Author: J.S. Puller
Release Date: May 8, 2018
Formats: Hardcover, eBook
"Have no fear, citizens! Captain Superlative is here to make all troubles disappear!"
Red mask, blue wig, silver swimsuit, rubber gloves, torn tights, high top sneakers and...a cape? Who would run through the halls of Deerwood Park Middle School dressed like this? And why?
Janey-quick to stay in the shadows-can't resist the urge to uncover the truth behind the mask. The answer pulls invisible Janey into the spotlight and leads her to an unexpected friendship with a superhero like no other. Fearless even in the face of school bully extraordinaire, Dagmar Hagen, no good deed is too small for the incomparable Captain Superlative and her new sidekick, Janey.
But superheroes hold secrets and Captain Superlative is no exception. When Janey unearths what's truly at stake, she's forced to face her own dark secrets and discover what it truly means to be a hero...and a friend.
Ms. Hinton scrawled the word across the dry-erase board in thick, faded black strokes, the marker squeaking a little with age. I leaned my chin into my palm, watching the motes of dust dance in a shaft of light from the window overlooking the parking lot. “Does anyone know what this means?” I knew. It came up the other day when I was watching TV with my dad and he’d explained it to me.
Still, I didn’t raise my hand. I just sat at my desk in the back of the room, staring at the dust, trying to keep my expression blank. Counting the motes helped keep me from looking interested. They were sluggish and languid, like the January sunlight was slowly freezing them. Any second and they would come to a complete standstill, fossilized in a single moment of time. The margins of my notebook were carefully filled with idle doodles—wavy lines and patterned polka dots and little stars. I didn’t even bother to look at them as I drew, randomly connecting them, creating an abstract shape that meant nothing at all.
It was dangerous to show too much of an interest in class. You’d be labeled as a nerd. I had daydreaming down to a science. I knew exactly how to zone out; just the right amount to fit in with everyone else, while still picking up enough of what the teacher was saying to avoid being grounded by my dad for getting a C or a D. The middle of the pack was the safest place, never rushing too far forward.
Paige McCoy was the only one to raise her hand, fingers twitching slightly in the air.
“Yes, Paige?” Ms. Hinton said.
“Ostracism is when you get kicked out,” Paige said. She had a thin voice, one that always sounded tired.
“Yes.” Ms. Hinton nodded curtly. “The idea was invented by the ancient Greeks, the Athenians to be specific. Who, as I hope you remember from before winter break, came up with a crazy little thing we like to call ‘democracy.’ Ostracism was a big part of their democracy. It was temporary banishment by popular vote. Usually of citizens that others considered dangerous to the state. Can you imagine that? Everyone coming together to vote someone out of the city?”
Dagmar Hagen’s manicured hand shot up. “Ms. Hinton?”
“Was there any way to argue against the vote?” she asked. “Or if you were voted out, did that mean you couldn’t come back?”
“Citizens were allowed to come back after ten years,” Ms. Hinton said, delighted that Dagmar had asked the question. Dagmar was every teacher’s favorite—daughter of the woman who’d led Deerwood Park’s champion cheerleading squad twenty years ago and a perfect straight-A student. Dagmar had followed in her mother’s competitive footsteps and led the sixth-grade soccer team to victory last summer— giving us incredible bragging rights over our rivals at Kohn Junior High—and was destined to do the same this year. It seemed like Ms. Hinton always had a special smile reserved just for Dagmar. “But that didn’t mean they couldn’t be voted out again.”
“So could the people just keep kicking someone out again and again until they got the message?”
“That is so sad!”
Ms. Hinton laughed and turned to write the definition on the board.
Dagmar’s eyes cut over to Paige. It was clear who Dagmar had in mind to vote out of the city, but I doubted Paige cared at this point. It was just a way of life.
The bell rang.
