The kettle whistled sharply on the stove in the kitchen, waking elderly Agnes Muldoon from her half-slumber. She blinked a little at the television- the drama she had been trying to watch had apparently been replaced by a breaking news bulletin while she was dozing- before heaving herself to her feet and making her way into the kitchen. Her favourite mug, a souvenir from her brother many years ago, with a pretty picture of Edinburgh Castle on the side, was standing on the formica counter top with an imported teabag in it and the sugar bowl next to it. Her proper British teabags were a little luxury, but one she treasured. Even after more than thirty years, she couldn’t stand American tea.
She stood at the window, looking down on the streets of Galaxy while she waited for the tea to brew. The area wasn’t what it used to be, she thought, gazing nervously down at a small group of Hellions who were hanging around on the corner. She wasn’t comfortable walking through the streets even in broad daylight any more, but it couldn’t be helped, she had nothing in for her supper. She would have to go out shopping once she’d had her cuppa.
She turned away from the window with a sigh, fishing the teabag out of the mug and placing it carefully in a saucer next to the sink so that she could get another brew out of it later. She dropped a couple of sugar cubes and a splash of milk into her tea, and stirred it as she walked slowly back to her comfortable chair.
The news was nothing particularly unusual; Paragon City’s usual fare of villains trying to do something particularly nasty and valiant heroes saving the day. Sometimes, Agnes felt that the media drove on half the villainous acts in the city, each one trying to outdo the last fiendish scheme to prove that they were the most fiendish villain around. It reminded her of children in the playground, only much more dangerous.
A knock on the door interrupted her reverie, and she called out nervously as she pulled herself up to her feet once more.
“Just a minute dearie, I’ll be right there!”
She put her eye to the peephole and breathed a sigh of relief. On the other side of the lens stood a cheerful blonde teenager in a bright red top and a red and black tartan skirt, one of Agnes’ young neighbours. She was holding a large dish wrapped in a cloth.
“Gina! Dearie me, what a nice surprise!” Agnes fumbled with the locks, bolts and security chains that decorated the inside of her door before finally tugging it open.
“Hi, Mrs Muldoon,” Gina said with a patient smile, holding up the dish. “Mom made too much casserole again, she wondered if you’d like it?”
Agnes beamed at the girl. Gina’s mother was an accomplished cook and never did anything by accident- the dish was obviously intended for her all along- but she appreciated the pretence. It made it feel less like charity.
“Oh, dearie me Gina,” she tutted good-naturedly, “Your mother never does get the quantities on that casserole right, does she?”
Gina shrugged as she strolled through to the kitchen. “Well, your recipe was written for, like, a hundred people, and mom was never hot on math!”
Agnes closed the door, pulling one of the bolts and the security chain across, and followed her young neighbour to the kitchen. Gina chatted away while she unwrapped the dish and set it in the oven.
“Mom said if you keep it on low it’ll stay nice and hot, so you can have it whenever you’re ready. You gonna watch the tennis tomorrow? I bet you have your Scottish flag ready, don’t you!”
She smiled brightly at Mrs Muldoon as she shut the oven door.
“Oh yes, dearie, I certainly hope so. A nice young Scottish man in the Wimbledon finals, that would be lovely. Would you like to stay for a cup of tea? I have some nice biscuits in the cupboard.”
The teenager shook her head with another cheery smile. “No thanks, Mrs Muldoon, I’m just on my way out to the store for my mom. Can I pick anything up for you, while I’m there?”
“That’s ever so kind of you, Gina, but I don’t think I need anything now. Do take care, though, I saw some of those nasty young men outside before.”
The young girl’s face clouded over slightly as she gave her elderly neighbour a friendly hug. “It’s okay, Mrs Muldoon. I’m sure they won’t be any bother. Just lock your door up when I go, okay?”
Agnes nodded, and dutifully slid across bolts, replaced chains, and turned keys behind the girl. She peered through the peephole again as she finished, and saw the girl smile and wave before she left. Gina’s such a good girl, she thought, even waiting to make sure I’m all locked up before she goes.
She settled back down in her easy chair to finish her cuppa, searching through the channels to find some Wimbledon coverage, a reminder of home. As she sat watching highlights of the women’s semi-finals, supporting the American players through a sense of duty as it was her adopted home, after all, she had a sudden desire for strawberries and cream.
“If only I’d thought of it earlier, when Gina was here,” she muttered to herself. She heaved herself up out of the chair again, taking her cup into the kitchen to wash it up. Glancing out of the window, she saw that the Hellions had disappeared. “Probably making trouble somewhere else,” she told herself with a sniff of disdain. “They would never have dared while Kelly Graham lived round here.”
Like Gina and her mother, and many other local families, Agnes clearly remembered Galaxy Girl. The much-loved heroine, whose identity had been a poorly kept secret, had retired before Agnes came to America, but they had been of a similar age and she was still a large part of the community then. She had made such a difference to everybody in the neighbourhood that they now called it Galaxy City in her honour.
Anger and resentment rose up in Mrs Muldoon. This had been a nice area just a few years ago, with a real sense of community, and now here she was hiding behind locked doors.
“Those scoundrels,” she muttered to herself, “Think they can keep an old woman locked away in her own home for fear of them? Think they’ll do me out of my strawberries and cream, do they? We’ll see about that…”
She stomped around her little apartment, gathering up her coat, her handbag and her shopping bag and muttering to herself all the time, building up her courage until the moment she drew the last bolt and stepped outside her door. The corridors and the lift were quiet, as was the street outside. As she walked down the street to the grocery store, Mrs Muldoon grew more confident. Of course there were gangs and villains, but there were also heroes, she reminded herself. Somebody was still keeping these streets clean, and as she stepped around a small pile of spent bullets she realised that they’d just passed through ahead of her.
