Alter Ego

alter_ego_crimson_sonThis is a short story set in an alternate earth superhero world I created for my debut novel, Crimson Son. The novel is narrated by snarky teenager, Spencer Harrington and is a whirlwind of crass humor and male hormones. However, many reviewers have made note of the poignant moments in Crimson Son and this short story builds on that tone with an entirely different perspective.

Alter Ego

Russ Linton

Jackie dyed her hair orange the summer of seventh grade. Her father let her but he wasn’t sure at the start. He had stared, mouth half-open, eyes seeing through her for what seemed like a long time. But he’d finally agreed with a silent nod of his head.

She’d reached up and wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. Frozen in whatever mental fog gripped him, there were too many heartbeats before she felt him caress the back of her head. He’d probably never expected her to ask for something so, well, crazy, but he had to know she’d at least considered it.

A few years ago her father decided to give her an allowance. Even then, at ten years old, she’d grown tired of living in a weed-choked, laundry basket of a house slated for a dust bunny breeding program. After long hours at work, her father was exhausted. Most often he’d drop down on the sofa with a beer and tune out everything but the television.

She understood.

So, she started cleaning – learned how, after a few dozen shrunken t-shirts and pink socks later, to do the laundry. The dishes. She even conquered her fear of the vacuum cleaner. Sure, she’d screamed the entire time, racing around the house as if she held a live animal in her hands but she got the job done. After that, she took on the lawnmower, an even scarier monster. But she was brave. That’s what Ember would be.

Once she had saved enough money and gotten up the nerve to let her dad in on her secret desire, she’d raced triumphantly to her room and launched into the air. She always clung to the moment when her feet left the ground, pretending she could control the thermals, change their density to let her tiny frame float. She never could, of course, but she landed on her bed, giddy with excitement about her coming change.

Above her, the ceiling was papered with news clippings and magazine pages. There, in those spaces, Jackie did fly. One of the pictures in particular always held her attention.

Ember, the flame wielding Augment, soaring through the skies of Chicago on a pillar of fire.

Her costume was made of thick, shimmery material which could somehow withstand the intense heat. A heat that could set the air on fire, burn through the outer shell of a battle tank and melt guns into puddles.

If Jackie could have any power, it would be Ember’s.

But the fireproof costume didn’t explain the hair. Ember’s mask covered her entire face. A sleek visor, sort of like a medieval knight, but no holes for her eyes. Behind that, her brilliant orange mane flowed in a stripe down her head. Her powers kept her from frying her head, Jackie thought. Precise control of the heat. Too bad Dad hadn’t agreed to the mohawk.

“Are you ready?” her dad stood in the doorway of her bedroom, keys in hand. He was trying to smile, but his eyes were worried. He always looked like that.

“Yep, yep!” She leapt to her feet on the bed and bounded toward him.

Excitement coursed through her and she knew her face was plastered in the world’s goofiest grin, but she didn’t care. And exactly like she hoped, he snatched her off the ground as she got to the door, his distant expression now transformed by her joy.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

She smacked his shoulder. “Of course I want to do this.” He laughed and lowered her to the ground. “Besides,” she added, “this is your fault.”

The distant look returned. “Why do you say that?”

“You’re the one that watches Ember all the time.”

“Do not.” He forced a smile.

“Do too! Every time she’s on the news you can’t look away.” She poked a finger in his chest. “Somebody has a crush.”

“Come on, now.” He started down the hall, fidgeting with the keys.

“Admit it! You do!”

“Stop. Let’s go before I change my mind.”

They hopped in the jeep and made their way into town. They stopped at the grocery store first. Jackie complained but Dad was right, they actually did have things like hair coloring kits. But the shelf held only an autumn sort of red, nothing like Ember orange. She even asked a bald, sullen looking employee if they had the color, exactly like that, “Ember orange”. He shook his head and went back to pushing a ragged mop across the floor.

They tried several stores and were about to give up when Jackie spotted a salon. She’d never been in one. Her and her dad both went to the ClipShack, which she didn’t mind. The stylists were always excited to see her. She felt a bit like Ember those days – a touch of the famous Augment’s celebrity. She swelled with a bit of pride as they fawned over her, the only other girl in the place. The excitement always waned when she asked for something ‘easy’.

“A phase,” they’d say sympathetically. “She’ll grow out of it.”

