Writings / Fiction

Back When We Were Superheroes

Taryn Pearcey

It’s been approximately an hour since Brittany Rhineshaw broke my brother’s heart. I can picture her smug face now, her eyes bright with vicious superiority, her face immaculately dolled up, and not one strand of her gimmicky fake-blonde hair out of place.

It’s amazing how much chaos a person can create by not being around. If I suddenly disappeared, I don’t think most people would notice. And if they did notice, some might cheer. Then again, I’m just the bridesmaid; Brittany’s the bride.

The backyard of Grandma Rhineshaw’s Shaughnessy home is empty save for my mother, my brother Travis, and me. The guests left not long after one of the bridesmaids announced that she found a note in the kitchen and Brittany was gone. The rain hurried them along, too. My dad is inside the house talking with the remaining Rhineshaws. I don’t see the point of trying to talk things out; I want to get out of here as soon as possible and separate my family from the Rhineshaws and their influence.

Dad opted to go inside because he is by far the more rational of my parents. If Mom was in there she might have burnt the house down by now. I’d rather take my anger out on Brittany herself. Not with fire, that’s too fast; I prefer some sort of slow torture. Though no matter what it won’t make up for the sickening shadow that haunts Travis’ face.

“I bet her boobs are fake.” Mom plops down onto one of at least sixty empty white fold-out chairs. They point towards an equally white wedding arch. The whole set-up looks silly now, like a party that everyone forgot to come to. She continues, “I wouldn’t put it past her, and God knows the family’s got the money for it. Though apparently they can’t spring for an outdoor wedding in a nicer climate.” She flicks off her heels and digs her toes into the mix of grass and soil.

Travis sits a couple of rows back. “You exaggerate their wealth, Mom,” he says. “And even if she does have fake boobs, that wouldn’t make any difference now.” His voice is mechanical like he doesn’t even register that he’s speaking. He turns his face up to the sky.

The clouds hang overhead like a mass of solid grey stone, threatening to drench us with more rain. I hope the giant mass of sky will fall and smother me so I can hide in those clouds and forget this day ever happened.

“Carrie,” Mom says, “stop daydreaming and do something useful.”

I break away from the clouds and look down at myself. Useful? The only thing I might be useful for right now is comic relief. My lacy maroon monstrosity of a dress is not only too long, but it also clashes horribly with the particular shade of lime green I chose for my hair this month. It might have worked better with the fire engine red I had last month, or the unfortunate platinum blonde phase I had before that. My shoes are too tight and the heels keep getting stuck in the mud. One hand clings to a soggy bouquet of lilies, while the other is occupied as I chew my already miniscule nails. I look like street trash wrapped in slightly less trashy packaging, like Courtney Love, before she attempted to sober up.

Mom watches me expectantly. Her chair, like the others, is topped with a bow the same maroon as my dress. Brittany’s horrible taste in colour scheme is another reason to despise her.

“Carrie,” Mom says.

I turn to face her. “Would you like me to do something specific or would you rather I just stand here at your beck and call?”

Travis, who I would have normally depended on for a laugh or even a smile, remains silent. In fact, I haven’t heard him laugh at one of my remarks in a long time, probably not since Brittany came into our lives.

Mom scowls, then points behind me. “I’m in no mood for sarcasm. Hand me a bottle.”

Behind me is the makeshift bar set up against the back fence, though it really isn’t much more than a table covered in appropriately coloured cloth, topped with bottles of champagne, scotch, rum, sparkling cider, and red and white wine. Maybe the budget for a nice location was blown on booze.

I grab the closest thing to me and pass it over. She takes it – vodka, I now see – and settles it into her lap as happily as if I’d just handed her a puppy.

“I could have given you just about anything there, huh?”

She pops the top, takes a swig, and flashes me the peace sign. The pose reminds me of an old photo of her at around my age, nearly out of high school. At a time when most girls were wearing oversized sweatshirts and neon leggings, she wore a leather jacket, fishnets, and a look that said she could kill you in a second. But for some reason in this particular photo she’s also got her fingers in that same peace pose. There’s something about that simple gesture that softens her appearance. It’s somehow reassuring, as if she’s trying to convince you that everything is going to be all right. And it’s the same now, even with her conservative brown hair and the simple black dress she bought on sale at Winners, even when she looks like an actual mom with maturity and wrinkles and everything.

