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Today's Story by MK Laughlin

“I have powers now,” he whispered. “I’m gonna use them."

Origin Story

Since October, when the news broke, the old lady had been trying to invite her neighbor’s children over for a visit.  They used to come every Friday after school, stopping in for cookies or a slice of store-bought pie.  Little kindergarten Jane liked to color at the kitchen table.  Elementary school Will preferred to roam, snack in one hand, touching things with the other: the paperweight collection, the keys of the baby grand, the heavy fringe edging on the front-window drapes.  He always asked to take the dog out for a walk and she always told him no, not yet; eight is too young to handle a shepherd on a leash.  But if he came over now and asked, she planned to let him try.  He could have anything he wanted that was in her power to give.

But the Fridays passed, one after another, and both children remained in seclusion.  The old lady called their house and the line rang without answer.  She called two days later and a machine picked up, a tinny recording of a male stranger’s voice asking her to  “please leave a message after the beep.”  Two days after that the stranger answered her call in person.  He identified himself as the children’s grandfather and politely declined her offer of coffee.  After that, the old lady stopped calling.  She took to watching the house through her living room window instead.  Sometimes she saw the children on their way to school (they were driven now, by a portly gray-haired man who must have been the grandfather).  And she was the first to spot the yellow moving truck with the mid-sized cargo hold pull up to the curb one sunny Saturday afternoon.  She spent an hour on the phone trading theories with the neighbors as a quartet of men hauled boxes from the house.

“What does it mean?”  she asked her husband when he returned, hatless and tipsy, from the field club.  “Are they moving, do you think?  Or do you think they’re just getting rid of her things?”

“Don’t know.”  Al dipped into the refrigerator for a beer.  He liked to pretend that gossip didn’t interest him but the old lady knew better.  He had been quick to pass along the details of this particular scandal.

“Maybe I should just go talk to them.  In person, I mean.  I could bring over some food, or see if Jack needs any help with the kids.”

Al shook his head.  “They’d probably think you just wanted more gossip.”

“Oh, there’s plenty of gossip already.  People will talk about this for years.”

“Probably.”  Al took a long drink from his bottle and sighed.  “Can’t really blame ‘em.”

“Those poor kids.  How could anybody do that to those poor kids?  They’re so young, Al.  They’re so little!”

“I never liked her,” Al spat.  “Never.  Never had a good feeling about her.”

And on that, he wasn’t alone.  No one had liked Jack Painter’s wife.  Frosty, whispered the neighbors, in clandestine backyard conversation.  Mean, even.  Snobby.  Aloof.  Not that nice to her kids.  Not good enough for her husband.  Pity ran high for Jack Painter.  Not the brightest bulb in the socket, of course.  But he volunteered his weekends to coach his son’s t-ball team.  He carpooled with the other kindergarten moms and videotaped the school plays and did all the family food shopping.  Worked full time, too, so it was no wonder he was so skinny and sweaty and haphazardly dressed; that his late-twenties hairline was starting to look so feathery-thin.

“Poor Jack,” the old lady said.  “He’ll be a wreck.  He’ll go completely bald after this, from stress.  I wish he would call!”

“He won’t.”  Al fished a leftover piece of pie from the fridge.  “Mark my words, he’ll stay out of sight.”

The next day, Jack Painter rang the bell on the old lady’s front door.

It was a clear November morning, cold but not yet freezing.  Bootsie greeted the doorbell with his usual barking fit, and the old lady had to grab him by the collar to prevent an escape.  It took her a moment to realize who had done the ringing.  When she finally recognized him standing there in the sunlight, she gasped.

“Good morning,” Jack said.  He crouched to pet the dog.

“Jack!  Oh Jack, it’s so good to see you.”

“Thank you.”

“You look wonderful!”

And in fact, she had never seen him look so well rested, or seen his skin glow so healthily.  Jack Painter was one of those men who never truly outgrew his acne years.  He always had a crop of something pink growing on his face.  But today his skin looked smooth and clean.  His eyes shone and the customary bags beneath them were gone, and even his hair had gotten into the act and staged a near-miraculous comeback at his temples.

“I wanted to stop by and see you,” Jack said.  “Thank you, for your calls.  I know I’ve been bad about returning them.”

“Don’t be silly.  Come in, let me get you some tea.”

“I wish I could, but I can’t.  I’m taking the kids up to my parents’ house in just a few minutes.”

“That sounds nice.  A nice early start to Thanksgiving, right?  You’re going up for the holiday?”

“Longer than that.”

From across the lawns, Will Painter shouted for the dog.  He was a little boy, short and skinny, and his black puff coat was so big it made his body seem frail.  For a moment the old lady wanted to run over and pick him up.  Instead, she nudged gently at Bootsie’s back, and the dog rocketed across the lawn and jumped toward the boy’s waving arms.

“Jack, how are the kids?”

