by Travis Daniel Bow
illustrated by Nathan Wyckoff
In the movies, when someone gets a superpower, they always go through this mandatory period of denial. No, this can’t be happening to me, No, I’m not a freak, No, I didn’t ask for this. That’s crap. No one in their right mind would figure out they could fly or shoot lasers from their eyes and then whine about it. They’d go nuts. I know I did.
When I closed my eyes with a National Geographic in my hand and thought of myself as one of those little monkeys with the huge eyes, it wasn’t the first time. I was raised on Animorphs, all bazillion books of them, and I would have sold my little brother to gypsies to be one.
I was lying on my bed. My eyes were still closed, but I had the monkey’s face firmly in mind. I gave my head a little push, and then laughed at myself and opened my eyes. Only it was really bright all of a sudden, and my laugh came out weird, and the National Geographic was huge.
It only took a second to click, and I embraced it. I didn’t change back for an hour. I was afraid it wouldn’t happen again, and I wanted to climb and swing from everything I possibly could while I was still a monkey. When Mom finally yelled at me to come in for lunch, I changed back and snarfed my Pop-Tart in about four bites before running back to my room.
I shouldn’t have worried. It was easy after that.
For a week it was as cool as you'd imagine it would be. I was a Doberman barking at that annoying yapper next door, a scorpion posing in the mirror on the bathroom counter, a mouse freaking out my mom and then a cockroach sneaking through the ducts back to my room. And yes, an eagle.
But all that gets old pretty quick. I know it doesn't seem like it would, but it does. Take it from someone who knows. It's like suddenly realizing that you've got an entire tub of ice cream to yourself. It's cool at first--the best thing that ever happened to you--but then it stops tasting so good and suddenly you realize that you just finished a tub of ice cream by yourself, and that's nothing to be proud of.
I didn't want to accept that the ice cream didn't taste very good anymore, so instead of giving the animal stuff a break I gobbled faster and more dangerously. I turned into a lion and roared in the next-door yapper's face. I turned to a garter snake in the kitchen sink.
Then I turned to crime.
My plan was to do it as a gecko. Geckos can see good enough, I guess, but mostly they're small and they can climb on the ceiling of a girl's locker room. That was my plan. I got a hall pass and went to the bathroom. I crawled halfway across the ceiling toward the forbidden stairway. Then I chickened out.
I told myself it was because I was decent and if I started peeping at girls, the next thing you knew I’d be robbing banks. Really I was just scared. What if this thing wore off and I changed back at the wrong time? That fear wasn't usually enough to keep me from trying something, but in this case it was. Changing back from an eagle and falling out of the sky didn’t scare me; ending up naked in the girls’ locker room did.
That afternoon I flew out to the desert west of town. After sprinting through the sage in the body of a cheetah--which was a lot more tiring and a lot less fun than it had sounded--I decided that this whole thing was lame if it was just for the fun of it. Here I was, a kid who could turn into any stinking animal he wanted, and all I could think of to do was run around in the desert. I didn't want to peep at girls or rob banks. I wanted to do something good and heroic.
The thing was, it was a lot easier to think of bad stuff to do. When I asked myself what good and heroic things there were to do in Gabbs, Nevada, I came up blank.
In the movies, there's always a villain, and if you've got superpowers you're supposed to save the girl or mankind or whoever the villain's got. In Gabbs there aren't any villains. There aren't even criminals, unless you count crack heads and people driving across state that don't slow down to come through town. I was pretty sure the Gabbs police (AKA Richard Halman) could handle the occasional out-of-town speeder.
During recess I skipped Sixth Grade Soccer. I went on the prowl for someone to save, or a villain to fight, or at least a bully to stop. There was a fourth grader, all cocky because he'd moved up to the big kid's playground. He was holding a tetherball above his head and telling some girl that she couldn't play. I slipped into the bathroom. A couple seconds later I emerged as a wasp.
My villain now had the ball under his arm.
