Everyone needs a superhero. Especially thirteen-year-olds trying to survive junior high. At least, that’s what Maya thought. But explaining that in a book report to a teacher’s aide who took offense at her every breath was a rather difficult venture. Miss Wilkerson’s scowl loomed large in her mind’s eye. She read off Maya’s report on a Superman comic in front of the class, disdain dripping from her lips.
Her nasally whine pierced the air. “Honestly, Maya. I can’t believe you turned this in expecting a good grade. Comics aren’t literature. This isn’t even appropriate to read for someone your age. I can’t allow you to think you can bring garbage like this into school and do a report on it.”
“But Mrs. Harris gave me permission t—”
“Well, Mrs. Harris isn’t here right now. I am. I’m in charge of grading these. And the problem with your report is that it isn’t about an actual book.”
“I don’t think that’s the problem, Miss Wilkerson. I think the problem is the feebleminded can’t understand what the book is trying to say,” Maya retorted smugly.
Maya knew feebleminded meant that someone wasn’t very smart. She had learned it from a recent issue of Spider-Man, which Miss Wilkerson’s face revealed she hadn’t read. She clearly lacked appreciation for the finer things in life.
The scowl morphed into a sneer. “To the office! Go! I’ll be calling your mother again! Maybe this time she’ll finally show.”
Now, Maya watched the clouded air. A puff of vapor followed each breath of the sharp, icy air. Mrs. Rathbone, the disciplinarian, was cold-blooded as all snakes are and kept the AC tuned to her frosty preferences. The sharp metal edge of the chair dug into Maya’s side while the frigid air nipped at her skin.
Maya shivered. It was half past four, an hour after Mrs. Rathbone had scheduled the private parent-teacher conference. Maya whipped her head back and forth, looking for a rescuer from the frosty prison. She curled her knees up to her chest. Her mom wasn’t coming.
Clack. Clack. Clack. Clack. The disturbance echoed down the hallway, disrupting the silence and heralding the arrival of a far greater power like the Silver Surfer does for Galactus. The pace was steady and confident, assured even. Grandma appeared in a storm of motion as she often did, smoke rising from her ears, eyes ablaze with fire, and her signature crimson faux leather jacket whirling behind her. Superheroes wore red. Spider-Man. The Flash. Superman. It was simply what they did. And Maya’s superhero had arrived.
Sliding to a stop in front of Maya, she turned and asked, “What is the teacher raising Cain about this time? And where in the blue blazes is your mother?”
Maya shrugged. “She never comes to these meetings no matter how many times Mrs. Rathbone calls. She’s always ‘busy,’” she said with accompanying air quotes.
“Hmph. ‘Too busy,’ she says. No parent should ever be too busy to defend their child from an aide’s harassment.” A pensive look quickly flashed across Grandma’s face, so quick Maya thought she imagined it at first. But she dismissed it at the time, thinking nothing of it.
Hearing the voices from outside, Mrs. Rathbone called out, “Hello, is that you, Mrs. Beaumont?”
Grandma’s face lit up with a sly grin. “Oh yes, it’s me. I’ll be right in.” She turned to Maya. “What’s the situation?”
“Miss Wilkerson was humiliating me in front of the class again.”
“And you talked back to her again, didn’t you?”
“Ha, she should know what to expect at this point, but you should know better than to rise to her taunts too. Either way, I’ll have you out of here in a jiff.” Grandma kicked the door open, striding into the breach. Maya heard Mrs. Rathbone sputter in protest to no avail. Grandma launched into a frenzied outburst just as the door slammed closed behind her, only slightly muffling the argument.
Ten minutes later, Grandma emerged, a satisfied look on her face. “Let’s go,” she said.
Maya jumped up and grabbed her hand, clinging to it as they walked to the car parked outside. A beat-up blue Beetle waited by the curb, which Grandma had dubbed ‘Manny.’ The musty aroma welcomed her back into the car with a comforting embrace. It smelled like home in a way home no longer did, a realization Maya had come to several months ago. Now, only Grandma and her car embraced her anymore, but that was okay. It was enough.
Maya slid into Manny’s back right seat, her seat. As she buckled her seat belt, she finally noticed the three comics stacked beside her, recent issues of Superman, Spider-Man, and Uncanny X-Men.
Quickly leaping forward, the seatbelt caught her, jerking her backward. Maya leaned past the front seat a second time. “You got them? You really got them!”
