I found the package that would change my life in the late afternoon--a dusty manila envelope poking out of a stack of vinyl records in the attic. I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't been looking for something to sell online.
It sat between the jacket for 'STAYIN' ALIVE' and Stevie Wonder's 'SONG IN THE KEY OF LIFE'. I pulled the envelope out, wondering if it was some old school report; then I noticed it had stamps on it--but no post-mark.
I recognized the address. Mr. Sumerset, my mother's old attorney. Thinking it could be important legal documents--it felt thick and padded--I tore it open with my finger and shook the contents out in front of me.
A small black MP3 player clattered to the hardwood floor.
A sheet of paper was still wedged inside the envelope. Neatly typed, it read:
This is for Sue, no one else. In the event of my death, give it to her on her 18th birthday with instructions to listen to it--alone. Under no circumstances is anyone else to tamper, manipulate, or listen to the contents.
This includes you.
As you might expect, I've included several failsafes to prevent unwanted parties from listening in--including at least one you-know-what. Only my daughter, only on her 18th birthday, and only if I am not there to see it.
I read the document again--and then one more time. Just to make sure what I was reading was actually real.
What did my mother mean by 'several failsafes'? Or 'you-know-what' for that matter? And what on earth was so important that only I could hear it--on my 18th birthday, no less?
Well, mom was dead--car accident. I was still sixteen, but one out of two wasn't bad. I fished out a pair of earbuds from one of the boxes besides me, snapped them into the MP3 player, set them in my ears, then hit play.
I wasn't ready to hear her again.
I should have taken a moment to compose myself. I should have gone down to my room to do this. It had been three years since she died, but three years wasn't nearly enough time. In an instant, my heart started to hammer--my chest squeezed down on my lungs like a clenched fist. My mom had vanished in the span of a single night--taken away by a knock at the door and the words of a grim-faced police officer. But I never saw the wreck or the body.
Hearing her again like this--I half-expected her to send me to my room for turning it on two years early.
"You're probably wondering what this is all about. Well, first things first. You're the only person who should be listening to this, Sue. If you're letting anyone else hear this, stop the recording now. Because if you don't, they're about to be in a lot of pain."
I had no idea what she was talking about. But since there was no one else here...
The earphones made an incredibly high-pitched screech, just on the threshold of what was audible.
I grimaced. The sound stopped.
My mother's voice returned:
"Sorry about that. It'll happen a few times during the recording, especially during the important bits. You probably won't notice next time. So long as no one else is listening, there won't be any harm. But don't let anyone else hear this recording. And definitely don't play it on a loudspeaker."
"If you're hearing this, it means something terrible has happened. I don't know what, but I can guess at the why. Either way, it's time for me to let you in on a few of the family secrets."
"Seriously?" I said aloud. "What were you, some sort of secret agent?"
"This is going to require some time. So make sure you've got a few hours free," she said. "If you don't have it now, pause this recording and hide the player someplace where you know, absolutely know, that it will be safe."
She waited. I didn't hit the pause button.
Heck, I had all afternoon.
"Okay," she said. "I don't know where you are now, but the first thing you're going to need to do is head back to our house on Montgomery Street. If you sold the house, you're going to have to get into the basement. You can sneak in at night."
Did my mother just tell me to break into some stranger's house?
Luckily, we hadn't moved; we were still in the same house we had been in when she died. Except now we had it on a mortgage.
"The next part of this recording won't start until you're actually in the basement. If you need help getting there, contact Mr. Sumerset--the lawyer who should have given this note to you. Don't let him listen to this recording, but tell him it's imperative you get down there. Tell him Susan said so."
And then the MP3 player turned off.
I tried getting it to turn back on, but all I could manage was to replay the first message. Once it reached the end, it would just shut off again.
I went downstairs. Lisa, my thirty-something aunt, was laying on the cot, half-asleep. She hardly gave me a glance as I made my way down to the basement door.
Downstairs was nothing but sagging insulation and heaps of boardgames mixed in with leftover Christmas decorations. I had no idea what I was expecting to find here. Part of me suspected this was all part of some extensive joke performed by a surreal reality TV series.
'Gotcha, Sue! Your mother never really died three years ago in a car accident, leaving you in the care of a drug-addicted aunt--she's been with us for the past three years, preparing for the ultimate prank! You're on Candid Camera!"
"Wow, you sure did get me," I mumbled, half-grinning.
The MP3 player clicked back on as I reached the center of the basement.
"Good girl. I want you to move toward the water heater. Far corner of the room. Look at the floor."
