A Superhero Story
Gradyville: Population 71. Seventy ordinary people, and Ricky Jarvis. It was one of those towns you passed on the way to somewhere else. There wasn’t much reason to stop at a place that was little more than a church, a grocery store, and a bait shop. Even the highway didn’t stop. The highway just wrapped around the town like a corset, keeping the people there firmly in their place.
Sunday morning. Everyone in town was at Hilltop Church, either sitting inside or buried in the back. Pastor Wallace was pacing on stage, waving his Bible like a sword. “And the Lord said, in my name they will perform miracles. They shall pick up venomous snakes and not be bitten. They shall drink poison and not perish. They shall perform healings and resurrect the dead. …Now, my children, we can perform miracles in God’s name, but that does not mean that every miracle comes from him! I have read every word in this here book, and nowhere does it say anything about levitation! I do believe, dear children, that if God wanted us to fly, he would give us feathers!”
“Just like a penguin,” Ricky thought.
“And if a blessing doesn’t come from God, it must come from… another source.”
Ricky certainly was blessed. The nineteen-year-old had the body of a god. Well, Hercules was technically a demigod, but you get the picture. He was six-foot-nine, nearly three hundred pounds, and built like a human bulldozer. He could fly. He could lift a tractor with one hand. He could shout loud enough to shatter windows. He was also bulletproof, not that he had any risk of being shot in Gradyville. At least, as long as he avoided the woods during hunting season.
“Some people,” the preacher continued, “think that doing a little bit of good can wash away a great evil. Some people think you can use the devil’s right hand to hold back his left. Well, the devil can’t make you the Saint of Sinners. No matter how much good you do, you can never buy back your soul from a pawnshop in Hell!”
The sermon lasted another forty-five minutes. When they passed the old coffee can the church used to collect donations, Ricky tossed in a dollar bill.
Ricky made sure he wasn’t being watched, stepped into the woods, and changed his clothes. His costume, such as it was, was a pair of carpenter jeans, a blue flannel work shirt, and a gray bandanna covering the lower half of his face like a bank robber in a western. He stretched, yawned, and floated into the sky.
Patrolling Gradyville wasn’t exactly difficult. From only a few hundred feet up, he could see the entire town. He could keep an eye on everything, all the way from Hilltop Church to the Bait Bungalow. Sometimes he imagined Gradyville as an attraction at a freak show. “Hurry! Hurry! Get your tickets now! Be first in line to see.. the smallest town… in the world! See the town too small to appear on a map! Too small for a Walmart! A town that would have twelve available jobs, if the mayor didn’t have three!”
Floating a little higher, he could see across the highway, to the edge of the city. To those who wanted out of Gradyville, The City was an Emergency Exit sign. To those who stayed behind, The City seemed to loom over them, threatening, an endlessly approaching storm. Ricky drifted aimlessly, languidly, a blue speck in the air. The sky was endless. Somehow, it managed to be immense without being terrifying. Its size made him feel small, but in a comforting way.
Somewhere below, a woman’s voice screamed. “Alice! What are you doing? You’ll be killed!”
“At last,” he thought. “Someone needs me!” Turning to face the sound, he dropped like a bomb.
Rachel, the bait shop cashier, was swaying in the street, tugging nervously at her newsprint yellow dress. “It’s you!” She gasped gratefully. “Alice is going to hurt herself again! Can you stop her?”
For a moment, Ricky was confused. He couldn’t remember anyone in town named Alice. But then, Rachel gestured up at an elm tree. An orange tabby was mewing plaintively. Ricky sighed, covering his face with his hand. “I… I can fly.”
“Yes, I know…” Rachel said. “Please grab my cat before she falls!”
“I can fly.,” he insisted. “I can punch through a brick wall. I can create a hurricane with my breath.”
Rachel pushed him gently in the direction of the elm. “Just the flying today, please! …Now.”
He floated to the top of the tree, a leaf in reverse. Reaching out, he plucked the cat from its branch. It howled and struggled and slashed at his face. Its claws couldn’t penetrate his skin, but the ingratitude was painful. He handed the cat to Rachel.
“Thank god Gradyville has someone like you!” she sighed. “Most of you gifted folks live way off in big cities.” She stroked the cat and whispered soothing things in its ear. To Ricky, she said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but why do you live here, anyhow?”
