The backdoor latches with a heavy click, reinforced steel with a tritium lining, triple locked, durable enough to hold off any villain or hero who might try getting in. My breath comes in gasps but I don’t care. I feel alive, maybe for the first time in my life. Mom and dad never understood, neither did my teachers or even the professors I now have at the college. When I came out to the city my parents said I would find friends, people like me, and that I would find my place in the world. It was probably the only thing they had ever been right about in my entire life.
I move to wipe the sweat from my face only to discover that the mask is still there. Quickly I rip it off before anyone can see. It is a crude black and white thing with wingtips on either side, but it’s only a start. When I get more money, I’ll be able to afford something better, something sexier. Maybe leather or Kevlar, maybe I’ll even try it without a mask. Yeah, I could paint my face and style my hair, white with black tips. I fumble for the small notepad I keep in my pocket so I can jot down the idea for alterations. How amazing would that look?
A tapping makes me jump, but I realize I am alone in the back room of Friday’s Bar. I move quickly to the window, or what used to be the window. Now it is just a large metal slat with double locks. I quickly undo them and slide it up to find my friend, Icarus.
The small black and white seagull is jerking his head back and forth, looking as paranoid as I suddenly feel. When he sees me he perks up, happy to see his master. I raised the bird and his brothers and sisters from eggs. I have been teaching them how to follow orders and now they are almost ready. I am almost ready. I can taste the anticipation, the bitter sweetness of power.
Soon Gill Laridae will only be a name on paper and the people of Titan City will come to know me and fear me by my true name, The Seaguller. My winged minions will spread across the city like a cancer, doing my bidding and enacting revenge against those who ever laughed or ridiculed me.
Icarus squawks as he drops a ring of keys on the windowsill. They land with a metallic clunk and I snatch them up to examine my latest prize. They look to belong to a luxury sedan, complete with one of those new electronic sensors. Idly, I again picture the poor idiot who was stupid enough to leave the keys to his expensive car just lying around. He put them down on the park bench, just for a moment as he readjusted his latte, just long enough for an unnoticed angel of villainy to come swooping down to snatch them up.
No one ever notices seagulls. They are everywhere, especially near the wharf district. Most people think they are a nuisance, flying pests with wings, but that is where they are mistaken. For it is the unseen, the unnoticed, and the ridiculed, who often have the last laugh. Seagulls are scavengers and survivors. They adapted when stronger birds of prey failed to do so and now their numbers are plentiful, while the eagle and the hawk are endangered. Yes, ignore them at your peril, Titan City, for your doom will one day come from the sky, and that day is drawing near.
“Gill, is that you, sugah?” I hear Georgia’s voice come from the other side of the swinging door. I stuff the mask, notepad and keys into my jacket, and before she comes through I shoo away Icarus, slamming the window shut behind my loyal minion. When she finally walks in all she finds is me taking off my jacket to replace it with the old and soiled apron that I have come to both love and loathe.
“I thought that was you, honey, what is all the racket going on back here?” Georgia Atlanta is as beautiful in a ratty old concert t-shirt and jeans as she ever was in the assassin’s leather she had worn in younger days. Her hair, tied up in haste, is spilling out of the rubber band she used to secure it. Her eyes are a deep blue, like the nighttime sky. I just want to sit underneath them and gaze up for the rest of my life.
“I was just… just trying to find my…” I reach for a nearby tray and drop it with an obnoxious bang. I hate being such a klutz, especially in front of her. I don’t know if I should reach down to grab it or stand there coolly as if nothing happened, so instead I freeze in a half crouching posture that just makes it look I’m waiting for a proctology exam. Stupid, Gill.
Georgia just laughs, like the light tingling of a bell in summer. The sound makes me want to laugh and hide my head all at the same time. “It’s alright, sugah. I’ll tell JJ you’re here. You just come on out when you’re nice and ready.” The door swings shut behind her and I realize my pulse is racing, even faster than it had in the park that morning. Again, I relive the moment as I sat perched above my unsuspecting victim, like a god staring down at an ant. I wish Georgia could have seen me then, I was powerful and unafraid.
I couldn’t tell her though. Maybe I never could. There was too much risk of JJ finding out, and that would ruin everything. I admire JJ, I really do, but he has grown soft in his old age. He forgot what it means to be a true villain, to be a super-villain.