I did as I was told, unsure of what I was searching for. I looked down as I moved toward the corner, scouring the grease-soaked concrete. All I could see was random scrape marks--that, and what looked like--
A square? Yeah--a four by four foot section. Subtle, but clear--and very straight. Almost looked like seams.
"Stand on the square. Right in the middle of it. And keep your arms down at your sides."
Again, I did as I was told. I put my arms down against my jean pockets, doing my best not to fidget.
Then I heard the whirring.
It sounded like some ancient engine had roused from its slumber, starting forward with a reluctant, lethargic growl. The floor I was standing on started to sink; fluorescent lights flickered somewhere below.
There was a goddamn bunker under our house.
Metal rails guided the platform down a steep concrete incline plane. Beneath me, an immense hallway flanked in steel girders was revealed; along the sides of the hall were dozens of glass display cases.
Some of them contained old black-and-white photos--one was an image of several costumed superheroes standing triumphant in front of a recently-completed Statue of Liberty--the plaque read 'APRIL 22, 1886'. Another case contained a series of bronze ray guns that looked like they had been torn straight out of the pages of a Flash Gordon comic. Yet another had a mannequin wearing a brown trilby hat, overcoat, and goggles--I dimly recognized it as a costume of Dr. Dread, a supervillain from the First and Second World War.
The cases went on and on--each one containing yet another relic of the past, arranged in order from the oldest to the newest. But all of this was dwarfed by what lay at the end of the hall, mounted on top of a platform above all the other cases.
A sleek black bodysuit so dark it seemed to have no texture, no contour, nothing but an edge--interrupted only by the presence of a white jawless skull on its face.
I recognized it in an instant. I mean, crap. You'd have to be some sort of God-fearing hermit not to recognize it.
And when I realized what it meant, my eyes bulged.
"Yes," I heard my mother say through the headphones. "I am--or was--the Skull."
"No frigging way," I said, shaking my head violently. "That doesn't even make sense--"
"I inherited the mantle from your father--who inherited it from your grandfather. Who inherited it from your grandmother, who inherited it from your great grandfather," she said.
"But--but how did you--you were my mom!" I said, throwing my arms up in frustration. "You didn't have any time to--to--"
I stopped mid-sentence, struck by the reasoning of it. Mom would disappear for days, sometimes weeks at a time--leaving me in the care of a sitter. She never talked about dad, who had died when I was only two.
But, seriously? Like, what--she was off wearing that costume and punching time-traveling Nazis in the face in-between picking me up for soccer practice?
"This is a lot to absorb at once," she told me, "trust me, I know. But there's something I need you to do for me. Something I trust only you to do. Walk toward the costume on the platform."
I walked. In front of the costume was a sleek metal pole that emerged from the floor; at its end was a keyboard. It was coated in a thick layer of grime.
Mom's voice turned somber: "Hit the following keys as I say them: A. Z. 1. 3. Z. 6. D. M."
My finger hovered over the M, hesitating.
I drew my finger away, leaving the sequence unfinished.
I don't know why I did that. Maybe it was curiosity. Maybe it was intuition. Maybe I was suspicious--suspicious about the tone my mother was using, suspicious about why she had brought me down here, suspicious about the whole situation.
Truth be told, though--had I done what I was told--had I been mommy's good little girl--things probably would have gone down a whole lot differently.
"Good girl," I heard her voice say. "You probably see a lot of flickering red lights, now. Some scary voice talking about a self-destruct mechanism. Don't worry. So long as you stay away from the cases, it won't hurt you. It's designed to destroy the uniform--the equipment, the gear, the data-files--but leave the facility itself untouched."
I lowered my hands, stepping back from the control panel. The silence was deafening; it rang through the halls, echoing back to me. Only the sound of her voice broke the quiet.
"You're probably wondering why I wanted you to do that, and the answer is simple: I didn't want this life for you."
I stared at the costume.
"Once complete, everything except the bunker itself will be destroyed. In addition, I've set up a program that will wire fifty thousand dollars to your college fund account."
My aunt closed that account last January. Used the six thousand left in it to pay off some of the mortgage and buy more meth.
"Go to a good school. Be a lawyer. Be a doctor. Be a professor. Be anything but this. Don't waste your life."
I walked away from the control panel, wandering through the facility.
"This message will now delete itself. I love you. Wherever you are, whatever you become--remember that. Goodbye, sugarplum."
The MP3 player switched off. There was a sizzling sound from somewhere inside it; a long thread of smoke unraveled from its front panel. I threw it into a wastebasket and continued to wander through the empty halls.
After a while, I sat down next to the empty Skull suit and started to cry.