The Practical Ending

by Alex Sobel


“And finally, if you pray enough, do good works, and have a loving heart, when you die, God will come and delete all of the porn off your computer.”

I said it loud, the entire speech as written. I projected my voice, soft palate raised, tongue resting against my bottom teeth, just like I was taught.

The man at the door studied the pamphlet, glancing over the top of his glasses. Like everyone else on the block who had bothered to answer, he was middle-aged, aggressively so, like his age was a hard-lost battle. He looked sweaty. Not just sweaty, but of sweat, like it was his regular state, his body at room temperature. He had answered the door out of breath, his clothes barely on, suggesting he’d been naked only seconds before.

I looked back at Dad, who was standing on the sidewalk in front of the house. His arms were crossed, his expression a mix of piety and delirium. These days he wore nothing but a navy sport coat over too small t-shirts featuring the logos for classic rock bands, boxy jeans, and bright orange basketball shoes.

It was his uniform, his costume.

“Is there like…” the man said, blinking sharply. “Church? A service or something?”

“We’re going to have meetings,” I said. “If you give us your email, we’ll let you know when we get times set up.”

“The People’s Path. Huh. I like that name, the sound of it,” the man said. “You know, I was raised Catholic. Went to Catholic school, the whole thing. All-boys school, had to wear a tie if you can believe it. Haven’t been to church in decades, hated the stuffy services, confession, all that. But you know what, I might just check you guys out.” He smiled at me. “This might be the sign from God that I need.”

***

I used to hunt down all the clips of the Nightwatchman I could find.

Anything posted to YouTube would get pulled fairly quickly, but I used to rip them to my computer as soon as I saw them. Sometimes, my best friend Lionel and I would take the clips and edit them together, watching for the angles, keeping up the continuity so it felt like a real movie with proper cinematography. Only these were real heroes, helping out real people who were in real danger.

The best movie Lionel and I ever made, our magnum opus, was the Nightwatchman’s last encounter with Man-Brain. It was a fundraiser for a senator, an incumbent Republican who was born with a fortune, who’d lost enough money in bad business deals to buy a small country.

Man-Brain wanted to hold the senator for ransom, I guess. His rant in the video clips was jumbled, a slurry of unintelligible threats. We’d find out later that his large brain was killing him, that he was essentially having several small strokes a day at that point.

He’d be dead two months later.

All of the clips we found were clear, the elites at the fundraiser all holding the newest iPhones, their bravery buoyed by the knowledge that they would certainly be saved, that the system wouldn’t allow them and their money to die. The Nightwatchman burst in like always, landing perfectly in an aisle between tables, one knee down, his body lurched forward, balancing on a single closed fist.

A perfect hero pose.

“Kill him!” Man-Brain screamed, even those two basic words lost in his throat.

Man-Brain’s henchmen, the Brain Men, attacked. They wore matching costumes, mostly a bright, vomit-tinged green, but with purple shoulder pads, belt, boots, and laser weapons.

I don’t know why they even bothered, the blasts from their guns could barely tickle the Nightwatchman. Still, they charged, knowing they’d be swatted away by his superior strength, knowing that they wouldn’t see a penny from the heist, knowing they’d serve time.

And yet. Every encounter brought new recruits, the same costumes, the same conviction, the same failures.

I thought about the Brain Men during the door-to-doors, these people, all men, agreeing to something that they couldn’t possibly believe, that they couldn’t possibly need.

But there was a sheet, a list of names and emails. They had agreed. They wanted what Dad had, what he’d promised.

Whatever that was.

***

“Hot fucking damn, that was a successful trip,” Dad said when we were back in the car. “Changing hearts, changing minds, changing souls.” His moods came in sharp, stomach-turning waves. He was high now, meaning we were a few hours from when he’d drop off a cliff.

