By Tad Bartlett
You should know a few facts.
Fact One: We’ll likely never meet. This isn’t a sad thing, just an actuarially reasonable probability, particularly given what I know about the demise of my powers. If, on some off-chance I make it to a time when I’ve had kids, and those kids have had kids, and those kids have had you, I’m sure I’ll expire not long after, leaving you barely a scrap of memory of some doddering old fool.
Fact Two: I’m no fool. I was a superhero. You may find this hard to believe, but I was born in a time of superheroes, when seemingly regular people walked among us wielding superpowers. I was one of them.
Fact Three: Your world is a more difficult place than mine. I know that because I know you’re born into a world without superheroes. I know that because I was the last one. The rest lost their powers, and I saw it happen.
My superpower was not-dying. I don’t mean that my superpower won’t die; what I’m saying is that staying alive was my superpower. My father, your great-great-grandfather, told me about my superpower when I was six and lying in a hospital bed in intensive care, hooked up to tubes pushing things in and drawing things out, my body wrapped in bandages and half my skin torn off after a car wreck. “You won’t die, son,” he told me. “You’re too powerful for that.” As I grew, my friends would sometimes say that not-dying was not a superpower, because all superpowers erode over time or meet their kryptonite—proverbial or literal—and that a power of not-dying-until-you-die is no superpower at all, but just living the way everyone else does. “I’ve walked by death,” I told them. “I’ve seen it, and it’s not what you think.” I wanted to sound defiant in the face of their doubts, though some days my internal doubts were much fiercer.
My father was not a superhero; nor was my mother. They both died, my mother in that same car wreck, and my father making it a few years later before something as trivial as a virus felled him. They were without superpowers. No one really knows where the powers come from or where they go. Some posit that the powers skip a few generations, only appearing once everyone has forgotten about their last manifestation. On this off-chance, I’m choosing to address this to you.
In my time of superheroes, in any given place regular folks outnumbered superheroes four to one. You may think that ratio too close, but the thing is that even those with superpowers often didn’t realize it; they thought they were just normal folks who happened to be extraordinarily lucky or beautiful or smart or fast or strong or witty. But most people believed—even if only in a misguided comic book or blockbuster movie fashion—that we were around should the need arise. Sometimes, belief was all that was needed. A little comfort and confidence went a long way.
It wasn’t long after I got out of the hospital that first time that I met my first fellow superhero. I was seven. I’d been in for a year and had new skin grafted on, seams and fissures like some crazy-quilt map of a being I wasn’t. I’d started coming back for follow-up visits. She was fifteen. She signaled me over to the chair beside her in the doctor’s waiting room. She had green eyes set inside dark circles on a pale face, light brown hair loose over her shoulders, a high forehead, one ear slightly higher than the other. I sat next to her.
“You’re one, too, aren’t you,” she said. It wasn’t a question. She held my eyes with her own.
“One what?” I asked.
“You’re a superhero, one of us.” She looked around. The waiting room was half-full, parents reading old bass-fishing magazines and kids punching and swiping at their parents’ phones.
We sat silently for a moment before I asked, “So what’s your power?”
“Come see,” she said. She stood and grabbed my hand and walked toward a wall of windows that lined one side of the waiting room. She dropped my hand and pointed at the sky. It was mostly gray overcast, sharper shapes of white scudding along beneath. “What do you see out there?” she asked.
“Clouds?” I was uncertain. I glanced at her and could see she was unsatisfied. “Like, do I see shapes of things in the clouds? Or that it might rain?”
“No,” she said, “though those are both fine answers. No reason you should see anything else. But there’s my power.” She looked back at the sky. “I see more than that. I see great art, ephemeral, all of history and human existence, changing, shifting. It’s not just weather and shapes, but something more. I feel it like pain, and so I take it on, this understanding of the constant art around us, so that others don’t have to feel it, too.” She spoke with a certainty and strength and pride I’d never seen before.
I looked back at the sky. For a moment I thought I could see the something more that she described, and I felt great anxiety. My lower lip began to tremble. I bit down on it so she wouldn’t notice.
But just as suddenly, I felt only peaceful musing about the direction of the wind or the face of a clown melting into an elephant.
“So what’s your power?” she asked.
