‘The Only Difference between a Hero and a Villain is Press Coverage’ by Upani Perera
‘The Only Difference between a Hero and a Villain is Press Coverage’ by student Upani Perera was developed in Short Form Fiction in 2022.
Sydney, Australia, 2023
And just like that, Lucy’s out for a month. Totally slips off the face of the earth. Leaves her phone and her pager at home and stays with Nadine the whole time. While a villain razes half of Perth to the ground, Lucy’s making dinner with Nadine. A giant black hole opens up right above Melbourne and eats up all the skyscrapers and the hipsters? Too fucking bad, because Lucy and Nadine are painting each other’s toenails.
Back in 2013, the whole world had watched as Big Bad pushed Nadine off the roof of a twelve-story building. She plummeted in a spiral. Her parachute couldn’t adapt when it discharged and wrapped around her neck, mercilessly choking her as she fell. The live news coverage showed her thin fingers grasp at the fabric, desperately trying to rip it off. Just like that, the Association’s golden girl – the most powerful hero in generations – had been defeated. By gravity and a parachute.
The media never reported the severity of her injuries and Nadine never talked about it, but Lucy knew. Her spine was broken in five places – she’d have to relearn how to walk. Her telepathy was no longer what it used to be.
Less than a year later, Lucy came home to an empty apartment. No clothes, shoes, underwear, not even a single sock. Nadine had packed her shit and gone. She’d taken the photos with her in them off the walls and out of Lucy’s scrapbooks. There were pillows only on one side of the bed, half of the books on the bookshelves were gone, as were the fuzzy throws on the couch. She took all the good fucking silverware. All that was left to prove Nadine had ever existed was her picture in the Association’s Hall of Fame.
And now they were together again.
“Would you ever retire?” Nadine asks and blows gently into her steaming cup of tea – a fancy blend that Lucy can’t remember the name of. “Leave the hero business for good, buy a house on a farm somewhere, live a quiet life?”
Lucy hums in thought. She puts her cup on the coffee table and rests her chin on her knees. “I don’t think I could.”
“It wouldn’t be the right thing to do. I have the ability to help people, so I should.”
Realistically, if Lucy were to retire, it would be without much fanfare. The public wouldn’t miss her the way they missed Nadine. The most Lucy had given to the Association was her loyalty. She’d get a little party for her years of service and then she’d be forgotten. Support-heroes like Lucy – the ones with abilities too weak to handle villains by themselves – don’t get statues and plaques.
Back in her heyday, the people had worshipped Nadine like she was a god. When she fell, there was a week of mourning. Lucy could retire and people would move on after a day.
“Do you enjoy it?” Nadine asks, reaching forward to tuck a strand of Lucy’s hair behind her ear.
No, Lucy wants to say. She hasn’t enjoyed it for a while now. It’s a thankless job, she’s never felt so alone. “I have no choice.”
Nadine reaches out to cradle Lucy’s cheek, rubbing under her eye with a thumb. She smiles, a sad thing that makes Lucy’s insides tighten. “You don’t have any obligation to stay with them, love. You will not be evil if you leave.”
Lucy squeezes her eyes shut, quelling her tears.
The news shows some up-and-coming villain holding people hostage in a bank. Nadine’s in the shower and blasting that old-timey jazz music she likes. The guy on the news manipulates electricity – he shouldn’t be strong enough to be holding off so many police officers, he must be hiding something.
The jazz stops and Nadine steps out of the bathroom, a cloud of steam billowing behind her. She’s got a robe tied loosely around her waist and a towel holding up her hair. She looks at the television and snorts. “You’re not planning to go out there and help, are you?”
Lucy rolls her eyes and turns it off.
‘But if you could, would you?”
And now Nadine’s doing that thing where she pretends she’s not psychoanalysing you. Lucy doesn’t have the mental energy to bounce around the truth so Nadine can’t figure her out – Nadine is smarter than her, and always will be. “I know I should,’ she says, ‘but I don’t think I will.”
What good would she do, when there were already more capable heroes on the job? What good did she ever do, other than push the real heroes to the spotlight?
