There was a boy who was a six-year-old boy who was a superman. He was forty pounds of Jawbreakers, 3’ 7” of tough as nails (steel nails, not fingernails); he could do seven push-ups in a row! He wore a red cape, blue tights, and the 24th letter of the alphabet on his chest. He knew S was the 24th letter! He kicked rocks, stomped the ground; the scabs on his legs had once bled drops of blood the size of ladybugs. He was a boy who was a six-year-old boy who had a mustache (made of grape juice). He spat. Gobs and gobs of it because he could. He spat and wiped his mouth, the back of his hands dirtied from saving the world.
“Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s me,” he said to no one in particular one Christmas morning, then flew down the basement stairs. There he found a tower of gifts, his sister, father, and mother. His sister and father had no cape, no spit to spat; they were not more powerful than a locomotive, not even the ones on his train set—they were just ordinary humans, doing ordinary things: sitting, standing, scratching an itch, eating food. His mother, on the other hand, had some kind of power, some superhuman strength in a way that was different than the boy’s, but he wasn’t sure how. She couldn’t fly or open a can of peas without an opener. He never saw his mother save anyone in distress. In fact, boys’ tears just made her angry. But somehow she could weaken others. He tried using x-ray vision to look inside her but he couldn’t see through the steel in her eyes. Her look drained the boy. Temporarily, he felt, it made him feel unable to fly.
The gifts twinkled like Christmas ornaments. The boy who was a six-year-old boy who was a superman opened his presents with superhuman speed, leaving fistfuls of tortured paper everywhere. His sister opened hers carefully, making sure not to tear anything, as though paper had feelings. She folded each sheet perfectly, like fine linen. The boy got a Creepy Crawler set by Mattel, “Operation” by Mattel, cap guns with a holster by Mattel, and a Tony the Pony by Mattel. He strapped the holster onto his superman costume, making him doubly super, and hopped on the horse and watched his sister. She got an Easy Bake Oven, a Barbie Doll with a summer wardrobe, and a glitter set. His sister was just a girl after all, but the boy still thought she was special.
Preparing himself to fly to his room, the boy put his hands on his hips, pointed his chin in the air, and said, “Is that it?” His voice rattled the windows, rustled the blinds.
“There’s one more gift,” the father said.
The boy’s father had a smile that could light up his face as easily as a night light. But the boy didn’t consider this to be an actual superpower. Even at bedtime his father’s smile brightened the boy’s room to show there was nothing to fear under his bed, inside his closet, behind the wallpaper. Not that the boy feared the dark; he feared nothing. The boy just pretended to be sacred so his father could feel what it was like to be him, to be superhuman.
“I’ll be right back,” his father said. His sister went with the father, thereby leaving the boy who was a six-year-old boy who was a superman a little, definitely not a lot, scared to be alone with his mother. She stood over him with her arms crossed like a dare. “No candy apple for you,” she said. He looked up at her. She seemed to grow ten feet. Just one of her unexplained powers, he thought. “Skinny boys who don’t eat their dinner don’t get special treats,” she said. Then she sneered. The boy heard the word “skinny” extra loud with his super hearing. It was a bullet that wouldn’t bounce off his chest. It sank into him, made him feel like jelly inside a hard candy. It took all his strength to push the word back into space. “You look like two breadsticks with a cape,” his mother said. The boy knew that when he measured his height later he will have shrunk from 3’ 7” to 3’ 6”.
His father and his sister returned with a shoebox wrapped in gold paper. “This is for both of you,” the father said. The boy ripped the gift open with his bare hands. Inside, he saw two turtles slumped against the sides of the box. They looked back through closed eyelids. Their arms, legs, heads were not doing what arms, legs, heads were supposed to do. Body parts hung like the socks on his mother’s clothesline.
“Why aren’t they moving?” the boy asked. “Are they dead?” His lip quivered, not out of weakness, of course, but out of concern; it was his duty to protect anyone who needed to be saved—a damsel in distress, the weak, a turtle. Confused, his mortal father didn’t know what to do. The boy feared it was his mother’s eyes that killed the turtles; she didn’t like small things. But, the boy thought, it wasn’t too late to save the reptilians (a word he learned in school that week). He took a super deep breath, calling to arms all the powers in his body. Fearing he might blow his family away, he shielded them with the back of his cape. Then he blew a mighty blow with the force of a hurricane. The turtles’ legs flinched and their eyes popped open. The boy who was a six-year-old boy who was a superman thought, “All in a day’s work.” His father saluted him. His sister said, “You’re my hero.” When the boy smiled a glint of light sparkled off his front tooth. It’s possible a ting was heard. And then the boy looked at his mother. “Yeah, way to go, superman,” she said. But she didn’t say it the same way as his father and sister. It sounded like she meant the opposite.
Shaking off his mother’s words with his amazing ability to heal from deep wounds, the boy said to his sister, “Hey, let’s race.” He grabbed the turtle that had opened its eyes first. His sister picked up the other turtle and pet it as though it were soft. Then she said, “I have an idea.” The boy held the turtles as she went into the kitchen and came back with Reynolds Wrap. She made a track out of tin foil. She unrolled it across the green and black basement floor. Her tongue stuck out the side of her mouth. He knew she wanted to make it perfect for her hero. She liked making him happy. Inside his head he hugged her.
