Esper Successor Athena
It was the first time Athena thought of a boy as beautiful. Even as her bus pulled away, her eyes were fastened out her window, utterly captivated by the face that filled the TV screen in the passing shop window. Something about his face, the way his features danced the line between a man and a boy, made her cheeks flush and her chest quiver.
"Hellloooo? Earth to weirdo!" Dana waved her hand in front of Athena’s face. "You said you had something to show me before you totally malfunctioned."
Athena opened the issue of Outsider Minds Magazine rolled up on her lap and ruffled through the pages until she’d found it. The page featured a photo composed mostly of darkness alongside harsh flashes of orange—a photograph of Lee Maddox Park at night taken with a cheap disposable camera. Turning the book around on her lap, she presented it to Dana. Both girls knew the park quite well as did most people in the city. Even in a photo of such unremarkable quality, any resident could point out the stone footbridge that carried over the pond in the photo’s background. It was beside that footbridge where a passerby saw the mysterious entity that inspired the controversial article underneath the photograph. Dana squinted and grabbed the sides of the magazine moving it closer to her face. Though the image consisted mostly of shadows, there was a darker impression near the bridge that suggested a figure stood beside it. The figure seemed to stand with short arms stretched out in front of it, a slender “s” shaped neck, and a long muzzle that protruded from its face. Dana’s lips mouthed the words softly as she read.
“A dinosaur?” she asked looking down her nose at the girl.
“A velociraptor.” Athena corrected.
Dana slapped the magazine back down on Athena’s lap.
“You don’t actually believe this do you?”
“I don’t know,” Athena muttered looking away.
Dana looked at the magazine again.
“I mean, it’s obviously just a toy,” Dana cackled as if the thought hadn’t only just come to her. “Look how it’s standing in that stock upright pose—it’s the same pose on the box of those dinosaur toys your little brother had.”
Her eyes swung back to the photograph and in her head, Athena traced the outline of the silhouette and compared it against her memory of her brother’s toy. There was no mistaking it; it was a perfect match. Athena looked up and saw Dana, mimicking the raptor's claws with her hands, wearing an ear-to-ear grin. Their eyes met, and Dana saw Athena's bright Bambi eyes glistening through her autumn-fire bangs.
"Wait, you're not actually upset are you?" Dana asked.
Athena wanted to say "no" but she was afraid that if she tried to speak, there'd be a whimper in her voice. It was too late when Dana realized what she'd done. She'd mentioned him. Her smile receded, but before she could apologize, the bus stopped.
“Hey, time to go,” said Dana placing her hand on Athena’s shoulder.
They stepped down from the bus to the hot concrete sidewalk, which on days like this made the mile-long walk to school feel like walking on coal. Their school uniforms required them to wear black dress shoes, but Dana wore sneakers in the morning and changed at her locker since she already needed them for days she had volleyball practice. Athena didn’t seem bothered by the walk or the heat, only shielding her eyes from the harsh sunlight with one hand as she walked beside her friend. It didn’t take long for Dana’s eyes to adjust, but Athena continued to hide her face beneath her hand and Dana knew why.
"Uh, it's so hot," said Dana fanning herself with her hand. "I'm gonna be all gross by the time we get to school. You're lucky; you never get sweaty and gross as I do."
Dana leaned in closer hoping to catch the glint of a smile, but her friend was impervious to such compliments and marched in silence. Dana’s focus moved to Athena’s schoolbag Swinging from the zipper was a pink and green pastel lanyard that stood out like fireworks in the night sky against the muted navy blue color of Athena’s school uniform.
"Oh wow, I can't believe you still have this." Dana moved closer to Athena, rolling the lanyard between her fingers. "I lost mine forever ago."
