The story on this episode was originally published in The Greensboro Review.
Invisible! he whispered and crawled like a soldier down the hall. He snuck past his sister’s room, silently somersaulting into the kitchen where he grabbed a juice-box, two Honeybuns, and the Swiss Army knife his mother had confiscated and hid in the top drawer beneath the oven mitts. He snatched an orange Bic lighter left on the counter beside a handful of change, a scratched off lottery ticket, and flattened pack of Marlboros. He slid it into the secret pocket that he had sewn into his Army fatigue cargo pants. After refolding his map tucking it back up his sleeve, he eased open the door, careful not to wake his mother who was asleep on the couch. He leaped off the porch, outstretching his arms towards the handful of stars still shining, whisper Flight! as his body lifted off the ground and ascended into the blue-black air. He spiraled up into the sky, higher and higher still, until the squat beige double-wides of River View Trailer Park looked no bigger than tattered blocks left out in the street.
Saturday mornings were best for flying. The Franklin boys, who rode around on stolen ten-speeds and carried M-80s in their pockets that they could light and chuck at your head without even slowing down, didn’t wake up until ten. Jessie and the other high-school kids who lingered in the alley between the back of River View and the parking lot of the abandoned Dollar General, would not be around to smoke their cigarettes and call his name and ask questions about his sister for another couple hours. Even Mr. Blakely, whose half-dozen Pitbulls were never on a leash or a chain, didn’t come out onto his porch until eight. Saturday mornings meant flying unchecked and never once needing to use Camouflage! or Freeze Time!
First he flew to Miss Becky’s place. Miss Becky lived in the cul-de-sac and worked nights at the Amoco across the street. She gave him free Slushies if he brought his own cup even though he never asked for them and once swung a sock full of pennies over her head and threatened to kill the oldest Franklin boy who was waiting outside, threatening to decapitate him with a machete he had found in the ditch behind Mr. Acker’s trailer. That day the Franklin boys had run away, calling Miss Becky all kinds of names, but only from a distance. He had drawn Miss Becky a picture and given it to her the next day with a pledge to always protect her scrawled across the back.
X-Ray Vision! he whispered and balanced on the grill beneath her bedroom window.
Inside, Miss Becky looked the same as always—asleep on the mattress, no covers, no clothes, the blue light of the television washing over her outstretched body. Once or twice there had been a man in Miss Becky’s bed. Those were the mornings she looked the saddest, her body all curled up and hung across their bodies, like two sleepwalkers who collided and got stuck in a hug.
He hopped off the grill and whispered Speed!, the trip to Mr. Dinkins’s trailer taking less than a second since his feet were moving ten thousand miles per hour. Mr. Dinkins was the manager and had the nicest yard of anyone. Flowers hung on his porch and no wrappers or cans littered his front lawn. Mr. Dinkins even had a hound named Scooter chained to a spigot on the side of his house. He climbed Mr. Dinkins’s fence and unwrapped one of the Honey Buns for Scooter. Then he whispered Dog-Mode! and had a conversation in which he learned some interesting things about Mr. Dinkins.
When the screen door slammed, he rubbed Scooter behind the ears, whispered Super Strength! and jumped over Mr. Dinkins’s fence, three trailers, and his father’s truck, landing with a thud on the steps to his own trailer.
From inside, his mother screamed “Colton?”
“You steal that lighter that was on the counter?”
“Bring it here.”
He whispered Courage! and did not tremble once when his mother boxed him in the ear and snatched the lighter out of his hand. She reached her hands between the couch cushions, grabbed a piece of tin-foil off the coffee table, and told him to leave the room. He went ahead and left the house, though. The smell made him sick, always had.
He usually went to the playground when his mother needed the house. All the swings had been ripped down and the stairs in the sandbox led to nothing since Randy Foster had never returned the slide after he took it off and tried to use it as a ramp for his dirt-bike. Still, though, there was a bench he liked to sit on that wasn’t too bad for thinking or drawing or making plans.
He was thinking about the neighborhood up the street, that family with a pool and a trampoline in their backyard. He was thinking about developing a new superpower, one involving the ability to breathe underwater. He was thinking what it would be like to never have to be afraid of drowning.
Then he felt the arm tighten around his neck.
“Got him,” a voice close to his ear shouted.
“Alright hold him,” another voice said.
“You better not get any on me,” the first voice said.
“Well, hold him still then,” a third voice said.
He knew all three voices. Franklins.
He didn’t know which Franklin had him in the head-lock, but he knew it wasn’t the youngest one because the youngest one was holding the bucket.
“Alright,” the youngest one said. “On three.”
“One…two…” the voice in his ear said.
He closed his eyes and tried to whisper Shield!
“Three!” the voice shouted and released his neck.
His hands shot up to rub the muscles in his neck. He threw back his head and took a deep breath, the air rushing into his lungs feeling clean and cool. When the contents of the bucket hit his face, his mouth was wide open.
