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Hero

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam lives in Texas with her partner and two literarily-named cats: Gimli and Don Quixote. Her fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Goblin Fruit. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast program and reviews short fiction at her blog, Short Story Review. You can visit her on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle or through her website: www.bonniejostufflebeam.com.
"How's he been?" my sister asks, entering the room I am not in.
"Not good." Our mother stands in the window, her silhouette like a beacon of dark across the city's nightlights. "During the day, he's okay. He even smiles. But at night." When she turns, our mother's gravel grey face twitches. "I'm running out of options here, Maggie."
My sister clamps her hand onto our mother's shoulder, pushes her as gently as she can into the nearest chair. Our mother's body is like a sack of potatoes. The room in which they stand, the room I have not entered for one full week, smells like rotting tubers. Through the haze of the plaster wall, I think I can even see some mold formations like eyes poking from the ceiling.
"You need to rest," Maggie says. "I can take it from here. You look like Hell. Have you slept?"
"He just keeps slamming his fists together," she says and lets her head fall into her hands and moans. I look at my hands, huge and veiny. I slam them together.
In the dark of this room in which I sit huddled in a corner, there is nothing for me but the memory of my victory like eyes from the ceiling, from the walls. I wish I could lock my hands together, because each time my fists meet they crack like the shot of a gun. Behind closed eyes I see black and blood and streaks of red leading from the door of the theater like the skid marks of a car. His car, the shooter's car, which he had parked outside, still running, the exhaust fumes muddying the smell of sweat and gore which would have told me where to go, where to find him. I found him anyway.
He killed them all, every person in that theater. So I wrung his neck; his bones snapped in these hands.
The walls pulse in the dark. If I stand, I feel once more like fainting. My head is light, but I've been eating what mother gives me. My muscles ache from the position I've contorted myself into: a ball of limbs and skin, stuffed into the space where wall meets wall. Call me The Amazing Ball. Call me Failsafe. Call me anything but the nickname that mocks me from headlines.
And who was the man I'm called Hero for killing? A man gone wrong, not so different from me. The same hair color, even. In my corner, my body vibrates. I can't stop it. It won't ever stop.
In the red streaks I thought I saw the future. It was me in this corner, in a ball, and the world outside burning. The red the red of flames.
His sister has brought a plate of mashed potatoes and nutritional yeast gravy. If it were up to her, she would cook a meal from his childhood: gravy of chicken grease and sausage. But her brother long ago eschewed meat, cheese, fat. She thinks as she serves him, Maybe that is why you're having such a hard time, blaming yourself so much. You need protein, little brother. As soon as she thinks it, she winces. Could he hear her? Was that one of his powers, the ability to read thoughts? She can't quite remember them all anymore.
"I can't," her brother says.
She blushes. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it," she says.
"Can't eat. Too dark to eat." In his corner he no longer looks like the brother she knew as a child, no longer looks like the hero on the front page of every paper. How could this man rip buildings from the ground like onions from the dirt? He shakes in the quiet, and she can feel his supersonic humming through the floor. It rattles the tile beneath her. "Wait till the light," he says. "I'll eat in the light."
She wonders about the dark. Once it was his playground. Once he rode out into each night like someone from the TV shows they used to watch until midnight on the weekends. She once was able to turn on the TV and see their old heroes replaced with her brother's face. This used to make her smile so wide she thought her face might rip.
"I'll save it," she says, but she doesn't leave the room. She kneels beside him and presses her forehead to his. His sweat saturates her. An ache jolts through her brain like a spear. She doesn't pull back. This is the only way she knows to help him. By being herself, by being the sister she's always been.
I can't feel my sister's heartbeat. It scares me, how cold she is. She's usually so warm. The walls too are cold. They leave my hands frostbitten. I ask them why so cold, and they don't speak to me. I can't hear the hum of appliances, the hum of cars on the streets outside, the hum of hearts. I feel the future, and it is full of screaming.
Omniscience isn't one of my powers. I am not an oracle. I repeat this to myself, but if one man can do it, five guns and tear gas and a closed room of people thinking it's nothing but a joke, one man can do anything. How soon the heart goes sour. Wrong.
I can't stop everything forever. For all the times I'll stop one, there will be another who I fail. My sister's heart will stop beating, whether I can hear it or not. My mother in the next room will sleep. The people out there, in the world, they will turn on each other. They will destroy each other with the aim of being bigger than the last guy.
The night will stretch across our city like a veil. A competition to them. Who will warrant my attention? Which crime so grotesque I'll have to let the others go just to stop it? Sick. I retch all over my shoes. The reek of broccoli and peanut butter and celery fills my nose until I cough.
My sister kisses my forehead and leaves the room, says she'll be right back. This time, she will. Next time, who can say?
"Is he sick again?" Their mother has collapsed on the couch, and she lifts her head to look at her daughter when she comes back into the living room. "There's already a rag in the sink there."
"You're supposed to be sleeping." Her daughter waves her hand as if shooing a fly. It's a gesture their mother has always despised. She wants to spit at her daughter's hand, but she doesn't have the energy. It's been four days since she slept. She thinks she can feel the skin under her eyes disappearing. Last time she looked in a mirror, the circles were so dark it looked as though she had a black eye.
"You're supposed to be living your life. Let an old woman take care of her son."
Her daughter never listens. Soon the door clicks shut again, and there is no more sound in the living room but the soft tick of a clock on the mantle. It could be a bomb, their mother thinks. It could always be a bomb.
Used to be she would wonder what it would have been like to raise a boring child. If he would have made her as proud as the son she has. She doesn't wonder this any longer. These days she only wonders if the world might be a better place without him in it. The light in the corner has been left on, and she closes her eyes against it. To be the mother of a hero requires strength she does not at this moment possess. It requires a woman who can take care of herself, who can put herself to sleep. Their mother is scared that if she sleeps the world will end. That she will die. That her son will get better. That the bad guys will once more have reason to hurt him.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

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