Breathing – A Superhero Short Story


Some Ultras have it easy. They have super strength, or invulnerability, or maybe even flight. But some, those less fortunate ones, have something a little less useful. But no matter how worthless you feel, there’s always a way out… 


My chest is tight, like the worst sort of heartburn, like at any moment I’m going to keel over and hit the ground, eyes bulging like Kardashian’s bra after her latest boob job. I can’t breathe, though that’s not so different from normal. But it’s worse this time. This time, it’s like someone’s shoved a knife in there and they’re wiggling it around, giving it a good twist to make sure I feel every inch.

My toes are curled up tight in my boots and, no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to relax them. I can’t seem to make them straighten. So I’m wobbling, lurching back and forth.

The river surges past beneath me. It used to be my only friend. I used to come here when I was a kid and stare down into it, wondering why it felt more like home than the shitty place I woke up in every morning. I’m not sure mum even noticed that I was gone for hours at a time. If she did, she didn’t care. Then again, she didn’t care about much, except whether her pill bottles were full, of course.

I should just let go of the railing and dive, let the Thames swallow me up and sweep me out to sea. But there are people watching, shouting and panicking as they see this strange man wobble back and forth on the edge of the bridge. Normally, I make the dive at night, when I’m nothing more than a shadow.

But not this time. This time, I can’t wait. This time, the world around me, the wretched, air-bound earth that burns my lungs and makes me cough every day of my life, has brought me to my knees once too often. So I’m going, now, and I’m not coming back.

I turn my face to the sky, feeling the dull summer sun sneaking through the clouds to warm me. I’ll see it set over the north sea tonight, and I haven’t done that in a while. I’ve always been far too bothered with getting back to shore before the sun comes up, back to my house and my shabby pretence of a life before anyone discovers my secret.

Now, I don’t give a shit. Now, it’s far too late.

She found out.

The brief respite my admission that my life here is over gave me, vanishes as I picture her face. I see the loathing in her eyes, the panic as I revealed the parts of myself she’d never seen. Her words are still ringing through my head.

‘What are you?’

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘You said you loved me, why didn’t you tell me?’

I crouch, covering my ears with my hands. I’m aware, dimly, of people behind me gasping, reaching with uncaring, yet somehow concerned hands, desperate to stop me throwing myself over. The police will be here any moment and they’ll probably send boats. They’ll spend a day or two trawling the river, before making the wise decision to forget the crazy man who threw himself in here and get back to dealing with real crimes.

The only crime here is how she can judge me. She, the only woman in the city strong enough to bench press a train, and she mocks me for something so feeble as gills and acute pressure resistance. I barely show up on the scans when I go through. I only just escape the Normal count. Which begs the question why she was so surprised, when she must have known.

We’ve talked about her powers, god knows, she can’t shut up about them. Not many women gifted with the strength, though no one knows why. But it gets her plenty of air time, plenty of TV spots, all the things a modern Ultra needs to keep the money rolling in.

I sniff, feeling my upper lip curling, and glance sideways. I don’t know why everyone hates the stacks so much. The vast buildings are so huge, so tall, they’re the best reminder of how many people in this city are living on the breadline, servicing people like me and my wife, making us feel as special as they should.

It turns into a full-blown sneer, now, and I look away. That’s why people hate them. They don’t like to be reminded of how savage we’ve become, how blind to those on the other side of the wall. Because it is a wall, however much we like to pretend otherwise. It’s a wall that can never be torn down, not unless every Ultra in the world dies and no more are born. And that’s never going to happen.

Last time I checked, the Immortal was 700 and something, and showing no signs of getting old, let along dying. I wonder how many children he’s had, then realise I don’t care. I don’t have to care anymore. I no longer have to look at her magazines, with their brutal exposes and sucking up. The ones with her on the cover are always left out on the table when we have guests over, in case our ‘friends’ forget who she is.

It was because of our friends she found out. I confided, first time since I was a kid, since my mother made her first and last own decision, before she headed for the pills. Most mothers go crazy when they find out they’ve given birth to an Ultra. They settle back, rubbing their hands, looking forward to a life outside the stacks, a life that actually resembles something decent.

Not my mum. She took one look at the ‘vile things’ on my neck and retched.

But I had to tell someone. 20 years of night time escapades, 20 years of sharing all my best secrets with the fish. I had to tell someone. I thought Traveller was my friend. After all, having the ability to teleport at will, yet have no idea where you were going had made him a laughing stock, one of the less-fortunate of the ‘blessed’.

Not that he’s exactly living badly, but at least he has some idea what it’s like, to be an Ultra and not be beautiful, blessed with some incredible power that everyone else admires and envies.

Apparently not. After he’d stopped laughing, he picked up the phone and texted my wife, telling me he was saving my marriage. When I asked him what he meant, he said it was secrets that drove him and Mindwipe apart. His wife could read minds. I can’t imagine having the power, let alone wanting to use it, but I can imagine how it would make married life difficult. God knows, if she knew what I thought half the time, we’d have been divorced years ago.

The river’s calling me, same as it always does. All that water, my home, my life. It’s like I’ve been suppressing myself my entire life, like I’ve been on the same damned pills my mother took. She was drowning her sorrows, her loneliness. I’ve been drowning myself.

Except, of course, I can’t drown.

‘Step away from the edge, fella, you don’t want to do it.’

I straighten and the river sighs, like it already misses me. I turn to stare at the police man. He’s got a bullhorn and one of the new lasso guns they’ve introduced of late. Ultra’s rarely cause much mischief, but it’s widely agreed that attempting anything serious with one is ill- advised at best. But lassoing them, stopping them from a distance, is a far safer bet.

‘Why not?’ I ask, just to see what he has to say.

‘It’s not worth it. Nothing in your life is so bad you have to end it.’

How would he know? How the hell would he know? He doesn’t. He’s trotting out the same old rubbish they feed to everyone who’s standing here, threatening to end it. The wonderful, delicious twist, is that I’m not ending what he thinks I am. He thinks I’m committing suicide, when it’s quite the opposite.

This is a celebration. This is me putting my hands up and saying I’ve screwed up, everything till now’s been a screw up. But no longer. London’s about to lose one of it’s Ultras, but the sea is getting its son back.

I wonder, now and then, more so now, who my father was. Mum never did tell me, but I can only assume he was an Ultra, someone with powers like mine. So many things I can only guess at.

‘Come on, son, step away from—’

I don’t hear anything more, because I hurl myself from the bridge as the song of the sea rises, filling my ears. I hear the gasps, though, and the cries as people see me falling to my doom. I’ve done this so many times before, but it’s never felt like this.

The water calls me, and I go to her, willingly. I go home.

On a bridge in London, the police man steps back, shaking his head. He checks the picture on his tablet again and sighs. Nicolas Maduro. Another sigh. Psychotic episodes, delusional, ‘mother issues’ apparently, whatever that meant.

The police man turns away from the raging river and stomps back to the station. Paperwork, that’s what it meant, more sodding paperwork.

The body washes up in the estuary, water logged and pale. It takes a few days to get identified. The mother is contacted several times, but the police officer describes her as sounding wasted, out of it, barely coherent. When she does come in to view the body, her tears could fill an ocean, though mostly they fill her handkerchief.