Track Three: Superheroes
The hot chocolate wasn’t actually hot. It was more like chocolate water put in the microwave for thirty seconds. It also had a funky, metallic aftertaste, like it’d been microwaved in a can and the can had caught fire and melted a little. But the whipped cream made it drinkable. And it was, somehow, magically soothing. My whole body relaxed as warmth spread throughout it from my stomach.
There was more to it than that. I felt… better. My stomach stopped hurting, and as the warmth spread to my aching feet, they didn’t feel quite so achy. I sipped more of the hot chocolate. The warmth spread to my head. I was so rejuvenated! I could run a marathon! I started chugging it. It was so terribly delicious. I wasn’t drinking it fast enough. The angle was all wrong. I let go of my bad arm and grabbed the cup, adjusting it so I could drink what was left at the bottom.
I couldn’t believe how much better I felt. I wasn’t tired anymore. I wanted to bounce and sing, then jump up on the table and summon birds to me through a musical chorus.
I stared sadly at my now empty, styrofoam cup. “Wow. That was so… gross and… fantastic.”
Lipstick Rick smiled, setting down his own cup. “I told you.”
“Yeah! I mean, what do they put in this stuff? Meth? I mean… woo! I just—I wanna go climb Everest. Wanna climb Everest with me?”
“No.” He raised an eyebrow. “Have you seen those people that climb Everest? I look at them, on the edge of death, in all of their gear, covered in snow and trudging through more snow, and I can’t help but wonder…” his face contorted into a confused grimace, “Why?”
“Normally I would agree with you, but I really think if we packed a couple cases of this stuff, we’d be up and down Everest in like, two hours. If that! Woo!” I bounced in the booth a little. “I’m the Flash! I’m the happy Flash!” I giggled. Actually giggled.
At that moment, words came tumbling out of me, quick and uncontrolled like an avalanche off of Everest. “Are you sure this isn’t coffee? I don’t drink coffee, so I don’t know for sure. I like how coffee smells, though. We should go shopping. You’re very stylish. I need you to help me pick out a whole new wardrobe because I don’t have any clothes except for what I’m wearing. Or at least, that’s what I would want to do if I had money. I don’t have any money. Well, I have fifteen cents. A nickel and a dime. I spent the rest to take the bus over here. I don’t even know where I am,” I laughed at the absurdity. “I’ve just been running and running all day because I tried to leave my boyfriend and he pushed me down the stairs.”
Lipstick Rick’s eyebrows shot up. “Really?” His voice took on a sarcasm that had a dark, venomous tone to it. “Well, I can’t imagine why you’d want to leave him. He sounds like a prince.”
I shrugged. “Yeah. It happens, though, right?”
He shook his head. “It’s not supposed to.”
It was bizarrely painful to stop myself from saying more. The avalanche wasn’t tumbling down Everest, it was coming from my mind, and I had to fight to keep myself from spitting it out. I frowned. “Why am I telling you all of this?”
Understanding me more than I did, Rick said, “It’s part of the healing process. You needed to get it out. You started there because those are the most recent injuries. They’re fresh on your mind. Really, you can’t keep trauma like that locked inside of you. It’ll eat away at you until it consumes you. Tomorrow morning, you’ll wake up with an inexplicable urge to write down everything you’ve just kept yourself from telling me. Don’t ignore it.”
Lipstick Rick’s expression softened, full of compassion, saying so much without any words. To my dismay, a warm, comforting feeling emanated from him, the same as I’d felt on the roof. I studied him. Was I imagining it? It was so warm, so real.
He held his hand out to me across the table. “Give me your hand.”
I hesitated, then did as he asked.
At his touch, I felt warm light rush through my entire being—comforting, healing. It lingered at my heart, as if it were cleansing and stitching up the dark, decaying wound that had opened up there, the relief from the pain stung my eyes with tears. It rushed to my head, bathing it in a light that consumed my vision so that, for a moment, the room disappeared into a flash of white, burning away every last lingering shadow. It spread to my feet, then to my broken arm. With a strange, unnerving jolt, the broken bone shifted back into place, which should’ve hurt like crazy but instead it was Lipstick Rick wincing in pain. My arm grew tingly, like it had fallen asleep, the warmth gathering at the break until it burned.
