The Empathies

by Mindy Friddle

Sunrise to sunset, that was the deal. When darkness descended, their safety could not be guaranteed. After all, the deserted, boarded-up Magic Kingdom of today was a perilous place. 

The governor had finally granted Bev Rodriguez-Cortez special permission to film at Disney World, not an easy feat, that sort of diplomatic dithering, though it helped RoCo, as she was known to friends and frenemies, was an up-and-coming director and, most importantly, born and raised in Florida. 

She’d pitched this one-day event as a benefit for the state she loved and missed. RoCo would bring Empathy, the superhero, to this forsaken place—from the pages of the much beloved graphic novel, to the screen via a live feed, broadcast globally. Because the Sunshine State had gone dark and could really use some empathy right now. If she could prove this hallowed park of yon was safe again— then perhaps it could be transformed into a sort of Sundance for the east coast, a place to advance the work of storytellers in film, gaming, and theatre.

The outskirts rough, though. Yikes. As if the Magic Kingdom were cursed, under one of its storied wicked spells. When they’d arrived at dawn, RoCo—though she’d seen the videos, of course—nevertheless shocked at the graffiti-tagged ticket booths, the spiderwebbed cracked glass. The Hollywood Studios, vandalized beyond repair back in 2030, the governor had given her a heads up about that. But she found the interior of the park spared, mostly, thanks to the swarm of copbots dispatched last year to patrol. 

She had a tight schedule. The choppers would arrive for pick up at sundown. They’d helicoptered in, they’d helicopter out.

Her crew of carpenters had already mounted a set, primitive, hastily assembled scaffolding on an old stage, with a green screen backdrop. They’d shoot outdoors, thank God the weather was cooperating. In the background, ruin porn— Cinderella’s mothballed castle. Shame not to use it, but that was the deal, too. No glamorizing the downfall. She’d add digital scenery and touch ups later, anyway. She had a scrum of extras at the ready, placeholders mostly, for the soldiers and sundry reprobates. 

An audience of one hundred, approved and invited by the governor herself, would arrive in an hour, ferried in by shuttle, escorted by a fleet of copbots. Pricey tickets, but then this was a fundraiser, of sorts.

#

They’d commandeered the former restrooms near the castle, between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, for costume and makeup. There, RoCo found the Empathies in costume for a final fitting. Gemmy, the costume designer, a genius, functioning splendidly without the crutch of flashy technology, if need be. Gemmy could do wonders with cellophane and duct tape. She could sew by hand. 

As for the Empathies, RoCo had cast those who had stage experience, who could improvise. No divas, please. She needed talent. 

And, after weeks of auditions, had found it. Four actors who could carry off the ferocious mercy of an empyrean superhero who takes the form of an afflicted being she saves, before she ascends above the stricken…

She cast Sara Talltree as the Cherokee grandmother in the Trail of Tears chapter. Sara, a singer, a musical headliner—her acting chops superb, too. For the World War II chapter, Rachel Duschman would play the middle-aged woman among the freezing, naked Jewish families in the snows of the Black Forest. Rachel, seasoned actor, a real professional, had no problem with nudity—hers or anyone else’s, if it served the story. It did. Glenna Nettles—her star was rising in the virtual gaming avatar world— would play the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirl. And, for the Mall of America chapter, RoCo’s riskiest choice, a young actor with a dash of community theatre under her belt, but a face that could emote like a son of a bitch—Summer Bremer.

#

“So we were thinking, barefoot,” Gemmy said as RoCo approached Sara. “Ditch the moccasins.”

“They’re a bitch to take off,” Sara added. 

 RoCo nodded. “Barefoot works.”

Glenna emerged from behind a stall, wearing a blue-checked school uniform, faded and dusty, poignantly threadbare. She twirled for RoCo. “Yep. Perfect.”

Rachel didn’t have much of a costume, a few tufts of snow, strategically placed, tits and crotch, just so any pearl clutchers in the audience wouldn’t get the vapors.

 RoCo looked over at Summer. 

“Velvet and booties, they were all the rage back then,” Gemmy said. 

“Nice,” RoCo said. 

#

Summer’s costume: purple crushed velvet dress, lace tights, ankle boots. Fashion from before she was born, so she’d perused old pictures and videos from back then as part of her research. Summer’s character—the victim Empathy chooses to morph into— a “mall girl” from 2017.  Summer had vague memories of malls from her childhood, back when people shopped like that. In the Mall of America chapter, her character is a high school student Summer’s own age, sixteen, who sings in a chorus that Bloody Black Friday. Summer had watched the videos of Santaland in the mall, where the choirs sang Christmas music…just before the attack. She’d read the news articles, how the bomb had gone off in the middle of the mall, the skylights shattered, the escalators torn into jagged broken zippers, the top story collapsing onto the people below. The fake snow and debris plumed, dusted everyone, everything. The gunmen, strapped with assault rifles and grenades, “the evil seven” who were “domestic terrorists,” stormed in to pick off the survivors—the skaters in the ice rink, even the children in Nickelodeon Park. 