Dad had always had schemes, too many ideas, not enough conviction. Once, he started writing a screenplay for a Christmas movie where Santa Claus cuts himself going down a chimney and, after a government scientist uses the blood to make uncontrollable, deadly clones, has to hunt down and kill his evil copies. Another time he wanted to open an Etsy shop selling sock puppets that looked vaguely like the members of ’80s new wave bands. He only got around to making Morrissey and the guy from a Flock of Seagulls before quitting that one. Before the People’s Path, the wildest thing he’d done had been when he started claiming that feminism was a movement started by a man named Robert Femine as a way to draw attention to the plight of men born without penises. Dad had wanted to start a non-profit for the cause, but it never survived the planning stages. In reality, not a single one of his plans had ever come close to fruition before the People’s Path, before Mom finally divorced him after too many years, too many ultimatums allowed to pass. The church went from conception to pamphlet-carrying reality in five days.

Even God needed six.

We stopped at McDonald’s for ice cream, our ritual after the door-to-doors, my reward for spreading the word. We never ate inside the restaurant, but Dad hated the drive-thru, so we always went inside to order. He pulled into the parking lot, passing half a dozen open spots before parking six yards away from the closest car.

Dad looked out of place standing in line. He looked out of place everywhere he went.

My phone vibrated in my pocket. I pulled it out to find a text from my mom. “Ready?” it said. She texted me this often, this simple question.

“Not yet,” I replied. I knew she wouldn’t follow up, wouldn’t ask me why it was taking so long for me to come around, wouldn’t ask me how long it would be.

She never did.

The woman behind the counter taking people’s orders was dead-eyed, her face swollen with exhaustion. She wore a black McDonald’s visor, a denim vest with an embroidered golden arch on the back. I could see the edge of a tattoo slipping out of her shirtsleeve, the letters RIP on a banner made to look like it was blowing in the wind. Just below that was the top of a man’s face, the undeniable mask of the Nightwatchman. The anniversary was coming up that week, two whole years. I wanted to ask the cashier why she got the tattoo, what it meant to her, if she cried whenever she remembered he wasn’t here to protect us anymore.

I wanted to know if it mattered to anyone but me.

“An ice cream cone and a hot fudge sundae, to go,” Dad said when we made our way up to the counter, his voice pitched higher, the excitement from the door-to-door still in the process of burning down, like his mania was made up of calories.

“The ice cream machine is broken,” the woman said.

“What the fuck do you mean? You’re goddamn McDonald’s and you don’t have fucking ice cream?”

“We have the ice cream, it’s just that the machine’s broken, it needs fixed.”

“Needs. Fixed? Is it on your menu?”

“The machine?” the woman said.

“The ice cream.”

“Yeah.”

“Then why the fuck can’t I buy it?”

This wasn’t the first time this had happened. I watched Dad yell at the McDonald’s employee, the manager coming up to the front, the confrontation bowing toward a logical conclusion, a practical ending. Whenever things like this happened, I slipped backwards into my own head, into a fantasy of being saved by a hero. I imagined Dad as an evil supervillain, shooting lightning out of his hands or using his super strength to throw tables at the hero, only to be bested by his super-powered foe. With the hero victorious, he always picked me up, flying me away and… that’s where the fantasy ended. Because I couldn’t imagine where he was taking me. My mind couldn’t conjure anywhere I wanted to go.

***

“I have a new theory on which hero your mom is dating,” Lionel said. It was just the two of us at lunch, as always. We weren’t bullied, or even disliked. I almost wanted that, the way kids in movies were pushed around, how there was something about them that challenged, that offended. Lionel and I were mostly ignored, invisible to popular kids, not worth the effort.

We’d first gotten the idea that Mom was dating a hero when Dad banned me from bringing any of my superhero action figures to his apartment during the weeks I spent with him. “You got dinosaurs or soldiers? Fine, bring those. But those people you call superheroes? More like super fascists, super authoritarian assholes.”

