Agnes Wolfe was born at the stroke of midnight during the first thunderstorm of the year.
(Of course she was. Wouldn’t be much of a story if she was born at a quarter past eight on a Thursday morning, would it, or if it was partly cloudy with a 40% chance of rain in the afternoon?)
As she drew her first breath, lightning struck the pine tree outside the window. It went up in a crackle of flames.
“That’s a lucky omen!” said the midwife, placing little Agnes in her mother’s arms. “She’ll grow up to be special, no doubt about it!”
Mr Wolfe eyed the burning tree nervously. “Will there be more of that, then?”
“Possibly. There’s no telling whether it’s fire or storms or something else at this point, though. Give her a year or two to settle.”
“She’s absolutely perfect,” said Mrs Wolfe. “No matter what she grows up to be.”
The midwife excused herself and went to call the fire brigade.
(The pine tree was fine, by the way. This is a happy story, I promise.)
Little Agnes grew up in much the same way as your own kids, your neighbours’ kids and you yourself grew up. That is, she learned to sit, to walk and to talk. She asked a thousand questions. She cried when she got tired. She refused to be separated from her teddy bear. They gave her crayons for her birthday, and she filled a sketchbook with yellow scribbles that she claimed were giraffes. Sometimes she threw her food on the floor because she didn’t like peas. She was, in fact, what you and I would call a perfectly normal child.
And so Mr and Mrs Wolfe were worried.
Of course they were happy that their daughter was healthy. And obviously, Mr Wolfe was over the moon that all his precautions - smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, lightning rods - were unnecessary. And Mrs Wolfe was privately relieved that Agnes never started thunderstorms, because they gave her migraines.
But in the evenings, after little Agnes had gone to bed, they sat together and spoke their worries out loud.
“I spoke to the Robertsons yesterday. Their son is two, and he’s already making windows explode.”
“And whatshername, the kid next door. She was floating around the garden three days after she was born, wasn’t she?”
“Yes, but she never got much beyond floating. Couldn’t even play hoverball. Peaked too early, if you ask me.”
“Do you think we should get help?”
“I don’t know, do you?”
And they would go back and forth like this until they went to bed.
When Agnes was five, they took her to a nondescript building tucked away in a little alley between faceless apartment blocks. A little sign by the door proclaimed it to be the Institute of Perfectly Adequate Powers. Not that anyone called it that. Positively Abysmal and Potentially Asinine were the most polite alternative versions, and most parents thought IPAP stood for Its People are Powerless (or worse, I’d Prefer A Plague). Mr and Mrs Wolfe had not gone so far as to wear large sunglasses with fake noses and moustaches dangling underneath, but they had booked an appointment on a quiet Tuesday afternoon while the Robertsons were away at work.
A smiling secretary jotted their names down in a book and ushered them into the office beyond, where they were greeted by a short, balding man who introduced himself as Dr Rossi.
“And this is little Agnes, yes?” he said, crouching down in front of her.
She shook his hand, then hid behind her mother’s legs.
“Well, she is very polite. Let’s see if we can find her power, hm?”
He put her in a scanner to measure everything from her brain activity to her bone density. There were graphs and spectrograms and all sorts of charts, but after two hours Dr Rossi was no closer to finding an answer. Throughout it all, Agnes sat at Dr Rossi’s desk and drew giraffes with his fancy fountain pen.
Mrs Wolfe was close to tears. “But there was a thunderstorm when she was born! Doesn’t that mean it’s something to do with the weather?”
“Not necessarily,” said Dr Rossi, rubbing his chin. “At the moment of birth, no one has control over their abilities. Lightning is a very common way to discharge energy. It simply means that it’s a strong power. Or it could be a coincidence.”
“What do you mean?” said Mr Wolfe. “It could be weak? Are you saying our Agnes is an addy? Adequate, I mean.”
“We don’t call it that,” said Dr Rossi sharply. “Every power is worth the same, just like every person is worth the same.”
“I once knew a man whose power was to turn small objects liquid for a fraction of a second,” said Dr Rossi. “He lived a long and happy life. And he once saved his mother’s life when she was choking on a fish bone.”
“But we still don’t know what Agnes’s power is,” said Mrs Wolfe. “It’s been years…”
“It could be something very specific. Perhaps she can’t move all objects with her mind, but only certain types of rock. Or she could talk to cats but not to dogs. There are things you could try.”
So try they did.
They took Agnes to the seaside and to the lake, in the hope that she might be able to breathe underwater. She splashed around in the shallows, built a sandcastle, and melted into a puddle of indignant screaming when they refused to buy her an ice cream. (At this point, Mr Wolfe thought that shattering eardrums might be her superpower, but as everyone knows, this is something all kids can do.)
They kept careful track of all her belongings. Mrs Wolfe had a second cousin twice removed who could duplicate china ornaments, and Mr Wolfe was sure he had read somewhere that these things ran in the family. One sunny morning, they were overjoyed to find a few of the shinier pebbles in Agnes’s collection had disappeared overnight. Vanishing was not as impressive as flight or super strength, but it was perfectly respectable. But their hopes were dashed when they heard a loud clanking from the washing machine and discovered that Agnes had simply put the pebbles in her pockets.
One day they went to the zoo. Mr Wolfe had plotted a route past all the animals, and Mrs Wolfe paid the zookeepers a little extra so Agnes could get up close to them. Agnes chattered to the giraffes and the penguins, but there was no indication that they understood. When she walked up to the chimpanzee enclosure with a shout of “Hello monkeys!” they ignored her. Mr and Mrs Wolfe took her to every single animal, down to the smallest fish in the aquarium, before admitting defeat. Their mood was not improved by the Robertsons who wanted nothing more than to stop and chat about their children. Their younger son was dozing in a stroller while the elder was talking happily to the lions. He had climbed into their enclosure and was rubbing their tummies while they purred loudly. (Apparently lions can’t actually purr. That tells you something about Robertson Junior’s powers, I suppose.)
