It started out as paranoia, but at this point I know Anna and Susan are talking behind my back and breakfast today just reinforces it. Whispers that die out the second I walk into the room, meaningful looks exchanged when Anna and Susan see me, and just a general sense of unease when all three of us are in a room together.
I’m getting that same vibe from them when they walk into the kitchen this morning. Anna doesn't usually come in and eat with us on school days. I start downing my eggs a bit faster. Susan’s been extra awkward lately, like she’s had something to say that she just can’t get out and as far as I’m concerned the longer we go without discussing my costumed business the longer it’ll take her to tell me she can’t let me keep it up. I don’t really wanna have that argument because I have no intention of stopping.
I pick up my plate and tip it back, shoveling the last two or three bites of egg into my mouth.
“Wes, would you sit back down?”
“Can’t. Already running late.”
“Wesley, I’m trying to be respectful of your—”
I shrug my backpack up onto my shoulders, walking backward toward the door, “Sorry. School.”
I’m out the door before I stop to think about what a ridiculous dick I am.
“You have to talk to her, this isn’t just going to go away if you ign—”
“No. Anna, no goddammit, not righ—”
“You can’t just ignore her feelings, We—”
“This is my lif—”
“What you’re doing affects everyone arou—”
“Well I don’t hear Boone giving me shit for—”
“That’s because Boone’s too fucking busy being jealous and thinking how fucking cool it is that you can do what you do!”
The entire hall’s watching us now. Some people are pretending they aren’t but others have stopped their conversations and are openly staring at us like one of us is going to hit the other any minute now. I’m not so sure Anna won’t hit me.
I lower my voice. “We can’t do this right now. We have eighth period study hall together. I won’t duck you once classes are over and we can talk about it on the way home.”
I can see her working it over. She isn’t happy with me. I think if she could find a way to strap a shock collar around my neck, she would—just in case. “Fine. When this conversation happens though, so help me God if you are insensitive enough to say anything remotely resembling that she isn’t your mother I will kill you where you stand.”
Nice to know that my reputation precedes me.
Anna’s already sitting at her desk when I walk into the room and I have to remind myself rather firmly that I promised her not to cut and run. Yeah, I know. I’m a bitch.
She doesn’t say anything when I walk past her; just makes brief eye contact and goes back to her book. I sit down behind her and choke on silence. If Boone were here I would hate him for the shit he’d be giving us but at least it wouldn’t be so goddamn quiet. But he’s not and it is and it’s my fault. My hand is actually twitching, wanting to tap her on the shoulder but not having anything to say.
This is insane. I’ve become that annoying idiot in every stupid, angsty teen drama that whines about everyone and is universally reviled by moviegoers, readers, and/or TV junkies. And now I hate myself for whining about whining…more whining! Just wonderful!
The bell rings and Mr. Mitchum reminds us all to shut the hell up and not disturb our neighbors (I’ve always liked Mr. Mitchum). Anna pulls a book out of her bag and starts working.
Oh fuck this. Deal with this like an adult. Or at least the closest facsimile of one you can manage.
I tear a page out of my notebook and scribble on it.
Am I being an asshole?
I fold it up and drop it over Anna’s shoulder. She stiffens a bit when it falls in her lap, but she picks it up and I hear the soft crinkle of unfolding paper. After a minute she arches her back, grabs one hand with the other, and pulls her arms up over her head, stretching. Her hair falls over the front of my desk. I try not to think about the view I could be getting right now if I were sitting somewhere else. I don’t figure my libido for much of a problem solver, though it’s trying quite hard to convince me otherwise. Her hand opens and my little square of paper tumbles down onto my desk. She lowers her arms, lifts her hair, and goes back to her homework. The moment passes.
I open the note.
No. Just self-centered.
I scribble and pass.
I’m not sure that’s much better.
Close enough that you’re still pissed.
Not pissed. Frustrated. Confused.
Fuck. I owe Susan an apology, don’t I?
Gah! But I’m not wrong!
Now you’re being an asshole.
Ugh. Slow down. Think about what you mean before you say it.
No, I mean I know I’ve been acting like a three year-old, but going out on the town like I do isn’t wrong. Right?
It takes Anna awhile to answer.
No, but it is illegal and dangerous and it affects everyone around you. You may be the one running around and getting into trouble, but we’re aiding and abetting or whatever. Listen, this note’s getting kind of dangerous to keep passing. Just pocket it and we’ll talk after class. Okay?
