JUST JEFF • by Dan Purdue

Jeff unfastens his mask and feels cool air on his face. It makes no difference, he decides, if anybody recognises him now. Since he arrived he’s had to fill in so many forms the chances of preserving his secret identity are already pretty slim. He peels off his gloves and rubs his eyes. The chair they’ve given him is way too hard, and the gold microshorts he wears over his electric blue tights are riding up the crack of his butt. His costume, though perfect for astonishing feats of heroism, is wholly unsuited to sitting around waiting. He sighs and — for the thousandth time — wishes that, just for today, he’d been somebody else.

Like, for instance, The Visionary. Within moments of waking up he would have foreseen what the day held in store. He could have convinced Shelley to stay in bed with him until noon, instead of going to work. Jeff smiles, thinking she probably wouldn’t have taken much convincing, the way things have been going on that front. Or, he could have been The Billionaire. They could have spent the day shopping for speedboats and the whole thing would’ve been avoided.

But there they were, possessing neither second sight nor a bottomless wallet, leaving Jeff’s flat and heading into town. Looking back, he’s sure there must have been something different about the morning — something in the air maybe, something he missed as they set off towards the rundown dry-cleaning place on South Street for the start of Shelley’s shift. It isn’t a rough neighbourhood, not really, but Jeff walks with her to the shop every day. He enjoys sharing that part of her morning, likes the way it feels, knowing she gets there safely.

At this point, Jeff’s sure that if he’d been Sonar, his superhuman hearing would have saved the day. He’d surely have detected the squeal of tyres, the clumsy, crashing gear changes, and the tormented howl of the car’s engine when it was still blocks away. There would have been enough time to react. Time, Jeff thinks, maybe that’s it. Perhaps if he’d been Futura, Clockstopper, Slo-Mo Boy, or even The Chronomeister himself, he could have stretched or flipped or rewound those few crucial seconds and everything would have been okay.

Or, he could have been Quantum, and simply flung his arms around Shelley, punched a hole in the fabric of the universe, and dropped them both into a parallel world. One where the street was deserted, or where there was a proper crossing they could use, or where cars were essentially just big soft marshmallows on wheels.

Jeff relives the event over and over again. In one version he imagines himself as Mister Discontinuity, using his powers to ensure that as Shelley steps from the kerb, she finds herself barefoot in a lush green meadow. He tries recasting the scene with his role played by The Grasshopper, scooping her up and bounding effortlessly over the rooftops to safety. He even pictures his old roommate, The Ironist, pulling one of his trademark shrugs as the drunken bastard behind the wheel swerves at the last moment and crashes into a beer truck.

No doubt Captain Whimsy, in Jeff’s shoes, would have simply clicked his fingers, with his usual impeccable timing. At the point of impact the car would have burst into a shower of rose petals, a million soft pink kisses raining down on Shelley’s skin. Jeff imagines Bisector, with a single swipe of his hand, cleaving the car in two, splitting it around Shelley and leaving her unharmed. Jeff can almost hear the two halves, rocking gently on the tarmac like upturned turtles.

But none of this happened. Jeff’s not Futura or The Ironist or Bisector. He couldn’t do any of those things when the time came and nothing can change that.

Now they’re here, in a bright high room in the city hospital. Shelley lies on white sheets, surrounded by machines making sharp little noises Jeff doesn’t understand and doesn’t entirely trust. He sits and watches and waits. He doesn’t know what else to do. His years at The Superhero Academy left him unprepared for this situation. He doubts there’s anything in his utility belt that could help, but he carefully checks the compartments anyway. The nurses come and go, adjusting things and writing notes on a chart. They smile at Jeff but their eyes are sad. He suspects they’re a bit embarrassed on his behalf, the way they look at him. He wishes his costume wasn’t quite so tight. He wishes it was him lying there.

He wishes, more than anything, that he was someone else.

Doctor Atomic could shrink to sub-molecular proportions and journey through Shelley’s body, fusing splintered bones and patching ruptured organs. Medicine Man could do, well, whatever it is he does, all that freaky stuff with the chanting and herbs and dry ice, and Shelley would suddenly sit up, smiling, good as new. Even The Optimist could at least find a way of convincing himself everything was going to work out for the best.

Jeff knows, no matter how hard he wishes, he’s never going to be any of those guys. He’s just The Other Half — and without Shelley he’s not even that. Without her, his powers are useless. Without her, he’s just Jeff, just some guy in a cape and boots.

And all he can do is sit by her bedside, hold her hand, and hope that, somehow, it’s enough.

Dan Purdue lives near Birmingham in the UK and has been writing fiction for several years. His short stories have been published in several places online and in print, including Writers’ Forum magazine, MicroHorror.com, Defenestration, and The Waterhouse Review. He won the 2010 Chapter One International Short Story Competition, and was shortlisted for the 2010 James White Award and The Guardian’s 2009 Summer Short Story competition. Somewhere to Start From, an anthology featuring many of his published and prizewinning stories, is available now from Amazon.

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