Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super

Episode 1: Burning Doubts

Watch Sam burn.

Or sort of burn. Well, more like light up, then burn. But only his head.

Whatever.

Sam’s trying not to focus on the things he can’t control. Like the twenty-four people sitting in front of him, watching him impassively. Or that he’s underdressed for his audition. Or that this old community center is impossibly stuffy, with a whiff of sour milk lingering in the air. Or that this might be a terrible idea.

What he can control is how he burns. Sort of. Maybe. He hopes.

Sam closes his eyes and imagines he’s back in his apartment. He’s been practicing, so he can almost see the furniture in his living room, the two metal folding chairs and wireframe table, and he can almost feel the cold cement floor beneath his feet. On the wall in front of him, where most people would’ve mounted their TVs, hangs the iron framed mirror he rescued from a dumpster. Sam pictures his reflection in it and gives himself a small smile.

Yes, this is just like home, just like he practiced. It’s as easy as lighting a match, as natural as breathing. These people want a demonstration? Sam will give them a show.

Watch Sam burn.

A second passes. Two. The audience is silent. Not that he expected them to shriek or run screaming. These people are professionals after all. But he was counting on a few gasps or soft wows to let him know that his “talent” worked.

Did it work?

Sam cracks open an eye and looks up. There, on the periphery of his vision, he sees flickers of flames dancing on the top of his head.

No, it definitely worked.

He opens both eyes and gives the audience a triumphant smile.

Nothing is reciprocated—no slight twists of the mouth, no polite applause. His head is on fire and there are twenty-four blank expressions staring back at him.

“Is that all?” says a man from the second row. He’s dressed in a gray blazer and gray slacks and has his Super badge clipped to his lapel.

“Sorry?” says Sam.

“Is that all you can do?”

At first, Sam thinks the man’s joking—some well-intentioned, misguided attempt to break the tension in the room as he’s standing there, burning. But the man holds his gaze and there is no humor in his eyes.

This was a terrible idea. Sam thinks as despair hooks its fingers in his ribcage. He probably should just thank the Supers for sending the application, for the chance to audition. Just go back to his apartment, pack up, and leave for a remote part of the country like everyone has been telling him to do.

Don’t give up yet, whispers his last sliver of hope.

So, Sam closes his eyes and breathes. Slowly, steadily, the flames on his head peter out.

“Um, sometimes I can make my hands burn,” Sam says running his fingers over his hairless scalp, “but they’re a bit touchy.” It’s a terrible joke, but it’s all Sam’s got left.

Twenty-four expressions remain stoic. It occurs to Sam then that Supers are liars. Sure they might grin and wave for the cameras and say “Look! Our extraordinary abilities aren’t something we should be afraid of!” But in flesh, they act like reluctant grim reapers.

“Anything else?” the man in gray asks.

“No,” Sam says, shoulders slumping. He has no job, no friends, no other options.

“Do you have any self-defense training?” asks a woman in the front row wearing a magenta blouse. He recognizes her from the news. “The Woman Who Conquered Gravity.” She’s slouching in her chair.

“No, I try to be a pacifist,” Sam answers. And it’s true. He does try.

“The video at the bar says otherwise.”

Sam’s shoulders tense. “That was an accident.”

“It always starts as an accident, doesn’t it?” she says and a few of the Supers smile bitter smiles. “Do you have any emergency services experience?”

“Um, not really.”

“Investigation training?”

Sam shakes his head. He probably should have signed up for a preliminary course or watched CSI or something. But until a month ago, he’d never even dreamed he’d be a Super.

“So what can you do, Mr. Wells?”

“Well, I have…had…a job in accounting.” Sam can also play jazz piano, but the last time he did that for a crowd, it didn’t go over so well.

“Oh,” says Gravity Woman.

The man in gray turns towards the audience. “Well,” he says, “should he join us?”

“His gifts aren’t very strong,” says a man wearing glasses and a faded blue t-shirt with writing that Sam can’t make out. He shouts this from the last row. “He doesn’t need to be stuck with us.”

“He’s too high-profile for other teams,” counters the man in gray. “And he’s shown some capacity for control.” What he doesn’t say because he doesn’t need to is: If we don’t take him, no one will.

I would really be grateful if I could join you,” Sam says, clasping his hands behind his back to stop them from shaking.

Twenty-four pairs of eyes turn to look at him again. But this time they aren’t empty stares. This time, they are filled with heartache and grief and despair.

“Okay,” says the man in gray, “I’ll go get the papers you need to sign.” He drops his gaze and in an afterthought adds, “Congratulations.”

And just like that, Sam’s a member of the Super Team. The hours of standing in front of the mirror, practicing control, paid off. Except there are no introductions or chocolate cake. No smiles or welcomes.

“I’m so sorry,” the woman in magenta tells him before heading to the exit.

Twenty-four pairs of eyes have found something else to look at. Twenty-four pairs of feet shuffle out. And soon all that’s left in the room are twenty-four empty chairs and Sam.

Watch Sam burn.

 

Episode 2: Sign Here on the Dotted Line

Fifty-six minutes later, the man in gray is reviewing the terms of membership from behind a stack of papers and a G&T in the only Super-friendly bar in town. “Call me Cyrus,” he says with a tired smile. Up close, he looks annoyingly familiar, but it’s been a long month and Sam’s brain has become an unreliable bastard.

The bar itself is crammed with furniture and eroded with use. There’s a sign on the door that says “No Smoking” yet the memory of stale cigarettes linger in the air and in the corner, a song from another decade plays on a modern-looking jukebox.

They are the only ones here. Except for the bartender. And the tall, built woman in a purple tank top, cradling a glass of water, refusing to meet Sam’s eyes.

Whatever.

Sam wishes he’d ordered a martini. Or something with a paper umbrella in it. It’s been a paper umbrella type of day. Instead, a lite beer grows tepid in his sweaty palm because he’s terrified to find out what happens when he mixes alcohol with his new “special ability.”

But Sam can’t complain. Being part of the Super Team is better than being exiled to a cabin in the woods.

“Okay,” says Cyrus, “this is what you need to know.”