I jam the note into my pocket instead of doing something stupid and smart ass like passing the note back to agree with her. Probably the first decent thing I’ve done since all this started. Now, all I have to do is sit around for another thirty-five minutes and pretend to be able to focus on anything other than how much I suck.
“Shut up, Boone.”
“What? I haven’t even said anything.”
“I know you haven’t, but you will. So, shut up.”
Boone looks between Anna and me, leading our procession out past the huddled student masses and onto the sidewalk.
“Dude, who or what got wedged up your ass?”
I’m not sure why I’m snapping at him, but I can’t seem to stop myself. “Don’t you have someplace to be?”
Boone gives me an odd look. “Fine, fuck you. I’m heading downtown anyway. Anna, your boyfriend needs a reach around or something; he’s kinda being a dick.”
Anna puts a hand on Boone’s arm. “Stop teasing him. Please?”
Boone throws his hands up and rolls his eyes. “Fine! I’ll see you guys later.”
We’re silent for a little while before the crowds thin out enough for us to talk. Anna sighs.
“Well, that wasn’t a very good start.”
“I don’t need his shit on top of everything else.”
“He wouldn’t have said anything if you hadn’t antagonized him. He’s not all that happy about this clusterfuck either.”
“There’s only so many times someone can pick fights before they lose the benefit of the doubt.”
Silence again. Why am I so bad at this? I take a deep breath and try again.
“I’ll talk to him tonight. I have no idea what one says to Boone to try and have a serious conversation, but I’ll try anyway. Just know that if one of us ends up dead, I tried as hard as I could.”
Anna takes my hand and squeezes. “Thank you.”
I rub my eyes, trying to push back the headache boiling up behind them and hope Anna doesn’t let me walk into a light pole or something. I’m gonna end up with an ulcer and it won’t even be my costumed life that gives it to me. “Why do I feel like you’ve already figured out how this is going to end and you’re just trying to lead me across the finish line?”
“Because I’m older and wiser than you.”
“You’re barely a year older.”
“True, but girls also mature faster than boys.”
I nod my head in concession. “Well I can’t speak for men and women as a whole, but it certainly seems true in this case.”
Anna puts her hand on my cheek, gets up on her tiptoes, and kisses my other cheek. “Keep making stupid jokes. It’s a far more appealing sort of childishness.”
“Pfft. They’re not stupid; they’re disarmingly clever masquerading as stupidity. You’d be amazed how often it works for me.”
She snorts. “How are you still talking?”
“I’m not really sure. I think my off switch was broken by one of the many blows to the head I’ve received.”
“Oh my God, who actually answers that question?”
“Guess I do.”
Anna makes an exasperated sound and shoves me into a newspaper dispenser.
The woman at the front desk of the hospital recognizes me as “one of Susan’s” and starts chattering away the second she’s told me Susan isn’t due for her dinner break for another eleven minutes. I smile and tell her everyone’s doing great and really wish she would move her hands so I could see her nametag. Bless her heart, she’s a sweet woman just dying to know how her favorite family’s doing but I don’t recognize her at all and I’m gonna run out of bland pleasantries before she runs out of breath and has to inhale again. I jump in the second she pauses to shift our conversation from one family member to another.
“I hate to be rude, but this food’s cooled off while I was walking over here and I was hoping to have it heated up and all ready to go when she gets into the cafeteria.”
She clicks her tongue. “You really are a sweetheart. Do you know where the caf is?”
“Alright, well be sure to swing by before you leave.”
“Wouldn’t dream of ducking you.”
I smile as I leave and hope she gets off before I have to come back through the lobby. Down a hallway to the left and then down the stairs and I push the cafeteria doors open. I rush toward the back and hope Daisy’s working. I don’t know any of the other cafeteria workers and I don’t think I’m actually allowed to use their microwaves. Sure enough, as I get a little closer I see her frizzy beehive of orange hair bobbing above the short line of hungry people. Daisy’s tall and thin and has a thing for purple and blue dresses. She’s a dead ringer for The Magic School Bus’ Ms. Frizzle. Susan calls her the Friz, but I’m not sure I could get away with it. I raise my hand over my head and wave.
She waves back, careful not to swing her ladle around too much and hit someone with green bean juice. Daisy has a smile that nearly cracks her face in two and she isn’t stingy about using it. “Wesley, darling, have you eaten?”
