I had something else planned for this week–Collin and I went to the Cans Film Festival last Saturday and saw Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, and I was going to post my review, but I still haven’t written it!
I’m a huge fan of superhero movies and TV shows–The Avengers, Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Arrow, The Flash and Agents of SHIELD. I love them all. I grew up with them in the comic books–my mother collected them. I’ll never forget the day we were packing to move and Dad threw out what he thought was “just a bunch of old comic books.” What he had discarded was actually some very valuable first editions. I don’t know who was more likely to kill him for that–Mom or Dad himself!
Around that same time, they owned a small grocery store in a neighborhood full of quirky characters–including a dog who liked beer just a little too much. One day, when I was telling a friend about the “old neighborhood,” I came up with an idea that became the plot for Superhero in Training. There would be three protagonists: Charlie (Charlotte), a girl from an abusive home who escaped through the superhero comic books sold in her grandfather’s store; Will, a graduate student with a secret identity of sorts; and Tuffy, a boozing pitbull who sees his human killed by a mugger and is out for blood. Strange trio, aren’t they?
Now to see if it works….
I’m surrounded by superheroes. I like it that way. They make me feel safe. The Avengers…the Fantastic Four…the Justice League…the X-Men…they’re all old friends to me. Does that sound odd, coming from a girl? I guess that’s about as odd as a girl named Charlotte wanting to be called Charlie, right? For as long as I can remember, they’ve all been there for me. They’ve made me feel safe. When my stepfather was beating my mom to a bloody pulp, I’d be here, protected by my friends…and by my number one hero, my grandpa. He’d tell me about my dad, who died in Desert Storm when I was a baby. I was too young to remember him, but my dad was a hero like Captain America. I wish he’d been a supersoldier, too…then he’d still be alive and Mom would never have married Jerry the Jackass.
But she did marry him, and when he started beating her, I’d run. I tried to fight him, once—he backhanded me across the room and broke my arm. I was seven at the time. I never stood up to him again. I was always ashamed of that, of my inability to fight back. I was ashamed of him for being a bully and of her for being too weak to leave him. The Black Widow would have stood up to him. She would have beat the crap out of him, maybe even killed him. When I was twelve, I got a black catsuit and a red wig and tried to learn to fight. The Stepmonster made fun of me.
I discouraged friendships when I was growing up, because when you had friends, you had sleepovers. Sleepovers were reciprocal. If I stayed at a friend’s house, much as I would have liked to, it meant I would have had to invite them to my house, too. They might have seen the Stepmonster on a bad night, which was just about every night. Then everyone would know my secret. I didn’t want that, so I spent my nights with the only friends with whom I could dare share my shameful secrets…my heroes.
Then one night when I was fourteen, the Stepmonster went too far and Mom didn’t survive the beating. Jerry went off to prison and I went to live with Grandpa. I missed my mom, but eventually life changed for the better. By that time, the comic book store Grandpa owned had already become my second home, and those superheroes who’d protected me from my psycho Stepmonster were my family in a sense I could never explain to anyone…so I kept on keeping to myself.
I never dated. Sure, I would have loved to meet a man like Steve Rogers, but men like him only existed in comic books. I was afraid I’d only end up meeting guys like Jerry the Jackass. Better to be alone than be a punching bag, and so I was. Alone, I mean. Just me and Grandpa, and my secret friends. I spent hours reading the comics or drawing my favorite superheroes. Sometimes I drew them doing battle with—and defeating—the evil Stepmonster. I was actually pretty good at it, but I never showed those sketches to anybody. I did other stuff for my art classes in school, and it was there that I was encouraged, that I was told how good I was—how good I could be.
Grandpa insisted I go to college in spite of my protests. I graduated two weeks before he died with a degree in graphic arts that I’ll probably never use, but I’ll never forget the look on Grandpa’s face at my graduation. He looked so proud, it made everything worthwhile for me. Now the comic book store is mine. He didn’t want me to keep it, but it means too much to me to ever sell it. This place was my lifeline, my sanctuary, for most of my life. It was my safehouse through the darkest times of my childhood. The comic book superheroes were my heroes, my best friends. I could never abandon them.
“I expect better of you, Charlie,” Grandpa told me after graduation.
It doesn’t get any better than this, Grandpa. The true measure of success is making a living doing what you love. I’m doing it.
The funeral procession had begun.The funny part was that nobody had died.
Brenda Walker, who lived down the street, had just found out she was pregnant. Okay, in 2013 that’s not exactly the big deal it was in 1953, but Brenda’s ultra-conservative Southern Baptist Republican parents would have disowned her seven ways to Sunday if she’d publicly embarrassed them with an out-of-wedlock baby—so Brenda’s hero of a hubby, who married her in a quickie ceremony the day before he got shipped off to Afghanistan, was conveniently killed in action. Now, she was mourning the death of her hero, who had given his life to save his fellow soldiers. She looked good in black. She’d probably wear it until the baby was born. She’d play the grieving widow to the hilt.