Mom tilts her head over her shoulder. “Hey, Trav,” she says, holding up her bottle, “do you want Carrie to grab you something to drink?”

“Yeah,” I say, “let’s celebrate.”

Mom kicks at me with her bare foot. Because of the volume of my skirt, she misses, but I get the point.

“No,” Travis says. “I don’t want anything.” It’s like he didn’t even hear me. He’s some robot that spits out words minus emotion. I can’t even get a negative response out of him anymore. I’d even prefer if he was thirteen again, starting high school and calling me every new curse he learned whenever Mom and Dad’s backs were turned. I doubt he knew what a “twat” was back then, but it was his favourite nickname for me nonetheless.

Dad appears from inside the house and crosses the empty half of the yard towards us. The space from our white and maroon nightmare to the Rhineshaw house is maybe thirty feet, but the distance feels much farther than that.

Mom raises her hand in some sort of mock salute as he approaches. “Back from battle?” she asks.

Dad comes up the main aisle – the same Brittany was supposed to walk down – and shuffles down a row of chairs to me and Mom, ruffling Travis’ hair on his way. He leans against the bar, lifts his glasses, and rubs at his temples, a sure sign that he’s not pleased. I see him make the same face when someone’s messed with his comic collection, or when I come home with a fresh piercing after promising him and myself that I’d clean up and look for a job. “They claim to know nothing,” he says. “They didn’t know anything was wrong, and there’s been no word from her other than the note.” He pulls out a crumpled piece of paper from the inside pocket of his blue pinstripe jacket.

“Do you believe them?” I ask. I take the note from him, being one of few who hasn’t actually seen it yet. But I only get to see a few lines – something about “I’m sorry” and “I told you I’d try” – before it’s taken again, this time by Travis. He takes it to the closest seat in the row behind Mom and pours all his attention into it, his eyes flashing back and forth even though I know he’s read it at least a few times already. I want to scream at him for being such an idiot. She’s gone, but I’m not. I’ve been here since he was four years old, but lately it’s a miracle if I get even a second glance.

“I’m not sure what to believe,” Dad continues. “You think you know someone and then …” He shrugs.

Today makes me doubt if we ever really knew Brittany at all. Sure, during the year and a half she and Travis dated I learned a lot about her. Her blood type is A, she has two older sisters and an older brother who all live somewhere in Europe, she hates pork, she only drinks daiquiris, her favourite song is the Pixie’s “Where is My Mind,” she wanted to be a figure skater but has weak shins, she eats when she’s nervous, and she doesn’t get along with her father.

But those are facts. My favourite song changes with every new band I discover. I knew Brittany was wrong the moment she sauntered into the house on my brother’s arm, wearing black stretchy yoga pants and giggling in a pitch I swear only dogs could hear.

I saw the change in Travis’ expression immediately. The only way I can describe it is as if aliens abducted him and tweaked a part of his personality so small it’s almost impossible to notice. I’d seen him with girlfriends before, but it was never anything out of the ordinary. Most of the time they’d hang out downstairs and if Mom and Dad weren’t home they’d blast something like the Misfits or Fugazi so loud the house shook. It was the same sort of thing he did normally, just with an extra girl around. The girlfriends were just an accessory to that Travis. Brittany, however, managed to integrate herself into his personality and transform him into this stranger who goes out with Brittany to dance to crappy club techno, and who claims my music ruins his concentration when I play it too loud at home.

I glare at him as he leans over in his chair, that note apparently the only thing in the universe he’s capable of noticing.

I lean in towards Dad. “What does the note say?” I whisper. I want to know what’s so damn captivating.

But he waves me away with his hand. “It’s personal.”

Yeah, sure. It’s personal, yet everyone else gets to read it except for me. I look to Mom for help, but she’s on the move.

“Come on,” Mom says, using Dad’s arm to pull herself up and slip back into her shoes, “let’s start packing up the car so we can get the hell out of here. We can sort the rest out tomorrow.”