She reached the grocery store completely unimpeded, without even so much as a glimpse of a Hellion, and chatted amiably with the storekeeper for a while about the weather, the tennis and other vagaries of life before leaving with her strawberries and cream stashed in her shopping bag atop a few other things.
As she strolled back towards her home, she fell into something of a reverie, remembering how things used to be when she first moved to this particular neighbourhood back in 1972. She couldn’t pretend that everything had always been rosy, but because of Kelly Graham’s efforts, Paragon Heights had always been a nicer area. It had all changed with the Rikti invasion, of course. Not only had the invasion taken Galaxy Girl away from the world, but it seemed to Agnes that it had also taken away a kind of innocence. Afterwards, the villains seemed so much more nasty, more vicious, even the petty criminals on the streets seemed to be more sinister than before.
“Hand over your cash!”
Agnes was just a few yards away from the door to her building when the harsh voice shook her out of her reverie. Three Hellions jumped out from an alleyway, one of them grabbing hold of her handbag while the other two surrounded her.
“Help! I’m being mugged!” she cried. Her earlier confidence evaporated, but she retained enough of her anger and resentment to keep a tight hold on her handbag, resisting the muggers with all her strength. The Hellion tugged almost casually on the bag, obviously of the opinion that the old lady wouldn’t resist for long, and no special effort would be required on his part. Agnes quaked with fear as one of the other attackers menaced her with a baseball bat.
“Quit your shaking and hand over your cash,” he ordered. Agnes felt her fingers weakening by the second, and knew she was on the verge of letting go and collapsing. Perhaps it would be for the best, she thought. They hadn’t hurt her yet, but if she didn’t let go they might.
Suddenly, she caught sight of a red and white blur behind the Hellions, a glimpse of blonde hair and compassionate eyes behind a red domino mask. There was a supernaturally bright flash, and the mugger let go of her handbag with a cry. Agnes fell to her knees, exhausted, shaking and half blinded, dropping her shopping bag. The strawberries fell out of the top and she watched as if in slow motion as the fruit rolled out across the ground and got crushed under the heavy boots of her attackers. She closed her eyes with a sigh.
“Mrs Muldoon? Mrs Muldoon!”
Agnes’ head throbbed as she opened her eyes cautiously. Compassionate green eyes gazed at her, worry creasing young Gina’s familiar face.
“Oh.. Gina, watch out…”
The young girl helped Agnes sit up carefully, and shook her head. “They’re gone, Mrs Muldoon. Don’t be afraid. Are you okay? No broken bones?”
“I don’t think so. What happened?”
“Catch your breath before you stand up, Mrs Muldoon. I think you must have had a nasty shock.” Gina looked away from her neighbour, seemingly glancing around the alleyway as she continued, “There, um, there was a hero here, she, uh, she raced off, after one of the guys who was attacking you I guess…”
Once Agnes had got up onto her feet, Gina turned around to pick up her neighbour’s shopping.
“I’ll carry this up for you, Mrs Muldoon,” she said, lifting the bag in one hand and tugging the edge of her T-shirt down with the other. Agnes frowned. As the teenager helped her towards the door of the building, Agnes suddenly realised that Gina’s top was inside out. She thought back and was sure that it hadn’t been that way earlier. She rubbed her forehead slightly as they reached the door to her apartment.
“I have to go to a study group now, but I’m going to go across and fetch my mom first,” Gina told her, concern showing in her eyes. “She’ll sit with you until the police arrive for a statement. Will you be okay?”
Agnes nodded, looking at Gina’s face closely. For a moment she wondered what the girl would look like with a domino mask on, before dismissing the thought with a gentle shake of her head. It was such a silly idea.
“Here’s your shopping,” Gina said with an awkward smile. “Enjoy your strawberries.”
It was only later, when Gina’s mother had arrived, that Agnes remembered the strawberries rolling across the floor of the alleyway. When she went to check, she saw that the strawberries in her shopping bag were in a sealed box- a much larger box than the little punnet she had picked up.
“Goodness,” she murmured, “Fighting off Hellions and replacing lost strawberries. Extraordinary.”
Gina’s mother looked around the kitchen door. “Extraordinary?”
Agnes smiled and nodded. “Your daughter.”
A news reporter appeared on the television screen as Gina’s mother escorted Agnes gently back to her chair, shaky camera footage in the background showing a young blonde heroine in a red and white dress, a red domino mask concealing her identity, appearing in a blur and depositing a group of Hellions in front of the police station.
“Young and upcoming heroine, “The Girl Beyond Compare” delivered a resounding message to the petty criminal fraternities of Paragon City today,” the reporter announced, “Single-handedly rounding up dozens of Hellions, Skulls and other criminals and delivering them all to the custody of the police. The message is: You are not beneath the notice of this city’s heroes, and we will defend the innocent from you. The streets of Galaxy City are, for now, a safe place to walk, and with the concerted efforts of the PPD and registered heroes alike, we will keep it that way. This is Chuck Witherspoon, reporting from Galaxy City.”
Gina’s mother smiled slightly, and looked sideways at Agnes.
“Oh yes,” Agnes said, not taking her eyes off the screen. “Gina’s an extraordinary girl alright. Quite… incomparable.”
© Kari Fay
(Author’s Note – Longer than my usual offerings but I hope you don’t mind! This is a story inspired by my favourite online game, City of Heroes, which I wrote last year. I wanted a story to introduce The Girl Beyond Compare, one of my teenage characters, and I thought it would be interesting to do it from the viewpoint of an ordinary citizen.)