Every time I close my eyes, I see the troll. It looms in front of me, drool slavering from its monstrous orange jaws. It looks rather like Dr Suess’s Lorax, but it’s much bigger and much hungrier. It looms over me, opening its mouth. This is the moment I’ve been preparing for all term. My heart is beating faster than that roller coaster I was too scared to ride when I was eight and Laurel had her birthday party at a theme park. The troll gets closer and closer, opening its mouth wider. I catch a glimpse of jagged, orange teeth. Dr Suess forgot to mention the dental problems.
This is it. This is my moment to shine. It’s time to fight, time to win! I tell myself I’m ready. I try to move, but I can’t. My muscles refuse to cooperate. I am about to die.
Suddenly, there’s a flash of lightning in the air in front of me and a strong arm on my shoulder, shoving me out of the way. Someone yells, “I’ll save you, Hannah!” Who is he talking to? That’s not even my name. The troll collapses in a pile of shaggy orange fur, stunned for the moment. I try to get to my feet, try to go toward the troll to finish the job, but I fail. I cannot move any more than the troll can. All I can do is stare at the bulletin board on the wall, where everyone’s scores are posted for the entire student body to see. It’s supposed to be an incentive to do well. As I watch, a teacher comes to update the board. She staples a grade next to my name and one next to another kid’s name, one who wasn’t supposed to have a turn until tomorrow.
Annabelle Blake: Fail.
Brian Russell: A++
It’s been two months since that day, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I was one of the first students to take that exam, so everyone else was still there, watching. Nobody who was watching knows that I aced the written exam, but it probably wouldn’t matter even if everybody knew. Nobody cares if you can remember stuff if you freeze up when it’s time to put all that learning into practise. My entire life was ruined by that kid who usurped my exam. Because of him, I flunked out of Superhero High altogether. I’m starting a new school soon. It’s called Sidekick Academy, and it’s where all the Superhero High rejects go. That’s what I am. A reject.
My mum says it’s not my fault. After all, my power isn’t exactly a superpower. Easy for her to say. Her power is awesome. She can move through solid objects. I wish I had her power. Practically having no power in a society where everybody has one, I have to use my wits to get by. I usually do alright, but when a huge, hungry troll comes at me, I just freeze up. I can’t help it.
Superhero High is a regular high school, where you go home at the end of each day, but Sidekick Academy is a boarding school. I guess they want to keep a closer eye on us because they think we’re completely incompetent. Or they think our parents can’t stand the sight of us anymore because we’re destined for mediocrity instead of heroism.
I get to Sidekick Academy about an hour before I have to be there. I’m not excited about it or anything. I used to be a conscientious student, but apparently, three-years-worth of showing up early, handing in perfect homework, and acing every written exam counts for nothing if you can’t face down a hungry troll with your bare hands in front of a stadium’s worth of onlookers. If that’s the case, I don’t see why I should bother. No, I’m here early because I have nothing better to do. And I need to do something. If I don’t occupy myself, I see the troll again, and I get scared. And I hate being scared, so instead, I get mad. At Brian, for stealing my show– never mind that I was about to die; I’d have thought of something. At the troll, for trying to eat me. And at the whole system, because I’d flunked for one tiny detail when I excelled at everything else.
I walk inside the low, grey building – What a contrast to the vaulted halls of Superhero High! – and find my way to my dorm room.
The first thing I notice is that everything’s grey. The beds, the desks, the wardrobes. Boring, dismal grey. It’s like they’re trying to make us all depressed. Then I recall the colour of the uniform- also grey.
The next thing I notice is the number of beds: four. I’ve never had roommates before, but with my luck, they’ll be people who witnessed my humiliation last term. Great, that’s all I need.
Not having anything better to do, I start to unpack. I’m nearly done unpacking my clothes, trying not to think, when the door swings open and a girl breezes in, pulling a bright pink suitcase and holding a pink pillow under one arm.
