Sunset over Sydney Australia painted the city in a clear orange hue with long, sharp shadows cast down from the buildings clawed themselves across the ground. A warm breeze washed over the busy metropolis while seagulls glided with little effort along side it. On one particular pier stood a woman, tall with long black hair kept in a firm bun, her skin tanned and dressed in a formal dark grey suit with a white shirt underneath the jacket. The cream white, low heeled shoes she wore were spotless and screamed quality.
A luxury yacht glided across the ocean, most likely setting out for a late night party just off shore though who could tell what the super rich were really thinking? The woman pulled back the sleeve of her jacket, her cold blue eyes showed hints of an annoyed impatience as she glanced down on her watch. Punctuality was something she valued greatly, subscribing to the general rule of arriving ten minutes earlier than one minute too late.
The seagulls that were dotted around the pier, standing on light posts, fences and boats grew restless, crying out as they flapped their wings in an attempt to appear bigger, more threatening. As for the target of their cries, another woman with short blonde hair stuck underneath a washed out cap, wearing a dirty set of jeans and a t-shirt that was about as flimsy as it was too big for her. Her mismatched sneakers, one green and blue, the other pitch black had also seen better days.
As the blonde approached the black haired woman, the seagulls realized their tactics were not working and they took to the skies, their shrieking cries promising that next time would be different. Turning around, the black haired woman looked over the blonde from head to toe before rolling her eyes.
"Karen..." it came out as a disappointed sigh.
"Sorry, sorry," Karen said, tip toeing over the last few steps, "I know I'm late."
Adjusting the shade of her cap, Karen's blue and brown eye smiled at her friend in an effort to make amends. Their parents had often referred to them as egg & bacon when they were younger, both a nod to how well they went together and a small joke on both their hair and skin. Karen couldn't grow a tan even if her life depended on it, while her friend Helena could seemingly get one even on a starless night.
"For all the odd jobs you take up, I'd have hoped you learned to be on time," Helena's tone was that of a disapproving older sister, "And what is it with these clothes?"
Karen's cheerful mood did not yield, instead she struck a pose, flexing her muscular arms, "I got a job at a diving school, they needed some extra hands to load the gear on and off the boats."
With the arms crossed across her chest, Helena shook her head and sighed. At times like these, she couldn't understand what was going on inside Karen's head. Helena had stayed at home in Chicago and gotten her law degree before getting hired by her father's company, Wayne Enterprises. At age 33 she'd finished her education, gotten a job, fallen in love and currently spending most of her free time planning her wedding.
Karen by contrast had taken off, left her home town of Detroit on a seemingly never-ending back-pack tour that so far had taken her to just about every country on the globe. Despite being almost a full year older, Karen was still acting like the youngest. To help finance her travels, she took odd jobs here and there, never afraid of putting that strong body of hers to use. Opting for physical demanding jobs rather than sitting behind a desk, shuffling papers all day, the years of hiking and manual labour had put their mark on her frame.
"Come on, I'll treat you to dinner," Helena said, stomping past Karen in a huff.
"Oh-key, thanks I suppose, though I can pay for myself. It was payday today."
Settling in at a nearby café, they placed their orders and Helena went straight to the heart of the matter, "You should come back home with me Karen, back to Detroit."
Pausing drinking her water, Karen's eyes grew serious across the edge of her glass, almost glaring, "Why?" She licked her lips, putting the glass aside.
"Twelve years Karen, you've been on the road for twelve goddamn years. Isn't that enough?" Helena said, leaning forward and jabbing a finger at the table, "Haven't you found what you're looking for? Isn't it time to ask yourself if it might not be out there, whatever it is?"
Karen's hand brushed back and forth over her mouth as she sank back in her seat, gazing out on the street just outside the window. From one person to the next her eyes looked them over, lost in thought. Helena's lips curled, she might as well try to squeeze water out of a rock. Problem was that with Karen, if you squeezed too hard, she'd slip out from your fingers like a slippery piece of soap, ricocheting all over the place before smashing through the window.
