Corina settled back into the grimy seat and tucked white buds into her ears. Chicago flashed past her in snatches of skyscrapers, cars, bridges, and billboards promoting Krazy Kaplans’ fireworks. More would come as they drew closer to the fourth of July.
She drummed her fingers on her knee to the beat of her mixed playlist. It was supposed to help her feel more empowered and energetic. Normally it did, but not today. Today was a bad day, and the familiar torn poster clinging to the metro train wall across from her didn’t help.
Two women battled in the image; one clad in purple and mid-transformation into a fox, and the other encased in a black and white leotard with blue psychic wings that matched the mask on her face. A magpie.
Bird vs. fox.
Was it any surprise who was the winner?
She looked away as two unsuspecting teens commented on the image.
“Who’s that?” a boy asked, pointing at the women. He put down his phone, Pokemon Go singing through the speaker.
His friend looked up from her comic book. “Violet Vixen and Magpie. You haven’t heard of them? They were big five years ago.”
“I was only ten,” the boy grumped.
“Riiight, and you were too focused on Pokemon back then,” the girl laughed. “I guess nothing has really changed.” She tucked her curly red hair back and gestured flippantly to the poster. “Magpie was a villain who kept trying to destroy all the superheroes. I dunno what her problem was. Anyway, Violet Vixen kicked her ass, and there hasn’t been a sign of Magpie since. Some say she died. Others say she turned into the superhero, Starling.”
“Starling?” The boy pursed his lips and leaned back. “Well, yeah, I’ve heard of Starling. But she couldn’t have been a bad guy. Bad guys can’t be good.”
The girl shrugged and went back to her comic.
Corina’s blue eyes drifted towards the boy as he kept staring at the poster. She concentrated, and whispers started to echo in her ears.
Naw, Starling can’t be Magpie. That’s just stupid. Once bad, always bad. Magpie’s not even that sexy. Now Starling, she—
Corina blinked, cutting off the connection. She didn’t need to imagine what was going on in a fifteen-year-old boy’s head.
The train slowed and Corina slipped off onto the platform. Shoving her hands into her pocket, she headed down the street, a power ballad still blaring away on her earbuds.
Bad guys can’t be good, huh? she thought. She’d heard that often enough, not just from the crowds but from the other superheroes. Everyone kept waiting for her to betray them. It had been five years, why couldn’t they just let it go? Magpie was dead, long since buried and her costume burned.
At least Starling was receiving a better reception, though she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be known as “sexy” by the teens. Unlike some of her counterparts, she didn’t show off her breasts or her crotch, and she wore practical boots instead of those damnable high heels. How did half of those women even fight when their shirts were barely big enough to cover their bosoms?
She’d have to talk to Francisco about modifying her costume a bit more.
Corina walked the winding sidewalks to a three-story building tucked against the skyscrapers. She took the elevator to the top floor and used a keycard at a door that looked like a storage closet. When she opened it, though, a sitting room appeared before her. The walls were decorated with soothing pictures of tree, water, and nature. A receptionist looked up and smiled charmingly at her.
“Hey, Stella,” Corina said and pulled out her wallet. “$25 co-pay. I’m seeing Dr. Jones today. How’s Dr. Hammond doing on paternity leave?”
“Wonderful,” Stella replied, swiping the card. “His little girl is getting so big. He brought her into the office yesterday. She’s already developing signs of powers.”
Corina’s eyebrows rose. “Really? So young?”
“Well, her mother is Wintress. The kid will be causing snowstorms before long.”
“Let’s hope not. Last winter was bad enough. When you have people being rescued by superheroes because their cars won’t start...well, it’s a pretty slow day for us.”
Stella laughed and handed the card back.
Corina had barely sat down when the back door of the office opened. Dr. Jones, a middle-aged non-superhero stepped out. He sported a graying mustache and salt and pepper hair. “Corina,” he said amidst cleaning his glasses on his shirt.
Corina headed inside his office, passing a blue circle emblem on his door that signified this was a safe, confidential place for supers. She shut the door behind her and sat down on the plush couch near a window that overlooked the city. Anyone who looked above would just see blank windows; at least this place was protected from “humes” as the superheroes called them.
