Last week Hugh stopped a bullet with his mind and I paid my rent. He literally stepped in front of a speeding bullet, stopped it with nothing but the force of his freaking mind, and where was I? At home, at my tiny table, with its uneven legs, the whole thing squeaking and wobbling while I filled out a check for my asshole landlord. Afterwards I scrubbed my yellowed, tile bathroom floor, folded laundry and read a magazine while I ate a bag of chips. While my best friend stopped a guy from killing a ten-year-old girl who had been taken hostage I was doing some of the most banal things a person could do, which is kind of the perfect way to sum up our relationship, I think.
Later he called and asked if I wanted to grab some sushi and chat, to which I said no, on account of the groceries I had to buy for work. Yeah, me, schmuck of a schmuck nobody, turned down Hugh Heights, The Light Bringer, beloved superhero, to go buy organic veggie chips and low-fat, dairy-free yogurt. What a world. I mean, what a goddamn mystery of a world. Hell, it wasn’t even true. I didn’t need groceries; I’d bought some the day before. What did I really do? I slipped into my favorite pair of sweats, the ones with the busted elastic that’s been wore so much the fabric’s gone all soft and thin, tossed my hair up in a messy bun and binge watched SVU until midnight then fell asleep on the couch snuggled up to my cat. The picture of beauty and dignity. It’s not like there’s anything wrong with Hugh; I mean, he’s great. He’s the best guy I know! My best friend for twenty years. He’s like an actual perfect human being.
Take, for instance, the first time I’d ever even met Hugh. We were seven years old and let me tell you the Hugh from back then, sheesh! What a wimp. Some kids who had no right being as big as they were at that age were roughing him up. They were kicking him, calling him names and rubbing dirt into his already unruly black hair. I stood behind a tree and watched for a while, thinking he was gonna do something, like kick them or scream or call for help, but instead he just took it with little, silent tears rolling down his pudgy face. I couldn’t understand it; he didn’t even make a noise. I said to myself, if any kid did that shit to me, hell, I’d be fists and teeth.
It finally got to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore. I busted in, scrawny little shit I was. Of course I got my ass handed to me, but I was like this little demon that just kept getting up and fightin’ back, swinging and screaming like a real life banshee. God, I used to be a real terror. I think if Hugh hadn’t come along to mellow me out I’d be a raging loony.
So here’s this little kid with the biggest and brightest blue eyes I’d ever seen, all sweet and innocent with dirt and tears all smudging up his face, so of course I took him under my wing. When I asked him why he didn’t fight back he said to me, all quiet like and scared, that he didn’t want to hurt anyone. I reached into my backpack, which I had always kept jam packed with my little bibles, or comic books, whatever, same thing to me, and grabbed one, flinging it at his face. It slid off him and he had this dopey look, all mixed with shock and caution.
“See that guy,” I said, pointing to Captain America on the cover; he was all tight blue spandex and hulking muscle, busting through a newspaper, shield at the ready. “That’s a hero,” I said. “That’s a guy who doesn’t let other punks push him around. Know how he does it?” Hugh didn’t say anything; he just kept looking from the comic to me to the comic. I sighed at his stupidity and plowed on. “He beats the bad guys up! Sometimes you just gotta hurt ‘em, you know?”
He still looked uncertain, but he took my hand and let me help him up. We started talking and after a few days we officially became best friends. Hugh, being the guy he is, even talked me into apologizing to the kids I’d beat up for him. Can you imagine that? Those little assholes were picking on him, and he makes me go apologize for hurting them. Perfect human, am I right?
Even when we were teens and he got his powers, he still never stood up for himself. It was always up to me to step in and protect him. I always thought that was pretty hilarious. Hugh with his telekinesis, super strength and literal lasers shooting out of his hands, relying on me, a scrawny little big mouthed girl, coming to his rescue. Not that I ever had problem with it. I used to have this real bad knack for getting myself into trouble. It’s the damn comics. I worshipped the things.
While most kids learned right and wrong from, like, church or somethin’, I had Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse. I learned my morals from folks dressed up in costume with unshakable righteousness. I thought the world was a factory that churned out good and evil, and I was most definitely not evil. No one had ever taught me any better. They made me into an unstoppable, cocky little bastard. They filled my head with big dreams and stupid plans, and when those dreams died, so did I.