It wasn’t unlike Dad to have strong opinions about even the most arbitrary things, but this was especially strict, especially intense, and it lasted.

When Mom refused to introduce me to her new boyfriend was when it became a full-blown theory. “It’s just so new, you know?” she told me.

“You think he’ll hate me? That he’ll break up with you if he meets me?” I said, not truly believing that but wanting to guilt Mom.

“No! No, no, no. Of course not. I just don’t want to introduce you to someone new and then yank them out of your life again. You’ve already gone through so much, you know?”

In other words, she knew that me, being an expert in the field of heroes, would recognize him, and they had to figure out what they were going to do about that.

“I know I was pretty set on it being the Street Cleaner,” Lionel continued in between small, chipmunk-like bites of a peanut butter sandwich. “You were resistant, and I am willing to admit that I was wrong in that regard.”

“Okay, so who do you think it is now?”

“My new theory: Admiral Crash.”

“Crash? Seriously? He’s strong, but he’s such a meat head.” I ate a spoonful of the Chef Boyardee ravioli Dad always bought for my lunch. It came in individual containers that were opened with a pull-tab and were meant to be warmed up, but since school didn’t have a usable microwave, I ate the ravioli cold, gagging each bite down, too scared to ask Dad to get something else for lunch, worried that whatever came next would be even worse.

Lionel shrugged. “I’m not commenting on your mom’s taste in men. I’m just saying that I’ve noticed Crash’s fights have been trending closer and closer to your mom’s house.”

Mom’s house. My teeth clenched at the term, what used to be “my house” or “our house” was now “Mom’s house.” And because the other place I stayed at was “Dad’s apartment,” it felt like there had been a split and I’d gotten nothing, that neither was my home.

“I was hoping it would be someone cooler,” I said.

“Are you still coming over after school tomorrow?”

I nodded. “Yeah, of course.”

Dad never approved of me hanging out with Lionel. He always thought Lionel was too weird, too dorky for his son, who he didn’t realize was also aggressively uncool. Mostly, Dad focused on looks. Lionel wore thick glasses, had red hair, freckles, a face-swallowing grin that was made for toy commercials. “Might seem cute now, but he is going to be a pizza-faced monster when he grows up,” Dad told me once.

“Cool. I have a map on my computer at home I could show you,” Lionel said. “It’s not undeniable proof or anything, but it’s pretty compelling.”

“I just feel like there has to be a better way to find out.”

“Other than your mom finally introducing you after four months? Well, you could always call in a supervillain or something to kidnap you. Whatever hero comes to the rescue is most likely the one.”

I thought about Dad, The People’s Path, what would qualify as enough for a hero to come intervene. I picked up my milk. As soon as my mouth touched the paper container, I got a painful chill, like when my tongue touched a popsicle stick. But I had to get the ravioli taste out of my mouth, so I tilted my head back, gulping it down until there was nothing left.

***

It was stupid. So, so stupid.

Plasmo? Seriously? He was cool in theory. He didn’t have a costume because his body would just melt anything right off of him, but he glowed in slow waves, like a pulsing sunset. It made for good clips on YouTube and one of my favorite action figures. But his pulse blasts were so weak, and he didn’t even have any henchmen.

For him to be the one to finally kill the Nightwatchman felt like an insult.

I only watched the clip once. It’s been banned on most sites, but I know you can find it if you want to see it. Plasmo had been defeated already, like always, quickly, uneventfully. The Nightwatchman, arms crossed, bored with the process, was giving an interview.

In between questions, you could hear someone yelling offscreen, the words indecipherable until one phrase poked through the noise: he’s dead. The Nightwatchman turned his head in the direction of the commotion before turning back at the camera, a strange expression, almost a smile. Did he know what was happening? Did he know that Plasmo’s death would cause him to implode, killing everyone in the room?

Did he know, a single moment before it happened, that he was going to die, that he couldn’t save himself?

***

As soon as I got home from school, I could hear Dad yelling into the phone.