"Hopscotch is over there, Purpie," he said. She was wearing a purple shirt.
"Lemme play," the girl said. "I waited in line. It's not fair."
"No way, Jose. Go get a slurpie, Purpie."
"Just beat her," one of Wes's friends said. Wes shot his friend an angry look without dropping his overbite smile, then shrugged. The girl stalked into her semi-circle and held out her hands for the ball.
"Newcomers serve," she said. Wes held the ball in both hands and stepped to the line. He held it out. When the girl reached for it, he popped it forward, above the girl's hands, right into her face.
It bounced off her forehead. She screamed and held her hand to her face, checked for blood, and then ran off crying. Wes laughed, the top of his mouth hanging out over his chin and his gelled black hair glistening in the sunlight. Then the bell rang.
The girl was heading for a teacher, though her nose wasn't bleeding so the teacher would probably just tell her to go to class. Wes was running for the door anyway, still laughing that dumb laugh. I was after him already, straining my little wings and pumping my stinger, but the bell had surprised me and given him a head start. There was breeze against me, Wes was running, and I had to get back to the bathroom, into my clothes and down the hall to class in the next two minutes. With a sigh (actually without one; wasps don't sigh) I veered for the bathroom.
It was probably like with a dog, anyway. If I stung Wes now, he wouldn't associate the punishment with the crime. I had to sting him in the act.
In class I couldn’t pay attention. That was normal, but I wasn't drawing a flipbook or making fun of Mr. Barnes either. I just couldn’t stop thinking about Wes and his stupid overbite laugh. It occurred to me that I was in sixth grade and could have done a better job stopping him in my regular body than I'd done as a stupid wasp.
When the 3:10PM tick of freedom came, I decided on a whim to follow Wes home.
He headed straight for the trailers. Everyone in Gabbs lives in a trailer, unless they're rich, but Wes lived in the trailers that didn't even make an effort to look like real houses. The ones with trash on the un-watered grass, no siding around the bottom, and pit bulls chained to the front porches.
Wes's porch had a fat chocolate lab instead of a pit bull. I expected him to kick it or something as he went inside, but he didn't. Actually, he paused on the steps and petted it. Then he took off his backpack, sat down, and hugged the thing around the neck. I perched in a seedy looking elm, wrapped my sparrow talons around a twig, and watched.
There was movement at the window. The screen door opened, and a guy wearing gym shorts and no shirt stepped out. His arms were emaciated, his chest glaring white in the sun, but I could tell by the way he held his shoulders back that he thought he looked pretty good.
"Hey kid," he said. "When's your mom get home?"
Wes closed his eyes. The shirtless guy stuck out a bare foot and pushed Wes in the back, almost hard enough to knock him down a step.
"Hey," he said. "Butthead. When's your mom get home?"
"Never," Wes said. I thought the shirtless guy was going to kick him, but instead he rolled his eyes, stretched, flexed his albino arms, said something about Wes being inbred, and went back inside.
Wes didn't go inside. He hugged his dog, then got up and threw his backpack at the door, where it bounced off the screen and lay on the two-by-fours. Then he stalked over to the sheet metal shed with one missing door and stood in front of it. He scratched his neck and kicked the grass with his toe to dig up a divot. Then he reached inside, flung a couple pieces of junk out of his way, and came out with a soccer ball. It was clearly flat, but he kicked it around anyway. About two minutes passed before he started kicking it against the side of the trailer.
As expected, the shirtless guy inside started yelling. Wes kept kicking. After yelling some more, the guy slammed the screen open like someone who didn't have to fix things and bawled at Wes with his skinny white arms held straight down at his sides. Wes glared at him. Then they both turned at the sound of an Oldsmobile turning into the gravel driveway.
The car had a pale donut tire that looked like it had made a permanent substitution when the real tire gave up. The woman that got out was obviously Wes's mother. She had the same pushed-back nose and a little of an overbite. She was wearing some kind of uniform--I think for the convenience store--and she had several buttons undone. The shirtless guy flexed his abs, which just made his ribs show.