“Of course. I know your mom won’t take you to the comic book store, and I knew you were a month behind on your books, so I went ahead and picked them up. Plus, how could I come pick you up without some kind of treat? Oh! Speaking of treat, why don’t we swing by Jerry’s to grab some ice cream for good measure? What do you say?”
Grandma barreled into the driveway an hour later. Maya was sprawled across the backseat, enjoying the ride while immersed in her comics. The strawberry ice cream dripped over the lip of the cone, coating her hand. The other, perfectly clean, turned the pages as she read. The car screeched to a stop as Grandma slammed on the brakes, mere inches from the garage door.
“Okay, darling, we’re home.”
Maya glanced out the window. “Grandma, this isn’t our house. We’re three doors down.”
“Oh, silly me. The houses all look so similar. It’s easy to mistake them with poor vision like mine. Good old 20/20 vision.” She crinkled her face in a squint, trying to make Maya laugh while attempting to hide the fact she was clearly shaken. Frowning, Maya peeked over her issue of Superman to look at Grandma. This wasn’t the first time she’d forgotten. In fact, it was occurring with increasing regularity.
Pulling into the correct driveway, Grandma parked Manny and stepped out. Wiping the strawberry residue on her jeans, Maya ran over and held Grandma’s arm, helping her to the doorway. She fiddled with the key chain for a moment before finding the right one and opening the door.
The thick stench of smoke wafted outside, knocking Maya in the face. Mom was already home. But the house itself felt hollow. Sterile. Lifeless. Cold. All of this despite the three people living within its walls. Three! And not one could seem to leave a mark of their presence in this haunted house. Maya found it to be a rather sad fact.
The kitchen light was on, flickering slightly as it bathed the room and adjacent hallway in a sickly white light. The shadow of a moth danced across the wall while its owner hovered around the fluorescent light. Mom stood hunched over a pan, frying an egg for a quick, routine dinner. Her gray coat dangled lifelessly from a hanger. A line of smoke drifted skyward from the cigarette tucked into the corner of her mouth.
“Hey, Mom! We’re back,” Maya announced half-heartedly, praying that she’d forgo her spiel for once. Her mom turned as the pair reached the kitchen entrance. Judging by her face, they were about to receive the full lecture.
“It’s almost seven o’clock. You were supposed to take the bus back and be home by four.” Her mom pointed a finger accusingly at Maya. “Instead, you got held back for arguing with the teacher’s aide again. This is the fourth time! How are you supposed to do well in school if you keep fighting Miss Wickersnap or whatever her name is the whole time!” She coughed, waving the smoke trail away. Removing the cigarette from her mouth, she pressed the butt into the ash tray. It hissed and sizzled for a brief moment before the embers were extinguished.
She turned toward Grandma. “And why are you out and about, Mother? The doctors said you aren’t allowed to leave the house. Especially not in your condition,” she snapped at Grandma.
“Oh, it’s fine. Quit your fussing,” Grandma retorted.
“It’s not fine! How could it be? I come home expecting to find my daughter and mom safe and sound. Instead, I find she’s arguing with the teacher’s aide again and her sick, elderly grandmother drove over to pick her up!”
“I’m not that sick,” Grandma grumbled. “Besides, how can you be the one yelling at Maya when you’re the one not making any time for her? You should be with us. You never know how much or how little time you get with others. I learned that the hard way, and I don’t want you to make the same mistake. Please, Kallen, listen to me.”
“Me! Me! I’m not making time for her? You’re one to talk about that, aren’t you? Especially since you were a model parent yourself!” Mom sneered. Maya backed into the corner of the room, trying to fade into the wall. Trying to not be seen. Trying to vanish.
“That was different.”
Mom nodded. “Yes, it was entirely different. You had it much easier. The only thing preventing you from coming home was work. Dad was home all the time. Work never stopped him. While I—”
“It was important work,” Grandma interjected. “How many lives did I save as a nurse?”
“I don’t care. I needed my mother, and she wasn’t there for me,” Mom sobbed. “And I’m trying to be there for Maya, but you don’t understand. Your husband didn’t walk out on you, leaving you to raise your daughter all alone by yourself. Dad was there to support you. I have to do this all by myself.”
“But you have me to help you.”