Off in The City, there were dozens of people who were gifted like Ricky, but most of them weren’t as nice. There were people like The Wraith, a man who could turn invisible and walk through walls. The police were powerless to catch him, no matter how many women he attacked. And The Surgeon, a man with skin made of razor blades. He sliced people to shreds and sold their organs on the black market. And then there was The Bone Man… Ricky couldn’t think about him without wanting to vomit.
Ricky coughed and stared at the sky. “Everyone needs someone to protect them. Even the folks in Gradyville.” Rachel opened her mouth, but he took off before she could speak. “…Everyone.”
An hour later, he was still wandering the sky. Dark clouds danced in the south. A light flickered against distant trees. A barn was burning.
Ricky screamed across the sky like a bottle rocket. “I have to help,” he thought frantically. “But what can I do? I have the strength of a wrecking ball, but I can’t exactly punch a fire.” He searched the ground for an answer. “There! The Wilsons’ swimming pool!” Above ground model, made of aluminum panels. He swooped down and carried it back into the sky.
As he flew closer to the barn, he saw that a handful of people from the volunteer fire department were already there. Oddly, they were just watching the barn burn. “I’ve got it, guys!” he called. He flipped over the pool and unleashed a torrent of water on the blaze below.
Angry shouting. Cody, the chief of the volunteer fire department, waved at Ricky to land. “What in the hell did you do that for, boy?” He hurled his helmet at his feet. “This was a goddamn practice fire! How am I supposed to train the new volunteers if you put the fire out first?”
“Who cares? Why would you volunteer to be firemen?” Ricky spat. “Firemen here! Gradyville doesn’t even need you! I can take care of this place all by myself!”
Cody sighed, suddenly quiet. “…This is a small, quiet town, son. There ain’t much opportunity here. Young kids like you all move on to bigger things, sooner or later. I can’t just assume you’ll stick around. What happens if you leave?”
Ricky dropped his head and muttered an apology. He jumped back into the sky. Off in the distance, The City skyline shone. “I wish I knew.”
The wind carried thunder and a sound like gunfire. Ricky headed for the source: the grocery store. Fifty feet below, two figures in black hoods darted across the street, dodging cars. The owner, Grandpa Paul, was outside waving his cane.
“A robbery!” Ricky cheered triumphantly. “And the sheriff is out having lunch! Nobody can stop it but me!” He flew after the dark figures, tracking them as they ran through alleys and back yards, swinging large, plastic bags. “They don’t seem to be carrying guns. Maybe they ditched them somewhere? Better be on the safe side and take them by surprise. Can’t risk one of them drawing his weapon.” Ricky couldn’t be hurt, but they were in a residential neighborhood. Any gunshots could easily hit an innocent bystander.
He swooped down low and lifted them by their belts, one in each hand. “All right, you two, drop the… candy?”
Ricky landed in an empty field. He pulled back the hoods on their sweatshirts. Kids – the Taylor boys. A couple of twelve-year-olds out shoplifting candy bars. They smelled like gunpowder and burning paper. They probably used firecrackers to distract Grandpa Paul. “Kurt and Wes Taylor,” he said sternly. “I’m going to have to tell your mom about this.”
Laughing, the boys waved their middle fingers. “Fuck you, Ricky!”
His mouth dropped open under his mask. “You… you know who I am?”
“What the hell do you think?” the boys giggled. “Let’s see, who could be behind the bandanna? Phil the pump jockey at the gas station? No, he’s five-foot-six and only speaks Mexican. Patty the librarian? No, she’s got a high voice and huge tits… How many gigantic, brain-dead muscle heads do you think live in this shit hole? God damn, you’re dumb. Just get the fucking sheriff and let us go.”
Ricky pulled off his mask and rubbed his eyes. “He’s at lunch.” He dropped the bandanna in the dirt and walked home.
Ricky stepped through the door of his family’s farm house. His mother was sitting on the couch in the living room, sorting the trash for recycling. “Are you okay, Ricky?”
“Fine, fine. Just need a break from being gifted, that’s all.”
“Oh, that’s good. I was worried! You look so tired… Why don’t you go get in bed and I’ll bring you some milk and graham crackers? I think there are some cartoons on.”
The staircase was so narrow, he almost had to climb sideways. He pushed open the door to his room and pulled back the curtains. The outside world burned under the setting sun, pink and purple and orange. The world was endless, and growing darker.
He climbed into his bed and switched on the television. His mother came in and placed a tray of milk and crackers on his bed. Leaning in close, she pulled him into a tight hug. In her arms, he was safe.