Like Shipwrecked Stars by Scott Beggs
We wasted half the morning on orangutans. Really, just the one orangutan. Daisy. Who was sick with some sort of upper respiratory infection.
The problem was bigger than a coughing primate, though. The zoo had gotten so many donations and sympathy cards from concerned citizens that they were considering the impact of creating an endowment that would make visiting the zoo completely free for everyone and wanted input from us on what effect it might have on local tourism.
Lorena is taking notes she won’t read later; Suzanne and Quincy aren’t paying attention at all. This is the kind of nonsense we have to deal with now that Lucas is leading our nine o’clock senior staff meeting with his inexplicable bowties. We get lost in a sea of orange hair and donor lists until it’s time to order sandwiches.
This, the orangutan thing, is the most pressing concern for the mayor of a city of seven million. This is what happens when a superhero fixes everything by flexing her brain.
“This is what we wanted, you know,” Meera tells me as we’re walking back to her office along a beige carpet mashed so thin that dragging your feet wouldn’t summon static electricity.
This is a great and terrible space where people ask offhand questions about zoning regulations and get preliminary budget reports by the end of the day. Start a sentence with “What if,” and be prepared to launch a cross-sectional, month-long study. Sneeze just right, and you might change transportation policy.
“Isn’t this thrilling?” she asks with the hushed shout of a hummingbird dipped in espresso. “We’ve tackled all the big stuff. The minutia is kicking in.”
“I never expected it to get this dull,” I say.
“You never expected to be finished. This is what really solving problems looks like. You just need to remix your brain chemistry for what we’re doing here, buckaroo.”
“For the minutia?”
“For the next step,” she says. She’s already crossed behind her desk, reading a position paper on a better method for insuring government-backed small business loans.
“Exactly. I can’t waste my time in meetings like that. I should be writing speeches and trying to memorize all the counties in the state so you can win most of them.”
“How about all of them?” she says, not asks. None of her questions are really questions. “You can officially spend all day in the darkest corner of your office, the glow of a laptop your only friend.”
She pulls a small bottle out of her top drawer and pops an aspirin.
“Everything all right?”
“I’m fine. Just having trouble concentrating.”
“Then I know what we’re doing tonight,” I say, kissing Meera’s cheek when Suzanne and Quincy, a pair of twins with different skin colors and birthdays, walk grief-stricken into the room.
“What’s happened?” Meera asks.
“There’s been a mugging—” Suzanne starts.
“—the sixth this year, Ma’am,” Quincy finishes, his head hung low.
Meera sighs and purses her lips, flashing a look that simultaneously displays a sense of frustration and commanding calm, the quintessential politician grimace that everyone, in her case, wrongly assumes is fake.
“Did they catch the guy?” she asks. “Did they get a statement?”
“That’s the silver lining—”
“—he gave a full confession.”
I stay long enough to hear about Alexander Abbot, who, after losing his job at a pepper plant six months ago, got a bad payday loan across the bridge and is now facing a bruiser from Speedy Ca$h on Fifth who wants to take a heavy hammer to poor Alexander’s kneecaps. He pretended a flashlight was a pistol and tried to rob a young couple outside a trashy-chic club. Hard to call an assault like that aggravated, but the six muggings put us on track for 18 total this year. That’s .000003 muggings per citizen. Meaning Meera probably won’t sleep tonight.
Not to mention the whole orangutan thing still hanging over her head.
“This is what we’re up against!” she shouts, eyes locked with mine. “We can turn this town into the Garden of Eden, but there’s always going to be another town riddled with problems across the bridge. We can’t escape other cities’ mistakes.”
I nod. “Time to remix our brain chemistry.”
“Suzanne, can you get me next year’s wastewater budget, the files on all the supers who took our retirement offer, last night’s prime time Nielsen ratings, and the mayor of Springfield on the phone in five? Quincy, I need three years of crime reports, local and national, a headcount on the open space lighting initiative and Chief Amman in ten.”
They give her an exaggerated salute, and turn on their heels, undoubtedly happy to be off ape duty.