“Hi! I’m Kylie!” She dumps her pillow on one of the desks and drops her suitcase on the floor, opening it. Brightly coloured clothes spill out in all directions. I have no idea how she got them all to fit in there. Seeing where I’m looking, she explains, “That’s my power. Making things fit. What’s yours?” She keeps moving as she says this, pulling a bright pink blanket out from under mountains of clothes and switching it for the grey one on her bed. The room immediately looks better.
“I’m impervious to Kryptonite,” I tell her. “I’m-”
“Annabelle, right? I remember you from Superhero High.” She says it without any trace of animosity, which shocks me. “How does that work? If someone throws kryptonite at you, it’ll bounce off or something?”
“Nope. It passes right through me.” Nothing else does, just kryptonite. If someone thought I was Superman and tried to attack me with kryptonite, my power would help me right up until the person stopped trying to hit me with kryptonite and used a good old-fashioned fist. And there’s little chance of that happening. I don’t look anything like Superman. I look like any other 17-year-old girl.
“Neat,” Kylie says, and she seems to actually mean it.
“I guess it is,” I agree after a minute. It is pretty cool to have something pass through me, even if it did only happen once. At least I have a power, even if it is pretty obscure.
Kylie finishes unpacking, and the room looks much cheerier with her corner tinting the greyness like the pink reflection of a sunset against grey clouds. The knickknacks all over her desk add a homey look. I wish I’d thought to bring knickknacks.
Before long, our two other roommates come in. Kylie introduces herself, and they introduce themselves in turn. They’re identical twins, named Heather and Fern, and their power is pretty neat. They can physically switch places. I start to feel bad about my own power all over again, but then Kylie introduces me.
“This is Annabelle,” she says. “And her power is awesome! She’s impervious to Kryptonite! How neat is that!” The other girls get excited, too. One of them says something about how if I worked together with Superman, and I feel pretty cool for a minute.
As we change into our grey uniforms (I notice that Kylie is wearing bright orange socks. Clever. Those aren’t mandated by the uniform) and head to the auditorium for the start-of-term assembly, I wonder if Kylie’s superpower works on people, too. She’s already starting to make me feel like I might fit in. Maybe I won’t hate it so much here, after all.
I hate it here already. The auditorium is a low, grey room filled with hard metal folding chairs. I take one somewhere in the middle of the room. Kylie, Heather, and Fern sit down near me.
"Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to Sidekick Academy." It’s a short woman dressed in grey. Why is everything grey?
“That’s the headmistress, Mrs Pickwick,” Kylie whispers, as Mrs Pickwick pauses to wait for applause. None is forthcoming. Nobody except Kylie seems to want to be here. I guess most of the students here flunked out of Superhero High, like I did. I wonder if they had useless powers like mine or if they were just incompetent. I guess most of them probably think I’m incompetent.
“Now,” Mrs Pickwick continues, "Sidekick Academy is a very important school, dedicating itself to producing the sidekicks that your heroes need. Remember, you’re not the hero. You’re only a sidekick. So it’s not your job to save anyone. Your job is to help the hero in any way you can. For many of you, this will mean being the comic relief. In extreme cases, it’ll mean getting into trouble yourself so the hero can save you. We don’t want any bored heroes, now, do we?
“If you absolutely must save the day, it is imperative that you make it look as if it was the hero who did all the work. This is our motto: 'Heroibus ad auxilium!'" She mangles the pronunciation. "'Support the heroes!’” She smiles, expecting us to be impressed. I’m not.
This is crazy. I’m not being the comic relief! I want to do great things, not stand there and make someone else look cool. I don’t belong here. I have to get out.
Right after the assembly, I tell Kylie, Heather, and Fern not to wait for me. I catch up with Mrs Pickwick. Maybe I can convince her to send me back to Superhero High. I can’t be a sidekick forever, relegated to mediocrity because of one small test. There has to be another way. Maybe if I refuse to go away until she gives in, I can wear her down. It works on my dad.
