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Spelling It Out

When it comes to war, love and Scrabble, anything goes. A sweet, short story taht tells the joys and downs of being a superhero.

 

When it comes to war, love and Scrabble, anything goes.

A sweet, short story that tells the joys and downs of being a superhero.


 
 

The war is on.

          For all the things we've gone through together, all the near deaths, all the narrow escapes, all the silent nights watching over each other's sleep, and all the little details daily routine makes us share, it's never the game is on with my wife. Nothing that spells out a winner at the end is ever going to be a game for her. The minute the pieces fall into place and we face off against each other, there's a silent declaration of war.

          And I swear, tonight that woman is thirsty for blood.

          Superhero blood, to be exact.

          The thing about Sharon is that she takes our games as seriously as she takes her cases. She's a big believer in responsibility, and a bigger believer in rules and laws, which makes her acquaintance with someone who dons a disguise every night somewhat of a contradiction. We superheroes walk a very thin line between what's right, what's wrong, and what's legal, an inconvenient fact she reminds me of every other week.

          In any case, it's absolutely no surprise when she picks Scrabble as tonight's battlefield, because there's nothing she loves more in this world than playing with words.

          She's ruthless, my wife, with her innocent baby-blue eyes and blonde hair, her glasses sliding slightly down her nose as she plots my demise, complete with nuclear winter. Don't let the comfy ambiance of our living room, with its wooden table, the white couches, and sand-colored rug, fool you; some serious planning’s going on behind the scenes.

          She's a master of maneuvering hostile witnesses, the same way I'm a master of maneuvering hostile forces. I might not have the versatility of closing arguments that Sharon does, but our living room library is mostly mine, and some of those books are pretty thick, not to mention obscure. In that sense, my vocabulary is far more extensive than hers, an advantage I gladly hold onto when we're so evenly matched in other ways.

          Her drive to see things through rivals my drive to defeat the evils of this world. The difference is, everyone gets to see me fighting in the light of day, while her efforts take long, hard hours for the justice system to work.

          In reality, we're the opposite sides of the same coin; neither succeeds without the other.

          She smiles a sweet smile when she notices me looking at her, a reminder that—despite the odd seriousness of our games—we are having a good time.

          It wasn't like this not so long ago, when we only used to meet in court, or snatch odd glimpses of each other in precincts and jails. We progressed to dating at a snail’s pace, forever interrupted by her job or by me being imprisoned by some lucky villain. It became an inside joke that the only place we spent any quality time together was at the courthouse or her office, until we realized both places were potential dating corners when viewed in the right light—oh, and with quite a bit of imagination.

          The day we met at the altar, I barely had time to say I do before averting a worldwide catastrophe. We still have the newspaper front page framed on the dining room wall, where we scribbled a little heart on the right-hand corner: JS + SM tied the knot.

          That's the compromise, really: that despite my heroics, I will make all the responsibilities of my life work out. Father, superhero, husband, friend.

          Besides, it's not like challenging my mind against her astute intellect is torture. Whenever she gets in battle mode, I have half a chance of making it out of the game alive, odds I'm prepared to turn in my favor.

          The outstanding thing is that, what Sharon lacks in vocabulary, she more than compensates for with strategy. She plays a triple word tile and scores high enough that she's thirty-seven points ahead, a maniac glee burning in her eyes. I love her world domination side.

          When her turn comes again after I've scored another thirty points, she goes very still. Her heartbeat’s skyrocketing as a grin spreads across her face, and she hurriedly arranges letter after letter on the board:

          D I V O R C E.

          I make nothing of it until her next sentence absently leaves her lips. "I would so definitely get the house."

          It's just an afterthought for her. She happily bends down to record her score, a fifty point bonus added for getting down all her tiles at once. It's my heart skyrocketing this time, as I stare at her for a full minute before she finishes counting her points, then starts fishing her seven new tiles from the bag.

          My mind’s invaded by scenes of empty rooms and lost moments, of lonely holidays and awkward, longing looks... Why can she so casually and naturally imagine our life falling apart? What could possibly stir her mind in such an ominous direction? Has she been thinking—

          "What?" she asks me once she notices the game isn’t moving forward.

          "Do you mean it?" I quietly say, frowning a little. She frowns in return, clearly not following what I'm asking. Then she frowns even deeper.

          "About getting the house?"

          It sounds stupid when she says it a second time. That uneasiness that sprung so fast to life seems kind of paranoid now. The cold, dark visions my imagination conjures don't abate as easily as I'd like, and all I can do is lower my eyes and start forming N O S E on the board.

