A single knock rang through Gram’s house, jolting Fern, Blackout, and C.K. to attention. They sat silently in the living room, dressed in their villain gear, as instructed by Prescryptor, each of them a confused cocktail of tense and excited and nervous and expectant. Light glided through the open curtains into the living room. Soft clouds tempered the blaze of the mid-morning sun, lining their curves with a rose gold glow.
C.K. was the first to leave his seat, the tired recliner. Blackout and Fern craned their necks around from the love seat to watch him make his way towards the door. He held his breath as he turned the brass deadbolt and twisted the handle. The door opened to reveal an empty porch; an anonymous, black sedan hummed at the curb in front of the house. He looked around for whoever knocked, but found only the familiar African violets and tomato plants lining the patio railing, breaking before the three steps leading down to the driveway.
“I don’t think there’s anyone here,” he called back to Fern and Blackout.
“Move out the way,” said Blackout as he rushed for the door. But he was as stumped as C.K. after he took a step onto the porch.
“You heard the knock, too, right?” C.K. asked Fern, who was still planted on his half of the love seat.
He got up when he glimpsed the car on the curb. “That’s gotta be it,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Blackout. “You’re right. I guess we just walk over and get in.”
Fern joined them at at the door, torn leather jacket draped over his left arm.
“They must’ve thrown a rock or something,” C.K. mused.
“Let’s go,” said Fern. He was the first to begin down the steps, confidently striding towards the waiting sedan.
“BOO!” screamed a voice from his immediate right.
He bounded into the air and lit his hands by reflex while yelling in an octave unbecoming of a Super Villain.
Blackout and C.K. both jumped back into the house and hid behind the door.
A young woman began to slowly form out of the air. She was already doubled over in hysterics by the time they had figured out what had happened.
“That works every time,” she squeaked between guffaws.
“What’s the matter with you!!” Fern shot, his hands still ablaze.
“Literally every single time,” she continued. “Doesn’t matter how big and bad they are. They still freak straight the fuck out! Hahahahahaha!”
Blackout and C.K. started to giggle along, finally leaving their cover.
“An invisible,” C.K. stated. “Should have known the AxAds wouldn’t send just anybody.”
“Hahahahaha! Oh, I think you’re my new favorite,” she said to Fern. Then she sauntered over to collect her phone, which was tucked away with the potted plants on the railing. “This is definitely an instant classic,” she said while replaying the video.
“Give me that,” demanded Fern, taking a threatening step in her direction.
“Calm down, man,” Blackout intercepted, still laughing along. “She’s our ride, after all.” Then he thought for a second. “You are our ride,” he said to her. “Right?”
She straightened up and combed her short, black hair back over to its appropriate side, then slipped her phone into the pocket of her black blazer.
“Alexa,” she stated through matte lipstick. “I’ll be your chauffeur to the Marketing Department today.”
“I already hate you,” said Fern.
“Then you can go fuck yourself,” she shot back.
Blackout slipped between them and put his hands on Fern’s shoulders, “Chill!”
“Just playin’,” she grinned. “Lighten up, Sparky. Jesus. We got a long drive ahead of us.”
A plume of smoke spilled from between Fern’s teeth.
Alexa turned on her heel and beelined for the car.
“It’s alright,” Blackout said to Fern. “She’s only having a little fun with us. I’m sure all the new villains get it.”
“Chop-chop, dick bags,” she yelled at them from the driver’s-side door. “I don’t get paid by the hour.”
C.K. shrugged at them with a look that said, “Nothing we can do about it.” And then he decided it was best for him to ride shotgun on this one.
Fern and Blackout made no objections. They slid into the back seat of the sedan and pulled the door closed, which made almost no sound, only a quick click to confirm it sealed.
The interior was a spacious array of supple ebony leather hugged with white stitching; chrome accents traced their way around the gradual contours of the doors and windows, all perched under the quiet, satin roof lining dotted with hundreds of twinkling stars. Fern and Blackout turned the corners of their mouths down and sat completely immobile, scanning their new ride from round eyes restrained by stiff necks: They were afraid to touch anything.
“Seat belts are optional,” Alexa said over her shoulder, “but encouraged.”