With a fresh crisis in front of her, Meera won’t need the aspirin, but I leave her the bottle anyway and tell myself not to worry.
That night, back at the mayor’s mansion—really just an office building with bedrooms—I’m resetting the coals atop the thin metal grate of the hookah, lifting and dropping them from a millimeter height, knocking the graying dead skin of ash off the side to reveal the beating orange heart beneath. Meera inhales the honeyed smoke until her chest expands and her eyes grow wide. This is our special blend. The bubbling vapor that keeps Meera’s mind on fire and might save the world.
So far, all we’ve done is save the city. Through law enforcement budgeting, housing-first homelessness policies, and simplifying our parking, zoning, and traffic hierarchies. Through tripling the salaries of teachers. Through utilizing vacant lots and abandoned buildings for new stores and apartments, through clearing out old debt before taking on new bonds, through refusing to subsidize business development. Through a thousand white papers from think tanks and Meera’s gorgeous, smoke-filled mind.
She and I met protesting. This was a month before the Oklahoma City bombing and two months before graduation. I was head organizer for the Students for Social Justice, a group convinced we were moving the ocean to spite the moon by holding up clever slogans on the main mall while class-bound students ignored us. Meera showed up to shout down the WTO because her friend, whatever his name was, had a megaphone and a chip on his shoulder. We all did. Except for her. She seemed delighted by our raging futility. Completely ahead of the curve. I fell for her right away.
We spent long, dawn-filled nights arguing about the best way to fix society, sharpening our teeth on Payne and Chanakya and Friedman. It’s only decades later that you can look back on those tiny moments—the thousand cups of brown rice tea someone brought you, the million miniscule nods and gestures that self-invent your own new language, the half-billion seconds you invisibly spend defined alongside another person—you look back and realize that it was the minutia more than any giant leap that wove you together.
In the middle of our weaving, there was law school, three tumultuous years as a public defender, agreeing that we didn’t need a piece of paper to validate our partnership, and ultimately deciding that—for sheer practicality of hospital visits and the ever-present unexpected—we should tie the knot anyway. We hadn’t moved the ocean one inch. That was the year the whole country woke up, and Meera hatched her plan.
“I don’t know why it hasn’t dawned on me before this,” I say, watching her exhale several smoke rings and shift her body on an overstuffed, striped sofa. “But you don’t have a superhero name.”
“That’s why I’m able to put so many of them out of business.”
“It’s a shame. You don’t even have the spandex suit.”
“I’ve got Spanx.”
“You don’t have the domino mask.”
“Your superhero alter ego is just you. Which is why I think—”
“I know what you’re going to say.” Of course she did. The hazard of being married to a woman with her power. A woman who cleaned up the city after a half-century of punching dynamos had failed. A woman who could predict people’s behavior so well that she could essentially see into the future.
“—which is why I think you shouldn’t be running for Senate. Why be one of a hundred cigar-puffing lunatics?”
The coals need moving. I tamp another layer of ash off and shove the fresh heat toward the center.
“It’s a steppingstone,” she says. “I can’t go city to city to save the whole world. I have to maximize the strengths of the system while mitigating, exploiting, or accepting its weaknesses, and you simply don’t reach a position of meaningful, singular authority in this country without trudging down the path.”
“What about reshaping it?”
“All paths have strengths and weaknesses.” Another plume of smoke rises from her lips. “Besides, trying to right a system this large is like turning an aircraft carrier with one hand on the wheel. There’ll be time for that later.”
“How long do you plan on standing on this steppingstone?”
“Why won’t you tell me what you’re really afraid of?”
The day we signed paperwork at the Justice of the Peace (“Two of my favorite words!” Meera had exclaimed loudly at the time) was the same day that the Capital Guardians failed to prevent an attack that resulted in the deaths of thousands. The attack that we all see memorialized every year in network news packages retelling the timetable, interviewing people who cleared rubble, and highlighting first responders with glossy, highly-produced Kleenex ads. Our wedding day and our national day of mourning. It makes exchanging anniversary cards seem vain. Those twenty-four hours don’t belong to us.
The day after the attack, Meera told me about her abilities.