I guess Hugh just had better sense then me. He was always the more levelheaded of the two of us. I guess that’s why he’s the hero now and I’m nothin’.
Yeah, that Hugh, he’s a real stand up guy. It’s great and all but I don’t know, maybe for someone as unimpressive as me, that can be a problem. For every good deed he does, my unimportant life gets that much more unimportant. It’s totally petty, I know, I know, but he’s the hero, not me. The fact is, having Hugh stand next to me, washed out has-been I’ve become, makes him shine that much brighter, which is great for him and all, but it can take a toll on a gal, you know?
It’s like sometimes, when I look at myself next to him, I just fall so damn short it makes me wanna cry. I never thought that my life would be so far from what I had planned; that I would lose all of that reckless childhood confidence I used to tote like a badge pinned to my oversized ego.
It’s funny how fate works, don’t you think? If I hadn’t made the stupid mistake of thinkin’ myself untouchable, if I hadn’t gotten into that damn car with that drunken fool, it could’ve been me out there. I would’ve been the somebody. But hey, whatever. Things happen. Shit changes. It was stupid of me to think the big dreams that moved Hugh and I out here to New York together would come true for the both of us.
He’s the hero now, and that’s great because he deserves it and the whole world is luckier for it. Me, I became a secretary for an accounting firm where I spend most days doing things I’m over-qualified for, like buying groceries or haggling with egotistical hostesses for a reservation.
Anyways, I met up with Hugh the other day to make up for my blow off, and we went to this little Italian place owned by some guy Hugh saved once. We go there often ‘cause the food is good and the guy gives us free meals sometimes and he never calls the press or paparazzi, so we usually get a private night out. We walked in and immediately got seated, despite the forty-minute wait for everyone else. The perks of fame, I guess. As soon as our asses hit cushion the owner came out, all gushes of gratitude and platitudes. He greeted Hugh warmly, shaking his hand, patting him on the back, telling everyone within ear shot what a great man he was. When he finally noticed me I could tell he had no clue who I was, despite going to the restaurant just as many times as Hugh. It’s the kind of anonymity you get when you’re constantly standing next to a bright light.
“This is Freddie, Mr. Favero, remember we came here together last time,” Hugh finally said after the man still couldn’t figure out who I was.
“Ah, yes, Ms. Freddie and Mr. Hugh,” he said it like he knew all along, which he obviously didn’t. “Well anything you need, don’t hesitate, OK? This is a great man you know! A great, great man!”
Hugh shyly smiled up at him, the picture of modesty, and thanked him as he left to schmooze over his other A-list guests. Hugh had long since outgrown his childhood rolls and awkwardness, and now, besides acting like a super hero, he looked like one too. It could be frustrating sometimes, going out to places with him. He constantly looked like GQ and Vogue’s love child, while I trudged along next to him in my hoodies, skinny jeans and sneakers.
“Nice sweat pants,” Hugh said, all dripping with sarcasm.
“These aren’t sweats! They’re yoga pants. Super different.”
“You knew we were coming here right? You knew we were coming to a five star restaurant with a dress code,” he asked, gearing up to start a common argument we’d been having lately.
Hugh seemed to forget sometimes that while he was a big time, hotshot success, I was pretty much the opposite. “You’re really lucky Mr. Favero likes me so much, otherwise there’s no way in hell you’d be allowed in here.”
He didn’t mean anything by it, but his comment nipped at my pride nonetheless.
“Oh shut up. Don’t act like you’re not wearing spandex under all of that. What is that, Armani?” I asked mockingly. “Fred, please, this is Burberry,” he said.
I rolled my eyes at him. He was trying to be funny, but I was tired of him always calling me out on stuff like that. See, Hugh has this idea that I’m worth more than I think I am. He thinks that all I need to do is put a little effort and then boom, I’d be my old self again. He doesn’t get that I’ve changed; that time has gone and left me behind and ushered him into the good life. Right on queue, like the universe just had to remind me of just this, my knee started throbbing. I reached down to rub it out, trying to warm up the pins that held my knee together. The cold had a way of settling into my old wounds and festering them with old memories of car crashes and crushed hopes.
“Your knee bothering you?” Hugh asked, noticing the pain on my face.
