Two summers ago, Mom and I flew to Chicago, where Aunt Cathy had lived for years. Mom’s only sibling was younger, twenty pounds lighter, single, and obsessed with cosplay. Cathy traveled to comic book conventions, Renaissance Faires, and movie premieres. She researched costume patterns online, thrifted fabrics, cut and sewed.
When Mom and I landed, we stopped at a thrift store by the airport. The Second Chance in Rosemont was bigger than a Walmart. Aisles spilled over with color-coordinated t-shirts, dusty books, mismatched bric-à-brac, and enough vinyl records for the hipsters, eBay bandits, and penny-pinchers to share.
Our mission that day was Cathy’s latest project, a Captain Marvel costume. To my surprise, Mom led the charge.
Mom usually wore a sloppy gray bun, horn-rim glasses, and a hoodie. Around Cathy, Mom wore contacts, mascara, and plunging v-necks.
My parents never argued, but they never laughed either. Dad got home from work, cracked a beer, hopped on his exercise bike, and watched the news. Mom cooked tacos, salmon, or pasta on rotation. We sat in silence and shoveled it down. Dad watched sports in the basement, Mom streamed period dramas in the living room, and I finished my homework while texting my friends in my bedroom.
With Cathy, Mom’s eyes glowed. Ideas met her lips. Mom spoke faster, in a higher pitch. She walked faster too and bounced on her toes.
“Cath! Check this out. It’s perfect!” Mom held a mens’ Cubs jersey and rubbed the polyester between her fingers, “For the blue part?”
“Yes!” Cathy giggled. She stretched the fabric around her torso, “Perfect!”
Meanwhile, I searched for the costume centerpiece. The gold superhero star that joined blue and red fabrics at the chest. I rummaged through women’s dresses, gaudy mesh, neon, and pastel. Mom laughed from across the room. The sisters played with scarves and feathered boas. They hugged, flipped their hair, and puckered their lips for selfies.
I dove into the vinyl, found a U2 album, and wandered through the books. Next, I browsed the toys and found a tiny metal towtruck with chipped yellow paint. “Might be worth something,” I mumbled to myself.
Another item caught my eye. A child’s khaki backpack had been decorated by an expert seamstress. An orange tiger growled and a gray elephant raised his trunk. A hand-stitched dotted line joined the space between the animals like a winding road on a safari map. At the center was a gold eight-pointed star the size of my hand. The compass rose would become Captain Marvel’s emblem of power.
I will never forget their faces when they saw my star. Aunt Cathy opened her jaw wider than a dentist appointment. “Perfect!” Mom gushed, her eyes bulged like ping pong balls, and she kissed my cheek for the first time in years.
That night, the sisters drank red wine and took turns running the sewing machine. I never knew Mom could sew. She measured, cut, and wound the bobbin. Cathy modeled various versions, took notes, pinned, and altered.
Within hours, an XXL Cubs jersey, a red raincoat, a gold throw pillow, and a kindergartener’s safari backpack had morphed into the coolest costume I’d ever seen. The sisters brushed Cathy’s blond wig and applied her makeup. I was assigned to be the photographer and snapped pics for Cathy’s social media accounts.
The sisters opened another bottle, read the comments aloud, and laughed. I played “With or Without You” on the turntable, and Mom and Cathy sang along. Then Mom squeezed into Cathy’s old Wonder Woman costume. More pictures, more wine, more laughs.
When we got home, I sold the tiny yellow towtruck for thirty bucks, the first of many online auctions. And the first of many visits to Chicago, for Mom at least. I stayed home with Dad and finished high school, while Mom moved in with Cathy, lost fifteen pounds, dyed her hair, and dated Batman.
While thrifting yesterday, I found the safari backpack. I had always assumed it was one of a kind. I dragged my fingertips across the detailed stitching of the compass rose. I smiled, took a pic, and sent it to Mom. Moments later, she texted back a question mark.
Read Ryan Standley’s award-winning debut novel To the Top of Greenfield Street.