‘Porphyria: Dazzle Con Debut’, Priya Sridhar

Illustrations © 2016 L.E. Badillo

 [ Uncommon threads, © 2016 L.E. Badillo ] Rani splayed out on her bed, holding a grey flip phone to her ear. The line rang two times.

“Hello?” A gruff voice said.

“Hey, Wallace,” Rani gushed. “Guess what I got.”

“A new Gundam Wing model?”

“Aww, I wish—but this is just as good! Tickets to Dazzle Con!”

“Dazzle Con?” Wallace sounded happy. “That’s great, Rah! So your mom’s going to let you go?”

“Oh yeah. It’s going to be amazing!” Rani told him. “They’ll have tons of models there! And we can drive there, as long as we get the right parking permit!”

Rani had golden-brown skin and bright blue eyes, one of the few Indian girls without dark irises. Her hair fell a little past her ears, and she wore tiny golden earrings. Her heart fluttered like the grey petticoats that she had painstakingly ironed earlier that day.

“Wait, we?” he said.

“Yeah; we’ve both dreamed of going to Dazzle Con!”

“Rah, it sounds amazing, but I don’t know.” Wallace’s voice cracked on the phone. “My Dad is running a new series of experiments that day, and he wants me to be at the office.”

“Wallace, you go to all his experiments. Take a break for once; your dad stresses you out!”

Rani lilted her voice to convey a hint; she had long suspected what Wallace had been keeping a big secret. They had both bonded over enough Marvel comics for her to see the signs; a strange figure called “the Millipede” seemed to fly all over downtown, fighting crime or stopping chemical explosions every time Wallace played hooky. He always trudged into class late, covered in scratches and bruises.

“I don’t think so. He’ll want me there.” Wallace sounded gloomy.

“Come on, Wallace, you can take off for one day.” She waggled her blue-painted toes deeper into the bedsheets. “Yasmin Gilani is coming; you love her work!”

“Yasmin Gilani? Wasn’t she on the news, recently?”

“Yeah, she’s been getting some death threats, because of her book. Some idiot said he would march in with a gun and kill her if she showed up, so there are security concerns. But she said she’s coming anyway. That is courage.”

“I really can’t, Rani. Besides, what if I said yes and then I had to leave because of my father?”

“Then I’ll come with you.”

“Sorry, Rah, but no. You have fun without me.”

The glorious feeling faded. Rani lifted her feet to examine the polish. The fantasy of hanging out with Wallace at Dazzle Con, and getting him to reveal his secret and hopefully sharing hers, shattered.

“Okay,” she finally said. “I guess I will.”

The click sounded like a hammer against a gavel. Rani sat up on her bed. Then she extended her left hand, palms up, and aimed. A needle shot out and hit her Iron Man calendar hanging on the wall. Thick, glossy papers muffled the sound of the needle’s clangs. Then the needle fell to the ground.

She gestured with her hands, and the thread danced in the air like a marionette string. It went left and right, up and down, wherever she wanted it to go. Then it retracted back into her palm. Her skin had turned white where the needle had pierced through, but no blood came out.

The flesh closed. Rani smiled, and faced the calendar. She aimed her finger.

Two days later, the convention was going well. The ticket office had redeemed Rani’s printout, so she had a yellow laminated pass. She was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, and eyeing the thousands of people waiting in line. Some had already changed into pink wigs and Harry Potter robes, but quite a few wore plain clothes as well.

I wish Wallace were here, she thought with a pang.

A huge “WELCOME TO DAZZLE CITY INDIE CON 2003” hung from the ceiling under several bright lights. The Yantu Convention Center had grey walls on the inside. The bathrooms by the ticket offices and ballrooms had long lines, so Rani went into Artist’s Alley. She had to pass milling crowds of parents and kids, as well as tables of artists selling hand-twisted jewelry, self-published novels with purple and blue colors, and even a few face-painting booths. Frying smells from the makeshift food court area in the back: sausage pizza, greasy calzones, and bubbly soda.