At the audition, the director, RoCo, had told Summer, yeah, well, all kids want to be Empathy for Halloween, this is more than costume play. That was after Summer had told her she’d cosplayed Empathy at ComicCon for three years. Summer was more than a fan, is what she meant to convey. She was a follower from the beginning, an Empathy disciple.  

The director was scary, a little. Gemmy said, Hon, don’t let RoCo freak you out. She’s a softie underneath the armor. 

#

“Anyone want to run lines?” RoCo said now. There were a few ha-has. They all had just the one line, albeit in different languages. What you do to others, you do to yourself. 

Summer’s line, the only English version. All the work in gesture, in the face. That’s what RoCo said, and why she’d cast Summer. 

When Summer learned she got the part, her mother almost didn’t let her accept, especially when she found out Summer wasn’t allowed to bring along a parent, or any adult, for that matter. Florida? Her mother said, over and over, making it sound like Shanghai or Moscow, far more hellacious spots, she reminded her mother. They lived in Connecticut now, Summer and her brother, Townie, with their mother and Ivan, in a Community of Peace. 

 Ivan, her stepfather slash acting coach, told her mother this could be Summer’s big break.

It took Summer and Ivan three days to persuade her mother this was an opportunity not to be missed, working with Bev Rodrigues-Cortez, and this audition might just lead Summer being cast in the new Empathy series. 

Last year, Summer had played Ophelia in Hamlet, for their town’s Shakespeare in the Park. Sort of a big deal. Ivan had told Summer, Your pain is fuel. Use it.  Fresh from her father’s deathbed, Summer had great gushes of pain to pull from. She got a standing ovation. Ivan had sent the video to RoCo. 

 

“Half an hour,” RoCo said now. The audience had arrived.

Summer felt the usual pre-performance butterflies, nothing she couldn’t handle. Or so she hoped.

There was just the one set on stage. A string quartet and drummer, in front of the stage where the orchestra pit usually was. A few extras—from boys to old men— to play the oppressors. RoCo called the scenes truncated action. Empathy descends amid savage violence, wields her magic mirror, recites her line of power. The reckoning then, as the cruel ones wither and see, as Empathy morphs into one of the victims, and ascends.

“Remember, what I’m after here,” Roco said. “That instant of epiphany, that turning point when the evil is reversed, when the wicked are wounded by their own deeds, and Empathy reflects that complexity in her face, in her body.” 

There would be a live stream of today’s performances. Two drone cameras, and one cameraman, as RoCo intended to capture the audience’s reactions. But RoCo said she’d take the raw scenes into the studio next week and work her magic, add all the flash and dash, fuse the scenes into one polished video, post it for a global audience. Summer had overheard Sara and Rachel talk about how this was RoCo’s own audition, too. To prove she could direct the Empathy series. 

“No green room, sorry,” RoCo said now. “But there’s a tent, behind the stage. A monitor in there, to watch.” After the shoot, the Empathies were expected to circulate in the crowd, with props— magic mirror, boomerang, a stuffed toy falcon. “It’s part of their ticket price. So, smile and pose with the big wigs.”

When the solar shuttle arrived to ferry them over to the stage, Summer sat behind Gemmy and RoCo.

“You know, these one sceners—what do you call them? Truncated action? Tableaus? It reminds me of the Stations of the Cross,” Gemmy told RoCo. “ ‘Meditating on specific holy events’, as the sisters used to say.”

“Bitch, really?” 

Gemmy needled RoCo, it made Summer nervous. But RoCo didn’t get too riled up or anything. She and Gemmy went way back. 

“I haven’t been to mass in forever,” RoCo added. 

“Just saying. You can take a girl out of the church, but ...” 

RoCo eye rolled, yeah righted. 

But RoCo was thinking of her mother and her aunt, living together in Vermont, in a Community of Peace where RoCo had safely installed them. These days, her mother and aunt both prayed to Empathy along with the Virgin Mary and sundry other candled saints. They hated leaving Florida, detested the cold Northeast, pined for Miami even now, where they’d lived all their lives…before Helga. Miami, the Keys, gone now, sea-swallowed after Helga roared in. Much of Southern Florida unpeopled nowadays, what land left, bitterly fought over in legal battles, in violent squabbles. Gated communities breached like broken dams. Then the rise of Florida Anarchists—Flanarch—their ruptures of lawlessness, their demands that Florida secede. 