He knew from the smell what they had put in the bucket and, as he fell to his knees on the pavement and spit it out of his mouth, he knew that he couldn’t stop the vomit. He spit and wiped at his eyes and dry-heaved. He tried to stand up, but one of the Franklin boys kicked the back of his knees driving him back to the ground. He threw up into the sandbox as the youngest Franklin boy finished emptying the bucket in his hair and one of the other ones, whichever one had choked him, said, “Come on, man. Keep pouring. There’s a little left. That’s it. All of it.”
He stayed on the ground until they stopped laughing. Until they got on their bikes and rode away.
Ninja! he whispered, slipping inside his trailer, his clothes piled up outside in the dirt. His mother was still on the couch, her arm hanging over the edge like the limb of a willow. She didn’t stir when he tiptoed past.
His sister, though, whose bedroom was next to the bathroom, came out of her room as he was sneaking down the hall. “Hold up,” she said, grabbing his arm and slinging him against the wall when he tried to slip past her. “What’s on your face?”
He didn’t say anything, just tried to move past her. But her grip was too strong and she pinned him back up against the wall.
“Is that?” she said, leaning in and sniffing.
When she got within a few inches of his face, she jerked her head back and covered her nose. She let go of his arm and slammed her open hand against the wall so hard it left a dent in the drywall.
“Was it the Franklin boys again?” she said, flexing her jaw, the bones on the edges like two rocks ready to pop out of the skin.
He looked at the carpet between his bare-feet and listened to his sister breathing hard through her nose. The rhymes he had heard at school, the ones about snitches, came to mind.
“Colton,” his sister said, taking a knee and holding his face like it was something valuable. “Look at me, Colton.”
He knew if he looked the tears would come, so he only looked long enough to nod his head.
“All three of them?” she said, removing her phone from her pocket and dialing a number.
He nodded again, this time even smaller, this time almost imperceptible.
“Tre, it’s me,” she said into the phone. “I need a favor.”
And then she stopped and looked back down at him.
“Tre, hold on for second, okay?” she said and looked back down at him. “Hey buddy, why don’t you go get a shower? I’m going to take care of this.”
“Okay,” he whispered and hurried into the bathroom.
“Those boys will never mess with you again,” she shouted through the wall once the tub was full and the faucet was off.
Aqua Mode! he whispered and held his nose as he sank down into the warm and soapy water.
Mrs. Franklin beat so hard on the door that it sounded like she was hitting it with a hammer. She was screaming in a way that made her voice crack. She was saying things like “I know you’re in there” and “Nobody threatens my children” and “I swear to God I’ll kill you.”
He was in his room when Mrs. Franklin started banging on the door. Then he went into the living room and sat down beside his mother. Mrs. Franklin was leaning over the railing and trying to look into the window. He moved quickly to the window, drawing the blinds just as Mrs. Franklin’s face appeared. They met eyes for a second and she looked like certain villains he had seen in comics, her mouth like a drain, her eyes all bright with hate.
He returned to the couch and tried to wake his mother while Mrs. Franklin started banging against the window with her hammer-hands.
“Mom,” he whispered and squeezed the spot on her hand that, before, had always woken her up.
Mrs. Franklin was banging harder, screaming louder. “All night! I’ll stay out here all night!”
He squeezed the spot on his mother’s hand again, but when she still didn’t move he sprinted back to Jess’s room. Her light was on and the television was going, but she was not inside. He thought about calling her, but remembered the phone had not worked in weeks.
He ran into his room, grabbed his Swiss Army knife, and waited on the couch with his mother. After a while, Mrs. Franklin began ramming her body into the door, the sound of her shoulder against the wood like thunder way too close. The third time she did it, something in the door cracked and she starting laughing and describing what she would do when she got inside. He used his thumbnail to remove the largest blade and held it out in front of him, trying not to shake. She hit the door again and something cracked even more. When he started to cry, he crawled into his mother’s lap and whispered Force-field!
After Mr. Franklin came and dragged Mrs. Franklin away, and after the cops made Jess’s friends sit on the ground while they searched the car, and after his mother woke up and looked at the door and threatened to press charges, and after it finally got dark outside and Jess sent her friends away and the three of them watched TBS while eating the Hamburger Helper from two nights ago, and after everyone had gone to bed and River View was dark and quiet and lonely again—he reached beneath his bed and got the rope that he had bought at the Army Surplus store downtown.
He tiptoed outside and looked around to make sure nobody was watching. He tied the rope around the railing that led to his front door and carried the other end as far as it would go. When the rope snapped taut, he gripped it with both hands and adjusted it to run over his shoulder. He started pulling. He pulled so hard that he forgot to breath and felt dizzy for a few seconds. Then he pulled harder. He pulled until the insides of his palms were numb with pain and his lungs were on fire and the ground beneath his feet seemed to break and moan. He pulled and whispered, Transport! Transport! Transport! as first the house, then the rope, and finally his own body disappeared, all their old particles vanishing into the night and starting their journey to someplace better, wherever that might be.
Dan Leach’s short fiction has been published in various literary journals and magazines, including The Greensboro Review, Deep South Magazine, and The New Madrid Review. A native of South Carolina, he graduated from Clemson University in 2008, and taught high-school in Charleston until 2014 when he relocated to Nebraska. Floods and Fires, his debut short-story collection, will be published by University of North Georgia Press in 2016.
Image: flickr / tunaboat