“Nobody,” I said without thinking. Then I turned around. The guy standing behind me wasn’t too bad looking. Not the geeky sort I was used to seeing in the store. Too good-looking. No thick-glasses, no pocket-protector, none of the usual awkwardness. He was tall, smiling, wearing a leather jacket and a baseball cap. He had a backpack that looked to be filled to capacity. Nobody filled their backpacks anymore, I observed. Everybody used tablets or e-readers. I silently hoped he wasn’t a mad bomber or something. I didn’t know what to do if he was. Tony Stark would know what to do. Bruce Wayne would know what to do. Me? I’d just panic and open the cash register. And then he’d probably kill me for not having much in the way of cash.
“Are you lost?” I asked without thinking.
He looked puzzled by the question. “I don’t think so,” he said slowly. “But maybe they are…if nobody actually died….”
“It’s a long story. A long, boring story.” I decided to spare him.
I could tell by the expression on his face that he really didn’t, but he changed the subject then. “I’m looking for the new Marvel editions—Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, whatever you’ve got.” He was still looking past me, through the window toward the faux funeral procession in the street.
“The widow there—she’s the one in black—her parents are very strict, very religious,” I attempted to explain. “She, on the other hand, is, well, a tramp.”
He looked at me and tried not to grin. Tried. But failed.
“She got sort of…knocked up.”
He gave me an odd glance. “How does one get ‘sort of’ knocked up?” he wanted to know.
He could tell I was embarrassed. I could tell he was enjoying it. I wanted to kick his ass, but I had a feeling he could become a regular customer. I was hoping, anyway. I could use all the business I could get. Bite your tongue, Charlie, I told myself. “She was playing Vatican Roulette with the local boys.”
“Oh, great. An English major?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Psychology.”
I rolled my eyes. “It figures.”
“So…Trudy the Tramp is pregnant,” he said, guiding the conversation back to the mock funeral. “Her parents think she was married?”
“No. They just want everyone else to think she was,” I said, searching for the comic books he’d requested. “They’d be content at this point if she could just tell them who the father is.”
He shook his head and chuckled softly. “This looks to be an interesting neighborhood, at the very least,” he decided.
“The girls are all in mourning,” I attempted to explain. “Her dead husband gave his life for our country, you know. He was a hero.”
“Was he rich?”
I looked at him. “I don’t think so. Why do you ask?”
He shrugged. “If she’s going to fabricate a husband, she might as well go all the way,” he suggested.
“Nah,” I disagreed. “Easy to fake a dead husband, but if he’s a rich dead husband and her car gets repossessed, that’s going to be hard to explain.”
He laughed. “You have a point.”
I handed him the comic books. He looked them over and nodded with satisfaction, then reached into his pocket for his wallet. He gave me his credit card. I looked at it. William T. Harwood. “New to the neighborhood, Mr. Harwood?” I asked, trying to keep my tone casual. I ran the card through the reader and received a quick approval.
He smiled and nodded. “Call me Will.”
He grinned. “You don’t look like a Charlie.”
“You don’t look like a Charlotte, either.”
I hesitated. “What do I look like, then?” I wanted to know.
He studied me for a moment. “An Annie, maybe. A Dorothy, possibly.”
“A Toto?” I asked.
He shook his head, grinning. “Your ears aren’t long enough.”
“Thank Heaven for that,” I said. “Let me guess. You just blew in from Kansas.”
“I had that coming, didn’t I?” he asked. “No, actually, I’m from Vermont.”
“Ah, I should have realized—the New England accent.”
“I just moved here last week. I’m postgrad at the university. I’m just getting acclimated before classes start,” he said. “One of the first things on my list was to find a good comic book store.”
“You’re a fan,” I guessed. Lame, Charlie, I thought.
“For most of my life.” He took the credit card I returned to him and put it back in his wallet.
“Me too,” I said. “I inherited this place from my grandfather. I grew up here—literally.”
He looked back toward the window again as the funeral procession returned. “Does this sort of thing happen around here often?” he wanted to know.
I laughed. “Better get used to it,” I advised. “It’s a community of oddballs.”
He grinned. “The perfect place for a writer.”
“You’re a writer?”
“Aspiring,” he said.
“Have you published anything?”
“I haven’t finished anything yet.” He was looking toward the bar across the street. “What the—” he started.
I looked, too. One of the regulars was attempting to enter. Tuffy, a pit bull belonging to one of the neighbors, was, as usual, blocking his path. “Tuffy won’t let Fred in until Fred buys him a beer,” I explained.
“The dog drinks beer?” Will asked, surprised.
“He’s got a bit of a drinking problem,” I confided. “He hits all the guys up for a beer.”
“And they buy them for him?”
“If they want to get into the bar, they do.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Depends on how much beer he’s already had,” I said. “Tuffy’s a mean drunk.”
Will looked at me. “Does he…bite?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Tuffy knows where to bite to inflict the most pain.”
He winced. “Ouch.”
“I’ve been thinking of hiring him as my night watchdog,” I said then.
“Good call. He’d work cheap. Get him a six pack and he’s happy.”
I gave him my business card. “Hope your introduction to our more–interesting–residents hasn’t scared you off coming back here,” I told him.
He grinned. “Quite the contrary, Charlotte. I think I’m going to like it here.”
Charlotte? He was going to call me Charlotte?
“Come back soon, Sir Will,” I told him.