Ava pants her lungs dry at the top of the hill. Finally. A little cottage with a mint-green roof is ahead, just like the bartender had said before he’d kicked her out for being a “minor,” whatever that means.
“Come back in six years,” he’d said with a warm twinkle in his eyes, “and your first Scotch will be on the house, I promise.”
Ava reckons that six years is an awful long time to wait for a free drink, so she’d pulled out her notepad and scrawled a reminder to visit the pub when she turns eighteen. Her big sister once said that the only stranger she ought to accept drinks from is the one pouring them, so it should be alright.
After catching her breath, Ava traces a path of stones through the grass, keychains jingling against her backpack. She walks up the steps onto the front porch and finds herself rooted to the spot, heart beating like a drum as she gazes at the door.
There’s a real-life superhero behind it, if the rumors are true. All her classmates are interviewing “heroes,” like coppers or firefighters or even the kind old ladies that work at the till because Mrs. Brown said that anyone that “makes the world go round” is a hero.
“Bollocks,” is what Ava says to that. Those aren’t heroes. A proper hero is someone different, like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman and Mrs. Incredible. Someone that kicks major arse, whether it’s in a comic book or at the cinema. Someone super.
Ava will interview that someone. And then she’ll get top marks because no one can top an interview with a real superhero!
She can’t do this by herself, though. Her big sister warned her about traveling alone, so she made sure to bring Callum along for the ride. The problem is that he’s nowhere in sight even though he’s supposed to meet her at the top of the hill at quarter past eleven and it’s already half past.
Ava takes out her phone and cranks out an impatient text, only for that silly red exclamation mark to appear. Bloody hell, there’s no signal up here. Callum’s already done his interview (mum’s a copper, lucky bastard) so that idiot’s got no excuse not to show up.
Ava sighs. Her fingers itch to peel that door open even though her palms are sweating. Maybe she ought to go in on her own, then tell Callum about Century Sam afterwards. She smirks to herself. Maybe this moment belongs to her, because she’s the only one special enough to—
The door creaks open.
Slowly, steadily, all the way. It’s an old-fashioned sort of cottage, friendly greys and browns with a low ceiling and skinny furniture huddled together like a bunch of drunks heading home from the pub. Not a soul stirs. Ava’s worry eases when the most amazing scent the world has ever known finds her nostrils. Her stomach groans. There’s nothing inside but a small helping of baked beans and a small packet of Salt & Vinegar Walkers, and it’s almost lunchtime.
Ava’s feet start moving on their own. That’s not a smell anyone could notice and just ignore. Before long she’s pacing the swirly patterns on the hallway carpet and passing a twisting staircase that goes a floor up. Dust plays in the air as she follows the scent to a doorway. Something shifts in her stomach, and it’s not the hunger. It feels like there’s a stillness to the house that she’s disturbing. Not that she lets it stop her.
Ava pokes her head into the kitchen. A hunched figure is at the stove on the far side, back turned as he guides a big wooden spoon through a soup pot. Ava swears that she can see the flavor rise into the air, where it taunts her tastebuds. Her mouth waters. Forget about the bloody interview, someone’s gotta eat that soup.
“Oh, hello there,” are the words that snap Ava back to reality. Her body relaxes when she sees how small and old and kind-faced the man is. His face is shrunken into itself like the strange bumpy lemons she saw at Waitrose that one time, and he even has to hold onto the center table for support as he turns to watch her.
She smirks. She never needed Callum after all. “Hi. I’m Ava. Are you Century Sam?”
“In the flesh. What brings you to my humble abode, dear Ava? Was my potato leek soup so irresistible that you didn’t even bother knocking?”
Ava’s cheeks grow hot. “Sorry. I’m so sorry. I just need to ask a few questions. It’s for a school project that I’m going to get top marks on.”
Century Sam does a dusty wheeze that Ava reckons is his laugh. “And I’m certain you will, dear Ava. Many people have visited for the same reason. Most want to know whether I really am centuries old.”
“I will allow you to be the judge of that.”