"I do, all the time," Karen said, picking up her cap and fiddling with it in her lap, avoiding Helena's eyes, "and the answer scares me, keeps me awake."
"What is it Karen? What is it that you're looking for?"
Straightening in her seat, Karen gave the waiter a welcoming smile rather than answering Helena. Their waiter, a short Swede with a bubbling boyish charm, handed out their dishes, lit their candle and wished them a pleasant meal. Karen's pasta dish and large pizza took up the bulk of the table and easily dwarfed Helena's salmon dish.
For a while the two friends ate, the background chatter of the café mingled with the radio playing by the counter and the clattering of dishes from the kitchen. Karen alternated between slices of pizza and her pasta, eating fast yet not really wolfing it down. As far as Helena could tell, it looked like Karen was in a hurry or perhaps she was just used to eating fast. Time was money when you hopped from job to job like she did.
She put her fork and knife aside and patted her mouth with the napkin before she spoke, "Karen, how's Clifford?"
"Cliff?" She nodded her head from side to side, chewing on her food, "Good I suppose, why?"
"Just wondering, you two look good together on the pictures you sent back home."
Resuming her meal, Helena's hands stopped and started several times. Her lips curled and trembled before finally a small whimper came out, catching Karen's attention. With half chewed pizza bulging in the side of her mouth, she slowed down and straightened in her chair.
"Hel, what's wrong?"
"Sorry, it's-" she hid her mouth behind the napkin, closing her eyes which pressed out tears, "Karen, it's your mother. She's sick. They- they think it's Alzheimer."
Karen swallowed and helped herself with a drink from her glass. Pushing the pizza plate away, she rested her elbows on the table, rubbing her hands restlessly while looking from side to side. Outside the streetlights came on, as if checking in for the nightshift now that the sun had set. Frowning, Karen leaned forward while folding her hands on the table. The candle flame reflected in her eyes, they looked deep and distant.
Sitting in the library the next day, Karen had surrounded herself with stacks of books regarding Alzheimer. From what she'd learned from Helena, her mother was in the early stages. She'd stumbled while taking out the trash and when taken to the doctor, tests had shown signs of early Alzheimer. Flipping another page, Karen's eyes scanned the text, looking at some graphs on the following page.
A late night phone call wouldn't be enough this time, even she, with her somewhat limited social antennas knew that. The front doors of the library swung open and Helena walked in, looking around for Karen while talking in her cell phone. Staff and customers looked over at her with a disapproving frown on their faces until she hushed down her voice. Raising one hand, Karen waved her over.
"So, what will it be?" Helena flumped down in a chair next to Karen, "Talked to your boss yet?"
Closing the book, Karen just sighed and raised her eyebrows, "Sort of, I visited him last night."
She tensed up as she stretched out the early morning drowsiness from her arms, "He said he would let it slide if I gave him a blowjob."
Helena blinked, her face coloured with surprise, "Does- doesn't he run that school with his girlfriend?"
"Yup, though I suspect that he hooked up with Eun due to the size of her father's bank account," her lips shaped into a sharp, forced smile, "Apparently he prefers his women... big and Eun, bless her adorable heart, is... petty."
"Alright, so I take it that you'll come back home then?"
Nodding in agreement Karen closed the books and stacked them on top of one another before getting out of her seat. With the stack of books almost up to her chin, she walked with short steps over to the counter with Helena right by her side. They handed the books in after a short, pleasant chat with the elderly librarian who for whatever reason lisped like Daffy Duck whenever he whispered.
"I should call Eun, tell her to get out of that mess before it gets ugly," Karen put on her cap and a pair of sunglasses as soon as they came outside, "That's a bad foundation for a family."
Helena smiled to herself, despite all the things Karen had gone through from the car accident that gave her amnesia to her world travels, certain things never changed. Karen still cared a lot about people around her, which made her falling out with her parents all that more tragic. They loved her, Helena knew that, for whenever they couldn't get a hold of Karen or she hadn't called them in ages, they would ask if Helena had heard any news.
"You can borrow my cell phone if you'd like," she said as she looked through the different compartments in her shoulder bag.