The purple dials in the dashboard all leapt to the extreme right, and they were pushed back into their plush cushions while the neighborhood blurred past the tinted windows. Blackout and Fern fumbled for their seat belts while C.K. sat mesmerized by the gauges and buttons in the center console. One thing in particular stood out—a glossy orange button raised slightly from its chrome casing, situated directly in the center.
“Don’t mess with anything,” Alexa warned him. “Especially not the Laser Turbo,” she glanced at the orange button.
C.K. chewed the inside of his lip. His fingers fidgeted with the rounded corners of his tablet. Now he couldn’t take his eyes off of the button. It was singing his name in each playful glint of light caught between the trees drifting past. He eyed Alexa, who was focused singly on the curves of the road, gliding the car through corners with a calculated caress. Yet, there it was, an orb of forbidden experience. Unguarded. Hovering in painful proximity and dripping with a desire thick as honey.
C.K. stopped blinking and began to sweat.
Blackout leaned over and whispered to Fern, “You think they’re gonna charge us for this, too?”
“If they do we’re walking home,” he answered.
Blackout nodded in agreement and returned to looking out of his window. They were cruising at a blistering clip around the edge of downtown. The Upville Medical Center building stuck out like a silver needle in the skyline; the other buildings hovered around it like an array of sidekicks, each with its own cut and charm, but none commanding the same power it held over the city.
“We must be heading up north,” said Blackout.
“Bahahaha!” Alexa burst from the driver’s seat.
“You’ve got a sick sense of humor, you know that?!” C.K. yelled at her while nursing his hand, numb from the shock.
She leaned her elbows over the top of the steering wheel in uproarious laughter, “I told you not to touch anything!”
“Of course I was gonna hit the button when you say ‘Laser Turbo’ like that!”
“How does it feel to be on the receiving side, huh?” Fern called up to C.K.
Blackout’s eyes darted around apprehensively, “Is this whole car full of booby traps?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “Guess you’ll have to wait and see…”
“How much longer is this ride gonna be?” asked an exasperated C.K.
“Don’t act like you’re not enjoying it,” she said. “I’m sure this is the nicest car you’ve ever been in. I saw that old Odyssey you had parked outside.”
They collectively bit their lips.
“Don’t worry,” she offered, regaining her composure. “If they like you enough to send you to Marketing, then you won’t be stuck in that thing for much longer.”
Fern held his breath. He was envisioning the stretch limo Frigidier and Yellow Bolt had climbed into at Breaker’s; more specifically, he was envisioning himself climbing out of it.
“Assuming things go well, that is,” she added, and then she looked back at Blackout and Fern in the rearview mirror, a sinister smile pressed on her matte lips.
“I want another driver on the way back,” Blackout said under his breath.
Fern didn’t answer, though he heard the quip. He decided to focus on his introduction to the people who would decide his new style and, possibly, signature pose. First impressions were crucial to things falling into place. Hot handshake to lead with, he thought, followed by the crimson grin to give him an extra edge. Maybe a little smoke from the corners of his mouth if they didn’t seem impressed with that. What would impress them? They must have seen so many clients that they were already desensitized to standard villain antics. He wiped his palms on the top of his knees.
He was nervous.
Everyone was. You could hear it in their silence. As they zoomed towards an unknown department in the Northern Quarter, they slumped deeper into a stuffy demeanor. Fern’s heart was doing jumping jacks on the inside of his rib cage. Blackout dragged in air through his teeth until his mouth was dry down to his throat. C.K. absentmindedly rubbed the inside of his index finger and let his eyes drift out of focus through the windshield.
Alexa let them bake. She didn’t play any music or push any small talk to keep their minds off of things. Everything she was going to say she had already said. It was an invitation to listen to the sultry rumble of the motor and stew in their own apprehension. Driving was her job, not client care. She’d let some high-pitched chump with a fresh haircut and a silk suit handle the boring part. They were almost there, now, anyway.
She pulled off the highway and guided the car through a sharp right at a yellow light, bringing them onto a two-lane street lined with evergreens in perfect intervals. Every so often the trees would be interrupted by guarded entries into sprawling parking lots, cars dotting their spaces in intermittent clusters until they congealed near the entrances. Theirs was as nondescript as the others, tucked back from the road with no sign to differentiate itself. She didn’t bother letting down the window when they rolled into the campus; the guard knew who to expect and when to expect them. The barrier flopped open with the urgency of a yawn.
