I got the call last Wednesday at 10 pm. I know it can’t be good news. Even though we both live in Chicago, my sister never calls just to talk.
No response to the hated nickname. It really must be serious.
“It’s time, Marcus. If you’re coming, you better get here.”
Someone has delivered a blow to my solar plexus, a big kapow, knocking all the air from my lungs. I knew this call was inevitable, but it still hits me hard.
“I’ll be there.”
We talk a little more about particulars, and I end the call. My phone slips from my hand and falls onto the sofa. I still don’t know how to process the news.
My mother, Ms. Miracle, is dying.
When I was really young, I had no idea that my childhood was different from that of other children. My first time sleeping over at a friend’s house, I wondered where his mother kept her alien raygun collection. I assumed that everyone’s parents had a secret identity, and I liked to guess which one of my parents’ friends was the alter ego of which hero.
Not that my mother ever came out and told us that she was Ms. Miracle. She didn’t have to. A domino mask and some red, white, and blue spandex didn’t fool a child. I knew it was her, just as I knew I wasn’t supposed to tell.
When I guess he thought I was old enough, my dad and I had “the talk.” I remember the smell of his aftershave as he sat on the edge of my bed. I think that was the first time I ever noticed the flecks of gray in his buzzcut. He kept trying to adjust a tie he wasn’t wearing.
“Marcus, you know that your mother isn’t like most mothers, right?”
Of course she wasn’t. She was my mother. That made her the best. “Yeah.”
“I mean, you know she had another job besides taking care of you and your sister.”
My dad took a deep breath before continuing. “There are a lot of…bad people out there who would try to hurt your mother if they knew about that, uh, other side of her life. I mean, they might try to use me or you or your sister to make your mother do what they wanted. So we have to keep it a secret. Does that make any kind of sense?”
Of course it did. I was quite a “cape-watcher” already at that young age. I knew all about secret identities and the need to keep them from supervillains.
“I need you to promise me, Marcus. Promise me that you’ll never tell anyone what you know about your mother.”
I raised my hand like I was taking the Junior Second City League oath. “I promise.”
“Good boy.” He tousled my hair. I think he would have lit up a cigarette, if he hadn’t given them up for my mother. He sat on the edge of my bed until the silence became almost as awkward as the talk and then left.
It was on a clear night maybe a week after that when my mother took me flying with her for the first time. Maybe it was some kind of reward for the promise I had made to dad. Maybe she just thought I would find it fun. I don’t know. She didn’t say anything as she crept into my window in-costume.
She placed a finger on her lips and pointed at my coat. I put it on, she took me into her arms, and we stepped out into the night.
You’ve never seen Chicago until you’ve seen it from above. She wove me among the skyscrapers at a speed that took my breath away. We slalomed around the antennae of what was then called the Sears Tower. And the lights! We flew over Field Stadium and the Navy Pier. Animals trumpeted greetings as we flew over the Brookfield Zoo. We surveyed the whole city, and I nestled against the warmth of my mother’s arm.
I knew the city was safer because my mother helped protect it. I don’t think I ever loved her more than I did that night.
Julia offers to fly me up to the nursing home. I think she means on a conventional commercial flight, though I’m not one hundred percent sure. She did inherit our mother’s powers, after all. I decline her offer as graciously as I can.
I don’t fly anymore.
I’m not jealous that Julia received our mother’s abilities instead of me, though I suspect she thinks I am. Such gifts are a mixed blessing at best; she and I should know that better than anyone.
I rent a car to drive to Middle-of-Nowhere, Minnesota. Our aging hero population has caused a dilemma our nation has never before faced: super senectitude. What happens when a super gets dementia and starts to fight villains that have been dead for decades? Or when an elderly pyrokineticist can no longer control his fire? What if a flyer forgets how to turn off that ability?
Superheroes and old age are not a pretty combination. So our nation has built a state-of-the-art facility in an area with ultra-low population density. Just in case. Heck, there may be several such super nursing homes, but the Minnesota facility is the only one that I know about.
Not that I’ve ever visited. My mother and I haven’t spoken in close to thirty years.
It’s an accepted fact of American life that teenagers are rebellious. I suppose I had my moments. Not that I became a teen supervillain or anything so melodramatic. I did ask Dr. Death’s daughter to the senior prom, but I didn’t know they were related when I asked her out. I just thought she was a cute Goth chick. Boy, I sure did get it when I got home though.
No, I rebelled in relatively small ways. Probably what a psychologist would call passive-aggressive. Throughout high school I had hero posters on my wall, but never one of Ms. Miracle. Same with my Second City League action figures: one of each hero mint-in-box, one of each to pose on my bookshelves, but not a one of my mother.
My mother pretended not to care, but I knew it bothered her. Sometimes, especially the last few years, I wonder if that was why I did petty things like that—to have just that little bit of emotional leverage over the most powerful woman in the world.
I think college would have been good for us. I had been accepted into an off-Ivy-League school, full tuition. I know that I at least needed the distance, both physically and emotionally, that college provided. I think that if my four years there had been uninterrupted, we could have come to a better understanding of each other. Relate to each other as capable adults.
But we didn’t get the chance to figure out a new normal. My mother blames the QuizMaster. I blame her.
It’s snowing pretty hard by the time I get to the home. My tire tracks disappear behind me almost as soon as I make them. At last I reach the perimeter fence. It takes me a moment to find my pass in the glove box. The guard barely looks at it before waving me through.
Must not be many visitors.
