By: Natasha Maya
The young boy knew he had lost but that didn’t stop him from running. From a distance, he could hear the sounds of fake and obnoxiously high-pitched gunshots gaining upon him. He made the careless mistake of looking back while sprinting, causing his legs to trip over one another and send him flat onto the muddy ground.
Grumbling, he remained lying on his stomach, wallowing in self-pity. He could already feel his right knee bleeding underneath the thick layer of mud stains. It was his friend’s provoking laughter that gave him the energy to push himself up.
“Ethan is a loser, Ethan is a loser, Ethan is a loser,” his friend chanted in a sing-song voice.
“Shut up, Michael. You only won because I fell,” Ethan said, wiping his matted muddy hair away from his eyes. His annoyance grew, now he had to take a shower and he hated waiting outside the bathroom for the other kids. If the young boy had it his way, he wouldn’t want to shower at all.
“Yeah, but you always fall, so I always win,” Michael grinned, securing the toy gun into the band of his pants as his pants didn’t have pockets. It wasn’t the most hygienic way to store his stuff as he could feel his other toy gun sliding deeper into his underpants. But it was the only way he could get by due to only having a few pairs of donated basketball shorts and a single arm.
Using his left arm, Michael hoisted Ethan up. “I fall to let you win,” Ethan defended, rubbing his dirty hands onto his white coloured shirt.
“You’re just a suck-y villain.”
“Then I want to be the hero next time. You can be like the mutated villain.”
Michael’s smug face dropped as he walked away, wiping his dirty hand on his shorts. “Right, because I’m a freak.” He had heard enough insults from the other children in the orphanage to start believing in them, regardless of what the caregivers did to make him feel normal.
“No, I mean it in a cool way!” Ethan said, chasing after Michael, “Like you have your own superpowers and stuff!”
“Being a weirdo is a superpower?” Michael said sarcastically, kicking the pebbles around. The sun was setting around them, painting the sky bright orange with a pink hue.
“Well all superheroes are weird! Like Spiderman, he has webs coming out of his hand, that’s weird but it’s cool!”
This was enough to cheer the special boy, “You’re right, so I’m like Deadpool!”
“Yeah, okay, but Spiderman is way cooler.”
“Nu-uh, Deadpool is better.”
Their short banter was cut abruptly by their caregiver marching up to them. They had three caretakers and instead of calling them by their names, the boys chose to call them based on their attitude.
“Uh-oh, Fussy is coming,” Ethan said under his breath. The two boys backed away, their eyes darting around for the nearest and easiest place to hide. Their attempts to escape failed when the caregiver grabbed their skinny arms.
“What are you boys doing out here!” she shouted. Her messy hair and wide brown eyes furiously glaring at them made her look ten times larger than her already large frame.
The two boys gulped, their brains desperately trying to think of a reasonable excuse. They were supposed to be on garden duty today but chose to sneak out for a quick game of ‘villains and heroes.’
“We-we’re sorry. We just wanted to walk around for a while,” Michael said, quivering.
Her face softened and she released her hold, “I’m disappointed in you Michael, it’s dangerous for you to be running around. If you keep this type of behaviour up, no one would take care of you.”
Michael hung his head down in shame, trying to keep tears from welling up in his eyes. Ethan on the other hand felt his anger rising, he hated when the caregivers treated Michael like he was fragile and weak, to him, Michael was just as capable as all the other kids.
“I’m sorry,” Michael said.
The caregiver turned to Ethan, looking at him expectantly. Not wanting to get punished, he managed to say, “Sorry.”
“Go take a shower, boys. But don’t think you won’t get a scolding later,” she said, eyeing the muddy boy suspiciously.
The two boys walked back towards the orphanage quickly before she could raise any more questions. “Go take a shower, boys,” Ethan mocked in a high-pitched tone.
Michael just chuckled, still shaken after getting caught. He hated how sensitive he was, how ready he was to burst into tears whenever his disability was mentioned.
“Hey, don’t worry about it. I’ll say it was my idea,” Ethan said, slinging his arm around his friend’s shoulders.
“Our idea. We’re Spiderman and Deadpool, we stick together.”
“Okay, but Spiderman and Deadpool don’t fight together.”
“Shut up, you know what I mean,” Michael grumbled, shaking Ethan’s arms off his shoulder which caused him to laugh.
“Yeah, just you and me buddy, two heroes against the caregivers, bringing justice to the orphanage!”
Michael laughed, feeling the weight in his chest being lifted. He didn’t have a family to care for him or himself to depend on, but he had Ethan, and for a while that was enough. But every good thing he had, had to be stripped away. Because a month later a nice family came and filed an appeal to adopt Ethan. Ethan begged the family to take Michael, but like most families, they only wanted a ‘normal’ child who would be easy to take care of.
And a week later, his best friend, his only refuge in this hellhole, was taken away from him too.
