Katrina and the Mighty Alien

My adopted parents kept the shuttle that took me to earth. Neither of them was particularly tech savvy, and even if they had been, intergalactic space travel is pretty advanced science here on Earth. I was a baby when it landed, so it’s not like I was steering. So, it was pretty busted up, and sitting in a garage for 40 years hasn’t done it any favors. I should have started working on this earlier, but with the sea level rising, everybody is feeling that way.

Katrina arrives in the afternoon. We’ve worked together for years. She a tech expert. She’s in pretty high demand lately. For the past 15 years, most people pretended she didn’t exist. Prior to that, she was incredibly popular. Smart and beautiful. A hero that used more than just her fists. Then she started talking about climate change, and particularly about legislative solutions. Suddenly, she was the most hated person in the world, or at least among right wing pundits.

“Let’s see what we have here,” she says, and starts pulling the engine apart.

“I understand if you’re too busy.”

“I need a break. And for me, getting to mess around with an alien spaceship is a break. Sheesh, this is amazing. I wish you’d shown me this earlier.”

“Think you can get it running?”

“I can get anything to work, given enough time? How soon do you need this?”

“You’re the expert, how much time do we have?” I say.

Suddenly, it dawns on her what I’m trying to do. She fully takes in the dimensions of the craft.

“You can’t fit in this.”

“No.”

“Let’s take a walk.”

My neighborhood is reasonably nice. Under normal conditions, there are kids playing in neatly tended lawns. But now, most of my neighbors have fled, heading away from the coast. Some are still around. People who need to still be here for their jobs, and don’t have savings to live off of. Some people who don’t believe there’s anything to worry about, and others who are still holding out hope that a solution will come, waiting until the last possible moment to give up.

Katrina is taking it all in. I’m sure she notices the unmarked security cars patrolling the neighborhood. The whole area might be flooded, but in the meantime, nobody better loot from the empty houses.

“He’s your son,” she says, “And you’re going to send him off the planet?”

“When faced it catastrophic environmental collapse, that’s what my parents did.”

“My parents spanked me for writing on the walls. I’d like to believe that if I had a child, I could do better than them.”

I pick up garbage as we walk along. It’s weird that with the decreased population here, the amount of litter seems to grow.

“We did try to do better. I know you were more outspoken, but I did those PSA’s. I talked to people, tried to influence politicians. I know I could have done more…”

“You did a lot. It doesn’t feel that way because I got labelled a communist and a hysterical woman, while you still got to be a hero.”

“And now you’re the hero again.”

“For the moment. If the carbon-eaters work. If we can get enough of them running. If a committee doesn’t suddenly cut off funding because climate change is just a hoax. No matter how you look at it, some people will be saved, and some will be lost, and only the lost will be my fault.”

I know she’s right. Save five people from a burning building, the story is always going to be about the one you couldn’t save. Even if it isn’t, that’s what we remember. When it’s about saving lives, there is no partial credit. But there’s one life I have to save.

A car U-turns and pulls up next to us. The driver peers at us.

“Excuse me, can I ask what you’re doing around here?”

“Just taking a walk,” I say, “I live in the neighborhood, and my friend is visiting.”

“Is that right? Well, you should know that this area is under surveillance, so don’t think about trying anything.”

“Would you really rather everything here be destroyed than be used by somebody in need for a few weeks?” Katrina asks.

“Just don’t touch anything. I’ve got my eye on you.”

He revs his engine and drives off. Speeds around the block to pass us again.

“Come on, let’s go fix your spaceship.”

Teen Superhero

Teen Superhero sleeps through history class. She’s not interested in the past. She’s a creature of the present. She likes math, and physics. Calculating angles and velocity are crucial and necessary in her line of work. English isn’t as necessary, but she likes it. She likes stories of revenge or redemption. She likes lovers from opposing camps, though she doesn’t like when they die in the end. Teen Superhero wants to save those young lovers. She wants to save everybody.

“You can’t save everybody,” her mentor tells her.

Teen Superhero believes she can save her mentor. As a narrator, I know that Teen Superhero will save her mentor 16 times. 5 of those times will be lifesaving, while the others will be significant injury. She will be away at college when her mentor suffers a heart attack. The thing about saving people is that they continue to need saving.

Teen Superhero has a popular Instagram account. She posts selfies with fans. She posts selfies eating food from local businesses. She posts selfies with the criminals she defeats. The criminals promise they’ll go straight. They say that her boot to their jaw was all they really needed to give up their life of crime. Many of them are telling the truth. They post comments to her photos.

“You’re so beautiful!”