To become a Super there are terms. Conditions. And a few rules. Cyrus explains everything carefully and in great detail. He points to the important information on the papers as a pen dances between the fingers of his other hand. His elbow is propped on the table, bent, casually exhibiting toned biceps. Sam is trying to pay attention, really, but in another life, Cyrus was probably a model. It doesn’t hurt when the people in the spotlight are gentle on the eyes.

Sam vows to start going to the gym.

“…and since your abilities are not particularly strong, it doesn’t really make sense for you to be part of the Main Team,” says Cyrus.

Sam straightens. “What? So what am I going to do?”

“Be our accountant.”

“Oh.” Sam takes a deep breath. He wouldn’t be living in a cabin in the woods, he reminds himself, it would be an igloo on an iceberg.

“Not what you were expecting, right?” says Cyrus gently.

“Well…” Well, no. It’s not that Sam has anything against his old financial analyst job. He just doesn’t want it back.

“Well, what do you want to do?” asks Cyrus.

Sam wants a martini and to go back to bed. He wants to have real furniture in his apartment and hair on his head and for people to stop being afraid of his “special ability.” He wants to stop being afraid of it himself. If Sam were narrating his own story he’d want it to start “Watch Sam save the day” like the Supers on the news. Or “Watch Sam use his ability for good.” Or even “Watch Sam the Super reconcile with his friends and loved ones.”

Anything would be better than just watching Sam burn.

“I want to save people,” Sam says.

From behind him, there’s a flash and a bang and the sound of something shattering. Sam spins around and finds the woman in the purple tank top clutching the shards of her glass in her hands, water dripping from her shaking fingers.

“Sorry,” she mumbles, her face brightening with embarrassment. “I’m trying to control the episodes, really.”

“That’s alright,” says the bartender, sweeping the broken glass into a dishtowel, “I order those glasses in bulk.”

Sam bites his lip and stares at his lukewarm beer. There’s a reason why most bars refuse to serve Supers. There’s a reason why there’s programs—and a whole lot of social pressure—that move “dangerous” Supers to remote communities. He should be grateful for any job he can get.

“I want to save people,” Sam says again, slowly, carefully, not meeting Cyrus’s eyes.

“You will.” Cyrus leans back in his chair. “Most people don’t realize how much background work goes into a successful team. You’ll be vital.” Something chimes cheerfully and Cyrus pulls out his phone, glancing at the message. His face darkens. “God knows we need all the help we can get. Toya, you seeing this?”

The woman in the purple tank top is staring at her phone, nodding, rising, the forgotten slivers of glass tumbling to the ground. “Yeah,” she says and heads towards the door.

“What happened?” Sam asks.

“Shit. Not again,” hisses Cyrus, reading, scrolling, definitely not listening to Sam. “Look, I’ve got to run. Go over the paperwork and if you have any questions, just ask Mac.”

Sam opens his mouth to ask “Who the hell is Mac?” But the man in gray is already up and moving, striding out of the bar into the darkening evening. Sam doesn’t notice at first how Cyrus’s skin starts to glow. No, not glow—radiate.

And suddenly it clicks. Sam realizes why Cyrus looks so familiar.

Mr. Sunshine.

He stands on the sidewalk corner—bright as the street lamps—pausing, as if contemplating his next move. Then Sam blinks, the world darkens, and Mr. Sunshine is gone, leaving only a bright stamp on his retinas behind.

And for the second time in two hours Sam is left behind and alone.

Whatever.

“They do that a lot,” says the bartender, after a moment. He beckons Sam over. “I’m Mac. Welcome to the Point of No Return.”

“What?”

“What I call this little place of mine.”

“It’s kind of a, um, off-putting name.” Sam moves the stack of papers on the counter, taking a seat.

“I know. But where else are my customers going to go?” He grins. “Another?” He nods at Sam’s half-finished beer.

“No, I’m good.” Sam stares longing at the bottles of gin behind Mac. “One day I’ll be able to trust myself with a martini again.”

Mac gives him a sympathetic, knowing look. “Fair enough.” He fills two large glasses with water and slides one over to Sam.

Sam props his arms on the counter, suddenly exhausted. He glances at the stack of papers at his elbow and in one swift movement, signs his name on the form on top. Terms? Whatever. Being a Super is better than being a burning man in an igloo.

Mac raises an eyebrow. “So, what happened?”

“Well…” Sam hesitates, can’t quite meet Mac’s quiet gaze. “You get to hear my sob story because you’re behind the bar?”

“Usually.” Mac shrugs. “By the time the new recruits get here, they need to talk.”

Sam studies Mac, a bit suspicious. The bartender’s expression is genuine, though, his eyes kind. But there’s a weariness to his posture and a deep sadness too that has nothing to do with new Supers and broken glasses.

“Fuck that,” says Sam.

Mac’s grin illuminates his face. “Well, then. Welcome to the team, Sam.”

They clink their water glasses and drink in amiable silence.

 

Episode 3: Welcome to Information Purgatory

No, this isn’t a mistake. Sam is exactly where he’s supposed to be.

At least that’s what he keeps telling himself. His new office is really quite large and nice. Or would be if the floor wasn’t smothered by boxes and files. Or if the whole set up didn’t look like it never met a computer and didn’t reek of dust and disuse. Or if the office wasn’t in the basement of the old community center.

Under normal circumstances, Sam would’ve quit on the spot, walked to the nearest diner, and called Lev for breakfast. They’d have ordered black coffee, maybe some hash browns. They would laugh and Sam would be mock-offended when Lev made fun of his new mittens and hat. Yes, they’re homemade and hideous, but he has to try something. Still, Sam will never understand why fire blankets have to be so itchy.

But nothing about this situation is normal. Sam’s a Super now and Lev hasn’t returned his calls. As Sam stands there, among the piles and piles of combustibles, Sam feels like the unpredictable fireball that everyone thinks he is.

“Shit,” Sam says.

“Good morning to you too.”

Watch Sam jump.

Behind him, a woman in an emerald-colored blazer and a Super badge stands at the edge of the chaos holding a single file. Thin, angry scars crisscross the left side of her face and they ripple when she smiles and says: “You must be Sam the accountant.”

No, he’s Sam the Super. “Yes,” he says, not confident enough to argue the point yet.

“Great, I’m Miranda.” She holds out a hand. Sam shakes it.