Everyone dragged themselves to their feet, shoving social- studies books haphazardly into bags. The sound of plastic Blue Shoes squeaked on the tiles. Ms. Hinton knew better than to try to get another word in. She shook her head and waved us out the door, calling, “Dagmar, say hello to your mother for me. Tell her I hope she had a good holiday.”
And then Ms. Hinton sat behind her desk and started flipping through her planner, going into the secret realm of meditation that all teachers seemed to know about.
The second her back was turned, Dagmar ripped a sheet out of her notebook with slow, careful exactness. We could hear the holes in the paper tear away from each ring of the binder. She leaned over, writing Paige’s name across the blue lines in her neat, extra-curly handwriting. Casually, she crumpled it up, tossing it behind her with expert precision. The paper bounced off Paige’s shoulder as Dagmar glided out of the classroom, her minions flocking after her like moths to a flame.
What a pair they were, Dagmar and Paige. Complete opposites. Where Dagmar was light, Paige was dark. Where Dagmar was tall, Paige was short. Where Dagmar was fire, Paige was earth.
Paige didn’t even look at the sheet of paper. She let it slough off into a corner as she collected her books, balanced them precariously in her arms, and ducked out into the hallway.
She wouldn’t be any safer out there, I thought, looping the strap of my bag over my shoulder. Not when Dagmar had followers around her. And Dagmar always had followers, for one reason or another. Sometimes, they gathered to laugh through a hashtag on her phone, which should have been kept in her locker, as per the rules of the school. Sometimes it was under the irrational hope that some of her “cool” would rub off. Or else, it was to avail themselves of her “charitable” giving. She’d just won the school service award for student tutoring. Teachers thought she was some kind of angel on a quest to help those less fortunate or less attentive in class, but most of us knew the truth. Dagmar only helped the girls on the soccer team with their homework. You couldn’t be on the team with bad grades. Dagmar’s “selflessness” meant that they all passed their classes, so they could all stay together and so that no one else could join.
Dagmar was single-handedly holding the championship team together, and they knew it. The moths worshiped the ground she fluttered above. Really, everyone who wanted to stick it to Kohn Junior High did too.
Which was pretty much everyone.
I could already hear the peals of laughter from Dagmar and her friends. The moths had all copied Dagmar, writing Paige’s name on sheets of paper and throwing them at Paige as she passed by with her head down. It was a pity we weren’t the ancient Greeks. At least then, Paige could have escaped to the blissful isolation of exile. But here? Paige was being voted out of the city with nowhere to go. And no doubt, as Dagmar suggested, she would be voted out again and again. I waited until everyone cleared the room before I trudged through the doorway, so that they wouldn’t see me. Then again, no one ever really saw me. I was as unimportant as air. And equally invisible.
Inconsequential, a wonderful new word I’d recently picked up from my dad.
It was better that way.
It was just after winter break. The freshly cleaned halls echoed with the sound of friends filling in friends about their holiday adventures. The halls were also dotted with lost, confused faces. January always brought about a wave of new kids. They popped up like dandelions, usually the kids of military families from the active fort on the edge of Deerwood Park.
It was easy to pick them out. They had maps—and they hadn’t gotten their Blue Shoes yet.
Drifting through the halls that morning, I noticed some- thing else. Something I’d never felt before—a buzz mixed with the usual slamming of lockers, the usual shuffling of feet, the usual begging Dagmar to sneak a peek at the latest cat video. All of that tended to fade away into a murky cloud of white noise. But not today. There was a thrum in the air, like a vibrating guitar string. Kids were talking. They were talking about something exciting. Something that managed to break into my solitude.
At first, I thought it might be the anticipation of the Valentine’s Day dances. They were over a month away, but already there were pink and red and purple flyers littering the walls, covered in goopy hearts and little fat cupids, aim- ing arrows at one another. The rules had changed this year. The sixth- and seventh-grade dances were going all the way to ten o’clock. And the eighth-grade dance would last until eleven. Any change like that would have called for gossip and excitement.
