Harper held the end of her pencil between her teeth for a few moments as she waited for inspiration to strike. Harper Hard-Heart had just saved a group of innocent school children who’d been forced to take a math test. She broke in through the window, carried the kids to safety, and then laughed maniacally as she watched the school go up in flames!
But what would she do now?
She closed her eyes for a moment, letting the cool autumn breeze hit her face as her ears took in the dull buzzing of noise and movement from the playground. Loud places like the playground or cafeteria were always a challenge for her. The cacophony of sounds tended to blend together into a sort of white noise. It was difficult to follow a conversation in that sort of environment… But it was also easier to focus on her thoughts too.
She lifted her head at the sound of her name. Sophie had appeared, running over to her along with Nyla. They each took a seat at the picnic table with her. So much for finishing this story…
Still, she couldn’t help a smile at the sight of her two friends.
“… a minute. Are… homework?!” Sophie asked, giggling. Unfortunately she had chosen the seat across from Harper, and her voice blended easily with the shouts and laughter of the rest of their classmates.
Beside her, Nyla reached out her hand toward Harper’s forehead. “Sophie’s right… Are you sick or something?” Her words were much easier to make out, at least. Sophie’s fragmented question suddenly made much more sense.
Harper reached up, giggling as she slapped her hand away. “You really think I’d do homework at recess? Do I look like Thad to you?”
Their friend spent nearly every recess doing extra science work with Mr. Phoenix. In fact, Harper was about 90% sure that’s where Thad was that very minute. As if she’d ever dream of wasting her recess like that!
“Well, if it’s not homework, then what are you writing?” Nyla asked.
Sophie leaned a bit closer, speaking slower and more clearly than she had before. This time, Harper could almost make out every word over the giggles and conversation of her classmates. “Is it… story?” She asked. “About… supervillain?”
Harper nodded. “Of course! She just saved a whole bunch of kids from having to do a math test!” She spat the words as though they left an unpleasant taste in her mouth. “I’m just trying to figure out what she’s gonna do next.”
Sophie looked pleased, but Nyla simply shook her head. “I don’t get it.” She said.
“Don’t get what?”
“You always say she’s a villain, but she sure likes to save people.”
“So that’s not a villain.” Nyla shrugged. “That’s a hero, isn’t it?”
Sophie bit her lip. “She does… a point.”
Harper furrowed her brow in frustration at her friends’ words. They were wrong — Heroes were always so nice and good and perfect. All the time! And they could do no wrong, no matter what. That’s SO not me… Or Harper Hard-Heart!
“Just because she saves people doesn’t mean she’s the good guy!” She insisted at last.
“But she can’t… bad guy either, can she?” Sophie asked. “Not unless… all the time.”
Nyla gestured over toward where Katie giggled and played with her friends. “If anybody’s a villain, it’s totally them.” She said.
“Yeah.” Sophie agreed. “They’re evil!”
“Hmm…” Harper’s gaze followed Nyla’s arm toward Katie and her friends. Nyla had a point, didn’t she? If anyone was truly an evil supervillain, it would be Katie Fletcher and her little minions.
“Or what about them?” Nyla’s voice called Harper back to reality as she nodded her head toward a pair of students off to their right. “They’re always getting in trouble.”
“Yeah!” Sophie agreed. “They’re perfect villains!”
“Rylie and Devin?” Harper shook her head. She didn’t know either of them very well… In fact, she’d always been a little scared of them, in a way. They were just so intimidating! But only lately had Harper started to realize how much she actually admired them for it.
“Nah, not them. They’re…” She paused for a moment, thinking. “Different. They’re like my villain, I guess. Or my not-a-villain.” Harper corrected herself. “They’re not bad guys. But they aren’t ‘good’ either… They’re just… them. They do what they want.” She explained.
“Whatever.” Nyla shrugged. “They still seem pretty villain-y to me.”
Harper simply rolled her eyes. They just don’t get it…
Across the table, she could make out Sophie’s soft voice, but the words were all muddled together even worse than before.
Harper whipped her head around to face the other girl. “What? You gotta talk slower, Soph.”
“I said ‘what about us?'” Her friend repeated. Harper focused her full attention on Sophie, and was finally able to make out everything she was saying. “Me and Nyla. Would we be heroes or villains or whatever that third mystery-thing is?”
Harper’s lips curled into a smile. “Well, you’d be the helpless victim stuck in a burning building or something.” She teased. “Not sure what category Nasty Nyla would be in.”
Her friends took her teasing in stride, just as she knew they would. A loud burst of laughter passed Nyla’s lips. “Good one! Sign me up as a villain, I guess. That’d be fun! Except having to hang out with Katie all the time…”
“Maybe you can be like a spy or something?” Sophie suggested. “Like, go undercover to keep an eye on the bad guys?”
Harper’s lips stretched into a smile. Maybe they did get it after all. “Perfect!”
She scribbled the ideas furiously in her notebook, eager to get back inside, turn off her hearing aid, and finish her story during Miss Li’s lecture.
“Harper? Is that you, honey?” Zayne’s deep voice called from the kitchen as Harper dropped her backpack to the floor of the entry hall. In the quiet of the near-empty house, her father’s voice was hard to miss, even for her.