In truth, Dana had noticed the lanyard a few days earlier but hadn’t said anything about it. It was so repulsively childish she’d hoped that if she pretended it wasn’t there, no one would notice and soon it would just go away. It was no different from a zit. Athena’s reaction to Dana’s fondling of her trinket was like a cat having its tail played with. She breathed in deeply, but when she did her friend’s scent was so overwhelming it stung her eyes. It wasn't the smell of sweat, but the aroma of her perfume, an earthy flamboyant scent like patchouli. Athena often found that scent pretty in small doses, but this aroma was so profuse that breathing through her nose made her taste it on the back of her tongue. Athena jerked her bag away.
“Your coach is going to know you’re smoking again.” Athena scowled.
“What are you talking about? I haven't been smoking!” Dana replied, and then brought the neck of her shirt to her nose and smelled it.
“It's super obvious,” Athena marched ahead viciously. “Also, I’m not as dumb as you think I am. Remember, you're the one that got held back a grade.”
“I never said you were dumb! You're just weird." Dana’s words stopped Athena. "I've put up with all your junk because I knew things were hard for you and your family and crap, but come on; it’s been two years now. I'm saying this as a friend if you keep reading those magazines and believing those stories everyone is just going to think you're a freak.”
"I'm not a freak," she muttered. "And you're not my friend!"
Wiping her eyes, Athena hurried down the block towards their school. The words twisted her chest and she struggled to tell herself she'd done nothing wrong, but in the end, all she knew was that she really wanted a cigarette.
Arriving with time to spare, Athena headed to the restroom so she could wash her face before class. Hiding her tears was unnecessary though, almost everyone in her school knew of her predicament. Even though the accident happened before high school and she'd never spoken of it to any of her classmates or teachers, gossip spreads like a virus. Parents tell parents, tell their kids, tell their friends. It didn't help that Dana knew all the details and probably told everyone on the volleyball team as early as their first practice. Moving to a stall, Athena racked her brain with the question, why am I weird?
Everyone believes in strange things. she thought. There's superstitions, astrology, religion, all kinds of people believe in those things and no one cares, but the stuff I like, that's weird?
It took some roundabout maneuvering through the halls, but for the entire day, Athena had managed to avoid Dana Sterling. There was only one class left that day and the last period was Athena’s favorite class, religious studies with Br. Jose. Athena didn’t care too much about religion, almost no one attending her Catholic school did, but Br. Jose’s class was still everyone’s favorite. That was because Br. Jose hated writing on the chalkboard so his entire class was a lecture over slides on a projector. The lights were out most of the class so as long as you didn’t snore, you could sleep the entire period without the teacher bothering you. As a courtesy to Br. Jose, Athena never slept and pretended to take notes. With only a few minutes left of class, Athena sketched a face in her notebook. She drew the handsome face she'd seen on TV that morning, though her artistic abilities hardly did him justice. Even though she'd only seen his face for a few seconds, she couldn't get his image out of her head. His bright blue eyes saw through her and made her heart race so fast she wished she could run her hands through his wavy blonde hair. Any girl her age would call him a heartthrob and yet, she'd never seen his face before. If he was on TV so early in the morning, it must have been a soap opera, she thought. The best way to identify a soap opera is by the actors in it or by the sets, which get recycled in almost every episode. However, the only person she saw on screen was the boy and when she tried to remember anything about the set; she only saw a black void surrounding him. Br. Jose continued spieling about the influence of the New Testament on Renaissance-era art as he changed slides to a collage of paintings from the 15th century. Athena raised her head, hoping the bell would ring so she could put the awful day behind her.
“There’s a UFO!” Athena shouted. The heads of her classmates sprung from their desks as they looked wildly around the room. “There’s a UFO in that painting behind the lady.”
A few students turned their attention to the painting, but most just looked at Athena groaning or laughing. Br. Jose halted his lecture and stepped out from behind the projector to get a better look at the painting. The image was that of a woman praying over a baby in the arms of a haloed child in a nativity scene. Over the woman’s left shoulder stood a shepherd who looked up at a dark cloud surrounded by streaks of golden light.