“They’re doing okay.”  He looked back toward his house.  An overweight gray-haired woman appeared on the porch with the little girl in hand, who laughed at the sight of the dog.  “My parents have been staying with me.  They got Will and Jane talking to people.  Professionals, I mean.  Counselors or whatnot.”

“Is that helping?”

“I think so.  Jane is just more confused than anything else.  Will was…well, he’s doing better.  He was acting out for a while.”

“Somehow I can’t picture Will acting out.”

“Well, maybe that’s not the right way to put it.  It wasn’t anything bad, he was just making up stories.  Telling people he had turned into a superhero.  You know how he is with his Batman stuff.”

“Of course.”  The old lady nodded vigorously.  She knew Will loved comics.  He was always showing her pictures he’d drawn and t-shirts he owned, Batman this and Iron Man that and don’t-you-think-it’d-be-cool-to-fly/be invisible/have claws pop out of your hands?  Her own sons had gone through a similar stage, many years ago.  The old lady was constantly amazed at how little the heroes had changed.

“The doctor says it’s actually pretty typical,” Jack continued.  “Kids in tough situations, they get really obsessed with super-powers.”

“Does he think he can fly now?”

“I don’t know.  Probably.  He won’t tell anyone the details.”

“Oh.  It’ a secret power, then.”

“Secret powers, yeah.  My parents got all upset.  They thought him saying he’s super-powered is a bad sign.  Uh, psychologically, or something.  You know, because of what happened with his mother.”

The direct reference to Mrs. Painter caught her off guard.  She wondered what Jack thought she knew.  She wondered how much she did know; how much fact compared to how many swirling bits of gossip and rumor.  The note, for instance.  According to Al, Mrs. Painter had left a note.  She didn’t say goodbye in person.  Didn’t give any warning.  One day she waited for the children to go to school, packed a bag, stuck a note on the bathroom mirror, and walked out.  Just like that.

“I think you’re absolutely right, Jack.  Lots of boys think they’re superheroes.  Mine did.  It doesn’t mean a thing.  I bet Will’s gonna be just fine.  And you too.  God knows you should be a wreck right now.  Maybe you are, I don’t know.  But you sure don’t look like one.”

“You noticed this?”  Jack ran his fingers through his hair.  “Crazy, huh?  It’s growing like crazy.  It fell out in the first place because of stress and now all of a sudden…”  He took a deep breath, as if to steel himself.  “I just want you to hear it from me.  I just want to tell you that we’re going to be okay.  She never, my wife I mean, she never really wanted all this.  Since she left, things are better.  I know how that sounds.”

“It’s okay, Jack.”

“I’m starting to think she did us a favor.”  Jack’s posture changed suddenly.  He stood up straighter and shifted his weight from foot to foot and that was embarrassment, the old lady realized.  He had shared something personal and felt embarrassed.  She herself felt vaguely flattered.  “Anyway, I just wanted to tell you the news in person.  I’m taking the kids up to my parents’ house, and that’s where we’re gonna stay.  Not forever, but for a few years I think.  And then I’ll probably buy a house up there.  I figure I’ll stick close to my family.”

“Of course, Jack.  Anyone would need the help.”

“I’ve already told the schools, and I’m putting the house on the market ASAP.”

She nodded sadly.  “Can I say goodbye to the kids?”

“I think they’d like that.”

The little girl was already in the car by the time the old lady walked over.  She waved through the window, and Jane tapped her chubby child’s fist against the glass.  Will remained in the yard wrestling with the dog.  He stood up when she approached and gave her a hesitant hug, something he had never done before.

“I’m going to miss you,” he whispered.  “I’m going to miss Bootsie too.”

“Oh, sweetheart.”  The old lady couldn’t finish.

The boy looked at her with his squinty little eyes, dull grayish-blue like his sister’s.  “If Dad gives you our new address will you send me some of your cookies?”

“Of course I will.  I’ll send you every cookie I make.”

“Okay.  But make sure you save some for you.”

“Don’t you worry about me.  I’m getting a jumpstart on my Christmas diet this year.  I’ll ship all my sweet stuff to you, and maybe save a few cookies for old Mr. Al if he’s good.”

“Don’t worry.  You can eat them too.”  Will did something strange then.  He stared at her midsection, at the twenty extra pounds she’d been carrying around ever since her children were born.  It hung prominently on her belly, a solid stubborn lump of decades-old fat.  “Will?  What are looking at, honey?”


“Is everything all right?”

He gestured for her to lean close.  “I have powers now,” he whispered.  “I’m gonna use them so you don’t have to diet.”

“What kind of power is that, sweetie?”

“I don’t know the name.  I can’t find it in any of my books.”

“What does it do?”

“Makes people pretty.”

“How unusual!”

“I used it on Dad, and I’m gonna use it on my grandparents.  I think it just worked on you too, but not me.  It doesn’t work on me.  I tried.  I tried to make my hair red and it didn’t work.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.”

