She was superhuman. Her moves defied commonly accepted laws of physics, and everything she did, from a tiny flicker of her fingers to elaborate, daring tumbling passes, was masterfully executed. When she stepped on the mat, her aim was not to beat her competitors. Nor was she attempting to conquer her fears, for she had none. But every time she performed, every time the audience gasped in breathless wonder and erupted in a thunder of applause, she was fighting the gravity. And when she prevailed over it, time and time again, she knew that the physical limitations that applied to other people didn’t apply to her. She was invincible, a hero, a role model for millions of young girls around the world who wanted to be her.
Her trembling hand clasping the remote tightly, Sarah watched herself compete on TV. Her unblinking eyes followed the slim figure on the tiny screen, while her whole body seemed to tense whenever she performed a particularly remarkable skill. Each time her routine ended, she would rewind to the beginning. Over and over she would play it without noticing the tears that ran down her cheeks. She watched the girl on TV do a brilliant dismount after a flawless beam routine and raise her hands in a celebratory greeting, and her face lit up for a second and then relaxed into a habitual frown again.
A nurse waltzed into the room, a medical chart under her arm. She smiled cheerfully, an expression of carefree unconcern on her plump, freckly face. ‘Are you watching it again?’ she demanded, taking the remote from Sarah’s unresponsive fingers and pausing the video. ‘All you do is torture yourself. You should watch a movie or read a book. We have many good books in the library. I could bring you one.’
Sarah shook her head sadly and looked out the window, her eyes vacant and staring. If she tried hard enough, maybe she could pretend that she was someplace else, practicing in the gym, perhaps, or swimming in the lake, or at her parents’ place enjoying a family meal. Anywhere but in this dreary room where everything, from grey walls to the wheelchair that she used to move her immobile body around, smelt of sickness, death, and desperation.
‘Try to move your toes for me, honey.’ The nurse’s no-nonsense voice interrupted her reverie. ‘You have a long way to go to get better, and you have to work very hard.’
Sarah blinked the unwanted tears away. How was she supposed to move her toes if she didn’t even feel them? She sensed her stomach tighten in a helpless, petrified mass, and she squeezed her eyes. ‘What’s the point?’ she said dejectedly. ‘I will never do gymnastics again.’
‘Yes, but if you don’t give up, you might walk again.’ The nurse winked and adjusted her pillows.
‘Gymnastics is my life,’ Sarah whispered.
‘Oh, honey,’ said the nurse dismissively. ‘There’s more to life than gymnastics.’
Sarah contemplated her with pity. The woman didn’t know what she was talking about. How could she if she never experienced the rush of mastering a move that no one else in the world could do, the giddy exhilaration of winning, of achieving the impossible, of beating the odds every single day of her life?
Her gaze fell on a framed photograph on her bedside table. The young girl in the picture was crying too, but instead of weakness and fear, they were tears of happiness. Not because she had a gold medal around her neck or because of the adoring crowds shouting her name. And not even because she was the best in the world.
No, she was crying from happiness because she still believed that she was superhuman.
She waited for him all day. Trapped in her helpless misery, there was nothing left for her to do but pray for him to come. Nothing to do but watch her mobile phone obsessively and dial his number time and time again, leaving countless messages, each more frantic and despairing than the last. She fretted and cried, and she even put on some bright pink lipstick only to wipe it off again with a sleeve of her hospital gown. Finally, she slept.
It was while she was still asleep and when the early morning dawn coloured dark skies bright red that he finally came.
He watched her open her eyes groggily and said, ‘Sorry I haven’t been in touch. I got caught up at the gym.’
‘I called the gym. You weren’t there,’ she said accusingly. ‘Were you with her?’ Sarah didn’t like the whining, atypically insecure note that made her voice quiver. She shut her eyes in pain, waiting for the drug-infused fog to clear so she could think straight.
Instead of sitting down in a chair beside her bed, he took a step back. ‘How are you feeling?’ he asked.
‘I’m not,’ she said dully.
‘Sorry?’ He looked at her in confusion.
‘I’m not feeling anything, Paul.’ It was a lie. Paradoxically, and despite not having any sensation below her waist, every fibre of her body seemed to exude dull, monotone pain that never went away, not even when she was asleep.
‘Do you want anything? Is there anything I can do?’
‘There is. When I fell…’ she stammered. ‘When I had the accident, I was recording my vault. I want to see the video.’
‘I don’t think it’s a good idea.’
‘It will make me feel better.’
‘You shouldn’t dwell on the past so much. Concentrate on your recovery.’