Her mother and aunt would watch the live stream today—RoCo’s gift to them. They would watch and brag about RoCo to their neighbors, of course, but she hoped the performances would bring them comfort. Surely her mother and Aunt Maria would be moved, watching these Empathies brandishing mirrors of comeuppance, wielding ferocious mercy, here in Florida.

#

 

In the tent, the chattering stopped because they were getting into character. 

Rachel practiced deep breathing in the corner, Glenna yogaed, warrior position. Sara, first up, stood still, eyes closed, waiting for her cue.

Gemmy helped Summer slide on her chiffon robe over the velvet dress. Gemmy had designed the robes for all four Empathies—translucent, shimmery like gossamer. There were wings, too, crepe that drooped, like enormous limp lettuce leaves. Summer had practiced for hours, shedding the robe in one fluid movement, as if emerging from a chrysalis, when she transforms into the mall girl.

 On the monitor, they watched the governor introduce RoCo. The camera panned over the glamorous audience, sequins twinkling. “Florida’s gentry,” Gemmy whispered, “what’s left.” 

Summer trembled. She always shook before performances, it was okay, it was energy, but Gemmy looked worried. “You’ll do great, hon. Besides, I’ll let you in a little secret. They—” she tilted her head toward the audience—“don’t give an alligator’s ass about the performances. They’re here sniffing around investment opportunity. Ka-ching. It’s just a big ol’ shmoozefest cocktail party.”

The drummer started up, loud boom booms, going right for the solar plexus. 

“Hey, when you circulate after, head for the bar.”  Gemmy winked. “I’ll sneak you some sangria.”

#

The extras assembled on stage. Three teens, two older men, all dressed in black, like stagehands. The point, RoCo said, was to keep the wicked faceless, to make evil banal. Sara glided onto stage, one foot in the rope sling, her sheer robe and wings fluttering, catching the sunlight. 

Summer had read The Trail of Tears chapter to her brother, Townie, hundreds of times, she knew every frame. The three American soldiers in blue uniforms, with rifles and bayonets, on horseback, forcing Cherokee people to march through the woods. Women held babies, men carried the old and sick who were too weak to walk the thousand miles to Indian Territory. The soldiers barked orders, warned them to leave the dying behind. The youngest soldier, the yellow-haired one, rides his horse over, kicks one of the old women as she falls to her knees, begging to rest— 

 Then, when you could hardly stand the cruelty, Empathy descends, glowing like the moon, then growing so bright you can hardly bear to look. Bring it on, Empathy. Torch those evil dudes. Smite them down! But—she doesn’t. As much as you want to her to, she doesn’t. At first everyone freaks out, the horses rear, the women clutch their babies, the children wail. One soldier shouts to take cover, he thinks they’ve been blasted by cannon fire. No, the other soldier says, squinting toward Empathy, they cursed us with their savage gods, they brung this on. 

Sara Talltree, Empathy now, stood on stage in her tattered white gown. Summer could see anguish in her face. Fury, too. She held up her mirror, the men cowered, as if it were a weapon. It was a weapon. But Empathy stops herself from wreaking revenge. That’s what the professor on the Hullabaloo talk said, when Summer researched. Empathy’s mirror goes off like a nuclear flash and the soldiers fall, they think she’s going to kill them and they crouch in “defensive positions,” the professor said, before their “egoic hard shells are melted” and they “see.” The professor called this “cathartic equilibrium.”

“What you do to others, you do to yourselves.” Sara recited the line in Cherokee. Her face soft but strong, too, with “strident benevolence.” The soldiers sob, take off their own coats to give to the women and children. 

Sara slipped off her gossamer robe without a snag. In her beaded ragged dress, she cradled the mirror, slipped her foot back into the rope sling, and slowly rose, off stage. 

RoCo, watching the monitor, said, “She nailed it. Sara totally nailed it.”

The audience clapped.

