Unscathed

This is the second draft of another one of the stories from my collection. I hope you enjoy it, and let me know what you think.

Something is still missing, she thought. I can’t put my finger on it, but I know it needs something more. Sarah Purshing stood admiring her newest sculpture. Rising above her head, a mass of twisted metal loomed, its carefully molded shapes implying two human figures locked in a lover’s embrace. Sarah stared at it for several minutes, moving slowly around the open courtyard studio to see if a change in perspective would help. It didn’t.

She placed her gloves, apron, and welding helmet gently on the workbench. It had started off as a beautiful day, but now the sun was beating down on her, and it was getting too warm to be dressed up in all that heavy gear. She picked up a piece of one-inch-thick plate steel that was about the size of a manhole cover and weighed as much as she did. Holding it out at arm’s length, she moved it back and forth to see if it would find a home in her creation. Sarah thought she found a spot where it fit in, but she quickly decided against it. She bent the steel over her thigh into a rough saddle shape and held it up again. Still the answer eluded her.

Ever since she’d been twelve years old, she’d had this tremendous physical strength. It had come on suddenly one morning. She’d woken up and driven her alarm clock through the nightstand by hitting the snooze button. Of course, she told no one. When you’re that age you already feel like enough of a freak of nature that you don’t want to add having superpowers to the mix. She covered the hole in the nightstand with one of her oversized art books. Hopefully her mother wouldn’t notice until she could fix it later.

It had been difficult to make the adjustment. Great strength did not mean she had control over the power in her body. When she went to take off her shirt to change it shredded as if it were made of paper. The doorknob to the closet had come off in her hand when she opened it, sheared off by the torque. Sarah realized this was going to take some getting used to. Even the most commonplace tasks required finesse and complete concentration. Somehow she managed to get through breakfast without breaking any dishes.

At first, she couldn’t believe her luck. It was exactly the sort of thing she’d spent weeks praying for. She’d been bullied at school by a pack of girls led by a particularly nasty example of the species named Courtney. She’d had it out for Sarah since she caught her drawing a very unflattering caricature involving a donkey. That morning she’d been anxious to get to school. For once, she would teach a lesson to those girls who’d been bullying her. They would never bother her again once she showed them what she could do.

Just thinking about what happened next still chilled her, even now. After that day, Sarah was shunned not only by the other students, but the faculty as well. By the way they acted, you would have thought she was a witch, and they were going to burn her at the stake. In truth, after what she had done, they were afraid of her. On the positive side, she mused, they had been able to reattach Courtney’s arm.

Eventually her mother had been forced to enroll Sarah in a different school, but the rumors followed her there too. They fled the city and moved here to escape the suspicious looks and thinly veiled threats. Sarah had been forced into near seclusion out of necessity. She was just too dangerous to be around. One accidental flick of her wrist could send a normal person flying through a wall. She didn’t want to be the cause of any more harm.

Maybe a good lunch will give me the inspiration I need, she thought. It certainly isn’t going to come to me standing around here. Not today.

She made her way toward the small bungalow that she called home. The house was nestled in between a furniture factory on the one side and a foundry, now closed, on the other. The building was the last remnant of when this area was all farmland for as far as the eye could see. For some reason, it had never been knocked down, and now it was stuck in the middle of a failing industrial park at the edge of the city. What had once been a lawn was now a fenced compound full of scrap metal, some of which was welded into the sculptures that guarded the house like silent sentinels.

She carefully pulled open the screen door so as not to pull it off it’s hinges. In the kitchen all the traditional cupboards had been removed and replaced with a stainless steel counter, a cast-off from some failed restaurant. Its shelves were open and their contents on display. As gingerly as she could she pulled a can of vegetable pasta soup off of the shelf and opened it. Emptying it into the cast iron pot on the stove, she dropped the can in a bin with a dozen other similar ones. She would make something with the tins later; she just hadn’t decided what yet.

Sarah hummed to herself while her lunch warmed. One of these days she would have to learn how to cook something besides soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, she decided. She was definitely getting tired of her unchanging diet.

When lunch was sufficiently hot, she took the entire pot over to her kitchen table. It was a massive affair of plate steel welded to heavy pipe. Smoothed, polished, and painted, it seemed to have been molded from a single piece of metal. It weighed several hundred pounds and would need several strong men just to move it. The chairs around it were a match in both mass and aesthetics. Indeed, all the furniture in the house looked as though it was built to survive a direct hit from a tornado, but the pieces managed to look stylish and personal at the same time. It was a tribute to her craftsmanship and her ingenuity.