“No, that’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“If that’s not the start of someone asking for a favor then I don’t know what is.”
If I had more time, I might banter a bit more but I’ve got all of two minutes before Susan gets off for dinner. “Heh. I’ve kinda got myself in a tough place with Susan and I’m looking to run a Hail Mary to get back in her good graces.”
“Well, who am I to keep you from making nice? You know the drill.”
“Thank you. If Susan comes in before I get back, can you keep her from ordering anything?”
“You got it.”
The microwave’s back behind a mixer big enough to blend Hansel, Gretel, and their two fattest friends together into a wonderful pie filling. I put our plates on the counter and surround them with Tupperware. I drop a slice of meatloaf onto Susan’s plate and slide it into the microwave. While the meatloaf is spinning round and round, I load three slices onto my own plate and pop the tops on the salads. The bell tolls and I stick a couple rolls on Susan’s plate and hit the go button again. I repeat the whole process with my plate and poke my head out of the kitchen. Susan’s sitting at the end of a table, looking a little bewildered. I toss rolls onto my plate and reheat it before gathering Susan’s plate, salad, and little cup of dressing. I get halfway across the room before she notices me. Her confusion deepens before she remembers to smile.
“Wesley, what are you doing here? Is everything okay?”
“That’s what I’m hoping to sort out, actually. But first, a bribe.” I drop the food in front of her and smile. “I’ll be right back.”
I repeat the process but this time I tuck a twenty ounce bottle under each arm. It takes a moment longer than before to unload my food, lest I ruin my good start with a carbonated assault on Susan’s person. We eat in silence (or what passes for silence in a relatively public cafeteria) for a minute before I decided that awkward chit-chat is better than awkward silence.
“How’s your food?”
“It’s wonderful. Very thoughtful.”
“I made the rolls.”
She laughs and takes a bite of a roll that clearly came out of a Pillsbury tin. “They’re delicious.”
I swallow enough spinach to choke myself and blurt, “I’m sorry I suck at this and if you have the time and energy after your shift tonight we can talk about all the stupid shit I’ve been running away from talking about.”
Oh, wow. That was bad even for me. Don’t smack your head against the table repeatedly while chanting “stupid, stupid, stupid”. Don’t do it. This doesn’t need to get any worse.
She sets her roll down and puts her hand on top of mine. “Let’s just eat for now and worry about all those happy thoughts afterward.”
Susan doesn’t eat quickly, but afterward still comes too soon.
“So when does your shift end?”
“Nine. How’d you get over here?”
“Took the bus, why?”
“Take the car back home. It’s too cold to be standing around at the bus stop. You can come pick me up at nine and we’ll start sorting this out then. Deal?”
I fidget a bit. “Deal.”
Neither Susan nor I really know how to start so we spend the entire ride home making small talk. How was your day? Not too bad, how about you? Isn’t the weather just delightful? Don’t you wish one of us could say something important? I’ve got the house keys in the door before I stop myself. If we go inside with Anna and Boone and Paul we’ll get caught up in whatever’s going on in their lives.
“On TV, people always sit on their front steps and talk. That or they poke their heads in through open windows. Does anyone ever do that in real life?”
“Not really. Enough people have heated or air conditioned homes they can have discussions in that sitting outside has become largely obsolete.”
“Ah. Well, how about we do it anyway? I always thought it made things seem more important.”
She smiles thinly and sits down, squirming a little in the silence. “I hate to start this off with a cliché, but it all seems so obvious in hindsight. It worried me that you and Boone and Anna were all so fascinated with these masked vigilantes, but it would never have occurred to me that one of you was going out there doing what they do.” She shakes her head. “I had a hard enough time agreeing to let you box—which I assume was just a way for you to cover all the cuts and bruises—all the violence that comes with this isn’t healthy. Boxing is a sport, of sorts, there are rules and limits and protection. This costumed business, it’s even more violent and it has none of the protection, none of the rules. It’s—it’s real violence, for lack of a better term. People out to hurt and kill each other and there is no aspect of it that impacts human beings in a healthy way.” It takes a moment of fumbling for Susan to find her words and when she does they all come out in a rush. “I appreciate that you’re doing this to do something good and that you’re not a child and that if you want to keep doing this, Paul and I are truly incapable of stopping you, but I cannot consider myself your parent and not at least talk to you about all this.” By the time she’s done she’s a little hunched over and breathing shallowly. She looks brittle. I should do something comforting, but I can’t seem to lift my hand.