Century Sam turns the heat down to low before hobbling past Ava and gesturing for her to follow him down the hall. His head juts forward as he walks, and Ava can’t help but think that the man really is a crusty old relic. A pang of sorrow hits her for some reason. Maybe it’s that Century Sam lives by himself on a hill. Or maybe it’s that he didn’t bother offering her any soup.
Century Sam places a bony hand on the banister and slowly hauls himself up the twisting staircase. Ava is this close to yelling at him to hurry the hell up. But that’s no way to talk to her elders.
Soon, though, she sees what he wants her to. They stop on the fifth step. On the wall to their left is a box-shaped indent with something that looks like a grey, upside-down salad bowl resting inside it. Century Sam takes it out with a single shaky hand, and when the strap flops loose Ava realizes that it’s a helmet. “You fought in the war?”
“Both of them. This tin hat came from the first, and I’ve kept it as a little memento.”
Belatedly, Ava takes out her notepad and a pencil from her pack and starts scribbling down the old man’s words. Ava’s grandfather was in the second world war, and he passed away five years ago. If Century Sam was in the first world war and is still alive and kicking, then… then…
Bloody hell, he is old.
“Take a look at that there,” he says as he turns the helmet one way. There’s a hole in it, the size of a woodlouse. “Took me a while to walk that one off. German snipers are not to be trifled with.”
It only hits Ava once Century Sam has replaced the helmet and is on his way to the next exhibit. “Hang on a minute. You were shot in the head?”
“That’s where helmets tend to be found, yes.”
“Then it’s true!” Something golden and fuzzy bubbles up inside Ava. “I talked to a bartender earlier today that said you saved one of his customers from getting stabbed a few years ago. You were the one that got hurt instead, but you shrugged it off like it was nothing and caught the bad guy. You don’t die, do you? And you can’t get hurt. You’re immo… um… what’s the word?”
The old man just smiles. He stops at the tenth step and turns to a framed picture on the wall. It’s a grainy photo of a bunch of men in strange outfits and even stranger hats huddled around a fire. Everything is a dull greyish color, but Ava can make out tents in the background. There’s something about this moment, a feeling that it’s a snapshot of something that disappeared a long time ago. And one of the men by the campfire looks familiar...
“Is that you?”
“Sharp as ever. Did you know, Roger Fenton himself took this picture? I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you because anything before the twentieth century is a little hazy. Though I do recall the Ottoman soldiers being very good company.”
Ava doesn’t need an explanation to know that this picture is even older than the helmet. This is getting better and better.
“Century Sam, how did you end up the way you are?”
“What, old and wrinkly?”
“No, immortal. Why don’t you pass away like my grandpa?”
The old man begins to walk back down. “Ah, that. Let’s discuss that over some soup, why don’t we? It smells just about done.”
Ava doesn’t complain. When they finally reach the kitchen, she flies into a seat and patiently waits for Century Sam to haul the pot over. He readies a bowl and a spoon for them each.
“Wait one moment, Ava. All it needs is a garnish and you can eat to your heart’s content.” The old man hobbles over to a cupboard and rummages around for something.
As he does that, Ava’s eyes wander to distract from the hunger. That’s when she notices that the front door at the other end of the hallway is closed. Which is funny, because she doesn’t remember closing it on her way in, and she never heard it close either. Funny sort of place, this house.
One thing still bothers Ava. She wants to believe Century Sam because the others townspeople don’t; they think he’s a fraud and that’s no way to treat a hero with superpowers. She needs something more, though, some way of knowing without the helmet or the photo (which she figures could be faked) that the man really can’t be killed. But how?
A kitchen knife rests on the table. Her hand twitches in hesitation.
“Go ahead,” says Century Sam, which makes Ava jump. “You’re not the first one to try it, you know. And I’m still here, aren’t I?”
The fact that the old man doesn’t even bother to turn around as he’s rummaging around is what sends a chill down Ava’s spine. She takes a deep breath. She believes him. She’ll get top marks in class. Everyone will be jealous that she got to meet a real superhero.