“The nicest person to ever knock me out!”

“I love their tacos too!”

“Follow me back!”

Teen Superhero feels alienated from her peers. They do not know the satisfying crunch of breaking a bad guy’s nose for justice. She does not know why people giggle when she walks by. She doesn’t get their references, or know what people are talking about. She’d like friends, but friends could be used against her. When would she see friends when she has to train and patrol and do homework. What would they talk about?

Sometimes her peers talk about her, but they don’t know that it’s her. They talk about her Instagram posts, and what she ate last night. They call her brave, or crazy, or super hot.

“She broke my cousin’s arm, that shits not right.”

“I’d let her break my arm.”

“Dude, that’s weird.”

She thinks she’d like to break his arm. People are easier to talk to once you’ve broken their bones. Teen Superhero knows that this is not the foundation for healthy friendships. But she still wants to break his arm, and then kiss his stupid face.

She doesn’t. But that night on patrol, even her mentor accuses her of using excessive force on a couple of petty thieves.

Teen Superhero doesn’t like coming home. It seems no matter when she gets in, her dad is sitting in front of the T.V. and drinking a beer. She doesn’t have to sneak by him. He never asks where she’s been. Sometimes, he asks her to grab him another beer. He never yells at her. Never forces the showdown that she imagines they should have. She wishes he were a bad man, she knows how to deal with bad men, but he’s not. He’s just a disappointment.  

Her mentor has told her to patrol less often. He tells her to take some time, enjoy being a teenager. She suspects that she is also a disappointment. She wonders how her dad can stand it. She wants to punch her dad and tell him to be better. She wants to punch her mentor, and promise him that she’ll do better. She wants to roundhouse kick her feelings.

She takes a picture of herself in her costume drinking a La Croix and captions it, “Day off! I love you all!”

Neutron

Dear Neutron,

Growing up, I was a big fan of you as Megaboy. I remember adults would ask me who I wanted to be when I grew up, and I’d confidently say, “Why wait until I grow up, I want to be Megaboy right now!” Mister Mega was cool too but on T.V. he always seemed so serious. He wasn’t relatable. I imagined not only that we’d fight crime together, but that you and I would have Mario Kart tournaments against each other. I admit that I was mostly a pretty lonely kid, but I thought maybe you could relate. You weren’t part of a teen team. You always seemed to be working with adults, and that seemed pretty isolating to me. I was a gifted student, so I spent a lot of time talking to adults. Other kids would be put off by my vocabulary. I thought it was great that the vice principal let me sit in her office during lunch. Better than being teased in the lunchroom, sure. But I wanted somebody who would understand me, and not see me as a sort of talented animal. Maybe I was projecting, but I thought maybe you’d feel the same.

Obviously, we never met. You did a signing in town once, but my parents refused to take me. They thought superheroes were beneath me.

“You need role models that do more than just punch trouble.”

Then I guess I forgot about you. Kids grow out of their superhero phases. It’s probably for the best. I mean if I still considered myself your biggest fan, I would have been disappointed in you when you had that car crash, or the stint in rehab, or the second time in rehab. I mean, kids are judgmental fucks. But I wasn’t paying attention. I finally had real friends. Messed up friends, but friends. And, yeah, I was having my own problems with drugs and alcohol.

I don’t want to go into details. I go to the meetings. I’m making my amends. But somewhere along the way, I realized that your story is my story or at least it could be. I just wanted you to know, that I see you. I see how you’ve gone from Megaboy to Neutron, have you’ve stepped out of the shadow of Mister Mega and your own problems. How you are an inspiration, not just for punching trouble, but by overcoming your own troubles. So, thank you for everything you do.

Sincerely,

Peter Stanley

Dear Mr. Stanley,

  

Thank you for your interest in Neutron. Unfortunately, he is not taking any speaking engagements at this time. We invite you to follow along with his adventures on social media, and his upcoming podcast, “Adventures of a Boy Hero.” It is thanks to the support of fans like you, that Neutron is able to stand tall against evil.

In Victory,

JT  Personal Assistant on behalf of Neutron

Galaxia

“Dad, you’ve got to be kidding!”

“You need a job, and he needs somebody to work the shop.”

“But a dry cleaner?”

“You have lofty goals? Maybe you shouldn’t have dropped out of college.”

“You said you weren’t mad.”

“I’m not mad, you’re the one who is mad. I’m just going to walk away now, and you’re going to slam the door.”

My hand is already gripped on the door. But I close it quietly. Maturity. I am a grownup. It might not seem that way, living at home again at age 20. But lots of people move back home. A lot of people don’t go away to college in the first place, they live at home while attending. It’s culturally acceptable. It’s living in a dorm that’s wasteful. Moving home was the responsible choice.