“Are you the Team’s coordinator?” he asks.

“Team coordinator, PR person, HR person, office manager. Basically all the stuff that needs to get done with no one to do it. But not, thank god, the accountant anymore. By the way, this is your desk.” She points to the cleaner one.

“Um, look, I’m not sure this is a good idea,” Sam says as he tugs his ugly, itchy hat over his ears. Sure, he’s been practicing for a month now and he does have some control over his “special abilities”, but not enough to feel comfortable.

“Why? You’ve done financial planning and tax prep before, right?” Miranda asks.

“Yes, but—”

“Not up for the challenge?”

“It’s not that, I—” Sam bites his lip. He still doesn’t know how to broach the top of his new “talents.”

Miranda’s eyes narrow. “You have a problem with me then?”

“No!”

“Then we don’t have an issue.”

“No, you don’t understand. I’m a hazard in a place like this.” Sam tries to keep his voice even. Sam fails.

Miranda smirks. “Hey, I promise not to dump beer on you if you promise not to burn the place down.”

He stiffens. “You know about that?”

“Well, it is a viral video,” she says. “And who the hell do you think sent you your Super application?”

Miranda smirks again and Sam feels himself blushing.

“Look, I saw your audition,” Miranda says, her smile fading into seriousness. “I know this scares you, but you’ve got the basics of control down and I really do need your help bringing this disaster,” she sweeps her arm around the room, “into the digital age. You’re not really a walking arsonist.”

Sam fidgets with his gloves, holding back the sudden, unexpected lump in his throat. This is the first time in a month someone’s believed in him. He just wishes he had that faith in himself. Or that his ex-boss did.

“So, I’m thinking we can spend the day sorting,” Miranda says, sweeping up her black hair into a ponytail. “It’ll be a good test for you and gives me an excuse to clean out some of this crap.” She gives the nearest box a ferocious kick. “Ready?”

“I should say no, but that won’t stop you, will it?” Sam says with a sigh.

Miranda grins. “You learn fast.”

As they sift through impossible amounts of paper, Miranda talks relentlessly. Explaining everything from picking your unofficial uniform with the Team (a.k.a your color scheme) to the Super Team’s inner drama to why there are so many papers. Apparently, Miranda’s predecessor emitted random electrical currents sometimes, so his computers never lasted long and he had to print out everything.

“Also, he was a hoarder,” she adds as she dumps stacks of Modern Dog magazines in the recycling bin.

Sometimes Sam asks questions, but mostly he listens and works and focuses on not losing control. There’s something comforting in Miranda’s confident, easygoing manner. Despite his relentless fear of burning, for the first time in almost a month, it’s nice not to be alone.

By the end of the day, they’ve only sifted through a fraction of the receipts, tax documents, and random menu collections, but the office feels roomier.

“So what do you think? Ready to be part of this bureaucratic hell?” Miranda asks, flopping into her desk chair.

Sam surveys the office: mountains of information. An infinite supply of invoices. Endless receipts. Job security at its finest.

“I think I want to get transferred to the Main Team,” he says.

Miranda rolls her eyes. “Trust me, you don’t.”

“Why? Everyone loves them. They’re on the news all the time.”

Her eyes narrow and she crosses her arms. “You’re trying to impress your family, aren’t you?”

“What? No!” Sam’s family is made up of one sister, who lives across the country. She at least still talks to him, though there’s a new strain to those conversations.

No, Sam’s here because of his friends and coworkers, who haven’t called since that night in the bar. Who didn’t stop by or write him an email during that entire month afterwards when he was too scared to leave his apartment. Sam joined the Super Team so he could look in the mirror again and see more than what he’s lost.

“I only want to save people,” he says. “Honest.”

Miranda gives Sam a long, calculating look.

“Bullshit.” She props her feet up on her desk. “We might be trying to change public opinion, but there’s really only one this we can change for sure.”

“What’s that?” Sam asks, sinking into his own chair.

“How we see ourselves.”

Someone coughs loudly behind him. Sam jumps, grabbing the rim of his hat. In the doorway, a small, wizened woman in faded clothes and work gloves studies Sam with a skeptical look.

“Um, hi, can I help you?” says Sam.

“Sam, meet Danielle. Building manager, repairwoman, and our sanity check,” Miranda says, and her hands move in a series of signs. “Danielle. This is Sam. The guy I was telling you about.”

Danielle arches an eyebrow. She signs back rapidly.

Quietly, Miranda says: “She asks if you’re going to start a fire.” She’s rubbing the scars on her face and doesn’t meet Sam’s eyes, but Sam appreciates her honesty.

He stares at the masses of files around him and for the hundredth time pictures the raging flames that would destroy everything if he screws up.

“Not today,” he says. Miranda gives him a reassuring smile, her hands signing again. But inwardly Sam thinks: it’s only a matter of time.

 

Episode 4: Plan B, Anyone?

This is Sam’s first time being a hero.

Or rather the first time he’s assisting the Main Team in action. Sort of. Really, he’s more of a spectator—there’s only so much he can do from the sidewalk.

Whatever.

“This better be good,” Miranda says as she pushes the last temporary barrier into place. Sam nods. For him, this is research.

They’re standing on the curb, trying to keep curious spectators at a safe distance, but most people have their phones out, leaning past the barriers, trying to get a better angle. Across the street, there’s a building four stories tall with a chic Italian restaurant on street level. It looks like there’s a light show happening on the roof, but according to the messages on the Team’s group text, it’s actually pieces of the building flashing in and out of existence. If he looks closely, Sam can just make out two figures standing near the lip of the roof. Even from his vantage point, Sam can see their fear, their rising panic.

“Is this just a random event or was it caused by a Super?” Sam asks.

Miranda shrugs. “Who the hell knows.”

Turns out that when people start developing strange, random powers in their mid-to-late twenties, other strange, random events start happening too. And while most Super teams are focused on volunteer work and public outreach, this Team is the only one in the city that handles the weird situations. The only one really making a difference.

That’s what Sam hopes to do soon. No, that’s what he will do.

“Don’t let anyone cross the barrier!” someone shouts.