Eighteen is the worst age to be for an orphan. It felt like building a tower, only to have the foundation pulled out, leaving everything you’ve spent years creating to come crashing down. Michael had never considered the orphanage as his home, but it was his safe space, filled with the same daily routines which gave him a sense of security. They had told him that he no longer had a bed in the orphanage, that everyday there was an abandoned child who needed that bed more than him.
The rain beat down heavily on him as he desperately ran for shelter. Lightning was crackling in the sky, threatening to strike any unsuspecting victims. He found himself at an old convenience store, with its roof barely providing a shield against the merciless storm. His teeth chattered as he shrugged off his damp jacket, letting it fall onto the wet floor. Fortunately, his jacket had protected his grey T-shirt from getting wet but his pants on the other hand were clinging onto him like a second skin. It was nerve-wracking to hear the thunder roaring above him, as though cursing the town.
The motel he rented for the night was at the other end of the street, about a 15-minute walk away, but in that monstrous weather, no one should be allowed to walk outside. However, to his surprise, he saw a figure dressed in all black – that he almost mistook for as a shadow – running pass him with a hand clutching tightly onto a yellow purse. Moments later, another figure approached, this time dressed in a police uniform. The police chased after the thief, easily charging forward even with the heavy downpour against him. In no time, the police were on top of the thief and the thief was in handcuffs being pushed into a police car.
He watched the police car drive off, leaving the policeman behind. The police calmly walked towards the convenience store and was about to open the door when he suddenly turned his head. “Michael?!” the policeman said.
Michael’s entire body froze as he stared into a familiar pair of dark brown eyes. It took a while for him to recognize the man before him, for this tall muscular man was a far cry away from the short scrawny boy he knew, “Ethan?”
“It is you!” Ethan said, wrapping his arms around him for a hug. And just like that, it didn’t feel so cold anymore.
“Woah,” Michael breathed out, not knowing what to say.
“Hey, let’s get something warm to drink inside, we have a lot of catching up to do,” Ethan said enthusiastically, holding the door open.
Michael nodded hesitantly and went in. Thankfully, the air-conditioning seemed to be broken as he was not attacked by any sudden blast of cool air.
“Take a seat, I’ll get us some coffee, my treat,” Ethan winked and headed towards the counter.
Less than a minute later, he came back with two steaming hot beverages. “They don’t have coffee but I hope you still like chocolate.”
There was a short moment of silence that Michael did not know how to fill. Sure, they had talked on the phone occasionally after Ethan was adopted, but their communication completely ended about three years ago. Ethan had stopped answering his calls, and Michael had stopped calling.
“So, what have you been up to?” Ethan finally asked, taking a sip of his hot chocolate.
“Nothing much,” he shrugged, “But you seem to be doing a lot.”
Ethan smirked, “What can I say, I was born to be a hero. To serve justice to our nation!”
“And I see you haven’t changed, still a Spiderman wannabe.”
Ethan laughed, “Just a boy trying to live his dream.”
Another awkward pause.
“But my parents were the one who suggested this job, I’m actually still a trainee though.”
Michael ignored the jab in his heart at the mention of ‘parents’, a foreign term that he would never have the luxury of saying. “But I saw you catch the guy just now,” he said.
“Yeah…I wasn’t supposed to. But my trainer lets me do what I want, so as long as the department doesn’t find out, I’m good.”
“And you’re still breaking rules till this day, huh,” Michael teased.
“Sometimes, you have to break some rules to save the day.”
“You talk like you’re in a comic book,” Michael said, rolling his eyes.
“That’s the goal man, that’s the goal.”
“I wish I could fight crime too, I’d be a way cooler protagonist than you.” Michael’s light-hearted joke didn’t seem to catch on as Ethan’s eyes lingered at his right, where another arm was supposed to be.
“Hey man, don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be able to find something else more suitable for you too,” Ethan said, with a reassuring smile which ended up having the opposite effect. Michael’s shoulders stiffened, but he kept his face neutral. “Yeah man, I can be like a…a….”
“An accountant?” Ethan suggested.
Even the name sounded boring to him but he couldn’t think of any desk-jobs that he liked. “Yup, exactly.”
Another awkward pause but this time Michael was the one to break it. “So, do you have a police badge or something?”
“Yeah,” he showed the police badge which gleamed under the lights.
“Can I touch it?”
“Well, I’m not supposed to let anyone hold it…but we are family.”
Their conversation came to an end when a voice blared out of Ethan’s walkie talkie.
“Hey, I gotta go, there’s trouble in Plaza Hotel,” Ethan said standing up and handing out his business card, “Let’s catch up again some other time.” There was a police car stationed outside, waiting for him.
It was when Ethan left the convenience store that Michael realized he had been holding the police badge all along. Cursing, he ran out of the convenience store but the police car was already ahead, sirens blaring, lighting up the dark streets. The rain had ceased, turning to a light drizzle.
