Identity Crisis - Chapter 4/10: Victoria's Secret Identity

By Jenny North
Artwork by Fraylim and Splutt


Trixie had a smug little grin on her face as she pulled back her glove to reveal her I-Comm device. But rather than calling somebody, she entered in a sequence that I recognized as a passcode for accessing her "warp locker." A moment later, the portal opened and I saw the contents of her small warp space storage, which was packed with a haphazard mishmash of books and clothes.

"Oops!" she cried, embarrassed, as she re-keyed the code. "Sorry, I kinda live out of that thing. It's handy."

"Yeah, you should see mine," I said. In addition to using it for Prodigious Girl's paraphernalia, I also used it for schoolbooks and such and I'd even managed to cram a spare outfit to wear as Carly in there in case Prodigy sprung a last-minute meet-up on for my supposedly civilian guise. My female identities were fast starting to eclipse my male identity, and I wished I could afford a bigger warp locker to hold all the stuff. Unfortunately while the small base unit was free to registered heroes, anything more spacious cost a lot more.

Trixie's warp portal closed and re-opened, and my eyes bugged out as she showed me what was inside.

"Holy cow!" I said as I peered into the portal. The room inside—and it was a room!—was pristine and the size of a walk-in closet. As Trixie walked inside, I asked, "How the heck can you afford something like this?"

"Come on," she grinned as she beckoned for me to enter after her.

I did so, hesitantly. One of the biggest warnings that came with the warp space storage had to do with the fact that it had no atmospheric recycling, meaning that once the portal closed, whatever air was in there would quickly run out. There were urban legends of heroes who had locked themselves or their pets inside their storage space and suffocated. It looked like Trixie's new space was big enough to sustain a couple of people for a good while, but it made me uneasy, especially as she closed the portal behind us.

"Um..." I said.

"Relax," she said as she punched in a new code. And once the portal opened again, she stepped outside and I followed her. And my jaw dropped.

I quickly realized we were in another warp space "storage unit," but it was like nothing I'd ever seen or even heard of before. It was a gigantic area that looked to be at least a few city blocks in size, and inside there was a huge nature preserve or arboretum with trees and grass and wooded paths that extended off into the space. Further inside I could see architecture like columns and even what looked like buildings coming up through the trees, and arching over the space was an enormous dome that had a projected image of blue sky and clouds and even mountains in the distance, but as I looked more closely I could just make out the swirling red miasma "sky" beyond the dome that indicated that this existed in same the warp space pocket dimension as my own tiny locker. It was absolutely breathtaking.

As I looked around I realized we weren't alone. In this "entrance area" there were several other portals that people were using to enter and exit the space, and deeper inside I saw supers taking flight over the trees as they flew through the space.

"I wish you could see your face right now," Trixie said with a grin.

"Why have I never heard of this?" I marveled.

"Demetria established this as sort of an academy several years ago. I'd heard stories about something like this but never thought it was real until I saw it for myself."

I nodded slowly, still taking it all in. "Well, you've got me beat by a mile. Prodigy's place is in a dirty old rundown garage on the south side near a fish cannery. You wouldn't believe the smell," I said with a grimace as she smiled. Then I noticed another superheroine walk past us on the way to one of the portals and something occurred to me. "They're all girls?" I asked, looking around.

"Yeah, it's kinda lame if you ask me, but—oh, hey!" she said as someone tapped me on the shoulder.

"Mari!" I exclaimed as we shared a hug. She and I signed greetings back and forth before she prompted me inquisitively. "Oh, no, I'm not joining," I told her. "I'm just visiting. It's pretty cool."

Mari snorted and signed her disbelief.

"Yeah, gift for understatement, this one," Trixie said. "Demetria wants to meet her."

"Indeed I do," a woman's voice came from behind me.

I will forever remember the first time I laid eyes on Demetria. Unlike the others she wasn't wearing a costume, and instead was dressed casually but stylishly in slacks and a loose-flowing blouse. She had a timeless beauty to her, matched with a grace and charisma that you seldom see nowadays. I'd heard my grandparents talk nostalgically about the stars of the golden age of movies and how they had an elegance and glamour to them, but I never fully understood what they meant until that moment. I had no idea how old she was. She had dark hair and soulful eyes that still had a touch of rebellious playfulness in them, but the wrinkles around her eyes suggested an older woman's wisdom. She must have been a stunning beauty in her time, but even now she carried herself in a manner that exuded confidence but still managed to be warm and accessible. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that Trixie had straightened her posture when Demetria appeared and I almost smirked about it until I realized that I was doing the same thing.

"Prodigious Girl, isn't it?" she asked, gently shaking my hand. "Welcome to our Sanctuary. My name is Demetria Valasellis."

I smiled as I kicked myself mentally.

"What?" she asked.

"I just assumed..."

"Ah, that Demetria was my hero name. No, I'm afraid I could never settle on one. Though it's just as well, I'm told that the hero registration system can be something of a pain in that regard."

"I've heard that."

She smiled knowingly. "Would you walk with me?" she asked me before nodding to Trixie and Mari who headed their own way. When Demetria's back was turned, Mari gave me an enthusiastic double thumbs-up before following after Trixie.

As we walked down the winding path surrounded by trees, the space opened up to reveal a spectacular garden. I didn't know much about flowers, but many of the plants had an almost unearthly quality to them, which was entirely possible given the extradimensional and extraterrestrial visits that Faraday City routinely received.

"You seem nervous," Demetria observed. I wasn't quite sure how to respond to that, so she added, "Forgive me, I'm an empath. I sense emotions."

There didn't seem to be much point in denying it. "Trixie—I mean, Enchantrix—and Bhramari seem to like you a lot, but..."

"Yes?"

"Look, it's nothing personal, but I've seen enough James Bond movies to know that going off alone to talk to the head of some strange organization in her spectacular base of operations probably isn't the best idea in the world."