“I can’t die.”
She looked thoughtful for a second then held her hand out to me. “I’m Elmira,” she said. “I’m glad I found you.”
I took her hand. “Brian.” I was glad to be found.
Over the years, I would see Elmira occasionally. At a doctor’s office or on a sidewalk. We would hug tight for a moment, then release. I would look into her eyes, then look into the sky with her, and for a brief moment I would feel the whole of it pressing down into me. It would make me dizzy, but then I’d look back into Elmira’s eyes and feel comforted again. She would tell me when she had met others, and we would meet up, awkward around each other at first.
By the time I was twenty-three, there were five of us besides Elmira. I felt purposeless in my powers. We five would meet most days at The Lair, a claustrophobic bar in a quiet corner of the French Quarter. There was Jim, who I met when we were both sixteen. His superpower was that he never got caught at a red light. He always drove straight to where he needed to go, without stopping, and if anyone tried to follow him they would get caught at every light he sailed through. I’d met Susie some years before that. Her power was always finding the right thing to say. She could short-circuit any confrontation before it even began. Barb, we met when we were seventeen and sitting behind a gas station in the suburbs. Barb had the superpower of drinking as much as she wanted without ever getting drunk; in fact, she became more nimble of mind, particularly when drinking tequila. She could spin theories and philosophies around us until we were entranced, or at least give us a drive home.
Then there was Paul. I met Paul in the hospital when I was nineteen. He was a shape-shifter. White people looked at him and thought he was white. Black people looked at him and thought he was black. Puerto Ricans thought he was Puerto Rican. Koreans thought he was Korean. Gay people thought he was gay. Football players thought he was a jock. Surfers thought he was a bodhisattva. Burly lumberjacks thought he bore a fine beard and an even finer mullet. Club-going rave kids found his smooth, hairless body divine, plying him with Ecstasy and running their hands over his skin all night long. Women confided in him. Men trusted him. Transvestites dressed him in fine silk gowns and took him to balls. Poets read him their latest drafts and tore their hair out if he turned a dissatisfied eye. Paul was sought and accepted everywhere. I’ll admit I had a bit of a superhero crush on Paul, but didn’t we all?
Elmira had grown distant. Even though she was our original superhero and had brought us together, it was as if she weren’t part of our gang, somehow separate and above. We would see her standing on a corner and staring at a patch of sky between buildings, or walking along the trail by the river levee, her head craned upward. She had her own solitary job to do.
But, Great-Grandchild, having these powers was one thing. Knowing what to do with them was another. Elmira was out there soaking up the world’s pain, but what were we doing? Soaking up liquor, mainly, and each other’s abuse.
“I did it!” proclaimed Jim one afternoon.
“What’d you do, ya’ bastard?” asked Paul. He was drunk. All of us were sloppy, except Barb.
Jim rubbed his chin. Flecks of peanut husks fell to his shirt. “What do you mean, what’d I do?” He looked like he wanted to deck Paul.
Susie scraped her chair back and stumbled upright. She fixed her gaze on Jim. “Oh, dear Jim. Dear, handsome Jim.” She hiccupped, burped delicately. “You know Paul only meant he wished to know of your great accomplishment.” She let her red polished fingernails glide across Paul’s shoulders as she tripped over my legs and fell into a pile in Barb’s lap.
Barb downed another shot of tequila and smiled soberly down into Susie’s face.
“Well, then,” Jim said, “of course. I just, just wanted to say I finally did it. Used my powers to help someone else!”
We all looked up from our drinks at Jim. We were stunned at this bit of news.
“How’d you do it?” I asked. We’d often sat around and debated this point, whether we were obligated to take these powers we hadn’t asked for and use them to do things for others. Some took the position that we could do it if we wanted to, but shouldn’t feel it was required. Or that helping others was the price we should pay for having these advantages. Or that we should shut up and order more drinks. Deep down I’m sure we all knew there was something more, something we were meant for, a reason Elmira called us out of our background lives and brought us together. I asked again, “How’d you do it?”
“Was the simplest goddamn thing,” Jim said. “My mom, bless her, was late for a doctor’s appointment. I was all like, ‘Mom, Jesus, calm the fuck down, I’ll drive you already.’ I mean, that woman gets crazy when she’s all stressed out. Fucking crazy, I tell you.”
