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The Comic Book Store at the End of the Universe

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SM: ok heads up there’s a SPACESHIP and a WIZARD and we’re going into SPACE and HOLY SHIT HOW COOL IS THAT but also things are rly bad and i probs cant keep you updated in space but be careful. don’t worry we got this


 

The comic book store on the corner of Lincoln Parkway and Union Avenue had seen many changes over the years. The water stains in the ceiling had grown yellower; the wall of movies had moved to the merchandise area to make room for more comics; the Captain America sections had all but disappeared since the Sokovia Accords. A new group of customers meandered through the aisles, and a new cashier sat behind the checkout counter now that Jackie had gone off to college.

But the biggest change had been the addition of Game Night. Every Friday, people were invited to come to the store to play whatever game the employees had picked out that week, be it a board game, card game, or tabletop RPG. To facilitate this, they moved the cardboard display racks at the front of the comics section next to the checkout and replaced them with a coffee table surrounded by half a dozen brightly colored beanbag chairs.

Today, however, was not a Friday, so the beanbag chairs were largely empty. Two teenage girls lounged next to each other on a green beanbag, their legs tangled up in each other’s. One was tall, with an explosion of dark curls held in place by her favorite maroon beanie. She wore a matching flannel and dark skinny jeans, and she was flipping through a book about the Sokovia Accords. The other girl was short, with the kind of skin that some would call “tan” and others would call “brown.” She was curled up in her Black Widow jacket—which finally fit after six years of owning it—with a Thor comic propped up against her threadbare purple bookbag.

Lucia couldn’t focus on her comic. Her mind kept drifting back to the text she had received earlier from Spider-Man and the giant spinning disk that had briefly appeared in the Manhattan skyline with it, but, whatever happened, Spider-Man (and apparently a wizard?) would save the day. She knew that in her heart.

It didn’t stop her from worrying.

“Julie?” she whispered, glancing around them first to make sure no one else could hear.

“Hm?” Julie replied as she turned a page in her book.

“What do you think is happening?”

Julie looked up and placed her finger to mark her spot in the book.

There was no warning. No sirens blared; no sense of impending doom fell over the comic book store. Lucia only saw it because she was looking straight at Julie.

It started in the hand holding the book. The faintest bit of motion: impossible, unnatural motion. At first glance, her fingers seemed to be expanding. No, Lucia realized, they were falling apart, disintegrating like the ashes of spent coal. And it was spreading. Up Julie’s hand, up her arm—the book fell onto the beanbag chair with a soft thump. Her feet disappeared, then her legs. It happened so quickly Lucia didn’t have time to notice the cashier, Deadpool by the counter, the kids in the costume section, all going through the same thing. The briefest of confused looks passed over both their faces, and it was over as soon as it began.

Juliette Rodriguez was gone.


 

Six years ago, Lucia’s school bus was attacked by a monster pulled straight from the zeitgeist of old Japanese films by a villainous reality warper. They were saved by Black Widow and Hawkeye while the rest of the Avengers fought off the beast.

She remembered running to the police at the other end of the street, as per Hawkeye’s orders.

She did not remember anything after that.

Now, she didn’t remember leaving the comic book store. She didn’t remember Deadpool stumbling around half-disintegrated as his body tried to piece itself back together. She didn’t remember the driverless cars wrapped around streetlamps and fire hydrants. She didn’t remember the blanket where a homeless man used to sit rattling a can of change, and she didn’t remember the can itself lying abandoned on its side with the pennies spilling out. She didn’t remember the woman sobbing over a baby stroller with no baby in it.

She didn’t remember crossing the street without looking both ways or standing at the top of the subway entrance, staring blankly down the steps. She didn’t remember deciding the subway would be too dangerous—if the streets were this chaotic, she could only imagine what the rails were like—or stumbling on down the street.

She didn’t remember her parents calling her on her cell phone. She didn’t remember listening to their frantic questions, and she didn’t remember answering them all in a daze.

She didn’t remember how she got home.

She didn’t remember Adrian’s car pulling up outside the apartment, or his pounding feet on the stairs, or him bursting through the door in a panic. She didn’t remember him screeching to a halt when he saw the three of them there, safe, in the living room.

She didn’t remember him choking out the words, “Jackie’s gone.”

She barely remembered taking a step toward him, then another, then rushing at him and wrapping her arms around his waist in a crushing hug.

And then she remembered.