“Aren’t there any boys you like?”

Gross. Ember didn’t like boys. At least Jackie didn’t think so.

The salon looked fancy. With cursive letters on the windows, she couldn’t even read the name. The posters with models pointing their chins at the sky made her cringe. Their hair was all silky and smooth and perfectly colored.

“There!” Jackie pointed.

“Are you sure?”

She nodded.

When Jackie and her father walked in, they weren’t staring down a row of barber’s chairs facing little TVs looping Sportscenter. She didn’t even see any chairs. Just a reception desk decorated with smooth, turquoise stones all down the front and a blank brown wall behind decorated with the same cursive lettering. A girl with perfect hair, like the posters, and razor-sharp lips and eyebrows pulled herself away from a cell phone.

“Welcome to Sante. Do you have an appointment?”

“Nope.” Jackie said before her dad could speak. “I want my hair colored. Maybe you have a kit?”

“We don’t sell ‘kits’,” the girl’s sky-pointed chin dipped to her collarbone when she said the word. “But we might have someone available.” She rose and disappeared around the wall. Jackie walked toward the partition swinging her shoulders like the receptionist.

“Jackie.” Her Dad sounded stern but maybe a bit amused.

“What?”

The receptionist rounded the corner with another girl behind her. She was young and her hair was silky too, but a broad swath of it was deep purple on one side and shaved tight to her scalp on the other. Somehow, Jackie thought, the snooty receptionist had found the right person.

“Hello.” The girl extended a hand and Jackie took hold. She wasn’t much taller than Jackie, but something about the tight lines of her jeans made her legs appear endless. Her white sleeveless t-shirt hung like a shredded rag and black lace peeked through the holes alongside bare skin.

Jackie realized she had been standing there, staring when the girl raised her eyebrows. “I’m Becca. You are?”

Becca didn’t paint on her eyebrows or her lips. The natural lines suggested perfection enough. That and her smile made Jackie’s cheeks flush.

“This is Jackie.” She felt her father’s hand on her shoulder. “She wants to color her hair.”

“That so.” Becca eyed Jackie and tapped her lip with her finger. “I can probably help you out. What were you thinking?”

It was the finger on her lip. Jackie couldn’t erase the image.

“Well?”

“Ember orange,” said her father. Becca’s face twisted in confusion and he stuttered out an explanation. “Like the Augment, Ember.”

“Ahh, so this is like an ‘I’m not fucking around’ orange?”

Jackie nodded.

Her father choked out a reply. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“Got it. Come with me.”

Jackie followed, her father close behind. At the corner, Becca wheeled and brandished a finger in his direction. “Girls only,” she said with a wink.

Jackie’s father raised his hands in surrender and half-smiled. “All right. But no mohawks.”

Becca ran a hand through Jackie’s hair and pursed her lips. The touch made her scalp tingle and she swore she could feel it all the way down to her toes. “Yeah, no problem.”

They entered an open room with stylist’s stations peppering the space, each made up of a floating wall with mirror and fancy wood cabinets facing a barber’s chair. Everything matched the earthy tones of the reception area. At each station stylists hovered around their customers, silver blades flickering between their fingers. This was not the humming assembly line of electric clippers like the Clipshack where she went with her Dad. Here, women spoke and laughed. Some sat alone reading magazines oblivious to strange rings floating over their head on arms mounted to the chair.

Jackie almost asked what they were, but she hoped she wouldn’t have to speak. Normally, according to her teachers at school, she didn’t have a problem with speaking, but Becca had left her tongue tied. Becca motioned to a chair and she sat.

“Sure you don’t want a mohawk?”

“No.” Jackie wished Becca would stop smiling, but at the same time, she knew she’d miss it. “My Dad.”

“Yeah, I know.” Becca pouted and whipped an apron around Jackie’s neck. “You’d look kickass with one.”

Jackie felt her cheeks flush and she checked the mirror in time to watch them blossom. A hand lightly touched her chin and kept her from hiding her face. Becca was examining her again and Jackie let her eyes wander around the room to avoid contact.

“Orange, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Cool. Let’s get started.”

From that moment, Jackie was lost in a world of odd sensations. The warm water from the faucet as Becca washed her hair was exhilarating but not nearly as much as the pull of slender fingers along her scalp. All the while, Becca hovered over her, the loose shirt dangling open. Things stirred inside Jackie – things that made her drive her stubby nails into the arm of the chair.