There’s a half dozen Supers escorting people out of the building. Sam recognizes Toya, the woman in purple from Mac’s bar, carrying an unconscious waiter, cradling him like a small child. One by one, police cars and ambulances arrive at the scene, but they don’t cross the barrier.

The lights on the building are flashing brighter, nearer.

The two people on the roof shriek and in desperation, hop down to a narrow ledge just below them. Sam can see them clearly now, a youngish man in a waiter’s apron and a small woman in business casual, their backs pressed up against the building’s wall, utterly terrified.

“Please! Don’t move! I’ll be right there!” Cyrus’s voice cuts through the flashing lights, the confusion.

Sam blinks and suddenly Mr. Sunshine is standing on the lip of the roof, glowing brighter than the breaks in reality.

He pulls the woman up with one arm and slips her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. “I’ll be back for you in a minute,” he tells the waiter he’s leaving behind. “Hang tight.” Then Cyrus is gone and the man left on the ledge looks stricken.

There is a blinding flash in the wall, inches from where the waiter’s leaning. The brick facade pops out of existence, leaving behind a perfectly round void. And that’s when Sam sees unreality for the first time.

It’s a fathomless well—where no light, no warmth, no time survives.

So this is what breaks in reality look like? Sam thinks. Now he wishes he didn’t know.

“Shit,” says the waiter on the ledge, eyes wide with terror. He pushes away from the hole, stumbles back.

And falls.

Sam read once that survivors of terrible car crashes say that right before impact, time slows down. You can see the deadly trajectory, the race towards destruction. The inevitability. And all you can do is watch helplessly.

Watch Sam watch. The waiter is falling and he knows what will happen. Still, he can’t look away.

But halfway down the four story drop, he stops falling downwards. And starts falling upwards instead. A few seconds later, he wafts to a stop, midair.

It takes Sam far too long to realize the waiter is not the only one floating. Everything that’s not tied down is suspended too, though not at the same heights. The cars, trash, people closer to the building have risen higher than the things farther away. It’s like looking at a circus’s big top tent or reverse gravity well. And at the very pinnacle, the woman in magenta hovers, her hair standing straight up.

Sam is surprised. But really, he shouldn’t be. The news did say she conquered gravity.

“Holy crap,” Miranda says, dropping her phone, but it doesn’t hit the concrete. That’s when Sam realizes they’re both floating an inch above the sidewalk.

They’re suspended for a good minute, maybe ten, or maybe fifteen seconds. Sam can’t tell. Time gets weird in stressful situations. But he hovers an inch above the ground until the flashing on the roof stops. Gradually, all instances of unreality disappear, leaving only reality behind.

“It’s over, Lana. Can you let us down now? Please?” someone calls. It sounds like Cyrus, but scared.

Slowly, everything sinks back to earth. Not all in the same order. Not always right side up. The waiter floats gently to the street, head first, but manages to do the world’s most awkward somersault as he touches the sidewalk. The whole process looks like an exhalation, a gentle moment in a timeline of chaos.

Relief floods Sam. Next to him, Miranda lets out a sigh.

Then someone near the building starts screaming.

That’s when Sam and everyone else realizes that a kid, no more than sixteen or seventeen is pinned under a car. His phone is lying cracked on the sidewalk a few feet away, but the video is still recording. He’s screaming, screaming, screaming.

It’s the Supers on the ground who recover first, who begin to herd people away, to call the paramedics over, to rush over to the kid. But Sam can’t move. Those screams, that pain, echo and echo in his stunned mind.

“Damn it, l said not to let anyone through the barrier.” Sam turns to see the man in the blue t-shirt and glasses standing next to him. The Super who didn’t want him to join at the audition. He’s close enough now for Sam to make out the faded words on his shirt. The Who.

Coherent thoughts elude Sam, but a fleeting Where the fuck did he come from? manages to break through the shock.

“Sometimes, I think we don’t lessen pain. We just redistribute it.” He sighs and pulls Sam a few feet away from the crowded barriers, the people gasping and murmuring. “His episode will be over in a minute,” he says to Miranda.

“What are you talking about?” she says.

But the man in blue is already rushing across the street to the kid as Sam stands and stares, clenching his hands into tight, painful balls.

We don’t lessen pain.

Dear God, is this how all rescues end? In pain, and horror, and a bigger disaster than when they started?

We redistribute it.

And suddenly Sam can see what type of Super he’d be. The one that tries and tries and tries.

And fails.

And makes things worse.

Screw it. Sam doesn’t want to be on the Main Team. Not anymore.

Sam doesn’t notice how quiet it’s gotten. Or how everyone around him is motionless and staring. Or that Miranda has stepped away from him.

“Sam,” she says quietly, “You’re on fire.”

He looks down. Sure enough, despite his fireproof mittens, his hands are smothered in flames. And he knows, without glancing up, his scalp is too.

On cue, a gaping spectator behind the barrier holds up their phone.

“Not again,” Sam whispers. But he can’t stop this. And being a Super doesn’t change that.

Watch Sam burn and hate himself for it.

 

Episode 5: Bad Takeout

No. Sam doesn’t want to talk about it.

“Sam, it’s all right. It happens. Almost everyone there was a Super anyway,” says Miranda.

They’re halfway down the street when a police car passes them, sirens wailing, heading towards the scene at the restaurant. Sam shivers and lengthens his stride.

“Jesus, slow down!”

But he doesn’t. Instead, Sam wonders if a video of him burning is online yet and if it’s called ‘Man Spontaneously Combusts…Again’. He wonders if Lev will see it and if he’ll be just as horrified even though, this time, he’s not in it.

“Where are we going?” Miranda asks, as Sam makes a sharp turn right.

Like hell if Sam knows, he’s just following his feet.

“Sam, it’s okay to be upset. Seriously, who wouldn’t be after that shitshow?” she says, and it’s true, Sam can hear the shaking in her voice. “But trust me on this one. The best thing to do right now is to go to the Point and drink with a dozen other shocked people.” She catches his shoulder and pulls him to a stop. “C’mon, first one’s on me.”

Maybe she’s right. Sam can almost hear a martini calling his name. Hell, there’s a chorus of cocktails beckoning him into oblivion, fuck the promises he made to himself, to his hard earned but insufficient control.

In the distance, another police siren cries out.

