Every city has the power to grant wishes. She plays coy with it, of course, but if you have a burning desire and enough determination, eventually she will relent, take you by the hand, and lead you to a place where things that don’t exist can be bought at prices that aren’t quantifiable, from people who never met you: or so they always swear, later. There is one of these places in the ordinary East Coast metropolis of B_________. It stands on the corner of W___ and ___th Street, and is disguised as a brick tenement, housing, like most of the district, Asians of the immigrant class. The young man who approached this tenement one chilly spring evening stood out among the Cambodians and Vietnamese like a hot dog in a wok. He was middling tall, had pale skin, glasses, and longish fair hair, and was dressed in jeans and a nondescript windbreaker. He looked like a recent graduate of some middle-rank college, and was, in fact, exactly that.
He entered the tenement and reemerged, not ten minutes later, puffing slightly from the stairs and looking bulkier around the windbreaker. He went straight to the subway, head down and arms crossed, and did not relax until he was back in his studio apartment, nineteen blocks away. Here the inhabitants were mostly twentysomethings, singles, pairs, and threesomes, all working as servers and temps while waiting for their lives to begin. Terry, the fair-haired young man, was a clerk at the local branch library; a just-for-now position that, two years in, was starting to take on the sickly sheen of a career choice. When his mother’s friends asked how he liked it, he would smile mildly: “It’s okay.” Most of his peers would have rushed to add, “Of course, what I really want to do is _______.” But Terry never said that.
It was hard to say what he feared more: ridicule, scorn, or amused indulgence. He’d been braced for any of it, on that initial visit to the Thai seamstress in the tenement, the first time he’d ever dared bring out the pictures, the sketches, his notes. But the woman had received his instructions with an indifference either cultural or socioeconomic, and she’d delivered the goods, no questions asked. Terry’s heart beat faster as he pulled the package from under his jacket and spread the contents across his futon.
The mask. The hood. The bodysuit with the built-up breastplate and built-in jockstrap. The gauntlets, boots, and cape. Terry was nothing if not meticulous. He’d studied speed skaters, parachutists, divers, riot police, firefighters, anyone and anything that might be pertinent to his design. Of course the aesthetics were drawn from Marvel and Hollywood; but the point to emphasize was, this was a working superhero outfit. Not a mere costume.
No insignia—not yet. He would start out nameless. It was up to the people to give him an identity. (Although there was a certain style to anonymity itself. Perhaps that would become his trademark: the Hero With No Name, sort of thing.)
A little past midnight, he went out. He wanted to take it slow the first time. Get his bearings. The mask wouldn’t startle if he kept his head down, and the cloak looked like a raincoat to the casual eye. The night was inclement, chilly and damp with a smell of stewed garbage and raw exhaust, but the suit’s aerospace fabric kept the cold off Terry’s body and euphoria blunted everything else. The outfit gave him height, bulk, wider shoulders—within reason, of course. He found himself breathing deeper.
He kept to the alleys and side roads, the scenery all sharp chiaroscuro. He was alone yet not alone; muffled behind curtains and below street level, blue light flickered and music thumped, the city’s inhabitants cocooned in, doing whatever they did to recoup their strength and reconcile themselves to another day. Every so often, one of them would trudge by, unseeing. Terry loved them all. He was here for them. Just let one of them stagger. Let one of them sob. He was here.
His senses felt sharper, three times as keen: a scuttling rat, an abandoned shoe, a cigarette glowing in the gutter, nothing escaped his notice. He moved more boldly as the night wore on. Stopped worrying about where he was. Skirted the empty edge of a darkened ballpark, and let the wind carry his cape behind him.
Around 2 a.m., he thought he heard a woman scream.
The sound was gone before he could really process it. Had it been stifled? Choked off? Was it only a cry of “taxi”, or a shriek of laughter?
He couldn’t even make out the direction from which it had come. He was down by the waterfront, unfamiliar territory, and fatigue was leaking through his mood. A head-cocked pause brought no salient sounds to ear. A look around revealed only neutral shadows. He began to retrace his steps, possibly heading toward the scream, possibly heading for home. His path took him by a well-graffitied underpass. Half a dozen teens were hanging there, out of the wind. Their padded jackets and groin-clutching pants were clearly silhouetted against the streetlights, just as his sleeker form was to them.
A moment lagged by, full of hesitation. Then one of the boys shouted, in the fingernail-to-chalkboard tones of adolescence:
“Hey, look! There’s Batman! Let’s get him!”
Terry broke and ran, blindly.
By a theater in the old Polish district, a tearing stitch in his side forced him to stop. He leaned on the sandwich board advertising a revival of Mother Courage, and wheezed. A fortuitously empty taxi, the machination of some god, cruised by. He raised a hand and forced his muscles to move him calmly (but quickly) to the curb.
In the fug of the cab he peeled off the hood. “Costume party,” he laughed weakly to the driver, who hadn’t batted an eye.
Jessamy Dalton lives in rural Virginia, where she does not get cable or, in fact, own a television.