Teri Lewis was obsessing about her sister’s bad marriage and the president’s latest compromise, so she barely listened to Flo’s improvised song about pandas and dandelions, coming from the stroller in front of her. Maybe if she’d known this would be the last time she’d ever hear her baby sing, she’d have stopped to relish the moment: the sun perched between two clouds, her baby in a pink–dragon onesie and the birds and street noises harmonizing with Flo’s almost–nonsense chanting.
Teri pushed the stroller into the crosswalk at 18th and Guerrero, and just barely noticed a truck leaping through the intersection, on the memory of a yellow light. She pulled the stroller back towards the curb so fast she missed the ramp. The stroller’s wheels thump–thumped back onto the sidewalk, and it nearly tipped over, thanks to a rickety three–wheeled design. Teri leaned over Flo and make sure her fighter–pilot straps were still secure, and Flo gave Teri a Clara Bow smile.
Teri heard a whooshing sound, a tidal wave of white noise, and turned to see a bizarre trio descending from a VTOL jet on ropes. They landed on their feet just behind her, right by the organic grocery store’s fruit bins. Teri glanced to see if the traffic would let her cross the street and get away from these lunatics, but they were already advancing towards her. They were looking at her — no, not at her, at the stroller.
“There she is!” one of them shouted. They rushed over and surrounded the stroller before Teri could maneuver away.
“Stay away from my baby!” Teri shouted.
“Stand back, ma’am,” said the big lunkhead with the odd nozzles sticking out of his bald scalp. His arms bulged with unnatural muscles and knotted veins, and he had a huge belt that kept changing color. Teri tried to make a break for it, but the big bald man and the other man, the red pirate, grabbed an arm each and restrained her. She kicked and clawed, but they were both many times stronger than her. She started screaming. A crowd was gathering around the four adults and the baby in front of the organic grocery store, and all the people had their phones out. Teri hoped for a moment that the bystanders were phoning the cops, but then realized they were taking pictures and videos. This incident would make people YouTube famous. There was no point in struggling, and that knowledge just made Teri struggle harder. The third attacker, a girl with her head shaved except for a pink swoosh, squatted down in front of the wide–eyed Florence and put her pacifier in her mouth. The pink–haired girl, who had fishnets and giant black boots, looked through an assortment of high–tech hypodermic needles. “It’s the orange one, right? We don’t want her to remember all of them, just the most recent.”
“Don’t!” Teri screamed. “She’s never hurt you! Why would you —”
The girl injected her baby with the orange syringe, which made a kludgey burbling noise as it emptied into Florence.
“Welcome back, Captain Champion,” said the girl.
Teri’s baby blinked, confused but not crying. And then her expression changed to a snarl, a look Teri had never seen on Flo’s face. She bit down on her pacifier, as if expecting it to be a cigar, then spat it out.
“Zora Aster,” Florence said. “What are you doing here? Wait, what am I doing here? And why the hell are you so tall?” Then she glanced at her hands, and her eyes opened wider as something clicked into place. “Oh. I died, right? How long ago?”
“About six months,” the girl, Zora Aster, said. “Took us a while to find where you’d reincarnated. Seems like a nice neighborhood.”
“Yeah. Charming.” Florence looked around, still strapped into her stroller. “So what happened to me?”
“Demonico put a bomb in your Infinity Glider.”
“I just had that thing detailed. With flames on the sides. And I had all my DVDs in the back. Bah.” The baby spat. “So, I’m touched you guys came and found me… but did you have to come and interrupt my happy childhood so soon?” The baby glared up at her mother. “It was happy, right? I remember bits and pieces.”
Teri recovered from her shock long enough to protest. “Yes! Yes, it was happy! I swear. I’m a good mom. I was just taking you to the park. You like — she liked — Florence, my baby — she likes the park.” Teri started to cry, because it was becoming obvious this wasn’t her baby any more. The two men restraining Teri let her go.
“I bet. You seem like a good mom. And ooh, I like your shoes. Stylish, but good arch support.” Florence — or Captain Champion — turned back to Zora Aster. “So what was so urgent you couldn’t let me be?”
“It’s Demonico,” said the big bald guy with the head implants. “He’s traveling back in time and killing all his past lives one by one. He’s convinced that something really awful happened to him in a past life, and if he kills the right previous incarnation before it happens, he’ll be well–adjusted.”
“Huh.” Captain Champion, the baby, spat again. “Sounds like good therapy to me. And it’s a victimless crime. So what’s the problem?”
“One of his past lives is George Washington. And he’s killing them as babies, using a rocket launcher.”