“But you want me to stop, don’t you?”
“Would it help if we talked about what I actually do?”
“When I found out, I went online and did some research but it was all a little spotty. Second-hand accounts, terrified victims, and anonymous statements given by police officers who don’t have an official line to support because of how damn crazy this superhero business is.”
Alright. Start at the beginning.
“First one happened on accident. Big hooded boy with a knife meets mousy little girl with a purse. A tale as old as time. No mask, no hood, no secret identity. I just saw him before he saw me and I stopped him. The woman freaked out, crying and hugging me until the police arrived. It was—good. And I mean, I don’t know, but isn’t that the kinda shit people are always so hyped up on? People helping people? One of the most popular entertainment mediums in the world is based around the concept of people with the ability to help helping. There has to be a reason everyone’s so obsessed with superheroes, real and fictional.” I rub my nose with my knuckle and grasp for words. “I’m getting better at it every time I go out; better at helping people and better at protecting myself. I don’t think I’ll ever be a name brand superhero, saving the world every month, but I can make people feel safer walking home at night. I can cut down on people busting up local businesses. I—I can help people.”
Silence. Raging internal debates rule the day.
“It never even occurred to me.” I can’t tell if she’s talking to herself or to me. “You know, I think I could read every parenting book every published and I wouldn’t find a single tip on what to do when your son or daughter is a superhero.”
“Maybe you should write a book. ‘So Your Child Wears a Full-Body Stocking and Fights Evil in the Dead of Night’. It’s a little wordy, but I think I’m onto something.”
She smiles thinly. “You’re going to get hurt. Really hurt.”
“People get hurt every day.”
“Now is not the time to be flip, Wesley.” The fragility leaves her momentarily and I backtrack quickly.
“I’m not being flip, that’s just how it is. You can’t go through life expecting to avoid pain. Mind you, I’m asking for quite a bit more pain than is usual, but I figure that’s balanced out by the pain I help other people avoid.”
“This isn’t healthy, being exposed to the kind of violence you’re being exposed to and taking the lives of others onto your shoulders. You’re making yourself responsible for so much more than anyone your age, or any age for that matter, should. How can anyone ever know that they’re able to handle all that?”
I scratch my cheek, listening to the little bit of stubble crinkle. “I’ve heard people talk the same way about having kids. Not that having kids and fighting crime are the same thing,” Although there are some striking similarities. “Just that no one really knows if they’re gonna be ready for it, ready to take responsibility for another life, and yet people kinda have to jump in. They have to take a leap of faith at some point and just trust that they’ll be up to the task.”
Okay, that had to have scored me some major points, right?
“Plus, if I get myself in any real trouble I can have Paul as my lawyer! I’ve got all my angles covered!”
She gives me another weak smile. “It’s freezing out here. I’m gonna go inside and talk to Paul about this.” She kisses my temple before standing up. “You’ll just have to survive the embarrassment of being kissed in public this one time. We all care about you, Wes. Especially me.”
I stop her before she gets to the door and hug her quickly and awkwardly.
“Yeah, me too.”
I give her a minute or two head start so I can avoid her and Paul on their way upstairs before heading in myself. Anna’s waiting in the foyer.
“How’d it go?”
“Won’t really know until tomorrow, but I don’t think I did anything too fucking stupid.”
She bounces onto her tiptoes and puts her arms around my neck. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, but now I’ve gotta talk to Boone and I’m fairly certain he won’t be nearly as pleasant or cooperative as Susan.”
"I've gotta head home now, but text me an update after you talk to Boone." Anna squeezes my hand. "Good luck."
Boone’s sprawled across one of the recliners in the living room, one leg draped over the arm and the other on the footrest. He’s watching Pulp Fiction. Samuel L. Jackson’s double daring Brett to say “what” again.
Alright, just like a band-aid.
“This scene always makes me want a cheeseburger.” I mutter.
Boone looks over his shoulder at me. “Shut the fuck up, man. I don’t wanna drive out to Wendy’s just because you got me craving a burger.”
Samuel L. Jackson shoots Brett in the arm and starts quoting a semi-fictitious Bible passage.
“Hey, about earlier, I uh—”
“No. No, no. If you apologize…I’m going to cry.” He sniffles and wipes the back of his hand across his face. “I, I can’t handle this right now. Oh—oh God!”
“You are such a pain in the ass, you know that right?”
“Deal with it.”