“Ofelia?” I whisper harshly. At first there is no reply. I wait, listening hard.
Her voice comes tinny and faint between bursts of white noise: “I’m — here. Come — find me!”
There is a shadow on the screen, moving through lines of static. A small figure lost in an electric blizzard. It has faded by the time I draw closer. It could have been anything.
I swear it was her.
She’ll come back. She always does. All I have to do is let myself believe it.
Ofelia was a superhero. She told me so without reserve. “It’s safe for me to tell you,” she said. “I can sense you’re not a villain. Besides, it would be unfair to keep it from you. It won’t be easy, you know, being involved with a superhero girl.”
It did take some getting used to. She received her mission briefings in birdsong, in radio static, encoded in every third word backwards from a breaking news bulletin on the televisions in a specific store window. She saw battle plans drawn out for her in cloud patterns, coffee cup rings, the movement of players on a soccer field. During these moments she would stand frozen in mid-motion, her head cocked to the side, listening intently. Then she would drop — literally drop — whatever she was doing and dash away, calling apologies over her shoulder.
“I’ll just … wait for you here, then,” I said the first time it happened.
“No, no,” she shouted back. “This could take hours. I’ll call you!”
I scooped what I could of her ice cream cone off the sidewalk and dumped it in the trash.
Her friends told me that it was just another quirk of hers, that she said things like that when she needed to use the restroom, or go back to her apartment for something she’d forgotten, or attend a lecture. I had to admit that I didn’t know what her class schedule was like.
When I told Ofelia what they’d said, she laughed fondly. “They’re just trying to protect my secret. They don’t think you should know about me.”
And I kept her secret. I didn’t tell my friends that she helped keep the world safe for us. I didn’t tell my friends much of anything about her. Maybe I was trying to preserve the intimacy of our relationship. Maybe it was because of something else.
The first time we made love, I saw the faded red lines across the tops of her thighs, straight and thin, precisely drawn. There were a lot of them. I pretended not to notice, but she saw me looking and said in explanation, “Robot ninjas with laser-bladed throwing stars. I was lucky; if I hadn’t jumped back when I did, they would have taken my legs clean off. It was a tough mission; I almost didn’t make it.”
“I’m glad you did,” I said, keeping my voice as light as hers. “This superhero business, it sounds pretty dangerous.”
“Unfortunately, we do make some enemies,” she said. “It can’t be helped: it’s part of the job description. But it’s worth it, really it is.”
I thought I understood more of her that night. I thought I had figured out some of why she told me the stories she did. I knew at least that I loved her, and I thought that was what mattered most.
I sit on my bedroom floor, a ramen-crusted bowl at my knee, watching the snow crackle across the TV. A two-liter bottle of Dr. Pepper sits warm in my lap, stained coffee mugs at the base of my dresser. I am determined to catch the next transmission.
There is a dark spot on the corner of the screen, and I start forward, then slump back in disappointment; it is only a cockroach. But there is something about the way it skitters across the screen… there could be a pattern there. If I unfocus my eyes, I can almost see it form.
Ofelia kept her head shaved, she said, because her hair interfered with transmissions. She told me that hair is the body’s natural defense against otherworldly communications, because the physical form wants nothing to do with the astral plane. Hair tries to keep the soul trapped, grounded. By shaving her head, she was opening her mind. I told her that my brother said the same thing about getting baked.
She wore a different wig almost every day. There was the sleek black bob, the frizzy short pink, the long elegant chestnut. Each date with her was like a rendezvous with an international spy who could not afford to be recognized in public.
When I first saw Ofelia, her name was Scheherazade (Hera for short), and she was strumming a battered acoustic guitar at the front of a coffee house, crooning an unfamiliar language into the mic. Her eyebrows were bubblegum pink, and she wore a tie-dyed babushka. I would find out later that her eyelashes glowed in the dark. She couldn’t play worth a damn, but her voice was haunting even over the sounds of the vampire crowd.
“It’s our native tongue,” she told me after her set. I ordered a coffee; she asked for tea. “The one everyone used to know.”
“You mean, before God struck down the Tower of Babel?” I said with a half smile. Even back then, when I was a religions major, I couldn’t help but sound sardonic when I talked about the Bible.
“No, silly. Before the whales stole it and made everyone forget.”