Despite the crowds in Artist’s Alley, the girls’ bathroom was unoccupied. In the stall Rani took off her backpack, and pulled out her costume. She took her time slipping into the black satin and knee socks. She had loosened the back of the dress so that it wouldn’t be a struggle to put on and take off, and it had been a good decision. The blond wig had shoulder-length hair, and she affixed it with precision. Then she added the hood, and her yellow pass. It dangled from her neck like a pendant.

Makeup was next: she applied heavy mascara and cherry pink lipstick. A domino mask slid over her eyes, black felt with silver rhinestones.

One hundred dollars spent on material and labor, and worth it, she told herself. No one will recognize you, Porphyria.

She opened the stall and examined herself in the bathroom mirrors. A ghastly wraith with yellow hair stared back at her. Rani pressed a hand to her throat in a dramatic gesture. Then she laughed.

Noise hit her ears the minute she left the bathroom. The artists were teeming at artist’s alley. Rani hiked up her backpack, the only modern accoutrement to her cosplay, and started to stroll. People tended to cling in groups, and their feet and chatter made for remarkable clatter. Her white flats slid against the concrete floor.

She stopped at a table that sold stickers in packs of eight. A kid was buying dinosaur stickers; his mother was handing cash over to the vendor, a stick-thin girl with square glasses.

“Great outfit!” The kid said; he couldn’t have been older than five or six. He was wearing a baseball cap and a red jacket, while holding a potted plant.

“Thanks,” Rani smiled at him. “Yours is too.”

“Which character are you?”

“Porphyria,” Rani said. “The Robert Browning character from the poem. I was going for an Alan Moore interpretation, like in the League of—

“—Extraordinary Gentlemen!” the boy’s mother finished. She was wearing brunette pigtails and wore a blue and white dress that made her resemble Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. “I see it now. The film’s coming out; it might be good if Sean Connery’s in it.”

“We’ll see,” Rani said. “I hope one day Hollywood does a good job with an Alan Moore graphic novel.”

She bought a ten-pack of butterfly stickers and paid in cash. The brunette vendor gave her a bright smile and a business card with her website listing.

“I’m speaking on a panel later,” she said. “Hope you can come by.”

Rani nodded, slung her backpack up, and took off. Her flats clacked as she passed by several large displays of LEGO sets, comics and action figures in Artist’s Alley, right where it opened up to the main exhibition hall. Several caught her eye, and she had to stop and look at them properly.

“You like Gundam Wing?” The vendor asked, a large boy with beard stubble and a blue t-shirt.

“Yeah, but I haven’t built a model in years,” she said, taking out her wallet. “Maybe you have something in my price range?”

Her backpack was heavy by the time she hit the main exhibition hall; she couldn’t resist a Gundam model that Wallace would like as well.

So glad I have the money for it, she thought. Now to find Yasmin Gilani.

According to the map that she had gotten with the Dazzle Con brochure, Yasmin Gilani was near the corner of the hall. Rani made her way, careful not to bump into other cosplayers or to make eye contact with the writers and artists from DC comics selling their stuff. Quite a few cosplayers had foam weapons larger than her or multiple piercings in their nose. She had to admire them for doing things she wouldn’t dare, like tattoos on their necks that weren’t easily covered.

“Oh jeez,” Rani said aloud when she found Yasmin Gilani’s booth. The line was at least ten feet long, and more people were getting in the back, holding copies of Yasmin’s graphic novel One Language Is Never Enough. Some even had the original black and white Swedish hardcover.

Worth it, her mind sang as she found her place in line. She took out her own copy of the book—blue American paperback—and opened to her favorite page, of a young, fictionalized Yasmin pale against a background of night with pointed stars, and the quote that framed the inspiring image:

I wanted to travel past the world I was tethered to, to enter the infinite ocean of comets and stardust and to dance among the glowing nebulas.

“Cool costume,” Rani told the girl in front of her, who was dressed in a black dress with lots of lace and several large nose piercing. “Did you make that?”

“I did,” the girl said proudly. “How about yours?”

“Made most of it,” Rani admitted. “The dress, at least. Not the socks.”

“Get out!” she looked impressed.