“I love you deeply,” she says, and I watch her face, now flush, the smoke having its effect, her mind cycling through a thousand breathing chess moves, and I know she means it. “I need you rock solid during the campaign because someone is going to try to assassinate me.”
I shift the remaining coals clockwise to keep the heat spread evenly.
“I’m not sure what to say.”
“What makes you think someone will try”—I can’t form the words—“something like that?”
“Because there’s evil in the world, and the proof of it is that you can’t do this much good without someone trying to kill you.”
It’s cold for September, and Lucas forgot to order coffee. Meera’s wearing a stylish black overcoat, commanding a podium in front of an audience of rapt Glenn County Pickle Festival attendees, completely unaffected by the weather. Her hair would stay in place during a hurricane.
“We grew up idolizing them,” she says, pausing a heartbeat for dramatic effect. “They were figures worth celebrating—stronger and faster than us, using that power and speed to fix some of the highest crime rates that the major cities of this country have ever seen. These were brave men and women who took upon their shoulders the challenges that eluded or overtook police forces who were sometimes corrupt, sometimes drowning under crime waves without adequate funding, sometimes offering their best while operating inside a tragically flawed system. Crisis mode is no way to maintain order.”
Behind the stage, Lorena whispers in my ear and shoves a phone in front of my face. It’s playing the latest ad from Meera’s opponent, Jack Ernest, who offers a scathing tableau of blacks and whites and reds littered with insinuations and out-and-out lies about her without ever showing his face on screen. Such graceful cowardice. I can’t help but smile.
“You’re happy about this?” Lorena asks.
“One second,” I say. The crowd erupts exactly at the line designed to make them erupt. The blistering white noise fills the fairground, pushes off from the ground and then barrels into the sky.
“It’s a Hail Mary move,” I continue. “Can you get me new polling numbers? If we’re still up 6, I’m right.”
Lorena leaves. I can’t hold onto my smile. The crowd cheers again, unexpectedly.
“And they were worth celebrating,” Meera asserts from the stage. “I can only imagine the thrill of seeing them venerated in colorful pop art, single-handedly punching out Hitler, leaving bank robbers tied up against lampposts with witty notes pinned to their chests. They were great detectives in rubber suits and otherworldly dynamos punching their way through the brick and concrete of the city in order to melt the chaos. So, we celebrated. Maybe some of us even worshipped. They came to us from other planets, like shipwrecked stars, or from within our own communities, filled with the incalculable promise of a better tomorrow.”
Here, the crowd goes quiet. No one fidgets against the chill. They all stand on the hard-pack dirt and in the soft palm of Meera’s hand. This is the part of the speech we in the business call the Come Along. You paint a compelling picture for your audience, then invite them to come along with you to see what it can mean for them.
“But our grandparents and parents realized over the following years that the laws of physics still apply to violent heroism. Create a good guy with the strength of ten men, and you’ll meet a bad guy just as strong soon after. Crime evolved. It evolved beyond the control of singular superheroes, so they formed collectives like the Capital Guardians, which grew into armies that only promised outsized destruction to our city and others like it around the world.
“Tomorrow came, and the worst elements of society were as strong as they ever were. It turned out that superheroes were perfect for fighting crime, but not beating it. And ensuring safe streets is only one element of building a prosperous, innovative society. These fantastically powerful people were squandering their talents on single acts of courage—or maybe they never had the power to save us because they were trying to do so without first altering the way the worst angels of our nature operate. It means little to clear the path of low-hanging branches if you’re on the wrong path to begin with.”
Lorena returns with the freshest poll numbers and, finally, coffee.
“Do you think that last line makes sense?” I ask her.
“Yes. You’re paranoid. People get it.”
“Over the past six years of my tenure as mayor,” Meera continues, “we’ve found the right path. Yes, we had to clear a lot of branches ourselves, but our work together has resulted in the highest employment rate and lowest crime rate this city has seen since it was a Revolutionary era encampment. If you think that’s phenomenal, then I need to ask you a favor.”
