The door swung open, and a gigantic frosted ice-cream cake practically ablaze with sparklers emerged from its depths.
A chorus of congratulatory cries filled the steakhouse, and a swarm of hands mushed over Matt, slapping his back, tousling his hair. Someone smacked his butt. It was like being assaulted by a hand monster. The waitress set the brightly burning cake in the centre of the table, right on top of Matt’s placemat. The cheering escalated.
“You know it, you f-!”
Matt’s mom raised her hand threateningly and Marcus sunk sheepishly in his seat.
“Sorry Mrs Callaghan.”
Even though their reservation had been late notice, the Longhouse Grill (best steaks in the city) had still managed to get them a table – Matt didn’t know whether his dad had dropped the name ‘Legion of Heroes’ but either way, they’d gotten in. All five Callaghans, Taylor, at least a dozen of his friends; all here and loud and celebrating Matt’s induction into an institution that unbeknownst to them would probably end up exposing his secret and getting him killed or turned into a human guinea pig.
“Should we have invited the empath girl?” Matt’s mum whisper-asked his dad behind Matt’s back, as Jonas helped Matt extinguish the sparklers. Michael Callaghan just sort of shrugged. His wife frowned for a moment, then shook her head and leant back over to her baby boy.
They probably should have invited Jane, Matt thought. After the call had gone through to Matt’s parents, the Callaghan household had descended into a frenzy. There were forms to sign, calls to make, a celebration to organise – and somewhere amongst all that, between shaking hands and booking restaurants, ordering cakes and getting dad an early jump home, all thoughts of the empath seemed to have fallen by the wayside. In his (and he supposed everyone’s) defence, none of them really knew where Jane had gone – Winters had said he’d see to her after he was done with him, but Matt didn’t know what that entailed. Plus he didn’t have her number. Matt couldn’t remember whether he’d actually ever seen her using a phone. Did she even have a phone?
“To Matt!” shouted Taylor. He raised a champagne flute full of Sprite high into the air. “Matt the superhero!”
“Advocate for empaths!” added Carlos, and there was a ripple of laughter.
“Hey man, it doesn’t stop him,” grinned Taylor, “Legion baby, for the good of us all!”
The party cheered and Matt was once again overcome by pats and hair ruffling. He forced himself a reluctant smile. In spite of it all, this wasn’t bad. Whatever else may happen, this bit here was pretty nice.
“Cut the cake you dumb shiiiii...ivering person!” called Pat, glared down mid-sentence by Mrs Callaghan.
So Matt did. He sunk the knife deep into the sugary sponge cake, then talked and laughed and ate alongside his family and friends. There were toasts and stories and recaps from a dozen different perspectives, then the best ribs in town. There was Taylor, in finest form, explaining away Matt’s initial refusal as modesty and friendship; a bottle of champagne on the house for Mr and Mrs Callaghan when the owner heard why they were celebrating; and several requests for Matt’s autograph after he half-jokingly said that it was going to be valuable one day. Pat messaged half the school to organise a rampaging afterparty; Sarah fell asleep on her father’s lap. And throughout everything, Matt Callaghan sat in the middle, laughing and smiling, allowing himself to be happy, tucking his worries aside, if only for tonight. Because the future was uncertain, but the present was full of light and life and people who loved him.
Jane sat alone in the quiet and the dark. Alone in her room, on the edge of her bed, breathing deeply, too excited to sleep. No one was home – her father was at work. He’d been asleep when the school called – asleep or passed out. It didn’t matter. She didn’t care. She was going to the Legion.
She was going to the Legion.
She’d taken the night off work, called in sick. She didn’t like to lie, but she was never sick, so they believed her. They hadn’t cared. There’d always be someone else to stand out the back and flip burgers.
She was going to the Legion.
It didn’t feel real. Wasn’t possible. Even waiting, wanting, longing this long, a part of her had never embraced the hope and now couldn’t embrace the reality. She clutched the precious papers in her hand, knowing what they said, not needing to look. She’d read them a hundred times over, searching for some fault or flaw they could use to crush her dreams. No. It was real. The forms were signed. She gripped them as tightly as she dared, never wanting to let go but not wanting them to crease. Her totem, her tether to the truth.
She was going to the Legion.
There was a lump rising in her chest, a hot wet tightness she couldn’t describe. She looked up across the room at her silent lonely dresser, at the reflection in the mirror and the moonlight. At herself and at the face in the photo above, looking back at her, the black and white woman smiling down.
I did it Mom.
I made it. Just like you always said.
I’m going to the Legion.
What would it be like? How would they train, how quickly would she progress? She saw herself there, in the mansion on the hill, fighting, proving herself, impressing everyone. She saw the reverence on their faces, the whispered apologies. Saw herself triumph, again and again – saw Captain Dawn himself pin the badge on her chest. His hand clasped hers; he smiled, leant in, whispered: “Well done.” And then he stood by her side as the world around them knelt.
Jane dreamt, and in her dark, cold room her dreams were fitful fantasies of light and hills and gold.
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).