“I got it!” C.K. gleamed, tilting forward in his rocking chair. He scrunched the corner of his mouth into a devious smile, revealing gold braces that matched his golden fedora. “We hijack the next shipment of oxygen containers to the hospital, release all of the gas inside the building, with all of the windows closed. Then, we tell everyone to stay completely still, because one spark, one tiny arc of static electricity will blow the whole place up. We’d have all the time in the world to collect ransom money.”
“I knew you’d come through.” Fern felt the familiar burn under his skin. His eyes and mouth came alight. “Blackout, you put the security guards to sleep.”
“They won’t even remember where they were,” he chuckled.
“C.K., you’re on traffic duty.”
“I’ll hack into the streetlight system and make sure nobody slows us down,” he nodded, whipping out his golden tablet.
“And I’ll take care of the fire alarms.” Fern smiled, his teeth a pearly crimson, eyes a smoldering red. Trails of heat rippled from his outline against the yellow curtain. It was game time.
“Wait,” said C.K.
“Don’t start,” said Fern.
“How old are the patients at the hospital?”
“At least in their mid forties,” immediately replied Fern.
“Well, there is a children’s ward…” Blackout blurted.
Fern shot him a flaring look.
Blackout raised both eyebrows, then crunched his lips together into an inaudible, “OOOOhhhhh….”
“Children’s ward?” C.K. pressed.
“Nothing to worry about, C.K.” Fern consoled, teeth now a pearly white in the twilight. “It’s in a separate building. The main building is all chronic illnesses for adults. Plus, when you factor in that most young adults don’t contract chronic illnesses—”
“My cousin got glaucoma at 18,” Blackout said.
“That’s a very rare case, Blackout,” Fern insisted.
“Actually, it affects people of all ages,” Blackout continued. “I know because the doctor was explaining things to my family when we visited a couple years back and—“
“It says the pediatric center is attached via the main atrium on their website. I’m looking up building schematics, now,” C.K. chimed, hand flying around his tablet.
“You don’t have to do that,” Fern offered. “Look, we can just stick to the original plan, get the oxygen, grab a few hostages, beat up some superheroes, then take the money and run…it’ll be easy…” He said the words, but he had given up halfway through the sentence. C.K. wasn’t gonna be down with the plan, anymore. They had been doing this all goddamn afternoon. You’d think Blackout would remember that. He laughed through his nose at the thought. Blackout? Remember shit? He had recalled the details of his cousin’s hospital visit pretty vividly, though.
“What the hell, Blackout?” he charged, throwing his arm in the direction of C.K. “Do you see what you’ve done?”
“Look, I was only telling the truth,” he shrugged. “You know, chronic illnesses affect the whole family. You should have seen the shock Gram got when she found out Desmond was going blind. Oh, she was all in a hoot, screaming ‘bout how her little angel was going blind, how much she didn’t want him to lose his bright future, especially when her other grandchildren all turned out to be little ‘demons.’ And we all sitting right there, too: me, Entrancer, Groove Machine—”
“Would you shut up!!” screamed Fern. He was steaming through his crimson trench coat, now. “You don’t have to tell the truth, for fuck’s sake! You’re a VILLAIN. You lie and cheat and play dirty and hurt people and do….other villain-y shit. Now C.K.’s not gonna do the mission, because ‘children would be in danger.’ What kind of villains are you, anyway?”
“Look, Fern,” Blackout began, “if the kid has issues with injuring children, then you should respect that.” He nodded at C.K.
“Respect?? Injuring children??” He was waving his red hands around the air wildly, trying to communicate with people who obviously were immune to reason. “Fridgidier took out an entire city block yesterday just to get Ty-phoon to show up and tell him about his plans to turn the city into a giant piece of permafrost!!”
“Half a block, really,” jousted C.K., “and part of that was an abandoned building where he could get the backdrop he needed for the news cameras.”
“I DON’T CARE, C.K.!!!” reeled Fern. “You’re so worried about sick children, what about pedestrians?? How about all of the little puppies that got iced on their first walk around town!? Huh?”
“Well, that isn’t the best place to walk your dog, you know,” said Blackout, matter-of-factly. “Everyone knows Perennial Park is where all the pets—”
“Am I the only one who actually wants to be a villain here??” asked Fern. His hands were thrown up in the air, like torches in a room that would always be dark.
C.K. lowered his head and mumbled, “I mean, if it wasn’t for these student loans…”
“What?” burst Fern. “What was that?”