The backroom of Friday’s Bar is an old kitchen. Whatever had existed before JJ bought the place used to serve food along with their drinks, but whenever anyone suggested reopening it JJ only grumbled that he was, too old to learn how to cook and there was no reason to ruin a good drink with rotten food. That was his philosophy on most things, if it ain’t broke then he saw no reason to try and fix it.
He was so stuck in his ways he could never see the potential in anything. Sometimes I wonder how he ever became a villain in the first place. At least this time his stubbornness suites my purposes.
I pull open the door to the old walk in freezer to find the box, labeled “Fresh Tomatoes,” buried under all the rest. Underneath that old corrugated lid is my own special place. First, I pull out my scrapbook, a rust color leather bound keepsake. My grandmother had given it to me many years ago thinking I would use it for card collecting or whatever it is old people expect young people to do. I found a use for it, just not the one my Nana ever expected.
Newspaper clippings and a smattering of old and new photos line every page, “Doctor Mentor Escapes From Authorities;” “The Atomic Clock Holds City in Grip of Panic;” “Mandroid Terrorizes Mayoral Elections;” “The Crimson Shark Raises Ancient Creature: Shipping Drop by 5%;” along with a hundred other keepsakes. I can’t help but rifle through the pages, my fingers knowing the way instinctively, until I find the old picture of Joe Friday. The black and white shot shows a young JJ defiantly being led away by police. Next to it is a picture of an old wanted poster for Southern Bedlam, “Wanted for questioning by the US Government on charges of treason, murder, counterfeiting, and identity theft.” Her face is younger and sterner, but no prettier than the one I see almost everyday.
Reluctantly, I close the worn cover of the book and set it aside. I quickly glance at my phone and curse my idiocy. I am late for the start of my shift. I toss the stolen car keys in a pile with a dozen or so others that I have acquired over the last few weeks and close the lid. I shut the freezer door with a thud, sealing the small space with all my prized possessions inside.
Within minutes I am out in the bar, refilling the ice, restocking beer bottles, and cleaning the tap lines. It isn’t exactly a glamorous job, but there are perks. I get to work with living legends, men and women I have admired since the first time I watched a live a standoff on the news. I can still remember it.
Sitting in the living room with my parents, it was close to my bed time. I begged my mother to let me stay up and for once she relented. It was on every news channel. The Scarlet Flacon was standing toe to toe with Holocaust, the baddest of the bad versus the strongest hero alive, in the heart of Paradigm City. News cameras and helicopters were everywhere. They caught every blow, and every hamfisted line Scarlet Falcon could spew. My parents ate it up, cheering for the moron in the red and white cape. I, on the other hand, could not tear my gaze away from his nemesis.
Holocaust was a creature of living and breathing eternal hellfire. Dark flames spewing from gleaming obsidian armor. Where Scarlet Falcon wore a ragged and limp piece of cloth on his back, Holocaust’s wore a mantle of pure death, a cloak so black it sucked in all light around it. As long as I live I will never forget that cape or its owner. He radiated power, and when he spoke in his deep and rumbling voice, the very foundations of the buildings shook around him. People cowered in fear from his burning gaze, and no one doubted him or pushed him around, even Scarlet Falcon, not for a moment.
That was when I knew what I wanted. That was when I knew what I was, what I wanted to be. Of course, Scarlet Falcon won in the end, but even in defeat Holocaust was still the better of the two. Losing did nothing to diminish his power or the respect that people showed him. Even as they struggled to arrest the barely conscious super-villain the police gave him a wide berth, showing deference to his power.
“You, niño.” The voice makes me stop what I am doing, a full garbage bag forgotten in its pail as I turn a half circle. The bar is dead except for a few regulars, Quiz Master, Mayday Mayhem, and the Green Beret are sitting at the far end of the bar. None of them even look in my direction. No, the voice comes from someone a lot closer.
A man dressed in unmistakable reds and blacks is staring at me with intense eyes behind a dark mask. His hair is greased back, as sharp as his Latin smile.
“El CaMeano,” I say with more awe and reverence than I meant to show. I approach his table and his eyes follow me.