When Rani stood on her tiptoes and craned her head, she saw that Yasmin Gilani was dressed in a simple orange dress, and had covered her hair with a matching veil. Yasmin wore thick rectangular glasses and had a serious expression on her face, even as she used a brush pen to sign dozens of books.

“I hope she’s careful,” the other girl said. “Some jerks came by to try and cut the line, to yell at how unpatriotic she is for not wanting the US to invade Iraq.”

“But she’s not even American!” Rani said with shock. “She has Iraqi and Swedish citizenship.”

“Tell that to those idiots.” The girl shook her head. “Con security escorted them out before they could harass her. Looks like another idiot is coming along right now.”

Rani turned to see a huge man dressed in a classic Captain America outfit—with the star on his chest and stripes across his navel—marching past the long line, making a beeline for Yasmin Gilani’s table. He, like Rani, wore a backpack, only his was shaped like Captain America’s shield, filled with items that were rattling. He had a disposable nametag placed on his arm.

“Hey!” A man with Superman t-shirt shouted from his place in line. “Don’t even think about it!”

The Captain America cosplayer kept moving, so several people stepped out of line to block him.

“You have to wait like everyone else!” the same man snapped.

“Why are you even getting autographs and buying books from her?” The Captain America man snapped. “She doesn’t belong here!”

“Her work is amazing!” the other man responded. “If you can’t handle that, you’re the asshole that doesn’t belong!”

A chill crept down Rani’s spine; it prickled through her bones.

“Can you hold my backpack?” she asked. Before the other girl could respond, she handed the backpack to her, and her copy of the graphic novel and stepped out, making a sprint.

There were shouts; the Captain America man had barreled his way through the tiny group of people blocking his way, so that they fell with shouts, and one hand reached for Yasmin Gilani, the other digging into his backpack. Yasmin recoiled, still clutching her brush pen and a reader’s copy of the book.

Later Rani wouldn’t recall the moment; it had happened in a flash. She saw a large fist clenching the fabric of Yasmin’s veil, the other fist clenching something large and silver. Her gloves tore as a thick needle shot out of her palm and pierced the silver thing; the Captain America man yelled, and Rani pulled back. Bright purple thread flung it aside.

Something heavy clattered to the floor. Rani stared at it. Yasmin Gilani had also fallen, and her veil hung at a haphazard angle. The Captain America cosplayer whirled around to face Rani, Yasmin forgotten for the moment.

Oh geez, it’s the death threat guy.

“You brought a gun?!” she shouted at him. “YOU BROUGHT A REAL GUN?!”

“He brought a real gun!”

“Look out; he’s armed!”

“Someone get security!”

Several people took up the cry. Rani tossed the gun away using the threads. It skidded and hit the wall. Seople screamed and started to run, while others froze. Children watched with fascination, their parents holding them tight.

“Back away from the lady,” Rani said.

Yasmin, sprawled against the floor, adjusted her veil and glasses, looking bewildered. She placed a hand to the floor.

“No,” the Captain America man said. “You’re not natural. You shouldn’t be able to do that. Who the hell are you?”

“I’m Porphyria, and I’m about to kick your ass,” she retorted.

He pulled out another handgun from his backpack. Rani shot that out of his hand as well, so that it fell a few feet away.

“What moron brings more than one real gun to a convention?” she shouted. “Will someone please get security?!”

A few people scurried; the children remained frozen. Yasmin Gilani crawled away, shock blanching her face. The gunman reached into his backpack once more, and Rani ran forward, the needles dangling from their threads coming to life.

“Don’t you dare, freak,” he warned, reaching for the third pistol. It fired with rat-tat-tat blasts at the people in line.

More people screamed. Bullets hit their hardcover books and tore pages into burnt confetti. Yasmin pushed her table over, so that the wooden surface became a shield, and pulled the people closest to her behind it. Parents shoved their kids behind them or covered their eyes.

Rani didn’t even register the force that knocked her down, several large blows that felt like punches, but her arms came forward and shot more needles at the guy, so that they wrapped around his ankles. Violent fuchsia thread, as thick as yarn, enveloped his hands and he yelled as the needles pricked his thumbs. More gunshots hit the floor and spun towards the crowd. A needle pierced the bullets, so that they stopped short and fell to the ground harmlessly.