I lie down on the bed, grab my stuffed unicorn, Beatrice, and hug it tight.

“We’ll show Dad, we’ll show everybody. I’ll be the best dry cleaner in Jersey.”

It took a few days for me to start working. Apparently, there needed to be a background check, and then I had to sign the NDA in front of a notary. Seems overkill for a dry cleaner especially since the guy who runs it, Parker, is a friend of my dad’s.

“We have some unique trade secrets,” Parker assures me.

“That doesn’t sound reassuring.”

“It’s all on the up and up.”

I work the front. Pick-up and drop-off. I get to press a button and the rack slowly clatters until the right garment arrives. I kind of love that. Yes, during the first day, Parker told me to stop playing with the rack. He said it with good humor. If he’d been pissed or yelled at me, I would have quit right there. I didn’t want the job anyway.

“Honestly,” he says, “I’ve had better luck with people who play with the rack than those who don’t. If you think the rack is cool, wait until you see some of the strain removers we use.”

And in slower hours, he closes the shop for a bit, and takes me into the back room and shows off. He grabs the worst items, the most severe stains, and with a spritz and a wipe, they come clean. I hate to admit it but it is kind of awesome. I even end up bringing Beatrice in for him to clean.

“This unicorn has seen a lot of love.”

“Y-yeah,” I stammer, “It’s probably silly of me to have brought her…it here.”

“She’ll be ready before you clock out tonight.”

There are two types of customers. Most are normal. They have their lists of chores and errands. They bring suits and dresses. They’re in a hurry or chatty. You wouldn’t even think of them as all similar if you never encountered the other type of customers. Those are the ones who come in with hoodies and baseball caps, sun glasses on. People who look like celebrities walking their dogs. They never give their names, just account numbers that they have memorized. No claim tickets needed. Their clothes are in garment bags.

“Don’t open any garment bags. Just accept them, and I’ll handle it.”

I really want to open the garment bags. Parker takes those to the basement room. I’ve never been in the basement room. I try to think of the worst-case scenario. Garment bags filled with drugs, or exotic animals, or illegal French cheeses. Or just rich people who like their privacy. Ones who don’t want to explain the weird stains they get. Because then we’d know what they get up to at their illegal French cheese parties. Okay, I’m hungry, and I have a cheese craving.

It’s the third time this blond lady has been here. I know because she’s fricking gorgeous. Maybe the sunglasses help her escape notice, but when she’s standing right in front of you, nothing is dimming her radiance. Ugh, what is the matter with me? I’m doing my best to just be normal. I’m not even queer, but this woman leaves me flustered. And then she does it.

It?

She lifts her sunglasses and peers at me.

“You’re Sanjay’s daughter, yes?”

She knows my dad? How does she know my dad?

“You know my dad?”

“Thursday nights.”

Dad does go out Thursday nights. But I guess I never asked where he went. Bowling. Drinks with the guys? Nope, apparently, he goes out on secret dates with radiant women in their 40’s.

“He didn’t tell you? That’s when our D&D group meets. Parker is in it too.”

“You play D&D?”

“It’s more fun than punching real monsters in the face.”

“What?”

“What? Tell your dad I said hello,” she heads towards the door.

“Yeah, you too.”

You too? What is the matter with me? Maybe she didn’t hear that. I take a few deep breaths. Her garment bag is heavy. What could be in there? I know I shouldn’t open the bag, but the blond woman started this. She knows my dad. They game together. Just a peek.

It’s a costume. A superhero costume. A real one. It’s too high quality. And the stains, well, you don’t get stains like that doing a cosplay photoshoot. This is Galaxia’s costume, and didn’t she just fight a bunch of shark people on the Jersey shore? That’s shark person blood.

“I told you not to open the garment bags,” Parker sighs, “I suppose you want me to explain.”

“Yeah, the special accounts are for superheroes to help them retain their anonymity. That all makes perfect sense, but you and my dad play D&D with Galaxia?”

“Is that what she said?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s not D&D it is a tabletop RPG but it’s on a completely different system.”

“Does Dad know?”

“Yes, he’d never call it Dungeons and Dragons.”

“That he games with a superhero?”

“Yes.”

My Dad hangs out with a superhero every Thursday night. I didn’t know. I’ve been living at home for six months, and I never even asked him where he goes.

“I’m a bad daughter,” I whisper.

“I don’t know about that, but you’ve been a pretty good employee. You know, until you started opening garment bags that I told you not to open.”