While she ate, her thoughts turned to money, or rather her persistent lack of it. Being an artist satisfied the creative part of her, but it brought her little in the way of income. The bulk of her sales were corporate installations, but those were few and far between. If she didn’t complete this commission on time, they might cancel, and she wouldn’t have enough to pay the rent. A promise and a smile would do little to keep her from being evicted. She needed inspiration, and she needed it fast.

When she had finished eating, she stood up, careful not to send the chair flying. Rinsing out the pot at the kitchen sink, she carefully put it back in its place on the stove. On her way back outside she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the hall mirror. She was pretty enough, even covered in soot and grease as she was. She resisted the urge to wipe her face clean. No, she thought, this is who I am. If the world doesn’t like it, then the world can get stuffed.

Sarah went outside and took another look at her sculpture. She still couldn’t find the missing piece that would make it complete. Nothing spoke to her as she looked around the courtyard, so she shrugged and turned her back on her creation. Time to get some new material, she thought. That meant a trip to the scrapyard.

Sarah climbed into her pick-up and started it up with the heavy toggle switch she had installed after breaking off the key in the ignition. The entire truck had been modified to accommodate her strength, from powerful springs under the pedals and a reinforced floor to the steel steering wheel salvaged from an old tractor. The first time she had gotten in a car to drive, she had put her foot through the floor when she had stepped on the brake. While pushing a car around like she was in The Flintstones had a certain comic appeal, ultimately it would have been too hard on her shoes, not to mention her feet.

Usually she would just walk when she needed to go somewhere. For her, traveling was only limited by the time it took. Walking or even running at top speed were as easy as breathing, and she never got tired. Not that there were many places where she could go. Most places either had too many people that she might accidentally bump into, or there were too many fragile objects around. Even something as simple as a handshake could crush all the bones in a man’s hand.

When she got to the scrapyard the pickings were slim. As always, Jim the owner was there to greet her. They had worked out an arrangement where Sarah could take anything she wanted as long as it wasn’t too valuable, such as copper pipe. In return she would give him a small cut of any pieces she sold. He said he liked to think of himself as a patron of the arts. Sarah thought it was because he was still holding out the hope that she would sleep with him.

Sarah picked through the piles of scrap for an hour, but still nothing grabbed at her. She found some pipe and some old metal shelving that might be made into something and set them aside, but otherwise the trip was turning out to be a bust. It looked like she would have to find something else to inspire her. She loaded the truck one or two pieces at a time so as not to give away her secret. Then with the truck full, she waved goodbye to Jim.

She took the road that ran beside the river. The view was better and there was a lot less traffic. She had nearly reached the Midland bridge when her mind began to wander. The pipe would be good for her next project, but it wouldn’t help her out today. There had to be something she had missed, something so simple and basic that she had overlooked it.

Sarah looked up at the road just in time to see a car drifting over the centreline and coming down the street toward her. Caught between the approaching car on one side and a guard rail on the other, she only had one choice. The metal in the floor of the truck groaned as she stomped on the brake, but the reinforcements held.

The other driver realized his mistake too late and steered away wildly at the last second. The car clipped Sarah’s bumper on its way past, sending it into a wild spin. He slammed on his brakes but lost control, and the car skidded off the road and crashed through the barrier.

Sarah got out of the truck, ran to the rail, and peered over the edge. The car was perched halfway down to the river, temporarily pinned by a small tree. Recent spring rains had caused the river to swell, and it was running faster than usual. She needed to get the driver out of there now.

She slid down the muddy bank. The soil was slippery from recent rains and she had a hard time keeping her balance even with her great strength. The front end and roof of the car were smashed, and the windows were shattered. Evidently, the car had rolled over on the way down.

The driver was an Indian man, maybe in his early thirties. He was awake but seemed unable to move. Sarah went up to the driver’s side door. “Are you all right?”

Yes, I’m fine,” he said, “but I seem to be pinned in. I can’t move my legs. Could you call for help?”

I don’t have a phone,” she answered. How could she. At home, the rare times she called anyone, she used the speakerphone and dialed with a pencil because it would snap if she pressed to hard. Delicate electronics were not a part of her world.