Several bullets bounced out of Rani’s shoulder, as she attempted to get back on her feet. They clattered to the floor and stopped, smoldering metal bullets. She looked down at her outfit; bullet holes all along her chest, right below the double stitches and lace collar. Her skin had ripped open and reddened from the impact. Half a dozen needles stuck out of the holes, acting as a barricade. When she glared at the needles, they retracted into her skin, leaving the bullet holes.

“Get these things off me!” The Captain America man shouted, attempting to fumble with his pistol.

Rani stood. She released all her threads by clenching her fists—each strand snapped with an eerie sound, against the harsh quiet of the crowds. The bullets rolled on the floor like marbles. Then she fired one last needle into the barrel of his gun, and with a snap flicked the hot barrel away from the man’s palms. The Captain America shooter turned pale.

“You,” she said with intense disgust. “I just made this! And you’re a cowardly disgrace to that suit!”

She marched forward, fully prepared to ram her shoes against his nose and to smash it as flat as the concrete floor. The person that stopped her was the last woman she expected.

“Please. He is subdued,” Yasmin said, stretching the vowels with her accent. “How did you do that?”

Rani’s anger faded. She registered the situation: crazy guy at a convention, armed with more than one pistol and confined space with lots of people. Knowing the facts tightened her stomach.

“It’s a long story,” Rani said.

Yasmin had tightened her veil and wiped her glasses. Though her eyes danced with anxiety, she was remarkably calm. The girl holding Rani’s backpack came behind her. Rani and took the offered backpack and her copy of One Language is Not Enough. Yasmin reached for the paperback graphic novel, and pulled a brown brush pen from her pocket. She signed the title page quickly, flecking brown ink against the creamy white.

“What did you say your name was?” she asked. “And how did you do that?”

Rani considered. The bewildered men in uniform talked to the shooter, who was rambling about needles and Muslim terrorists and inhuman beings.

“Porphyria,” she said, taking the autographed book. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” Yasmin replied. “You just saved my life.”

“That was amazing!” the girl said. “And kind of freaky, no offense.”

“None taken,” Rani said, stiffly. “Could you tell them I need to use the bathroom? I need a minute.”

She slung the signed book into her backpack, and strode out of the convention hall. A few people tried to stop her, but she brushed past them, until she reached the glass entrance doors. As soon as she was out, she shot her needles at palm trees, and used them to swing herself up onto the nearest rooftop. Then she started running across the cold, grey concrete and jumped to the next building.

So this is how to make a big exit. I always wondered how Wallace did it.

As she thought this, her cellphone rang. Rani didn’t stop until she was several buildings away from the convention center. She could see the beach on one side, and the science research facility. Smoke billowed from the research facility.

Her phone rang again. She dug into her backpack and pulled it out. Wallace’s photo gleamed on the screen, so she pressed TALK.

“Hey, Wallace?”

“Where are you? Are you okay?” he asked. “I heard there was a shooting on the news.”

“It hit the news?” she asked. “It hit the news that fast?’

“Hey, it’s all over the Internet. But you’re okay?”

“Am I okay? Are you okay?” she shouted. “I can see smoke from your dad’s building!”

Her shoulder ached where the bullets had hit her. The cloth frayed and scorched at the holes.

“That’s fine! It’s under control now! Where are you? Are you hurt?”

“No! I’m fine! No one’s hurt, not badly. Well, the gunman’s hurt, but he deserved it.”

“I’m coming over. I don’t want you in any danger.”

“Wallace, no,” she started. “I’m not at the con anymore; I’m—”

A black form soared from the science building with triangular wings. Rani stared at it, still holding her phone.

The Millipede hovered in front of her; he had a black helmet with large compound eyes, and translucent black wings. Stylized insect legs as long as fireplace pokers protruded from the sides of his back and ran down to his legs. His phone attached to his helmet, so that he could speak into it without needing his hands.

“Wallace,” she said, and realized that her voice was coming out of his cell phone.

“Rani?!” he asked, and his voice came out of her phone as well.