"Ugh, how do those things even work? What if I break it?"
"Oh for crying out loud, Karen. It's just like any other phone."
Stepping away from the busy main street with its loud traffic, Karen and Helena retreated into a quiet side street that had cosy little cafes on either side. Business was slow, only a handful of customers sat outside, sipping their coffee or eating some ice-cream while others simply read the newspaper. One of the main headlines covered Power Girl's assistance in the flooding around areas of New South Wales.
"Eun?" Karen pressed a few fingers against her free ear as she spoke, trying to block out a group of kids that ran through the street, laughing and screaming at the top of their little lounges. She carried on talking in a strange language that Helena couldn't quite place.
"Okay, what was that?" She asked once Karen was done and handed over the phone.
"Uh... Korean? Eun is Korean, so-"
Helena promptly raised one hand, making Karen stop talking, "First off, you speak Korean? Secondly, why did you speak Korean?"
"I- I picked it up a few months back when I was in South-Korea," she shrunk back as if she'd said or done something bad, "and- well, I heard that Steve was there and there's this issue with saving face, personal honour an-"
"Fine, fine. I get it," Helena shook her head, inhaling deeply.
The flight back to Detroit was a new experience for Karen. Its not every day that you get to fly with a corporate jet curtesy of Wayne Enterprises. While Helena spent the bulk of the flight catching up on some much needed sleep, Karen spent her time thinking. Isolation is one of the worst things you can do to a human, solidary confinement is a punishment within prisons and it can break even the toughest mind. For Karen there was something much worse; being alone in a crowd.
"Hel, wake up. We're going to land in a few minutes."
"Uuuh, leave me alone."
Karen rose from her seat, reached around Helena's waist and fished out her seatbelt. After closing it with a metallic click, she gave Helena's cheek a few gentle strokes before wiping off a little drool from the corner of her mouth. Satisfied that her friend was secure in her seat, Karen sunk back in her own and buckled up. She looked outside the window and the streets of Detroit came into view as the jet turned around for its final approach on the airport.
"I do not drool," Helena said as the two friends walked through the terminal.
Unwrapping a lollipop, Karen locked it between her teeth as she grinned at her friend, "C'mon Hel, ain't no shame in it. I snore like a chainsaw if that's any comfort."
"It is not, now which way to the taxis?"
"How should I know?" Karen tucked her hands in her jeans back pockets, stretching out her chest, "I haven't been stateside in twelve years, remember?"
After catching a cab and driving straight to Karen's, the ride made it apparent just how much the city had changed since Karen had last been here. Seeing it up, close and personal on street level was very, very different from how it looked like high over the clouds through the window of a corporate jet. On either side of the road, street after street there were these signs of slow, yet steady decay. The city was bleeding out; people, places, hope and dreams all seemed to pack up and take their leave.
The house that was Karen's childhood home had likewise seen better days. A fresh coat of paint was some five or six years overdue, front lawn could use some trimming and the flowerbeds... did they have flowerbeds? Karen found herself unsure on the fact when she climbed the steps to the porch. From across the street a dog barked loudly, constantly challenging the confines of its chain.
"Oh hello dear," a woman, small and timid with streaks of grey in her bright brown hair said, "How was your trip?"
"It was fine, Mrs. Starr. I'm still a bit groggy from the jet lag though."
"That's nice, and who is your friend?"
"Mom, it's me. Karen."
Mrs. Starr looked puzzled and a little confused, her eyes lost in thought as they shifted from Karen to Helena. Helena smiled and nodded in confirmation, as if to assure the elderly lady that they were not pulling a prank. She still looked sceptical to Karen, but invited them in nonetheless. With the front door closed, only muffled barks from the neighbours' dog could be heard, the house was silent save the clicking of six foot tall cabinet watch.
Navigating through the hallway, Karen, Helena and Mrs. Starr found themselves in the living room where Helena was quick to pick up one of the many photos that stood on the fireplace shelf. She showed the silvery framed photo to Mrs. Starr, identifying each person in turn, including Karen. While Helena and Mrs. Starr made merry and catching up, Karen stood in a corner of the living room, looking around.