Panic clutches at his chest, his windpipe. No, he can’t go back, can’t face another person right now. Sam starts down the street again, quicker than before. Behind him, Miranda swears, but seconds later she’s matching his strides besides him.

They walk for a long time.

“You know, we all get lost in terrible situations,” Miranda says, eventually. “We all have episodes with our gifts. No one on the Team will think less of you.”

They’re wandering down some back alley, half lit by the early evening sky and half by dirty street lights flickering over back exits. The pavement is covered with trash and just the godawful stench wafting from the dumpster makes Sam want a shower.

“You stepped away from me back there,” Sam says.

“Yeah. You were on fire and my hair was too close for comfort.”

Sam runs a hand over his bald head. Hair. He misses having hair.

A door opens behind them. Sam and Miranda glance back to see a heavyset man in a dirty apron step out.

“Shit, out of all the alleys in this city,” Miranda hisses. “Let’s get out of here.”

Sam turns just enough to see the man crush an unlit cigarette between his fingers, his face tight with anger.

You,” the man snarls.

“Fuck,” Miranda says, “Seriously? What are the odds?”

You. You’re the Super that called the Health Department on me.

Miranda keeps walking, her gaze fixed straight ahead. “Asshole refused to serve me and my girlfriend the other night,” she says, arms crossed, voice low. “Said he didn’t want freaks in his upstanding establishment. So I filed a complaint.”

Hey you!

“You can’t just randomly file those,” Sam says.

“I didn’t. Akira was going to leave a nasty review online and found one by one of their former cooks. Turns out we just avoided getting food poisoning.”

Hey you! I’m talking to you!

“It shouldn’t be like this.” Sam glances back. The man is now trailing behind them. “It’s not like I asked to become a Super.”

“Look Sam, this is your life now. We didn’t choose it, and most people don’t get that, but we’re trying to teach people differently. That’s the point of the Team.”

I should kick the shit out of you and that slutty friend of yours. And your boyfriend too.

Miranda stops. “But sometimes it’s just one cruelty too many. Don’t move.”

Before Sam can reply, she spins around, clenching her hands. Somewhere in the distance a glass bottle or plate shatters.

“What? You think you scare me?” the man says. But he stops about twenty paces away.

“No. Not yet,” says Miranda, quietly, so quietly Sam barely makes out the words.

At first, the man fails to notice how the pieces of broken glass near his feet are scuttling towards him, closing the distance. Only when a dumpster bursts open and half a dozen broken, empty bottles come flying at him does he step back.

“Oh shit,” he says. But it’s too late.

Sam’s never seen a real tornado, but from TV documentaries he knows how they emerge from nothing—the swirling, darkening ringlets of wind that materialize in mere seconds, swallowing everything in their path.

There’s a tornado in the alley. But instead of wind and dust, it’s made of glass—from bottles to containers, from whole shards to specks. And with each passing second more comes flying out of the recycling bins and dumpsters, adding to the swirl. Above him, Sam can hear the window panels in the buildings thrum and rattle, begging to join.

Holy shit, she can control glass, he thinks.

“Miranda!” he yells, but she ignores him.

Watch Sam feel utterly powerless.

Then she unclenches her fists and slowly the glass tornado begins to decelerate, unwind. One by one, the shards clatter to the ground and shatter around the man on the pavement.

He doesn’t look hurt. He must have sat in the eye of the storm, watching the deadly swirl whip around him. Which is good. Sam doesn’t think he could’ve dealt with any more suffering today.

A handful of shards rise up and flank Miranda like wings as she closes the gap in three strides, grabbing the man’s collar. “Never. Threaten. My. Friends. Again. Understood?” She emphasizes each word with a shake. The glass around her quivers.

The man tries to nod but his whole body trembles instead.

“Go.” She gives him an unceremonious push. A look of unparalleled relief flashes across the man’s face as he stumbles away.

Miranda glares after him, balling and unballing her hands. But this time, the scattered glass around them doesn’t stir. “Seriously. Who the fuck thinks it’s a good idea to attack someone wearing a Super badge?”

“How…did you do that?”

“With perfect control,” she replies.

“Did it come naturally to you?” he asks, half teasing, half envious.

“How do you think I got these?” She points to the crisscrossed scars on her face.

“Oh. Sorry.” Watch Sam turn bright red.

Miranda shakes her head. “You have a good start, but I can teach you the rest.”

Sam opens his mouth. Closes it. Finally says, “I saw a void in reality today. What am I supposed to do with that?”

“Scream into it,” replies Miranda. “And keep going.”

Sam looks at the shards of glass sprinkled around his feet, then at his friend. There’s a small smile on her face.

“Okay,” he says. “When do lessons start?”

 

Episode 6: The Life of a Super – Part 1

Most days, being a Super isn’t so bad.

Sam wakes up promptly at 7:35 AM, sprints through showering, shaving, and dressing, so he can run down to the corner bakery for coffee and muffins. Because Miranda shows up at his apartment at 8 AM and he’s learned she’s a much more benevolent teacher when she’s had breakfast. They’ve agreed his apartment is the safest place to practice control in private; he still doesn’t have any real furniture in it. They run through breathing exercises, figure out Sam’s triggers and warning signs. Experiment with having only his hands burn, then only his left palm, then only his thumbs.

“Don’t be afraid of your abilities,” Miranda tells him over and over. “They’re part of you.”

Sam understands this intellectually, but the sight of his hands in flames still makes him nauseous.

They practice for an hour every morning before work and at first, there are so few successes that there’s a constant burnt smell in the apartment and Sam has to take out the batteries in the smoke detectors. Open the windows. Turn off the heat.

Sometimes Sam wonders if progress is happening at all.

Whatever. Sam isn’t interested in being in the spotlight anymore. Sure, there’s still a part of him—a big part, maybe—that dreams of being the hero. But that goes against his new personal rules. Like ignoring text messages concerning the Main Team. Avoiding rescue missions at all costs. And never asking about them later.

He can still hear that kid, trapped under that car, screaming.