“What’s there to pack up?” he asks.

Mom rolls her eyes and flicks Dad square in the forehead. “As much as we can get away with, duh!” She grabs more bottles from the table.

“You know,” I say, “the Rhineshaws provided all the alcohol.”

That doesn’t faze her; she’s already on her way across the yard with Dad following along behind. They tramp across the muddy yet otherwise perfectly cut grass and past a tool shed I doubt anyone in the Rhineshaw family has ever touched. “Oh yeah?” she says over her shoulder. “Well I’d rather they held up their end of the bargain and provided the bride.”

As I watch them disappear at the side of the house, I can’t help but wish I was with them. But I can’t barge in on their twosome. The only person I’ve ever had to joke around with in situations like this is Travis. He’s the only person I’ve consistently been able to fall back on when the rest of the world makes me painfully aware of how much of an outcast I am. It started early. The week I started first grade I was run off the playground in some twisted childhood mutiny in which the leader of a dozen or so children tried to burn off my pigtails with a lighter. I finally sought refuge in the out-of-bounds area in the surrounding woods and sat there wondering if I could use my safety scissors to cut my hair. That weekend things were better, because Travis felt sorry for me so instead of joining his friends to play, he burst into my room and told me we were going to save the world.

He let me borrow his favourite Batman cape and Mom tied a red and white checkered dishtowel around his neck. We called ourselves Boy Rotten and Kid Vicious, and we waged war against the very few forces of evil to be found in our quaint neighbourhood of split-level ranchers in Delta. And, as every good superhero does, we had to fly. He grabbed me by the hands and swung me around and around in the air until our arms gave out from exhaustion and our stomachs ached from laughter. It wasn’t until later when I overheard Mom and Dad talking that I found out Dad had bribed Travis with extra allowance to be especially nice to me. I should have known Travis would only let me use his Batman cape if he was getting paid. He still has it and throws a fit if anyone tries to give it away. I don’t know why he’s so attached to it. It’s just junk. I get bored with my stuff all the time.

Travis probably doesn’t even remember that day anymore. He sits not five feet away from where I stand, and his eyes have stopped dancing over the note. For one brilliantly imaginative moment I’m entirely convinced that he’s become a statue. The whole world is frozen except for me. The backyard has become a ridiculous wedding tableau, some little girl’s dollhouse scene and I’m the only living piece. The grey slab of sky still hangs over me. I look down and see that I’ve managed to create a muddy rut as I pace back and forth beside the bar.

A part of me wishes the world was frozen so I could walk out of here without having to deal with anyone. All at once Travis is the person I want to see most and the person I can’t stand the sight of. His dark hair hangs over his eyes more so than usual, as if he’s intentionally trying to hide. His eyes, normally sharp and contemplative, are now blurry and confused, like he doesn’t know the way out of his own mind.

I want to tell him he’s better off without her, that a piece of him disappears every time she hangs off of his arm and it becomes harder and harder to recognize him. Of course I can’t. I’m only good for jokes and snarky comments. I’m not used to being the one who has to reach out.

“Maybe it’s a mistake or something,” he says to himself. “It’s just one huge misunderstanding.”

Suddenly I feel light-headed, and clammy all over. If I stay here a moment longer I think I’ll go crazy.

I need to be alone for a minute to get my head straight. Then I’ll come back and tell him every thought that’s been ricocheting around in my head for the past year or so. I rush past him in the direction of the house, knowing without a doubt that he doesn’t lift his head to watch me go.

Upon entering the house, my intention is to find the bathroom, splash some cold water on my face, and get out. The Rhineshaws won’t even notice me.

The back door opens onto one long hallway. I hear the soft murmur of voices from somewhere at the end of the hall, and the sharp clink of dishes. The floor is dark hardwood, and the walls are deep red wallpaper adorned with what looks like some sort of fleur-de-lis. Framed photographs line the wall as well, hung at equal height and evenly spaced. Each looks the same: forced poses, false background, and fake smiles. The upstairs hall in our house still has the crayon mural I drew on it when I was three.