“Am I fired?”

“Nah, we’ll just wipe your brain, I’ve got a chemical that can remove a memory like that,” he snaps. “Anyway, shark person blood is a bitch to deal with, so I’m going to get to work on this.”

He picks up the bag, and heads towards the back.

“It’s just the game, right? He doesn’t drive her home or anything afterwards, does he?”

“That’s a conversation you have to have with your dad and your new step-mother.”

“That’s not funny! Parker! I said that’s not funny!”

But I hear the door slam to the basement.

Lazarus

He wakes up screaming. I spit the toothpaste out of my mouth, and return the toothbrush to its mount. I rush back to the bedroom to sooth him. I can tell he doesn’t know where he is. I lay down on the bed next to him, stroke his hair, make cooing sounds like I’m talking to a baby or a dog.

“It’s okay. I’m here.”

“Did I? Was I?” he stammers.

“You were just asleep.”

“It gets harder to tell the difference.”

“I know baby, I know.”

Once he’s calm, I finish getting ready and leave for work. Even with the delay, I still have plenty enough time to stop by From the Ground Up for a latte. It’s always crowded at this hour, but people let me go first. I try to refuse, but I know they won’t. The barista refuses to charge me as well, though I still tip them for the full price of my coffee.

Most superhero spouses are either supers themselves, or they’re anonymous to the public. But everybody knows me. The first time Adam died when he stopped the Prism invasion, there was a huge state funeral. Of course, I was in attendance. Why should I hide now that he was dead? And if I was there, maybe his whole life could be celebrated. Not just the larger-than-life hero, but the kind man he was in his daily life. So, there I was the grieving widow. Footage of me was everywhere, so now everybody knows who I am. Even though I’m no longer a widow.

“It must be nice to have him back,” Sally from payroll says.

“It is.”

Sally talks about being back from the dead like it’s getting back from a business trip. A lot of people do. Sometimes, even I feel that way about it. The funerals get smaller. I’m not entirely sure if I grieve anymore. What if he dies one time, and he doesn’t come back? How will I even know that he’s not coming back? It’s not fair. But if life were fair, he’d never have come back at all. I wouldn’t have received the gift of more time with him.

“How it that new puppy of yours?” I ask.

I stop for Chinese food on the way home.

“Mrs. Lazarus, there’s an extra order of peking ravioli for you. Our best to your husband.”

“Thank you. Your father is not working today?”

“His heart, it… fluttered. Doctor told him to rest not that he’s happy about it. But I worry. How do I get him to take care of himself?”

I laugh. “Your asking the wrong person about that.”

Adam is watching T.V. when I arrive back at the apartment. His eyes are hollow, and he has a blanket clutched around him. I place the food on the table while he continues switching channels, watching something for a minute or two. A snip of news, a cartoon, a commercial. He views each with the same level of seriousness.

“What is this?” he asks.

“Local weather.” “A game show.” “Historical drama.”

“Is it real? How can you tell?”

“Come have dinner. There’s General Tsao’s.”

He comes to the table. I eat with chopsticks, he uses a fork. He doesn’t seem to enjoy Chinese food like he used to, but he doesn’t dislike it. He doesn’t dislike anything.

He holds up a piece of chicken on his fork, “Is this real?”

“Yes.”

He eats it, and nods, but I don’t think he really believes.

After dinner, we sit on the couch together, but I don’t turn on the T.V. I just sit next to him and stroke his hand.

“Grace, you’re real.”

“Yes.”

“Grace, I can’t keep doing this.”

“I know.”

“I think more of me is still there than here. But I don’t want to leave you.”

“It’s okay,” I kiss the side of his head, “You can go. You’ve done enough. It’s time to rest.”

We fall asleep like that. I dream of the man I met in college, funny and smart but foolhardy. A man who wanted to save the world but had no idea that he’d do it several times over. A man who says he loves me, before he disappears.

I wake up screaming. But he’s already gone and there’s nobody to soothe me back to calm.

Tom Thumb

I was 12 when I was in my first hostage situation. We were on a school trip to the Science Museum. I was in the Hall of Electricity, just me and my math teacher, Ms. Tobias. I hadn’t really gotten to see anything when the rest of the class was with me, so she had stayed with me for a few minutes while everybody else lined up in the museum’s cafeteria. Enter an electricity-based villain. Shocka-locka or Electrobomb, something like that. Who knows what his original plan was. Did he think the museum would be empty at noon on a Wednesday? Whatever. He holds us hostage. Almost three hours before Rubberman enters and free us. Ms. Tobias totally Stockholms over the guy. Visits him in the jail for years after. They’re married now. He teaches science at my old school. It’s almost sweet if you can overlook the part where he kept me tied up for three hours and I couldn’t use a bathroom.

