“Dad,” I yelled, running into the living room. My flailing arms held a broken Superman action figure no doubt stepped on by my stupid brother in the night, and I was intent on making him pay for breaking it.
Those flailing arms fell abruptly to my sides, however, when I turned the living room corner and saw dad sitting on the couch with Jeff, who was shirtless, panting, and covered in blue and purple bruises that ran down in splotches from the crown of his head to a kidney.
“What happened?” I asked, immediately curious.
Jeff shuddered as dad gently pressed on an exceptionally purple bruise square in the middle of his son’s back, though I could see in his face that he was trying to ignore the pain.
They both chose to ignore me and continue on with whatever conversation they were already having instead. I plopped down on the couch across from them and glanced down at the literally unarmed Superman in my hand.
“You shouldn’t let it get to you, Jeff,” he was saying in a soft, reassuring voice. “Right now — probably today — is the best their lives will get; in five years you’ll have graduated high school and be on your way to a top college, and where will they be?”
“I know,” Jeff sulked. “I just want to be there now. Or do something about it now.” He raised his hands into solemn fists and gazed down at them, reliving the fight from earlier.
Dad gently put his hand on a small flesh-colored patch of shoulder and glanced over briefly, before returning to his older son and waxing, “I’ve always told you I firmly believe you can do absolutely anything you want in the world, Jeff. You’re book-smart, you’re clever-smart, you can keep a straight face, and your mom thinks you’re going to be a mighty handsome guy someday, which is worth a lot.”
I giggled as dad stopped to wave his hands over his literally magnificent body for emphasis, and Jeff forced a small chortle in kind.
“The only thing,” dad continued, “the only thing that makes you — or your brother, or anyone — think otherwise sometimes is people. Society imposes an artificial social construct they want you to believe you’re forced to adhere to, but you’re not. Take those people threatening your ideal away, and what’s left to stop you from doing whatever you want?”
Jeff slumped in his chair, clearly not in the mood for one of dad’s lessons. “The teachers,” he answered smugly.
Dad cracked a grin into one side of his face, as he does, and followed up with, “So take those people threatening your idea away, and what’s left to stop you from doing whatever you want?”
I giggled again and Jeff shot me a look; he knew I knew he was caught off guard by the retort and his face tinted slightly red. After a second, he answered again, slowly as if still in thought: “The… police?”
“Okay,” dad said, leaning back as he spoke to get a full view of his son’s bruising, “so take those people threatening your idea away, and what’s left to stop you from doing whatever you want?”
Jeff thought about an answer again and then started saying, “The gov — ”, but he was interrupted with his own face lighting up with the realization that dad was playing him for a fool, and he raspberried and yelled, “Dad!”
I joined them in a laugh and when we finally quieted, dad made sure to speak up quickly, saying, “I may be playing a word game with you for fun, but society really is the enemy. Don’t let them control you.”
“I know,” Jeff said again, this time perking up a little bit. “You’re right, there’s no reason I can’t get her back tomorrow.”
I excitedly interrupted with a questioning exclamation of “Her?”
Jeff’s face only got redder and he looked down uncomfortably. I looked at my dad to see if he knew, and he stonewalled me.
“What happened?” I eagerly repeated with wide brother eyes. “Who did this to you?”
When he didn’t answer, I complained, “Dad! Make him say!”
“I can’t make him do anything,” dad said simply, standing up to grab his bag from the coat rack. While Jeff and I were shooting stare lasers back and forth, dad blocked my gaze on his way back to the couch and I blinked first, so I resorted to an approach I’d had better luck in the past with.
With a smirk and a puff of the chest, I put on my most serious of faces and threatened, “I’ll make those bruises worse.”
“Veronica,” he blurted, almost immediately. His eyes immediately set on the dark splotches forming on his forearms and he looked back up at me with sudden puppydog eyes. “From Wilkerson’s.”
I laughed. “She’s a girl.”
“I didn’t realize she had friends with her,” Jeff pleaded. “They all attacked me, not just her!”
“Why’d that happen?” dad inquired.
“I was following her after school,” the bruised boy explained, gently waving his hands defensively in the air in front of him. “She was showing off a new bag in maths. I assumed it was expensive, so I followed her from school and swooped when she lagged behind to tie her shoe.”
“And her friends saw you and came back,” dad finished, nodding knowingly. “How long did you follow before making the decision?”
Jeff shuffled in his seat.
“Jeff,” dad ordered, with authority in his voice.
And yet Jeff was still completely red-faced, trying his hardest to find an easy way out of his interrogation. After a dozen seconds of purposefully avoiding eye contact and pretending to inspect the curtains on the other side of the room, Jeff muttered, “About a half hour.”
I immediately looked to dad, who said nothing but looked disappointed.
“You should have waited longer,” he said, returning his attention to the bag he’d retrieved. “Tailed better, get her actually alone. You need to be more patient, Jeff.”
In the absence of dad’s attention came a awkward silence so palpable it was almost suffocating. I successfully waited it out, but Jeff caved, standing quickly and announcing, “Thanks dad, I’ll be more patient.” Then, as he took a step towards the staircase, he added, “I’m going to my room, to rest.”
As if it were the punctuation to his sentence, the front door immediately burst open and mom walked in. In the span of a second she sized up Jeff and his topless bodily blemishes, withdrew her Glock, and pointed the barrel directly to his face.
He froze in place and she yelled, “Who did this to you?”
“Veronica and her friends from Geometry when I was gunning for a purse,” he immediately started rattling off. “It won’t happen again, I’ll be more patient and have better timing next time.”
Mom lowered her weapon and I was torn. On one hand, I didn’t want to ever be as dramatic as mom, but on the other hand a gun is apparently really powerful at more than just shooting. I instinctively looked towards dad, but refrained to remember to ask about bringing an extra gun on their next mission.
“Do we know where Veronica’s parents live?” mom asked out loud.
“I don’t think so,” dad responded, looking up from the book he’d since retrieved from his backpack and buried his nose in. “Jeff’s going to teach her a lesson tomorrow.”
Mom nodded, knowingly, and resumed her entrance into the house, passing by the couches and heading to the kitchen to start dinner. Before she disappeared behind the corner, she called out, “You should bring one of the batons, for good measure. Also, we’re having spaghetti in thirty. Do any of you want garlic bread?”
Dad and Jeff did, but I didn’t.
“Oh, and Ben,” dad said, turning to me with an apologetic smile. “I accidentally stepped on Superman last night after tucking you in. I’ll get you a replacement tomorrow, or I can get you someone new. I can get you a Hulk like your brother.”
I looked down at the arm-less role-model in my hands and smiled, then looked over at Jeff, who was physically squirming at the thought of me having another Hulk, and smiled some more.
“Thanks dad,” I said. “I want Superman.”