I looked up at him. His gaze was far away and his eyes… they were glowing. Bright blue, almost white, like he’d been plugged into something, the light and color in beautiful contrast against his dark skin.
He let go and slumped into the booth, his face pale, his eyes dim, looking weary.
I carefully touched my broken arm. Heat radiated from it, but there was no pain. I lifted it, and to my shock and with a flood of tears, I could move it with ease.
I was healed.
He’d healed me.
I should’ve realized how strange this was, that this was a miraculous event worthy of its own chapter in the Bible. I knew this. The tears soaking my cheeks spoke of how deeply I knew this. But there was a disconnect in my brain keeping that knowledge from getting to my conscious mind, and it couldn’t sink in, having been overloaded and frozen with the information. With both of my trembling hands, I wiped my face—which also radiated heat—and said simply, “Uh… um… Wow. That…” I looked at the hand I hadn’t been able to lift less than two minutes ago. I felt my arm, opened and closed my palm. “That doesn’t h-happen. That, um… you don’t see that every day. Th-thank you?” I said it as a question, wondering, Is that what I should be saying? Yes, yes that seems right. “Thank you. Thank you so much. There aren’t… I don’t have… words.”
“H-how… did you… how did you do that?”
“It’s a gift I have, I guess you could say. Something I can do. Although, I couldn’t have done it without the hot chocolate.”
“Wh-what are… are you an angel or something?”
He laughed. “Oh no. No, no, no. But that’s kind of you for mistaking me for one. I’ll take that as a tremendous compliment.” He brushed back his hair proudly.
I shook my head, knowing I should be feeling something but was somehow unable to reach it. “But you… you made me think that what I felt on the roof was all in my head.”
“Did I? I didn’t mean to. I wonder if, perhaps, your brain has grown an eternal pessimist inside of it and that’s why you took it that way, which I understand. I had an eternal pessimist living in my mind once. He was very easy to listen to. Life seemed,” he grew thoughtful, “less risky—less disappointing—when I assumed the worst of everything.
“Let me give you some advice, though. Life is much more enjoyable if you can find the strength to murder that eternal pessimist and find hope in even the worst of times. Solutions to problems come much easier this way. You’ll feel stronger, happier, and you’ll even find that you’re disappointed a lot less than you were when you were constantly seeing the worst in everything. Ironic, isn’t it?” He looked back down at his cup, his face a tired sort of pale. “All I said before was that I couldn’t answer your question. I’m still not answering it. Not really. I could tell you all the details, but I don’t want to.” He reached out and took a drink of his hot chocolate. I could somehow feel how much he didn’t want to tell me. He was done with the topic.
All I could do was blink at him. Though something restless stirred deep down inside of me, wanting all of the answers, my numb brain couldn’t give it a voice. A fog seeped into my mind, making my eyelids heavy. Besides, I told myself, it would be rude to press him for answers, right? Sure! That seems… right. I mean, I totally understand not wanting to talk about things. “Okay, then,” I said, as if I’d been out shopping and he’d just handed me my bags. “Well, thank you for this!”
No, that definitely didn’t feel right. I had enough vague sense to know that. I shook my head. “That seems so… not enough, just saying ‘thank you.’ I mean…” I rubbed my forehead with the hand I hadn’t been able to lift only moments earlier and a feeling of elation burned in my gut through the numbness. I grinned. “Now I really can climb Mount Everest!” What a dumb thing to say.
With a deep sincerity that resonated from him, he said, “You really can, if you want to.” He looked disapprovingly at his cup and added, “Though I can’t recommend it.” He readjusted himself, leaning toward me but still staring at the cup. I could smell his perfume, the light fragrance of orange blossoms, making me feel as though I wasn’t sitting in a dirty gas station but in a beautiful garden in late spring. The look he wore became thoughtful, searching. Finally, he said, “You know… I understand just how difficult it is to reset your way of thinking after living in a dark place for so long. Though I’ve done my best to heal your mind, what you choose to do with it from here, well,” he looked up at me, “that’s up to you. But, if you want a different life, if you want a different mind, you have to start stepping away from the old one.”
