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I believe in giving people second chances.
My shrink, for example. Caitlin was disbarred three years ago for having an affair with a patient. When I first met her, she was working in a run-down cathouse on the South Side as a hooker. We live in tough times. I was in the neighbourhood, on duty but out of uniform, luckily, and I happened to save one of the girls from a john who cut up rough. Caitlin and I got talking, and she told me her story. Ever since, I’ve been telling her mine.
[private]Every Thursday, three o’clock on the dot, I turn up – incognito, of course – and ask for Caitlin. The Madam nods knowingly and shows me up to Room 9.
“Nurse,” she says to Caitlin, smirking, “your patient.”
She thinks it’s all part of the fantasy. She thinks I’ve got a thing for blondes in nurses’ uniforms giving me enemas. If only she knew. It’s much worse than that.
I lie back on the cheap vinyl couch and Caitlin starts the clock. We have fifty minutes precisely. She’s very professional. Cheap, too. Most psychiatrists cost twice as much per hour as most prostitutes. Like I said, tough times – especially if you’ve got emotional issues.
“How has your week been?” she asks. She’s thrown a white cotton lab coat on over the naughty nurse outfit: she always does this before we start now, since I mentioned that the uniform was kind of distracting.
I shrug against the squeaky couch.
“Oh, same old same old. Saved a few lives, averted a few crimes, got some cats down from some trees.”
“That train crash that almost happened – maybe you saw it on the news?”
“That was you, huh?”
I nod at the ceiling.
“Yep. Pushed it aside just in time.”
“Why didn’t you take credit?”
“Well, y’know … I don’t want to be over-exposed. I want to lie low right now. Stay in the shadows.”
I hear her pencil scraping swiftly across the paper. She’s making a note.
“An interesting choice of words,” she says.
“It’s just a turn of phrase.”
There are no coincidences, nothing is meaningless, not on Caitlin’s couch.
“You been having the dream again?” she asks.
I shift uncomfortably. It’s hot in here, and I’m wearing my uniform underneath my civilian clothes, which doesn’t help. The city’s been restless, recently. When someone like Shade goes down, it leaves a power vacuum in the underworld. So much crime there for the taking, so many hoods scrambling for the crown. Very Shakespearean.
“On and off,” I admit.
She nods and notes.
“Still the same?”
I close my eyes. I’m standing over his grave. His armoured, lead-lined, concreted-filled grave. Shade. More than my enemy: my nemesis. A villain like him gets sunk twelve feet deep, not six. The red sun trembles on the horizon and vanishes. The shadows of the headstones in the cemetery lengthen, stretch, reach out for me. There’s scratching, like mice behind linoleum. It gets louder, closer. Then there’s an almighty thud, and the flat coffin-shaped slab of marble bucks and cracks, just as though a fist had punched it from within …
My eyes snap open and I jerk upright on the couch, staring and sweating like I’m in a cheap Hollywood flashback.
“Yeah,” I say, “Always the same.”
Caitlin recrosses her legs. She’s forgotten to take off her fetish shoes: transparent vinyl platforms. They’re distracting too. Fortunately, I know I can trust myself with her. When you’ve had the kind of experiences I’ve had, with the kind of women I’ve known, you can’t go back. Civilians are just too … fragile.
“And are you still seeing Miss Knight?”
“If you call frustrating her repeated suicide attempts seeing, yes, I suppose I am.”
Caitlin stares hard at me over naughty-nurse half-moon glasses. I can’t see the look, but I feel it. Her pencil jitters brusquely on the pad. She’s getting exasperated.
“What would you call it?”
Her laughter is a cynical snort. “Ever since Shade’s death, you two have been locked in a self-destructive, highly co-dependent relationship. And this unhealthy cycle can’t be broken until she stops endangering herself – or you stop rescuing her.”
“How can I, for God’s sake? It’s what I do.”
“Don’t pull that hero crap with me. You killed Shade readily enough – Aurora Knight was his sidekick. What’s the problem?”
I squeeze my fists together. Shade’s neck snaps again beneath my fingers.
“You don’t understand.”
“So make me. If she wants to kill herself, that’s her business. Why must you get involved?”
I often wonder if Caitlin’s somewhat confrontational style of therapy might have been another contributing factor in her professional disbarment. Most shrinks would rather strip naked than express an opinion in the consulting room. Although, come to think of it, Caitlin’s probably done both in the past.
“I … it’s not like … It’s a cry for help,” I mutter, sheepishly.
“Oh puh-lease. What about the sex?”
My blush is fierce and instant.
“Look, we’ve both been through a lot recently. It’s just part of the grieving process.”
“For you or for her?”
I twist on the couch and half sit up, staring at her. Sweat pools in the small of my back, beneath the Spandex.
She stares back, evenly.
“You heard me.”
“Don’t be so ridiculous.”
“Don’t be so defensive.”
With an effort, I uncross my arms and lie back stiffly on the couch.
“That’s better,” says Caitlin. She flips through her notes. A cat cries somewhere outside. Probably stuck up a tree. Well, it can wait.
“Last time we talked about your emotional reaction to killing Shade. You said, and I quote: It was my comeback, my big victory – and I didn’t feel triumph. Do you remember what you said you felt?”
I grit my teeth. Of course I do.