A group of preppy, perfectly blonde-coifed college girls who had been drawn to our conversation, staring at Paul, eyes all dreamy, suddenly looked flustered. Right as Jim was cussing his mom, their boyfriends sat down at their table with a round of drinks.
“Hey, buddy,” one of them yelled over to Jim. “Wanna’ keep the damn swearing to yourself? My girlfriend here’s got sensitive morals.”
Susie stumbled up from Barb’s lap and leaned over the boy. He was all muscles and blonde crewcut and red, offended cheeks. “Sweet, handsome college man,” she addressed him. “We are but acting out a scene from a play for class, and were engrossed in it, losing ourselves in our educational endeavors.” She placed her hand on the bicep-tautened sleeve of the young man’s polo shirt. “You will forgive us, won’t you?”
All lies, of course, but the young man was entranced. His eyes went soft. “No, ma’am,” he said. “Of course y’all should continue with your scene. I’ll go buy another round for your table. What’ll you have?”
We shouted orders of whiskey and beer and chardonnay and vodka—tequila for Barb, of course—and he was off.
“Fuckit, man,” I said to Jim when the behemoth was gone. “What happened?”
“With what?” he asked.
“Your mom, man! Did you get her to the doctor on time?”
“Jesus, dude,” Jim said before putting his head down on the table. Into the wooden tabletop, he added, “Right on time. Not a single fucking light. Told her she has cancer.”
Paul straightened up. “Cancer? Jim, you alright?”
But Jim was out.
“Everybody doing OK?” The college kid returned. Must’ve been a football player. He carried two highball glasses, a beer stein, and wine glass in his two meaty hands, and had Barb’s shot glass of tequila wedged between his arm and his side. “Oh, man, what happened to him?”
“The death scene,” Susie said. “Thanks for the drinks.” She unloaded his paws and placed each drink on the table in front of us, then pressed up full-body close to the kid as she untucked the tequila shot from under his arm.
“You’re welcome, miss,” he said, leaning his face in close to hers, but before he could kiss her and profess his undying love, she ducked out from under him and patted the head of his girlfriend.
And many afternoons went like that, rarely stretching into nights because one or more of us couldn’t drink that far. It was Barb, of course, who announced one day before the drunkenness had gone too far, “I’m tired of this shit.”
“What?” Paul asked. “Is The Lair getting to you? We can go somewhere else.”
“No,” Barb said. “It’s not The Lair, and it’s not Molly’s, and it’s not even Checkpoint fucking Charlie’s. It’s all this, what we do, what we’re doing, or more like what we’re not doing.”
“Hey, Barb,” Susie said, scooting her chair closer to Barb’s. “We’re all with you. You know that.”
“Don’t sweet-talk me, girl,” Barb said. “You know what I’m talking about.”
I thought for a moment how sober people can be such drags, but then I realized I was being an ass. Listen, great-grandchild of mine, if you have the chance to have a serious, sober conversation with a beautiful-minded person, take that chance. It doesn’t come around as often as you’d think. Beautiful-minded people, as rare as they are to begin with, don’t often feel like sharing their grits and grease with just anyone. I realized that, right at that moment, not because of any superpower but because I’m a lucky human fool underneath it all. “Barb,” I said, “I’m not going to bullshit you. Please,” I said, “spell it out for all of us. Because you’re right. We’re stuck in something here, and it ain’t pretty.”
“OK,” she said, “let’s go for a walk.”
We hit the buckling slate sidewalks, trying to stay together, inevitably one of us straggling behind, but always all of us within earshot of the others. It was one of those days you always dream about but rarely realize. Blue skies. A breeze smelling sweet like confederate jasmine and not of rotting alcohol and vomit. The temperature so soft you barely feel it on your skin. The occasional puffy white cloud. So exquisite it almost feels like pain in your heart, but it never quite reaches critical proportions. Like someone’s taking the pain off you and leaving only beauty.
“Listen,” Barb said after we’d walked a few blocks. “It’s like Jim was talking about a couple weeks ago. It’s been eating at me.”
“I know,” said Paul.
“Of course,” said Susie.