But being a Super isn’t so bad. He’s decided on his unofficial Super uniform. It’s a black button up shirt paired with an orange and yellow umbrae scarf. When he pins his new Super badge to his breast pocket, he feels a small warmth of pride. He’s found the courage to reach out to a few of his friends from his pre-Super life and he’s been texting Cyrus too. They’ve been planning on going out for coffee, but it keeps getting rescheduled due to the miniature wormholes that have been popping up all over the city.

“Keep trying, Sam,” says Miranda as Sam attempts to make only his right pinky burn.

It’s the office work that Sam likes best. Sure the hours are long, the chaos is frustrating, and the pay is terrible, but at least he doesn’t have to worry about losing his job for having a “gift” he never wanted in the first place. He spends a few hours every morning sorting through another stack of papers, slowly constructing a narrative of numbers from the misfiled expense reports, unpaid invoices, and payrolls. He learns some interesting things too. Like the Super Team’s solvency has always been episodic, unpredictable, in direct correlation to public popularity, but always survived because the police and fire department are more than happy to let Supers handle the breaks in reality first. And auditions for the Team are just formalities.

“I don’t just send Super applications out at random, you know,” Miranda says. “Do you know how hard it is to find someone with an ability who is CPA-certified too?”

“But Cyrus—”

“Is smart enough not to argue with me.”

Then why, Sam wonders, had everyone tried to talk him out of joining?

Whatever.

He’s also managed to befriended almost everyone on the Team. Even Danielle, who turns off the office lights if she thinks Miranda and Sam are working too late. Though they started on rough terms, she and Sam have discovered a mutual love for jazz piano and have long, ongoing text conversations about technique and artists. Sam’s even picked up a few choice words in ASL.

“Yes, but can you do it with your hands on fire?” Miranda asks as they run through diaphragm exercises. Again.

But slowly, Sam begins to plan for the future. The Team’s future that is. At least financially. Setting up investment accounts and following up on those unpaid invoices. He even starts a blog with Miranda, offering a mixture of financial advice for Supers and interviewing people with less obvious “extraordinary abilities.” No matter how strange. They recently met a woman who could turn into a grasshopper, but only from the waist up.

It’s a ridiculous amount of work, but it’s all in the spirit of the Team’s ongoing mission to change the public’s perception of Supers.

“What if it’s not possible?” Sam asks during a practice session, after failing to burn in one second increments.

“Then we’ll die trying,” Miranda replies.

Such is the life of a Super.

 

Episode 7: Life of a Super – Part 2

Watch Sam not burn.

Miranda would be proud; their lessons are paying off. But Sam’s not thinking about Miranda. He’s too busy not reducing the grocery store to ashes.

All he wanted was some milk. And some protein bars. And some apples. But it looks like he won’t be getting any of those things. The entire store has come to a halt and the woman at the cash register is still ignoring him.

Sam clears his throat. “Excuse me, I would like to purchase these please.” But he might as well be talking to the milk.

A moment passes as his stares down the cashier and she glares at his umbrae scarf and Super badge.

“We don’t want your type here,” she spits out. “You should all be deported.”

Watch Sam stare. This—after all the hours of work Supers dedicate to saving people. To volunteering. Going through ridiculous news interviews, magazine profiles, so strangers at home can feel “inspired.” Just so people understand that this life is not a choice. Or something to be ashamed of.

He thought they were making progress.

For a moment, Sam debates the best ways to set off the fire alarm. He knows it’ll just make public relations worse, but sometimes when life hands you a useless power, you want to make it rain bitter lemonade.

No. Sam is in control. Watch Sam not burn.

Instead he says, “I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am. I hope you’re never in a situation where you need help.”

As he makes his way to the exit, Sam adds a new rule to his list: Only shop in places with self-checkout.

Outside, it’s raining and the city is various shades of gray. He attracts a few glances from pedestrians, but once they catch his eye, they quickly look away. Before Sam was on the Team, people never noticed him, he wasn’t much to look at, even with hair. But now that he’s forgotten to take off his badge on his way home from work, he’s getting double takes.

Thing is, Sam doesn’t mind being different. It’s all the bullshit he gets about it that bothers him.

He’s shaking, but not from the damp or the cold. His fingers and scalp begin to itch mercilessly, begging to ignite. No. Not here. Not yet, Sam thinks, and sprints back to his apartment. It’s only when he’s in the alleyway, alongside the reeking dumpsters, that Sam turns his face up to the remorseless sky. Only then does he exhale like Miranda taught him and let the fire consume him.

Watch Sam burn and burn and burn.

 

Episode 8: But It’s Better Than Drinking Alone

Sure, figuring out how to close the biggest wormhole humanity has ever seen might be cause for celebration. But not for Sam.

For him, today has been a nightmare. Taking out rogue tax returns. Deciphering cryptic financial information. Chasing slippery receipts. The time-space continuum might be back to normal, but what about the paper trail?

“You’re full of it,” Akira says, but she’s laughing. So is Mac from behind the bar.

The Point is full of Supers—laughing, drinking, arm-wrestling—despite the cuts and bruises and torn clothes. The place smells like sweat, cigarettes, and cheap beer and the sense of relief is thick and joyful.

“I don’t want to hear it.” Miranda pokes Sam in the chest, her bracelets jingling and her martini sloshing dangerously. “While your lazy ass was sitting there, I was on the phone for an hour with PD trying to explain the details. Then the reporters. And then another hour with the hospital until I talked to a nurse who actually knew something…”

Sam stares at his soda water as the smiles slip away around him. Because not everyone escaped with just cuts and bruises.

“How is Cyrus?” Mac asks quietly.

“Pretty banged up,” Miranda says with a sigh. “Lots of internal damage and broken bones. But he’ll heal. Eventually.”

Sam squeezes the glass in his hands. There’s been an ache in his chest ever since he heard the news. He always imagined Cyrus as indestructible. He’d called the hospital too and was crushed when he’d learned that it’d be a while before non-family members would be able to visit.

“Well as fantastic as you all are, I have work tomorrow.” Miranda finishes her martini in a swallow. She picks up her purse, fishing for her wallet.

“Don’t worry about it, M.” Sam pulls out a twenty. “I’ve got it. You too, Akira.”

Miranda puts a fist on her hip. “Look, your attempt at chivalry’s adorable—”

“But my lazy ass won’t be in the office until ten tomorrow.” Sam grins as Miranda makes a face, but she doesn’t argue. Which suits Sam fine. He’s been a Super for three months now and the thrill of having compatriots to buy drinks for hasn’t gotten old yet.