‘I need to understand the mistake I made to make sure I don’t do it again,’ she said, and then she saw his darkened face and remembered. She would never do gymnastics again. Shivering, she continued, ‘You are my coach. It happened on your watch. It’s your fault! I want to see the video.’
He gasped as if she had slapped him. ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ he said coldly. ‘You should get some rest.’
‘Do you still love me?’ she demanded.
‘Say it.’ She watched his face for what seemed like a very long time. ‘I need to hear you say it.’
‘I love you.’ It was almost a whisper.
She lowered her gaze thoughtfully. ‘If you loved me, you would have gotten a divorce by now.’
‘I really need to get going. I will come and see you very soon, I promise. Go back to sleep.’
Leaving the room, he turned the lights off behind him. She was suddenly plunged in darkness, and she squeezed her eyes shut in a vain attempt to fight off the familiar twinge of panic and loneliness. Her shoulders shook in silent sobs. She desperately wanted to get up, make her way to the window, and watch his retreating back as he walked away from her and into his daily life. But the body that until very recently had obeyed her every whim now let her down, refusing to cooperate. She concentrated on her lifeless feet, willing them to move, but there was nothing, not even a flicker of feeling.
Paul stepped out into the cold and, briefly turning around to look at her window, started down the street. He wasn’t sure if it was the bleak hopelessness of the hospital room, Sarah’s tearful desperation, or his own all-consuming remorse that was forcing him to walk so fast on this lazy Saturday morning. All he knew was that he had to get away.
He slipped on the icy road and almost fell, swearing loudly and startling a lone dog walker leading an oversized yellow Labrador. Regaining his balance, Paul muttered something under his breath and rapidly changed direction. He couldn’t face going home, either.
He couldn’t face his wife, just yet.
He wondered if Lucy knew about him and Sarah. How could she possibly not? She worked as a physiotherapist at their gym and she wasn’t stupid or blind. And yet, they had been very discreet. No one else knew, not even other gymnasts. Not even Sarah’s best friend.
He fumbled in his pocket for a key and, struggling with a lock, his frozen fingers trembling a little, opened the door. The gym was deserted, and he welcomed a rare moment of solitude.
His office was a chaos of haphazardly discarded papers, documents, and magazines, but Sarah’s camera was still on the table, right where he left it that day, exactly a week ago. He shuddered every time he remembered what happened. Her sharp cry of pain, hushed voices of white-clad doctors, quiet rustle of their crisp uniforms as they placed Sarah on a stretcher, monotone blue flashing lights of the ambulance as it made its way through deserted streets. Picking up the camera, he hesitated. He wasn’t sure he could bear to relive the disquieting feeling of helpless guilt that he felt then and was still feeling now.
Finally, he sank into his leather chair, turned on his computer and braced himself for what he was about to see. She was breathtakingly beautiful, and even now, in the confines of his small computer screen, she radiated youthful energy and life. She did one vault after another, and he smiled proudly. She was the only one in the world who had the courage and the talent required to do this skill. She was a winner, a force of nature.
He sighed and shook his head in despair.
After her third vault, she walked to her gym bag to get a drink, her back to the camera. She took a swig of water and, bending over, began to bandage her ankle that was troubling her that day. And as soon as she did that, a tall blonde woman approached the vault and moved the springboard a few inches away from the apparatus.
Paul blinked, his face frozen in shock. His question had been answered.
Lucy knew about him and Sarah.
For the last week Lucy hadn’t been able to sleep. Every time she closed her eyes, she awoke from the same agonising nightmare, shaking in anguish, cold sweat running down her face. And as she lay wide awake night after sleepless night, she wanted to scream. I didn’t want it to end so badly, she repeated to herself. I didn’t want her to get hurt.
She couldn’t face going to work. Long, mournful faces of gymnasts, subconscious fear permeating their every move, Sarah’s name whispered everywhere she turned, even the cursed vault. Everything reminded her of what she had done.
Day after day, she stayed in the reassuring safety of the house she and Paul shared.
On an impulse, she dialled the hospital. There was no answer for a very long time and she breathed out sharply, almost relieved. When a nurse finally answered, she panicked and nearly hung up. ‘I am calling to inquire about one of your patients,’ she mumbled, her voice barely audible. ‘Her name is Sarah. Sarah White.’ Saying Sarah’s name aloud made her cringe, as if she was in pain.
‘Are you a family member?’
‘Yes,’ she stammered. ‘I’m her sister.’ She shivered.