“Me, too,” I said.
“What are we talking about?” asked Jim.
“Using what we have for good,” Barb said. And at those words she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to turn and face Jim. She wrapped her arms around him. “Jim,” she said through the embrace, “you’ve made it all apparent. Before and after Elmira found me in that bar that night and laid clear to me my power, this whole life has been only so much static. I’ve been trying and trying.” Through tears she said, embracing Jim tight, “To figure out why I’m this way, and until the other day I couldn’t find an answer.”
At that moment, I felt a surge, an overwhelming flood in my chest. Elmira’s face flashed in my brain. What is this, I thought, this feeling? And the sky suddenly was a physical thing, reaching down to me.
Paul, who’d kept stumbling up the sidewalk, called out, “What’s wrong with me?” He gripped his chest. He fell to his knees. Tears streamed down his face.
I touched my own cheeks. They, too, were wet. I looked over at Susie. Her face, glistening, was turned up to the sky.
“It’s just so beautiful,” she said. “So very, very beautiful.”
People had come out onto the sidewalk from the cottage Paul had collapsed in front of, and surrounded him. “Are you OK?” one asked. “He’s one of us,” another said. “A Republican?” another asked. “No,” the second one said, “us.” And then a child trailing out the front door of the house behind the others ran up and clasped her arms around Paul. “He’s so beautiful,” she said. “So beautiful I want to cry.”
And then they all looked up to the sky, and all burst into a deluge of tears and smiles. “So beautiful, so beautiful,” they all cried. “So beautiful I want to die.”
I turned to Barb, who was still gripping Jim in a tight embrace. I grabbed her arm and tore her away. She looked at me, her eyes wide and wet. Jim looked at me, too. Susie, who had been halfway to Paul, stopped and looked back at me. Paul emerged from the huddle of Republicans and focused his handsome eyes on me. “Elmira,” I said. “She’s in trouble.”
“Elmira,” Barb echoed.
“We’ve got to help her,” I whispered. “Her powers must be eroding. It’s time we used our own.”
“Our powers,” Susie said.
“For good,” Jim said.
Paul strode purposefully toward us. “To The Lair,” he said.
Back at The Lair, we gathered around a corner of the bar with a fresh round of drinks. “We’ve been fools,” Barb said, more emphatic than I’ve ever seen her. “And me, most of all.”
“No, Barb, you’ve been our rock,” Susie said.
“No. I haven’t been,” Barb replied. “I’ve watched all of us waste our powers. I’ve seen it. I’ve let you blind yourselves while I stood dumbly by. Just like with my parents.”
Paul looked stricken. “What about your parents, Barb?” he asked. He slugged back the rest of his drink. He motioned to the bartender for a fresh one.
“I couldn’t save them,” Barb said. “Maybe I could’ve, but I didn’t know how. Just watched them.”
“Just watched them what?” Jim asked.
“Drink themselves to death.”
And that’s the thing we figured out that afternoon, Great-Grandchild (I wish you had a name, a name I could know, that I could look forward through time and grip onto, to know that things really do continue past this moment). As we sat there, ordering more rounds of drinks and coming clean to each other, we learned that all of our powers had been born of our inabilities to heal our parents’ ills, and their parents’ before them. Our superpowers, it seemed, were born of powerlessness. Susie lived in constant battle with her parents, never able to convince them of her worth. Jim had always been at a stand-still with his mom, who could barely get out of the house most days, or out of her dead-end job, or into a healthy relationship with anyone who wasn’t a doctor for one incurable ailment or another; he could never convince her to do things to prevent wasting away in her house and her sickness. Paul had been rejected by one set of parents after another. Given up for adoption by his original parents, he was rejected by a parade of foster parents.
And then me, Great-Grandchild. After your great-great-grandfather died when I was ten, I proved out the powers he had revealed to me by living through so much that would have killed others. Not just that car accident when I was six. There was the chlorine gas poisoning when I was eleven. I ran my bicycle under an eighteen-wheeler when I was twelve. Didn’t die. Drank a whole bottle of drain cleaner when I was thirteen. Jumped from the fourth-story roof of the junior high school when I was fourteen. Shot a bullet through my own temple when I was sixteen. Missed. Swallowed a two-month prescription of pain-killers when I was seventeen. Spent a year in the psych ward when I was nineteen trying to convince myself I was dead. It never took, no matter what I did, no matter what happened to me. Plenty of hospitals, doctors, nurses. Sweet nurses who brought me extra helpings of chocolate pudding, and the tough old bitches who thought I deserved whatever I had coming to me and who jammed the needles into my arms extra hard.