She stared at me in surprise for a moment and then burst out laughing. When she did, I flashed back to a memory from several years earlier just before my grandfather died. He was a stoic old man and I was intimidated by him, maybe because my attempts at telling him jokes or getting him to drop his defenses never succeeded in piercing his shell. Then one day—I think it was at dinner, I don't even remember—I made some sarcastic little aside and he burst out laughing, I mean he just lost it completely. Even my parents were shocked. It was like I'd somehow found the magic key that unlocked a lifetime of humor and he let it out all at once in one cathartic explosion of emotion. Demetria's laugh wasn't nearly so deep and sudden, but the effect it had on me was much the same as with my grandpa all those years ago...I wanted to be able to do it again and unleash that laughter.

"I didn't expect you to be funny," she told me.

"Really? Someone named Prodigious Girl?"

"Good point," she smiled.

Demetria wasn't what I expected, either. She had a quiet grace and a gentle smile that made her seem like she was more likely to offer you a cup of hot cocoa and a warm blanket than oversee an operation of young heroes and she managed to have an expression that seemed to be both playful and reserved at the same time. When she looked at me it felt like we were the only two people in the world. It made me feel very special, like I was a man against the world, able to do anything—

"You're an extraordinary woman, Prodigious Girl," she said.

Well, that let the air out of that balloon.

"Thanks," I said shyly as I looked down and brushed my hair back.

"Remarkable. Everything you've done and you still manage to be bashful. And such an unusual blend of superpowers. Usually they're more thematically connected. May I?" She reached her hand toward the side of my face.

I stiffened up. "Umm..."

"Forgive me, I've made you uncomfortable. I forget we've only just met. My powers are only empathic, not telepathic, but if it bothers you—"

"No, it...it's okay," I told her.

She gently touched my temple and closed her eyes. I didn't feel anything, but after a moment she smiled in realization. "Of course," she said to herself.

"What?"

"It's nothing," she said with a warm smile as she regarded me. I felt very nervous. Could she tell I was really a guy? I worried how an impersonator like me might be received in her little hen house.

"It's nothing bad, I promise. Quite wonderful, really." That got my attention, but she let it drop as she moved into the garden. "You need someone to nurture your talents."

"I already have a mentor," I informed her as I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

"You're working with Prodigy, aren't you?" she asked as she tended to a bulb on a plant.

"You know him?"

"Only enough to know that he can be...difficult," she said. "Perhaps not the best mentor to nurture your hidden talents?"

"Are those the 'wonderful' hidden talents you mentioned?" I asked pointedly.

"Direct and impatient," she mused. "Is that his style, or yours?"

"I'm sorry—"

She smiled. "Don't apologize. You're merely curious, and I shouldn't tease."

"But you're not answering my question, either."

She regarded me enigmatically. "Do you like our garden?" she asked finally.

I glanced around at the display of flowering blossoms. "Sure. It's...pretty."

"It's more than that. In ancient times, you could always tell what was most important to a town or village by looking at the largest structure, which would often be a cathedral or a temple. And in modern times, that's given way to office buildings and skyscrapers. It's the power of symbolism."

I nodded, not fully understanding the point she was trying to make, but then I thought about The Spire and what it represented, and how it was the first place I visited upon becoming a hero.

"When I built this place, I thought about having a large central tree as the centerpiece, but then I realized a garden is a much more apt metaphor. Here you can be surrounded by life," she said as she gently touched one of the blossoms. "I rescued every flower here. All are precious, all are rare, most of them endangered. I suspect many of them might not even exist if I hadn't intervened. But now, look at them, all vibrant and growing. But some blossoms need more tending than others."

I got the impression we weren't just talking about horticulture. "Tending?"

She gestured to a flower bud. "Consider this. If it could know its own future that someday it would be a glorious flower, perhaps that knowledge might entice it to grow, so that it blossoms sooner and even more radiantly."

I shrugged. "Okay."

"But now consider a caterpillar, whose destiny is to transform into a butterfly, beautiful and wondrous. But some caterpillars if they knew what awaited them might be afraid of such a change and fight against it," she explained. "Sometimes it's better to learn things in their natural time."

I thought about that. "If you're calling me a hideous hairy bug, I think you and Prodigy might have more in common than you think."

She laughed again, that musical laugh. "Keep your sense of humor, Prodigious Girl. I suspect it will serve you well." She examined my face and cocked her head just slightly. "You don't trust me," she observed.

"Not even a little."

"Why is that?"

It bothered me that Prodigy's suspicious nature might be rubbing off on me, but where he would be circumspect, I decided honesty was the better approach. "All of this...it's impressive. But cultivating all these supers, training them...it makes me wonder why."

She nodded. "I understand. But it's important to me that you trust me. May I show you something?"

I nodded in response and followed her deeper into the garden. I was nervous as hell and expected an attack to come at any second, so I watched the winding path and the skies for possible avenues of attack or escape. But as we turned the corner, the dense foliage suddenly gave way to a small courtyard. There was what appeared to be a small building—maybe her home—but in the center of the courtyard was a fountain that caught my eye. It was surrounded by a colorful burst of luminescent flowers of a kind I'd never seen before that seemed to practically sparkle in the light, and in the center of the fountain was a prominent life-size statue of a young woman. She appeared to be a superhero, although it was nobody I recognized. I could tell that she was young, maybe even my age, and she was standing in a heroic pose, smiling and reaching for the heavens. As I looked at it I was struck by how quiet it was back here, away from the buzz and activity I'd seen when I'd arrived.

"I don't allow people back here," Demetria said quietly. "This is...private. My meditation garden."

I looked more closely at the statue. "Who is she?"

"She is—was—my daughter. Her name was Danica. She was also a superhero, and she took the name Starbrite."

"I-I don't think I've ever heard of—"

"I wouldn't expect you to, it was many years ago. She was my miracle baby, since I never thought I'd be able to have children of my own. But all she ever wanted was to be a superhero, and—" Her voice caught in her throat. I started to say something, but she waved me off. "It's all right. It's good to talk about it."

She looked me in the eyes and touched my hair gently. From anybody else I would have found the gesture to be presumptuous and off-putting, but she had a quiet grace about her that felt very genuine. "You remind me of her, you know. Maybe that's why I brought you here. You have that same fire, the optimism, the righteous confidence. Perhaps a touch of disrespect." She smiled.