“What the hell do you care?”
I didn’t mean to snap at him, but his stupid Burberry, the total disregard from the owner, and my leg built me up into a bad mood. I could see a small tinge of red creeping up Hugh’s neck, his classic tell of anxiety. He mumbled an apology under his breath and I pulsed with shame. I knew I had no right to treat him like that, but sometimes I really couldn’t stand his good guy persona. It just grated on me like a paper cut, or a splinter.
He opened his menu and tried clearing the air, talking about the specials and the overpriced martinis. I nodded when I was supposed to and laughed when he said something funny, but I wasn’t there, not really. I was going head long into that good old, familiar spiral of self-loathing. I wanted him to snap back or say something mean to me, but of course he didn’t. Twenty years and a career as a super hero and Hugh still couldn’t stand up for himself. It was kind of irritating to be honest. He was such a pushover sometimes; down right weak, and yet he was the one they all called hero.
Irritation must’ve shown on my face ‘cause he asked if something was wrong. I tried to blow it off, smooth it over and keep pretending like I was fine. I wanted to be fine, I wanted to be able to sit down and have dinner with the man who was supposed to be my best friend without wanting to smack his perfect, good-guy face.
“God, what’s your problem tonight, Fred? That time of the month,” he asked laughing at his own, sexist joke.
“No, asshole, it’s not.”
That shut him up real quick.
“Actually, yeah, something is wrong. Why the fuck would you just take that?”
“Take what?” He sounded stiff and uncomfortable, the red on his neck rising to his cheeks.
“Before, when I snapped at you, you just sat there and took it. Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because you’re my best friend and I know you’ve been having a tough time?”
“God, do you always have to be so fucking self-righteous?”
“Whoa,” he raised his hands in defense, his face now red as a tomato, anger creeping in behind his eyes. “Whoa, where the fuck is this coming from? Why are you acting like such a dick?”
“Maybe I’m just tired of your bullshit, Hugh. You know, you act like you’re so goddamn perfect in your fancy suits and your five star restaurants, people fawning all over you, but I see through you, Hugh. I know you, and you’re just another phony celebrity.” Hugh had turned from red to white quicker than you could say bamf! He slammed his fist on the table, cracking the marble slab and shaking the windows around us.
“You know what? No. You are not doing this. You are not ruining my fucking night with your stupid jealousy,” he said.
“Yes, Fred, jealousy. You’ve been jealous of me for years, and I’m really starting to get tired of it.”
“I am not jealous of you, you self-absorbed prick.”
“Oh I’m self absorbed? Ha!” he said. “That’s fucking rich, coming from you.”
I looked at him. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what it sounds like, Fred. You’re so caught up in your own shit!”
“Well, what the hell do you expect Hugh? It’s my goddamned life that got ruined, not yours!”
“That’s it . . . that right there . . . that’s your fucking problem. Yeah, so you got into a car accident and you can’t be a superhero anymore, and that really sucks for you, Fred. But you know what? No one turned you into a bitter bitch but you. You’re the one who decided that you couldn’t do any thing else.”
He had hit a nerve. In fact, I was pretty sure it was my last one. Who the fuck did he think he was? He had no idea what that car accident had meant. All my life I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to be big and important, despite everyone, from my Ma to my teachers, telling me I’d never be anything. I didn’t think it would ever happen, but when Hugh came and showed me what he could do, when he showed me that powers were real, that super humans existed, it was like breathing for the first time. Suddenly everything had become possible. I started to dream, and I mean the right, proper dreaming that gives you hope and makes every shit thing bearable. My life made sense and I saw so clearly everything I was going to do. Everything I had to do.
When we moved to New York, God, I was a sight to behold. I was going to save the world, you know. I was going to make a difference, prove everyone wrong. And before I could even get started it was torn away from me. One mistake; one stupid little mistake and I lost everything. I knew that I shouldn’t have gotten in the car, that the driver was shit faced, that I was shit faced, and the road was icy and the fog was making things all blurred. But I was young and invincible. How was I supposed to know that a semi would come out of nowhere and run us off the road? How could I have known my leg would be crushed, nearly every bone in it broken and mangled and that I would never be able to walk the same or move the way I used to?