The crowd hums and chirps because they know what’s coming. They’ve seen it in news footage and in video clips and campaign ads passed around social media. They’ve probably repeated it, as they do now, in their living rooms either as an ironic lark or with bubbling, genuine optimism.
“From Garland to Mason, from Edgewater to La Grange, I need you to tell your friends and family across this great state to send me to the Senate so I can bring the change we’ve seen here to the entire country!”
She thanks the crowd, waves once from the podium, then again from the stairs leading off the stage, and one final time before ducking behind the giant blue curtain that serves as a makeshift wall between the backstage area and the swelling tide of local pickle enthusiasts.
“You sounded great out there, Ma’am,” Lorena says warmly.
“We’re now up 7 points over Ernest,” I offer with a wink.
“Did you see his new ad?” Meera asks.
“That explains why you’re smiling.”
“Should I order balloons and champagne?” Lorena asks.
“Don’t you dare. Not until November 9th,” Meera says. “We’ve got a hard September ahead of us. We’re about to go on the defense.”
“But the polls—”
“The press operates in 5-week cycles. They’ve punched Ernest for the past month, and we’ve played error-free ball, so they had no reason to stop the pummeling, but they’re bored now. They need the horse race. It’s what drives ratings, which means it drives the media narrative, which means they’re going to use us as a punching bag until the, you know, the… they’ll use us as a punching…”
Meera’s knees buckle, and she falls so fast that she knocks Lorena over, the pair of them slamming to the ground amid an instantaneous clamor for the EMTs. Hustle and panic are the price and convenience of having every eye always on you. Lorena scrambles to stand as I’m kneeling by Meera’s side. I’m patting her cheeks and repeating her name, and all I can think about is the way her voice sounded when she said someone would try to kill her. What had she known that night?
The EMTs are rushing through the big, blue curtain, and I still haven’t gotten her to open her eyes.
“You know, I guess I really proved I’m no superhero yesterday. I’m as human as anyone else, warts and all,” she says to the host before turning to the cameras. Her jocular tone only plays because the audience at home can’t see the bruises on her legs.
Meera is being interviewed by a big set of teeth on the second-most viewed morning show in the state, doing what she refuses to call damage control after passing out in public. The host barely pretends to care when she says that her doctor prescribed supplements and hydration and “getting back to work.” Her excuse flies because—as we’ll debate later—she’s running on her accomplishments instead of her personality. Some people live for rumors, but most just want the difficult, rewarding work of life to be that much easier.
“All too human, I suppose,” the set of teeth says, parroting her laugh. “Of course, I imagine your fellow superheroes still have a bone to pick with you.”
“I’ve maintained several strong relationships with the superheroes who protected the city before I came to office. Captain Phenom for example. Jade Edge and The Handmaiden. They are as thrilled as anyone else that we no longer need their extraordinary help.”
“Have you seen Jade Edge without her mask on?” the teeth ask with wry titillation.
“Nice try. Nice try, but I can say that several superheroes have chosen to live in the city after hanging up their super suits for good.”
I’m sipping stale water from a plastic cup behind the cameras, my laptop case slung at a diagonal across my chest, the slide buckle hitting it dead center over the sternum. These talk show sets are always so tiny. Barely a closet without any need for a studio audience. Just enough space for the host, two cameramen and a line producer. That’s about all the people I can handle surrounding Meera right now.
“Mayor Canto, have you seen Representative Ernest’s latest attack ad?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t. The campaign keeps me pretty busy. We’re talking about—”
“Some are saying that it’s what made you faint at the festival.”
“Well, I know that my opponent has a flair for the extreme. My campaign is focused more on talking about the amazing strides we’ve been able to achieve during my mayoral tenure and expanding them throughout the state. We’re ready to do as much good as we can, while we can, where we can.”
The day after Meera and I were married, the day after the worst attack on Washington D.C. since the British burned the White House, Meera poured us both healthy glasses of Malbec and told me that she’d solved a Rubik’s cube in under a minute when she was two years old. Her parents were astonished. This was the era of uncanny powers lifting the extraordinary among us into realms of wealth and notoriety. They wanted to cultivate her talent, to keep her chained to a desk at home, never noticing the way Meera’s eye would light up when walking past a playground or a school.