          "Well, of course," she continues in typical Sharon fashion; finally, she's read through me and sees what I meant. "Think about it," she says in a more practical tone. "You and me, getting a divorce. How bad do you think it would have to be for us to get there?"

          Bad. Actually, make that BAD, all in capitals and bold, please. This brings a whole new set of mental pictures to my mind, none of them pleasant. Avoiding the house, the place where I feel the safest in the world. Avoiding my best friend, the only one who doesn't get confused or scared at the way I live my life. Avoiding my family, who make my life worth living.

          I bailed on her on so many occasions in our first year of marriage that she had to sit me down once, and tell me I needed to stop—just stop—and consider if that was the life I wanted? She never made the argument about her, or even about our son, for that matter. Somehow, through the whole thing, it was implied that whatever choice I made, she’d stick to it. But—she said—for all the considerations I was making, all the people and all the lives I was trying to keep on a balance act, had I truly considered what I needed in my life?

          I stare at the word again as Sharon prepares for her next turn, noticing at the back of my mind that out of divorce I can form drive, dire, diver, cero, drove, voice, dice—and void. All I see is that. A deep, dark nothingness; a hole with an invisible superhero at its center.

          "And your identities' trademarks," Sharon adds with a shrug and a dark chuckle as she starts rearranging her tiles in front of her. Her evil lawyer mind heads to places mine can't. There's something inherently wicked about that statement, and she knows it. What's worse: she knows that I know she knows it. She's brutal, I'm telling you.

          I don't have a fixed superhero identity, but dozens. I change names and costumes every other week, making my enemies guess at my powers and my weaknesses, and at how many of us are really out there. Most of all, a passing identity doesn't hoard too many enemies. If I'm ever unmasked, the number of people who would come after my family would be manageable.

          I do, however, hold the rights to each and every one of my personas. Most of the money earned from exploiting my many identities’ merchandising goes to charity, taxes, and sporadic legal settlements, but I do make a nice living out of it. A superhero identity can be rather lucrative.

          Of course, that only matters if you can live with the dark side of your secret self.

          Every superhero with an alter-ego dreads the moment they have to reveal their true selves to their loved ones. That moment of nakedness, when anything, and I do mean anything, can happen. Nothing prepares you for that moment, and many choose to never go through it. What you can see, cannot be unseen, after all, and in trusting another person with our most treasured possession, we're giving up the mantle of anonymity that cloaks us in protection.

          When we take off the mask, we take away the legend, the aura, becoming instead mere mortal men and women with dreams, problems, indecisions—and limits. Most of all, we become ourselves, and the person looking at you has no idea who you are anymore. In their eyes, you're a stranger who can be anyone, an experienced liar who's no one. The irony is, you know everything about them, but they have to start to know you from somewhere between the hero and yourself.

          It's the scariest moment in our lives. Forget the monsters, the magical beings, the alien creatures, or the megalomaniac plans to destroy the world. Right there, in front of you, fragile, mortal and smiling, is the one being who can crush your entire soul with a single look.

          No one, and I mean no one, will ever hold that kind of power over you.

          And you know what the funny thing is? It’s that the reveal is only the beginning. Once you bring someone to this side of your mask, things get exponentially more complicated. From your enemies, to the curious public, to the never-ending reporters and their speculation about our lives—not to mention the government and any entity with a vested interest in knowing all our secrets—the things that keep me up at night can be paralyzing.

          Divorce, though, that's a nightmare of epic proportions, cold war on a whole new level.

          Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

          I cringe as it finally dawns on me what she’s really saying: divorce would become just another game in which she wouldn’t lose. Forgetting the fact Sharon could ultimately declare my true identity to the world and destroy herself in the process, Bloodless Sharon McMillan would make my life a living hell in every single way she could find. And let me tell you, for someone who doesn’t have superpowers, she’s mightily resourceful.

          The realization that a divorce would be some sort of hellish game comes so sudden and so hard that I faintly notice I could have written Z O N E S on my last turn, earning a triple word score.

          "You wouldn't really go after my trademarks," I say, a little bit sterner than I’d intended. But the thing is, in this new view of how we would play the divorce game, I realize one fundamental thing about myself; I might not be an "out-for-blood" competitor, but I'm sure as hell not just playing for the thrill of it.

          Besides, it's my career we're talking about here, the other part of my life that fulfills me.

          She smiles at her tiles as if she finds them amusing, probably picturing herself in court, pointing one perfectly-manicured finger at me while proclaiming to the judge what a bad father, husband, and superhero I've been.