And my phone is history,” he said, holding up the broken piece of plastic and glass. He tossed it away. “Which is just as well. Stupid GPS is what got me in this mess. I don’t suppose you would mind going for help?”

Of course, I…” She paused. Leaning, in she saw that one side of his shirt was soaked with blood. “I thought you said you weren’t hurt.”

That,” he said, glancing down. “Oh, that’s nothing.” He pulled his jacket across to cover the wound.  “It looks worse than it is.”

You’ve covered in blood, and you think it’s nothing?”

That’s not what I’m worried about. I just don’t want to end up in the river. I’m pretty sure I can’t breathe underwater.”

You’re pretty sure?”

Well, I haven’t put it to the test yet, and I’d rather not start today, thank you very much.” He laughed nervously at that. “Besides, I can’t swim.”

Sarah, caught off guard by his humour, smiled back. “So how does a grown man not learn how to…”

The tree that the car had been snagged on finally snapped and the car began sliding down towards the water. Sarah had to do something quick, or this man was going to drown. Just out of reach, one of the pipes from the scrapyard was lying in the grass. The impact had knocked half of the pipes from the bed of the truck and sent them rolling across the road and down toward the river bank.  She lunged at it and managed to grasp it despite her unsure footing. Using the pole to steady her feet, she crouched down and launched herself into the air.

She came down hard on the trunk of the car just as the front end hit the water. Using her strength and the momentum of the jump, she drove the pole through the back end of the car and deep into the riverbank. It was only a temporary fix, however. The fast current was already tugging hard at car, trying to pull it free. Sarah climbed down to the side to find the man panicking and struggling to get free.

He was surprised by her sudden reappearance. “Get me out of here!” he shouted.

Sarah was torn. She could easily pull the man free but it would mean revealing her secret. This one act of kindness could condemn her to a life under a government microscope. She had realized at a young age he military would certainly stop at nothing to learn how to make super strong soldiers, so she had always hidden her strength. But if she did nothing, he would die.

Can I trust you?” She shouted back over the sound of the rushing water.

He looked back with fear and a desperate pleading. “Help me, please!”

Sarah tore the car door from its hinges with one pull and tossed it away. With her palm, she swatted the steering column, severing it at its base. The steering wheel flew out the passenger side window and into the raging river. Already knee-deep in water, she knew she had to move fast. She braced her feet against the frame of the car and grabbed what was left of the dashboard with both hands. Digging her fingers in for a better grip she started lifting the wreckage away from his legs. The twisted metal began to grind and squeal as she pulled it apart, until the strain caused it to fail with a loud crack.

As gently as she could she lifted him out of the seat and put him over her shoulder. She had barely gotten her feet out of the water when the car broke free and floated downstream. With so much damage, it filled with water and sank within seconds.

The riverbank was too steep and slippery to easily climb back up. With the man still cradled in her arms she made two giant leaps up the slope, landing gently on the road above. She quickly glanced around, but the street was deserted. No one had seen her. Now that they were safe from being swept away, he began to struggle to get away.

Put me down,” he insisted.

As gently as she could she laid him down on the asphalt, but he immediately sprang to his feet.

Don’t move,” she said. “You’re hurt.”

No, I told you I’m fine.”

Sarah began to suspect there was something more going on here. She grabbed his wrist. He struggled but her grip was stronger than handcuffs. She bent over to examine his stomach. His clothes were torn like he had been crushed and impaled but his skin was smooth and unbroken.

You’re not hurt, are you?” she said. “There’s not a mark on you.” Sarah spun him around to look  at his back. Finally she let him go. “It seems I’m not the only one with a secret. How long have you been…special?”

He paused as if he was considering a plausible lie, but he realized he had been caught. There was no other rational explanation. “It happened six months ago, shortly after I moved here.”

From India?”

No, from Cleveland. At first it was little things like paper cuts or shaving nicks. They would instantly disappear almost as fast as they happened. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Then one day I accidentally knocked a pot of boiling water off of the stove. It should have scalded me badly, but I hardly even felt it. I was more annoyed at getting my pants wet. So I tried an experiment.”

He bent down and picked up a jagged piece of plastic from the crash. As he dragged it across his open palm, Sarah watched in amazement as the wound sealed itself. Even the blood was reabsorbed. “Wow!” she said. “So you can’t be hurt at all?”