“This painting is called the Madonna with Saint Giovannino.” He inflated his voice with a mild dose of charisma. “It’s from the 1400s so it’s possible that the object is some sort of Christian iconography that’s been lost to time.”
“It’s the mothership coming to take you back to planet Dorkon.” An oafish voice blurted from the darkest corner of the room. Athena recognized the voice as that of Ben Dixon, a pitcher for the JV baseball team; though from his size you'd think his game was football.
“Mr. Dixon I’ve never said this to a student before, but I think you’ll do better in my class if you spend more time sleeping,” said Br. Jose. “As for this picture, there certainly are oddities in the design of whatever this is. UFO stands for Unidentified Flying Object. If you see anything in the sky and can’t tell what it is, then it’s a UFO. So unless Mr. Dixon can tell me exactly what this, Ms. Henderson is correct.”
Athena wore a vindicated smile for a total of two seconds before the halls erupted with the ring of the final bell. The screeching of desks echoed within the room as every kid stood up in unison and bolted for the door. Br. Jose flipped on the lights and continued to lecture about rereading the chapter on renaissance artists, but everyone knew he never assigned written homework. By the time he’d finished talking, the room was empty. Kids poured into the halls from every direction, like ants moving through the narrow tunnels of an anthill. Pushing and squeezing her way through the crowd, she made her way downstairs, joining with another crowd of students as she exited through the front of the building.
The walk from the school to the bus stop usually took fifteen minutes, but without having to speed up to meet Dana's pace, it felt twice as long. She lowered her bag between her legs and retrieved her issue of Outsider Minds. Picking up where she left off she continued down the block, hoping to keep her mind occupied for the rest of the way even if she was just glancing down at the pictures and headlines every once in a while. She couldn’t read the articles, but at least she looked occupied and it helped her feel less noticeable.
As she reached the end of the block, Athena raised her head from the magazine to check for traffic before crossing. The light was red and the crossing signal—one of the newer ones that counted down how long until the light changed—displayed the walk sign with 10 seconds remaining. Four lanes of traffic meant she could make it if she ran, but as she tucked her magazine under her arm, she noticed three girls strolling across the crosswalk, taking their time to reach the other side. Dressed in the same uniform as her, Athena paused recognizing the girls by their hair and backpacks. The shorter ones were freshmen from the volleyball team and leading the pack with her blonde hair in a messy bun was Dana. The numbers on the signal turned red. 9—8—7… One of the girls raised her hand and flicked a clump of ash off the end of a cigarette before returning it to her mouth. Dana turned her head revealing a long unlit cigarette between her lips.
Athena moved between a metal pole and a trashcan. Peeking out from behind the pole, she watched as Dana struggled to light the cigarette, the flame of her lighter refusing to ignite.
I'm weird? Well, you're a liar! Athena thought.
The walk sign’s countdown ended and the light changed, inviting a stream of cars that divided Athena from the group of girls. Athena turned towards the adjacent crosswalk now displaying a ‘walk’ sign, chucked her magazine into the trashcan, and ran to the other side of the street away Dana. Athena’s detour took her in the opposite direction of her bus stop, but she didn’t care. The bus came every half hour until late in the evening. She had plenty of time to explore the area around her school and still get home at a reasonable hour. Besides, the first bus after school was always the most crowded; she’d enjoy a much more leisurely trip—one where she wouldn’t have to worry about her and Dana awkwardly meeting eyes the entire ride.
There was a sense of wonder in seeing unfamiliar buildings, or at the very least, it was exciting enough that she forgot about her aching feet and the hot sun beating down on her. She moved deeper into the city, drawn in the direction of the store with TVs in the window where she'd seen the boy. She didn’t know how she’d identify him once she got there, but thought she might at least see what channel that TV was playing. If she knew the channel and the time, she could find the show.