I peer through the first open door. It’s some sort of study, I guess, either that or it’s just a place to store a ridiculous amount of books. I swear, the richer a family is, the more books they own, and the less they probably read them. It makes me think of Dad and his comic collection, and how he saves all his change in a “Comic Fund” jar and would drag Travis and me around to garage sales and hobby shops on weekends to hunt for deals. It used to be fun; looking at other peoples’ junk and gazing into the glass cases at the shops. Then Travis stopped coming, and I guess I decided if he didn’t like it, maybe I shouldn’t either. Though sometimes I find myself wishing Dad would invite me along again.

I shake my head clear of the thought and head to a door across the hall that’s somewhat ajar. That’s got to be it.

I don’t find the bathroom. Maybe it’s idiot luck, or maybe whatever God there might be is really out to get me, but either way I’ve managed to find some sort of guest bedroom, and within it Brittany Rhineshaw. She sits on the end of the bed. Her eyes are wet with tears, her mascara and lipstick is generously smudged across her face, and her hair sticks out in random places as if she ran her fingers through it too many times.

My body grows hot and I imagine with perfect clarity running over in a blind rage and strangling her with her own veil. But I can’t move. I stand here like an idiot and it’s not doing either of us any good. I hate her for disappearing, for being in here the whole time, and for making my brother want to marry her in the first place.

Then I start to notice things, things that I overlooked when I entered the room. For one thing, Brittany is twisting the hem of her dress in her hands, and from the look of the small white pile of chiffon on the floor, she’s succeeding in shredding it to pieces. There’s also a fake tree standing in the corner by the vanity table. I assume it’s a Christmas tree; I can’t think of another reason for keeping a plastic pine in your house. But Christmas is still months away, so why is it even in here? It makes me wonder about what else gets tucked away unseen in this house.

Brittany sniffs, loudly, and wipes her nose with the back of one manicured hand. She smiles, though it’s bittersweet. She looks how I feel. “Hey,” she says, “some party, huh?”

Damn her, I’m supposed to be the sarcastic one. “Well … at least we’ve still got booze.”

She laughs. “Yeah, I guess that’s a good thing. I’d go out and get myself some, but I think I ought to lay low for awhile.”

I think of telling her that Travis is the only one still out there, but it would probably end up making her feel worse. “I could bring you something,” I say instead, though I’d rather not go back out there.

“No. Don’t bother. I can wallow in my own misery enough without the help of alcohol.” She pauses, “Thanks, though.”

I want her to be something I can hate and take my anger out on, but it’s not working. All of my anger falls flat. She looks human. For whatever reason I didn’t expect that.

I haven’t felt like this since Travis invited her over for dinner on my last birthday. All I wanted was to stay at home, eat my mom’s baked chicken and garlic mashed potatoes, and make fun of old cheesy horror flicks. I was already annoyed with Travis for so much as conversing with a girl like Brittany, and then he had the nerve to bring her into the house on my birthday. I glared at her from across the table and pretended to be occupied with my potatoes every time she caught on. There was no support from my parents; they were nauseatingly polite, and Travis was just completely oblivious.

I stepped into my room for a minute after dinner, sure that Brittany would ruin my movies by squealing at all the cheap 80s gore. Then she followed me. At first I nearly had a heart attack at the thought of her tainting my personal space, but the way she stood in the doorway was unlike how I’d ever seen her before. Her smile was shy, and her stance timid. Before then I didn’t know girls like her had the capacity to be shy. She held something out to me. It was a guitar pick hanging from a slim metallic chain. I’d wanted a necklace like that since I was old enough to know what a guitar was.

Then she’d said, “I know we said the present from your brother is from both of us, but this one’s just a little extra from me. I remember you said you wanted one.”

I had mentioned to Brittany once that I’d wanted one. I’d also said it to Travis too many times to count, but he never seemed to get it.

I wear that necklace almost every day. And now as I stand here in front of her I feel like a complete schmuck.

“Listen,” she says, wiping her eyes with her hand, “I don’t expect you to understand, but I just can’t go through with it. I don’t love him the way I should if I’m going to marry him. We’re still young, still trying to figure out where we fit in the world. You know what that’s like, don’t you?”

I nod, and think about the kids on the playground in first grade.