The room was meant to be soothing, with soft shades of blue lining the walls and the sound of a water fountain trickling in the corner. Corina really never found it relaxing, though. It was too fake, alluding to comfort while someone pecked at her mind.
“How are you, Corina?” Dr. Jones asked, folding his leg over the other.
Corina shrugged. “Okay, I guess. Work is going well over at the finance department. I got a raise a week ago. It helps that my file was wiped and they have no idea who I was...and who I am now.” It was probably easy not to be recognized as Magpie since she’d dyed her blue hair black and had cut it so it was shoulder-length rather than midriff. She hardly looked like her old self these days. Sometimes that made her happy. Other times, well, it was hard to let go of someone she’d been for so many years.
“Doing well. Busy with work too.” Corina ran her fingers through her short hair. “We’re still talking about adopting a second child. Willow has been asking for a sister for the past year.”
Dr. Jones smiled. “And how is Willow?”
“Heh, getting big. She’s got Jesse’s laugh and my stubbornness.”
“Any sign of powers?”
Corina leaned back with a sigh. “No, thankfully.”
Dr. Jones looked over his clipboard. “Why are you so relieved?”
“I don’t want her developing psychic or telepathic powers like me. It’s been hard enough to hide the fact that I was once Magpie. Starling...well, people love her. What would they think if they found out that, behind the mask, Magpie and Starling are one?”
“You can read people’s minds,” Dr. Jones commented. “If you really wanted to know, you could find out.”
Corina chuckled dryly. “Aren’t you supposed to be telling me to use my powers for good? No, there’s no point. No matter how long I’m Starling, I was still once Magpie, and that will stain me for the rest of my life.”
“You haven’t forgiven yourself?”
“How can I?” Corina asked with bite. “I was horrible. I hurt so many people. And after what I did to Violet Vixen’s son…” She looked away, tears stinging her eyes. It had been five years and yet the memories were so fresh. It didn’t help that it was the anniversary of her reformation.
“Despite all this time, you still think she holds resentment towards you?”
“She tells me she doesn’t,” Corina murmured. “I want to believe her. I should believe her, but it’s hard. I didn’t mean for my plans to hurt her son...to kill him. He was just a kid.” Corina sighed and rested her chin on her folded hand. A crow flew past the window, catching her eye. “I became what I hated.”
“No, someone who lets people get hurt.” She closed her eyes. “Did Dr. Hammond tell you much about my past?”
“Just enough to help me counsel you. He said that he would rather you tell me what you feel comfortable revealing.”
“That sounds like him,” Corina sighed. She slumped back into the couch and looked up at the happy blue ceiling.
She hated that ceiling.
“When I was a kid, a fire broke out in my house. I think Mom left the knob turned on the stove so it let gas flow through the house. Dad lit up a cigarette in the kitchen...which he wasn’t supposed to do. Mom hated him smoking inside. There was an explosion. I was born with psychic and telepathic powers, but I didn’t know it until my powers saved me from the fireball.
“My mom rushed into my room and pushed me out the window, but instead of following me, she ran to get my dad. I kept screaming for help, but the superheroes arrived too late. Both of my parents burned, and I was left with a power I didn’t understand. Well, no one wanted to help me. The supers flew off, and I was thrown into foster care. I was tossed around from place to place but no one wanted me because of my powers. I can hear people’s thoughts more than anything, and that meant I knew what they were all thinking about me. Freak. Monster. Creature...I heard it all.”
“That must have been hard for you.”
“You think?” Corina snorted.
Her foster families had turned into a blur over the years. There had been one that had really been promising. A mother, a father, and a younger brother. They’d welcomed her into open arms, fed her, clothed her, and even sent her to school.
The night of the tornado had changed everything. Ever since the fire, Corina had been afraid of loud noises and bursts of light. It should have been no surprise that her powers had come to her defense when a crack of thunder and flash of lightning caused a tree branch to come through her bedroom window. She’d woken up screaming, floating in the middle of the room with toys, clothes, and a jewelry box floating around her head. After that, there had been no peace.
She’d walked past her parents’ door one night and heard their thoughts.
She’s a freak, her father had thought. We asked for a normal child, not a monster. Jonathan is going to learn bad habits from her. What if he tries to jump out a window because he thinks he can fly?
Her mother’s thoughts had been no different. People like her are a menace to society. She doesn’t belong here. She doesn’t belong anywhere.