Our drinks came, and we talked about Babel and mythic history and grisly alternative options for fuel, about how I couldn’t decide on a major and how she couldn’t decide on a name. We agreed at closing that the conversation was far from over, and she followed me home.
“But this language, the one we lost,” I said. “How do you know it?”
“Some of us still do. I could teach you, it’s easy.” She sealed her mouth around my navel and hummed a note into my belly that made my toes curl. “See? Your body wants to remember. All you have to do is let it.”
There are moments when I think that Ofelia was never here, but then I gather up the photographs, the doodles she left in my notebooks, the coded notes she slipped into my pockets, and I can remember the realness of her. How could I make up a person like Ofelia? Nobody could, but her.
Some days, she was so tired she didn’t want to move. She just slept, curled up on my futon for hours, looking as worried and frail as though she had the weight of an imperiled world on her slight shoulders. She blamed the distant stars for her condition, said they drained her of her life force so they could shine a little longer. She did not seem to mind.
I let her sleep, made her tea when she woke, and tried not to worry. I couldn’t help but think, though, that on those days she looked somehow two-dimensional, paper-thin, as though she might, without the proper attention and care, simply fade away.
“I’m from Atlantis,” she whispered one night.
“Atlantis. That’s where I am when I go away for a few days. But I have to leave my physical form behind because the city is deep under the ice in Antarctica, and my body wouldn’t survive in the cold. Besides, I can travel faster that way.”
“I thought you were defusing a megabomb in Madrid.”
“That was last week. I’m learning how to stay outside my body for longer periods of time. Soon, I won’t need it at all.”
“I like your body,” I protested.
She said, “Well, it’s good for a few things,” and we took advantage of some then.
I cannot recall the last time I slept. Has it been a week already? Two weeks? Friends keep calling, so I unplug the phone, turn off my mobile. I don’t answer the knocks at the door. I can’t afford to be distracted now. I force myself to stay awake; I could miss a message if I sleep. It is becoming easier to find them tucked in foreign newspaper headlines, peeking out from the weave of my sweater. Hints of warning, threats of reassurance. A couple more days, and I know I’ll be able to read them as well as she did. I can almost hear her in the buzzing of the electric shaver. Just a couple more days, and I’ll know.
I grab another handful of caffeine pills.
I headed for the hospital as soon as I got the call, her best friend’s voice, shaky and strained, running on a loop in my head: she’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone. A clump of people huddled in the hall, their backs to an open door. I had been almost running, but I slowed when I saw them, or when they saw me. Something in the way they stood, the way they turned, almost in unison, made me want to run back the other way.
“How did…” My voice caught, and I cleared my throat. “What happened?”
They stared at me with burnt coal eyes. “It was the cancer,” one of them said.
I felt hollow. They weren’t making sense. “Cancer?”
Some of them were glaring at me as though I was the one who had taken her away and brought back only that still thing in the bed in that room. “You didn’t know? It was what made her hair fall out. The chemo, I mean.”
“She said… I thought she shaved it,” I muttered.
A woman I had never met, her nose red and leaking, stuttered, “Would you… would you like to see her?” They were staring at me too intently.
Then I knew. It was a setup. Superheroes make a lot of enemies, it’s part of the job description, and bad guys make some low blows. They were trying to trick me, trying to use me against Ofelia somehow. But I wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t look inside that room and be fooled by their homunculus, I wouldn’t betray her like that.
I turned and I walked and I kept walking. I walked away, and I never did look.
I didn’t attend the funeral. I knew it was a trap. And if it weren’t, what would be the point of watching them lower an empty shell into a hole marked with a stranger’s name? No point at all.
I did turn on the news, hoping, perhaps, to find one of the messages Ofelia always sought. Poison gas released on the Berlin U-Bahn; a hotel in Honolulu burned to the ground with guests still asleep inside; a flood in Morocco; a hostage situation in Kuwait. And I could almost tell, with a sense beyond the five I knew, which of those stories could have been prevented if only Ofelia had been around to save the day.
And I thought, Ofelia said anyone can learn the language the sea-beasts stole.
And I thought, Ofelia said she practiced leaving her body behind.
And I thought, Ofelia said.
The final few loose locks drift to the bathroom floor, and between the curls of hair I read, as clearly as though it were written there in permanent marker: ANSWER.
In the kitchen, the end of its cord trailing on the dusty floor, the phone rings.