I’m happy to share this sweet short story by Stephen Geez.
Short Fiction by Stephen Geez
I just figured out something all superheroes should know about our sidekicks.
I happened upon my own sidekick long before I grew up and stepped into the role of hero, way back when I was just a regular suburban kid with no inkling of my destiny as the savior of countless lives. Never a fan of those other heroes who star in their own comic books, I had no idea what a sidekick is supposed to do, let alone how much I would even need one.
And now, after decades working with my own sidekick for the common good, something has gone horribly wrong, and the blood is coming too fast, the injuries too severe, time too short. It’s breaking my heart that our era as superhero and sidekick is about to end.
I was nine or ten years old when the world’s most unlikely wannabe sidekick and his single-parent mom moved to our town. They set up housekeeping in that leaky rat’s nest of an old farmhouse down the dirt road where overgrown fields pushed feebly against encroaching scrub. Two years younger than I, skinny and smallish for his age, he tried to look passable in tattered second-hand clothes usually sized too big or too small. Ever the bully magnet, he liked to pedal around on his chain-throwing rattletrap bicycle, a mismatch of old parts he’d scavenged. Since I was the only boy who didn’t taunt him or push him down, he got to where he’d follow me about, hoping to join in while I hung out with others, but mostly content to hover at the periphery. He knew his place, but never acted resentful, instead appearing grateful for the tolerated proximity. No matter how much I ignored him, though, he often seemed to be watching me intently, studying me, as if appraising something only he could see.
Catching me alone with nowhere particular to go one day, he said he had a secret to tell me. He looked around as if worried someone might approach with bad intent. “Not here,” he whispered.
Now, as piqued as preteen boys are about mysteries, they’re just as skeptical of other boys’ promises of intrigue, except that he looked so serious my curiosity won out. “Just tell me,” I insisted, but he wiped his nose on his sleeve, then simply looked me straight in the eyes and waited, for once not looking so jumpy and scared.
So for privacy we rode our bikes out to his place where we found his mom outside, standing beside the house, staring blankly at a jumble of rotting planks, apparently perplexed about the scrap-pile’s dilemma. Her hair a dirty tangle, clothes on backwards or inside out, she appeared to be lost, or maybe drunk or even insane.
Embarrassed, he dropped his bicycle and urged me to stay back, then approached her cautiously, maybe afraid of spooking her. He took her by the arm, whispered assurances, and led her up to the partly collapsed porch. As if finally recognizing her surroundings, she pushed the door open slowly, focused on him a moment, then drifted inside. I watched through a window as he eased her into a chair, then brought her a glass of water, her hands trembling as she drank. He waited until she settled back and closed her eyes. Where does the picked-on boy retreat for his own reassurance when he’s the one caring for his grown-up?
He led me to the big shed beyond the house. He’d cleaned it up, arranged some stick furniture, added several stacks of faded superhero comic books, and achieved a rather clubhouse-like atmosphere. He offered me some crackers from a box and poured cups of Kool-aid from a jug, ice cubes from a cooler under the table. We kicked back, at which time I proceeded to ask any normal ten-year-old’s next question.
His cheeks flushed. Tugging at his loose shoelace until it broke, he finally admitted, “She’s all right if she takes her medicine, but she can’t get ’em when no doctors show up at the clinic. Not takin’ ’em reg’lar makes the in-betweens worse than never takin’ ’em at all.”
That proved a problem I couldn’t solve, so I switched to the main subject. “That’s not what the secret is about, is it?”
He shook his head, then stopped fidgeting long enough to look me straight in the eyes again, pausing as if weighing how much he really trusted me. He took a deep breath, lowered his voice, and practically whispered, “I got a superpower.”
Oh, geez. I eyed the comic books and snorted my disapproval, then decided I might as well have some fun with this. “So? I got superpowers, too.”
He looked surprised, then relieved. “Oh, good. You already know.”
“Yeah, I know everything in the universe.”
His shoulders slumped. “Oh, making fun of me.”
I put my hands up. “Sorry. Okay, but you gotta explain first.”