"What happened to her?"

"She was killed while apprehending some villains. I thought she was ready, but—" She shook her head.

I looked at the statue of the bold young heroine. It gave me a bit of a shiver to think of her cut down when she was so young. I knew hero work was risky but I tried not to think of it in terms of my own mortality. I didn't expect to die, but then I'm sure she didn't, either.

"Is she why you only take in girls?" I asked.

Demetria pursed her lips as she considered that. "Let me ask you a question: when did you first realize you were a woman?"

She knew! My heart skipped a beat and I felt a surge of adrenalin rush through me as I tensed up. "I, uh, look, I know I'm not—" I stammered.

She smiled warmly. "It was probably when you got your first period, wasn't it?"

"Um...s-sure, I guess. Okay," I stammered, trying not to let my relief show.

"Prodigious Girl, you went from being a girl to a woman overnight. Nature did it to you without your knowledge or consent and turned you from a child into a potential vessel of life. And for many young heroines their powers come bursting into existence much the same way, often at the same time. That's a lot to cope with at such a formative time of your life. Ancient cultures used to have rituals for helping young people bridge the gap into adulthood, but we seldom have things like that anymore."

I nodded again as I thought about that. If going from girl to woman was tough, I'd gone from boy to man and boy to woman all at the same time as I was trying to figure out how to be a hero. The notion of a place to help me navigate through all that started to make a lot of sense.

"Do you understand now why I built this place? This is for her. For you. For all you young heroes. You have remarkable gifts, but you're embarking on a very dangerous path. I don't want to stop you, I want to help you. I want for you to have the chance that she never did."

"And if I refuse?"

"Look around you. This isn't a prison, this is a place of learning, a place where you can better yourself. You're a bright young woman, free to find your own path. I can't force you to do anything you don't want to do."

I sighed heavily. "Look...why am I here?"

"So direct," she said with a little smile. "Very well, then. There are three reasons. First, I want you to know that you're welcome here any time."

I nodded.

"Second, I wanted to warn you."

"About what?"

"Prodigious Girl, I don't profess to understand the nature of your relationship with Prodigy, but I don't think he has your best interests at heart."

I sniffed and rolled my eyes. Big surprise there, I thought.

"Understand, I'm not just saying that to entice you to come here, you should feel free to make up your own mind. But please be careful around him."

I nodded again. "And the third thing?"

"Ah, yes. I have a gift for you."

* * * * *

Later as I related the story to Caleb over at his house, he stared at me wide-eyed. "Dude! She's like Professor X! You got invited to join the X-Men and you said no?"

"X-Women," I told him.

"Oh. Estrogen overload, huh?"

"Yeah. She's not wrong about Prodigy kicking my ass, but if I join up with her that means I'll have to join as a girl and then I'll be stuck as a heroine indefinitely. I don't think I'm ready for that."

"Glad to hear it," Caleb said.

"You should have seen the place, though, it was really cool."

"Yeah, well, I'm not going anyplace where I need to check my gonads at the door," he said.

I shifted uncomfortably. "You know, I wish you wouldn't say things like that. Being a girl is hard enough without the rude comments."

"I guess it should be pretty easy for you then, considering you're not a girl."

"Well, not now I'm not," I sniffed.

"Try not ever. Don't get all prissy about it."

"I'm not prissy!" I retorted prissily.

Caleb threw up his hands. "Fine! Whatever. So what was it she gave you, anyway?"

I made a little face as I felt a sudden flash of annoyance by his brusqueness and insensitivity. I pulled the small device out of my pocket.

"It's a thumb drive," he said.

"I know what it is!" I snapped. "She said that this would give me full access to Prodigy's computer."

He gave me a reproachful look. "What, and you just believed her? Who knows what that thing might do?"

"What reason does she have to lie?" I shot back. In truth I shared his concern, but his contrariness was starting to piss me off and I found myself wanting to defend the other side of the argument just to vent my growing irritability. "Maybe she's just looking out for my interests!"

He obviously noticed my emphasis on the pronoun and tensed up. "What's that supposed to mean?" he challenged.

When I said it I'd really meant it more as an indictment of Prodigy's disdainful treatment of me, but Caleb's disparaging attitude was starting to dredge up all my feelings of impotent frustration and I chafed at his accusation. If he was trying to tick me off he couldn't have done a better job.

"It's nothing," I growled.

"God, what are you, menstrual or something?"

I was wrong. Now he couldn't have done a better job if he tried.

I jammed the thumb drive into my pocket. "I gotta go," I said curtly as I grabbed my backpack and stormed out.

"Chris—!"

I was out the door before I heard any more.

* * * * *

Two hours later I'd finally calmed down, not quite sure what had set me off like that. Caleb's smartass remark aside, I wondered if all of this bouncing back and forth between raging teenage male and female hormones might be affecting me somehow. I figured I'd apologize to him the next day for snapping.

Unfortunately by the time I got home it was after dark. I knew I'd catch hell for having missed dinner and not calling, but by this point I was pretty much resigned to the fact that it was what it was. I saw on my phone that Mom had tried calling twice, but I decided by this point it was just better to show up in person and try and sweet talk my way out of it. I'd worked out an elaborate lie that I was rather proud of that involved a study group, helping a pregnant lady with a flat tire, and witnessing a robbery. I made it exceptional enough to be a good story and boring enough to be believable. I'd even removed the battery from my phone to use it as an excuse for not having called. I was patting myself on the back for my ingenuity as I walked in the front door. Showtime.

"Mom! Dad! Oh, my gosh, I am so sorry I'm late! You wouldn't believe the day I've had."

First rule of lying: don't wait to be challenged on your story, take the offensive.

"That's nice," my mother said absently as she sat there doing a crossword puzzle while dad watched some procedural cop show on TV. That in itself seemed slightly strange since usually by now she'd be off writing and he'd be reviewing case files, but I guessed a little rest and relaxation wasn't so unusual.

