Prologue: The Day The Heroes Died

"We can't all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by."

-Will Rodgers

He always wanted to be a hero.

As a little boy, hiding in the forts he would construct in his bedroom, he would fall into the adventures of the Amazing Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk and the X-Men; forgetting he belonged to this world and pretending he was in a better one, a world where there was always a hero who would swoop in and save the day.

His mother hated comics, just like she hated bugs and dirt and a bunch of other things, so she never bought him any. She got mad if he even told her about Superman and Daredevil and all their amazing adventures. Once, in the car on the way home from a doctor's appointment, he asked her if he could ever be a hero. She slammed on the brakes and the car behind them honked angrily but she wasn't listening. She just turned around to look at him. Her eyes were sharp and cold as knives. No. She told him harshly. No. And don't ask me again.

Every once in a while his dad used bring him a comic. He would come home from work, in his nice suit and tie, and pull a comic out of his briefcase as his wife went into kitchen to get him a cookie or other confection from the batch she baked that day. They would share a secret smile and a wink, and the boy would run his fingers over the clear plastic packaging before rushing to his room. Watching him go, the father's smile would fade to something more wistful. To be young again, he would think. To go back to the days when all you needed was a comic book and you'd be happy.

But all good things must end.

Cleaning his room, his mother found a comic book under his pillow. She screamed at him till her face turned red and her voice went hoarse, ripping out the pages one by one in front of him, tearing them in half and then crushing them in her hands. He started to cry, not because his mother was shouting at him, but because she was destroying his comic. She demanded to know where he got it. She told him what a waste of money it was and how he should be ashamed. He was not listening, just staring down at his feet, hands clenched into fists at his side until his fingernails dug into his palms. Tears ran down his cheeks and his nose began to run. He did not care what his mother said. All he knew was that mommy had just killed Batman. The Joker and the Penguin and all those other bad guys couldn't kill the Batman, but his mommy did. And then she threw Batman in the trash, a bunch of ripped and crumpled papers.

She kept on going, asking him again, Who gave it to you? He wasn't listening, and he certainly wasn't about to talk to her. It was your father, wasn't it? She said. It wasn't a question, because she had already decided the answer. Wasn't it! She repeated, because apparently she still wanted an answer even if she wasn't going to listen to it. He still didn't give her one, and she looked like she wanted to slap him, but then they both heard the sound of footsteps and the key turning in the lock. She was looking at the door now, not him. He cried harder, because his daddy was walking into the den of the monster that killed Batman and he didn't even know it.

When his daddy finally opened the door, he looked happy because he was back home and he thought everyone would be happy to see him. But then daddy saw mommy's angry face and daddy wasn't smiling anymore. He was now crying so hard that his chest hurt, because mommy had killed daddy's smile too. His daddy looked all confused, and asked what had happened.

Mommy started yelling about comic books and craziness and said a bunch of words he had never heard before, and his dad looked mad and then glanced over at him, then back to mommy, as if to tell her to be quiet because he was he was there and he shouldn't have to listen to all of this. But mommy didn't notice, and continued to shout about comic books, which made daddy look down at his briefcase quickly, before quickly diverting his gaze. She noticed this time. Her eyes turned all hard and cold, like that time in the car that he still had bad dreams about sometimes, except maybe this time even more so. She snatched the briefcase from his daddy's hand, without asking, even though she got mad whenever he took a cookie without asking her first.

She ripped it open so fast she almost broke it, and his father opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, but then looked at him, almost as if he felt guilty, and closed his mouth. His mother riffled through the papers, tearing some of them and daddy flinched, but still didn't say anything. She finally found something and pulled it out, looking some evil kind of happy.

It was a comic book, the comic book he had told his dad he really wanted a few days ago. He was mad at himself then, because he let daddy down. Because it was all his fault. Maybe it was okay that mommy took his comics, because he didn't deserve them anymore. His mommy was right, he would never be a hero. His heart was being squeezed until it hurt and he could feel each beat. A black hole formed at the bottom of his stomach, starting small like a pinprick or a grain of sand, and expanding, consuming everything in its path, slowly draining his soul. And the more it ate, the more it grew, and the more it needed.