We’d all been drinking a good bit as we shared our stories. “I can’t believe this pain,” Barb said suddenly, her hand over her chest.
“What we’ve got to do—,” Susie said.
“—is find Elmira,” Jim said.
“She’s in trouble,” I said. “I can feel it, too. It’s been growing worse since we were outside.”
We were all on our feet and headed for the door. Like a league of superheroes, we gathered ourselves, stood tall, and walked out of The Lair. People on the sidewalks were stumbling, as if weighted down with guilt and shame, and they all looked on the verge of crying. We steeled ourselves against our own pain and ran around a corner to Barb’s big Buick, parallel-parked on the next block. Barb slid behind the wheel. Susie rode shotgun. Paul, Jim, and I piled into the backseat. Barb pulled away from the curb and stomped on the accelerator, pressing us all into our seat backs. Potholes rumbled beneath her tires. She clipped the side mirror of a parked car.
“Jesus, Barb, slow the fuck down!” Jim yelled. I clutched for my seatbelt.
Barb turned around, a large grin on her face. “What? You got a problem with my driving?” Susie reached over and adjusted the wheel to keep the Buick from colliding with another parked car. Barb looked over at Susie and said in that same sleepy, happy voice, “Hands off, darlin’.”
Susie said, “It’s OK, Barb. You’re doing great.” She threw a panicked glance into the backseat at us. “Why don’t we stop at Jim’s place?”
We were swerving into Jim’s neighborhood. His street, his block. Like the fortune was smiling on us again. I even felt the pain loosen its squeeze on my heart slightly. But Barb didn’t slow down.
“Barb, my place is right up here,” Jim said, trying to sound calm.
“Right here?” Barb asked, taking one hand off the wheel to point at a house she was about to pass, but with her other hand she jerked the wheel over and stomped on the brakes. The Buick hopped the curb and slid to a stop in the small yard of Jim’s rental house, digging up grass and overturning three garbage cans. Barb chuckled at first, then busted into a loud guffaw, holding her stomach, eyes squeezed shut tight. She opened her door and stepped out into the yard, still laughing, and started walking toward Jim’s front stoop, but tripped over a kicked-up bit of sod and fell into the mud. Still laughing.
“Damn,” Paul said. “She’s stone drunk.” We sat in the Buick, consumed by the implications of Barb’s inebriation.
“Well,” Susie said, “we need to get out there and take care of her. She’s done the same for us plenty of times.” And she had. She’d probably held all of us at one time or another as we threw up a night’s overindulgence. Had driven us each home many times. Humored our drunken banter. Called 911 for me at least once when I passed out, non-responsive, in a gutter. I lived through that, of course.
We stepped out of the Buick, shaking, some from adrenaline, some from fright. We were instantly sober. Jim unlocked the door to his house while Paul and I lifted Barb and helped her up the steps. Susie grabbed Barb’s purse and keys from the car and followed us in. Paul and I settled down onto the couch with Barb. Her laughter had died out, and she had a lost and distant look in her eyes.
“Are you OK?” I asked her.
“Yeah,” Barb said, “but no. No, what is going on? I’m so dizzy, so very dizzy.” She leaned her head on Paul’s shoulder.
“Baby, you’re drunk,” Susie said, standing over all of us.
“No, no, no,” Barb whispered, her eyes closing.
Jim walked into the room from the kitchen, a cup of hot coffee in his hands. “What? She passed out? Wake her. Give her this coffee,” he said.
“That doesn’t work,” Susie said.
“Yeah,” Paul added. “Let her sleep.” He cradled Barb’s head in his hands as he slipped out from under her and gently laid her head on a sofa cushion.
“What do we do? We’ve got to wake her up,” Jim said. “We’ve got to find Elmira. Don’t y’all still feel the pain?” He sipped the coffee he’d brought in for Barb.