‘There’s been no change in Miss White’s condition.’ The nurse on the other side of the phone sounded bored.
‘Will she be able to walk?’ asked Lucy, holding her breath.
‘I’m sorry, but at this stage it’s impossible to tell.’
‘Thank you,’ whispered Lucy softly. Slowly she sank into a deep armchair and stared into space, her body rocking back and forth. Half an hour passed, then an hour.
A sudden bang of the front door startled her and she looked up. Paul was standing over her, his mouth set in a tense contemptuous line. ‘Aren’t you going to work today?’ he asked sternly.
‘I’m not feeling well,’ she said, her voice hoarse. ‘What are you doing home?’ Slowly, unsteadily, as if the effort of it was too much for her sleep deprived body, she got up and leaned against the wall, facing him.
‘We need to talk.’ He watched his wife’s gaunt face, his arms wrapped tightly around his athletic body. ‘I want a divorce,’ he said firmly, his voice empty and dull. He braced himself for her reaction, her shock, her inevitable tears. None came. She looked calm and collected, and only the glass she was holding in her hand shook badly, spilling water all over their spotless beige carpet.
‘I know we’ve been having problems. We drifted apart. But we can work on it. We can try again.’ She was blinking fast as if struggling to control her emotion.
He shook his head defiantly. ‘It’s over, Lucy. There’s no point trying.’
‘All I ask for is another chance. Is it because of her?’ Finally she cried, her shoulders quivering. ‘You must really love her to want to do this to us.’ She wiped her tears away with the back of her hand and her face lit up in sudden hope. ‘I will never give you a divorce. Once this infatuation is over, things will go back to normal. I am your wife for life and nothing you do is going to change that.’
She leaned forward and reached for his hand, but he recoiled and took a step back. When he spoke, his voice was very quiet, and she had to make an effort to hear him. ‘I know what you did to Sarah. You are lucky she’s alive. You could have killed her. Here, watch this.’ Carelessly, with contempt, he threw a computer disc in her direction, and it fell on the floor with a disturbing, clanking sound. ‘And don’t worry if you damage it, I made copies. My lawyer will be in touch.’
He looked at her one last time and his eyes were cold. Turning around, he walked through the door, slamming it behind him once more. When she was alone, Lucy sank to the floor in a shattered, faltering mass, clutching her stomach tightly as if she had been stabbed.
Sarah wished she could sleep twenty hours a day. Sleep was oblivion, and when she slept, she was almost happy. Unfortunately, her body was rebelling against more sleep just like it was rebelling against everything else that she willed it to do. To pass the time, she watched an enormous spider on the ceiling above her bed, weaving its intricate web that stretched from one wall to another. Every morning a cleaner destroyed the results of its incessant work, and every day the spider rebuilt its web again, never giving up, no matter how long it took, only to have it taken away from him once again the next morning.
I wish I had his determination, thought Sarah. She named the spider and had endless discussions with him.
The spider was a good listener.
The door opened silently and she watched a tall woman make her way into the room. Sarah recognised her immediately, even though Lucy looked as if she had aged ten years since the last time she saw her. There were dark shadows under Lucy’s eyes and her shoulders were stooped. There was no makeup on her face, nor had she bothered to brush her long blond hair that looked matted and lifeless.
There was a minute of silence as the two of them stared at each other intently. Finally, Lucy said, ‘You must be very pleased with yourself.’
‘What are you talking about?’ asked Sarah, wondering if perhaps the older woman was mad and whether she should call for help. Just in case, she placed her thumb on the emergency panic button.
‘I felt so bad about what happened to you. So guilty. But not anymore. You deserve everything you got.’ Lucy paused, as if afraid that she revealed too much.
Sarah closed her eyes. She was in pain and didn’t feel up to a confrontation. ‘What are you doing here?’ she asked coldly.
‘How do you do that? Even now that you are in a wheelchair, you manage to destroy my marriage.’ She laughed hysterically, her hands shaking.
‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’
‘He left,’ said Lucy. ‘He packed his bags and left. We are getting a divorce. But if you think you will be happy together, you are wrong. One day he’ll do to you what he did to me, you just wait and see. He will soon get tired of the responsibility of looking after you.’ She looked Sarah up and down with disdain.
Sarah felt the tiniest glimmer of remorse as she listened to Lucy’s tearful accusations, but it was soon gone, giving way to exhilaration and excitement. In vain did she struggle to hide the sheer happiness that was written all over her face. Finally, like she always wanted, she and Paul could be together. No more sneaking around and hiding their feelings for each other. She closed her eyes and prayed for the woman to leave, so she could daydream about her future with Paul without interruption.