No. I feel injuries, but not what you’d call pain. I broke both my legs and probably my spine in the crash. But as you can see…” He held out his arms and turned about once in place. “You know, I’m actually glad this happened. It’s good to have someone to talk to about this. I thought I was the only one. You know, that was – what did you call it? – special.”

I know what you mean. She had a sudden thought and smiled. “So you’re not married then.”

Ah, no. I had a girlfriend in Cleveland but it didn’t end well. That was one of the major reasons I moved here. That and I got a job at the Cosmopolitan Art Gallery.”

You work there? I had one of my pieces on display there last year.”

Oh, you’re an artist! I mostly work in antiquities, but I’d love to see your work sometime.”

What about now. I live a few minutes walk from here. You can get cleaned up and call a cab. I might even be able to find something else for you to wear.”

There you go rescuing me again. Aren’t you supposed to change into a cape and tights in a phone booth or something?”

She laughed. “No you’re thinking of someone else. Besides, there aren’t many phone booths around anymore. I’m Sarah by the way”, she said extending her hand. For once, she wasn’t afraid of breaking someone’s bones.

He shook her hand and answered, “I’m Mohinder. But everyone calls me Mo.”

As they started walking back to her truck, Sarah couldn’t help thinking, I think I just found my inspiration. I guess there’s somebody out there for everyone.

So, tell me, Mo. Can you cook?”

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Posted in Fiction, Science Fiction, Short Story (<7500 words)
3 comments on “Unscathed
  1. NicoleP says:

    I didn’t respond as well to this story as I did your previous story, unfortunately. Reading this one, it really reminded me of the TV show Heroes (and I strongly suggest changing the name Mohinder because of that.) Super strength is one of the most common super powers ever written about, and while I appreciate the realism you try to add in your reimagining of it, there are some places were you adhere to tropes which I think kind of hurt you.

    Specifically, the “I hurt someone once and now I must hide” theme involving the girl Courtney at the beginning seems a little bit off for this character. This didn’t feel like a vicous or malicious character to me, and as described that is deffidently a vicous act. I do think the characters issolation should be self imposed because she hurt someone physically, but having it be intentional doesn’t feel right. I also think it might be worth putting in other details about Sarah’s interactions with other people and how she has to modify them. For example, I talk with my hands, but if accidently backhanding someone would send them through a wall, I probably wouldn’t. Sarah might physcially give people more space when talking to them. You imply she aviods going out to normal places like resturants and things (hence cooking at home) because she breaks things. My point is, I don’t think this is a character who withdrew from society all at once, but little by little over time as a lot of small bad experiences added up. This would be extremely issolating and I think exploring that more might help develope the character. You give a little bit of a sense of this, but I’d like it to be a little more profound. (Something I know you are capable of because of Unnoticed.)

    Second, I’m not sure the “hiding from the military” is really a required idea. To me, it’s kind of a cold war idea (and it reminds me of Man of Steel a bit too much.) Her internal conflict when saving him could be “What if she hurts him more when pulling apart the car?” All her previous bad experiences might lead her to believe that she will always hurt people if she gets too close or something similar. To me, this is a character who is hiding from people to protect them from her and not to protect herself. But that’s just my opinion.

    Last thing, I felt the dialog was a bit akward situationally. Like sure it’s cool you just met another person with a super power, but you also just totalled your car and almost died (the insurance claim is going to be nightmare if nothing else)… it might be nice if the characters aknowldeged that…

  2. Like I said it’s only a second draft, so there still a lot of room for improvement. A name change is a simple matter. I might have changed it myself before the final draft. There are some names like Buffy that will never be able to be used again.
    The incident at school was meant to be accident. I’ll admit I rushed through the flashback. I was concerned at the time I was spending to much time in Sarah’s head and wanted to get to the action. That section could use some clarification and expansion. Isolation is part of one of the major thematic arcs for the collection, so it deserves to be handled right.
    As an aside, I should point out that I originally wrote both of these stories for my blog, so sometimes they were written very quickly to meet my self-imposed deadlines. If there is the odd rough patch or inconsistency, that is definitely part of the problem.
    The military part is actually an allusion to future events, but it is just hanging out there with no foundation. I’ll either have to justify it or cut it. I like the idea for the internal conflict. I might have to gratuitously steal that. I’ll take another run at the dialog while I’m at it. Again, thanks for all your great comments and suggestions.

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