Doctors placed her on the autism spectrum, her parents were convinced she had superpowers, and after she confessed her secret to me, I asked her why it couldn’t be both.
We cried together watching further news coverage and getting updates on the death toll and destruction. She railed against the Guardians, pointing to the attack as proof that violence only begets more violence in a downward spiral. She shook with fury as she admitted that she was even more horrified that the perpetrator of the murder of thousands wasn’t another steroidal Mr. Universe contestant, but The IQ, a villain with unbelievable intelligence. Like her. The mad scientist cliché come to life.
“I don’t think like anyone else,” she’d said, a profound fear taking up residence and solidifying in her spine.
She vowed to get to work, and she did. I can’t imagine what help I was, all things considered, but she played along like she needed me. Said I calmed her down. Said she revved me up. Maybe we met somewhere in the middle. At least I hope we did, but I doubt it. I was always going to be pulled further into her glorious orbit than the other way around. And that’s fine. That’s as it should be with a beneficent genius. She took that mad scientist, supervillain persona and turned it on its head. She eschewed the simplistic sucker punching and used her power to run for school board. Nothing flashy. It was never about being bombastic—it was about finding a way to take large problems, boil them down to a series of entanglements and false starts and hurdles, and then discover the right steps to take to achieve victory. The thing is, even the best plans don’t survive first contact with the enemy, so you’ve got to keep working at it and moving the pieces around the board.
She became a city councilmember. Then mayor. Now I’m watching her with nervous eyes in the television studio where the lights are too bright, wondering who—hero or villain—she suspects of plotting her death.
When she finishes, Meera removes her lav mic, takes me by the arm, and walks me to a stairwell away from everyone else. The metal door thuds shut. She kisses me with a biting intensity that evanesces into a resigned sorrow as she attempts to place as much of herself against me as possible.
“I thought the interview went well,” I say, watching particles of dust cascade in and out of a beam of light sneaking into the stairwell through a window on the second-floor landing. It smells like sawdust and Meera’s tears. She sniffles and pulls her face away from my chest, smiling, cheeks glistening.
“You wanna know why I don’t have a funny suit and an alter ego?” she laughs.
I squeeze her shoulder and nod.
“Because I can do more good when people don’t think I’m a superhero.”
Meera was right about the polls tightening. The media traded in guile and innuendo for a few weeks before shifting its all-seeing, unknowing eye back-and-forth between her and Ernest in the final days leading up to the election. Suzanne and Quincy proofread each other’s resumes, Lucas stopped shaving, Lorena ordered champagne and balloons.
A week before the big day, Meera spoke outside an elementary school to outline how her municipal education plan could be expanded to cover the whole state. The Governor introduced her and promised the attendant crowd a victory that would benefit entire generations. He told them with his aloe vera voice to watch out for Meera’s name on a bigger ballot in just a few years.
In a campaign as big as this one, particularly dedicated local volunteers are often rewarded with meeting and taking photos with the candidate. A sign of their involvement. A hand to brag about shaking. So, we lined up a group of diehards in a third-grade classroom and paraded them in front of Meera to receive her personal thanks for fighting the good fight and bringing home the election to our side. There were union members and retirees and college seniors with chips on their shoulders and artists and bakers who spent hours on phones talking to strangers, convincing people that pressing a button with Meera’s name next to it would mean demonstrable, positive change for them.
Near the end of the line, a young, slender woman with jet black hair approached Meera, saying nothing before collapsing into her arms. She sobbed and convulsed. Meera patted her back and gave us a look that said that everything was fine. The woman’s name was Lily.
Lily had made more phone calls and knocked on more doors than anyone else in the room by far, but she didn’t want to force a smile for a photograph. She just wanted Meera to listen to a recording of her daughter describing the mundane details of her tiny life—best friends and tea parties and a field trip to the fire station—and asking her mom when she was going to come visit.
This was the last voicemail Lily had gotten before her daughter Anna was killed in Washington D.C. on the day Meera and I were married.