“Of course we do,” I said. “But Barb can’t help us now. Don’t you see what’s happened? She’s lost her superpower. It’s up to the four of us now.” I stood. At that moment, a beam of sunlight knifed through the blinds. “Let’s do it together,” I said, putting my hand out between us, into the beam of light. I felt its heat on my skin like a brand.
“Together,” Paul said, and put his hand on top of mine.
“Together,” Susie said, and laid her hand on top of Paul’s. The three of us looked at Jim.
“Come on, Jim,” Susie said, “we need you for this.”
Jim looked down at Barb, heaved a sigh, looked back at our hands. “Together,” he said, and threw his hand on top. The sunlight went out.
When we stepped outside, gray clouds had moved across the sky, extinguishing the mid-afternoon light. We walked around Barb’s Buick and piled into Jim’s little econo-hatchback, Susie again riding shotgun. I felt more dread than ever. “Work your magic, Jim,” I said. “I don’t think we have much more time. We’ve got to find her.”
For an hour we drove all over town, from one corner to the other, upriver, downriver, to the lake, back of town, down the road, up the road, every light green, feeling a little better with the constant movement, never impeded. But still, no Elmira.
“What should we do?” Jim finally asked. “We’ve searched all the surface streets. It’s going to be dark soon.”
“Let’s get on the interstate,” I said, “head out to the suburbs.”
“Maybe we should just give up,” Paul said.
“How can you say that?” I turned to him in the backseat we were squeezed into. I felt desperate. I felt like I was the seven-year-old kid again, before Elmira had found me, different and alone and in pain. “We have to find her.”
“He’s right,” Susie said from the front seat. She was gripping her head, barely able to keep her eyes open. “It all hurts,” she said. “We need to find Elmira.”
We were approaching an intersection where we could turn onto a ramp for the interstate. As we drove toward it, the light turned yellow. I stared at it in disbelief. I think none of us comprehended it. Then it turned red. Still Jim didn’t slow, but drove into the intersection, smoothly turning toward the onramp. Cars screeched in all directions then Jim’s car was lit up with flashing blue strobe lights.
“Damn,” Jim said. “What the freaking hell?” He pulled to a stop. None of us said anything. I couldn’t even look at him. I looked down at my hands instead. I heard footsteps outside the car, on both sides.
“Let me talk to them,” Susie said. “I can handle this.”
Both doors opened up. “Come on,” a rough voice said. “Out of the car, all four of you, and keep your hands where we can see them. ID and registration,” he directed Jim.
Jim and Susie stepped out of the front seats, then Paul and I unfolded from the back seat. We walked around to the back of the car and stood in a line. The two cops faced us. The sky was almost dusk, the earlier overcast shredding apart into jagged shards overhead.
One of the cops handed Jim’s license and registration back to him. “Boy, you didn’t even slow down when you ran that light. You could’ve killed someone,” the cop said to him.
Before Jim could reply, Susie said, “Officer, you see, he didn’t believe the light was red. None of us did. He never stops for lights. I mean—”
“I wasn’t talking to you, missy. And it’s no defense that he breaks the law all the time,” the first cop said.
“Susie, that was the wrong thing to say,” Paul started. Which was true, and I felt my stomach drop even farther.
But the second cop cut Paul off. “What are you saying, punk?” He got into Paul’s face, chest bumping into chest, teeth gritted. “Who do you think you are?”
Paul tried to turn on the charm. I saw his facial muscles twitching, trying to shift into something the cop would recognize as his own kind. The more his muscles moved, though, the more it looked like he was having a spasm. Then he winked.
“You winking at me, boy?” the cop asked, practically spitting into Paul’s face. He grabbed Paul by the shoulder. “You coming onto me, boy? Are you?”
“Lay off him, Al,” the first cop said. “You can tell by looking at him, he don’t belong around here. His kind, whatever he is.” He handed Jim the ticket he’d been scrawling out, then he barked at Susie, “And you, missy, you learn to keep your mouth shut.”
Power, I thought. Prick. I wanted to tear him limb from limb, something I’d never had the need to do when in Susie’s presence because she always defused every ticking bomb in our midst. But she just stood, mute, staring down at her shoes.