“Thanks, Sam.” Akira gives him a quick, tight hug. She flashes Miranda a knowing smile and hand in hand they leave The Point.

Sam’s grinning as he watches them go. It’s been a terrible day, but it would’ve been unbearable if he was alone.

“She works too much,” says a voice at Sam’s elbow. He turns to see that the man in the blue t-shirt with The Who on it has appeared on the bar stool beside him. Sam is friendly with everyone on the Super Team. But the man in blue has been the exception. In fact, the only time Sam sees him is when he turns up next to him out of nowhere.

At least this time Sam doesn’t jump.

“I know,” says Sam. He also knows from the payroll that the man’s name is Lance.

Lance’s brows furrow for a moment. Then his face relaxes. “Good, she needs more friends.” He catches Mac’s eye. “The usual, please.”

“Sure thing,” Mac says, startled, and hurries away.

“How do you sneak up like that?”

“It’s all about timing. You probably weren’t going to turn around for another minute.”

“So what? You see the future?” Sam jokes.

“Only the worst possible outcome,” says Lance. “Actually, it’s more like glancing at a snapshot.”

Watch Sam’s jaw drop.

“You see future snapshots?” Sam always thought prophetic abilities were fictions dished out by slimy financial advisors.

“Yeah well, it’s not the best gift to have for making friends,” Lance says, picking up the beer Mac puts in front of him. He takes a large swallow. “And the worst usually doesn’t happen, but you can prevent a lot by anticipating it.”

“Is that how you knew to keep the pedestrians away during that incident with unreality on the roof?” Sam asks.

Lance nods. “It’s my job on the Team to keep civilians safe.”

“That kid under the car—”

“Wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened.”

“What was?”

Lance takes another swallow, staring straight ahead. His hand is in a white-knuckled fist on the counter. “You don’t want to know.”

Sam has no idea what to say to that. He sips his soda water and tries to focus on that warm feeling of friendship he had two minutes ago. It works. For about thirty seconds. But his traitor thoughts eventually wander back to Cyrus.

“Aren’t you going to ask me how we managed to close the wormhole?” Lance says, suddenly.

“No,” Sam says. “I’m happier not knowing, I think.”

For the first time, Lance gives him a small smile. “Good. What were you worrying about then?”

“Cyrus.”

Lance’s small smile dies. “He’ll be fine.” Sam opens his mouth to ask ‘How?’ but he’s cut off with a glare. “I need to believe that, Sam. Despite what I see.”

Sam nods. He understands. Clinging to his own slivers of hope is how he survived these last three months.

“Did you know we started the team?” Lance asks. Sam shakes his head. “Me and Cyrus and Lana. We wanted to teach the world by example. Show we’re people and belong here too.” His shoulders slump. “Sometimes I wonder if we’re making any difference.”

“I think we are,” Sam says. “And if we aren’t, there’s nothing we can do about it now, right?” It’s what he tells Miranda when she’s stressing out. It’s what he tells himself when worry claws at him.

“No, but—”

“So, we might as well enjoy the evening.” Sam raises his glass, and after a moment’s hesitation, Lance lifts his beer and clinks.

They sit there and drink in almost comfortable silence for ten minutes or an hour or maybe two. Time becomes slippery when you’ve been stressed out and overworked for months. Before either of them realizes it, the mood in the bar has changed: the point in the evening where happy celebrators dissolve into melodramatic drunks.

Lance struggles to his feet. “Sam, get me out of here. Now,” he hisses. All around them, Supers’ faces are contorted with raw emotion, heralding poor decision-making.

Sam doesn’t need to be told twice. He puts an arm around Lance to steady him and together, they weave their way towards the door.

Outside, it’s cold, but liberating. Lance visibly relaxes a little and points down the street. “Home’s that way. Do you mind?”

“Nope.” Sam’s no Main Team hero, so basically, this is the least he can do.

They walk in silence for a while. Sometimes the street lights flicker off when they pass, sometimes they don’t.

“You still want to, don’t you? To prove everyone wrong,” Lance asks as they near his narrow house, wedged between other narrow houses.

The question startles Sam, because despite his best intentions, the promises to himself, the lies he tells to keep going, he still wants to be the hero he imagined when he joined the Super Team. Because the truth is, even after all this time, the video of the oblivious burning man in the middle of the jazz bar and his horrified boyfriend gaping at him still wanders into his thoughts. And the only thing that hurts more than the comment section is Lev’s expression.

“Do you read people’s minds too?” Sam tries to keep his voice light. Sam fails.

“I didn’t have to. The whole Team’s the same way. Even Mac.”

“But…but Mac’s not a Super…?”

“No, but his niece is. And she’s too afraid to leave her little trailer in the country. Mac’s hoping Teams like ours will one day change her mind.”

Sam stares at Lance. “But being on the Team must make things easier…after a while.”

“Look, man, I don’t think that’s possible.” Lance puts a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, at the audition, I tried to warn you.”

Sam hesitates. Hesitates. Then:

Watch Sam ask the question he’s been avoiding all night.

“If I…if I stay with the Super Team, what snapshot do you see of me?”

Lance stares at him, his expression becoming pained before he buries his face in his hands. “You don’t want to know, Sam.”

But Sam can hear it anyway. We don’t lessen anyone’s pain, just redistribute it.

And he sees it now. It’s the anguish on Lance’s face. The feeling that’s carved a space in Sam’s own chest cavity since that night at the jazz bar. The feeling that hasn’t gone away.

Screw it, Sam doesn’t want to be a Super. Not anymore.

 

Episode 9: If You Want to Reach Me, Call the North Pole

An hour later, Sam has packed his bags. His umbrae scarf and Super badge are piled neatly at the end of the bed. He feels odd without it; he’s come to love his unofficial uniform. But Sam reminds himself exile is the better choice. Nothing will ever change here.

He already has a list of relocation programs he’s going to call in the morning.

He can’t quite leave yet, though. He doesn’t quite have the courage to say goodbye in person, so Miranda will find a note in the office with an apology in the morning. He owes her that much. Probably more.