My second hostage situation, I was 15, and I was at the 7-11. I had been about to get a Slushie when I noticed the bathroom, and that’s to prior hostage related trauma, I have to pee before I get a drink because you never know when the scariest day of your life is about to happen. So, might as well be prepared, right? So, exit the bathroom and I’m right in the middle of a robbery. Robber panics, shoots the clerk in the arm. I felt bad about that, the clerk never carded me for cigarettes. Hostage situation ensues. Maybe this being my second one, I was more relaxed. Yeah, I had to bandage the clerk’s arm under gunpoint, but then I still got my Slushie, and we all agreed that I didn’t need to pay for it. Whole thing was resolved in like 30 minutes.

I was a hostage two more times before I graduated high school. Another 5 times while I was in college, most notably the Shark Men who took us captive during Spring Break. And four more since then. Honestly, I’m a pretty good hostage.  I don’t make sudden movements. I don’t come up with escape plans. Having survived this many, I’m not nervous like other hostages. I share my gum. The one problem, there’s this one hero, Tom Thumb. He has power thumbs or something. But he’s rescued me the last three times, and once before that. So, he’s got this notion about us.

“Hey babe, you’ve got my attention. So, you don’t have to keep putting yourself through this.”

I get it. It’s a trope. And let’s be honest, Rubberman played a part in a few of my fantasies when I was in high school. But yeah, I’m not a journalist sneaking into villains’ lairs. I’m just a particularly unlucky Accounts Specialist. (Believe me, there are no lucky Accounts Specialists).

My phone buzzes with another text message.

Let’s get together tonight. If you want, I can tie you up.

I’ll show you why they really call me Tom Thumb.

Between Thumb, and my next potential hostage situation, I no longer go out for lunch. But, I’m getting to know my co-worker, Mary. She’s been a hostage once, which is nothing compared to my 13 times, but still, it makes me feel like I’m less of an anomaly and that there’s really a systemic problem. Mary likes to knit during lunch, and then snack at her desk.

“It’s easier to multi-task work than to multi-task knitting, and why should I use 30 minutes of my own time to placate bodily needs. We didn’t evolve to live like this. So, what are you going to do about your stalker?”

“What can I do?”

“Get a restraining order? The guy sounds deranged.”

“Oh, he is deranged. He flicks marbles at guys’ heads with his thumb and practically kills them. After 13 hostage situations, I’ve met a lot of villains and a lot of heroes, and that’s the most messed up thing I’ve ever seen. But the cops love him. It’s that perfect use of deadly force that doesn’t sound like deadly force. So, I don’t think I’ll get any sympathy.”

“Who would have thought that letting a bunch of weirdos fight crime and be above the law would have its downsides? Fuck, I missed a stitch.”

Mary puts her knitting aside, and helps herself to my potato chips. I like that Mary swears, that she doesn’t take shit. She told me that when she was a hostage, she got fed up after half an hour, and kneed the criminal in the nuts. When the cops finally got the all-clear and entered, they almost arrested her, because she seemed to be the person in charge. Part of me wishes I wasn’t the agreeable hostage. Maybe, then I wouldn’t have a hero texting me dick pics.

“Let’s get drinks tonight,” Mary says.

“Not worried about my curse?”

“Let’s get captured. I’ll deal with the bad guy and your little Thumbalina problem.”

“And if we don’t get captured?”

Mary leans over and whispers in my ear, “I’m sure we’ll find something to do.”

The Roller Skater

I’ve been meeting my clients at the Cheesecake Factory. Well, not my real clients. My real clients, the ones who are going to keep this agency afloat in the years to come, I take them to fine dining restaurants. Places where they make things into foam, and give us food in tiny portions. But for the ones I’m letting go, well, taking them someplace where leftovers are a foregone conclusion, it’s the least I can do. Let them have lunch on me, and then a little something for dinner too.

That’s why I’m encouraging the Roller Skater to order a steak. He’s been leaning towards a salad, and yeah, the salads are huge, but he’s not going to want a pile of soggy lettuce later.

“Fine, I’ll get the steak, you always know what’s best for me. How long have you been my agent?”

“Twenty years, you were one of the first clients Father handed off to me.”