He looked up, and saw his mommy claw open the packaging, her long, French-manicured nails tearing through the packaging, and even damaging the cover page, so that Spiderman looked as if he had been mauled by a tiger, the long, streaky marks running down his masked face. With a sigh that showed both her disappointment in him and her disgust at the comic book, she leafed through the pages, finally stopping on one. She looked at it for a second, and for that second the boy hoped that she had changed her mind, that she had realized that comic books weren't evil. But instead she barked out a cold, hard laugh and tore Spiderman to shreds. He could hear the sound of the pages ripping and see the pieces getting smaller and smaller, because she wasn't just tearing them in half this time, but into lots of tiny pieces that floated to the floor, like feathers.

He didn't feel sad any more, or even angry. He didn't feel anything anymore, not even his heart beat. The black hole had sucked up everything, and he was empty. He went back to his room and closed the door. The sun shined through the window, laughing at him. He closed the curtains, and it was dark. He stood in the darkness for a while, becoming a part of it, until he was nothing and everything at the same time because that was what the dark was. And then he crawled under his bed, not onto it, but under it, pulling himself forward and wiggling around until he was in the corner, a bedpost against his back and his feet touching the wall, where nothing could sneak up on him and hurt him and he was safe and he didn't have to feel anything because he was in the dark. And he closed his eyes and it was even darker and a strange type of peace washed over him and filled him up, so that even though he was feeling something he couldn't feel any of the bad things or any other things because there wasn't any room.

In the darkness he slowly fell asleep, and dreamed that the bad guys won and took over the world because there was no one to stop them because all the heroes were dead. Or maybe they never lived in the first place. All he knew is that he should care, but he didn't. He didn't really think it mattered anymore, because he wasn't sure there was anything worth saving, anyway.

The next day his mother and father weren't talking. He wasn't talking much either so it didn't really matter. The day after that his mother searched his room, flipping through books and digging through drawers, in search of more comic books. When he looked at her, past the anger, past the scowl, he could see excitement. She felt like she was on a treasure hunt, and every time she found another comic book, a grin would start to spread across her face before quickly returning to a scowl. Watching her, he felt some of his emotions coming back. He hated his mother. He hated her.

She took away the last thing that made him happy.

He hated her. More than the bullies at school, more than all the other kids who just ignored him, more than the teachers who saw everything but pretended they didn't. But he didn't leave. He stood and watched as she found every last comic book, and when she was done, she scooped them all up and left without even looking at him. He followed her out of the room without thinking.

She walked into the living room and pulled back the grate and by the light of the fire she was orange. Only now did she look over to him, just for a second, to see his face. Her eyes were guarded, and he could not tell what she was thinking. Maybe she expected a reaction. Maybe she expected screaming and crying. Maybe.

She picked up the stack of comic books and threw them into the fire without ceremony. She put back the grate and turned to him again, following his line of sight to the pile of burning comics. I'll take you to the bookstore tomorrow, okay? She almost sounded sympathetic. You can pick out some real books to read then, okay?

He nodded, but didn't say anything. And he almost felt bad for hating her, because he realized she didn't understand. But she should have. She should have.

That night, when he sat in his bed picking at the stitches in his quilt because he had nothing better to do, his father came into the room and sat down beside him on his bed. He put his hand on his son's knee and sighed. I'm sorry, buddy, he apologized, not quite able to meet his son's eyes.

The boy stared down at his hands and his father stared inwards, wondering how things ended up like this. They sat there for a while, in silence, shoulder to shoulder but in separate worlds. His dad eventually left. The boy didn't ask why, or say goodbye, or say anything. It was okay, though, because his dad didn't either. Because they both knew there was nothing to be said.