          "You wouldn't be able to get them though, since the trademarks aren’t in Jack Smith's property," I rationalize, as if there’d been any logic in this argument to begin with, and as if it wasn't creepy enough to be referring to myself in the third person.

          Because it really is creepy. I'm always wondering if having so many alter-egos would impact my mental health at some point, so things like this do not go unnoticed to my subconscious.

          "You think it would stop me? Since technically I'm also married to all your identities."

          Well, technically speaking, I don't have any legal standing to own anything. As long as my identities claim to be from another planet, we're not formally recognized as human beings with private rights, though many judges avoid the entire legal aspect of that particular personhood mess. It's a very confusing legal black hole that came out in one of those father-son conversations, ending with me wondering what I’d do if someone said I had no claim to my real identity, trademarks, and personas.

          It crosses my mind that my legal marriage to Sharon is in the same jeopardy as my hold on my belongings, but my mind refuses to go there. I'm having too much trouble keeping straight this fantasy-nightmarish-hypothetical conversation to add any slice of reality into the mix.

          "I'm sure I'd think of something," I murmur, a rainy cloud floating ominously over my head. Right now, the only something I can think about is changing her line of thought, even if she's married to me and them. It just happens the entire world knows me only by my aliases.

          "But, you know what would really complete the cake," she says with predatory eyes, fixing me with an icy stare. "It’s your secret hideout."

          Oh, hell, no!

          "What would you do with my hideout? You absolutely despise the idea of its existence to begin with!" I say, with veiled outrage and hurt.

          She shakes her head, barely suppressing a smile, forming T H E O R Y on the board. "Would it really matter what I did with it?" she asks, studying her letters a final time, contemplating her work. She’s earned fifty-one points with that move alone.

          I think her point is that, as long as she wins the hideout from me, there are no other reasons why she should care. She wins, I lose, and the war is over. Somehow, I find that idea incredibly sad.

          Coincidentally, that's exactly the word I play: S A D.

          "It would get nasty," she says, matter-of-fact, surveying the board in search of one free letter to use to her advantage. I add three points to my score, contemplating the whole thing; I see a cartoonish version of her and me, both of us sitting on opposite sides of the table while we argue to death, our lawyers trying to calm us and deliver a civilized divorce. Is there such a thing, though?

          Not a civilized divorce; I mean, is there a Sharon who wouldn't argue to death? She wasn't named one of the top five attorneys of New York for her soft side.

          Heck, she realized all of my identities had to be only a handful. She cornered me one stormy night in her office, cleverly prying the answers out of my mouth. She plans, executes, then wins battles; that's what she does, a useful skill when you're aiding superheroes and hiding their superpowered offspring.

          I absently bite my lower lip contemplating the full scale of the implications.

          Forget the dark paths leading us to fight to breaking point; what about our son? Our precious rascal, one part her, one part me, two parts all himself? The one who would cheerily proclaim he loves Mondays because someone has to, or with equally dramatic flavor declare he'd rather die than eat his onions? Our son would be torn apart, forever caught between the mundane and the super at its worst.

          He needs us, a child of both worlds who might fly one day, and decide he wants to be a superhero, or a man with a golden heart who'd help the world in quiet ways.

          In my mind, no matter who wins, I lose.

          "Jack? You do realize I’m completely sabotaging your game, right?" Sharon quietly says, as she forgets the board and looks at me with a half-smile and such warmth in her eyes, I can hardly see the guilt buried in their depths.

          Have I mentioned she's a brilliant strategist? Or that she's 134 points ahead of me, as my last three turns resulted in absurdly poor word choices? Did I mention that her evil plan to distract me has actually won her the game?

          "Don't you know," she slowly says as she moves forward on the couch, the board beginning to move and the tiles starting to disarrange. "Don’t you even know, that after all we've gone through together, all the near deaths, all the narrow escapes, all the silent nights watching each other sleep, and all the little details our daily routine makes us share..." Now she’s barely inches from me, closing her eyes as the board all but falls to the floor, the game utterly forgotten. "Don’t you know that you are stuck with me for ever and ever?"

          And as she kisses me, making the world disappear, I can't help but let go of this nightmarish version of us and swell in pride at her words, and at the reassurance that long forgotten fears and past mistakes have no place in our marriage or our future together.

          That against all odds, we're the luckiest couple alive.

          "But I would get your secret hideout," she murmurs one last time, making me laugh.

          Somehow, I have no doubt she would.


The End