"Hey, baby," he said. "Kid's just getting some exercise. I told him no video games. It's a nice day, kids should play outside."
Wes's mom smiled a tired smile at him and opened the back door to help a little girl out of her car seat. The little girl was wearing pink tights under her shorts and was probably five. She ran towards where Wes was standing on the patchy grass and kicked the ball. The shirtless guy put his arm around Wes's mother, right there in front of the kids, and opened the screen door for her.
As soon as the adults were gone, Wes went to his little sister and took the ball away.
"Hey," she said, "I wanna play!"
"No, butthead," Wes said.
"Come on, Wes," she said. "Please let me play."
"Soccer's for big kids," Wes said. He made as if to kick the flat soccer ball against the house again, but didn't.
That last disturbed me. It was kind of sad when he said "butthead" right after the shirtless guy said it to him, but that had nothing to do with me. When he said "soccer's for big kids", he wasn't copying some jerk that neither of us liked; he was copying me. I said it every day when the fourth and fifth graders tried to weasel their way into Sixth Grade Soccer.
Now let's get one thing straight: I'm not for giving little kids a free rein. They need to know their place. When I say it bothered me that Wes used my words, it's not because I'm a social progressive for the playground, it's just that him using my words made me feel somehow involved in his meanness.
He was mean; you couldn't deny that. Even if I felt sorry for him because his trailer was lame and his soccer ball was flat and the shirtless guy his mom was letting into her house was even more of a jerk than he was, none of that excused him. You make your own choices.
Still, I couldn't bring myself to hurt him. I flew off, first as a sparrow and then as an eagle. I swooped over the sagebrush and the rock pile with old tires scattered around the base. I started dive-bombing a field mouse, then pulled up and got as high as I could. It was boring. It made me sad that it was so boring.
Back home I slouched on the couch in quiet desperation.
In the movies, a person with a superpower finds themselves when they do something heroic with their lasers or webs. First they don’t want their superpower, then they try to fit in, then they have to save the world. Finally they realize that maybe it's good to have superpowers after all, else who would save the world?
Reality isn't like the movies. It's the opposite. I wanted to save the world all along, and I’d used to think maybe I could do it if I just had some power. Now I had power, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I wanted to be heroic, but I didn’t know what needed saving.
I watched my little brother Mason pushing his cars around on the carpet among the little crushed up pieces of Cheerio that hadn't been vacuumed up yet. He started telling me about the red one, about how it was his "Flip Car" and it could go a hundred miles an hour and do flips when you hit the flippy thing on the back.
I thought about telling him the flippy thing on the back was called a spoiler and his stupid "Flip Car" could probably go about three miles an hour if you threw it. Then, I almost ignored him completely, but for some reason I got down on the floor with him and asked about the green one with the flames on the sides. I said it looked like it could go pretty fast too. Mason said no, not as fast as the Flip Car. We had a race. Sure enough, the Flip Car won. Then it did a double back flip.
It hit me, about halfway through showing Mason how to attach the little plastic track to the kitchen table, that I didn't need to be an animal to do what I was doing. Being an animal wouldn't even help.
Actually--this occurred to me when Mason's car went off the jump and he screamed like he'd been driving it--being an animal wasn't even that fun.
AUTHOR BIO: Travis Daniel Bow grew up in Reno (where he raised pigs), went to Oklahoma Christian University (where he broke his collarbone in a misguided Parkour attempt), married an electrical engineer (who destroys him in ping-pong), got his master's degree from Stanford (where he and his bike were hit by a car), and now does R&D for Nikon.
ILLUSTRATOR BIO: Nathan Wyckoff has been an illustrator, painter and writer on the scene for over a decade. Between gallery shows, Nathan frequently publishes illustrations and fiction in numerous magazines, recently being nominated for an AWP Intro Journal Award for his weird poetry. His online illustration portfolio can be viewed at nathanwyckoff.squarespace.com.