Meera cradled Lily in her arms for a quiet fifteen minutes before promising, tears rolling down her cheeks, to shield everyone from the kind of heartache Lily knew too well, as much as one person could. Some of the most moving photos of the entire campaign were made during that moment, and the public never saw any of them. I made sure of it.
The race was labeled a toss-up, but sitting in a hotel suite with two dozen of our closest campaign colleagues in the next room, waiting for the winner to be named, Meera tells me she’ll beat Ernest by a little over 300,000 votes. I’m guessing she calculated from past polling performance, taking economic variables and party identification into consideration, but I am too tired to ask, so I take her calm confidence as gospel.
I am in awe of her. I do not understand her perfection.
“Did you hear about Daisy?” she asks.
“Daisy. The orangutan.”
I laugh hard enough to need a drink of water afterward. “No,” I groan. “I didn’t hear.”
“She just gave birth. The zoo has a webcam set up and everything.”
“I’ll have to check it out the next time I get more than five free seconds.”
“For now, you should lock the door.”
“Stealing a little privacy just moments before you find out whether you’ll be joining the legislative horde?”
She steps closer. Close enough for me to smell the rose edge of her perfume.
“When did you decide to kill me?” she asks.
I click the deadbolt into place. “I haven’t yet.”
“You’re the only one close enough to know the real me. To see all the flaws and still stand by my side. Did the little girl, Lily, the one who died make the decision any easier? You could tell that my tears weren’t real.”
“Not easier, no. You’ve gotten good at making them real.”
“But you thought about it before then?”
“You really don’t know?”
“Don’t tease me.”
“It was the sixth mugger.”
She tilts her head, curious. A loud, collective sigh of frustration bleeds through the wall from the other room, the muted television screen in ours lamenting a race too early to call.
“I haven’t been this surprised in a long time,” she says. “What about the mugger?”
“It was the way you responded, completely uncaring about the young couple, desperate to know what would prompt him to commit a crime. But you weren’t interested in him getting his life back on track. You saw him as a number on a spreadsheet.”
“There had to be something else.”
“Then you complained that there would always be another city across the bridge whose evil would spill over into our paradise, which made me wonder where the task of saving the world really ends. When you’ve saved the country from itself, there will still be the big bad world waiting across the bridge. If fixing the country means becoming President, surely fixing the world means conquering it.”
“I’m not sure what to say.”
“Say that I’m wrong.”
She stares me down in warm, buzzy silence.
“When you told me that same night that someone would try to assassinate you, I felt so ashamed.”
“I’m having trouble remembering what it’s like to feel,” she says, sitting down on the bed, either convinced of her safety or resigned to its end. “The headaches are getting worse, and the damned fainting situation. Not that I grew up understanding how to be close with people to begin with.”
“I need you to tell me something, Meera.”
“What’s going to keep you from perfecting all life against the will of the people living it?”
She sits still for a moment, the heater in the room kicks on with a percussive thrum, and a bottle of champagne shifts in its ice bucket.
“This would be so much easier if Jade Edge were about to drop kick through that window to slice my head off,” she says.
In the next room, glasses clink together. Muddied voices tell stories and share memories of the 24-hour grind that dominated the last few months. Meera begins to breathe in uneven bursts, genuine tears desperate to leap from her eyelids.
I kneel by her side and press her forehead to mine.
“You,” she says, the tears now streaming. “You’re going to keep me anchored to humanity. Keep me from mistaking dominance for perfection. You are going to keep me.”
Wild cheering erupts from the adjoining hotel suite. Feet stomp and stumble on the thin carpet. Fists bang on our door. On the television, they’re announcing a winner.
In a few hours, they’ll say she won by 300,046 votes. In a few years, it will be more.
Scott Beggs writes and edits at Mental Floss and other fine sites, and his short stories have appeared in Dark Moon Digest, MYTHIC Magazine, and Mulholland Books’ Popcorn Fiction. He moves around a lot with his wife and two dogs named after enigmatic Tom Robbins characters, and he wants to be Buster Keaton’s best friend. Follow him on Twitter and visit his website.