"A penny for your thoughts?" Helena's question brought Karen out of her mind wandering.
"Nostalgia," she smiled.
"Uh-huh," Helena nodded, also smiling as she undoubtedly took a quick stroll down memory lane herself.
That night Karen couldn't sleep. Maybe it was because of the jet lag. Maybe it was because she'd outgrown the bed in her childhood room. Seriously, was it always this small? Maybe it was because she was more uncomfortable in this house than any other place on Earth. Rather than spending the night tossing and turning in bed like a restless kitten, Karen did what she'd done so many nights before; she flew away.
Mindful of the time, she suited up and carefully glided out her bedroom window. A steep climb took her above the clouds where she made a hard turn towards the west and shot off like a bullet, leaving only a sonic boom in her wake. Its been a while since she'd been 'on the clock', but she'd manage to get some answers and be back before breakfast. Fingers crossed that she wouldn't run into any earthquakes or erupting volcanoes along the way.
Stanford University School of Medicine should have someone who could provide her with the answers she was looking for, or at the very least point her in a better direction. Time was important and she would hit daylight soon enough, so she pressed hard in making good time. Hard enough to zip across the night sky like a shooting star, the air friction against her knuckles turning into a blazingly bright flame.
Coming in for a soft landing, Karen turned some heads as usual while she scrubbed off the soot and ash from her hands. Eyes filled with awe, fear, admiration, respect and of course gleeful lust traced her every step as she climbed the stairs. Hushed voices expressed concerns that something was terrible wrong since she was here. Danger, death and destruction did seem to follow in her wake after all.
"I'd like to speak with someone regarding Alzheimer's disease," she said to the clerk in the reception.
The clerk hesitated, his eyes jumping up and down from her cleavage to her face, "Do- uh- do you have an appointment?"
"No, I'm afraid not and I'm a little pressed for time as well."
After making a couple of calls, the clerk found someone that had a moment or two to spare for Power Girl and she was taken to his office. Doctor Henry Wu was as professional as he was polite, seemingly more interested in answering her questions than marvel at her presence. The fact that Power Girl had taken some time to read up on the very basic at hand was also a major plus in his book.
"From what I understand it's just a... mind or memory thing."
Henry took a seat behind his desk, extending a hand, offering Power Girl a seat as well, "It's more than that. It is a chronic neurodegenerative disease that usually starts slowly and gets worse over time."
He went over a lot of the same information that Power Girl had already had gathered from the books she'd read, but also added new insights to the condition that her mother now had. Unfortunately it was just a long string of bad news that made it deep into worse with an impressive speed. The cause of the disease was poorly understood and currently there are no treatments that can stop, let alone reverse its progression. Henry was even cautious when he mentioned that a few types of treatments might improve the symptoms, although only temporary.
When questioned, Henry gave Power Girl a list of symptoms like forgetting things occasionally, misplacing items sometimes, minor short-term memory loss and not remembering exact details were often effects of natural ageing on memory, and was not always related to the disease. On the other hand, early stages of Alzheimer's often covered things like the patient not remembering episodes of forgetfulness, the patient forgets names of family or friends, the patient shows some confusion in situations outside the familiar and other changes that may only be noticed by close friends or relatives.
Power Girl glanced over at the wall mounted clock, time was running short, "One last thing doctor, is this disease fatal?"
"Although the speed of progression can vary, the average life expectancy following diagnosis is three to nine years," Henry shrugged powerlessly.
"I see," her hands curled into fists, trembling with tension, "thank you for your time doctor. I appreciate it."
The flight back to Detroit was just as fast as the one to California; shortest route, no stops and pedal to the metal pretty much from start to finish. As she closed the bedroom window after landing, the very first rays of day started to slowly creep over the horizon. The sun was no doubt not far behind and though the sensible thing would be to go to bed to get maybe a small hour of rest, Karen found herself far too winded up to lay still, let alone sleep. Instead she went to the bathroom to freshen up as soon as she'd changed back into her pyjamas.