She thinks of the time she chased a villain through the city, got punched through four walls, one of them was a McDonalds and she came out the other side covered in McFlurry. She fought, and she had the guy. A bigger hero came in, slapped on the handcuffs, and finished the job. A statue was erected next to the McDonalds a week later, honouring the hero, while Lucy got a pat on the back from one of the bosses.
God, when did she start thinking like this? Fucking selfish. Maybe Nadine’s rubbing off on her.
‘Come on,’ says Nadine, ‘let’s get out of here.’
London, England, 2017
Nadine made her grand debut as a villain by walking right out of the British Museum with sixty-five Rembrandts. Brought a curator up from downstairs and had him pack them for safe travels. Took them out two by two and stacked them neatly in the back of a truck. Whole time, the visitors and the security just watched her. Had the whole damn building under her influence. And, get this, girl came out of the main fucking entrance. Who wouldn’t if you were – once – the most powerful telepath in a century?
Lucy had been waiting for her outside the museum. After the accident, Nadine’s telepathy had been all out of whack. Needed serious recalibration. Seeing her, framed by the ceiling of the portico and the ionic columns, she seemed recovered. More than recovered.
“Nadine,” Lucy yelled, her heart in her throat as she stepped closer, “what are you doing?”
Nadine said nothing. Just stared.
“Come on, put the paintings back.”
Silence. Nadine didn’t even move. Just watched Lucy at the bottom of the stairs.
“Fine,” Lucy hissed in desperation. “I’ll drag you home myself.”
Later, she’d tell upper management that she had been caught off guard. She’d tell the media that she was under Nadine’s control. Truth was, she just got dumb. She got angry. She had spent three years looking for Nadine and when they finally met again, she had looked at Lucy like she was a bug under her shoe. Truth was, she was so surprised to see Nadine again – to see Nadine like this – that she didn’t hear the truck coming until she was hit by it. At lightning fucking speed, hit from behind and cracking her head on the museum steps.
Lucy tried to stand, heaving up blood, each cough felt like it was tearing her apart from the inside.
Then Nadine walked past and got into the truck.
Lucy got the fuck up. It was gonna end like this over her dead body. She forced her shoulder back into its socket and walked until her hip popped back into place. She hooked her fingers tight under the metal ledge of the truck, pulling the truck back even as it accelerated. She leaned her forehead against the shipping container and screamed. Smoke poured out from the tyres, swallowing her.
Three fucking years and this was how it ended? Because she let her guard down a little? Lucy tightened her grip on the truck and summoned all her strength because this was Nadine. If she could get the truck to stop, Nadine would come home.
Her feet dug twin trenches into the road until all at once, she couldn’t hold on anymore. The truck dragged her forward, skinning her body against the concrete until her fingers were unglued from its tailgate.
Whole time, Nadine hadn’t said a word. Like they didn’t even know each other.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2021
Security footage was of Nadine leaning against a window of a restaurant, smiling right at the camera. Lucy knew, in her superego, that it was a trap. That Nadine wouldn’t make her whereabouts known unless she wanted something. But there was something in Lucy – stuck in between her ribs and oozing down to a pit in her stomach – that burned at the sight of Nadine again. She wanted to reach through the screen and grab Nadine by the shoulders and scream. Wanted to feel Nadine’s cheeks between her palms and her thighs against her cheeks. To grind Nadine into the ground with the heel of her boot, treat her like a bug, see how she fucking liked it.
The restaurant was tucked away in the corner of the city, dimly lit, and Lucy had stood outside the door for a full eight minutes before working up the strength to walk in. Inside was all green and gold accents, dark wooden furniture – low tables and cushioned seats. It was lit by dull lamps and it smelled like Nadine.
A waitress had looked her up and down before leading her to a private booth in the back and serving tea in porcelain so thin you could see through it. If the dragon wall wasn’t a sign that Nadine was here, then this was. Such a nice set could only be a part of Nadine’s collection. A welcome, if anything. A sign of goodwill.
A hand parted the curtain and Nadine walked into the booth. All the years had done nothing but sharpen her, trimmed away any kindness and naivety until a face had emerged that was almost unrecognisable to Lucy. She sat across the table and quirked an eyebrow.
Lucy took a breath.