“What is your name, niño?” He looks as if he is staring through me, seeing something that no one else can see.
“Gill,” I say after I get past the lump in my throat.
“No, niño.” He shakes his head like a knowing father. “What is your true nombre? Your true name?”
I look around afraid of who might be watching. Georgia is talking with the Liger, while JJ and Ed are no where to be seen. Still, I hesitate.
“Niño,” says El CaMeano, drawing my attention back to the older gentleman. “You know who I am. You know my powers.” It is not a question. It never is for a mind-reader like El CaMeano. “Your name?”
“The Seaguller.” I say it soft and quickly, ashamed at myself for being ashamed of saying it.
“Again. Louder, and with pride.”
“I am… I am the Seaguller,” I say and something changes inside of me. I can feel it, and it is like something I never felt before. Something true and real. Once again, I am perched on high, gazing down at my prey on his park bench. If he knew I was there, he would cower at the thought. I could pluck his life, his happiness, like a fish from the sea, but I hold back. I restrain myself, because it is not his life I need only his respect, his fear. All those who oppose me will rue the day they ever crossed my gaze.
“It is confidence, Hombre de Las Gaviotas. Wear your name proud, no matter what else anyone may think.” He inclines his head toward the bar just as JJ hobbles from the back room. He has a box in his hands, labeled “Fresh Tomatoes.” I recognize it instantly and curse under my own breath. I had been in such a rush that I forgot to hide the box back under the stack.
I know I should have left my keepsakes in my dorm room at the college, but my roommate, Jeremy, was always snooping around looking for snacks or weed or whatever. Also campus security has been watching me like hawk ever since I almost burned down the engineering building. Apparently, the college frowns on building death rays for your senior seminar project.
“Gill,” JJ’s voice leaves no room for doubt about what he found inside the old walk-in freezer. “What is this?” Everyone in the bar stops and watches. I want to slink off, bury my head in my pillow, but I don’t. The only eyes I really feel on me are those of El CaMeano, so I raise my shoulders and walk toward JJ, his mustache ruffled in the way it gets when he is angry at a customer.
“Fresh tomatoes?” I offer, but only Quiz Master laughs at the joke. JJ is not in the mood.
“This,” JJ holds up the red leather scrapbook.
“It’s mine. It’s personal.”
“It’s garbage.” He yells and before I can stop him he throws it into the trashcan I had been moments away from emptying. “You know how I feel about this obsession of yours.”
“Who cares what…” I say it softly, trailing off at the end. JJ has this way of making me nervous like no one else I know.
“What did you say?”
“I said, who cares what you think. You’re not my father.”
“If I was I would rap you upside the head to try and knock some damn sense in you, boy.” For a moment he looks like he might just hit me but then the look passes and he relaxes his hand. “What am I going to do with you?”
“How about leave me alone.” I start to walk off, but he slams his hand down hard on the bar with a metallic thud. Stolen car keys scatter across the polished wood like water down the back of a seabird.
“And how do you explain these?” This time I am almost certain he will hit me. His normally placid face is turning red and his lip is starting to twitch.
“What is this? What are these/You little piss, you stole my keys.” Quiz Master is up from his bar stool and scoops up a set of keys with a small purple keychain in the shape of a question mark. “I looked for a week, I looked low and high/You damn little geek, so now you die.” He raises his quiz staff, the weapon expanding in his hand, but JJ is quicker.
Quiz Master goes flying off his feet as JJ’s fist connects with his face. The man stumbles over his stool and crashes unceremoniously to the ground. His cheap sports coat opens up and a few puzzle games scatter over the dirty barroom floor. He never gets a chance to get back up, because Georgia is there now, and Quiz Master quickly finds himself in a vice grip of a head lock.
“You have your keys back, Quizzy,” says JJ. “So as a responsible bartender I have to tell you that you shouldn’t be drinking and driving, but right now you better get the hell out of this bar.”
Georgia finally lets go of Quiz Master, and the man breaks away with a harrumph. “I will not be treated this way, not by you/I will bid you good day, and adieu.” Ed holds open the front door and Quiz Master marches right by, as if he didn’t even notice him.
Suddenly, everyone else in the bar has something better to do. Each goes back to sipping their drinks or looking anywhere else but at JJ. Unfortunately, I do not have that option. Now the old man’s gaze locks firmly on me, and I try not to panic.