“I’d rather you didn’t. In fact, give me the keys to the car right now. You shouldn’t be driving anymore, and I should have done this already.” Mom held out her hand, waiting for the keys.
As Maya snuck away, she heard the jingling of keys changing hands.
Later that night, Maya listened to the twilight’s natural lullaby, trying desperately to fall asleep. A cricket chirped in the distance. A young wren wove his song of trills and warbles into the mix. Trees creaked as they bowed to the wind. Each mingled together to form a nighttime rhapsody . A knock sounded on her door.
“Who’s there?” she called, refusing to turn over.
A column of warm light appeared on the wall. “It’s me, darling,” Grandma whispered.
“What do you want? I’m trying to go to sleep,” Maya grumbled.
“I know.” Grandma plopped down on the bed beside her. “I wanted to apologize for arguing with your mom like that in front of you. I’m so sorry.”
“Why are you apologizing? She lost her temper! She said all those terrible things about you, and they aren’t even true!”
“Well, some of them might be more true than you think. But that’s a conversation for another time.” Grandma gently tucked a loose hair behind Maya’s ear. “I promise to do something to make it up to you soon. Something special.”
Maya rolled over, bundled up in blankets, holding out her pinkie. “Promise?”
“I promise,” Grandma said softly, wrapping her pinkie around Maya’s and kissing her on the head. “Goodnight, sunshine.”
Days passed. Then weeks. Then a month. Maya stayed out of Mrs. Rathbone’s office and dodged Miss Wilkerson’s withering gaze, avoiding conflict whenever possible. Volleys of hostile glares were exchanged between herself and the vengeful aide, but no incident ever occurred. Mrs. Harris kept a closer eye on Maya during the time, diffusing potential landmines and de-escalating the conflict. But Maya prayed she would spontaneously get heat vision the entire time. Unfortunately, her eyes never glowed red or shot laser beams. Luckyily for Miss Wilkerson.
One day as Maya emerged from the school and turned toward the bus, a horn blared out. A familiar rattletrap sat at the edge of the sidewalk. Ah, rattletrap. There wasn’t a better word to describe Manny.
Maya sprinted over. “Grandma!”
“Hop in,” she said, “I already checked you out. Your mom may have taken my keys, but she didn’t take me off as one of your listed guardians.” Opening the passenger door, she waved Maya over. “I’ll even let you ride in the front seat.”
“Hooray!” Maya shouted, leaping into the passenger’s side. “By the way, how did you get your keys back?”
“Stole ’em.” Grandma chuckled, a faint spark in her eye. “Now, let’s get going. I have a promise to keep.”
“Where exactly are we going?” Maya asked as Grandma put Manny into drive.
“You’ll find out when we get there.”
They drove while Maya stared out the window, watching the landscape crawl by. Grandma frequently checked a map as she drove, occasionally pulling over to check it and make marks. About an hour later Manny finally came to a halt. A shabby-looking brick building stood out among its peers, more a hole in the wall than anything, windows plastered with vibrant, dynamic posters. It was the local comic book store, Maya’s local comic book store.
Mom refused to take her every month to pick up her books, always busy with one project or another. Like always, it was Grandma, the superhero clad in crimson, who came through. Maya leapt from the car and bolted inside. The light filtering through the windows cast the store’s interior in a rainbow hue. The bright, bold comics popped off the shelves, immediately seizing her attention. Every time she stepped in here, it felt like entering another world, one far better and far more wondrous than her own.
“So, what are you going to grab?” Grandma asked over her shoulder. “It’s my treat. Grab whatever you want.”
An insatiable grin instantly danced across Maya’s face, and she rushed to the shelves, grabbing her regular books like Superman and Uncanny X-Men in addition to a few extras to try out. Every second in the store was nothing but pure bliss. Eventually, Grandma paid for the books, fishing several crumpled bills out of her jacket pocket. The pair left the shop and began the long journey back.
As they drove home, Maya leaned against the car door, watching her grandmother. She looked tired. Drained. Fatigued. That was another word she had learned recently from reading. But her typical excitement never surfaced. Normally, the thrill came hot on the heels of her expanded vocabulary usage like a child following a parent through the snow, carefully placing each step inside the parent’s footprint. Instead, she continued to silently watch.
Before too long, the question came bubbling up to the surface. “Grandma?”
“You look tired. Have you not been getting enough sleep recently?”
