by Patrick Trotti

Caldwell was playing in the backyard with his best friend, Brian, on the day that he stopped believing in made up stuff. Until then he had lived much of his childhood through the pages of Superman comics. Caldwell loved him. In fact if it weren't for Superman having such perfectly combed hair in the comics, he would've never let his mother fuss over his hair in the mornings before school. Most of all, though, he envied Superman's powers. Caldwell hoped that maybe if he memorized every Superman comic that magically he'd be able to fly one day.

Caldwell liked Brian because he was tough and had stood up to another kid that tried to bully Caldwell on the playground at school. Brian was four years older than Caldwell. Rumor was that he had even had sex. Caldwell thought it was cool that an older boy from down the street wanted to hang out with him, and Brian's parents had much more money than his family, which meant that he had all the good toys. And every issue of Superman, which made him the coolest kid ever by Caldwell's standards.

Caldwell's mother didn't like Brian but she didn't say anything because she liked seeing her boy happy, and because Caldwell had no other friends, his mother probably figured that anything was better than him staying inside by himself. But Caldwell still couldn't understand why she spent so much time worrying about whom he was hanging out with. He was eight after all and could take care of himself, and others. Caldwell had been taking care of the family dog, Butch, since they got him. In fact, he was the only one that ever did anything for that dog and no one even had to remind him to. He'd gotten the dog from the shelter only a year before. He overheard the lady at the store tell his mother that no one wanted him. That's why Caldwell chose him. He was all alone at the shelter. Unpopular and misunderstood just like Caldwell.

They were playing hide and seek. Brian had told Caldwell when they first met that he was cool because he was the best at playing the game. Caldwell had heard what everyone at school said about Brian--that he was strange, quiet yet aggressive and was always getting in trouble--but that didn't matter to Caldwell. Brian had always been nice to him.

It was Brian's turn to hide. He usually hid behind the huge oak tree down by the stream that was on the edge of the property line. Caldwell's mom warned him not to go down there by himself. He decided that the woods were going to be his new hang out from that day forward because she only forbade him when it came to the really cool stuff like watching television and staying up past his bedtime.

After 20 minutes of looking, Caldwell couldn't find Brian and was ready to give up. Gnats were beginning to bite Caldwell's sweaty neck and it was starting to turn red from scratching. He knew Brian would make fun of him if he went inside, but it was hot, and he was tired of zigzagging around the yard under the hot sun.

Caldwell heard a faint chuckle coming from across the stream. It had to be Brian. Caldwell was cautious as he tiptoed across. The house on the other side of the stream belonged to a grumpy old man who had lost his mind long ago. Caldwell overheard his parents talking about how he was sent away for some time upstate. He didn't know what that meant but it couldn't have been a good thing because the only time he went upstate was to see his mother's father in a rest home. He hated those trips. Pop-Pop lost his hearing a while back forcing Caldwell to yell "I love you" so loud that it embarrassed him and he smelt like moth balls and smoke.

Caldwell noticed some of the bushes moving back and forth as he reached the old man's yard. He never took good care of his yard, because there were overgrown bushes as big as Caldwell, and the grass was knee-high. Caldwell had to hold in his laughter as the thick brush tickled his shins.

His amusement turned to shock as he made out Brian's figure in the distance. He was standing over a limp pile of what looked to be an animal. It was too big to be a cat but it looked too weird to be a dog; somehow more rugged and untamed. He immediately recognized the color of the fur but didn't register that it could be true. Even the screams coming from the body sounded familiar. Loud barks slowly turned into muffled moans.

Caldwell locked eyes with Brian. He had a mischievous grin on his face. Kids at school warned him of that look after they found out the two had been hanging out. A long, thick tree branch was dangling from Brian's bruised right hand. A dark red pattern was splattered across the front of his white t-shirt.

A slight whimpering noise was coming from Brian's feet. It sounded familiar to him but he was still too far away to make out the animal's face. As Caldwell came closer, he noticed that the animal's thick coat of white fur was stained with the same dark red that was all over Brian.

The animal's breathing was becoming more inconsistent. Heavy grasps for air were followed by sudden bursts of deep panting. Caldwell had no words to mute out the disturbing sounds.

A part of Caldwell was hoping that somehow this was all a big, cruel joke directed at him. Maybe Brian had staged this whole thing just to see what Caldwell would do. Caldwell shook these thoughts out of his head as he focused on the pile of fur at Brian's feet. This much he couldn't have staged. He'd stopped walking any closer by this point. The joke was no more; this was serious. Caldwell couldn't help wondering if this type of thing always happened back here. Maybe his mother knew that all along and wanted to shelter him from the woods.

He didn't have the time to think anymore. Caldwell knew he needed to do something. He thought of Superman, his favorite hero who always stood up and took a stand when something bad was happening. He wouldn't let this type of thing happen. Sure, it might be a close call but always, at the last second, he'd swoop in and save the day. This was Caldwell's chance to do the same. He had to stand up to Brian. But Caldwell's mind and body were separate entities as the more his mind raced, the more paralyzed he became. Fear had overtaken him. There'd be no last minute heroics.

Without a word, Brian reached back with his right arm and brought it down towards the animal in one quick motion. The branch broke in two as it thumped against the animal's ribcage. The impact was so great that it lifted the animal from the ground for a second before hitting the ground with a dull thud. The animal was motionless and lay limp on its side.

Brian dropped the branch to his side, wiped saliva from the side of his mouth, and began walking towards Caldwell.

Tears formed in the corner of his eyes and his hands were trembling. He tried his best to stay calm. Muttering to himself that Superman never showed any signs of panic, Caldwell focused his efforts on watching every move Brian made.

Brian stopped for a moment as he came within arm's reach of Caldwell, simply looked him square in the eyes, and gave him a wink. He pushed past him and headed home. No comic-strip dialogue bubble. No great, intense hand-to-hand combat scene. Just second-guessing and silence. Even the birds around him seemed to stop making noise and the bugs ceased their attack on his neck.

Butch remained on his side until Caldwell took a deep breath and fought off his nerves enough to go over and take a closer look. Now he was dead. Bugs were already crawling through his bloody fur by the time Caldwell let out his first scream of sadness.

Caldwell felt helpless and, for the first time in his short life, he realized that he could never be a superhero like Superman.

He snuck back inside through the basement door and went to his room, leaving Butch out in the woods. He couldn't face going to his mother right now. She would've punished him for disobeying her. He had bigger things to worry about anyway.

He took all of his second hand comic books and Superman posters and threw them out immediately. And even though he vowed to never read another Superman comic, he still wished that he could have special powers for that one moment and use his cape to fly into the air and not stop until he was somewhere very far away, somewhere where everything wasn't as screwed up.

BIO: Patrick Trotti is the Editor and Founder of (Short) Fiction Collective and works as an editor for jmww. His fiction has been previously published in various online and print lit mags. He likes nice things and hates the Yankees.