“No, it’s okay.  That’s just how powers work.  You use them to help other people.  Don’t tell Dad, though.”  A quick, darting look back at his father.  “Superheroes have to be a secret.  And I know you keep good secrets.  You never told about that lamp I broke.”

“That was an accident.”  A causal, meaningless little accident, and even if the boy had broken something on purpose she would never have breathed a word.  Mrs. Painter had the aura of a harsh disciplinarian, the old lady always thought.  She looked like someone who spanked her children too hard.

Will’s face turned suddenly anxious.  “I didn’t mean to say you’re not pretty though.  You were just saying you were gonna diet so I thought…oh man, I didn’t mean to say anything mean.”

“Will honey, it’s okay.”

“Promise you won’t tell.  Promise!”

“I promise I won’t say a word, Mr. Superhero.”  She grinned down, feeling only the tiniest flash of guilt.  Let the doctors worry about his head; let the boy grow out of it himself, as he surely would.  She refused to be the one to rain on his fantasy parade.  Will Painter had always been a sweet child, and how sweet was it now that he wanted to make people pretty?  Other boys in his situation might do much worse—punch holes in walls, or take to swearing, or fighting, or even bedwetting.  Another boy might just look at her stomach and shout “fattie!” because some boys were just born to be mean.

Will ran to the car and climbed into the seat beside his sister.  The grandparents gave curt little nods through the windows.  The old lady waved after them until their car disappeared down the road.  Then she cried, even though she tried not to.

The next morning, she took out her old bathroom scale.

“Not time for that again!” Al groaned from the bed.  “I told you before, you don’t need to lose a pound.”

“That’s your job to say that.”

“You look fine the way you are.”

“Al, you’re such a liar.”

“I’m not lying!  It’s the truth.  Anyway, who wants to spend Thanksgiving worrying about food?”

“Who wants to spend the holidays looking like a fat old cow?”

“Isn’t that the good part about getting old?  That we can do what we want?  Let ourselves go?”

“For God’s sake, Al, we’re not that old.”

Yawning, still half-asleep, the old lady stepped on the scale and waited for the dial to settle on a number.  When it finally stopped she stared, and then rubbed the crusts from her eyes.  She leaned in, practically on her knees, to make sure she had it right.

“Okay, let’s hear it,” Al called.  “What’s the verdict?  Are we going sugar-free for Christmas or can I keep some darn candy around this place?”

Her pajama pants had an elastic waistband and last night they’d been stretched to the limit.  At the moment, they hung bunched and loose.  The old lady removed them and the rest of her pajamas and stood in front of the mirror in her pink flowered underwear.  Between her low-hanging breasts and her loose veiny thighs stretched a stranger’s stomach, perfectly flat, free of wrinkles and spots, an alien anomaly on the body of a woman who’d lived through six and a half decades and pushed out three children to boot.

“My God,” breathed Al, coming up behind her.  He leaned his chin on her shoulder and slid a hand around her hip.  “How did you do that?”

It’s what everyone would ask in the coming days, when she stopped wearing sweats, when she turned up to Thanksgiving dinner in a fitted dress all cinched in at the waist.  Her children and grandchildren, her friends, the neighbors, they all wanted to know: how did you do that?  The old lady was prepared by then.  Not like that first morning, when she just stood silent and dumbly touched her stomach.  Now she answered readily, confidently: “oh I started eating better” and “oh, I started exercising more.”  By the time Christmas rolled around she had started to believe her own answers.  Sometimes women lost weight for no discernible reason.  Hadn’t she always heard that?  Certainly they gained for no reason, so why couldn’t the opposite be true?  She laughed with her friends and accepted their congratulations and even congratulated herself on a weight-loss job well done.  She ate heartily through the New Year and did not regain a pound.  She never did—at least, not in her stomach.  As the years passed her thighs thickened and her buttocks expanded and the skin beneath her arms sagged to the proportion of wings, but the flat plane of her belly never fattened by so much as a pinch.

So she couldn’t forget.  She didn’t think of him often, but she couldn’t completely forget.  Every once in a while the right mood would strike, usually with an extra glass of wine or two, and always late at night, when she was too tired for denial.  In those moments the old lady’s thoughts drifted to Will Painter.  She liked to imagine him grown up and happy, making people statuesque and tall, clearing up nasty cases of acne, making hair grow where it should and erasing it where it shouldn’t.  Will Painter the super hero, God bless him, flitting through the world making people pretty.

When she thought of the boy the old lady smiled, asked no questions, and sent her good wishes out into empty air.


MK Laughlin’s publishing credits include short stories in Fiction 365, Dirty Napkin Magazine, Red Weather Literary Magazine, Queer Ramblings Magazine, Farmhouse Magazine,  and the collections A Flash of Red, Vera Icon, and Funeral Pants.  She is a graduate student in the PhD program at North Dakota State University. 

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