“Oh,” Grandma stuttered, “it’s a little more complicated than that. It would take an uber duper super long conversation to explain it, and no one has time for those.” She paused, gathering herself before gesturing to the pile of books between them. “Say, I was wondering, why do you read comics? I read a few as a kid and didn’t enjoy them very much, but Kallen, your mom, loved them as a kid too.”
“Mom did? Not sure I believe that.”
“It’s true. Trust me. I was there, after all.” Grandma smirked, giving Maya a sly wink like some great secret had passed between the two.
“I guess I’ll take your word for it.” Maya chuckled.
“Anyway, getting back on track, why do you love them so much?”
“Are you asking about all of them or just X-Men?” Maya cocked an eyebrow at her. It would take an uber duper super long conversation to explain all of them, but she could handle starting with one.
“Let’s just start with the X-Men.”
Maya shifted her gaze back out the window, corralling her stray thoughts and feelings into what she wanted to say. “X-Men is about people, who are all outcasts from across the world, forming friendships and creating their own family. Of course, they all have superpowers and such. They fight bad guys and save the world, but that’s not what the book is really about. It’s about family. That’s why it appeals to me.” A long pause followed her last statement. Maya fidgeted, nervous about the silence. “Does that make sense? I’m not sure if I explained it well enough.”
Grandma nodded. “You explained it wonderfully. Very eloquent of you.”
“It means you are fluent in speaking,” Grandma explained as she pulled Manny into the driveway. Thankfully, it was the correct one this time.
“Ah! I’ll have to add that one to my repertoire.” Maya smirked as she used another new word she had recently learned.
A cherry glaze coated the sky, cast by the setting sun. As always, Maya helped Grandma to the entryway, followed by a jingling of keys and the creak of an opening door. Mom stood waiting, boasting her practiced scowl, lecture in hand. Grandma nudged Maya toward her room. She had just dived under her pillows when the arguing started.
Several hours later, Grandma silently ghosted into the bedroom and slowly got into bed with her. Maya curled up against her grandmother, resting her head against her chest and listening to the irregular rise and fall of her breathing.
“I’m sorry you got yelled at again,” Maya apologized.
“You have nothing to be sorry about, sweetheart,” Grandma whispered comfortingly in her ear.
“But what if we can’t go for a while?” Maya asked, yawning.
“There will be time for another trip. We’ll go again next month. And the one after that too. How does that sound?” she asked. But Maya was already fast asleep in her arms.
Grandma kissed her granddaughter goodnight, holding her close. “Goodnight and farewell, my sunshine.”
In the morning, Maya awoke to the sunlight peeking through the blinds, yet no matter how much she shook her, Grandma would not wake.
A puff of vapor followed each breath of the icy air. The sharp metal edge of the chair dug into her side, while the frigid air nipped at her skin. Maya sat alone, a solitary figure. The view was a familiar one. The stark empty hallway outside Mrs. Rathbone’s office, yet whispers and jeers still reached her ears.
The ceiling caved in, pushing everything else aside. Rubble scattered across the once spotless floor. A streak of crimson dropped into the school. Red jacket flapping in the wind, Grandma had arrived. She grabbed Maya’s hand and helped her up. Together they raced out the door and into—
“Oh, there you are,” the wiry voice rasped, tearing Maya from her dream. “Mrs. Harris called and told me you wouldn’t talk to anyone. Said it had been too quiet in her classroom recently. One of her favorite students kept pulling a vanishing act. She’s worried about you, you know.”
Maya looked up. Mom loomed over her, puffing on a cigarette. Wordlessly, Maya pushed herself farther under the playground’s slide while clutching the handful of pages close to her chest.
A long, drawn-out sigh escaped her mom’s lips. Bending down, she smoothed out the creases in her skirt and sat down on her haunches. “You can’t stay here forever. And you can’t keep running off and skipping classes. I understand wanting to hide but—” Mom trailed off, having caught sight of the crumpled sheets in Maya’s hands.
“You don’t,” Maya sniffed, “you don’t understand.”
Mom bit back against something, catching it in the back of her throat. Was it a retort? A sob? Honestly, Maya didn’t really want to know.
“So, what were you working on under here?” Mom started, extending an olive branch, reaching out, clumsily trying to apologize. Maya didn’t find it to be a very impressive or convincing peace offering. But it was something. It was a start. She offered the stack to her mother, who began flipping through it.
