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An American Superhero
He stood, high above the busy streets of Manhattan, his shaggy hair blowing in the wild breeze.
He had always wanted to fly, even when he was a boy. Curious, he would watch the swirling clouds above him, hours and hours passing before he took a long, final look into the sky and walked inside. The cold, grimy earth that sunk in under his bare footsteps as he ambled toward the house disgusted him. It was his world- a bleak, endless prison that taunted him, sneered at him. And just before he settled in for the night, he’d sneak a glance outside the window, admiring the full moon and the beautiful, dazzling stars that winked at him from the heavens.
When the morning light broke and gleamed through his open window, he would leap out of bed, and tiptoe quietly over to his bookshelf, not daring to wake his parents. He would sift through years’ worth of superhero magazines, flipping each crisp, wrinkled page with care and grinning with delight at every one of his favorite parts.
His heroes came alive, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, bounding across great cities. They faced terrible dangers, risking their lives for innocent, ordinary, everyday people. They summoned their otherworldly superpowers, never giving up in the face of fear. The inspiring, costumed characters always saved the day, even if it meant sacrificing themselves or their loved ones in the process.
Most importantly, they were his. Even when he came home from school, bruised and bloodied, his hair disheveled, his glasses cracked, and his aching body screaming at him to do something, fight back. Even when his parents shouted at one another spitefully, their yelling so loud it almost seemed as if the house was shaking, the support beams buckling under the sheer weight of anger, hate, and regret. Even when the pressure engulfed him and wrapped itself around his young, fragile body, triggering panic attacks and regular fits of anxiety and dread. He could always shut himself up in his room and fantasize about his favorite masked vigilantes emerging from his comic books and promising, swearing to keep him safe.
And then his mother took him away, just before the first Monday of the new school year. They ran off together, even deeper into the miserable, desolate countryside that he hated so much. She started waitressing, setting aside tips in a small, blushing piggy bank that she kept on the mantle. She never really meant to hurt him, she said. Things were just so hard and mommy was so tired and stressed out. She made him promise that he forgave her every time she came home from work shrieking and hurling chairs against the wall. He said he did, of course. She was his mommy and he loved her. But she wasn’t like other mothers that he heard about at school. She didn’t care about his grades, or bake cookies for the class fundraiser, or take him to the movies and buy him popcorn and candy.
But then his father took him back. He told him that they were going to start spending a lot of time with each other, maybe watching Saturday morning cartoons together or going on a fishing trip. Those things never happened though, because his father went back to school to become a businessman. He said that he wanted to provide a promising future for his son, give him the opportunities that he never had. There were many long, quiet days when his father was away attending classes or meetings, or shut up in his room writing papers. It was okay. The boy liked being alone. It gave him time to stare into the infinite blue abyss above and think about things, things grown-ups and other people didn’t have time for.
The years flew by, passing every January with a tinge of remorseful sadness. Most everything was empty: the mucky, gravel drive, the dusty and lifeless backyard, his beating heart that longed for a friend, a hug, or maybe even just a smile. He still clung to his comic books, despite the fact that other boys at his school had given theirs away. They ridiculed him, told him that he was childish, immature. That’s when he needed his supermen most, when he felt like he wasn’t wanted, like he wasn’t enough. His stories never really filled the void, though. It wasn’t enough to just to dream and imagine, to hope, when life only seemed to be a dirty heap of shattered pieces and impractical desires.
One lonely, Thursday afternoon, his father stepped into his dim room and whispered to him, his voice barely audible. He gave him the news that his mother had taken her own life, left him incomplete, a half-orphan in the enormous, frightening world that lay before him. His father stood at the door for a moment, silent, and then turned away, taking his looming shadow and all of the light with him when he shut the door gently behind him.
The next year, the boy and his father moved to New York City, the towering skyscrapers, blaring taxis, and masses of people refreshing and new. His father said that both of them needed a clean start and he offered to pay for the boy’s tuition to a prestigious secondary school in the area where they lived. For a while, everything was different, happiness was possible. He had finally reached the promised land- the homeland of his childhood heroes and the birthplace of potential.
But then he started high school. He fell in love and his heart was broken. He tried out for sports and he was turned down. He struggled with his grades and fought hard for his right to remain a student in the best of the country’s private schools. His new life was falling apart before his eyes. The broken fragments that had been forced together were now slipping away, tumbling into darkness, a constant state of distress and sorrow.
And then his father lost his job. As the economy gradually worsened, hundreds of employees of his father’s company were released each month. His father could no longer afford to fund his schooling. With college only a year away, and his test scores and class ranking relatively low, the passionate flame of hope that had been burning within him diminished, leaving him desperate, lost.
He was hurled back into his former being- a broken shell tormented by worry and endless suffering. He blamed himself for his mother’s death, spent countless hours toiling over things he shouldn’t have said or did. He took responsibility for his high school failures, his strained relationship with his father. He discovered drugs. He bought them illegally and savored them, finding his temporary relief behind his father’s back.
Still, every weekend, he would ride the humming elevator to the very top of the monumental Chrysler building and take a seat just near the edge. He would run his fingers over the aged pages of his comic books and relive the thrilling adventures, overlooking the beautiful, golden horizon of the East River and the fascinating city below him.