#

In the World War II chapter, Empathy arrives to save a group of Jewish women, naked and freezing, running in the snow. The Nazi soldiers herd them out into the woods, to shoot them and shove them into a mass grave. Empathy descends in the clearing ahead, she fixes the soldiers with her gentle, steady stare. The soldiers shoot at her, scream louder and louder. The bullets go through her. The soldiers’ dogs, unleashed, charge at her, then stop, lick her hand. When she raises her mirror, a ball of light glows and spreads, solid to liquid to air. The women huddle together. The light expands like the sun, it blinds. The soldiers’ guns jam. Their eyes, you see it in their eyes first, the widening, then filling with tears. The lieutenant takes off his wool coat and he wraps it around a woman near him, it is still warm from his body, and he says here, here, then he takes off his shoes, his dry wool socks, his shirt. He wraps the clothing around the woman, blue with cold, until he, himself, is naked.  All of them, the soldiers, are soon naked, shivering with cold, as they drape the women with their coats, their shirts, their long johns, so warm, one of the women says, so warm. We will save you, the lieutenant says, his teeth clacking with the cold. The Nazi soldiers are overcome with shame, with the pain of seeing what they have done. They FEEL it. How could they have been so blind to their own brutality? They will save them, the humans in front of them. They will die for them.

Rachel almost stumbled off the rope sling, but caught herself, and made it look natural. When she shrugged off her shimmery robe, she was naked, and stood ram-rod straight. Her line, delivered in Yiddish, rang out clear, and there was such beautiful suffering in her face as she rose off stage. 

The audience clapped and cheered. 

#

Glenna came on like gangbusters, jumped off the sling rope, landing in a crouch, like a gymnast. Glenna told Summer she was into Empathy as gangster superhero, who freaks out the soldiers, before she mirrors them. “I want them to cower and piss themselves. I want those assholes to hurt,” Glenna had admitted. Glenna researched for her part, too. She hadn’t even known anything about Boko Haram, and how they kidnapped more than two hundred schoolgirls from their dorm in Chibok, Nigeria, and then raped them, enslaved them for, like, years. Glenna had hired a dialect coach to help her get the Hausa dialect right. It sounded melodious when she said it now, her line sounded powerful, and Glenna’s face was mostly furious, and a little sad.

The audience clapped and whistled.

#

Summer was not herself. 

She was Empathy now. She placed her foot in the rope sling, nodded. Began sailing over to the stage, to her mark. 

In the Mall of America chapter, Empathy arrives amid the mayhem of dust and blood, surrounded by the cries of the injured, the silence of the dead. The Evil Seven had detonated the bomb from afar, and would shortly arrive, toting assault rifles and grenades. 

Empathy would stop them from further carnage, when she mirrored them. But what of the dead innocents at her feet? The injured? What if she’d arrived in the Seven’s headquarters the day before, a junk yard on the outskirts of the Minneapolis where they’d built their bomb from pressure cookers and scrap metal? And stopped them… then? This must weigh on Empathy, Summer thought. That her superpowers could not obliterate the root of the tragedy that day. Even a superhero could be sick with grief.

Summer, herself, had been sick with grief last year, after her father died.

Rob Bremer chose not to live. Declined treatment after he was diagnosed with cancer, refused to give up the drinking habit that taxed his ailing liver, because it was the only joy left in his life. Or so he told Summer’s mother. This was after he’d been fired from Reflexa Pharmaceuticals and he nursed his humiliation every day, along with vodka sodas. Summer had overheard her mother talking with him on a video call, begging him…he had two children to live for, so stop being selfish. Summer’s mother accused him of punishing her, still, for leaving him.

 When Summer sat by her father’s bed at the end, and held his boney, bruise-splotched hand, he tried to talk, but the painkillers stole his clarity. She said, Daddy, I know you love me. I know you love Townie, too. There were other things she wanted to tell him. How sorry she was about turning snotty, convincing herself, at one point, he was a terrible father. She regretted not staying with him the summer before, even though he told her not to bother, he didn’t need kids around for God’s sake. So she and Townie had stayed home with their mother and Ivan, and Summer did her plays— 

Summer stepped off the rope sling, now, onto the stage. In one hand, the mirror, hidden in the folds of her shimmery robe. She took a step toward the extras in their black leotards, frozen in malicious crouches. Her soft wings dragged a little behind her, and she felt a tug. A nail, maybe, snagging one wing. 

The professor on Hullabaloo said the Mall of America chapter revealed Empathy’s “impotence,” her “reckoning with her own limitations.” The superhero, he said, “is not omnipotent, but must accept what she can do, from where she lands.”

As mortals must do. 

It felt tragic, to witness pain and heartache in a loved one, as Summer had with her father at the end. But she’d discovered there was something purifying about facing the suffering with him. Not running away from pain, but seeing it, enduring it— 

Summer’s face dripped with tears now, the rivulets tickled, running down her neck.

A raspy buzz zipped by her, a drone camera hovering for a close-up.

The extras began slowly moving, standing, from their hunkered down heap.