"So I'm walking home from my study group—I told you I was going to that, right? And as I was walking along I see this pregnant woman parked on the side of...the..." My voice trailed off as I realized they weren't paying attention. I was a little put off. I'd gone to all this trouble to weave this elaborate lie for their benefit, didn't they want to hear it?

"I put some leftovers in the fridge," Mom said.

"Oh. Okay," I said, feeling a strange mix of good fortune and dissatisfaction. "I'll be up in my room."

They didn't respond, so I moved to go upstairs. I hadn't taken two steps when my mom asked in that casual-but-absolutely-not-casual parental tone, "Chris, what are you doing with this wig?"

I froze in place as my heart sank. As I slowly turned to face them, I saw that they were both looking at me intently, and mom was holding up the long blonde wig I wore as Carly.

"I noticed it when I was vacuuming your room earlier today," she said. When I failed to respond, she prompted me with a flash of raised eyebrows that practically screamed, "Well?"

I was almost petrified with panic but since any additional hesitation would only made me look guiltier, I smiled warmly and approached them as casually as possible. My mind had gone totally blank as I raced to think of some plausible excuse but I knew I had to say something, so in desperation I resorted to a little trick I like to call "improvisational lizard lying." Since the evolved mammal portion of my brain had quickly assessed the situation and opted to retreat under the cerebral blankets of my mind and suck its thumb while curled up in a fetal position, I handed complete control of my mouth to the unevolved lizard portion of my brain. If you've never tried it, it's a fascinating exercise. The net effect is that since you have no earthly idea what's about to come out of your mouth, you actually get to hear the lies at the same time as your audience and can appreciate them in a sort of detached way. It's absolutely terrifying.

"Oh, you found it!" I said in relief. "I was looking all over for that and couldn't remember where I'd put it." I still had no idea where I was going with this, but my lizard brain apparently remembered the first rule of lying and took the offensive. "It's...for a play."

"Oh?" she said in that exact same casual-but-not-casual tone. "You're in a play?"

My eyes cut over to my father, who'd so far said nothing but was watching me like a hungry falcon eyeing a frightened vole.

What the heck was a vole, anyway? Something like a mouse, wasn't it? It was a funny word, vole. Vooole.

Okay, need to focus. Still talking my way out of trouble, here. See, that's the problem with the lizard brain, it gets easily distracted.

"Oh, it's not for me," I laughed nervously. "I got it from Caleb," I said, deciding to weave a little truth into the lie to give it some structural support. "His sister used it in a costume, and he promised that he'd give it to Erica Murillo who's in the Drama class. But since I'm in 2nd period Math with her, he asked me to give it to her."

Dang, my lizard brain rocks! Go, go, Godzilla!

I plastered a friendly smile on my face as my parents shared an inscrutable glance. Then, after an interminable pause, my father was the one who spoke.

"Son, tell the truth," he said. "Is this your wig?"

"What? No!" I was aiming for a tone of detached amusement mixed with disbelief and just a soupcon of righteous indignation for flavor. (Unfortunately I ended up more in the "sputtering, stammering idiot" zone, but you work with what you've got.) "Caleb gave it to me to give to Erica Murillo. For a play." Double down, baby.

"Chris, do you wear this wig?" my Mom asked.

Yikes! Time to ramp up the level of righteous indignation. "Mom! I told you, it's not for me! Besides, that's a girl's wig, why would I want to wear something like that?" I said accusingly. Ha! My logic was irrefutable! Check and mate!

They looked at each other again for a long moment before my mother turned to face me again. "Well, I suppose that's a reasonable explanation," she said finally.

I nodded confidently before reading from their faces that I was free to go. I turned to head upstairs.

"Chris?" my mother asked.

I turned to face her and saw that she was dangling the crown of the wig from the tips of her fingers. The pretty fall of golden tresses swung back and forth girlishly. "Forget something?"

I straightened up and moved over to the sofa, feeling enormously self-conscious as I accepted the girlish hairpiece. I grabbed it in as carefree and masculine a gesture as I could, even as my mom tilted her head to look at me and inspected my face closely as I touched it.

I hurried upstairs, my legs weak and my heart beating like a jackhammer as I clutched the wig. That was way too close for comfort, I thought. And thank God I'd had my Prodigious Girl stuff with me, because if she'd found that I'd have had some real explaining to do. I took a cleansing breath and opened the door to my bedroom, wanting nothing more than to just collapse face-down on my bed and try and put this entire day behind me.

But as I swung the door open, I froze. For there, neatly spread out over the bed, were all of the clothes I'd bought and worn as Carly. The shorts, the skirts, the dresses, the panties, everything. The makeup kit and jewelry were sitting out on my dresser, and artfully arranged on the bed was Lori Shapiro's bubblegum pink sun dress with the little white flowers, its skirt prettily fanned out next to the matching sandals.

As I stood there with my mouth wide open, I suddenly became aware that my parents were standing right behind me.

"Do you need a moment to get your lies in order?" my mom asked.

I took a few steps away from them into the room, turning slowly to face them. "I—I can explain..."

"I'm looking forward to it," she said. Then I noticed that she was holding all my colorful brassieres in her hand. She picked one out and held it up by the straps. "I'm particularly looking forward to hearing your explanation for these," she added darkly as she scowled at the large cups.



By this point in my story, dear Reader, I think I can safely say that we've gotten to know each other a little bit. You perhaps see me as a well-meaning but sometimes luckless dreamer. I, on the other hand, perceive you mostly as someone with time to kill. My point being that given what you know about me to this point, if I were to skip ahead a bit in my narration with the simple summary that I, using my wit, charm, and silver tongue, managed to talk my way out of that tight spot with poise and aplomb, you would reasonably conclude that I was in fact lying through my teeth.

You know me so well.

Thus it transpired that the next day—a lovely Saturday afternoon filled with blue skies, white puffy clouds, and busy little bees pollinating colorful spring flowers—I found myself standing alongside my mother on the front porch of the Shapiro household.

I looked pleadingly to my mother, but she glared at me with fire in her eyes. Years later I would encounter that exact same countenance on the scowling face of Professor Demonicus, and it was as though he had frozen the very blood in my veins into ice, causing me to lower my defenses just long enough to run me through with his ethereal scimitar. (I still have the scar, it's pretty awesome.)