"Please, Mrs Pickwick,” I plead. “I don’t belong here.” I’m preparing a speech in my head to convince her. I’ll tell her how I’m good at strategising, how good I am at hand-to-hand combat; how I’ve been taking martial arts classes on the side since I was five. I’ll tell her about how I’m always top in my class, how everyone always wants to study with me. I’ll tell her that I didn’t get to take my exam for myself because that kid Brian intruded on it, so I should get a second chance. The troll blooms in my vision. I don’t want a second chance, but I’ll do it if that’s what it takes. Unfortunately, I don’t get to tell her any of that. She cuts me off.
"Miss Blake," she says. She already knows my name? That can’t be good. "I was at your final exam. You failed it. You are not a hero."
"That’s not fair!" I argue. "Brian Russell stole my exam!"
"As I recall, he saved your life, Miss Blake."
"I had a plan!" I say defensively, even though it’s not true. "If he hadn't stuck his nose in where it didn't belong, I'd've done something spectacular!"
"Be that as it may, Miss Blake, you didn't do anything spectacular, not even remotely. All you did was stand there and whimper. If this sidekick thing doesn't work out, then with a couple of years of training, you may have a brilliant future ahead of you as a damsel-in-distress."
I open my mouth to object, but Mrs Pickwick doesn’t give me a chance. "You are in this school now, Miss Blake. You are not a hero. You are barely even good enough to be a sidekick. You had better start studying slapstick.” Then she strides away so quickly I don’t have a hope of catching up. Maybe ending a conversation is her superpower.
I trudge along the grey halls back to my dorm room, my heart in my trainers. I’m going to be stuck here forever unless I flunk out of this school too. I’m a failure. The troll pops up in front of my eyes again, advancing on me. I can’t move. I’m back in the examinations room at Superhero High, about to fail all over again.
“There you are! We were looking everywhere for you!” I’m jolted out of my miserable reverie by Heather. I know her by her purple headband. Fern’s wearing a green one. “I’d better tell Kylie I found you.”
Suddenly her headband is green. “There you are, Annabelle!” Oh- they must have switched. This is Fern now. Fern looks concerned. “Are you alright?”
I almost break down and sob, but she stops me. “Not here. Come back to our room first.” She leads me to our room and settles me on a bed. Kylie and Heather gather around me, looking concerned. I take one look at their kind faces and can’t help myself. I break down and the whole story comes spilling out.
Fern hands me tissues while I talk. Heather offers me a hug. Kylie waits until I’m finished, then says that she never thought the final exam was fair anyway.
“I mean, how is the ability to hurt an animal an accurate judge of superhero ability? It’s cruel.”
“It was going to eat me,” I remind her, tearing up again at her loyalty. I just met these girls today, but already I know we’re going to be fast friends.
“Only because the administration starved it for the express purpose. The whole thing is rigged. Those with showier powers get to be called heroes, and those who do things with brains or effort get turned into sidekicks to do most of the work and take none of the credit. My uncle’s a sidekick, and he’s better than any hero I’ve ever known.”
I suddenly remember that these girls must have failed, too. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make everything about me. You had to face the troll too, right? How did failing not traumatise you?”
“I didn’t face it,” Kylie tells me. “It was cruel, so I refused. I’d rather be like my uncle any day. Besides, my power isn’t flashy, so I was bound to fail.”
Fern grins. “I didn’t take it at all, but nobody outside of this room knows that. Heather’s better at running, so we switched, and she just ran out of the way until the time ran out, but the troll was still conscious so we both failed.”
Heather grins too, remembering. “I was really tired out. My legs were sore for days after. And everybody thinks Fern’s exam was more impressive because her name comes first in the alphabet so I had more energy for hers.”
“Let’s make a pact,” Kylie says suddenly. “We’re going to be the best sidekicks this world has ever seen. And we’re going to be sidekicks without heroes. We’ll save the world by showing sidekicks like ourselves that they don’t need heroes to be worthwhile. That they’re important even without being someone else’s comic relief. We sidekicks need to stick together!”
We agree, and Fern grabs a bottle of ginger-ale and a stack of cups off her desk. She hands us each a cup and pours ginger-ale into each one. “To sidekicks!” we say together.
And suddenly I know that Kylie’s power works on people.