“So now you have a… a monster inside of you?” he said. He was talking to Mom. She was the only person he ever talked to. “Insult to fucking injury, Serenity. How could you let that happen, especially with that Godless fuck?”

I slipped past Dad and into my room, slid under the covers. I missed my action figures. I knew, even then, that it was silly, but they comforted me, gave me control. I would make up stories in my head at school, doing my best to remember so I could play them out when I got home. That was the important part. The stories weren’t real, weren’t solidified in their existence, until they were acted out with my toys. Before that, they were just thoughts, meaningless, powerless.

I could hear the shouting stop after a while, and then nothing.

“Ready?” Mom texted, I could almost tell through the phone that she’d been crying.

Ready to talk to her, ready to tell her about Dad, ready to start the legal process of removing his custody. We’d only talked about it once. I told her it was hard, that I wasn’t ready. And to her credit, she said okay, that she would keep following up. I didn’t know what made me stay silent, why it was so easy to keep spending weeks with Dad, doing door-to-doors and whatever else he’d come up with next. Was it loyalty? Was it fear?

“Not yet,” I texted back.

Eventually Dad poked his head into my room. “You in there, Simon?” he said, his voice hoarse from the screaming. “I, uh… I’m gonna make something for dinner if you’re hungry.”

But he couldn’t even do that. I could hear him pacing for a few minutes before going into his own room. Through the thin walls I could hear his teeth grinding, the pillow-muffled sobs. He was still going when I finally got up to warm up a microwave dinner. As it cooked, I leaned my head against the microwave so the humming would cover the sound of Dad’s pain, giving me two minutes of relief, two minutes of escape.

***

I was young, but I could see it, the way Dad terrorized Mom, the ups and downs, the way he would scream at her, say he was being smothered by their marriage, and then later apologize, beg for forgiveness after the manic episode had faded. There was no way the relationship was going to last forever and I was definitely glad Mom was able to get away finally, but still. They were my parents, it hurt when they divorced, even though it was inevitable.

I cried when Mom told me in the car after she’d picked me up at school. She wrestled her face into a sad expression, one of solidarity with how I was feeling, even though I could tell that she was relieved, the weight lifted.

She reached over, massaged my back with one hand while she controlled the wheel with the other. When I could finally control the tears, blinked away the damp, I noticed something stuck to the windshield.

“I tried to tell him to stay home, baby,” Mom said, seeing that I’d noticed. “But he insisted on coming with me.”

It was my Nightwatchman figure. I had another one who was newer, a better made toy with more movable joints, more accessories, but this one was my favorite for reasons I could never understand. The one Mom had brought was older, less detailed, had dirty suction cups attached to his hands so he could stick to the glass window. The black lines of his costume were smudged from holding him with oily fingers, the screws holding his knees together brown and rusted from taking him into the bathtub when I was little. Mom knew I loved that toy, knew it would make me feel better.

As Mom drove, the figure’s legs bounced on loose joints, the suction cups barely keeping the body up. I tried to wait it out, hoping he wouldn’t fall, that’d he’d last the ride home, but eventually I broke, reaching out to grab the figure, scraping my thumb across the windshield to dislodge the suction cup. I pulled the toy close, my most prized possession, not wanting it to break, catching it before it even had a chance to fall.

***

When we got to Lionel’s house, we made pizza rolls in the microwave, gathered barbecue potato chips and cans of cream soda to take to the basement where all of Lionel’s action figures were.

Lionel had everything, the figures themselves, but also vehicles, playsets. A lot of them were original run figures, decades older than us, purchased from toy shows that Lionel and his dad went to, the kinds of outings I could only dream of going on with my own father.

We laid the figures out on the floor, villains and heroes mixed together, and chose our characters one-by-one. It didn’t really matter what side they were on, we mixed and matched as we gathered our teams.