Widening her eyes at the prospect of solving the mystery of the beautiful boy, Athena’s eyes caught the glow of sunlight reflecting from a banner of shinning gold letters that hung across a second story awning. The golden letters sprawled across the purple banner read “Church of New Life.” At ground level were two large windows, which any other business would use to advertise products. Instead, a layer of opaque film masked the windows preventing anyone from seeing inside. The door of the building was coated in the same film, but with a laminated sign hanging on the outside reading “OPENED: Free PSI evaluation inside.”
Until that moment, she wasn’t even sure they were real. She’d heard so many stories about them. New Life was technically a religion, but most people said they were a cult. They preached about ‘the need for humans to reinvent themselves.’ Their goal was to give their followers the best life possible, but there were rumors about secret meetings and strange documents that only high-ranking members are allowed to know about. According to stories on TV, if you reach a high enough status they reveal secrets about aliens and psychic powers. It sounded absurd, but the movement garnered substantial traction and legions of followers including politicians and movie stars. Even though some of the rumors rivaled the sillier issues of Outsider, Athena didn’t care for the scrutiny, especially having gone to a school that forced her to read the Bible. The Bible was full of stories of miracles, superpowers, and even talking animals, but it was rude to call those stories preposterous, and believing in aliens was crazy and childish.
Athena decided to place her search for the mystery man on hold and find out what really happened in the Church of New Life. Since she was entering a church, she wanted to look mature. Athena centered herself, raised her chin, stuck out her chest, and arched her back to look taller. She took a deep breath and donned her sternest face. Crossing through the doorway of that building was like stepping out of a desert and into a meat locker. Air conditions rumbled overhead, poising the silver strands of hair along her arms like pointed-spears. Her first impression of this holy place of reverence was that it looked more like a bookstore than a church with four rows of three-tier racks forming aisles leading to a counter in the back—register and all. Athena moved forward, her curious eyes leaping from dust jacket to dust jacket as she rubbed her hands from her wrists to her elbows for warmth. She stepped lightly across the hatched carpet as if it were crawling with venomous snakes—her eyes still scouring the book—none of which recalled anything close to the stories and photos she read about in her magazines. Far from the imagery of alchemists, crop circles and occult symbols, they appeared to be self-help books—all prominently utilizing the word ‘life’ in their titles like some overused catchphrase.
“Can I help you find something?” a middle-aged blonde woman asked from behind the counter.
Athena paused for a moment then timidly said, “I was wondering if I can take the evaluation. The one on the sign.”
“Of course, we have the machine right here.” the woman smiled.
Machine? Athena thought.
Athena’s turned sideways for a moment imagining the bizarre contraption they had hiding in wait. She saw herself strapped to a gyroscope or tied to a table while men in masks shot lasers into her eyes with machines monitoring her brainwaves like a CT scan mixed with an EKG machine. She looked back at the front door one last time, now desperate to know why they obstruct the view.
Stop it! She thought. Stop thinking like a scared little kid!
The woman stepped out from behind the counter and retrieved a suitcase from a storage closet. She lugged the case over to the far left side of the floor opening a door concealed behind a wall of posters. It made Athena wonder how many more of these secret rooms they had—eyeing all the posters and shelves that cluttered the place. They called it the evaluation room, but it felt more like an interrogation room with two seats on opposite sides of a desk that divided the room through the center. The woman hauled the case up onto the desk with both hands, grunting as she dropped it down and invited Athena to take a seat. Athena flinched at the bang of the case but then moved carefully into the seat closest to the door.
Her heart said to run while her brain said to sit. Her mouth was too dry to say anything. Lowering her book bag at her side, she rested her hands on her lap and swallowed saliva imagining herself in the visage of a cool calm adult. An adult wouldn’t be afraid and an adult can believe in superstitious things, she reminded herself while the woman fiddled with the briefcase latches. The latch popped open, the woman let out a breath of relief, and Athena smiled back at her.