Now, with the wind whipping his hair and rattling his clothes, he swayed back and forth on the edge of a silver eagle, absorbing his magnificent surroundings. A few of his favorite comics were at his feet: a classic “Amazing Spider-Man” annual, the very first Superman, and a Batman issue where the masked crusader pummeled the fiendish Joker. There was an open window several yards away that led to an abandoned room on the sixty-first floor. He shut his eyes and listened to the late summer breeze and then opened them and drew in his breath. The city was illuminated by the brilliant glow of the morning sun, and church bells rang faintly somewhere far away.
He clenched his fist and gazed down into a potential, perpetual free-fall, his stomach lurching with the thought of it. He stared at his feet, which were now hanging halfway off the edge, lifeless.
He ran his hand through his mess of hair. His eyes were dark and his lips tight. Gone was the small, boyish figure with clunky spectacles. He wasn’t particularly good-looking, but his features had taken shape, his chin more defined and his jaw stout and square. He wore contacts that defined his sharp, blue eyes, and he was dressed in a casual hoody and ripped blue jeans that were fluttering lightly in the cool air.
He swallowed a lump in his throat and nodded slowly.
“What are you doing?” A voice cried from behind him. He turned to see one of New York’s Finest climbing through the gaping window, his expression overwhelmed with alarm. “I didn’t think you were suicidal!”
The boy remained silent, but regarded him with cold eyes.
The cop walked toward him with careful footing. His polished shoes clacked loudly against the weathered concrete. He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties. “What? You think I didn’t know you were sneaking out here?” His English was flawless, seemingly innate, but his olive-tinted skin and dark hair told the boy he was Hispanic in origin.
Shrugging, the boy licked his lips and sighed.
“Oh yeah, I’ve known for months. But I figured it was okay, thought you were just a young man living out his childhood dreams.” He motioned at the comic books at the boy’s feet. “You been into comics long?”
“Yeah, kinda,” the boy said softly.
“I’ve watched you out here a couple of times. Never said anything to anybody about it, though. Thought I woulda liked to do the same thing when I was a kid.” The cop placed his hands on his hips and scanned the picturesque view. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Sure is,” the boy replied.
“What are you doing hanging over the edge there?” He pointed at the boy’s feet. He could see the boy’s toes wiggling under his shabby sneakers.
“I dunno,” the boy said, turning around and resuming his jumping position. He imagined what it would feel like to plunge into the atmosphere and dive down, somersaulting gracefully as the wind raced past him. He could pretend that a cape was sailing behind him, that he was plummeting toward a clever foe, and that with a little inner strength, he could outsmart the enemy and save the day. And then, when he hit the ground, the never ending torture would be no more. Everything would be over. Would he finally be at peace? Would death be blissful? His heart raced. He was thrilled by the thought of it.
“Hey, kid,” the cop said abruptly, starting toward him.
The boy took a deep breath.
“Just listen to me,” the cop pleaded, offering a hand. “I didn’t run into those buildings, risking not only my life, but the happiness of my wife and little one, for nobody. I did it for you.” The cop pointed at Ground Zero, several miles away. He spoke urgently, avidly. His face was flushed.
They boy turned toward him, startled.
“When those buildings fell, they weren’t just buildings. They stood for our country’s perseverance, the future of our children. I almost died in there. And what I had to see, I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.” He adjusted his cap. The badge gleamed lustrously in the morning light. “But I learned something in there. I realized that what I did was for the youth of America.”
The boy stared at him now, perplexed.
“I did it so that I could do my little part in picking up the pieces. I did it so that you could live a life full of opportunities. Those towers may have fallen that day, but the people came together. We did it for our children and our grandchildren. So that they would live in a nation that had been through hell but still proved itself and pushed forward.” He shook his head.
“Thank you,” the boy said, nodding. His face was blank, but his eyes were bright.
“Now, I’m not trying to make this about myself. What I’m trying to say is that you can do anything you want in this world, kid.” He motioned at the city before them. “Why would you rob yourself of the chances you’ve been given and throw it all away?”
They boy was trembling now. His lower lip quivered slightly.
“Something tells me you’re a lot like I was at your age.” His tone was firm, but kind. “Lemme guess,” he pointed at the boy with each word, “you’re lacking self-confidence. You wanna be something, but it’s hard in this world. Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent have gotten you through a lot.”
The boy nodded, anxious.
“You ever read the original “Amazing Spiderman?” The cop raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah.” The boy’s voice wavered.
“That one hit close to home for me when I was young. A man shot and killed my brother. When I read that story, saw what Peter Parker did for his uncle, I was hooked. That’s what made me want to be a cop.” He cleared his throat. “You ever thought about the force?”
“Not really,” the boy answered, thinking of soaring through the air, zooming across the sky at great speeds.
“Well, you might wanna sleep on it.” He placed his hand on his holster and tapped it with his finger apprehensively. “Our station’s got programs, some of us take on apprentices.”
They boy looked away. He peered into the great clouds that churned in the deep blue sky above. Then he glanced at the city below him.
“Well, what do you think?” The cop asked, stepping toward him.
The boy smiled at the cop and jumped, headfirst.