I chose the Nightwatchman first, of course. No matter what, I always got him. I never knew if this was a sign of respect or if Lionel genuinely didn’t want the Nightwatchman on his team. Lionel chose the Red Riptide, I took Cold Shadow, he took Phantom Rage, I took Spin Wizard. At one point, Lionel picked up Admiral Crash, placed him in the pile. “Guess I’ll take your Mom’s boyfriend,” he said. I expected a smile, like he was poking at me, but he was just stating a fact. “I still need to show you that map.”

Because of their second-hand nature, a lot of the toys were incomplete. Slither’s cape was missing, but his voice chip still ran with a watch battery. Steel Stingray only had one of his arm attachments, but I took him anyway. Warthog was almost always the last chosen. His power was to smell bad, so the toy was made from actual scented plastic. Rumor has it that the entire factory during production smelled so bad the employees got sick.

Later, as an adult, I would realize that the smell was just a slightly tangier form of patchouli.

There was no discussion of rules, but we always fell into a system where we would take a turn making a figure use a weapon or get in a vehicle. We didn’t speak much as we played, unless it was in the voice of one of the characters.

We’d been at it for an hour. Lionel had taken out both Steel Stingray and Cold Shadow, but I’d been able to use Spin Wizard’s spin blades to destroy his Shark Sub, meaning he had no way of moving across the water areas.

Then I heard the footsteps.

“Come on, time to go,” Dad said before I even saw him. He lunged over the last three basement steps, clumsily tiptoeing around the toys on the floor, grabbing my hand. He had on what looked like a new jacket over a t-shirt printed with the image of a Kinks’ tour poster.

“What’s going on?” I said, thinking that Dad was mad about the superhero toys, that I’d been busted. But he didn’t care, didn’t seem to notice.

“We have things to do!”

Dad eased me up from the floor, started to lead me upstairs. “I have to help clean up,” I said, hopefully, gesturing to the piles of toys everywhere.

“I’m glad I have a son who is so concerned about helping out, but I’m sure your friend understands the circumstances.”

I looked at Lionel, who nodded, seeming more than happy to pick up the toys himself. I knew that Lionel would continue playing after I’d left, taking control of both sides. And without me there, he could choose the winners, the outcome.

He had all the power.

***

“Dad,” I said after a few minutes of silence in the car. He was smiling, his body bobbing up and down in a twitchy rhythm. “What are we doing?”

“It’s just the perfect time,” he said. “I’ve wanted to do this for a while, but now is the right time. It’s fate, you know? God’s looking out for me. What a great example of His grace.”

In the backseat was a large plastic cooler, something Dad didn’t own, something he must have purchased just for this scheme.

I recognized the area we were driving into, over by the old Southwick Mall. It was getting dark at that point, but I could still see the mall parking lot as we passed it, and just off center were the two mounds of dirt, one huge, the other slightly less so. My mom and I used to joke about them, call them Mommy Dirt and Baby Dirt, wave at them as we passed by like they were old friends. I never knew who put them there or what they were for. The dirt mounds had been there since I could remember, are likely still there.

Eventually, Dad pulled off of Reiner Avenue and onto a side street I didn’t recognize. It always took me by surprise the way the city could go from looking like a dystopian urban hellscape one second, and then with one turn, it became a suburban paradise. It wasn’t just one area, either. There were little patches of beauty everywhere, like eyes of a storm. There was no fade out, no gradual deterioration. You were in it, then you weren’t.

Dad found a parking spot on the street. His mania was showing no sign of crashing. He actually hopped out of the car, channeling the giddy energy of a kid at Disneyland. He grabbed something out of the glove compartment and then went around to the backseat to pick up the cooler.

As soon as I stepped out of the car, I saw the line of cars down the street, the doors opening in unison and a single person stepping out of each. As they came closer, I could see they were all men, each holding something: grocery bags, lunchboxes, coolers like Dad. Their faces, what little I could make out in the light from the streetlamps, had childish, crazed smiles on each. They were the men from the door-to-doors, the recruits. Dad had sent out emails, given a time and a place, and they’d come. This was the result of Dad’s religion, this was the People’s Path. They believed in him, were ready to do what he said.