“Is this it?” ventured C.K.
“Nah,” Alexa answered, “I’m just gonna run to the bathroom in here real quick.”
“Funny,” Fern said from the backseat.
C.K. thought it best to pretend like he saw through her sarcasm.
“I actually need to use the bathroom,” said Blackout shifting in his seat. “Once we get inside.”
“Mommy didn’t tell you to go before you left the house?” she chimed, parking just in front of the building.
“I really don’t like her,” Blackout audibly commented to Fern.
C.K. opened his door first. Heat hit him squarely in the face, and the sunlight reflected off of the white pavement blinded him. He closed his eyes and found his balance, then tipped his golden fedora up as he inspected the two story structure, all oversized-tinted windows and shoots of light-grey spouting between them. The entrance was innocuous enough; two sets of glass doors with a brief buffering space between. You could even see inside to the reception area where a small man focused on a computer screen behind a standing desk.
Fern and Blackout appeared on either side of him.
It didn’t seem real, C.K. thought. Everything after he had woken up in the hospital seemed like it was all a twisted continuation of the joint dream with Prescryptor. From finding his tablet unscathed beside his hospital bed to the mental meet up last night telling them to be ready for Marketing today, there was little evidence that any of this existed within the scope of normal order. Time was moving too fast, like it had climbed into Alexa’s car with them and had accelerated to match their speed. Two weeks ago they were scrambling for the phone to speak with a Super Hero. Today they would meet the people who made them. C.K. couldn’t help feeling uneasy about the expediency of their course. If they kept plowing along at this pace, then they were most certainly headed for collision. And at the speed they were going, he thought, the fireworks would be seen all over Upville.
“Ya’ll are already late!” yelled Alexa out the window before zooming away.
Blackout was the first to take a step, only to hold the door open, though. Fern and C.K. shuffled inside, promptly impeded by the locked second door. The receptionist buzzed them in, and they approached the counter with their mouths open, none of them sure what to say but knowing they had to say something.
Fern managed to conjure words first, “We’re here for—”
“The ‘Villaingers’?” he asked, checking his glasses with one hand, eyes focused on his screen.
“Hopefully not for much longer,” Blackout chimed.
“You’re in the right place,” he smiled. “Have a seat while I call your Marketing Representative,” he motioned to a shallow waiting area running against the walls, outfitted with sharply-angled coffee tables dressed in whimsical pastels and cloth armchairs suited in darker patterns that looked none too comfortable. A familiar face was sipping an ice coffee and thumbing through a fashion magazine.
“Al,” Fern muttered in a less-than-excited tone.
“Hey, guys!” he said looking up from his magazine. “Wow, you look great! You know, considering what happened and all.” He glanced down at the magazine. “I was hoping you wouldn’t be too long, actually. They said they won’t see us until we’re all here.”
C.K. looked confused, “Don’t you have a separate Marketing Team for heroes?”
Al shook his head and finished his ice coffee in a long pull. “Nahhh,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whose side you’re on to Marketing, I guess. All the same product to them,” he chuckled.
“Is China Pot coming?” asked C.K., glancing at Fern.
Al turned the corners of his mouth upwards and regarded C.K. in gentle demeanor, “I don’t think she’ll be making it, no.”
“And hello, there,” came a smooth voice from over Blackout’s shoulder.
He turned to find Red Rose grinning down at him.
“Red, uh, Rose, right?” he said while trying to find any other thing to stare at in the room. “Glad to see you’re okay…”
“Same,” they replied.
He stuck out his hand, then began to think better of it, considering the last time they had met.
But they grabbed it without hesitation into a firm shake that demanded eye contact. “Looking forward to continuing out work together.” They kept him there for longer than he wanted, sweet perfume flitting into his nostrils with his last held breath.
Fern, C.K., and Al exchanged curious glances with one another in regards to the spectacle before them.
“I see you’re all on good terms,” said a syrupy tenor from the glass doorway beyond the reception desk. “It can be bothersome when the new clients take their dynamics too far.” His suede shoes snapped on the the marble floor with an impeccable rhythm. “Of course, you’re all too mature for that kind of behavior, though.”