But it wasn’t about the dances.
“You will not believe what I just saw.”
I recognized the voice. Tyler Jeffries. He was standing with a group of seventh-grade boys, just outside the gym locker rooms.
Tyler Jeffries pretty much was Deerwood Park Middle School. Smart, funny, gorgeous, and talented. He was the highlight of every school play. He stole every scene. Kids hung on his every word, every note. I couldn’t wait to see him in the spring production of Beauty and the Beast. He was playing Gaston. A part that was all wrong for him, in my opinion. A boy like him was a boy who got the girl in the end. As far as I was concerned, Tyler Jeffries was a Greek god. Better, really. Greek gods had flaws. Tyler Jeffries was perfect. Everyone thought so, and I was no exception.
Tyler Jeffries’s sandy-brown hair and speckled hazel eyes were the object of most people’s attention. But not mine. I was obsessed with the arch of his upper lip. It’s strange, I know, but that lip made me think of the perfect bend in a Persian archer’s bow. Or the top of a heart. I was forever drawing it in the margins of my notebook. I dreamed of Tyler Jeffries launching a fatal kiss at me.
Nothing else could get my heart racing so much. Or at all.
When Tyler Jeffries was interested in something, it was worth noting. That was the rule. I strained to hear what it was he was saying to his friends. “What did you see, pretty boy?” one of them asked.
“It was the weirdest thing ever,” he said.
“Weirder than your dance moves?”
“Hey now. I’m an artist.”
“Maybe an abstract artist.”
“You’re just jealous,” Tyler said, throwing his arms up in the air and flailing them like a Muppet. It was more like he was swatting a swarm of flies than dancing, but somehow he made it work.
The boys laughed. “Keep telling yourself that,” one said. They disappeared into the locker room, chuckling and teasing, the battered wooden door swinging shut behind
them and their excitement.
What had he seen?
The next passing period, the hallway hum returned.
Dagmar and her best friend, April Cormack, were standing side by side in front of the wooden trophy case near the gym, scrolling through something on Dagmar’s phone. In their matching soccer-team uniforms and Blue Shoes, they looked like twin backup hip-hop dancers.
Dagmar’s curly hair was like a living flame. She always had her head turned to a perfect angle, showing off her best features. It was as if she were expecting everyone in the hall to turn into paparazzi, clamoring to get her picture. Even when she was distracted, she was posing. And something was obviously distracting her. She and April muttered in fury to one another, their heads bunched together.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Dagmar said.
“Not even a little bit,” April said.
“How could anyone even do that?!”
“I know, right?”
That was all I could hear.
It was the same again the next passing period. And the one after that. Soon, even Paige was talking about it. Whatever “it” was.
“Is it really true?” she asked, sidling up beside me. No one ever asked me anything.
I opened my mouth to reply, to ask what she meant. Too slow. I saw Dagmar and her moths out of the corner of my eye, sweeping down the hall with the speed of a forest fire. Smoothly, I turned, pretending to open the locker to one side. Dagmar blew past me, veering in Paige’s direction. “Hey, Paige,” she said, eyes demurely looking up from her phone. “This just came up on the news. ‘Local Woman Caught Shoplifting from Dollar Store.’ There’s a picture. Isn’t this your mom?”
She turned the screen of her phone in Paige’s direction, but Paige stormed past her without looking. “You know that’s not my mom,” she said.
“Oops,” Dagmar replied. The moths all laughed.
I clutched the charm on my necklace. It was a little silver star with a blue glass bead in the middle that had once belonged to my mother. I wore it every day. As a way to be close to her, I guess. I turned the combination lock on a locker that didn’t even belong to me, waiting for everyone to go away.
By the end of the day, I’d almost gotten used to the hum, sinking back into it like the usual, comfortable haze. Whatever the new gossip was, I figured it wouldn’t have much influence on my existence. How did you influence the air, anyway?