Her movements are quick, which surprises her. The hesitation leaves her like a weight. The knife is in her hand before she knows it, and then she’s dashing over to the man’s crooked back, and then the knife isn’t in her hand anymore—
—because it’s in Century Sam. A dark cloud blooms around the handle that sticks out of him. A red stream scurries down his shirt and splashes to the kitchen tiles.
Ava gasps and falls onto her back. She clasps a hand over her mouth as she scrabbles backwards, tears welling in her eyes at what she’s just done.
Century Sam looks at her then. He smiles, and his face is just so, so kind.
Then he reaches behind him, grips the knife handle and pulls it out with a grunt. Ava winces at the sound it makes.
“My dear Ava,” goes a soothing voice. “Open your eyes. There’s one more thing I want to show you.”
Ava opens one eye. Then the other, to make sure the first one isn’t lying.
Her breath catches in her throat. Century Sam has his back to her again so that she can see it happen: the puddle of red on the floor leaping up like water from a fountain and entering the gash in his back. Once the tiles are spotless, the skin around the wound seems to crawl across the gap, slowly and steadily, until its gone. The only damage left is the tear in his shirt.
Century Sam is smiling at her again. “Now do you believe me?”
Ava nods. She wordlessly climbs back into her seat. A swirl of feelings, red and black and golden, duke it out inside her. She’s not sure whether she likes what she just saw. Or what she just did.
Well. At least she still gets some good soup. Century Sam returns with a tiny bottle and a tinier dropper filled with something that glows a beautiful neon blue.
“Is that the answer?” Ava finds herself asking. She can’t take her eyes off the funny liquid. “Is that how you get your… superpower?”
Century Sam releases a few droplets into the pot. “In a way, I suppose.”
Ava folds her arms. “I thought superheroes had to be born super. Even the ones without powers like Batman and Iron Man, they’re only that way because they were born rich.”
Century Sam sighs and shakes his head. “Oh, Ava. How wrong you are. Superpowers… power… that’s something to be earned. This is real life, you see. There is no such thing as magic. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every input, there is a source. Superman never runs out of eye lasers because he simply isn’t real.”
Ava blinks in confusion.
The old man continues. “Age, immortality… that needs a source, too. One man can’t live this long. I probably would’ve died in my seventies, and I don’t know how many centuries I’ve lasted! But imagine you could live as long as two people combined. Or three. Or four. I can. It’s a blessing. It’s a curse.
The problem is just that: the source. The only way you can get lifespan to stack… human lifespan, mind you… to the point of ‘immortality’... is… well…”
Ava shifts uncomfortably in her seat. “You’re scaring me.”
The soft face is back. “I’m sorry. I should’ve done this from the beginning.”
Ava gasps. Century Sam turns into a blur, knife still in hand.
Well, not anymore. Not when Ava can feel it in her chest. The world spins as she hits the floor and a red tide creeps across her vision.
The last thing that passes through her head is that she'll never turn eighteen and get that free drink that the bartender promised. She should’ve listened to her big sister and waited for Callum. Maybe his copper for a mum could’ve done something about this.
Century Sam stirs the pot of potato and leak soup. Well, potato and leak and Ava soup, but the concoction he added neutralizes the aroma and flavor of meat. After centuries of doing this to evade death, he’s grown tired, so fucking tired of that flavor.
Especially during the wars. Wars are always the worst because while the bodies are plentiful, they are always in a horrendous state. Maggots and shrapnel and pus-filled everything…
He takes a few deep breaths. Knowing that the girl’s approximate remaining lifespan will be added to his soothes the knot in his gut somewhat. That knot never did learn to untie itself.
Footsteps behind him. Good thing he thought to clean up the mess.
“Excuse me,” says a soft voice.
“Oh, hello there. What brings you here?”
The boy sheepishly rubs the back of his head. “Um, I’m looking for a friend. She’s got brown hair and carries a backpack with a lot of keychains. Have you seen her around by any chance?”
“I’m afraid not, sorry.”
“Oh, okay.” A pause. “Um, are you Century Sam?”
The old man hates that he relishes the thrill of it. “In the flesh. What brings you to my humble abode, dear boy? Was my potato leek soup so irresistible that you didn’t even bother knocking?”