You’re doing great. Athena told herself, though her chest pounded in disapproval.
“Perfect. Let’s get this show on the road.” The woman said with the confidence of a magician attempting a trick for the first time.
She opened the case revealing one of the Church of New Life’s infamous PSI machines: a light blue chassis of similar size and shape to a fax machine with a needle resting on the left side of a gauge, the right side of the gauge displaying the word MAX. Athena knew about the machines, she’d heard stories that they analyzed your dreams and registered your mental fortitude. It was one of the metaphysical devices mocked in the media anytime their name came up. Two gray cables ran from the back of the machine, each branching out into four thinner cables with steel alligator clips soldered to the ends. The woman pushed the machine to the left side of the desk, scraping it across the laminated wood—an agonizing squeal piercing the air until the device rested against a wall at one end of the table. She sat down opposite Athena, and as she did, Athena noticed the poster on the wall above the woman—a spread the size of a movie poster tacked to the wall. Strong cold eyes on a youthful face stared back at Athena—he was tan with black hair, well dressed, and sporting a remarkable physique.
“Who is that?” Athena asked.
“That’s our chairman, Mr. Shagia Frost.” The woman answered.
Athena’s glare turned sideways. “I thought he needed a wheelchair?”
“No, never." the woman replied. "He lives a very active life. It’s all explained in his book Inside and Out: A Perfect Body for a Perfect Life. We have it in stock if you’re interested.”
“Oh, uh…No, thank you,” she replied faking a smile as the woman handed her the steel clips.
Athena clamped the cold steel bits to the ends of her fingers. Straightening her back and squaring her shoulders, Athena braced herself for an electrical shock, but the machine remained still and silent. As the woman pressed buttons feigning comprehension of her magical contraption, Athena stared deep into the eyes of the man on the poster. There was no mistaking him. She recalled the first time she’d ever heard of the Church of New Life. It was only a few years earlier when she caught the tail end of a news report about a wheelchair-bound entrepreneur, but he looked different back then; thinner and his slick black hair was a bushy mess. In his TV segment, he explained that he was collecting art from around the world and it was through discovering art from various cultures that he found his own spirituality. Her memories of the TV special concluded as the machine rumbled with a high-pitched buzz.
“It works pretty much like a lie detector,” she explained. “First things first, we want to explore your emotional range and see how much PSI energy you give off. If you can, I want you to close your eyes and try to put yourself in a frustrating situation. You’re talking to someone but he or she doesn’t understand you. There’s a barrier, not one of language, but of understanding. Can you do that?”
It was too easy. She closed her eyes and rested her hands on her lap, tightening her grip around an invisible magazine. She could feel her seat rumble up and down, the humming of the PSI machine became the growl of the city bus, and the frigid room became hot and dry.
“Wait, are you actually upset?” the line repeated in her head becoming louder and more damning with each utterance.
“Are you ACTUALLY upset?” it was as if Dana stood there, in the doorway of the room, standing over her again, mocking her, thinking she was an idiot just for wanting things to be better. Her hands balled up on her knees, the steel clips clanking together as they touched.
She thinks she’s SO mature…
“You're just weird!”
Why can’t I be happy?
Then there was silence.
“That’s not good.” The woman said.
Athena’s eyes jolted open and she drew a heavy breath as if it was the first she'd ever taken. The woman inspected the PSI machine with uncertainty, prodding it with her finger like a curious child.
“Is it…broken?” Athena asked.
“I think it overloaded.” she almost laughed and flashed a nervous smile. “Let’s try something else.”
The woman unplugged the machine and moved it out of view below the desk. She exited the room returning only a few moments later lugging a new machine the size and shape of an old top-loading VCR. A glossy chrome finish reflected the fluorescent lights above and it made Athena wonder why they hadn't used this machine first, but then the woman activated the machine and the lights flickered with a dull tinge straight out of 1985. The woman handed Athena two chrome cylinders. She’d expected them to feel heavy, but once in her grasp, they reminded her of two empty soup cans. Before long, the incessant buzzing resumed and the woman was ready to administer the second test. Green beams of light illuminated halfway up a bar on the face of the machine. Athena expected them to bounce up and down like a meter monitoring sound on an old analog console but they did no such thing. The lights were uncomfortably complacent.