It was the passing time between eighth and ninth period. The end of the day was in sight. I was at my locker, my real locker, when I heard April’s shrill voice shriek behind me.
“She’s coming this way.”
“What?” someone else asked.
“Look, she’s down the hall!” Who was she?
I turned around. April was standing five feet away from me, talking to one of Dagmar’s other soccer-team flunkies. Meredith, I supposed. Both she and April would have been thrown off the team long ago, but I was pretty sure Dagmar was doing their homework. For a second, they blocked my view, but then they stepped back. Everyone stepped back. The hallway seemed to part down the center, everyone pressing up against the banks of red lockers on either side.
And that was when I caught my first glimpse of her.
She wasn’t very tall, probably not even five feet. But for some reason, she seemed bigger. She filled the space around her. Her hands were on her hips, her chin up, and her chest forward. It was the same sort of classic stance that I saw on the covers of my dad’s comic books. Wide and open. Completely exposed. Unafraid.
Probably a good thing—being unafraid—considering the way she was dressed.
She wore a bathing suit. It was the beginning of a wet and cold January and she looked ready for the beach. The shiny silver suit had thick straps, joined together by silver rings on top of her shoulders. Under it, she had a pair of bright, almost neon-blue tights. There was a hole in the left side, near her ankle, a bit of a rip going up the side of her leg that was only partly hidden by a red high-top sneaker. She also wore blue rubber gloves, the kind my dad used to wash dishes in the kitchen sink. Draped over her shoulders was a red cape,
probably made out of a pillowcase, judging from the way it bunched up behind her neck.
Dead silence. I had never heard a school hallway that still.
Everyone was staring at her. Everyone.
I couldn’t tell what she was thinking or feeling. A red mask hid her face, the strings of it tied messily behind her head, with strands of the thick neon-blue synthetic hair of a wig caught up in the knot. I could see her mouth, though, her lips curling up into some kind of wicked smile.
“Who are you?” Someone from the crowd asked it. I didn’t realize, at first, that it was me.
She turned to me. Everyone did. I wanted to shrink against the locker, maybe even pass through it. The heat of so many eyes was a little more than I could take. The wind had been knocked out of my lungs. Fortunately, the moment she spoke, the attention turned back on her.
“Captain Superlative!” she said, in a voice full of confidence and certainty. “Champion of Deerwood Park Middle School, here to defend honor, justice, and the forces of good!” She made a broad, sweeping gesture with one arm. “Have no fear, citizens!” Both arms went up, fingertips stretched out and pressed together like blades to cut through the air. “Captain Superlative is here to make all troubles disappear!” She whipped around and shot down the hall, faster than life. Like she was flying. Her cape fluttered in the air behind her, an enormous letter C made of blue felt glued on the back. We stood there in a state of stunned silence, the sort that followed a natural disaster, a tidal wave. Even after she dis- appeared, we felt her there. It was only the sound of the bell marking the end of the passing period that broke the spell and sent us off in a thousand directions, like motes of dust, whispering about the outfit, the catchphrase, the name, the strangeness of it all.
Speculation spread: It was all for the school play. She’d been hit on the head. She’d been sent by Kohn Junior High. Someone had dared her to do it. It was the start of an alien invasion to replace us with pod people. Each idea was more outlandish than the last. None of it was right. I knew it in my heart of hearts. But I didn’t have a theory of my own, beyond what I thought was a reasonable assumption that she had to be a new kid.
What I did have was a sense of wonder.
When no one talks to you, you see everything. What else is there to do but watch the world?
But I didn’t understand. I couldn’t understand. Air understands nothing.
J. S. Puller a playwright and debut author from the Windy City, Chicago. She has a master's degree in elementary education and a bachelor's degree in theatre from Northwestern University. She is an award-winning member of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education and is actively involved in researching the social-emotional benefits of arts education with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. When not writing, she can usually be found in the theatre. Her play, WOMEN WHO WEAVE, was published by Playscripts, Inc.
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