The boy said, “On your mark, get set, go!” before his sister had a chance to get ready. Not because he was unfair, he just couldn’t contain his speed. He didn’t have the power yet to control his power.
The turtles moved as though they had pianos tied to their backs. They rocked back and forth; any forward movement looked like it was purely accidental. The boy jumped and yelled. The boy’s father cheered for both him and his sister. The mother watched.
It was neck and neck until the boy’s turtle decided to veer off the track and head toward the sound of the boy’s screams. He lost by 30 feet of tin foil. The boy turned toward his sister and said, “I hate you!” He wasn’t used to his sister making him feel bad. She went to kiss him but he pushed her away. For a second he worried that he had pushed her through a wall. But by some stroke of luck, she only fell back an inch or two.
“Hey,” the boy’s father said softly, “your turtle was just more interested in being with superman than winning a race, that’s all.” The boy looked up at his mother, hoping she wouldn’t shrink him. “Maybe if you ate your dinner,” she said, “you would have won.”
The boy untied his cape from his neck and ripped off his superman costume and holster; his secret identity was revealed. There was a boy who was a six-year-old boy who stood in his underwear and started to cry. Tears flew down his chin. He was skin. He was bones. His kneecaps looked like two tiny white skulls.
“Let’s go,” the mother said to the father, “I can’t stand to watch this.” His father, who didn’t have the powers to combat his mother’s powers, did what she said.
“I know what will make you happy,” his sister said, “I’ll be right back.”
“Don’t bother,” the boy said.
Alone in the den, the boy wiped his eyes with his fallen cape. “I am superman,” he said aloud. He kept saying it until he believed it again. “I am superman and I’m going to prove it.” He picked up his sister’s turtle. “You think you’re stronger than me,” he said, seeing his reflection in the turtle’s scared eyes. The boy turned it upside down. He watched its legs squirm for footing in the air. “See,” the boy said. “I can do this to you but you can’t do this to me.”
In his six years on this planet, the boy, like all superheroes, had to hide his power from the world, to protect his identity. In gym, he pretended to run really, really slow, though he knew he could run faster than a speeding bullet. At the beach, he made believe he was scared to jump into the ocean, though he knew his strength was more powerful than the highest wave. Other kids laughed at the way he threw a baseball. “Hey, loser,” someone would say, “you throw like you have a broken arm.” No, the boy wanted to say, I throw like someone who has to save his strength for saving lives.
Each morning his sister would walk the boy who was a six-year-old boy to class. Hiding behind a bush, she would wait until he stopped crying. He’d cry because his spandex-less pants itched or because he didn’t like wearing glasses, though Clark Kent did, or for no reason at all. Before he went into the classroom, his sister would put her forehead up against the boy’s and whisper, “It’s going to be okay.” Then she would kiss the boy ten times. “Better?” she’d ask. The boy would shake his head no. “I’ll give you a little bit more,” she would say. And the boy would always say, “A lotta bit more.” After smelling of grape Kool Aid kisses, he’d feel like a superhero again, as if someone had blown air inside him.
He started to feel bad for the turtle, which made him want to hurt it even more. The boy laid it on its back and watched as it desperately tried to turn itself over. “Now you know what it feels like to be a loser,” he said. Then he used all his strength to pull the turtle’s shell off. He used his small but mighty fingers like can openers and his teeth like sharp knives. He felt the turtle squirm in his mouth. It tickled, but he didn’t laugh. Its flesh tasted like burnt rubber, its blood like ink. The shell popped off in his mouth. He spit it on the floor and watched it spin.
When he heard his sister coming down the stairs, he kicked the shell behind him and stood in front of the turtle. “I have a surprise for you,” he heard her say. She came in with one hand hiding behind her back. Light illuminated her face. Then she revealed a red candy apple; the same color as human blood and, as the boy had just learned, the same color as turtle blood. The apple shined. He no longer wanted it; he just wanted to confess what he had done. But he didn’t have the words.
“What’s on your face? his sister asked. “Are you bleeding?” The boy quickly wiped off the blood with the back of his hand. “And,” she started to say, then she went quiet. She looked behind the boy. His sister’s smile disappeared when she saw what was left of her turtle: shredded bits of skin, guts stuck on the tin foil, the turtle’s squirming body, a shell with teeth marks. Her scream was long and painful. It was the sound the boy imagined he’d hear, one day, when someone screamed for his help.
Seconds later the boy’s parents came into the den. The mother looked down at the turtle, then she looked up at the boy. But it was a different kind of look than her usual one. It didn’t make him feel small. He felt his power return. Something switched off. Something switched on but its color seemed dark. With his x-ray vision, the boy saw a smile on his mother’s face the size of an atom. He turned to his father. His father looked away and put his arm around the boy’s sister. They melted together. The boy took a step toward his sister and stopped. He stood frozen. He didn’t know what to do next. Should he fly away or save his sister?
“Eat your jelly apple,” the mother said.
The boy who was a six-year-old boy who was a superman put his costume back on. He left his cape on the floor. He grabbed the apple from his sister’s hand. She let go of it easily. Tears stained her cheeks. His father stroked her hair.
The boy bit into the jelly apple. Its crunch felt the same as biting into the turtle’s shell. It was hard then soft.