“Could you not?” Maya stared at the cigarette still in her hand, dangerously close to the papers’ edges.
Another sigh. “Fine,” Mom grumbled, throwing it to the ground and snuffing it out. She redirected her focus back to the sheets of paper. “You’re drawing a comic?” she asked, followed by a brief pause as she flipped through it. “It’s about Grandma, huh?”
Maya nodded as she fiddled with the pencil in her hands, rolling it back and forth between her fingers, not knowing what to do with herself while her mom finished reading.
“It’s sweet. Grandma would have loved this,” Mom whispered, voice barely audible.
A taut stillness hung between them, neither willing to interrupt the silence until a soft voice broke through the quiet.
“Do you want to help me clear out your grandma’s room tonight?” Mom tentatively asked. “We need to do it soon.”
“All right,” Maya said. She crept out from under the playground, dusted off her jeans, and walked to the car, following a short distance behind her mother.
The door, cracked and ragged, was painted a faded aquamarine green. Its edges were chipped from the sheer number of times it had been slammed shut. And it took a firm tug to yank open. As the pair entered the room, Mom flicked the light switch on, and nothing happened. “Mom!” she exclaimed. “Why couldn’t you have told me the lights were dead? Why?”
Maya pulled back the curtains, allowing patchy sunlight to fill the room. “She just didn’t want to bother you. You were always so busy.”
“Was that really why?” Mom asked. She looked surprised and even a little hurt.
“It was.” Maya replied as they opened the door to Grandma’s closet and went to work. Before long, all the clothes had been removed and sorted.
“Hey, do you see Grandma’s leather jacket?” Maya asked. “I can’t find it.”
“No, I haven’t seen it either.”
“Check under the bed really quick. She always shoved stuff under there when she didn’t want to deal with it.”
Stooping down, Maya peeked beneath the bed, discovering piles of junk laid atop dozens of uniform boxes all crammed under there. She groaned after realizing that their workload had just doubled. As for the junk itself, not all of it looked recent. Or clean. In fact, some of it might have been buried down there for longer than Maya had been alive. It was not a fact that she wanted to dwell on for longer than she had to.
“Here, found it.” Mom held up the crimson leather jacket, a slight coat of dust clinging to it. “It’s a little big for you now, but I could always buy one in your size until you’re old enough to wear this.”
“Thanks, Mom. I’d like that.” Maya smiled before pulling out a box from under the bed. “I wonder what is in this one.” She lifted the lid off, revealing stacks upon stacks of comics.
“Wait a minute, these aren’t mine,” Maya said, puzzled.
“That’s because they’re mine. Well, they used to be mine.” Mom picked up a comic issue and began leafing through its pages, a faint smile tugging at the corner of her lips. “I can’t believe she kept them all.”
“But I thought you hated comics as an adult. Aren’t they ‘dumb books just for children’? Isn’t that why you refused to ever take me to the comic book store?”
“Look. I wanted to spend time with you and do other things with you, but—” Mom started.
“You never did. You never made time,” Maya sobbed. “You never spent any time with me. With us. And since Grandma died, where have you been? It’s been three months, and you never speak to me. I needed you, Mom! And you weren’t there!”
She was wiping the tears from her eyes when her mother embraced her. “You’re right, Maya. I wasn’t there when you needed me.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I was so bitter against your grandmother for abandoning me as a child that I removed myself from everything she did as revenge. I thought by withholding myself, I could get back at her.” She leaned back, meeting Maya’s gaze directly, “And I hurt you. I’m so sorry. Could you ever forgive me?”
Maya embraced her mother, “If you can forgive Grandma after all those years, I can easily forgive you. I love you, Mom.”
A puff of vapor followed each breath of the sharp, icy air. The sharp metal edge of the chair dug into her side. The view from outside the disciplinarian’s office was a familiar one, yet she was no longer afraid of it.
Clack. Clack. Clack. Mom burst through the school doors clad in crimson, boasting a striking red dress. A fire smoldered behind her irises as she roared past Maya straight into Mrs. Rathbone’s office, winking at her as she passed by. The shouting match began immediately afterward, with the volume rapidly escalating. Despite herself, Maya smiled.
Superheroes wear red. They always swoop in to save the day. It is just what they do. Sometimes it just takes a little time for someone to step into the shoes of Superman.