Al stood up as the man walked over, and Red Rose broke their hold on Blackout.
“Pradeep,” he said and then offered his hand to everyone in turn, starting with Fern. He didn’t seem phased by the hot handshake at all. In fact, his palm was an insensitive pile of callouses that might not even have registered the change in temperature.
“If you’ll come with me upstairs,” he gestured to the glass door and swiped his badge on the reader, “we can begin your Marketing evaluation directly.”
They all followed behind him like a strange string of ducklings, eyes hungry for every piece of the information they could glean about the world they were soon to gain entry. Photographs of hero emblems in contrast lighting and successful merchandise were placed in oversized frames along the hallway, continuing in a gentle slope up the floating stairwell dominating the center of the space.
“We’re serious about your success,” he said while speaking over his shoulder on the way up the stairs. “So it’s crucial that we work together to find a character and signature that you’re not only comfortable with,” he stopped at the last step and looked back down on them, “but that you’ll love.”
A woman with dreadlocks in a tight ponytail and a lavender pencil skirt appeared around a corner to their left, “Giving them the speech, already?”
“Not a moment too soon, Felicia,” Pradeep grinned.
She offered her hand to each of the team in turn with the efficiency of a gear snapping into place.
“I’ll be your Brand Manager, along with Pradeep,” she said.
Pradeep adjusted the cuff of his navy blazer, “Shall we get started, then?”
They turned around and headed for the side of the building from which Felicia had appeared. As they rounded the corner they saw that the floor was split with a diagonal barrier which was decorated in seemingly random articles of clothing. Several more people adjusting the hanging wardrobe stood at attention when they noticed the crew, immediately sizing them up with flashing glances across their particular forms, from their hair to their shoes.
“This is Wardrobe,” Felicia turned to look back at them. “Mr. Terriferno, would you stand over here, please,” she offered the place to her left. “C.K. and Al-Chemy, you’ll be towards the back with Rena,” a woman with golden eye glasses raised her hand and invited them to her station. “Red Rose and Blackout, Pradeep will be taking care of you.”
Without another word, they were shuffled into an eager team of assistants with hands busier than bees. Felicia promptly took the torn jacket from Fern’s arms.
“I was hoping someone could fix that up for—”
“No need to worry about this old, leather coat, anymore,” she assured him.
“But, the red jacket was kind of my thing…”
“I know it was, honey,” she said in a tone that stung of both sympathy and finality. An attendant carefully removed it from her care and threw it into a plastic bin marked “Goodwill.”
From the wall she grabbed a waist-length coat that had a gradient color scheme, moving from an intense red at the bottom to an azure blue across the midsection and shoulders. “Try this on for me.”
He slipped it on over his black t-shirt, noting the zippers along the end of the sleeves.
“Hmm,” she said. “A bit loose around the shoulders,” she tugged on the bottom of the jacket, “and you’ve got some extra space in the waist, too.” Then she twirled him around and guided him to the three-sided mirror along the opposite wall. “We’ll take it in around the waist a touch,” she pulled the extra fabric from behind him, face peeking over his shoulder. “But we’re also going to schedule you with a personal trainer to fill out the top section,” she smiled. An attendant handed her a dark yellow t-shirt and blue jeans. “These are going to look fabulous with your new jacket,” another smile. “And wait until you see the boots.”
To Fern’s left Blackout was poking his head through a long, purple shirt that hung down past his hips while Red Rose was flitting around in their new, flowing garments trimmed with purple.
“Custom outfits are always the most difficult,” Pradeep said to them, “though this time we may have struck a chord on the first go.” He returned his attention to Blackout, “And now the blazer.”
Blackout slid his arms through the sleeves on the black velour coat, raising his eyebrows and inspecting the cut while Pradeep did the same. “Yo, this is nice,” he observed. He wiggled in the tight, grey jeans and appreciated the clean lines of his new suede loafers and their purple outsoles. Red Rose sunk their patterned, purple stockings into a pair of green kung-fu flats with an elastic crossband near the ankle.
“I love them,” they said to Pradeep.