Today, that same glower motivated me to do something every bit as terrifying. I pushed the doorbell.

A few moments later, Caleb answered the door and gave me a "what the fuck" expression that I will take to my grave.

Wide-eyed, my best friend looked me over as I stood there in the bright afternoon sun prettily made up and wearing his sister's clothes. He looked me up and down from my long golden blonde wig and made-up face to the pretty flowered dress, down past my shaved legs to my cute pink sandals. His eyes then cut back up to my chest, which was jutting outward, dare I say, prodigiously. He then glanced over at my stern-faced mother before turning to face me again.

IC_Ch04_01-small.jpg

"Hey, buddy. What's going on?" he slowly said. I instantly recognized it as the cunning repartee of a lizard brain.

My mother regarded him primly. "Caleb, aren't you going to invite us in?"

He stared at me uncertainly and I gritted my teeth even as one of the busy little bees alighted on my vibrant dress, perhaps excited at the prospect of finding a new field of flowers to pollinate. I flicked at it with my manicured finger, swatting it away with such force that I suspect it might have achieved escape velocity.

"Sure," he said absently, holding the door wide for us to enter. "Come on in...uh, ladies."

"Such a gentleman," my mom said. "Would you fetch your mother and sister, please? I called ahead to let them know we'd be coming."

Caleb hadn't even had a chance to move before we heard his sister's voice from up the stairs. "Oh. My. GOD!" Lori shrieked. It was quickly joined by the squealing laughter of two of her friends as they all got a good look at me. I didn't know them but I'd seen them around at school. I blushed furiously and looked to my mom for relief, but she was unmoved.

A temporary reprieve came in the form of Mrs. Shapiro, who escorted us to the living room while the girls continued to tease and harangue me. Lori, furious at my stealing and wearing her clothes, took special delight in heaping on the ridicule and I knew it would only be a matter of hours before my humiliation made its way around the school. (Thank you for nothing, Internet-based social media platforms. I firmly believe that pitch sessions for new social media sites feature executives using pie charts and graphics to breathlessly explain to potential investors how their new site will allow teenagers to humiliate and ostracize their peers in a fraction of the time of the competition.)

With a prompt from my mother, I apologized to Lori for stealing her clothes and told her that I'd pay her for them since I knew she wouldn't want them back now that I'd worn them. Then, in front of her giggling friends, I explained how I really loved dressing like a girl and how jealous I was and that I hoped I could be as pretty as her, someday.

Standing there in my dress and reciting my lies was the first time I can remember that I found myself wishing that I'd never gotten these super powers. It wouldn't be the last time. But the horrified look on Caleb's face as I enthusiastically professed my love for wearing pretty dresses in front of these shrieking teenage harpies was a low point.

And I hadn't even delivered the punch line yet.

"Well, you can keep the dress," Lori taunted. "It looks better on you, anyway."

"Especially with his bigger boobies," one of her friends giggled, eliciting a withering glance from Lori.

"Yeah, well, smile pretty now," she added, holding up her phone to take a picture. "I need to get some evidence of this."

"Oh, go ahead if you want, but there's no need," my mother cut in. "Tell them."

Now, credit where credit is due. The night before when my parents confronted me about my secret stash of girls' clothes, things looked pretty bleak. I very nearly told them the truth about being a superhero but figured that—embarrassing as it was—getting tagged as a closet crossdresser might allow things to at least stay in the family, and my parents' looks of disdain certainly suggested that they weren't enjoying the conversation any more than I was. But after some creative storytelling, I thought I might have had things more or less under control. Or so I thought.

What I didn't realize at the time was that while I might have been able to play off my little collection as a harmless fetish or teenage experimentation, once my mom discovered my brassieres, it was game over and I was fighting a battle that I had already lost. So after I'd managed to convince my parents that yes, thank you, I was really happy being a boy, but gosh darn if those girls' clothes weren't just so much fun to wear, that was when she lit into me with a vengeance. Maybe if they'd been Lori's bras, or even her own, I might have been able to recover. But the notion that I was evidently so fascinated with big boobs that I'd gone out of my way to buy my own special brassieres just pushed her over the edge. She accused me of objectifying women, sexualizing their clothes, and fetishizing their body parts for my own enjoyment.

"You think women with big breasts are just there for your gratification," she accused me. "You don't have any idea what it's like to be stared at and objectified just because of what you look like." (That one hit close to home, but I wisely kept my mouth shut.) But then she hit me with the coup de grace. "But you will."

She then went on to explain that she and Dad had talked it over, and they weren't comfortable raising a son who lied and stole to cover up his shameful secret "hobby," so they decided that the best solution would be to insure that my hobby was no longer shameful by making it no longer a secret. There was, after all, nothing wrong with dressing like a girl, was there?

As I gaped at them in horror, it occurred to me that this was one of those times where I would have been happier for my parents to be just a smidge less progressive. Not that I'm in any way an advocate for corporal punishment—my frequent beatings of supervillains notwithstanding—but had my dad instead been the type of unevolved lout to just beat some sense into me and throw away the clothes, a lot of trouble could have been avoided. They could have walked away with a sense of parenting accomplishment by seemingly encouraging me back onto the straight and narrow, and my invulnerable ass wouldn't have felt a thing. Win/win.

As it was—amid much supportive hugging—my parents explained that my dreams were about to come true. For the next six weeks—until the end of the school year—I was to remain dressed as a girl every minute that I was not in school. Everyone would thus learn about this side of me, and I would have ample time to explore this aspect of my burgeoning gender identity. My mother's only additional stipulation had been that since I was obviously fascinated with having such a big bosom, I should proudly continue to have one so that I could learn what it felt like to be the one being objectified. But after the six weeks was over, I could wear whatever clothes I wanted, whenever I wanted. They wouldn't judge.

"We'll love you and support you no matter if you're a boy or a girl," Mom said. Then she turned to face my dad. "Oh, honey, look how happy he is. He's crying," she smiled as she dabbed away my tears.