She noticed her grandmother reading a book in the study as she passed. “Hey there, sweetie-pie.” Jocelyne closed her book and smiled as she caught sight of her granddaughter. “Did you have a good day?”
“I did, thanks Oma.” Harper gave her a brief wave and a smile before making her way toward the kitchen.
Harper was grateful her father had the evening off. When he didn’t, she had to put up with leftovers. Or worse, her mom’s cooking. Yuck! The smell of lemon and fresh herbs grew stronger as she drew closer. Clearly Zayne had gotten an early start on preparing dinner. But what would it be this evening? Chicken? Harper wondered. Fish? Whatever it was, it was sure to be delicious.
“Hi, Papa.” She smiled warmly at her father as she crossed the threshold. Her second guess had been accurate, it seemed. She saw the bright pink salmon fillets laid out on the counter, ready to be seasoned.
“Welcome home, baby girl.” Zayne abandoned his cutting board to address his daughter as she entered. He spoke to her in German, as he usually did when his wife was not home. “Did you have fun at Nyla’s house?”
“Yeah, I guess.” She smiled slightly. “She was kinda jealous that I got to come home for dinner though… I think she misses your cooking, Papa.” It had been a few weeks since she’d invited her friend over for dinner, and Nyla was still raving about his chicken stir-fry.
Her father laughed heartily. “Is that so? Well she’s welcome for dinner whenever she’d like. Just let me know ahead of time” He paused for a moment. “And how was school?”
The little girl shrugged, her smile fading. “It was okay.”
Harper nodded, but said nothing.
“So… wanna talk about it?”
She sighed heavily. I knew he’d start asking annoying questions. There was no use in trying to avoid them though, was there? “It’s just… Everyone was so excited waiting for Coach to tell us who made the team… But not me.” Harper hung her head for a moment. “No one would stop talking about tryouts. It was so annoying!”
“When do you find out?” Zayne asked. “Tomorrow?”
His daughter nodded yet again.
“Well then there’s no need to worry about it until then.” He explained kindly. Zayne seemed to hesitate for a moment before continuing. “And… You might not have anything to worry about anyway. Your mom called the school this morning and talked to your coach about giving you another chance.” He confessed.
“She did?!” Harper groaned in frustration. “Why?”
Zayne’s face fell slightly. “We know you were having a rough day with your asthma. And it sounds like your coach understands too.” He assured her, placing his hands comfortingly on her shoulders.
“Why couldn’t you just drop it?” There was no anger in her voice this time. Just resignation. “I can’t always be perfect, Papa.”
“Don’t tell your mother and I that.” He smiled warmly at her. “To us, you’ll always be perfect, Pumpkin…” Her father’s eyes suddenly lit up. “Ooh! ‘Perfect Pumpkin’! Hey, that’s pretty good, huh? Could that be your next superhero?”
“Oh my God, Papa!” Harper couldn’t help a small chuckle at her father’s cheesiness. “Lame!”
“Aha! There’s the smile!” Zayne gave her a small wink, then leaned forward to plant a soft kiss against her cheek.
He shrugged innocently. “What?”
Rolling her eyes, Harper finally climbed up on one of the stools by the kitchen counter and watched as her father got back to preparing their supper. She knew her mother would be home any minute. Somehow, her father always seemed to time their evening meal perfectly so it was hot and fresh and ready to eat the moment Hope walked through the door.
Harper sat in silence for a few long moments as he began seasoning the fish and chopping up some of the vegetables.
As her father finally began transferring the fish into the skillet, she finally opened her mouth to speak. “Papa… I have kind of a weird question.”
“Go for it, baby girl.” Zayne smiled.
“You know a lot about superheroes, right? Like… I know Batman’s your favorite. But you know about other superheroes too? And villains?”
Her father raised an eyebrow curiously at her. “I guess I do.” He nodded.
“So like… Obviously I know what a superhero is. And a supervillain too… But… What do you call the in-between kinda person?”
“Yeah. Like somebody who saves the day sometimes, or punishes a bad guy… But they do it in a kinda bad way? They don’t follow anybody’s rules. They make their own.”
Zayne laughed softly. “Sounds like a vigilante to me.”
“Vigilante.” He repeated. “Batman’s kind of a vigilante himself, actually.” Her father appeared thoughtful for a moment. “It’s kind of like what you said. Somebody who takes the law into their own hands… They don’t follow the rules. They believe in justice, but… Not the usual kind of justice I guess.”
“Justice? Like… revenge?”
Harper nodded. “Thanks, Papa. I think I get it now.”
A vigilante… It was perfect! Way better than a superhero, but even better than a villain too! Somebody who didn’t care about following anyone’s dumb rules or living up to any expectations… Someone who just did whatever they wanted and beat up the bad guys whenever they needed to. Now THAT’S Harper Hard-Heart!
“This wouldn’t have anything to do with that story you’re writing, would it?” Zayne asked, calling Harper’s attention back to the present. “The one with the supervillain?”
“Yup!” She eagerly returned her father’s smile. “Except now I think she’s really a super vigilante! Isn’t that way cooler?”
“Ha! I love it.” Zayne chuckled softly to himself. “So you’re a vigilante now, huh? And what about your old man? Does he get a role in this story too?”
“Sure.” Harper smirked playfully at him. “You get to be the Perfect Pumpkin.”