He wrinkled his nose and rubbed his forehead, then looked me right in the eyes for a third time. “You can make fun of me, but it won’t change the truth. I can see—well, my power is I can see other people’s powers.”
“Everybody has some?”
“Well, just you so far. In everybody else I can see what they don’t have.”
“Just me, huh?”
“Yep,” he confirmed, getting up to gaze out the window toward his house. He turned and stood in front of me. “You’re going to be a superhero someday, and I’m going to be your sidekick.”
I started out amused, then for some odd reason annoyed. “Don’t tell anybody that.” I mean, I didn’t care if he was crazy as his mom; I just didn’t need anybody thinking I was, too.
After that day, I mostly avoided him, though he still persisted at the periphery, practically wearing a Victimize me! sign. I even acted mean toward him a few times, just to go along with the crowd, but it always left me feeling bad. It gets kinda hard to show your worst to someone who keeps insisting he sees good in you.
Every time he found a chance at brief privacy, he reminded me he’d be my sidekick whenever I was ready. I didn’t get why this mattered so much to him, this skinny little kid who always seemed just a bit “off.”
Then one day Todd talked me into riding our bikes out to the kid’s place to mess with him a bit, nothing too bad. We found him in his clubhouse, the place vandalized. He was sitting on the floor in the corner, knees up, hugging his legs, rocking, and . . . crying. He looked up, revealing a bloody nose and brow, face scuffed. Todd wanted no part of getting blamed for beating him up, so he immediately took off while I stayed and helped the kid clean himself up, ice from his cooler on the swollen eye, Band-aids over a cut on his arm.
Then I went on a hunt for the offending Roux brothers, and despite improbable odds tilted only by my rage and determination, I left them also in need of ice and Band-aids, both powerfully motivated to avoid further reprisals for messing with my sidekick.
He thinks I saved him that day, and though I did make his life a lot better in how he got treated by others, in truth I’m the one who’s life changed the most. See, without even starting to believe in the absurd notion of “superpowers,” I did get hooked on the idea of stepping up when someone needed my help.
And look how many lives I’ve saved in the years since, and how many more I’ve improved because my sidekick never relented in reminding me to pursue my better self.
I took a lot of heat during my teen years for letting him tag along so much, but he never really seemed to have any other friends. Then when his mom got so bad there for a while, somebody had to make sure he got enough to eat and had a warm place to crash, especially while lowlifes were taking all-night advantage of her in that leaky rat’s nest of an old farmhouse.
Even superheroes have a regular life, a public persona, the need to walk among others without attracting too much attention; so I registered for a dorm room when I started college some hundred miles away. My sidekick followed despite being under legal age, living here and there, working odd jobs, a child of opportunity and necessity. When I took an apartment second year, he stayed mostly at my place, a tremendous help around the house so I could concentrate on my studies. He spent most of his spare time making a fairly good living, cooking and cleaning and running errands and laundering and servicing cars for some of the more well-to-do students. He always put me first, though.
Not that I asked him to.
No, I never asked, and I did try not to take advantage of him. Those times I maybe sorta did, he seemed not only to understand, but to appreciate the opportunity. Seems that when someone is also working hard to help you achieve your goals, your accomplishments become his, as well; and if you try to make him stop, it hurts you both.
He followed me across the country when I started med school. He proved so successful at his personal-service enterprise that he managed to help me and still earn enough from others to score a good place to live and carry enough spending money to cover his simple tastes. He even temporarily helped me out with a short-term loan once or twice—or maybe three times.
Now, during the year or so Donna lived with me, she kept trying to take advantage of his good nature. I resented this because she didn’t need the help, her chief pursuits being to coast through a couple of easy undergrad classes, spend her daddy’s money on clothes, and spin fantasies about being married to a rich doctor someday—my alternate future that didn’t hew to the superhero plan. I did come close to telling her the truth a few times, how I secretly nurtured superpowers so my sidekick and I could save the world someday—or at least a small corner of it. The problem solved itself, though, when she found a bauble-coveting second-year resident who liked to spin himself a role in her fantasies of opulent living and enviable social standing.