She remembered sitting on the curb with her classmates in the aftermath of the battle while other students had tearful reunions with their parents. She remembered seeing her own parents and running to meet them. She remembered babbling excitedly—and somewhat hysterically—about her role in the matter.

And she remembered Julie. Julie, who had seen the news on the television and realized it was Lucia’s bus that was trapped by the monster. Julie, who had forced her parents to drive her to the site. Julie, who sprinted to her side with panicked tears in her eyes and engulfed her in the longest, tightest bear hug of her life.

Only then, hours after she’d been rescued, had she burst into tears, and only now, with her arms around her brother and the memory of her best friend in her mind, did she do it again.


That night, Lucia didn’t get any sleep. She simply laid in bed for hours, tossing and turning and staring at the ceiling, alternately cursing the God she only vaguely believed in and praying that it was all just a dream, that she would wake up in the morning to the sound of Julie’s texts reaching her phone.

Julie always was an early riser.

The second night she slept for only a few hours, and even then only because she passed out from exhaustion at half past midnight. She dreamt that the whole world dissolved beneath her feet, leaving all the trees, houses, cars, busses, and planes drifting aimlessly through space. Not a single person remained. The silence was so thick she could move through it, and she swam across the vast emptiness until she saw, off in the distance, a large yellow structure floating partially on its side: a school bus.

She blinked, and there she was sitting inside it in the third to last row on the left-hand side, the sole occupied seat on the bus. Instinctively, she stood up and moved to the opposite window, waiting for—dreading—what was about to happen. She knew, and she could do nothing to stop it. With her hands pressed against the cold glass, she watched as, one by one, things began to disappear. First a car, then a fire hydrant… another car… a tree. Finally, the buildings crumbled to dust. She watched until she and the school bus were the only objects left in the universe. Nothing, not even the stars, broke the unending sea of black outside the window.

She wanted to scream, to pound her fists against the glass until the universe relented and brought everything back, but she found she couldn’t even move a muscle. Either fear or some unknown force held her in place. Someone would come to save her, surely? She couldn’t be the only one left.

Underneath her fingers, the window began to crumble.


 

Lucia did not get any sleep on the third night.


 

Classes were cancelled while the school figured out how to run without its principal, all its vice principals, and half its staff. And half its students. Public infrastructure was still in shambles. Roads had yet to be cleared of all the crashed cars; subway lines were still shut down; even the mail came late, when it came at all. Looters and vandals ran the streets. Through everything, Lucia collected news articles and blog postings and television clips like her hoarded copies of the leaked SHIELD files.

This was exactly the sort of thing Julie would have done—should be doing—for her blog. Lucia didn’t know how to break it to her 16,172 followers that she was… gone. Lucia had the password. She could—should—continue the blog. It was what Julie would have wanted. But Lucia didn’t have her best friend’s way with words. For Lucia, the English language was merely a tool, but Julie turned it into a blank canvas waiting to be made into a masterpiece. Lucia couldn’t possibly do that justice.

What she could do, that Julie never seemed to get the hang of, was numbers, and the list of confirmed… victims (not the dead… she couldn’t say ‘dead’) grew longer each day. Julie; Jackie; Jackie’s replacement at the comic book store, Mica; Deadpool (?); Aunt Maria; Mr. Rodriguez; Julie’s sister, Audrey; Dylan, Mackenna, Michael, Jake, all three Bens, Nicholas, Samantha, Kylie, and Riley from school; Principal Henderson; cousins Luis, Juan, and Helena; the entire Almada family; Mrs. Moretti in apartment B; Mr. Smirnov across the street; Luke and Connor, the twins in apartment A…

She hit the enter key and slowly, hunt and peck-style, typed out ‘Spider-Man.’ Her fingers hovered over the shift and question mark keys, just as they had when she added Deadpool to the list. Surely he couldn’t really be… gone. He had a healing factor just like Deadpool, and last she had seen, he was doing just fine… Well, fine by Deadpool’s standards in any case, and by Spider-Man’s own admission his healing factor wasn’t as strong as Deadpool’s.

Lucia pulled out her phone and scrolled up the long, increasingly desperate line of outgoing texts in her conversation with Spider-Man. With a sigh, she saved the document as it was and shut her laptop.