“Are you sure we can’t keep the hat?” C.K. complained further down.
“If we’re being honest right now,” Rena spoke in a deliberate tone, “I think it’s the cheapest-looking piece of garbage I’ve ever had the displeasure of laying my eyes on.”
Al-Chemy whispered a quick, “Ouch.” He was still glued to his own reflection, eyes surveying the new lab coat and appreciating the tribal-patterns on the colorful button-down underneath.
Rena removed the golden fedora from C.K.’s head with the deference of a crown, then tossed it past the Goodwill bin and directly into the trash. She watched the pain pool in his eyes and reached up to pat his naps down, “Have you ever parted your hair?”
“I usually don’t worry too much about it,” he answered, defeated.
Her fingers ran a straight line down the hair above his left eye, parting the tight curls as they went. “Let’s try growing it out more,” she smiled at him, still teasing his scalp.
That buoyed his emotions more effectively than he cared to admit. He smiled back.
“And we have to do something about those braces today, too.”
“I only have a year left.”
“You’ll be beaming with the best of them by this afternoon,” she grinned with brilliantly-white teeth. “How do you like your suit?”
C.K. inspected the shiny, black skin-tight material hugging his body, “It’s not terrible.”
She moved her hands down to his hips and turned him towards the mirror, “The mental supers usually wear combat suits to make them appear more legitimate,” she stated. “The results are generally iffy at best, since they’re normally not the most,” she glanced at Al, “active.” She then caught his gaze in the mirror, “But I think you look fantastic.”
She was right, he supposed. And he had reason to trust her, too, besides the fact that he found himself staring more at her reflection than his own. These were obviously professionals, considering all they needed was a few minutes of news footage to completely re-outfit a new hero-villain dynamic.
She brushed a loose strand of hair out of her eye, “Still missing something, though.” Then she snapped her fingers and hurried back to the wall, reemerging at C.K.’s side with a headband that had diagonal stripes of gold and white. Her hands pulled the headband tight around his temples and tucked in the loose fabric at the back. “Are you happy, now?”
He didn’t say anything, simply smirked at himself in the mirror, holding the golden tablet in front of himself. The headband and the boots, with their golden laces and tongues, made him seem like he was a real villain. Everything was deliberate and calculated in a way that he would never have been able to coordinate himself.
“Is everyone suited, then?” Pradeep projected to the floor.
They all turned to face him.
“Excellent,” he said. “Can we have a quick once-over with the nemeses next to each other?”
Blackout stood beside Red Rose as Pradeep and Felicia walked around them, nodding the whole time.
“I love the splash of purple, Pradeep,” she said, as if they were talking amongst themselves.
“I wanted to mix it up. Get something fresh in there, you know.”
“And the cameras love to play with the shade.”
He wiped the shoulder of Fern’s new jacket, “Though I must say I didn’t think much could be done here, this look has me excited. And the boots,” he stopped and placed his finger on his lip, “just the touch of red needed to balance.”
They both paused at C.K. Pradeep hovered close to his headband, “A traditional suit with a hint of a more alternative style.” He bit his lip, “I feel like there’s still some opportunity here.”
“I don’t hate it, Rena,” Felicia said, “but next to Al’s lab coat and tribal mix, which is a great play, if I do say so, it doesn’t quite mesh the way I want it.”
“I’m thinking more patterns on the arms,” Pradeep pulled C.K. wrist and held it to the light.
“I’ll grab the inlay kit,” she said and hurried to the back. In less than 10 seconds she had returned with a blue container the size of a shoe box.
“Let’s try light grey, curves, a few twists, and maybe more white accents throughout the suit contours” Felicia rattled off.
Rena’s fingers were already digging through the box, “I’ll get right on it.”
“Lovely,” Pradeep smiled. “Would the rest of you please follow me around the corner for a quick trip through lighting?”
“Lighting?” Fern asked.
Felicia put her hand on his back to herd him to the opposite side of the divider, “To simulate the different times of day and get a feel for what your best hours and angles are.”
“I never even thought of that,” Blackout uttered to no one in particular.
“You don’t have to,” Pradeep responded with another quick grin. He held the black curtain open for them to pass into the next section, “That’s what we’re here for.”