“Come on, now, Fern,” Blackout interceded, turning around in the love seat. “We all know we’re not first-draft villains…”
“Speak for yourself,” Fern shot, eyes alight. He took a step towards Blackout, who was still sitting calmly. He watched as Blackout pulled a string of brass beads to turn on the antique lamp next to him. Dusk was deepening. The crickets were chirping outside in a high, undaunted chorus. The last bit of sunlight filtered through the curtains and turned the room a dull orange. He could see the streetlights blink on one after another on the empty street outside. Peaceful. That was what Fern hated about this place. How goddamn peaceful it was.
“Remind me again why a big, bad villain like you is slumming it with the likes of me and C.K., will you Fern?”
C.K. looked up from his golden tablet. He had never heard this story before. It did seem kind of strange that someone with the power to control fire and cause explosions at will would be keeping the company of two amateurs.
“We don’t need to get into that right now,” Fern dodged. “Weren’t we gonna do this hospital thing…”
“Yeah, what happened, Fern?” joined C.K.
“Yeah, why don’t you tell the kid what happened to the merciless Terriferno?”
Fern trudged over to take a seat next to Blackout. “I don’t see what the point of it is,” said Fern, “but I guess if you two are gonna keep squeaking about it, I’ll have to fill you in.” He sat up on his cushion, and smoke floated out of his mouth, tinting the air in the living room a hazy grey.
“I was on a quick heist down in the Southern Quarter. A few burlap sacks of money in tow, running through some nice one-liners in my head, ready to cause a scene until a hero came by, you know.” Fern let out a long sigh. He hated this story. Blackout sat by and nodded, ready to jump in and correct any embellishments at a moment’s notice. C.K. let his hands go lax around his tablet and tilted back his fedora. The antique lamp sat next to Fern’s shoulder, casting a deep shadow on the right side of his face. C.K. was staring curiously at Fern, piecing together the history Fern didn’t want anybody else to know. The sun continued falling out of the sky.
“So, this girl shoes up: all bronzer and black eyeliner, yoga pants and some kind of cheap, yellow fishing vest on she had tried to make look ‘hero.’ I saw her park her Prius around the corner a few minutes ago, but figured she was gonna call the police or whoever. No, this girl runs up to me, and then starts spewing her hero lines. She’s messed it all up. The TV cameras aren’t even here, yet. Nobody is gonna know who she is, even if she managed to beat me. But I cut her a break, ask her her name, again. Then, she calls herself ‘China Pot.’ Now, without the bronzer, this girl is obviously as white as an ambulance. In no way is she even 1/16 Chinese or East Asian or anything. I almost asked if she had taken her medication, except villains don’t ask people about their prescriptions. Villains eliminate whoever gets in their way. Still, something about this girl made me wait a minute before incinerating her. And then it hit me: she actually thought she was in disguise.”
“Woohh, you should’ve seen her, too,” Blackout said, shaking his head in a slow rhythm. “Looking like a complete mess. She had her hair all done up in a tight bun, fixed with a yellow chopstick.” He made a motion in the air of his hand sticking a chopstick in his imaginary hairdo. “I mean, Fern shoulda burned her ass right there, saved the devil the trouble.”
“I was going to torch her, but it was too ridiculous. There we were, one guy with 4 bags full of stolen cash who had, not more than 3 minutes ago, robbed a bank, burned bullets out of the air and melted a security guard’s boots to the floor. And she shows up looking like a poster girl for racial insensitivity, and I’m the villain??”
C.K. grinned and nodded a bit. “You were doing regular villainy. She was being a bigot.”
“Right!” slammed Blackout. “Where’s the punishment for her?”
“She was trying to get on TV in that getup,” Fern went on. “You’re worried about hurting children; think about all the children she was gonna psychologically damage were she to be seen like that.”
“Damn right,” Blackout said. “We’re villains, sure.”
Fern looked at him sideways.
Blackout continued quickly, “She was the one doing evil, though. Racism: the real bad guy.”
C.K. bobbed his head in agreement. He starting whizzing through screens on his tablet.
Fern had to hurry, now, before he found the video. “So I heat up, give her a chance to do whatever bullshit move China Pots are capable of, and then she turns all glossy. I throw some fire her way, and she stands there and takes it.” Fern leaned forward a bit, taking turns bouncing his gaze between C.K. and Blackout. “I realize after a few more fireballs, she’s turned into porcelain; that’s why she doesn’t crumble to ashes.