He didn’t know much about the police force, but he was worried that Ethan wouldn’t be allowed in the crime scene without his badge. Against better judgement, he hailed a taxi and made his way to Plaza Hotel. His plan sounded simple in his mind, arrive to the crime scene, find Ethan and pass him his badge.
But once he arrived, his plans fell into shambles. There were more than a hundred people crowding outside the hotel buzzing in fear.
“-a bomb threat in plaza hotel.” He heard a news reporter say as he walked past her, pushing himself further into the anxious crowd. Due to his disability, it was easier for him to get to the front as most people parted away for him. He leaned against the caution tape, nervously trying to spot his friend. Cold sweat was sliding down his forehead, and he could feel sticky bodies caressing his arms as bystanders push forward to get a better look. Their phones were in the air, as though the situation was amusing to them.
An explosion sounded off and large fiery flames engulfed the ground floor sending the crowd into a frenzy. Heavy puffs of dark smoke rose out of the building, causing him to cough. Although he was a good distance away, he could feel the heat as though it was melting his face off. The firemen rushed into the scene, trying to tame the growing fire before it rose to the second floor.
A few policemen ran out of the building with ash-stained faces, but it was the panic in their eyes that struck him. From a distance, he saw a policeman talking to a nearby fireman, pointing frantically at the third floor. Michael’s eyes followed the policeman’s finger, and landed on a figure, dressed in a police uniform waving his arms at the window. Realization hit him and his blood immediately ran cold. It was Ethan.
Without a second thought, he ran past the caution tape and straight towards the blazing fire. Due to the chaos, none of the policemen noticed him running into the building.
He was in the lobby, where he could see chandeliers covered in flames, causing shards to melt, dripping onto the marble floors. It was as though he was in a bubble protected from all the chaos – the shouts, the sound of ceilings coming apart, the raging fire which threatened to destroy the building.
Sweat dripped down his forehead and he felt his whole body melting from the heat. His heart beat wildly against his chest as he desperately gasped for oxygen. The lobby was covered in a thick layer of black smoke, burning his eyes as he navigated his way around. It took a while, but then he finally found the emergency stairs which lead him to the third floor.
“ETHAN!” Michael called out, his eyes glassy from the smoke. His lungs felt like they were going to burn out and his vision became cloudy. The hallways were what he had imagined hell to look like. Painfully bright blaze eating the wallpapers, mercilessly engulfing every inch of the floor. Just then, the bubble protecting him from the reality of the situation popped and he found himself eye-to-eye with death. There was no way he was going to make it out alive. He should run back out to safety while he still can.
“Help!” a frail voice shouted, followed by a coughing fit. The voice came from the end of the hallway, where a wooden structure engulfed in flames blocked him. Tears streamed down his cheeks as a wave of emotions flooded him. His best friend, his brother, was at the other side of this hallway. Gathering every ounce of courage he had, he ran, straight into the fiery depths of hell, jumping over the burning wooden structure. His tips of his pants were in ashes and he could feel a burn on his calves. But he didn’t stop running, he couldn’t.
“ETHAN!” he shouted more desperately as he reached the end of the hallway. The fire was strong enough to dry his tears and made his head spin.
“Help,” a voice croaked, barely audible against the sound of wooden bits crashing down from the ceiling.
He followed the source of the sound into a room only to be greeted by another thick layer of smoke. But at least the fire had not claimed this side of the building. Ethan had his back flat on the floor with his eyes closed. Hurriedly, he crouched down, checking for a pulse. His shoulder eased when he found one but that didn’t stop him from crying. Was he going to lose Ethan again?
“Michael?” Ethan’s voice suddenly called out.
“I’m here,” he said, gently laying Ethan’s head on his lap.
“The orphanage is so hot. Can we go outside,” he said, almost like he was talking in his sleep.
There was a brief pause, before he replied, “Yeah. We can play villains and heroes.”
This brought a smile to Ethan’s face, “I’ll be Spiderman, you’ll be Deadpool.”
“They don’t work together.”
But Ethan didn’t reply.
He watched helplessly as Ethan’s body went limp in his arms. The door separating them and the burning hallway was in flames. There was no time left.
Thinking quickly, he let go of Ethan, grabbing a chair and knocking it against the window with all the force he could muster. The window shattered and smoke escaped out of the room. He waved his arm frantically outside the window and a few moments later, a life net was stationed right below him. Hope burst in his chest and he quickly ran towards Ethan. He was swaying, but somehow, he managed to hoist Ethan over the window before pushing him down, all with his one arm.
He could hear the gasps and cheers from the crowd as Ethan landed safely onto the life net. Unable to stand anymore, he allowed himself to fall off the window. His eyes shut with one thing in his mind.
He did it. He was a superhero.