But being a Super won’t solve any of Sam’s problems.

He was an idiot to believe it ever could.

 

Episode 10: Everything Burns

From the outside, the old community center looks dead. But Sam is pretty sure Danielle is still in there, working late. She was trying to fix the windows today, so they could actually open them and air out the musty, stale office. The lights are still on inside.

From across the street, with Miranda’s note tucked in his pocket, Sam pulls out his phone.

U still at work? he texts Danielle.

Sam doesn’t think much of the faint rustling noise or the muffled thuds. City noises. Something that he’ll miss in his exile.

Except, a faint light catches his eye. A flicker. It comes from the entrance of the building. A moment later, a woman steps out of the community center.

Even from across the street, Sam can see the maniac look in her eyes, in her posture. She holds a phone at arm’s length, the camera trained on herself.

“This one’s for the Super Team,” she says, “The freaks who think they’re better than us.” She spots Sam and turns the phone around. Sam flinches.

“Will you tell the Supers if they don’t see this?” she calls.

“I am a Super,” he says, forgetting to use past tense. And that’s when Sam notices the empty gas can in her other hand. That’s when he smells the smoke.

Danielle.

Oh shit.

The woman’s laughter hounds him as he runs towards the community center.

Inside, the flames are already billowing. It’s as if the old community center had been waiting for a match. A spark. Naturally, the fire sprinklers don’t work.

Sam dashes towards the basement steps, painfully aware of how everything has become uncomfortably warm. The smell of smoke, thick and overpowering.

Watch Sam run.

He sprints through the rows of files, down the hallway, and around the corner to Danielle’s office. He pounds on the door, once, twice, then wrenches it open.

Only to find it empty.

The lights are off, her toolbox is in the corner, and her coat and hat and scarf are gone. As if on cue, the phone that Sam has forgotten he’s holding buzzes to life. The text from Danielle says No, Im home. Enjoying my life. Where r u?

Watch Sam run again. But he only makes it a few feet before he’s forced to drop to the floor for air. The smoke is unavoidable now with the smell of everything burning. The heat corralling him from all sides. The fire has finally found the multitude of invoices, billing, and random magazines. All around him, years of civil service records are being reduced to ash.

Watch Sam crawl as fast as he can.

He almost makes it too. But then a mountain of burning papers comes crashing down, trapping Sam in flames. Blinding, raging, ravenous flames. Flames that cannot be controlled. Flames that are hungry for more.

And yet…they’re not that bad.

Actually, they’re not even that hot.

Watch Sam not burn.

 

Episode 11: Final Decisions

Sam might not burn, but his clothes still do. Now, he’s cold without them, standing naked amid all the wailing sirens and grim-faced firefighters.

Eventually, one of them takes pity and gives him a fire blanket. The coarse wool never felt so good. He sits on the curb, the cement like sandpaper on his bare skin, but somehow, this feels good too.

This is how Miranda finds Sam. She doesn’t skimp on the expletives. She takes her time scolding him, repeatedly reminding him what a fucking stupid bastard he is and all the work he would have left her with if he burned to death. “Lance told me you’ll die of smoke inhalation!” she yells.

But Sam doesn’t mind, she’s the only steady point amidst the chaos—an anchor, a focus. And when she runs out of words, she’s shaking and Sam wishes he had another blanket to give her.

“If it makes you feel better, Lance hinted at the same thing to me,” he tells her.

“I forgot,” she says as she takes a seat next to him. “I forgot that you can’t always believe the Team’s Anxiety Man.” She slumps, puts her face in her hands. “I thought you gave up on rescuing people, Sam.”

Honestly, until an hour ago, Sam had planned on living out the rest of his selfish life not a hero. Rushing into that fire was the most reckless thing he’s ever done, but in the flames, he found something new.

“Friends are exceptions,” he says.

Miranda gives him a long, hard look. “Yeah,” she says finally. “They are.”

As they sit shoulder to shoulder, their attention drifts to a reporter and a cameraman talking to a fireman a few yards off. All three men are looking at Sam.

“Excuse me, are you the Super who ran into the building?” the reporter asks, approaching Sam, but speaking into his mike. Sam gives the camera trained on him an uncomfortable glance and pulls the blanket tighter.

“Yes,” Miranda answers, before Sam can respond. “He’s one of the most important members of our Team.”

I am? Sam starts to say. Then he catches Miranda’s expression. In it, he sees how truly afraid she was of losing him tonight.

Sam nods.

“So…is this just another episode in the Supers’ long and troubled history?”

Episodes, right. Sam wants to laugh. It’s clear to him now, sitting naked, reeking of ashes and smoke, that Super episodes are unavoidable. It’s how you pick yourself up afterwards that matters.

“Yup,” he says.

By now, most of the neighborhood is out watching the flames die down, clustering around the reporter, shooting video footage of their own.

“And what do you do for the Super Team exactly?the reporter asks.

“All the uncool work that keeps our photogenic Teammates going and you busy,” Sam replies. Besides him, Miranda laughs.

The ears of the reporter turn slightly pink. “Could you demonstrate your talents for us, then Mr…?”

“Sam Wells. A Super.”

All around them, the spectators lean in, hold their breath in anticipation.

Sam runs a hand over his tingling scalp. He knows that now is his moment in the spotlight. He knows that in a week, he’ll just be an accountant again with new episodes and problems. That he’ll be back fighting for the same things, the same rights.

So, for the first time in ages, Sam squares his shoulders and looks directly at the camera.

Watch Sam burn.

Or maybe not.

Either way, watch Sam smile for the audience.

And no longer care what they see.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 34B.)

A. T. Greenblatt

A.T. Greenblatt is a mechanical engineer by day and a writer by night. She lives in Philadelphia where she’s known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home brewing experiments. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI and Clarion West 2017. Her work has been nominated for Nebula Awards, has been in multiple Year’s Best anthologies, and has appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Fireside, as well as other fine publications. You can find her online at atgreenblatt.com and on Twitter at @AtGreenblatt.

One Response to “Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super”

  1. nottenst

    I loved this story. It is definitely on my nominate list for 2020.

    You now need to change AT Greenblatt’s bio paragraph to mention that she is no longer just nominated, but has won a Nebula award!! 🙂

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