What’s ironic is that I did wind up spending a few years in private practice earning a lot of money, but not to spend the way she would have wanted. Then my sidekick and I moved back across the country to a bad neighborhood close to where we grew up. We opened a free clinic in the worst part of town. It’s been quite successful, me working day and night, saving and improving lives, my sidekick doing everything else and then some. He’s proven near genius at hustling grants and donations, cajoling practitioners at all levels to volunteer their time, and negotiating discounts from providers. In this community, I’ve become the superhero, and though I’m not sure this is exactly the future that skinny little kid saw, I have grown to believe he did see something good to come of believing in me. I do know I wouldn’t be who I am without him.
Through it all, though, I’ve had one regret, and now I have two.
The first: My success came too late for his mom. He sat in the corner and cried that day, and no amount of ice or Band-aids or my threatening of bullies could help. If anything good could come from that, maybe it’s that it infused him—us—with greater determination not to let that happen to others, especially the moms and dads of scared children who have to take charge when they should be the ones cared for.
My second regret: I didn’t prepare better for what just happened here tonight, and now the greatest ever superhero/sidekick partnership is about to end.
And now I finally see the truth: I might call him “Sidekick,” but verily this good-hearted young man has never been anything but simply my friend.
That picked-on skinny little kid knew he wanted to grow up and help others, but he couldn’t do it by himself, so he found one guy with the power to make it happen, the one guy who might not know it yet, but who—with a bit of help and lots of reminding—would grow into the kind of man who accepts and eventually embraces that role. The rare occasions he brought up that whole notion of becoming my sidekick, he always seemed matter-of-fact about it, never any doubt, proud that he would be the one.
And it’s breaking my heart to see it end like this.
He stayed late, intending to sleep here in the clinic tonight because we’ve had break-ins and drug thefts. I came back with some late-night carry-out dinner to find him held at gunpoint, an instant of commotion, shouting, shots fired, and blood, too much blood, worse than a mere clinic can handle, time too short.
Thieves just grabbed the drugs and ran.
And the truth in having the power to save lives means that you also know its limits. You know when a fully equipped trauma center is too far to reach in time, the blood coming too fast.
And he’s kneeling over me, and for the third time in all our years I see him crying, but I’m barely holding on, one hand inside myself, trying to stanch the flow to buy some minutes before I bleed out, the other hand clutching his arm, desperate to make him listen.
But he won’t, jerking free, calling 911, grabbing a tray of instruments. He’s seen me do this. He’s been my sidekick.
“My life insur—insurance,” I tell him, trying not to choke on the blood. Man, this hurts. “You’ll always—always have—money.”
Liquid fire, and he cuts into me, turning me to drain the fluid, searching for bleeders, clamping, trying desperately to save me.
“Keep it—keep going—clinic. Make others help—you can—”
Dizzy now. Tingling. Sirens in the distance.
He’s pushing fluids, trying to keep me from crashing.
“If you have to—” I insist, floating now. “You can—can do it—without me.”
They’re outside now. Maybe, maybe there is a chance. Still, I have to tell him, just in case. He’s got my head up, cradling it, whispering assurances.
I try to reach for him, but my arm is numb, somewhere else.
He looks me straight in the eyes, like he always has, and I can’t say it yet because he’s telling me something. What’s he telling me?
“I have one power,” he’s saying, and he believes it with all his heart. “I can look inside people and see their powers. And what I’ve seen all along, we still got bigger things to do than this clinic.”
The police are inside now, all clear for the EMTs to enter.
I’m fading into waves of tingles, but now I wonder if just maybe I’ll be able to find my way.
“We got him,” one voice says, lifting me.
“You did all this?”
Cool air, flashing lights.
“Yeah, he got all the bleeders.”
Moving fast, siren.
“GSW to the chest!”
People helping others.
“Wow, Doc, you got lucky.”
Yeah, back when I was just a regular suburban kid of nine or ten, I got lucky. I can see him out there now, craning to watch, worried but confident.
The one I depend on . . .
Yes, there’s something all superheroes should know:
Sidekicks are heroes, too.