I nodded, trying desperately to reach through the fog that had gathered in my head and grasp things. One phrase seeped through. Healed my mind? What did he mean by that?
He sighed. “I just want you to know—and I hope one day you really will know—that, though we sometimes make mistakes… sometimes very big mistakes… and though people may break us and we find ourselves somewhere dark, wounded and bleeding,” his expression turned heavy, weighed down with his memories. “Left alone, empty and certain that there is no way that you will ever feel whole or happy again,” his gaze returned to mine, the light within them brightening a little, piercing through the numbness. “I promise you that those moments pass. To say this—to suggest that such pain is but a moment may seem like an attempt to trivialize it, but it isn’t. I know those moments, Emily. Those moments are unbearable and very real, and seem to have no end in sight.”
I looked at him, this person who held so much light, his words lingering at the edge of the fog just enough for me to see a little of their meaning. How did he know what I had been feeling?
My thoughts shifted. I ached on his behalf and wondered what memories haunted him.
He continued, “But there is a promise, woven in the very fabric of time—every moment will pass. You just have to hang on. And then, when the happy moments come, their beauty will be just as relevant, even more so. Even more intense and real, because though the darkness and pain has dug a deep hole, it has left behind the ability to fill it with joy. And when those joyful moments come, you will know to treasure them. Savor them like a good meal. Take lots of pictures and remember them. Because it all passes, which makes the good times so much more precious and beautiful. Those moments are unique to each person, made for us and us alone, and are something so worth hanging on for.
“You don’t want to miss those moments, Emily. As someone who has felt that unbearable pain and ended up on their own roof—metaphorically speaking,” he took my hand, his eyes now burning bright blue again, “please, hang on. When you wake up tomorrow, do everything you have to do in order to save your life. Kick out those who make you miserable. Make every change necessary to steer your life in the direction of your heart’s fondest dreams. Change your thoughts, make those sacrifices. It’s all worth it in the end.”
Tears poured down my face, though the terrible disconnect in my mind kept me from truly understanding why. I could sense the hope he’d brought me, like the winter sun warming the glass of a window after a long, cold night, but I just couldn’t break through to it. I shook my head, trying to chip away at the glass. “You make it sound so simple.”
He furrowed his brow. “Of course it’s not simple. Changing your life—it’s painful, confusing, lonely, exhausting—all of those extremely difficult things. There’s nothing simple about it. But,” he held up a finger, as though what he was trying to say were hanging in front of him in the air and he was pointing it out, “it is possible.”
“How do you know that? How do you know any of this? I didn’t…” I balled a hand in my hair, trying to find the words for the question I really wanted to ask. “How do you know why…?” Why I was on the roof. After all that effort, I couldn’t bring myself to say it.
Looking as though he hadn’t slept in days, he grabbed his purse and umbrella and stood to leave. “I just do. C’mon. Let’s go find you a place to sleep.”
“What? But I—” I wiped away tears and tried to stand, only to fall back into the booth. My legs had given up on me. The fog poured through my mind, taking it over.
“Uh oh. Oh, dear.”
“What?” I asked, knowing I should probably be worried, but wasn’t at all. “What’s happening?” My eyelids felt as though small weights had been hooked onto them. My brain had given up on trying to figure out anything and was now spinning in somersaults in my skull, squealing, wheeeeee!
Lipstick Rick sounded frustrated. “I’m never exactly sure when this is going to kick in. It affects everyone differently.” He reached down and wrapped a massive arm of stone-like muscles around me, lifting me up onto my feet as though I were made of cotton. He helped me toward the door. “You know when you download updates onto your phone, or a computer—”
My head fell forward. The numbness was overtaken by delirious happiness. I forced my head upright again so I could say to him, “Wow! You are so strong. You just lifted me up out of the booth like I was nothin’!”