The baby that had been Florence sighed. “Okay fine. I have to do everything myself. I assume you at least brought an exo? Not that this body isn’t lovely and all, but these hands aren’t going to be karate–chopping henchmen any time soon.”
“Got it right here.” The big man snapped his fingers, and a giant exoskeleton came lunging down to the pavement, landing in a crouch. It looked like a headless metal man, with huge shoulder fins and rocket launchers strapped to both wrists. The boots were big jets. As soon as the exo–suit landed, it swung open to reveal a baby–sized compartment in its torso. The members of the super–group — Teri realized this must be the Action Squad — lifted her baby into the suit and snapped her in.
Teri’s baby was seven feet tall and built like a metal sumo wrestler, with her head poking out between those huge shoulders. A see–thru reinforced plastic bubble swung over to protect Florence’s head.
“Flo, baby.” Teri looked into the face that was barely recognizable as her baby’s. “I know you’re still in there somewhere. Please don’t let them do this. You can’t let them. You can stay with me and be my little girl. It’s not too late.”
“Sorry.” And Florence did look sorrowful. “History’s at stake, ma. Maybe when this is all over, I can come back, and we can talk. I hate to leave you like this.”
“Don’t! Don’t take my baby!” Teri fell to her knees as the exoskeleton slowly lifted off the ground.
“Think of it as I’m being emancipated early,” was the last thing Captain Champion said before roaring into the sky, then banking towards that VTOL jet.
Teri watched them disappear, then pulled herself back upright. She pushed the stroller for two whole blocks before she realized there was no point, then she pushed the lever that immobilized the wheels and left it on the sidewalk in front of the liquor store. Teri thought about a documentary she’d seen, about people who left their children behind in their SUVs, because they forgot the kids were even there. She went into the liquor store and found a jug of bourbon almost the same size and weight as her baby.
John, her husband, phoned while she was still paying for the bourbon. She picked it up. “It’s not your fault,” he said, which didn’t make Teri feel any better. John had seen the Youtube, which had already started getting picked up by the cable networks.
“Come home,” she told him.
Teri hadn’t tasted alcohol since she’d known she was pregnant, and the first swig nearly killed her. She sat on the pavement. The paper bag’s crushed edges rubbed her hand raw.
John and Teri spent two days asking questions with no good answers. Do you call the cops to report your missing baby, if you actually know where your baby is? Was the superhero thing something that passed down in the same family, and if so, which one of them had marked their daughter for this? Was either of them something weird in a previous life? What were they going to do with Flo’s clothes and toys? Do you hold a funeral for a baby who’s not actually dead? John stopped shaving, and it only took him a couple days for his look to go from “nerdy stand–up comic” to something closer to the Unabomber. He didn’t sleep or bathe. Teri slept for twelve hours, three times as much sleep as she’d gotten in a twenty–four hour period in the past year, and then felt guilty for sleeping when her baby was gone.
“It’s really not your fault,” John said over and over, until she was sure he was searching for a way to blame her. Teri drank whisky from the bottle until it became an extension of her face and occluded her view of her husband.
Teri tried to take a week off work, and they told her to take a couple. She tried to do errands like any other day. When she bought toilet paper, she thought to herself, “What am I doing at the drug store? They took my baby. I should be doing something.” When she went to buy groceries, she felt like everybody was watching the star of “Mom Jacked by Action Squad” picking out the freshest rutabagas for her now–childless family. Every time Teri turned her head, she saw people look away in a hurry.
And then Teri saw Florence again. On television. Racing through the clouds to smash her engorged metal fist into the jaw of a giant koala, which toppled over and landed on its back in the middle of the Potomac. Florence still wore her exoskeleton, her red little face barely visible in its sternum, and she’d added a garish purple cape. Florence and the pink–haired girl — Zora Aster — high–fived each other.
Teri looked at pictures of Captain Champion from before she’d died, trying to see a resemblance to her baby. Captain Champion had been tall and fit (of course) with long wheat–brown hair and lips that looked pouty when they weren’t wrapped around that trademark cigar. She’d been imposing and butch, but with firm, half–exposed breasts and touches of femininity, like a big belt and pointy boots.
“Mom Jacked by Action Squad” had a million views, then two. People kept calling Teri to come and tell her story on cable TV or late–night network TV. A few times, someone jumped out of a car and took Teri’s photo on the street, then drove away. And a couple of stylishly dressed young people came up to Teri when she was buying painkillers or jugs of whisky to ask her if she wanted to do an interview.