“I sound like the fucking guru of love of something.” She buries her face in her hands and laughs, “You think something’s going to be just so until you wake up and realize it’s nothing like you originally thought …”

“But you had time to get to know him,” I say. “You were together over a year. You didn’t notice anything?”

“No. Did you? You’ve known him a lot longer than I have.”

“Good point.” I stare down at my feet. My anger tries to flare up again, but it comes with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The house feels like a weight on top of me, about to cave in. I turn slightly, ready to leave. “You should tell your family you’re here,” I say, “if they don’t already know. I bet they’re worried.”

A genuine smile spreads across her face. “You know, you’re not as much of a hard ass as you make yourself out to be.”

I tug at a piece of my hair and walk back into the hall. Thinking of Travis, I say, “You’re still kind of a bitch.” Then I keep moving.

I don’t return to the backyard. All I want is to get in the car, go home, and get into bed and bury myself under the covers. I want to sleep through the next few days, maybe even the next few weeks, and wake up on the other side of this mess. By then hopefully Travis will have broken out of this weird funk and we can get back to a normality which is long overdue.

I leave out the front and head for our car in the driveway. I climb into the back of Dad’s Jeep Liberty, only to find Travis sitting in the opposite seat.

“Where are Mom and Dad?” I ask.

“Grabbing more stuff.” His hands are between his knees, folding together and unfolding again. The rest of him hardly moves. An unbelievingly uncomfortable moment passes until he finally says, “Do you think she’ll show up again?”

If only he meant Mom. I think of Brittany and the hurt on her face. There’s no way she brought that all upon herself alone. I start twisting the lilies in my hands. I wonder what version of Travis Brittany has been experiencing this whole time. “I’m sure she will,” I say. The words suck all the moisture from my mouth.

He looks sideways at me. “You really think so?”

I can’t tell if he’s joking or not, and for some reason that hits me as hard as a punch to the gut. I lick my lips; they dry immediately. My hands tighten around the bouquet in my hands. I pretend it’s Travis; I just want him to shut up. I want all of us to forget this and move on. I don’t want him to try and fix things with Brittany, and somehow I don’t want Brittany to have to go through any of this again, either.

“She’s probably just scared,” I say. “It’s a big commitment. But let’s not think about it right now.”

He’s looking down at his hands again. Folding. Unfolding. Folding. Unfolding.

Something in my bouquet snaps.

This isn’t working. I’m tired of tiptoeing around him. I want to talk to my brother, not this pussy pseudo-Travis.

I smack him in the head with the lilies. “Hey,” I say, “I don’t do this sappy tragedy routine, okay? You can cry all you want later, but right now I just want to go home and change into some goddamn pants.”

For one absolute perfect moment, one of the lily petals is stuck right between Travis’ eyes. His previously serious face is suspended in surprise, and his eyes are crossed as he stares at the petal.

I can’t hold back my laughter. I clutch my aching stomach and nearly keel over. This is what feels right: to completely let loose when everything else around you has gone to hell.

“Oh, grow up,” Travis says. He rolls his eyes, crosses his arms over his chest, and stares out the window.

I want to keep laughing, but the moment passes. All at once it’s clear that this is not the boy I grew up with. But at the same time it is the same person. He’s still Travis, he still did all those things with me, but that part – of his life, at least – is over now. Maybe I don’t understand him as well as I thought. And what hurts the most is that I never even noticed the moment he changed.

Despite how hard I try, the only memory that comes to mind is the one of him and me pretending to be superheroes. I remember my body slicing through the air, feeling almost weightless. I can still feel the heavy tug of his hands tight around my wrists, painful but strong and reassuring. The one thing I can’t see clearly is Travis himself. I know he was smiling, and laughing, and wearing Mom’s red and white checkered dishtowel, but those are just facts. That part of the memory is a blur.

I glance once more at him. There’s no trace of that boy in him now. I see a man whose history I know intimately, but who is otherwise a stranger.

I wonder what he sees when he looks at me.

About The Author

Author

Taryn Pearcey studies Creative Writing and English at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. She won the 2010 Kwantlen Creative Writing Guild’s fiction contest.

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