Karen had scrubbed off the soot from her hands with soap and warm water, when she splashed her face down a few times. Listening in on the running water, she held on to the bathroom sink, looking in on her reflection. The door handle rattled and the door swung open.
"Oh, hello dear," Mrs. Starr said, before her gentle face shifted to a frown, "I'm terribly sorry, but- who- who are you? You seem familiar, but I- I just can't-"
"It's me, mom. Karen."
Karen smiled, stiff and hollow while nodding, "You need to use the bathroom mom?" she turned off the water, "I'm done, so you can go right ahead."
"My what a polite young woman you are," Mrs Starr beamed at her, "and so big."
"You always told me it was important to eat my vegetables, mom."
"I did? Did I do now?"
Closing the door behind her, Karen rested her back against it and stared up at the ceiling without really looking. She brushed her tongue against her teeth, as if she had a disgusting taste in her mouth and she wanted to scrape it off her tongue. It was tempting to go back into the bathroom and coat her entire mouth with toothpaste, though in the end Karen decided against it. For now she'd settle for breakfast, the old wooden floor creaked and groaned underneath her naked feet as she headed downstairs.
In the kitchen coffee was the smell of the morning. Mr. Starr was an early bird, even on days off he rarely slept longer than an hour over his regular wake up time. Since Karen was already up and her mom was getting ready in the bathroom, she figured her dad wouldn't be that far behind, so she started a kettle of coffee. Personally she'd never cared for the stuff, it tasted like cat piss even after diluting it with a double sugar and it made her stomach make embarrassingly loud gurgling noises. Still, to her dad coffee was an important part of the routine.
True enough, it didn't take long before Karen and everyone else in the house heard those iconic heavy stomps coming from the master bedroom. As the stomping grew louder and the wood in the stairway protested on every step, Karen fished out her dad's favourite coffee mug and filled it. She had it ready and offered it to him even before he crossed the doorway to the kitchen, all wrapped inside his morning robe.
"Mornin'," he grumbled, a small part of his short silvery black hair stood up at an odd angle.
"Morning dad, slept well?"
In the following weeks, Karen stayed behind with her parents. Awkwardly she saw her dad off to work every morning, bills still needed to be paid and money, as everyone knew, did not grow on trees. As for her mom, she largely managed on her own. She found entertainment in TV, house work and reading books about celebrities from the 1950's and 1960's. For the time being Karen hung up her suit and cape, at least on the day time and focused on shining up the house instead. For all the odd jobs she'd taken over the years, Karen had unintentionally grown to become a self learned jack of all trades.
All in all it wasn't really that different from what she'd been doing, except for one thing. Every day, several times a day, Karen would have to tell her mom who she was. And every time she did, she did so with a smile that felt stiffer each time. Karen's mom would accept and compliment her on either her size if she was standing, manners if she was sitting down or handy work if she was in the middle of some repair job.
"You should get a job, Karen," her dad told her one evening over dinner.
"Is your name Karen?" her mom said, her eyes coloured surprised.
"Yes, I'm Karen. Your daughter," her hand reached out and stroked her mom's, "Dad, I don't think- I'm not sure if I'll be staying much longer."
Karen's dad looked up from his dinner plate, his eyes worn yet alert, "Karen, your mother is sick. You're 34 years old, it's about time you stopped traveling the world and settled down."
"You're not-" she bit down on her lip, "Please dad, am I not a little too old for lectures?"
"I'm not getting any younger, Karen," her dad said, "Now is not the time to be selfish."
"What kind of work do you suggest I get then?" she rubbed her hands over her face, groaning, "I didn't really see the city flooded with 'we're hiring' signs when I went shopping today."
"You're a smart girl, Karen. I'm sure you'll find something that will suit you."
"Lemonade, dear?" Karen's mom asked, holding up the mug.
Months later and Mrs. Starr came down with a fever and Karen, still unemployed, stayed by her side and tended to her needs. With her dad working and Helena back in Chicago, Karen was left alone with her mother. Her 'duties' as Power Girl were put on hold, save a few hours during the night when both her parents were sound asleep.