For the first time since her fall, she felt hopeful.
That night and the one after, she didn’t close her eyes, not for a moment. She waited for Paul to come and give her the exciting news. She couldn’t wait to hear him tell her that now she could have everything she ever dreamt of, with him. That everything would be ok. She lay awake minute after agonising minute, watching the door.
But hours turned into days, and her hope soon turned into doubt, and there was still no sign of him.
Finally, her mobile rang. She grabbed it and, seeing his name light up on the little screen, answered eagerly.
‘Where have you been?’ she demanded. ‘I haven’t seen you for three days.’
‘I think it’s better if we don’t see each other anymore.’ He sounded distant and his voice was quiet, but every cruel, bitter word made her gasp in agony.
‘Why are you doing this? I thought that now you left Lucy we could finally be together.’
‘I’m not doing this to hurt you. It’s for the best for both of us. One day you will understand.’
‘Are you going back to her? You should know that she’s crazy. She was here, threatening me. She stalks me pretending to be my sister.’ Sarah talked very fast, refusing to believe in the finality of what was happening.
‘This has nothing to do with her,’ he said firmly.
‘You said you loved me. Was it a lie?’ She listened to the ominous silence on the other end and a sudden panic gripped her. ‘Please don’t leave me. I don’t want to be alone,’ she pleaded. ‘Is it because I’m not well? Well, I’m going to get better soon and then you’ll be sorry.’
‘I hope you get better, Sarah, I really do. For your sake rather than mine. You are only seventeen. You have your whole life ahead of you.’
‘I can’t even walk, you bastard!’ she screamed, throwing the phone in the corner of her room and shaking in rage. ‘I can’t even walk,’ she whispered.
Layer upon flawless layer of snowflakes were performing a peculiar dance in the eerie light of a lone, yellow streetlamp outside. As they settled on the tall, leafy pine trees, on the frozen ground and ungainly buildings, Sarah thought that they made everything appear shiny, magical even, as if it was Christmas, as if there was no hospital room, or pain, or fear.
A nurse strolled in, a distracted, it’s almost the end of my shift expression on her round face. ‘How are we today?’ she inquired.
‘Fine,’ said Sarah. ‘Just fine.’
‘That’s good to hear. I brought you a book. It’s about a cyclist who made a full recovery after an accident. Would you like it?’
‘Yes, please.’ Sarah reached for the book eagerly. ‘Do you think I will make a full recovery one day?’
‘Of course you will, dear. As long as you believe in it.’
‘I believe in it,’ whispered Sarah, holding the book close and looking out the window once more. She wished she could touch the snow, run across the boundless white fields of her parents’ farm as fast as she possibly could, their refreshing coolness making her giddy with excitement, her trusted dog Buttons by her side. And as she imagined the crunch of snow under her bare feet, almost sensing its icy touch on her bare skin, she tensed her muscles. She tensed her shoulders first, and then her arms, and when she tensed her back, she sensed a strange tingling sensation running up and down her legs.
And as she squeezed her eyes, thinking about all the things that she wanted to do, all the things that she used to do but took for granted, she felt her feet move.
Svetlana Kortchik was born in a small Siberian town of Tomsk and, when she was 16, moved to Australia with her mum. She lives in Sydney, working as a computer programmer. Her passions are writing, travelling, history and martial arts.
Her short stories have appeared or are about to appear in Spark Creative Anthology, Forging Freedom Anthology, Forge Journal, Constellations Journal, Alt Hist, 94 Creations, Magination, Inwood Indiana Press Anthology ‘Harvest Time’, Gold Dust, Nazar Look, Bengal Lights, Eclectic Eel and on Alfie Dog. She was the winner of Historical Novel Society Autumn 2012 Short Fiction competition, and one of her stories has also been on the Commendations List of Aesthetica Creative Works Competition 2010.
“Superhuman,” being reprinted here, was previously published in Forge Journal in June 2013 and was one of two runners up in the 2013 Defenestrationism Short Story Competition.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH Superhuman:
Because we publish only a handful of pieces quarterly, we prefer to give our limited spots to previously unpublished pieces. When an exceptional reprint opportunity arises, we will consider the story only if we are unable to fill our openings with quality unpublished submissions. Such was the case here.
Several themes run through this piece and combine to produce a strong story. Author Svetlana Kortchik brings us a wide range of emotions in this well-crafted piece and demonstrates the reason for its previous success in other venues.