“Maybe we should do it,” John said. “I mean, it’s terrible what happened, but our little girl is also making a difference. She saved the President! From that army of Teddy Roosevelts. Single–handed. I feel good about that. I wish I could tell her I was proud. She belongs to everybody now, but she’s still our girl.”
“That wasn’t our little girl,” Teri said. “That was the thing that’s taken over her body. She already died for them once, but they wouldn’t let it be enough.”
Teri felt ashamed, like she’d gone out of the house naked, like her bereftness was an offensive lifestyle she’d chosen. And then she remembered that none of this was her choice, and the anger came back. Teri couldn’t be around people without wanting to apologize and/or scream at them, possibly both in rapid succession.
Teri’s private drinking game:
Drink one shot if
A) someone says how sorry they are in a way that implies that you’re to be pitied.
B) someone says how proud you must be of your girl, or how terrific she’s been.
C) You see a news report about your little girl stopping a plutonium monster that tried to marry a nuclear missile silo.
D) Your husband tries to tell you it’s time to move on, look on the bright side, stop beating yourself up, or get some perspective.
Drink two shots if
A) Someone says how sorry they are, and yet how proud of your girl you must be.
B) You see a baby in a “Captain Champion” Halloween costume, with an exosuit made of old bleach bottles.
C) A publisher calls up and says they’ve already written your autobiography and they just want you to agree to put your name on it.
D) Someone calls you “Captain Mom.”
E) You realize your husband has moved out, and you didn’t notice.
Florence came home, six months after she disappeared. Teri was half drunk, watching a news report about the Action Squad defeating Klownopolis (a whole evil clown–shaped city, walking on stilts), which had tried to swallow up Sheboygan. She heard a clanking noise from the stairwell outside her apartment, then went to her fish–eye lens and saw Florence, wearing a lion–shaped exoskeleton from which her face just poked out. Her baby was a sphinx. Teri opened the door before Florence could raise a metal paw to ring the bell.
“You can’t come in,” Teri said.
Teri’s apartment, a one–and–a–half bedroom loft that had been tidy and gilded, now had layers of filth on the hardwood floors and garbage everywhere. Teri was ashamed for her baby to see this, plus letting this imposter in would feel like a betrayal to the real Florence.
“Aw, come on,” Captain Champion reared up on her back paws a bit. “You gotta let me in. I mean, we can chat out here on your doorstep, but the neighbors’ll talk.”
“Okay, fine.” Teri stepped back to let the lion, almost soundless except for its footfalls, into her home. The lion clambered up on the couch and sat on its back legs, exposing its stainless underbelly.
Florence stared at a baby blanket, which Teri had hugged during one of her recent drunken episodes. Her eyes widened.
“I didn’t think I was going to see you again,” Teri said. She wondered for a moment if she should offer Florence some refreshment, but she had nothing baby–safe in the house.
“Wow.” Florence lifted the blanket to her pink little face, which was still not quite a toddler’s. “I remember this blanket. I dream about this blanket, all the freaking time. It’s weird, you know. I have super vivid dreams about your hands, too. And your scent.” Florence leaned forward and sniffed Teri, who was still standing over her. “Although you don’t smell like I remember. Now you smell like cheap whisky.”
Teri sat on a pile of crap on the coffee table. “You ruined my life.” She looked into Florence’s eyes, saw a flinch. “I guess I shouldn’t blame you.”
“Yeah, it was a dumb break,” Captain Champion said, hugging her own metal body. “Those assholes should have figured out a way to cope without me.”
Teri shrugged. She felt unstable on her perch.
“After I died,” Captain Champion said, “The Megagyrus Energizer flew away, probably back to the Mountain of Perfection. I can feel it and all, but it won’t respond to my commands until I’m well into puberty. I probably have another dozen, maybe fifteen, years of being a weakling unless I wear the suit.”
“So…” Teri thought for a moment. “So you would have turned into Captain Champion anyway? Even if they hadn’t, uh, woken you up?”
“Well, yeah. Although I might have come up with a different name this time. Like Mega–Maid. Who knows. Hey, do you mind if I smoke? These baby lungs, they’re so pink. It freaks me out. I have to do something to dirty them up.”
Teri couldn’t think of a way to say no fast enough to stop Florence gripping a cigar in her metal paw. Soon cigar smoke was masking all the other stenches in her apartment. It felt warm and friendly and evil.
“Are you taking care of yourself?” Teri said after watching Florence puff for a while. “I mean, is someone changing your diapers and stuff?”
Florence laughed so hard she nearly coughed up a lung. “Diapers. Heh heh. Well, you know, the robots give me a bath every now and then. I stay in the exo as much as I can, because this body is so inept. It’s floppy. I don’t think I’m technically potty trained or anything, but the exo has waste disposal, so it doesn’t really come up.”