"I know that you might not view this as a punishment," my father said, "but for the next six weeks, you're going to be honest with everyone about what you really are."

My mother took my hand. "This will be a good experience for you," she told me. "You can't run around hiding and being ashamed of who you are inside. It'll be difficult at first, but you'll get used to it," she promised. "Now, get changed and put on your girls' clothes. I want to see what you look like."

The next morning she took me shopping to get ready for my big "coming out," although she insisted that I wear Lori's dress to apologize to her as a reminder of what my dishonesty had brought me. She made me buy everything with my own money and made a point to inform all the grinning salesgirls how much she was enjoying having a proper "girls' day" with her son.

Doctor Malevolence can kiss my ass...he may rule over the slave pits of the Manichean dimension with an iron tentacle, but pound for pound, nobody knew how to serve up soul-destroying horrors like Mom.

Apart from the humiliations of going shopping and getting made over, being a closet superhero complicated things even further when Mom announced that she wanted to get my ears pierced and had made an appointment to get my legs waxed. Quickly realizing that their needles and blades might not work on my invulnerable skin, I used my shapeshifting power to make the changes.

"Um, I already shaved my legs this morning," I said. "And my ears are already pierced," I added, tilting my head to show her my ear.

"When did..." she wondered for a moment before knitting her brows in disapproval. "Well, aren't you the enthusiastic little miss."

And so, later that afternoon, I stood there telling Lori and her friends how much fun I was looking forward to having as a girl and how I hoped that maybe we could all go shopping together one day after school. The shrieks of the Sinister Syreen Sisters had nothing on their peals of laughter.

I looked over at Caleb, but he was so embarrassed for me he couldn't even make eye contact.

His mother followed my gaze and quickly put two and two together. "Caleb! Did you know about all this?"

He looked at me desperately and then back at her. "I...uh..." he stammered. I could tell he was torn between his loyalty to me and a healthy self-preservation instinct, especially when faced with the bizarre punishment that had been meted out on me. "No. No I didn't," he said finally, looking at me sadly. I couldn't really blame him.

"Oh, baloney!" Lori spat. "You're the one who gave him my clothes, I know you did!" Then her eyes went wide in realization. "Oh, my gosh. Is he your girlfriend?" she cried, accompanied by the high-pitched shrilling of her two friends. "He is, isn't he? You two are always running off together, I bet you make out with each other!"

The room exploded into a cacophony of shouts, squeals, and angry recriminations as all of us teenagers started in on each other, with Caleb and myself vehemently denying the attacks and the teasing of the girls hitting a volume and pitch seldom heard outside of a teen pop concert auditorium.

"Quiet!" Mrs. Shapiro shouted, stunning us all into silence. Even my mom jumped.

She turned to the girls. "You. Upstairs. Now."

Lori looked like she was about to object, but since her mom obviously meant business, she and the others executed an orderly retreat with Lori pausing just long enough to snap a picture of me with her phone that I knew would probably be making the rounds with our classmates before she reached the top of the stairs. She winked and blew me a little kiss as the girls giggled their way up to her bedroom.

I vowed in that moment that if Prodigious Girl ever had to rescue them from a burning building, I—well, I'd still do it, but I'd be really catty about it. And I definitely wouldn't give them my autograph afterwards.

Mrs. Shapiro returned her attention to Caleb. "Well?"

"Mom, I—"

"He didn't do anything wrong, Mrs. Shapiro," I said. "Caleb didn't know I took the clothes. And he and I aren't...like that. We're just friends. In fact—" I hesitated as I glanced over at him. "I did tell him I liked to do this the other week. He's the only one who knows, and he didn't judge me or anything. He's really been there for me, even when I've been kind of a jerk," I added, giving him an earnest look. "I've been lucky to have him as a friend."

Our two mothers, apparently satisfied that justice had been served, gave us a small lecture about honesty and excused themselves to the kitchen to get coffee. Caleb sat down next to me on the couch, a little sheepishly.

"So, I guess I don't have to ask how it's going," he said.

"Yeah, I'm living the dream," I sighed. My eyes cut over at him and I saw his smirk. "Oh, shut up."

"No, no, dude, you look cute," he said with a smile. He then peered down at my jutting bosom. "Hey, those aren't real, are they?" he whispered.

"Nah, they're falsies," I sighed as I gave one of them a poke. "My mom made me buy them."

Caleb leaned a little closer and lowered his voice. "Can I feel?" he asked.

"Are you kidding me?"

"Hey, I never once asked to touch them when they were real!" he said defensively. "I mean, that'd be kinda creepy, feeling up my best friend."

I crossed my arms underneath them and gave him a dirty look. Then I thought for a moment and looked at him seriously. "One finger, and you get two pokes," I told him.

"Three."

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Caleb Shapiro, ever the artful negotiator.

"Fine," I sighed.

Caleb looked around to make sure we were alone and poked at my faux breast. "Yeah, that's nice," he said appreciatively. He looked at them for a moment, then wondered, "Do they jiggle like the real thing?"

"We are not having this conversation."

"You know I'm going to end up seeing for myself, anyway."

"God, you are such a perv!" I chastised him. Then, chagrined, I looked over at him. "I'm sorry about before."

"Yeah, me, too."

I felt an itch develop on my chest beneath my falsies and wondered how I could scratch it without looking like I was just groping myself in public. I tugged on my bra strap and squirmed uncomfortably as I glanced over at Caleb.

"This is gonna suck, isn't it?" I said.

"Which part? Having to dress like a girl all the time, or doing it in front of everyone you know and having them think you love it?"

I turned and gave him a deadpan stare. I doubted it had the same gravitas since I was dressed and made up like a Barbie doll, but I think he got the message.

"Oh, you mean all of it," Caleb said, nodding. "Yeah, it's gonna suck." Then, noticing my demoralized expression, he said, "Hey. You know that time on the building when you first hit the city as Prodigious Girl and I questioned your commitment to being a hero? I gotta say, with all this, you have totally convinced me I was wrong."

I looked at him more earnestly and my expression softened. "I'm really glad you're here to help me through all this," I told him.