Those thoughts had shattered her. Corina had dashed into the kitchen, found the sharpest knife and tried to take her life that very night. The family had, for some reason, saved her life, but she’d been returned to foster care the moment she was discharged from the hospital. Oh, had the talk started when the kids saw the bandages on her arms. The thoughts. The-
Corina shook her head and blinked back tears. Had she been crying? No, no that was ridiculous. She was stronger than that. “I left the orphanage when I was sixteen and learned to just take care of myself. What else was I supposed to do? All I knew was I hated the supers for what they...hadn’t done. They hadn’t saved my family, and they hadn’t saved me. No one cared what happened to me.” Corina sighed. “At least, that’s what I thought. I didn’t know that one of them had wanted to adopt me, but because of his status in the superhero community, they denied him. I learned all that too late and I decided to become a villain and do terrible things.”
Dr. Jones cocked his head. “You still regret what you’ve done? It’s been five years.”
“I...I…” Her heart ached as the memories came to her, as fierce and powerful as ever. She thought it would get better over time, but nothing had changed. Nothing would get better, and she would always be that monster that people thought her to be.
Corina opened her eyes, not realizing she’d closed them. She looked around the room, staring at the objects floating in the air. A lamp flipped upside down and pens buzzed towards the ceiling. It was just like that night in her bedroom, when she’d lost complete control. Corina shuddered and gripped her arms. With a slight gesture of her fingers, she lowered the items back to their resting areas. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“It’s all right, Corina. I was once thrown into the wall by someone’s magic. I’m used to it.” He smiled. “I know how a super’s emotions can influence her powers.” He put his clipboard to the side and folded his hands on his lap. “Corina, you have changed. Since becoming Starling, you’ve brought good to the city and to the people of the world. Few even speak Magpie’s name. They just know you as Starling. And Jesse knows you as Corina. That’s what matters. The people seem to have forgiven you, but what’s most important is that you forgive yourself.”
Corina gave a sardonic laugh. Forgive herself… “Jesse says the same thing.”
“You should listen.” Dr. Jones leaned forward. “Tell me about what turned you into Starling.”
“Violet Vixen.” Corina glanced away. She just couldn’t look at Dr. Jones as she spoke of the incident...the accident. “Violet Vixen kept trying to defeat me and convince me that there was a better way. She knew I was trying to use my powers to convince people that the supers were evil, and that they would do nothing to save the humes. I could. I would be better than them because I knew their failings. I knew the true supers behind the mask. I didn’t want to listen, and that made me want to hurt her. But I only wanted to hurt her physically. I never wanted to take her heart from her.”
Corina gritted her teeth. “Her son. During one of the fights between me and Violet Vixen, her son got caught up in the debris and...he died. I never knew until that last day when Magpie was finally defeated. I had Violet Vixen in my clutches. I was ready to reveal her identity to the world, reveal that she was as flawed and fallible as the rest of mankind and that she shouldn’t be worshiped like a God. That’s when she told me about her little Brandon.”
Brandon. The name was still ashen on her tongue. The moment Violet Vixen had told her about him, she’d read the superhero’s mind, and the images had been sickening. Crushed, he’d been crushed, and nothing could have saved him. Nothing except for his mother had Magpie not distracted her.
“He was five, Dr. Jones. He was five when I took him away from his mother, and yet she still tried to help me.” Corina shifted on the couch and felt hot tears roll down her face. It surprised her; she hadn’t cried because of the incident in so long. “I did exactly what the supers had done to me. I’d let someone die. In all my years as a villain, I’d never killed someone. I had only wanted to reveal their corruption, but then Brandon came along and died, and I died with him.”
“No,” Dr. Jones said, shaking his head. “Magpie died, but you lived, Corina. Starling became your way to try to redeem yourself, and she has created a positive image for herself. But what about you, Corina? Why does Starling get to heal, but not you?”
“I shouldn’t be allowed to heal!” Corina shouted. “Every day I’m reminded of Brandon. Every day I see him in his mother’s eyes.”
“But does she blame you? Does she tell you it’s your fault?”
Corina sucked in a shaky breath and pressed her head into her hands. More hot tears poured into her palms and onto the floor. “No. No, she tells me I never meant to hurt him. That she’ll always miss him, but it wasn’t me who hurt him. It was Magpie.”