“This is called the Miranda-Liebert test,” the woman explained. “Instead of thinking of a frustrating moment, I want you to remember a time where you were happy. Try to recall a memory—one as recent as possible. Okay?”
Staring into the darkness behind her eyelids, she scoured her memory, but her fixation on that morning's outburst clouded her thoughts. She searched harder. First, she thought of Dana. Then, she reverted to the image of the boy, their eyes meeting through the TV screen accompanied by that feeling of actually being in each other’s presence, but by the time she felt a softness in her chest, the moment was gone. It wasn’t working. She needed something stronger, a truly positive experience. She delved further back into her memory, but she only needed to go as far back as the start of summer vacation to produce the necessary feeling.
Leo’s room was exactly how he’d left it two years earlier. His bed unmade, curtains were drawn shut, toys strewn about the place, and dresser drawers left hanging opened at uneven levels. The room was dark, but Athena couldn’t risk flipping the lights on or her mother might see her from the hallway. Dancing around the mess of action figures and video game cartridges that littered the floor, she moved towards curtains at the far end of the room. If she could brush the curtains aside she’d have enough light to find what she was looking for.
She felt the sharp stab of something plastic enter her foot. Exhaling from her nose, she used all her might to suppress an agonizing wail. She rubbed the sole of her feet, watching the bedroom door from over her shoulder—cautious of any sign of her mother—becoming still like a statue blending in with the clutter. All clear. Once she was close enough, she pulled the curtains open halfway so that there was enough light to expose the corner of the room where Leo’s TV sat atop a two-level media console. Darkness still shrouded most of the area, but the few surfaces touched by the light revealed layers of dust across furniture, toys, and his bed frame. With a better sense of her surroundings, Athena avoided all the toys making her way over to the TV, the glass screen caked in a thick layer of dust. Athena felt compelled to wipe it clean but knew she’d just be leaving behind evidence for her mother, who on most days guarded the room like a correctional officer. Athena lowered herself to her knees and stuck out her two pointer fingers, hovering one over the power button and the other over the volume down button. With amazing precision—she landed the timing—turning on the TV and lowering the volume before the blaring sound could alert her mother.
The lowest shelf of the media console housed Leo’s most prized possession, his Cozmo96 video game console. Video games frightened Athena’s mother, and it took a year of pleading and coercion, but she eventually compromised and bought them a system so long as they promised not to fight over it. Athena and her brother agreed, but an agreement wasn’t good enough for their mother, and so, their mom would only allow them to play two-player games. For a while, this drastically limited their library of games. However, the two found a loophole in her rigid policy. If one of them wanted a single-player game, they’d lie, always backing each other up assuring their mom it was a multi-player game. This often meant when one of them got a new game; the other would have to watch, sitting beside their sibling hitting random buttons on a controller, pretending to be playing along. It wouldn’t fool other kids, but their mom never knew. Genuine disputes did arise between the two, and to prevent any intervention from mom, the two created a system where one would play the game until they lost a life. Then, the other would take over and they would switch off anytime someone died or after thirty minutes of consecutive playing—whichever came first.
The only stage left in the game was the final boss, who killed them three times already. When last they left off, it was Athena’s turn to play. As she positioned her thumb on the control stick, she noticed how much smaller it felt, her fingernails digging into the palm of her hand as she gripped the controller. She only had one chance. Without Leo, a loss here meant she could never touch the game again, but likewise, a win meant that after two years she could officially say that she and Leo had beaten the game together. The screen flashed and her hands trembled as she fought to contain a tearful smile.