 

A week passed, then two. Lucia refused to leave the apartment for anything. She still couldn’t sleep, and she barely ate, even when she overheard her parents whispering about sending her to a therapist. The last therapist she’d seen had been unbearably quiet and, when she had spoken, treated Lucia like she’d been three instead of the ten and a half she had been. Lucia had no interest in seeing her again.

On the second night of the third week, once she finally succumbed to sleep, she had the dream again. This wasn’t unusual—she had some variation of that dream every night now—but this time it ended differently. When the last speck of dust outside the bus window disappeared, and she lost all hope of being rescued, and the sense of déjà vu washed over her, she remembered something. She remembered a split-second decision to shove Spider-Man into her car. She remembered shooting a toy arrow at the idiot cashier without hesitation. She remembered being the first to give Black Widow her jacket when she needed it to cushion the broken window.

She was Lucia Castillo. She did not freeze. She did not cower. She took action.

She was Blackhawk, and she faced the void of her dream head on.


 

School started up again that week. The Castillos were reluctant to let their daughter out of their sight, and, according to social media, a lot of other parents felt the same way, but Lucia’s had what most of the others didn’t: prior experience. Six years ago, after the attack, Lucia had talked them down from pulling her out of school, and today…

“Mom, Dad. I know you’re scared it could happen again, but on the off chance it does it won’t matter where I am. Everyone’s saying it was just random who was—who disappeared, and there’s nothing anyone could do to stop it.” She took a deep breath to steady her voice. “You can’t protect me. You just have to accept that.”

Lucia looked her father in the eye, and a silent understanding passed between them. Something in their relationship had changed when Lucia had disobeyed him to fight Frank the Mighty Matchstick (as she and Spider-Man had taken to calling him). As rebellious as she could be in other areas, Lucia rarely ever went against her parents’ orders, and never as boldly or blatantly as that. She had expected her father to ground her or take away her bow, but none of that had happened. If anything, his respect for her had only grown.

So on Monday Lucia found herself being dropped off in front of the school, purple bookbag in hand and Black Widow jacket wrapped tightly around her. She stared up at the school building. It looked exactly like it had three weeks ago: the same grimy brick exterior, the same dry grass poking through the same cracked sidewalk. The same kids trudging through the same double doors as the same bell blared over the loudspeakers.

But just below the surface, Lucia saw the wide, frightened eyes watching as parents drove away, wondering if they’d be there to pick them up. She saw the tearful reunions as students found friends they thought they’d never see again. She saw the gaps in the crowds where half the student body should have been.

She saw the empty space at her left side where Julie should have been.

A hot, prickling sensation rose up behind her eyes, and she clenched her jaw tight until it went away. She turned her back to the school and watched her father’s car drive off, the same car she and Spider-Man once fought off a minor supervillain from, and she made her decision.

She marched through the double doors with newfound determination. Her feet took her past the library, down the athletics wing, and into the main gym. The few members of the girls’ basketball team who were there already gave her confused looks, but something in her face must have warned them not to comment. No one said a word as she shoved open the heavy back doors and marched straight through them without once turning back.

If anyone noticed the black and red end of her bow peeking over the edge of her bookbag, they didn’t mention it either.

With the same purposeful stride, she crossed the sports field, looked both ways at the street beyond, and crossed into a narrow side street. Past that was another side street to the left, then a proper alleyway with a big, green dumpster that she ducked behind. Ignoring the stench of week-old Chinese food emanating from the dumpster, she tossed her bookbag on a relatively grime-free spot on the ground. She stripped out of her signature jacket and folded it neatly inside the bag, revealing the thick black hoodie she had on underneath. With a few tugs on her hair ties, she shook her hair out of its pigtails and, fumbling, braided it into one long strand.

The bow was still lying in her bookbag, and for a second, she hesitated to take it out. There was no going back once she did that.

She crouched down, steadied her hands, and pulled from the bag her bow, her quiver, and something else. A small scrap of dark purple cloth with two holes in its middle and long ribbons trailing off its sides: a domino mask.

She may not be able to continue Julie's blog, but she could do this. Spider-Man was gone—dead—as well as who knew who else. Someone had to fill the gaps they left behind. Lucia wouldn’t kid herself and pretend she could hold a torch to Spider-Man, but she had to try. For him, for Julie, for everyone she would never see again, for everyone who would never get the decency of a proper funeral.

With a deep breath, she tied the domino mask around her head, slung her quiver over her shoulder, and stood up.

Lucia Castillo may have walked into that alley, but the girl who walked out was Blackhawk.