“And now you’re trying to fill it with …”
“Look, I know where this is going –”
“Exactly. And so does Aurora Knight. Nowhere. A superhero and an arch-villainess getting it on? It’ll destroy both your careers. Or is that the attraction?”
I picture Aurora. The first time, I didn’t even know it was her. I thought she was just another jumper. Her beautiful dark hair streamed in the night wind as she tumbled sixteen stories to land in my arms with a thud. Her black eyes opened wide and the next thing I felt was her fist on my jaw. And then were in the alley, fighting. She tore my costume. I wrestled her to the ground. And then … There’d been other times, since that night. The gun she’d turned on herself: the bullet I’d snatched at the last second. The poison champagne I’d knocked from her hand. Only last week, she’d stood defiantly on the railtracks, her eyes burning with tears, as the midnight express from Edgwood bore down on her … That one was a close call. Lucky my publicist managed to keep a lid on it.
”What do you think she really wants?” asks Caitlin softly. “To die? Or to be saved?”
“I don’t know. Probably both.” Always a safe answer.
“Or maybe she wants to be saved so badly she’ll risk death for it?”
Caitlin huffs impatiently. “OK, let’s try something else. In our previous session – after a lot of resistance from you, I might add – you told me about your Shade dream. The scratching, the cracked headstone, his hand shooting up through the grave and choking you, all that. You even quoted Coriolanus at me. Funny, I never pictured you as a Shakespeare-reading type.”
“No-one ever does,” I say, with resignation. I took a class in Text and Performance at college and played Hamlet in my final year. Does anyone read that part of my website? Of course not. It’s all about the super-strength and the Spandex.
“So what do you think that dream means?”
I ponder it. I’ve been wondering that myself for a while.
“I guess I … want closure?” I hazard.
Her laughter’s frankly scornful. “If you really wanted closure you wouldn’t be humping his closest ally, now would you? You wouldn’t be playing Aurora’s little suicide-watch game.”
I stare at the floor, then the clock. We don’t have long. And I don’t want to have that dream again.
“Can’t you do something about it?” I ask her. “I haven’t slept in weeks! If it’s not Aurora throwing herself off a building, it’s the Shade nightmare. I’m becoming a danger to the public, let alone myself.”
She hesitates. Then: “OK,” she says. “I’ve got a prescription for you. Confront your fear. Enact your dream.”
“What … tonight?”
She’s chirpy, insistent. “Sure. Carpe diem. Go to the cemetery. Visit the grave. What’s the worst that can happen?”
I’m really not so sure about this. I’m not afraid, you understand – I’m just not sure.
“Well, I don’t know … Can I sleep on it maybe?”
“No,” she says, and snaps her notebook shut with such force that her breasts tremble in her low-cut uniform.
“Oh,” I say meekly, “OK then.”
“Great. Session over.” Caitlin glances at her watch and then down at her cleavage. I realise I’m staring. She grins smugly.
“I’ll see you next week, when I think we should discuss your attraction to powerful, dominant women.”
At the threshold, I turn.
“I can’t lose her,” I say. “She’s the only one left worth fighting.”
The cemetery is as quiet as … well, the grave, I suppose, silver and black under the moon. Shade’s tomb isn’t how I remember it from the armed interment. The local criminals and alienated Goth kids have covered it in floral tributes: black pansies, blood-dark tulips, white roses sprayed grey. All dead, of course. There’s a fresh grave in the plot next door. What a neighbour to have.
I stand over the grave, staring down. The clouds gather overhead like they’re waiting for something. But nothing happens.
And then I hear it.
Scratching. Quiet at first. Like in the dream. The scrape of nails against a coffin-lid buried under a ton of earth. All the other sounds I can hear – the whine of police sirens, televisions talking to themselves in uptown apartments, rats scampering through the sewers three miles away – vanish, drowned out by ragged, clotted breaths, and scratching. I fall to my knees, press my ear against the cold marble, waiting for it, willing it –
A long white arm breaches the earth. But it’s not from Shade’s tomb, it’s from the grave next door. And I’d know that hand anywhere.
I pull Aurora out. She’s choking and spluttering, spitting black soil, breathless and ashamed.
“Couldn’t hack it?” I said sympathetically.
She shakes her head, not looking at me.
“Claustrophobia.” Angrily, she wipes dirt from her pale face. “I really wanted to do it this time. But I screwed up. Again.”
She’s shaking and cold. I put my arms around her.
“Aurora,” I say, “you’ve got to stop doing this, you know? We’ve got to stop doing this.”
“I know,” she says, and looks over at Shade’s grave, as though he might be listening.
“Listen,” I say gently, “I know someone who can help –”
“He’s not coming back, is he?” she says. She stares up at me, her eyes like black stars, vast and dark. She wants me to say Sure he will, he’s a super-villain, they always come back. But I can’t. I won’t.
She sees the answer in my eyes and starts to cry. I hold her head against my chest and let her sobs shake us both.
“It’s all right,” I say into her night-black hair. “I miss him too.”
I wait until she’s okay again, or something like it, and then I take her hand, and we fly away.[/private]
Writer: Alison Willis watches a lot of bad films, reads a lot of good comics, makes a lot of strong cocktails and writes a few short stories while she decides what to do with her life.
Artist: Sam Mead is a writer and artist from Findon Village in West Sussex, now living and working in Peckham. A Horse Named Peto appeared in Litro 100, and you can find more of his art and writing online at alcoholandbirth.tumblr.com