At the time, the Roller Skater had just given up on an attempt at rebranding himself as the Roller Blader. While he did gain a ton of recognition, it was due to how close Blader looked to Bladder. Jokes about an incontinent superhero making a comeback was a late night show staple for a week. (He was only 43 at the time, but superheroes are even more of a youth market that pop singers). Giving me the Roller Skater as a client was one of Father’s tricks to keep me in check. He thought he was tying a stone to my neck and throwing me into the water. I spent 15 years cleaning up Father’s messes before I forced him into retirement.

“20 years. You know, when your dad first told me that you were going to take over for him, I thought I was on the way out. But you got me on that show, encouraged me to come out. Yeah, I don’t really take out the baddies anymore, but I feel like my career has never been stronger.”

They always do this. Is it denial or do they think they can convince me that they still have value? Yeah, getting him on Celebrity Apprentice had given him a bump, but that bump is now a toxic association for his prime demographic.

“Chet, you have to know why we’re here today,” I say.

“Not going to pass me on to an underling?”

“That was Father’s way of dealing with this, that’s not my way.”

“There has to be something. Roller skating is on the verge of a resurgence. I could do ribbon cutting at mall openings or something.”

“Nobody is opening malls, Chet. Retail is dying.”

“You got me that gig as an MC at Gay Pride. I could do that again.”

“Not after the transphobic things you posted on Twitter.”

Chet smacks the table.

“Is that what this is about? You’re going to cancel me because I’m too real for the snowflakes of today.”

Our waitress starts, and I see her freeze, trying to decide if she should intervene or call her manager. But I have this. I take a sip of my water, then lightly dap at my lips with my napkin and place it on the table.

“I will explain this to you once. Cancel culture is a myth. There is not a mob or secret cabal deciding who is in and who is out. There is just me. I decide that you are no longer worth the effort of propping up, so you’re not. But if I choose, I could also decide that you’re the most hated man in the country. So, here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to leave now. Our food is going to be placed on the table in three minutes. You’re going to eat your steak, have them pack up mine, and you can take it with you. Do what you want with the day, and tomorrow, you start figuring out the mess that is your life without me holding your hand, because you are far too old to throw a tantrum in a fucking Cheesecake Factory. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Now thank me for lunch.”

“Thank you for lunch.”

I stand up and head over to the waitress who finally decided to call over the manager, though both are staying well away from the table for now.

“He should be fine now,” I tell them, and I hand the waitress my company credit card and a $100 bill, “The cash is for you. I’ll add something on the card as well, but that’s just a buffer if he wants to get a drink. He needs one, but just one. I don’t want him to be a problem,” I look directly at the manager, “Do make sure he’s not a problem for her.”

My daughter calls me in the evening.

“How did it go?”

“It went fine. You can’t have superheroes without a little drama, but nothing of note. How about you? How is that philosophy paper going?”

“It’s done. I just wanted to call you before I go to the studio.”

“My daughter the sculptor. I’ve never had to market a sculptor before. Well, there was that hero, The Sculptor, absolute pompous windbag. I don’t even remember his powers, was is turning people to stone by talking to them?”

“Mom, I just like to sculpt. I have time to figure out what I’ll actually do.”

“Just promise me one thing.”

“Anything.”

“Don’t be an agent.”

“Or a superhero. I promise.”

Captain Squirrel (Part 2)

Karla is waiting by my locker after school which is weird. For some, lockers are their destiny. It’s where they hang out before classes, where plans are made, and notes are slipped into. Most days, I’m lucky if I don’t try to open the wrong locker by mistake. But Karla is waiting for me, and not furtively either.

“Hey,” she calls out when I’m still a bit away.

I’m expecting people to turn and stare. To marvel that a girl is actually talking to me. But everybody else is busy with their own conversations, excited for the school day to be over.

“So, he’s just at the Lakewood hospital. His mom gave me all the info.”

“You have his mom’s number?”

“My mom does. She had the numbers of everybody who I hung around with when I was a kid.”

“Your mom was always pretty nice.”

It’s a nice day out. Spring is still fresh, and every day there seem to be new flowers. The hospital isn’t in the same direction from school as our houses, but we’ve both grown up in Lakewood, and know our way.

“How’d you do on that French test?” I ask.

“Il pleut!”

“That means it’s raining.”

“I thought it meant poorly.”

“Well, you still proved your point.”

She laughs. “I’m so bad at French. I should have taken Spanish. I’m sure I’d still be bad at it, but I actually know real people who speak Spanish.”

“My mom learned French when she was in school, and she thought she’d be able to help me if I took it.”

“And can she?”

“I think once I asked her about the pluperfect.”

“And what did she say to that?”

“Il pleut.”

Karla punches my shoulder, but we’re both laughing.