They stared at each other. Wallace’s compound eyes focused on the bullet holes in Rani’s dress, and she noticed a black burn on his left leg. It curved like a crescent moon.

“I can explain,” they said to each other.

The sun dipped into the ocean as they sat on the roof, leaning against the door that led to the downstairs.

“You knew I was the Millipede?!” Wallace said. “So I was lying my ass off for nothing?”

“There was never a good time,” Rani said. “With you disappearing all the time and being all broody. It wasn’t as if I had proof anyway. How did you even change?”

“Dad injected me with experimental steroids,” Wallace said. “He thought it’d make me tougher. Well, he wasn’t wrong. What about you?”

“I think a doll that one of my mom’s friends gave me for my birthday gave them to me,” Rani said. “I’m not exactly sure how, but the doll came with a mysterious note explaining what was happening to me.”


“Really.” Rani yawned. “I can show you the note, and the doll.”

“Yeah. Might be worth analyzing. Would be a better use of my dad’s resources than all his dangerous experiments.”

“He can’t know,” Rani warned him.

“Duh. He doesn’t know about me.” Wallace’s face wasn’t visible under the helmet, but she could sense he wasn’t smiling. “But Rah, why did you risk your life against someone with a gun? You could’ve been killed! And no one would’ve been able to help you.”

He reached and touched the bullet holes on her dress, right along the neckline. His gloved fingers were warm to the touch.

“You had no idea that you were bulletproof,” he said. “These should’ve killed you, if you weren’t some needle doll-thing person.”

“I wasn’t exactly thinking,” she said. “But if I had, I would’ve done it anyway. Because it’s what you would’ve done”

He stopped. His helmet stretched, which meant his mouth was dropping open.

“What… I…”

“What you do is really brave,” Rani said. “You skip school even though the dean wants your head on a platter for the classes you’ve missed, and you risk your life and secret identity to stop anything horrible your dad does. I miss having you around, but I also understand why you do it. Because no one else can, or will. If you had been there you would’ve done the same thing. Only maybe you would’ve released some paralyzing gas.”

“Well, that would knock out innocent people too. I’d probably go for a super speed or something that disarmed the gun.”

“Hey, I’m new at this,” Rani said. “And I only have one superpower. But, still, I wish I could be as brave as you, to do this all the time.”

“You don’t want this life, Rah,” he said. “You’re not like me. You’re smart. You’re on the honor roll. It’s not worth jeopardizing that.”

“Look, that’s what every guy hero says to the girl in each movie,” she said with irritation. “Well, to the love interest, to make them go away so they can be safe. But even so, I’m your friend and I know what I want.”

“We’ve got two years left of high school. Two years. I have a trust fund, but you don’t have anything. And your mom would kill you if you didn’t have a career.”

She decided to drop it. Wallace seemed to be a different person when she couldn’t see his facial expressions. Perhaps he felt different while wearing that suit. It was best not to fight about something that she could decide on her own later.

“Fine,” she said. “I wish you didn’t have to miss out on the con, though. I found some cool stuff you’d want to see.”

“Yeah…” He looked wistful. “Maybe I can spare a few minutes, before the police try and close the con down. I did want to see if they had Gundam Legos.”

“We should get changed,” she said. “They’d be suspicious of the Millipede coming into a con to buy merchandise. I think we’re on top of a hotel; we can sneak into the bathrooms.”

“You are an evil genius,” he said, shaking his head. “All right. Just for a few minutes.”

After finding a penthouse apartment with an unlocked door, they went in and then into the corridor. Rani patted a free spot on his shoulder as they each sneaked into the nearest set of restrooms for men and women. She tore off the wig and wiped the makeup from her face.

Nothing’s going to be the same, she told herself, looking in the polished mirror. We are about to go back to the con, to get my car and let him to do shopping. We’re going to do a normal friend activity. But after that…

She changed into her jeans and t-shirt, and splashed water on her hair to flatten it. She then held up the dress, to study the damage that it took. So much scorched material.

I’ll improve on it, she thought. Something stronger than fancy satin.

© 2016 Priya Sridhar

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