They were his followers now, his henchmen.

“It’s the perfect time!” Dad said. The men nodded without speaking. I’d always been uncomfortable with Dad’s plans, but this was the first time I’d felt scared.

All of us dutifully trailed Dad’s complicated route for four or five full blocks. We eventually stopped in front of a beautiful house, two stories, a porch with one of those bench swings that old people in movies sit in, shotgun in hand.

“This is it,” Dad said, pointing at the house.

I waited for the other men to inquire, but they must have already gotten their orders. “Whose house is this?” I asked.

Dad shook his head, confused. He revealed what he had pulled out of the glove compartment: two black ski masks. He handed me one and placed the other over his face. “This is his house,” he said.

It took me a second to realize. His house. This was Mom’s boyfriend’s house.

With his mask on, Dad looked terrifying. His eyes took on an icy, inhuman quality when the rest of his face was covered. Seeing him like that, standing over a cooler filled with God-knows-what, I realized that this was his supervillain plan, this was the moment.

“Now put yours on,” Dad said. I slid the mask on and immediately found my peripheral vision completely obscured. I turn my entire head to look at the men, their masks on, each one the same.

“Okay, ready?” Dad asked.

“For what?”

He kneeled down, opened up the cooler to reveal cartons of eggs, maybe a dozen of them stacked neatly.

“It’s the perfect time,” Dad said. “He’s not home and eggs were on sale at Giant Eagle.”

The other men did the same, pulling out carton after carton, different colors, different egg sizes, but unified in purpose, in intent. Dad handed a carton to me, took his own.

“This is it, gentlemen,” Dad said to the group, a whispered scream. “Let’s earn God’s love.”

He didn’t wait for me to register what was going on, just started chucking eggs at the house. We could have gotten closer, but Dad kept his feet planted on the sidewalk, his arm cocking back in a full baseball pitch motion.

I was shocked at how quickly Dad was able to throw the eggs, taking no time to aim between throws. The men grunted as they threw, whooping and squawking, complimenting each other on accuracy and arm strength. I just stood there, watching each egg go from someone’s hand, disappearing for a moment in the night sky, and then reappearing in the porch light, before exploding against the house.

I didn’t understand what this would do, what the point could be, why I should join them. But eventually I started feeling the anger around me, could feel it dancing around my skin, moving me to act. I thought about the man, the hero who lived in that house, the one dating Mom. I thought about how he could stop all of this, how he could save me, but didn’t. I wanted him to fly in, land with a perfect hero pose, tell us that he’s here to save the day, that evil will never win.

So, I started lobbing eggs as fast as I could. My first couple of attempts didn’t reach the house, landing in the bushes out front. But as I threw, I got a feel for the distance, the weight of the eggs, and my accuracy increased. With each egg, I imagined a hero reaching out and stopping it, catching the egg before it landed. I wanted it, begged for it. I dared him to do something, but no one came. A few more of my eggs hit the door, then the porch swing. And then I did it. Right through the front window.

Everyone stopped, waiting for Dad’s lead. He was still for a moment, until a porch light turned on across the street. “Run!” Dad yelled, abandoning his cooler. We all followed, taking a different route than we’d come.

As we made our escape, the men’s bodies were jittery with spare adrenaline. They twitched and shivered as we pushed between the fence of a coffee shop and popped out right by our cars. I realized that Dad had looked into this route, had been planning this for some time.

“God is proud of you all!” Dad yelled to the men as we all shuffled into our respective cars, pulling out one at a time. I took off my ski mask, wiped the sweat from my lip. Dad kept his on for a while, but even then, I could see that he was coming down, that he’d burned off most of his mania.