“JJ… I… I…” Any confidence I had before is now gone.
“How many times, do I have to tell you. This is going to get you killed.” His voice is surprisingly gentle. “Gill, you can’t see where this road leads, but I do.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out my makeshift black and white mask. “I found this in you jacket.”
“You went snooping?”
“Its a good thing I did. How long has this been going on?” His fist tightens around the cloth mask as if he is trying to strangle the life out of it with his powerful hands.
I don’t know what to say. So I just stand in silence, lost somewhere between shame, anger, and fear.
“Tell me.” The heat is starting to return to his voice.
“A couple weeks.”
“A couple weeks! You have been working under my roof and moonlighting as a costumed villain on the side?”
“It’s only the mask. I only have a mask.”
“Boy, don’t you know that’s all it takes to get shot or vaporized.” He takes a visible breath before continuing. “Gill, you’re in college for heaven’s sake. You’re going to graduate next year with a degree in engineering. Your life is on the right path. Why the hell do you want to go and throw it away now?”
“What if that’s not the path for me? What if I was meant to do something more, be something more?” I don’t know how to make him understand. I don’t even know why I try so hard in the first place.
“Like what, Gill? Something more, like what?”
“Like Holocaust, or even Quiz Master, or like you…”
“Damnit, boy. Holocaust is dead. Quiz Master is a two-but loser with an inconsistent rhyme scheme, and I’m… I’m not someone you should ever try to be like. What is it going to take to get that through your thick skull.” He taps my head with his meaty finger.
“Are you going to fire me?”
“I should. I should call the police and have you arrested. Maybe that will put the fear of God or Eternal Vigilance in you.”
“You… you aren’t really going to do that, are you?” I feel weak in the knees. I can’t go to prison. My parents would kill me. My seagulls would die without me there to feed them. I would get kicked out of school. My villainous plans would unravel before they even began…
“No,” he says after a moment. I must have gone pale because he reaches over to the faucet and pours me a glass of water. “No, I’m not going to do that. You just stole some car keys. It’s not like you even stole the cars. By the way, what the hell kind of plot is that?”
“I don’t know what to do with a stolen car.” I say after finishing my water.
“That’s because your a good kid at heart. I know it. You just need to realize that too,” JJ steps back and I feel as if I can breathe again, “but there needs to be consequences to this. I’m docking your pay for the day and I’m suspending you from work for the rest of the week.”
“The rest of… of the week?” I stutter. “But I like working here.”
“I know, but I think you need a break from this place, from everything. Go home, Gill.” JJ hobbles around the bar and picks up Quiz Master’s fallen stool. “We can get along without you for a few days.”
“But where do I go? What do I do?”
“Go to the library. Go study. Use your damn brains for something other than scheming.
I don’t know what else to do. Georgia is watching me. I can’t read her expression but in her eyes I see pity. She pities me and that make me more angry than anything else. How dare she pity me. I am the… Maybe I am just Gill Laridae, college student. All I want to do is go back to my room and sleep for days. Hopefully Jeremy is not high again.
It takes a few moments to gather up my coat, but soon enough I am once again in the slanting sunlight of an autumn day in Titan City. I get to the end of the alley and let my back slide down the nearest wall. I always promise myself I won’t cry, but a few tears still leak out, and it is through my wet and watery gaze that I see him.
Icarus is sitting perched on a nearby dumpster, cooing to me. Reluctantly, I get up and walk over to my friend, and beside him I find my scrapbook. “How did you…? What did you…?” I ask the bird as if I expect him to answer me.
I run my fingers across the rough leather cover. It is still wet from discarded beer and peanut shells are stuck to one corner. I brush them off and open the book. On the first page there is a note written in a stylish handscript. The ends of each word flare off like fire burning toward the night sky.
“We all have días malos, every now and then. Never forget your true name, Hombre de Las Gaviotas. Never forget.” It was not signed, but it was obvious who the note was from. He must’ve fished the scrapbook from the trash when no one was looking.
I looked down at Icarus and smile. “Come on, we need to go shopping.”
The bird squawks a question at me. “I’m not sure, maybe leather this time, and how do you feel about capes?”