Inside the home, it’s almost too warm compared to the blizzard outside. I ignore the shouts and weeping as a nurse ushers me to my mother’s room. We pass a hero in the hall I recognize. In his prime, he was a supergenious, inventor of gadgets that saved the world a thousand times over. Now he’s in a wheelchair and drugged out of what’s left of his mind. Drool runs down his chin and no one seems to care.
We pause at my mother’s door, and the nurse turns to me. “I know you haven’t visited before, Mr. Jacobs.” She’s smooth enough to almost keep the contempt out of her voice. “I need to warn you, she’s in a really bad way.”
“I know what to expect.”
The nurse shakes her head. “No. You don’t.” Without giving me a chance to make any response, she knocks on the door. “Ms. Miracle? Your son’s here to see you.”
She enters the room without waiting for an answer and I follow. She was right. Damn her, the nurse was right.
The first thing that hits me is the smell. Shit and blood and piss not quite covered over by an industrial-strength antiseptic. My mother lies in the middle of the stink, in the middle of a bed made up in sheets that are not quite dirty but certainly aren’t white.
I avoid looking at my mother’s face as long as I can, but I can’t escape it. She seems so shrunken, shriveled. The beauty she once had is still there, but trapped deep beneath the skin. It’s as if she got hit by one of those rays the craziest villains always came up with and by some miracle it actually worked. My mother, brought down by the old-age-inator.
I choke back a sound, a laugh or a sob, I’m not sure which. No supervillain caused this. I know this is a fight my mother can’t win. My sister looks up from where she sits by our mother’s side. She doesn’t say anything. The tears streaming down her face say more than enough. She motions for me to come closer.
I sit down in the chair on the other side of our mother’s bed and take hold of her hand. This hand that once saved worlds now seems as if it will melt away like a snowflake. I stroke the lined and spotted back with my free hand.
My mother’s eyes flicker open, their noonday blue now clouded. She looks at me and smiles.
“Jack. You made it.”
A knife I didn’t know was still in my heart twists more deeply. Jack was my dad’s name.
My mother met my father through their respective careers. He was the newly-appointed police liaison to the Second City league, and she was Ms. Miracle. I guess you could call it a workplace romance.
I don’t think either of them realized what was happening at first. He would stay late after briefings, just to talk to her. She would ask his opinions on which villains posed the greatest threats. They started getting late dinners together. And then breakfasts.
I never knew whether they got married because they had conceived me or whether marriage was the plan all along. Depending on how long I gestated, the math works either way. Enter Ms. Miracle’s new alter ego, June Jacobs. For twenty years she managed to pull it off—urban housewife, devoted mother, and superhero.
And then it all came crashing down. I was on the East Coast, away at college. The QuizMaster, never one of the big bads, somehow put all the pieces together and figured out my mother’s secret identity. Even the League isn’t sure where he got all the parts for his death trap or how he hacked into the communications satellites. There were witnesses who claimed they saw him kidnap my dad and sister after he had picked her up from school, But these witnesses came forward only after the broadcast, so I don’t place much stock in them.
I was studying in the student union building when the QuizMaster interrupted the programming.
“Greetings, America, and welcome to a very special editions of ‘You Bet Their Lives.’ Our contestant, Ms. Miracle, has only thirty minutes to find this secret lair and save one of two hostages.” A spotlight came up on my dad trapped in an acrylic cylinder. “Her husband…” Another spotlight on my sister in an identical cylinder. “…or her daughter.”
I had to keep myself from putting a fist through the screen. That smug smile on his masked face. And I couldn’t do anything.
“The rules of the game are simple. If Ms. Miracle doesn’t find this location within thirty minutes, both hostages die. If she finds us and frees one of the hostages, the other cylinder fills with gas, and that hostage will die a painful and messy death. And do you know the best part?”
He rubbed his hands together with maniacal glee.
“We’re already playing…”
The camera panned up to a large LED timer that read 26:37. The count had started at the beginning of the broadcast.
Unless you’ve been living in a cabin in the Ozarks or something, you know what happened. Millions of Americans watched in rapt fascination as my mother tracked down the lair, and battled killer robots, flying sawblades, and a host of other booby traps not mentioned in the ‘rules.’ She disabled QuizMaster and reached the cylinders and tried helplessly to find a way to save both hostages.
At the last possible second, she chose my sister over my father.
I thank God every day that I was crying so hard at that point that I didn’t see it happen.
I went to the funeral. I was there during the QuizMaster’s trial too. Every second I wondered why my mother or sister hadn’t snapped his scrawny little neck. And then I walked out of my mother’s life and never spoke to her until today. When she called me by my father’s name.
I try to pull away, but my mother only holds my hand more tightly.
“I’m so glad you came, Jack. I need to know you forgive me.”
My mother’s eyes face my direction, but they are not focused on me.
“I didn’t know how to choose until I saw the look on your face. You gave me that strength. Our daughter lived, and she’s Ms. Miracle now. But I still need to know you forgive me for not being able to save you both.”
I am perfectly still. For a long moment, I can say nothing. Then I squeeze my mother’s hand.
“I forgive you.”
My mother leans back against her pillow. She closes her eyes and smiles. As she does so, some of her age seems to fade away. At some point in the silence, Ms. Miracle dies.
Her hand releases mine. I lay her limp arm across her chest. My sister looks up at me, her eyes wet with tears. Right now I don’t think of what a fool I’ve been. Instead, I rise from my chair and kiss the forehead of the woman in the bed.
“I love you, mom…”
And I do. It just took her dying to make me realize it.
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt hardly needs an introduction. He has long been a part of the arena as one of its weekly judges. Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).