Townie was watching the live feed, from a thousand miles away. Summer imagined his beautiful hazel eyes gazing at the screen, at her, at Empathy. His bandaged arm still propped up, until they had the new skin ready. Townie had put his hand on the gas grill at the Father’s Day cook-out. Her mother had screamed— Summer would never forget the sound of her mother’s scream, there was such agony it. Later at the burn center, her mother kept asking, why, Townie, why? Summer knew why. Townie was nonverbal, but he finally understood about their father, that he was really gone. Forever gone. Dead. Townie wanted the pain, to feel it completely, he wanted physical grief, he wanted to manifest the sadness locked inside him. 

If only Summer could stop Townie’s suffering.  

“What you do to others you do to yourself,” she recited now, in the midwestern flat accent she’d practiced, and each word plumped and glistened as she held up the mirror, and the extras dropped to their knees. They writhed as she mirrored them, and it felt good, just as Glenna had said, to watch them cringe and thrash, hurting, but there was poignancy, too, as they run to the injured, as the leader of the Seven cries out when he cradles a bleeding woman, as if she were his own mother.  

Summer—Empathy—began to slide off the gossamer robe and wings, transforming into the mall girl. The girl who had dressed up to sing in her high school chorus, O Holy Night, when the bomb went off. Who would rise now—

The stage rocked and shook. 

Fireworks? 

RoCo hadn’t said anything about sound effects. Screams from the audience. Another blast, closer, and Summer felt herself flung into the air, she was flying, and then… everything went black.

#

Two drone cameras captured footage of the carnage, the cameras zipping merrily as hummingbirds, dutifully recording not just the performances but afterwards, the capsized tents, the blasted, splintered stage and chards of chairs, the heaps of groaning wounded, the dead and the dying. No one knew much about Flanarch, how many of them there were. But these days, just one misanthrope could throw a wrench in the smoothly running cogs of a society, a country. It was the most perilous development, the ability of a single individual, leveraging technology, to wreak such havoc. Flanarch had detonated two explosives remotely, hacked into the copbots, the firebots, even the medbots, and put them into sleep mode.

 RoCo screamed. Her black spikey hair gone, her head covered in purplish clots, and yet she screamed at the medbots, she kicked them with a bloody bare foot, yelling wake up, wake up

#

 

Summer was not a girl. She was not herself. Summer was Empathy. A superhero. That is what she told herself now, after she came to. That is what she believed, because otherwise—

Otherwise, Summer could not survive this.

She let Empathy take over. She folded Summer up into a tiny box, origamied herself, pleated tight, tucked somewhere inside dark and hidden. 

Help the one in front of you, where you land.

Summer had landed hard, concussed, on a tent that cushioned her fall from the asphalt. Her left arm, broken, hung limply at her side, she tried not to move it now, as she applied pressure on the man’s leg, the stump of leg, with her right hand.

 It was hard to see the face of the man Summer—Empathy—was saving now, because of all the blood. Thirsty, he rasped. Water. “Water!” Empathy demanded. “I need water here.” A bottle of soda appeared, pushed to her by unseen hands. She poured a few drops into the man’s mouth. Empathy told him to wake up.  “Look at me, now. Stay awake.”  His eyes—dark brown, caked in rusty gunk— opened, moved to her. “Sir? What’s your name?” Avoid shock. That was after you stopped the bleeding. Because people could die of shock.

(Summer, herself, in shock, after seeing Gemmy lying there, barely recognizable, except for the necklaces—a cross, a Star of David, a crescent, hedging my bets, she’d told Summer, just an hour before. But Summer couldn’t think about that now.) 

The tourniquet on the man’s leg soft with blood, pulpy, but Empathy pressed, pressed hard with all her might. Like the health teacher had instructed, when Summer got certified in First aid, for Townie, in case Townie ever—

The drone camera zoomed close. And Summer remembered. The live feed. Townie. Watching!

“Townie, I’m okay,” she told the hovering camera. “I’m helping, we’re helping people. Empathy is here! Empathy is saving them.”

 


 

Mindy Friddle is the author of the novels The Garden Angel, selected for Barnes and Noble's Discover Great New Writers program, Secret Keepers, winner of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, and Her Best Self, forthcoming in 2024 from Regal House. Her short stories have appeared in storySouthLitMag, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Southern Humanities Review, phoebe, Bright Flash Literary Review, Steel Toe Review, A Long Story, Gateway Review, Failbetter and Emrys Journal. Mindy earned her MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson and now lives on Edisto Island, a small barrier island in South Carolina. Details at www.mindyfriddle.com.