“That was a good shot,” Dad said, referring to the broken window, nodding toward me in approval. The reminder stung, that I had gotten swept up in it, had let anger shape my actions, had done what I was told. I thought about the Brain Men, their unquestioning loyalty, getting beaten up by the Nightwatchman, sent to jail, punishment for their misdeeds. I wondered what my punishment would be, when it would come, who would deliver it.

When Dad eventually took off his mask, his expression was pained, labored.

“Your mom…” Dad said, swallowing hard. “Your mom’s pregnant.”

I didn’t respond. Because Dad didn’t want that, he just needed me to know.

As we passed Mommy Dirt and Baby Dirt, I lifted my fingers slightly, a wave, unsure if it was a goodbye or a hello. I pulled out my phone, checking to make sure Dad wasn’t paying attention.

“I’m ready,” I texted Mom, then put the phone in my pocket.

I could feel the vibrations, responses from Mom. The texts were probably emoji hearts, declarations of happiness, but I didn’t check. I’d taken part in the egging and I wasn’t ready to get praise for doing the absolute minimum. I just leaned my head against the window, thought about the eggs, the cleanup. Is there a superhero whose powers would be best suited for cleaning up egg mess? Maybe Super Slick, because of his speed. But for the most part, it would be the same amount of work for a hero and for a normal person. Super strength, flight, energy blasts from your hands, invisibility. Useless in this situation. They’d still have to pull out the hose, get a broom for the bits of shell, do the tedious work of cleaning everything up.

Just like a normal person, just like someone who was powerless.

***

Sometimes, before that night, in the moments before I fell asleep, I imagined that the Nightwatchman hadn’t really died, that he’d faked it, a fake body, pills that made his vitals appear flatlined, that he could regenerate and come back, even after death. While taking some time off from crime fighting, he’d met Mom, they’d hit it off and had started dating in secret.

In the fantasy, he had a choice: he could either be a public figure and fight for the rights of everyone, or he could quit being a hero and focus on a simple life, making dinners and going on trips with Mom and me, that he could save us, be the protector of our own little world.

At the end of the fantasy, just before sleep, the line a blur, fuzzy at both edges, I could see him choosing us. And he was happy with his decision. And it was worth it.

***

“Eggs? What are you, five?” Mom said. Even through my bedroom door, I could tell her expression: firm, disappointed. She was angry at Dad, but it never really came across that way. She always looked and sounded like a first-grade teacher, which she was. She never seemed able to muster a tone harsher than disappointment.

“I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dad said.

“You know you broke his window, right? I’d have filed a police report, but he insisted I not.”

“Well, I appreciate that he did that, because that wouldn’t help at all with finding the real window breaker.”

“My God. First this weird… religion thing you’re dragging Simon to and now you’re vandalizing my boyfriend’s house? I’m taking my son home now.”

Mom knocked on my door, shave and a haircut, her usual rhythm. “We’re going, baby,” she said, grabbing my bag, her hand on my back, leading me to the door.

“Fine, fine, it’s your week. Rules and all,” Dad said as we passed him, a smile of defiance, of victory. He’d gotten away with the eggs, the broken window. Even then, I knew it wouldn’t last, that I’d walk out that door and it would slip, that he wouldn’t be able to hold onto his victory for long. “See you next week, Simon.”

When I got into Mom’s car, my Nightwatchman figure was hanging from the windshield. I somehow had forgotten that today was the anniversary. Two years since he’d died.

She started the car, but then her body froze.

“Are you okay, Mom?” I asked.

“I’m…” Mom began, but stopped, a full sob enveloping her face. “I’m just so happy that you’re finally ready to talk to me about what’s going on with your father… And we can start small, whatever you’re comfortable with, and…” I could see tears sliding down her cheeks. “… I feel bad, that I’ve kept things from you. I never know the best way to tell you, you’re so… so fragile. Just like me, baby. Just like your momma. But I know that your dad told you about the baby and it makes me sick that I couldn’t be the one to tell you.”

