For years I had suffered my uniqueness in silence until the fourth grade. Excited with the first week of school, I was walking home, playing with a super ball. When I bounced it too hard and it ended up in the gutter of a nearby house, I stopped in frustration. I really liked that ball and wanted it back. Looking around to make sure no one was watching, I quickly flew up, grabbed the ball, and landed back on the ground. I heard a screen door slam, and turning back I saw a boy walking quickly towards me.
“Hey that's a neat trick,” he said as he caught up to me.
“What trick?” I asked, feigning innocence.
“How you flew up to get that ball,” he replied, pointing to my pocket.
I realized no one else could fly after getting a weird look once from a friend when I mentioned it, but the burden of hiding, had grown heavy, even after the careful realization that everyone had a secret to hide. But the desire to confide in someone usually vanished quickly at the thought of being exposed. The boy continued to walk alongside me in silence for two more blocks.
“It's okay, I won't tell anyone. Superheros have to keep it a secret. Superman and Spiderman do,” he pointed out. I stopped walking and stared at him in a panic.
“What are you talking about” I said, playing dumb.
“I'll show you,” he replied, gesturing for me to follow. Curiosity overrode my paranoia.
We returned to his house--the one with the ball-snatching-gutter--and he showed me into a house overflowing with books, shelves of them everywhere.
We threaded our way to a room at the back of the house to his bedroom library. I was unfamiliar with the world of comics but he had an extensive collection and an encyclopedic knowledge of the origins, history and powers of each caped and masked superhero. Pete invited me to come by anytime and once again promised to keep my secret.
Pete Galway was only a year older but was the wisest eleven-year-old I’d ever known. He was a head taller with a tangled mess of blond hair and freckles that multiplied in the summer sun. His mother taught literature and his dad was an anthropologist. They endowed him with endless fascination for the world; Pete seemed to know everything.
As our friendship grew, I was glad to have someone to share my secret and he thrilled to be my spiritual sidekick. Vicariously enjoying the moments when my quick reflexes peeked out as I dodged snowballs in neighborhood battles or won at track meets. Encouraging me to test the limits of my flying and acted as lookout when I snuck off near dawn for quick lessons out in the country, standing guard with a whistle.
I had no interest in the fantasy world of comics however, I was too grounded in reality to take any of it seriously.
The only hero I emulated was my Father. He was fair and honest with everyone, teaching me to judge people by their actions and not their appearance. I remember when he came back to the store one day after lunch with a portrait of Martin Luther King tucked under his arm. He hung it on the wall with the photos of Gandhi and John F. Kennedy. The reason for this addition was a crude comment at the local cafe by a Mr. Ivers about a Vietnamese family that had recently moved to town.
"Son, people may look different on the outside but we are all the same on the inside," Dad informed me gravely. Ivers refused to shop at Dad's store after seeing the new photo.
I repeated Dad's observation to Pete who considered the remark deeply as he gazed at the sky.
“It's a start,” he conceded.
Pete came to realize I had no ambition to be a scientist or engineer like his comic book idols, and took it in stride, but deep down hoped I would change my mind. Over the years he continued his attempts to convince me I was more than an average kid, but I dismissed the idea.
“You have a gift to share with the world and a personal mythology to realize,” he told me as we walked home from school after his first driving class.
“You sound like your father,” I retorted, and he smiled at the comparison. The highbrow analysis was a bit much for me but there was no stopping Pete.
While my parents taught me to always be considerate of others out of simple kindness, Pete taught me the deeper consequences of altruism. I never gave it much thought because it brought on too much brooding, which I was never good at. He handled big ideas with ease, while I squirmed at the need for such lengthy contemplation.
“A hero is someone who acts out of concern for others. He gives his life to something bigger than himself. Superheroes are the same. They are wiser, using their intellect and reason to solve problems like others, but it's their morals that make them extraordinary. You need to read the classics, dumb ass,” he said, giving my shoulder a playful shove.
“Yes Herr Professor,” I returned with the right amount of sarcasm, shoving him back and knocking him off his feet.
That summer was spent getting lessons from him on the hero business as we sat at the edge of an isolated pond surrounded by a dense wooded park of mature oak and poplars. Insects flitted over the green water as a current stirred in the slight breeze. It was the ideal place for contemplating the wider world.
The idea of being a superhero dispensing justice had a certain appeal. God knows I wanted to bash in the faces of the bullies at school, and the evil twins next door could use a good drubbing, but what good would it do? They aren't going to listen to Pete's version of reason either.
“I can't see myself as some kind of supercop meting out judgement,” I answered to his latest argument.
“There are other ways to use your special skills, and you don't have to do it alone,” he advised. Here comes the sidekick pitch again, I thought with an inward groan.
“I know you don't like the structure of working within a unit but it can offer you the kind of discipline beyond individualism,” he went on without missing a beat. I turned and gave him a frown of irritation.
“Would you please use words a fifteen-year-old can understand,” I pleaded.
He laughed and explained why I preferred the one on one competition of track compared to the team dynamic of basketball.
I liked making decisions on my own but that wasn't entirely true when I gave it more thought. Sometimes I wished others would make decisions for me. I wanted to do the right thing but it wasn't always clear or easy. I guess that's what Pete was trying to teach me but my stubbornness got in the way.
Such camaraderie meant revealing my abilities to others and I wasn't ready for that, if ever. Being a loner made it easier to avoid. I got up to stretch out, raising my hands high over my head and my jeans damn near slipped off my narrow hips.
“Yeah well, I guess I can put these weird tricks to use some day I suppose.” I really wanted to drop the subject.
“Some day you will be a hero, whether you like it or not and I'll be there to say I told you so.” His loyalty left me speechless. Pete paused and gave me the strangest look.
“What?” I asked, his stare making me uncomfortable.
“Nothing.” He shrugged.
Phil's snoring broke my reverie once more. I went to the bathroom to douse my face and the emotions the memories stirred up. What's the point of having these abilities if I can't use them? I desperately wished I could talk to Pete.
I was shattered when he and his father were killed in a car accident when he was barely eighteen. I heard the news while at the school library and stared out the window, seeing his house in the distance looking empty and forlorn in the dull gray light of the snowy landscape.
I lost my best friend and my childhood in the same moment. It was the first time I had encountered death. Once again, I was alone.