“Let’s grab a snack,” she says, and enters a corner store. She grabs a juice, and when I check my pockets, and realize I don’t have enough for anything, she buys one for me too, and a package of M&M’s for Matt.

“He doesn’t have a nut allergy, does he? Because these may contain nuts.”

I shake my head. She’s really good at this. Alone, I wouldn’t have even thought to visit him in the hospital, and if I did, I’d definitely be empty-handed.

“If he’s there for a while, we’ll collect homework assignments for him next time.”

She’s planning a next time?

Matt looks terrible. He has a bandage covering the lower part of his right cheek, and stitches along his forehead and on his arms. Still, he’s smiling when we arrive.

“Wow, didn’t expect the two of you to come together?” he says.

“We brought you these,” Karla says and hands him the candy.

“My favorite,” he places them on a tray. I’m grateful he doesn’t open them while we’re here.

“So, what happened?” I ask.

“I got attacked by a squirrel!” he still seems pretty happy.

“A squirrel?”

Karla is trying not to laugh.

“I think it was radioactive. They say I’m going to have to be here a while so they can run some tests. You know, see if I have any powers. Like super agile, or strong.”

“Able to remember where you hid your nuts?” Karla suggests.

“Yeah, I might have enhanced memory powers. Good thinking.”

“Maybe it was just an ordinary squirrel.”

“Do you think an ordinary squirrel could do this to me?”

I do. I really, really do.

“I guess not. But should we know this? Isn’t your identity supposed to be a secret?”

“Yeah, I got pretty excited. But I trust you two. You can be my crew. Like Karla, maybe you could become a journalist, and you’ll write stories about me. And Ed, you’ll be my sidekick.”

“Yeah, they definitely need to run some more tests, there’s something wrong with your brain,” Karla says. Is she flirting with him? I think she’s flirting with him.

“Ha! Right? Squirrel-lepathy or something. That would be amazing.”

“Well, I guess you seem ok,” I say.

“Best day of my life. The birth of Captain Squirrel!”

“Well, we should head out. I didn’t tell my parents I was coming here, and it’s getting late. But we’ll come again. You know how to reach Ed, so if you need us to bring anything next time, let him know.”

“Yeah, will do. Thank you so much for coming! This is going to be so awesome.”

It’s not until we get outside that Karla bursts into laughter. I start to laugh too, though not as uproariously as her.

“Oh my god, Ed, I’m so sorry, I know he’s your friend and all, but Captain Squirrel?”

“I mean, he’s your friend too.”

She gives me a strange look. “I’ve only ever talked to him because he’s your friend.”

“So, you visited him today…”

“Because I got to walk here with you. Just like we used to. Speaking of which, we should start walking back.”

She leads the way back towards our neighborhood. So, she wasn’t flirting with Matt. She didn’t even really care about seeing him. She wanted to walk with me? She could have done that at any point. I never started avoiding her. I start to feel angry. What was she so afraid of? I was right here, she didn’t need to wait for an excuse, what did she think would happen? Oh, right, that I would get angry with her. I take a deep breath.

“Karla?”

“Yes, Ed.”

“Back in the fifth grade, when you stopped walking with me, did I do something wrong?”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Should I have done something different? Should I have gone after you?”

“Oh god, that would have been so awful for both of us. No, I’m glad you didn’t. Lisa did a number on my brain. We’re not really friends anymore. But I’m sorry. Please, don’t be mad at me.”

“It’s ok. I’m not. I’m just. Ugh. Sorry. I’m stupid. But Karla, could I hold your hand?”

She looks at her hand confused, as if she’d never considered that somebody would want to hold it.

“Yeah, ok. This isn’t a date, though. You know that, right?”

“Right.”

We clasp hands and walk the rest of the way home like that.

Captain Squirrel (Part 1)

“Hey, is Matt alright?”

Karla hadn’t spoken to me in years. We’d been friendly when we were younger. Not the sort of friendship where you’d call each other, or go to each other’s house, but the sort where if the timing was right, you’d walk home from school together. We’d compare math tests and joke about Mrs. Fatoma’s wig. It wasn’t like Matt, who I’d talk about real stuff with, like comics and superheroes, but it was nice. But like I said, nothing was set in stone, so at first I didn’t realize that our leave times were no longer lining up. But then I realized it had been a few weeks. And I paid attention when I left school, and realized she was walking a different way with Lisa. That’s when I realized the gender divide that had entered our class had finally hit us.

So, now it’s middle school, and Karla is actually talking to me. And I have no idea what she’s talking about.

“Huh? I guess he’s not in today, or yesterday, I guess.”

“My mom ran into his mom at the store last night, and she said he got attacked by a wild animal.”