I nodded, not sure which part I was agreeing with.

Mom wiped away tears with the back of her hand. “It’s making me all weepy, God. I was just as bad when I was pregnant with you. I cried every few seconds. Yesterday, I cried because I saw a woman walking her dog and I thought about how happy the dog was getting to see the neighborhood, getting to smell everything.”

She laughed at this, staccato chuckles, sticky with mucus. I tried laughing with her, trying to mimic her rhythm. Mom sucked up all of the phlegm in her nose, shook her head back and forth like she was trying to get a bug out of her hair. She leaned in toward me, cupping both of my ears with her hands, easing my head toward hers until our foreheads were touching.

“Baby, I know you’re young, but you’re smart. You know your father is not a stable caretaker. This is going to be a hard time for you, but living with me full-time is going to be great. I’ve talked it over with Greg, my boyfriend, and he’s excited to meet you. I know he’s not your flesh and blood, but with a little time…” she trailed off.

“Mom, I was…” I wanted to tell her that I had thrown the egg that broke the window, that I had been a part of it, that maybe Dad and I deserved each other. We both needed things to guide us, higher powers that we could look up to, that could give our lives meaning by association. But there wasn’t a simple answer, a quick fix, a proper, permanent punishment. Dad wasn’t an evil supervillain, he was just a bad father, a toxic man who needed help. I wasn’t a bad son, just a shy, confused child. The Nightwatchman wasn’t still alive, he wasn’t bursting through a window to save me from my own life. And even if Mom’s boyfriend was a superhero, he couldn’t use his power to save me from this. Like the egg mess, laser blasts and super strength weren’t getting me away from an unfit, unsafe parent.

“… I was there when Dad egged the house,” I continued. “I’ll talk to whoever you need me to.”

Mom reached over, wrapping her arms around me. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You don’t have to say anything now. We’ll talk later, okay?”

Mom removed her forehead from mine, swallowing hard before finally pulling out of Dad’s apartment complex. She turned up the song on the radio, the lyrics about how the singer was doing just fine despite the way an ex-boyfriend had treated her.

“So,” Mom said. “You ready to meet him? Greg, my boyfriend?”

“Ready,” I said, reminding myself to breathe.

“I’m so glad, baby. You’re gonna love him, he’s so kind and funny and great with kids, just a super guy all around.” She pointed at the Nightwatchman figure. “You can show Greg your favorite toy. He loves superhero stuff too. I know that today is the… anniversary. They’re doing a tribute on TV later, maybe you guys could watch that together.”

I nodded, but wasn’t sure if I wanted to watch the tribute, not sure what more was left to be said about the Nightwatchman. I’ll miss him, miss what he represented, but he’s gone now, and I can’t change that.

No one can.

As Mom drove, singing along to the radio, I watched the Nightwatchman toy, his legs dangling, the suction cups looking like they could give out at any moment. But I didn’t reach out to grab him this time, didn’t save him from danger. I let him hang there, hoping he wouldn’t fall, that he wouldn’t go down an obvious path, meet his practical ending. I put my faith in the cloudy suction cups, trusting he’d be okay, trusting he’d hold until we made it to Mom’s house, until we were home.

Until we were safe.



Alex Sobel is a psychiatric nurse who writes when he finds the time (not as often as he’d like). His writing has appeared in publications such as Electric Literature, The Saturday Evening Post Online, Dark Matter Magazine, and Daily Science Fiction. He lives in Toledo, Ohio with his wife. You can follow his attempts at social media at https://twitter.com/_AlexSobel.

“I get most excited about stories with fantastic elements and characters that instead focus on normal people and how they would be affected. In this case, I wondered: how many people, in a world with superheroes, would count on them to come to the rescue in times of need? And what would it take to realize that the chances were slim, that help would likely never come, that sometimes you have to save yourself?”

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