"Yeah, I know," he replied. "That's why I figured you'd let me touch your boob."

* * * * *

Hercules, arguably one of the greatest heroes of ancient mythology, had his ups and downs. During one of his "downer" episodes he was driven mad by Hera, the queen of the gods, and in his insanity he killed his wife and six sons. After he came to his senses he was stricken with grief and sought a way to atone for his actions, and long story short, he was given twelve labors to perform. These included fun little outings like slaying the hydra and other horrendous beasts, stealing horses that ate human flesh, and all of it culminating into a literal descent into hell to capture Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound.

I go out of my way to mention all of this so that when I say that being outed as a crossdresser to my entire high school was the worst trial a hero has ever had to endure in the entire history of civilization, you can appreciate that that I'm fully aware that I'm up against some stiff competition.

My publisher has suggested that I look up "hyperbole" in the dictionary. Funny guy.

Okay, okay, it wasn't that bad. But you have to understand that to my sixteen-year-old sensibilities, before I'd gotten my abilities that fateful day in the park, my main goal had been to keep my head down and get through high school without doing anything that would scar me for life. Maybe date some girls, get ready for college, and generally just get by.

Then, I got my powers. The embarrassment of being a superheroine notwithstanding—which I viewed as a completely temporary situation—it impressed upon me the importance of maintaining a secret identity. "Getting by" gave way to a new goal of complete invisibility. I realized that everyday goals like having a full-time girlfriend or being an outstanding student might have to give way to enable my higher goal of being a hero. Maybe I could still go out on the odd date occasionally, but an unremarkable life was the price to pay for my superheroics, and I was okay with that.

I was not okay with being the new laughingstock of the school.

Those pictures that Lori had taken of me were bad enough, and by afternoon's end there was hardly a kid or teacher in school who hadn't seen them. But then having to dress that way outside of school? In my blonde wig and dresses, it was like I'd painted a glittering pink target on my back that was being held in place by the straps of the brassieres that held my prominent falsies in place.

My days were spent being mocked by my peers, and my afternoons, evenings and weekends either had me as Chris exploring my feminine side in dresses and heels or as Prodigious Girl where I could look forward to getting chewed out by Prodigy and getting repeatedly knocked on my prodigious backside by criminals who wanted me dead.

I couldn't even escape in my dreams! I found myself having a recurring nightmare where I ran through the hallways at school dressed as a girl without benefit of wig or makeup while my classmates all laughed at me. I would stumble on my high heels while I tried in vain to cover my big breasts that were tenting out my skimpy top. Then I would awake from that nightmare only to start a new day where the cycle would start all over again.

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Suffice to say, things were not going My Way.

Before all this superhero stuff happened, my parents and I used to talk about everything, and I suspect that my sudden reluctance to account for the time spent with my superheroics they just chalked up to a late bout of sullen teenage puberty combined with the obvious possibility that I might be transgender. Unfortunately, this also meant that my mom had a surprisingly detailed understanding of my after-school activities and responsibilities. I'd barely walk in the door before she'd remind me how Caleb and I had planned to see some movie that was playing and then suggest a cute outfit to wear. One morning I was about to run out the door and she handed me a tote bag filled with some of my "things."

"Mom, I'm not going to wear this to school!" I complained.

"Of course not. But you have the pep rally and the football game after school you said you were attending. I spoke to the principal about all this, and he tells me there's a unisex bathroom near the teachers' lounge where you can change."

I blanched. The scene of the crime, no less. "I know it."

That was not one of my better days.

The only good thing was that the longer this went on the more people seemed to lose interest, until ultimately the most vocal teasing was limited to just a few bullies who fancied me an easy target. I hated every second of this, but I refused to give them the satisfaction and kept my chin up and ignored their taunts and pretended like everything was normal.

However, one afternoon stands out in my memory. Prodigy had dismissed me so he could handle some crisis or other, setting me to memorize the voluminous codex of metahumans he'd amassed so that I might learn their powers and weaknesses. But I would have preferred getting beat up by supervillains compared to the task that awaited me.

As always my afternoon started with me disdainfully picking out a dress to wear and then doing my makeup and putting on my wig. But as I fussed with my blonde tresses my elbows bumped up against my jutting chest and I scowled at my reflection. It was bad enough dressing like a girl without being so bosomy! As Prodigious Girl I'd started to get used to having a girl's chest and running around in a short little skirt, but as Chris it still really bothered me. But then of course everybody thought that Prodigious Girl was actually a girl, whereas as Chris it seemed like everybody knew I was just a guy playing dress-up. Guess which was more fun?

I squirmed as I faced my image in the mirror. I had to admit I looked pretty good, so at least strangers might just assume I was a girl. However, looking as I did, the people who knew me—friends, family, classmates—would also be that much harder to convince that this wasn't something that I wanted when my punishment was over and I went back to being a guy. So if I did a good job at my impersonation, everyone I knew would assume that I really wanted to be a girl. But if I did a bad job then everyone else would know that I wasn't.

Life was so much simpler when all I had to deal with was getting punched in the face by a marauding deathbot.

I sighed and plucked at my short skirt as I tried to remind myself why I was subjecting myself to this, thinking of all the people I'd helped and the lives I'd saved. "One of you had better freaking cure cancer or invent an awesome new flavor of ice cream or something," I muttered to myself.

I frowned at my figure again and then with an exasperated grumble of displeasure I grabbed a cardigan and tossed it on in the hopes that it might help minimize my chest a little. Then I grabbed my bag and headed downstairs.

IC_Ch04_03-small.jpg

When I reached the bottom of the stairs Mom stopped to fuss at me before giving me the green light to go out.

"I thought you were going to wear those earrings we bought?"

"Mom, it's just a study group," I said as I tugged self-consciously at the cardigan.

"Mmm," she said neutrally. "Be home in time for dinner." We'd come to an unspoken arrangement where I wouldn't plead for leniency and in return she wouldn't patronize me by saying something like "Have fun," or "Enjoy yourself."