Wellington, New Zealand, 2023
The balcony of Nadine’s apartment looks over Wellington like the city is her kingdom. It’s so high up that Lucy feels that if she jumped a cloud would catch her and carry her back to Nadine and her ten-thousand-dollar outdoor couch.
“So, what did you do,” Nadine asks at last, “to get suspended for a month?”
“Do you want the true answer or the tactful answer?” Lucy replies, taking a long drag of her cigarette.
“I’ve never known you to be tactful with me.”
The smoke tickles Lucy’s throat as she exhales, the breeze carries the smoke forward towards the sunset. “I killed a guy.”
Nadine doesn’t say anything, just squeezes one of Lucy’s calves where it lies in her lap.
“He was a haemokinetic,” Lucy continues, “kept a floor of a hospital hostage – the paediatric ward. I had no backup and he was about to kill a kid. A fucking kid.” She takes another long drag of the cigarette and revels in the smoke. “I didn’t know what else to do, so I garroted him.”
She remembers how the wire felt, cutting through his skin, his muscle, all the way to the spine. The way the blood spurted in a concentric pattern over the floor and walls. Over her clothes, her hands, her face. She could taste it, salty and metallic in her mouth. The way she felt the strength slowly leaving his body.
“The worst part of it all is that… killing that guy felt like I’d actually saved lives more than anything else I’d done in the past ten fucking years. Like, it doesn’t matter that I’ve played key roles in the arrests of some of the dangerous villains of the decade. Killing one guy who was about to hurt one kid felt like I was doing more to actually protect people.”
Nadine leans her head back. The sun paints her skin gold, and like this – hair falling down her back, long line of her neck exposed – she is statuesque. Like one of the subjects of the art she steals. She’s Venus incarnate. She speaks. “I had been wanting to leave the Association long before I fell. It’s fucked up what they do to us. Pilfer us when we’re young and indoctrinate us into their goddamn rules and regulations.”
She takes the cigarette from between Lucy’s fingers and taps off the ash. “People like us, we’re fucking cursed. It’s either sign to the Association and lose any sense of free will or become a villain and lose any sense of morality. It’s all so black and white. You’re either good or bad and the moment a hero does something against the Association’s sacred rules, they become a villain.”
She looks Lucy in the eye. “But that’s wrong, Lucy. The only difference between a hero and a villain is press coverage. On paper, I’m a villain. That’s how everyone thinks of me, now. But I’m not. And I’m not a hero either. I just am. I think about how righteous I used to be; it did nothing for me. What saved me was leaving – freeing myself from the burden of my powers and just doing what I want to.”
“Do you think if I were a villain, I could get everything I want?”
“Depends, what do you want?”
Nadine drops the cigarette and puts it out with her bare foot. She moves so that she is lying between Lucy’s legs – arms around her torso, head on her chest. She can probably hear Lucy’s hummingbird heart. “I don’t think you’d like being a villain,” Nadine says.
“You don’t think I could do it.”
Nadine laughs, caught. “Why say it like I’m insulting you?”
“Because you are.”
“I’m not.” Nadine’s voice is soft. She lifts her head and brings a hand to Lucy’s cheek, bringing her in close, mouth-to-mouth. “You can come with me if you want. We can go on the run.”
Lucy closes her eyes.
“If it’s for you, I could live a modest lifestyle.”
It’s Lucy’s turn to laugh. “You can’t handle a life on the run. You’d rather live in some fortified mansion where the Association can find you.”
Nadine smiles. “I’d rather die than live anyway. Come with me. We’d never be in want of anything.”
Lucy’s heart stops.
Nadine kisses her and breathes life back into her. She kisses Lucy’s throat. “Come with me,” she whispers into Lucy’s collarbone – feather-light.
Lucy runs a hand through Nadine’s silken hair and lifts her face with the other. She looks into her eyes, deep and black and hypnotizing. If they deteriorate, they’ll do it together. Hand in unlovable hand.
She kisses her.
Author bio: Upani Perera is a Sri Lankan-born, Melbourne-based writer, a student of RMIT PWE and of life, and a poet that one time. Find her on Instagram @up.cp.
Photo credit: Shutterstock – city skyline at night.