“A wild animal? In Lakewood?” Even as I’m saying it, I know that if there’s anybody who could get attacked by a wild animal in suburbia, it’s Matt. I once saw him get his foot stuck in a gopher hole. Another time, his cat was up a tree, and Matt climbed up after it. The cat jumped down on its own, and Matt couldn’t figure out how to get back down on his own. His older brother dragged out a mattress, and taunted Matt until he jumped/fell. He got a bunch of scrapes, but generally ok.

“That’s what his mom says. I guess he’s in the hospital. Maybe we could visit him after school?”

“Yeah. I’ll see if I can learn where he is.”

Black Bird (Day 3)

Sometimes, I hang out with Malcolm while he works. Of course, if he’s doing his job correctly, it doesn’t look like he’s working. We hang out on a stoop. Walk down to the bodega. Buy a loaf of bread and feed the ducks. People come up to us, slap us on the back, do intricate handshakes. I mean, there’s no doubt that we’re suspicious as fuck, but what he’s doing isn’t actually illegal.

Malcolm publishes the Guide. The Guide tells you everything you need to know about the local Supers (and a few of the more national ones who might drop by). Not like what you get in the magazines, where you can learn their favorite snack (yogurt bars, always yogurt bars), or their workout routine (treadmill, free weights, and oh yeah, a does of radiation). No, the Guide tells you who you’re most likely to meet in a given neighborhood, what’s their deal. Phasatron will fuck up even a low-level dealer, while Scarlet Princess will only intervene in what she deems violent crimes. Or if you do have a run in, it gives advice on how to escape. The Mole wears night vision goggles, so a flash of light can give you time to escape. Most synthetic webbing can be dissolved with orange soda. (“I don’t know if that’s racist,” Malcolm says, “But it feels racist.”) It stops short of telling the heroes actual weaknesses.

“Defense only,” Malcolm says, “This isn’t a guide for some cocky motherfucker to try and take on the league, and get himself killed. I don’t need that on my head. And shit, somebody gets lucky and takes down a super, and we’re all in trouble. You don’t want to seriously piss off the guy who can punch out a comet.”

He updates it frequently, adding in new information that people give him while he takes his walks. So, he prints out fresh versions every few weeks. He refuses to put it up on the web. Too traceable, and he likes to know who he’s distributing to.

It’s a Sunday, and we’re already at the park, feeding ducks with Malcolm’s little sister, when we’re approached. Face mask. Black pleather outfit. She has short red hair, and bright red lipstick. I mean, she was a knockout, if you know, tool of state oppression is your thing. Ok, she could probably convince me that it’s my thing.

“You guys from around here?” she asks she seems friendly or at least is trying to.

All around us, the old men who feed the ducks, or play chess in the park watch us closely, while pretending to not see us at all.

“Yeah, not far,” Malcolm says.

Kiara glares at him. “You don’t need to talk to her.”

“It’s okay, sis. I’m sure Ms. Night Terror has nothing but the best of intentions.”

“I don’t go by that anymore. It was a stupid name. I was young. I’m Black Bird, now.”

I’m sure Malcolm knew that, but we still catch each other’s eyes and smile. We have a joke about heroes who have the word black in their names.

“All cops are bastards and supers are just cops in capes.” Kiara has the confidence of a newly political 14-year-old. She’s actually pretty cool, but she’s bound to land us in the shit.

“I get that. I’m just here to help.”

“Help, huh?” Malcolm hands her a piece of white bread, “All we’re doing is feeding the ducks, but if you want to help with that, it’s cool.”

Black Bird instinctively glanced at the signs prohibiting feeding the ducks, but doesn’t say anything. She just turns to the pond, pulls off a corner of the bread, and throws it into the water. Malcolm makes a signal to Kiara, and she tries to casual walk away until she almost gets to the edge of the park and starts to run.

“You guys do this often?” Black Bird asks.

“We like ducks. Sometimes there are swans..”

“And geese.”

“And geese, and we don’t feed any of them on those days. We just like the ducks,” I say, “But it’s not like we really need you to stop by and help every time.”

“You know who really needs help, though? Clarence with his middlegame.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my middlegame,” Clarence yells from where’s he’s playing.

“I can come back, tomorrow, and play chess,” Black Bird says.

“Clarence doesn’t play against people in masks,” Malcom replies.

“You know why I wear a mask.”

“I do, and you know that as long as you wear one, you’ll never be able to help.”

Black Bird nods.

We keep tossing bread into the pond until the whole bag is gone. The ducks already full, have long since waddled away from us.