But the thing that really got me? I wasn't even all that angry at her and Dad for making me go out like this. I was at first, but I could have told them the truth at any time, and I wasn't ready to risk my future as a superhero by trusting them with what I was doing. It was like this was my penance, and these clothes were like a badge of honor. I sighed heavily and walked out the front door, feeling my falsies shifting in my bra as I made my way down the front steps.

Soft, squishy, jiggly badges of honor.



Two hours later my badges of honor and I were sitting moping on a bench in the city park. I had an open textbook in my lap that I was pretending to read, but my heart wasn't in it. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself and watching people walk past. When a couple teens about my age walked by holding hands, I looked at them longingly and thought about what this whole hero business had cost me. All I could think about was that image of the Atomic Slime sitting alone in his punchbowl at night as he wondered what he'd done to his life.

"You and me both, Slimy," I sighed.

Just then, a young guy on a skateboard came zooming up and performed a perfectly executed kickflip right in front of me.

"Caleb?" I said, gawking at him.

His double-take was priceless and his surprise at hearing my voice split his attention enough to cause him to trip and wipe out in a pretty spectacular fashion.

I got up to help him up and to his credit he didn't seem to mind being offered a hand by a girl...or someone dressed as one. "Are you hurt?"

"Just my pride," he said as he clambered to his feet and rubbed his arm before removing his helmet. "Wow, I didn't even recognize you," he said as he looked me over and we sat down on the bench. "Hey, what are you doing here, anyway? I thought you said you had that geek group thing today."

"Yeah, that...didn't really work out." When he looked puzzled, I plucked at a lock of my blonde wig by way of explanation.

"Oh, that's bull," Caleb said. "They kicked you out just for wearing that? You don't look that bad. You know, kinda dorky-cute."

"I'll pass that along," I muttered.

"They were all jerks about it? I figured Leah Paredes would be cool, at least."

I gave a small sigh. "Yeah, she stuck up for me a little, but..." I threw my hands up. "Caleb, look at me! What the hell am I doing?"

"I thought you liked being a hero."

"I do! But—look. You know what I can do. Would you go through all this to have these powers?"

"No. No way. No chance."

I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. "You didn't have to answer that quickly."

"Look, Chris, I'm not you. Me, I'd be using my powers to pick up girls. Or if I did have to be a girl myself, at the very least I'd be feeling myself up all the time."

I made a face. "Okay, I think we should agree to ten percent less honesty in the future. Maybe fifteen."

"I'm not cut out to be a hero. I don't even have any character-defining dark emotional wound in my past," he said. Then he considered that and looked at me. "Actually, neither do you, come to think of it. How are you soldiering on without any emotional scars to draw on?"

"I'm emotionally scarred plenty, thanks," I contended as I gave my prominent falsies a nudge.

"Anyway, I'm just saying that not many people would do what you do." When I grumped a little, he paused to look around and did a double-take as he realized where we were sitting. "Whoa. Are we—are we where I think we are?"

I nodded.

"Dude, this is where you got your powers? Where'd it happen?"

I sighed and pointed over next to the path. "The glowing portal thingy was right over there."

He leaned closer. "And where's the tree?"

I groaned. I knew it had been a mistake to tell him about running into that tree and knocking myself unconscious, but I was so excited at the time I didn't hold back any of the details.

"That's not really important..."

"C'mon, show me."

He had a funny look on his face, so I reluctantly pointed out the offending elm. "That one. That's the one that got me."

"Huh," he said as he admired the tree.

I expected him to say something more, but I realized that he was trying force me into asking him more questions to draw me out of my shell. It bothered me a little that it was working.

"What?" I asked.

"Well, it's just kinda cool, is all. I mean, if you think about it, if that tree hadn't been there, you would have kept running and there probably wouldn't even be a Prodigious Girl."

"Look, I was scared, okay? I admit it! I got lucky when I got my powers, but that glowing portal could just as easily have been something horrible. Heck, it probably should have been."

"Funny, I've never seen you run from a fight."

"But I wasn't running from a fight! I was running from—" I hesitated. "I was running from all the things it could have been."

Caleb nodded. "Sounds to me like it was a good thing that tree was there to stop you. Somebody should put a memorial plaque on it or something."

I laughed in spite of myself. Caleb smiled a little but he had a funny look again.

"What is it?" I said.

He shrugged. "Dude, I know this sucks," he said, gesturing at my outfit. "But...maybe all this is just another tree, y'know?"

I glanced down at myself and then over at him. "What, like I'm supposed to learn something from this? Like how to do my makeup?"

"You are getting pretty good. Although your eyebrows are a little bushy. I never liked that on a girl," he said critically. "Or maybe it's just holding you in one place long enough for you to appreciate what you've got."

"Which is?"

"I dunno, it's just a theory," Caleb said as he put his helmet back on. "Still, sounds like it bought you an in with Leah Paredes," he added, clicking his tongue and pointing at me with his finger.

I smiled then looked at him awkwardly. "Thanks," I said gently. "For everything." Then I hesitated and looked away shyly.

Caleb noticed it. "What?"

I waved my hand away. "It's nothing. It's stupid."

He fixed me with a look as I nervously looked at the ground and glanced away. Then, realizing what I wanted, he rolled his eyes. "Okay, c'mon, bring it in," he said magnanimously as he held his arms out and I hugged him.

"God, you are such a girl. You are totally going native."

"Shut up!"

"Those are awesome, though," he said, pointing at my chest as he stood up. "You shouldn't cover 'em up like that."

"Perv!"

"Dude, relax. You're not even my type."

I was about to make another comment when something he'd said hit me. "You said you didn't recognize me at first."

"So?"

I pointed at the spot on the ground where he'd done the kickflip in front of me. "You jerk! You thought I was a cute girl and you were showing off for me!"

He winced. "Ahh, busted. But not as busted as—"

"Heard it."

"Yeah, well, you're still not my type. But when you go flashing legs like those you gotta expect a little action coming your way," he said with a wink before he took off down the path.

It wasn't until years later that I visited that spot again and happened to notice a small metal plate on the side of the elm identifying it as the "Prodigal Tree."



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