I hated Hugh, right then and there, I decided. He wasn’t my best friend. He was a thief. He was my arch nemesis, my dark shadow. He stole my dreams, and now he was trying to make me feel like shit?
“You have no fucking right saying that shit to me. No right at all. You think you’re so high and mighty, but you’re the one who stole Light Bringer from me.”
“I stole it from you? You told me to do this! I asked you, right after the accident, when I brought you home from the hospital. I asked you what you wanted to do and you told me to go on with it. You said that at least one of us could still do something. You said, ‘Be the hero, Hugh’.”
“Well I didn’t expect you to actually do it!”
“Why the hell wouldn’t I Fred? I’ve spent the last twenty years listening to you and doing everything you’ve ever told me to do, but when I needed you the most, when I really needed someone to help me out and tell me what to do, you went and left me behind.” “Oh really? I left you behind,” I said, my indignation clipping every word.
“Yeah, you did leave me behind and that’s been really shitty. You think for some stupid reason that I’m this perfect guy who has everything figured out. Well guess what, I’m not! I don’t have shit figured out, and I’m not perfect. I’m scared every fucking day I go out there and it has really sucked having to do all of this on my own. You were supposed to be there for me and you aren’t. Instead you’re out there blaming me and my success for your stagnation. You used me as some excuse to feel sorry for yourself instead of picking your ass up and doing something and I’m sick of it. So fuck you, Freddie. Fuck you and your stupid resentment.”
Hugh had never so much as raised his voice to me before and hearing him say that was just as good as him getting up and back handing me across the face, making the hatred and anger boil inside of me like I’d never felt before.
I could’ve punched him in his goddamn pretty little mouth. Punched him and kicked him until I couldn’t feel, or until he felt as shitty as he had made me feel. I probably would’ve tried it too if the restaurant hadn’t exploded. So typical.
Well ok, not the entire restaurant, just our section. I guess some upstart, wannabe villain had tracked Hugh down and wanted to prove himself by destroying the great and powerful Light Bringer, but Hugh being Hugh snapped right into action. After making sure me and the other patrons were safe, Hugh got to wailing on the guy somethin’ fierce. Trying to take Hugh out while he was pissed might not have been the brightest or best of ideas.
I watched Hugh while I tried to help out the people who had been wounded from the blast and keeping others out of the line of fire, and I mean I really watched him and I had to bite my own tongue to keep from laughing. It was like looking years into the past. Hugh was totally and completely possessed with the poltergeist of my past self. The same arrogant smirk, the same relentless fervor, it was all me.
And then I remembered; really, truly, remembered what Hugh was like when we were kids. He wasn’t afraid; he wasn’t shy; he was observant. Whenever I’d get into fights or call someone out, he’d be standing right there next to me, quietly watching it all with his quick eyes. Maybe I was just too caught up with myself and my big personality to realize it, but Hugh had been my pupil for years, memorizing every sharp word, every swaggering step, every boastful act of confidence and every over-zealous act of justice I’d ever committed. Then it dawned on me. Everything broke through my big, fat head and wiggled its way into the twists and turns of my self-pity. Hugh was doing this because I told him to. Hugh became Light Bringer for me. Hell, even because of me. So maybe I wasn’t actually out there every night kicking ass, but watching Hugh that night made me think that maybe the part of me Hugh had absorbed these twenty years was right out there.
So I’m not a cape. I can barely walk without a limp; and sure, I’m a little lost, but I guess I’m not completely useless. I think Hugh was right: I could be more than what I’d planned. But that’s the thing about dreams; they feel so real when you’re in them, and when they’re gone it feels like nothing could ever compare with them or replace them. You live in a dream long enough and you forget about reality because reality, when it eventually does come crashing in, feels so bleak and empty. But maybe it doesn’t have to be, you know?
So I stopped buying groceries for work. In fact, I stopped showing up all together. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the phone, though. Hugh’s been gettin’ hounded by The Huffington Post and New York Times lately. They want to do some big profile on him or whatever. He’s not so good with negotiating if it isn’t with a criminal, although if you ask me, some of the press isn’t so different from the guys he’s used to dealing with. I’ve been screening their calls, yelling at them and working stuff out, wielding my wicked mouth like a sword and shield.
I kind of like that actually: Wicked Mouth. Maybe that can be my new name. Sidekicks get names too, right? That name is as good as any.