“Just when I think things are starting to get interesting, the cameras show up. I toss out that one-liner I’ve been sitting on, ready to flex a bit, you know. Get some real heroes watching. So when I show up next time, I can skip the unforgivably ignorant bimbos and head straight to prime time. So I say, ‘You think it’s hot now? Wait till I get warmed up.’”
“That’s all he had,” lamented Blackout.
“Yeah?” C.K. said. “‘Wait till I get warmed up?’”
“I was caught off-guard, okay?”
“I’ll bet Fridgidier’s been caught off-guard, too,” Blackout retorted, “You don’t see him showing up on TV with ‘Take a chill pill,’ or some shit.”
Fern sizzled. Blackout scooted farther away on the love seat, his mouth closed. C.K. continued to zoom through screens on his tablet.
“Anyway, I’m really throwing the heat at her. I want to see her racist face melt, so I’ve decided to save the explosions for a legitimate superhero. The cameras are loving it, too. I can’t wait to see myself in 4K on the internet that night. She starts to crumble. Her knees hit the concrete, and right when I’m doing my best villain laugh—you know, ‘Hah-Hah-Hah,’ the public loves that shit—I hear this crackling noise. Then, I look up—“
“I found the video!” C.K. said, flipping his tablet around to show Fern and Blackout.
“Don’t watch the video,” Fern asked.
“You should watch the video,” Blackout said. “I know I’ve seen it dozens of times. It’s one of two bookmarks I have. The other one is this webcam site for damsels in distress getting—”
“Blackout!!” shouted Fern.
“What?” Blackout returned. “We’re all adults here. Are villains not comfortable enough to talk about sexuality with each other?” He crossed his arms.
Fern rolled his glowing eyes.
“Wow!” C.K. said. “You’re really burning her up!”
“I told you!” Fern agreed. “That’s not even me at full power. I could have melted the concrete under her feet and watched her drown, but that’s not as fun.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Blackout snorted. “Wait till you see what happens next.”
Fern watched C.K.’s eyes light up, first out of concern, then barely concealing his laughter.
“Go ahead and laugh, dammit,” said Fern. “It’s what everyone does.”
So C.K. laughed. And kept laughing.
Blackout hopped over to C.K.’s chair, “Wait wait wait, let me see it again—Ahh hahahaha! Look how he jumps up in the air when the power cord hits him! Damn, I love that part! Try and pause it when his face scrunches up—yeah! That’s it!! I can’t get enough of that one. Hahahaha! It’s all like, zzztttt zzzttt zzzzttt.” Blackout imitated Fern’s face when he accidentally melted the power cord on the street from the heat bouncing off of China Pot, catching him wide open and leaving a vicious scar around his right armpit.
“That’s enough laughing!!” raged Fern. And he stood up, both hands lit, smoke leaking from his nostrils and between his glowing teeth.
C.K. and Blackout immediately paused, stared a few moments at Fern, and then burst out laughing again.
“His face!!” C.K. said, almost in tears, taking off his fedora.
“Hahahahahaha, I know!! I can’t get that face out of my head ahahahaha!!”
Fern cooled down, gritted his teeth. There was no sense in getting any angrier. He had already been laughed out of being a real villain when the video hit the news. Now, no actual superhero would be caught dead in the same shot as him. He found his way back to the love seat, under the lamp. C.K. and Blackout were still in stitches, but incinerating them would have no meaning. He needed a crew to climb the ladder back up to real villainy, and they weren’t so bad, when they weren’t laughing like maniacs.
“Hey, Fern,” breathed Blackout through his fits of laughter. “Fern,” he paused, a serious expression fell over his features like a heavy curtain. Then he blurted, “Do the face, again!” and rolled onto the floor, clutching his stomach. C.K. soon joined him.
Suddenly, a voice boomed from upstairs, “I know that’s not you laughing like a goddamn fool, Blake!!”
Blackout froze. C.K. winced slightly and bit his lip. They didn’t want Gram to tramp down in her slippers and yell at them, again. That would be half an hour of their lives they’d never get back.
Subsequently, it dawned on Fern that he had less power over his crew than a powerless 85-year-old, and something in him cracked another tiny bit. He watched C.K. return to his rocking chair. Blackout snickered and slipped back into his seat next to Fern, covering his mouth every time he glanced in Fern’s direction.
How Fern hated it here.
He crossed his arms, looked around at the living room, evaluated his company, and mumbled to himself, “Welcome to Upville, Fern.”
Then, in a tiny voice at the end of a long, long sigh, “God Dammit.”