The gas station attendant looked up from his newspaper and hollered, “Good night, Lipstick Rick!”
I gasped and turned to the attendant. “That! That should be the title of a children’s book. Don’’ you guys steal it. It was my idea first, people!”
Lipstick Rick laughed. “See you later, John.”
I lit up. “First two pages right there.”
John ignored me. “Ha! Lipstick Rick saves the day again.”
I turned excitedly to John. “He saved my life! This guy is an…” I almost called him an angel but caught myself, “not an angel. He is a magic man.” I sang the chorus of Heart’s song, “Magic Man.”
Lipstick Rick dragged me out the door. “This is precisely why I don’t give anyone details.”
The cool night air sent a chill through me, reminding me that my clothes were wet, but I got over it right away. I laid my head on his shoulder. “You smell so good. And I really like your hair.” We stopped for a moment outside the gas station while he searched his purse for his phone. “And your face… I like… your face is…” I never finished telling him what I thought about his face.
“Thank you,” Rick said, gently bumping my head off his shoulder and waking me from a two second doze. “Come on. We still have a bit of walking to do.”
As we started down the street, Lipstick Rick continued, “As I was trying to say earlier, your body is behaving a bit like a computer after giving it an upgrade. In order for it to function properly, it has to power down and restart. You need to sleep. While you sleep, your body will finish applying the upgrades.”
I furrowed my brow. “Upgrades? Wait… am I going to wake up a superhero or something?” I gasped. “Will I have superhuman strength? Will I be able to fly?”
“Uh, well, no. It’s not that kind of an upgrade.”
I frowned. “Oh.”
“Well, really, the flying is up to you. You will be perfectly capable of eventually acquiring a pilot’s license.”
“So this isn’t like being bitten by a radioactive spider?”
He sighed dramatically. “Alas, no. But nevertheless, when you wake up, I really don’t think you will be disappointed.”
We crossed the parking lot of a new-ish Hampton Inn hotel. A confused and concerned desk clerk checked us in as I fell asleep on Lipstick Rick’s shoulder. He gave me another nudge and helped me down a hallway toward the elevators. I asked him, “Does your whole band dress up on Ladies’ Night?”
He shook his head. “Just me. They’re no fun.”
After an elevator ride to the right floor, Lipstick Rick gave up on dragging me everywhere and carried me down the hall to the room in his arms. When he sat me back on my feet to open the door, I awoke enough to ask, “So…” I fought to remember what we’d been talking about, “Wha—what’s the name of your band?”
He tried multiple times to get the key card to work. “Screaming Riot and the City of Warning.”
“Wow. That’s a lot of words. But I like the ones you’ve picked and the order that they’re in.”
He chuckled. It was deep and genuine. “Well, thank you. And thank the random word generator that Chuck-the-keyboardist found on the internet.”
I thought of Charlie Brown. “Chuck?”
“Chuck.” I nodded. “Alright, I will.” I addressed the empty hallway, “Thanks Chuck! To you, and your magical, random word generator.”
He gave up on the key card and held out his hand a few inches over the lock on the door. I was sure I must’ve missed something, because right after that, I heard it unlatch. He helped me into the room and toward a bed, which I collapsed in. I couldn’t recall in my life, not even during the worst of times, when I had been so tired. He peeled off my shoes and put the blankets over my gross body. I tried to look at him, but my eyes were too heavy and the pillow was too soft and the blankets too warm.
“Do you do this regularly? Are you some cross-dressing superhero, rushing in to fabulously save the day?”
“Well,” he said with mock arrogance, “I guess you could call me a fabulously dressed superhero. Of course, I am far too humble to say that of myself.”
I laughed as much as my tired body would allow. “You know, I haven’t laughed this much in… I can’t even remember when. Thanks for doing that… for reminding me how to laugh. For… for everything.”
His voice was angelic and sincere. “You’re welcome.”
That was the last thing I heard.