“That’s right,” the first cop said. He patted the second cop on the shoulder. The second cop backed away from Paul.
“Now you all have a nice evening,” the second cop said, and they turned and stalked back to their cruiser.
“I don’t think I want to drive anymore,” Jim said, handing his keys to me. Susie and Paul huddled together into the back seat. Jim retreated to the shotgun seat and stared blankly out the passenger window. I took a deep breath, sat in the driver’s seat, and turned the key in the ignition. “Well,” I said. “That was interesting. Everyone OK?”
No one said anything.
“I guess,” I said, unsure of myself, unsure of them. “I guess we’ll keep looking for Elmira, at least until it’s totally dark.”
Still no one said anything. I wondered if my own superpower had disappeared with theirs.
I rounded the curved ramp and up onto the highway, figuring I would get off a few exits up the road, drive randomly in search of the woman who had filled my dreams since I was young, who had guided us all together, find out what the hell was happening and how to get everything back the way we had it. It had been so good, so carefree. But before I had even gotten Jim’s car up to highway speed, I saw a figure ahead on the shoulder, alone, walking, slow steps one in front of the other.
I pulled onto the shoulder and slowed to a stop behind her. It was Elmira. With the headlights from Jim’s car shining on her, she kept walking.
I got out and slammed the door shut behind me. “Elmira!” I called out. She didn’t answer. I ran up to her and we walked side by side. She was staring up at the darkening sky. The setting sun purpled and blushed the clouds above us.
“Damnit,” Elmira whispered, still watching the sky.
“What is it?” I asked. “What do you see?”
“Dogs,” she said. “Bears. Clowns. Earlier there was a whale.”
“But I don’t understand.” My heart was breaking for her, for all the ballet of kinetic possibility in the sky above us.
“Water vapor,” she said. “Ice crystals.” She lowered her gaze and looked at me. “I can’t see it anymore, Brian. The sky is nothing now, nothing special. But I still see something in you.”
I hugged her, gentle, and she hugged me back. “Elmira, you won’t believe me, but I loved you the moment I saw you first look into the sky, when I was seven,” I said, “but I thought it was stupid to think that, at seven, so young.”
“It’s not stupid, Brian,” she said. “You could see it all then, too, couldn’t you?”
“I didn’t know what to call it,” I said. “I still don’t. I thought ‘pain’ was the wrong word, but I never thought to call it ‘love’ until just now.”
“I love you, too, Brian.”
That’s when I felt the approaching truck, like a shock wave from a bomb blast, traveling out in front of it, not even the hint of the brakes squealing, and in an instant I saw what was about to happen. I threw Elmira to the side, hard, as the impact took me from behind, pain going through me so fast I couldn’t catch it or feel it, so much blackness and screaming in my head, until forever was nothing.
That was the end and it wasn’t, Great-Grandchild. Ghosts don’t write letters, or have offspring. Not in my time, anyway. When I next looked at Elmira, she was smiling. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Her skin looked fresh. There was color in her cheeks. The dark circles had disappeared from around her eyes, which nevertheless still glowed as brilliant and green as when I first saw them in that doctor’s waiting room. Her hand was on mine.
“What happened?” My tongue felt like it was glued to the insides of my mouth,
“You died,” Elmira said, almost laughing. “Almost four minutes. No heartbeat. The paramedics were about to give up, but then it started beating again.”
“Your powers eroded, too,” I heard another voice say. Barb’s face entered my frame of vision. Then behind Elmira and Barb, I saw Jim and Susie and Paul. A league of friends, Great-Grandchild, powerless.
I’ve been back home a couple weeks now. I don’t know every time I step out the door, whether I’ll get hit by a bus, whether this day will be the day I die for good. So I wanted to write you. I imagine your great-grandmother’s name is Elmira. I want to tell you all this before it’s too late, before you waste along too much without realizing what you might have. Look up at the sky, Great-Grandchild. There’s art and love up there. And all around you, too. And don’t worry about death too much, or about your dark and hero-less times. You’re too powerful for that.
Tad Bartlett’s work has appeared in the Oxford American, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Carolina Quarterly, Stockholm Review of Literature, and Bird’s Thumb, among others. He received his MFA from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. Tad is a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.