“Huh.” Teri wanted a drink so bad, it was like cockroaches were crawling up her nose. “So I guess you should go fight some supervillains or something. I mean, it’s nice to see you and all.”
“I just got here.”
“Yeah. Huh.” Teri shoved all the magazines and papers and wrappers off the table onto the floor, so she could feel the sag of the pasteboard table directly beneath her. “So why are you here? I mean, this is freaking me out all over again.”
“Oh. Well, I’m sorry. About everything. It’s just… I don’t have any friends.” Florence looked down at her paws and the cigar slowly flaking away in one of them. “You know? Not real friends. It’s this life. Even before I died, I just… You know, the Action Squad, they’re my crew. We hang out, you know. But I don’t really like any of those guys. And since they brought me back, it’s been… weird.”
“Wow. Well, thanks for sharing.” Teri couldn’t hold out any longer. She went and poured herself a half mug of no–name bourbon, gulping half of it before she even got back to her seat. “I guess everybody has their own problems. It’s funny how that is.”
“You’re the closest thing to a friend I have in this world.” Florence — Captain Champion — had tears in her eyes. Her face had gotten redder. She was sweating in her lion suit.
“You are really freaking me out.” Teri took another monumental swig.
“I love you,” Florence said.
“You… what?” Teri shrank away.
“I love you. I don’t know if it’s some atavistic oxytocin thing, or just because my only tender memories are of you, or what. I just know, all these months when I’ve been getting tossed out of spaceships in low orbit and chained to dirty implosion bombs, I thought about you. I imagined your hands touching me, and… you know, it saved my life a few times.”
The cigar was a dark nub. The lion suit carefully tucked the butt into a little compartment, and even vacuumed up all the ash, as if a little more crud would have made a difference in this dirty hole.
“You’d think…” The lion lurched off the sofa and stood up clumsily on its back legs. “You’d think after dying once, that I can remember anyway, it would be no big deal. But you just cling harder. Anyway, I guess I dumped on you enough. Just, you know, I wanted to say. I’d like to live with you again.”
“I know it can’t be like before.” Florence swung back onto all fours and spoke over her round, chrome shoulder as she padded towards the door. “But it could be cool. Be a family again. At least think about it.”
“I don’t think I could…” Teri couldn’t breathe, she took another slug.
“I’m rich,” her baby said. “Like, rich rich. Long story, but the Action Squad basically found some asteroids full of stuff. We could live in a mansion, and have robots and servants. Think it over.”
“Couldn’t you quit being super instead? We could go into hiding, like witness protection, pretending to be a mom and her baby. After all, neither of us has any super–powers.” She almost added, unless you count knowing too many agonizing secrets, or indulging in unpleasant vices.
The lion shook its whole metal head. “We’d never get away with it. People would find us. A lot of people want me dead. Again. Anyway, I guess it’s a dumb idea for us to try and be a family, after everything. I’ll see you around.”
Teri knew living with Captain Champion would be a travesty of motherhood. She also had a growing sense that she’d wind up agreeing to it anyway, either today or the next time her baby stopped by. She had no choice. She could never be the person she’d been before, any more than Florence could grow into the person she would have been.
The lion had almost reached her front door.
“How rich?” Teri said.
The lion turned, shuffling its whole body around, and her baby scrutinized her. “Does it matter? Rich.”
“Of course it matters,” Teri said, standing up and swaying slightly. “If I’m going to be a celebrity mom, especially to a freaky celebrity like you — no offense — I’m going to need a hell of a lot of cosmetic surgery. And nice clothes. It’s like your exo–suit. I need a layer of protection.”
The baby seemed about to say she liked Teri the way she was. Then she shrugged, which involved a slow lift of those front arm joints, a roll deep in the sockets, and then a slow lowering. “Yah, that’s no problem. We can make you a cyborg too, if you want.”
“No,” Teri said. “That’s okay.” But she knew she probably would want to be a cyborg, in a year or two. She was on the slippery slope now.
“Great. I’ll make the arrangements and let you know.” The lion with the face of her only child swiveled again and tromped out into the hallway, then down the gunmetal stairs. Teri watched it go, and even looked out her front window to see it emerge onto the street. For a couple hours after the lion went away, she waited for some monster or evil genius to show up and disintegrate her into atoms, scattered across the city’s smog layer. When that didn’t happen, she poured herself some more bourbon and read up on liposuction and brow lifts. She was going to look like Angelina Jolie.