“I see.” Dr. Jones picked up his clipboard and wrote something down. He tapped his pen methodically, the repetitious clack, clack, calming Corina. It was a trick Dr. Hammond used to help her gather her thoughts and emotions when she was lost in her memories. “Then you should believe her. She was his mother. It’s my guess that she blames herself too for not protecting him.”
“Many supers do whenever their families and friends are hurt. That’s why so many don’t have families.”
“Is that why you’re worried about the adoption?”
Corina nodded. “What if one of Magpie’s enemies comes back and tries to hurt my children?”
“Then you remind him or her that Magpie is gone. You’re here, and we’re all happy you are. Listen to her when she tells you that you’re forgiven. If you weren’t, I doubt you two would be talking.”
“I guess that’s true,” Corina replied. She took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling with damp eyes. “I think it’s just hard because it’s the fifth anniversary of when I let go of Magpie. It hurts so much more on this day.”
“And it may continue to hurt,” Dr. Jones said. “But that’s why we need to help you find ways to cope. Being with Jesse will help, and running, playing with your children will ease your pain as well. Make new memories. When you need to face your past, then face it, but then let go and live, Corina. Otherwise your change into Starling will have been for nothing.”
Corina sighed. “I’ve tried to live, but the pain doesn’t go away.”
“Well, it won’t vanish overnight, but each day it will get better until, at last, Magpie will be gone, and Corina will remain.”
Corina hoped for that day, prayed for it with all the fiber of her being. She didn’t think a morning would come where she didn’t think about Magpie, but that was why she had Jesse in her life. Jesse was proof that Corina wasn’t the same person, proof that Corina could actually be happy again. Without Jesse, Corina didn’t know what she would do.
Dr. Jones smiled at her, as if he sensed the thoughts going through her head. “I know this is hard for you, but you’ll heal as time passes. You just have to remember you’re no longer alone.”
“No...no, I’m not,” Corina said and sighed. “Let me tell you about how this week has gone.”
Corina arrived home about an hour after her session, exhausted, but feeling better than she had upon her arrival. She pulled out her keys and unlocked the door. She’d barely pushed it open when a shrill voice called out.
Corina grinned and knelt down as a young girl with almond eyes and black hair ran towards her. “There’s my little Willow.” She pulled her daughter into her arms and kissed each cheek. “One. Two. I love you! How are you?”
“Good! We made cookies!” Willow said, bouncing in Corina’s arms. She hopped down and grabbed her mother’s hand. “Come see, come see!”
Corina followed her daughter into the kitchen where her beloved Jesse stood pouring three glasses of milk. Jesse looked as beautiful as she had five years ago when Corina had unmasked her as the Violet Vixen. Her violet eyes lit up upon seeing Corina, her dark, curly hair bouncing against her cheeks as she moved towards Corina.
“Welcome home,” Jesse said and pulled Corina into a hug. “Willow and I thought you could use some cookies when you got home.”
Corina breathed in Jesse’s scent and buried her head into her wife’s shoulder. “Hmm, chocolate chip?”
“With extra chocolate.”
“Heh, my favorite.” Corina kissed Jesse on the lips and reached down to Willow. She helped their daughter onto a stool and put a napkin down on the isle in front of her. “Did...we get a call back?”
Jesse laid a hand on her back and rubbed the small of it gently. “Yes. They’re going to make a visit tomorrow, and then they’ll decide if we can bring our son home.”
Tears filled Corina’s eyes. She turned and wrapped Jesse in a tight hug. “Oh, thank god. I can’t believe it. I can’t...they, they really think we’re ready for another?”
“They saw how happy Willow was. How could they say no?” Jesse chuckled and kissed her forehead. “We’re going to be a great family.”
Corina looked down at Willow as her little daughter munched on a gooey cookie. She looked around the kitchen and living room, admiring the pictures of their happy family together. There were two of Corina and Jesse alone. Many showed them and little Willow. The wedding picture had both of them in dresses, their colors violet and blue to represent their costumes.
This was her home, and this was her family.
Maybe Dr. Jones was right.
Maybe she could forgive herself.
With a smile, Corina rested her head on Jesse’s shoulder. “We already are.”