Little Agnes started school not long after their trip to the zoo. She had a backpack with giraffes on it and a pencil case full of new crayons, and she couldn’t wait to try them out. Of course, the first thing her classmates asked her was what her powers were.
“I haven’t figured it out yet,” she said. This was what her parents always told gran when she came to visit. “It’s extra special so it takes a long time to find it.”
The other kids peered at her like she was a strange animal they had found in the schoolyard.
“My mum says the strongest powers show up first,” said one child. He was hovering metre and a half above the ground, a tether around his ankle. “I’ve been doing this for ages.”
“Yeah,” said another boy, who turned from blue to green and back again in a matter of seconds. “I was orange when I was born and purple the next day, so I’m extra special.”
“Can’t you do anything?” asked a girl.
“I can draw giraffes!” said Agnes. She wished she was as tall as a giraffe, so that these kids couldn’t loom over her. “And, and, and… I can read long books, and I once counted to five hundred!”
“That’s not a superpower,” said the hovering boy. “Anyone can do that!”
“Maybe we can help you find your superpower, though!” said the blue boy.
There was a chorus of agreement, and off they went to poke around in distant corners of the schoolyard for interesting twigs and pine cones that they thought she could try moving or setting on fire with her mind.
Mr and Mrs Wolfe had been a little worried about Agnes starting school without any powers but she settled in nicely. The first weeks, the other children kept thinking up strange ways to test her, which resulted in a trip to the hospital with a broken wrist when they discovered she was rubbish at climbing trees. Once, they were excited to find her hair standing out in all directions, only to have their hopes shattered when the teacher explained about static electricity. Agnes was good at maths, but not like the teacher who could do huge sums in his head faster than a calculator, and she was reasonable runner but it was very clearly not her superpower. During breaks, her classmates played hoverball or underwater polo, and Agnes watched from the sidelines.
On Fridays, specialists from all over the world would come to teach the children how to use their powers. Those who could fly were soon soaring like eagles, while the boy who could change colour became something of a human chameleon, to the extent that the teachers made him wear brightly coloured shirts and a ridiculous hat so he couldn’t sneak out of class. Agnes spent those days with the handful of kids whose powers were disappointingly mundane. Dr Rossi could talk all he liked about all powers being equal, but there was no denying who the cool kids were. Having adequate powers meant you were just that, adequate. But at least no one bullied them or called them addies, which was what happened at the larger schools in the city centre. The chameleon boy told everyone he’d sneak up on them and pour cold water down their backs if they were mean.
In Agnes’s group of kids with adequate powers, there was a boy who could extinguish candles with his mind provided he was in the same room, a boy who could hover at most half a centimetre above the ground, and a girl whose special power was to summon beetles.
“That’s pretty cool, actually,” said Agnes, when the girl made half a dozen beetles crawl out of the ground and settle around her feet.
“You think so?”
“Yeah! Look how shiny they are! And look, these are different kinds!”
The beetle girl grinned, a little uncertainly at first but her grin widened as more and more beetles appeared.
(You might want to know that she went on to study beetles and became a renowned entomologist who discovered dozens of new species. The hovering boy saved a snowed in village by walking across the snowdrifts, straight into the town square, with a backpack full of medical supplies. And the candle extinguisher was very popular at birthday parties of those who were embarrassed they couldn’t blow out the candles on their cake. Happy endings for everyone!)
Over the years, Agnes’s classmates gradually forgot that her powers hadn’t manifested. She was just Agnes, who drew giraffes and told weird jokes and helped you with your geography homework if you were stuck. And if she sometimes spent hours alone trying to make objects move with her mind, or walked for hours to get away from everyone so that she could scream at the sky, well, that was her own business.
She was eleven when the whispers that said she could be more than adequate turned into shouts.
Some second-rate celebrity appeared on a talk show to tell the world how they’d turned their life around and increased the range of their powers by more than fifty percent, simply by exercising will-power. Tattered posters appeared on lampposts, promising that additional powers were just an animal bite away. (Honestly, that only works if you count rabies as a superpower. And don’t get me started on the whole radioactivity thing.) The local newspaper devoted one sixteenth of a page to a story about graffiti (“Addies out!”) on the door of the Institute of Perfectly Adequate Powers and misspelled Dr Rossi’s name. Three days later, they published a two-page opinion piece by a self-proclaimed intellectual who argued that one’s worth was determined by one’s contribution to society, which of course was directly proportional to the strength of one’s superpower. (His own superpower may or may not have been avoiding getting slapped in the face. What do I know? I’m just the narrator.) Mr and Mrs Wolfe cancelled their subscription the very same day.
The newspaper did not print the twenty-seven letters that Agnes’s classmates sent, but they couldn’t ignore the giant chalk drawing of a giraffe that appeared on the pavement in front of their offices. The giraffe’s spots had been shaped to look like letters, spelling out “Adequate is perfect”.
The entire school went to have a look before the editor could have it power washed.
“It’s not as good as your giraffes,” said the hovering boy to Agnes. “But we tried our best.”
“I did the nose,” said the boy who could change colour.
“And we did the legs,” said the children on the hoverball team.
“It’s really good,” said Agnes, rubbing at her eyes which were strangely wet. Beside her, the beetle girl nodded.
On the other side of town, Dr Rossi sat in his office. He had seen the giraffe on his morning walk and could not stop smiling as he remembered the polite little girl who'd nearly wrecked his fountain pen.
Now that was a superpower.