Next, they returned to the station and Becca brushed on globs of dye that looked nothing like orange, but Jackie didn’t protest. Becca worked while wrapping strands of hair in foil slips, like leftover pizza. Her playful side tucked away, she worked with a laser guided stare. So focused, Jackie finally started to relax. All the staring and examining was part of the process, she told herself. Checking her hair out, not her.

“Your mom cool with this?” Becca muttered as she brushed on more of the dye.

“My Mom’s not really around.” Jackie didn’t normally tell people this – it was really none of their business, but despite her awkwardness around Becca, she felt she could trust her.

“Oh, sorry.”

“Not a big deal,” said Jackie. She had an urge to sound grown up. “Long time ago.”

Becca nodded and fixed on a palette of foil. “What’s it with this Ember chick? You into Augments?”

“I guess. Well, not really.” Augments weren’t a ‘girl thing’ and Jackie was always stumbling with what to say when people asked.

If Mrs. Curren, her history teacher, were to be believed, they were weapons. Living weapons created by the world’s superpowers. Only boys thought weapons were cool.

As she watched Becca’s skull-shaped ring move in and out of her field of vision, she thought of how stupid she was being. Becca wasn’t about to pass judgment. “I just think she’s, well, great,” Jackie sputtered.

“Great, huh?” Becca sounded unimpressed.

“Well, my Dad thinks so too. He’s always reading about her, watching her in the news.”

“Not creepy,” Becca mumbled, lost in her work. Jackie waited to see if she was going to apologize, but she didn’t so she took it in stride.

“No, nothing like that. He’s got a crush.” She stopped at telling her about the news clippings on the ceiling of her room. How half of them had come from the trash dad set out late one night after he’d had too many beers. The next morning, Jackie found a box full of the pictures and stories by the curb. So carefully clipped and kept flat with crisp edges, they felt like something he cared about. He never asked what happened to the box. Even when he saw them on her ceiling months later, he still didn’t say a word, only stared.

Becca nodded, biting her lip as she applied another stroke. “Okay, so, he’s got a crush. What about you?”

“I don’t know. I sorta get her, you know? She’s always standing up to the rogue Augments, helping people. I want to be like that.” She almost added “when I grow up” but stopped herself.

Several more coats of color went on before Becca pulled herself from her work to ask another question. “So, say Crimson Mask and Ember get in a fight, who wins?”

Now Becca was being stupid. Crimson Mask was maybe the most powerful Augment ever created. “They don’t fight. But if they did, Ember all the way.”

“Yup,” Becca barked. “Girl power, baby.” She extended her fist for a bump then slumped back to examine her work. “Okay, I think we got it.”

“Now what?”

“I clean this up, you get to sit and wait,” Becca said, gathering her supplies. “Be right back.”

Jackie felt the tension drain from her body. She almost wished it had stuck around.

She didn’t have to wait long. Before she knew it, Becca was back and they were at the sink again, rinsing her hair. Fast and efficient, the earlier exhilaration was lost and Jackie began to feel anxious about seeing her hair free from the foil nest. When they got back to the station, Jackie stood in front of the mirror.

“Can we dry it?”

“Let it air dry. I promise, you’ll love it.”

“Oh, I love it now!”

Becca moved up behind her, gathering Jackie’s hair into a sculpted ridge. “Yep, that would be hot. Want me to talk to your dad?”

She felt her cheeks burn again. “No thanks. He’ll need to get used to this first.”

He’d been shocked when she returned to the waiting room, but not half as shocked as when the receptionist rang them up. Jackie spread her allowance on the counter to fill the silence, and he eventually paid the difference, even leaving Becca a tip that earned them a wink. She could swear they both blushed and she understood.

Later that day, when the breeze from the open windows on the jeep and Jackie’s rushing around the house jumping from the back of the couch or leaping onto her bed had dried the last strand of hair, she dropped next to him on the couch and shook his arm to pry him from the glow of the television.

“Well, do I look like her?

Jackie didn’t understand why his red eyes grew damp. He took a swig of his beer before answering. “Yeah, baby. Just like her.”

Thanks for reading! I’ll be sharing more free stories here and if you are interested in more of my writing please check out the links to my published work

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