During her fever, Mrs. Starr questioned Karen's identity more frequently. Whether it was because of the fever or her disease worsening, Karen couldn't tell. She was good at many things, even brilliant in some fields, but medicine was not one of them. While not her real mother per say, Mrs. Starr along with her husband had taken Karen in when she first arrived on Earth. That had to count for something.
Karen entered the master bedroom with a tray of hot soup and a glass of water. Mrs. Starr's apatite was not really gracing them with its presence, though thankfully she knew that she had to at least try to eat something. As Karen helped her mom sit up in bed, they went over the now usual exchange.
"What's your name, dear?"
"Karen, mom. My name is Karen," her words came out like a tape recording.
"My, you're saying you're my daughter? A beautiful woman like you?"
Almost on reflex, Karen pulled out a framed photograph, "Yes mom. See? You, dad and me went to- we- We visited Canada, remember?"
"I'm- I'm so, so sorry dear, I just don't recall," Mrs. Starr fingers fiddled restlessly in her lap.
"That's okay mom," she leaned in and kissed her softly on the forehead, "Would you like to try some soup?"
Returning back to the kitchen afterwards, Karen poured out half the soup and started doing the dishes. She'd turned on only the warm water and as steam swirled around her hands, Karen's shoulder's tensed up before they started trembling. Her eyes grew moist with tears, blurring her vision.
Words crawled out between her muffled sobs, "Why? Why does the same lie taste so bad every damn time?"
After her mom recovered from the fever, Karen made her case to her dad. She was in no position to stay at home, tending to her and it would be best to put her in proper care. Her dad protested at first, calling Karen heartless and ungrateful while bringing up the ever lasting question of money. The debate escalated to a verbal shouting match that left Karen, for the lack of a better word, victorious, when she offered to pay for her mom's care.
They found a place that was comfortably close and up to a decent standard. When pressed by her dad regarding where she'd gotten the money needed, Karen evaded the question with as much grace as a juggling cow. There was no way she'd admit that the money was 'confiscated' by Power Girl when she waged a one woman war against south American drug cartels shuttling drugs into Miami.
Karen made an uneasy truce with her dad and decided to resume her travels rather than staying. Before she flew off, in a more literal sense than her dad could ever imagine, Karen gave her mom one last visit. There was something she wanted to get off her chest before it was too late.
"Mrs. Starr? You have a visitor," the nurse gently knocked on the doorframe leading into Mrs. Starr room.
"My, and who might you be dear?" Mrs. Starr face lid up with a smile.
Karen gave the nurse a smile and a polite nod before closing the door behind her. She walked around the room, ensuring that they were alone before she squatted down by Mrs. Starr's chair.
"Hello, Mrs. Starr," Karen swallowed and took a deep breath, "My name is Kara Zor-L, I'm from the planet Krypton."
"16 years ago my space pod landed, or rather, crash landed on Earth, killing your daughter Karen in the process. I- uh- I took on your daughter's identity and- uh-"
She felt her face flushed warm, her throat bellied up and the words started stagger and stumble out of her. Karen swallowed deeply, pressing herself to finish what she'd started.
"I- I- just want you to know, Mrs. Starr that- how sorry I am for not only taking away your daughter once, but trice. First I killed her, then I- I- pretended to be her since we looked identical, faking amnesia and the- then later I ran away."
Tears filled her eyes, spilling over and trekked down her cheeks. There was this feeling of her tugging and pulling against an emotional ball and chain that had been tied to her chest all these years. Karen wanted to break those chains and smash that blasted iron ball to oblivion.
"Y-you see, I- uh- I thought I'd be happy, if- if I found my family, from Krypton. Wha- what I didn't realize unti- until it was too late, was that my first family was dead and- and I'd abandoned my second family. A- and I feel like a horrible excuse for a human being because of it, always had."
Mrs. Starr reached out with one hand and stroked Karen's cheek, wiping away her tears. She looked at her with fond, loving eyes as she smiled, saying, "Well, you turned out alright, now didn't you dear?"