Some say Gale City is the worst place to live in the whole United States. I've been living here since I was two years old. Considering I'm ten now, I guess that's not a long time, but eight years is usually long enough to get to know a place. Before I was placed in Gale—and I can really remember that far back—I used to live in Chicago. My mom and stepdad and four sisters lived in a two bedroom apartment in the projects. It was clean and we had food to eat. The problem was that dad always needed money to pay for the "junk." Back then, I never understood why anyone would want to buy garbage. I now know that junk doesn't mean trash, but it is garbage, and people pay through the nose for it.
Maybe you're wondering how a kid can know so much. Well, in Gale you learn to know or you end up doing something bad—and ten years old is too young to die. I've always picked up things fast, and I don't even watch t.v. that much. Bobby Brali and me got into a big fight once over Mrs. Kate. She got raped last month and Bobby was telling me it was one thing when I knew it was another. I told him I knew what rape was. He thought he was so smart and started yelling and screaming. Miss Wolff had to break us up. After she heard what we were fighting about, she talked to us both real softly, hugging us. It was like when she talked, no one was mad anymore. When she was done, she was crying. Bobby cried too. They said I was crying, but I just had something in my eye. Ms. Wolff smiled at us and told us it was okay, that she wouldn't tell anybody, because they would all call us wimps if they thought we were bawling. But I wasn't bawling.
Miss Wolff—her first name is Sara—owns the orphanage I was placed into. Well, she doesn't really own it. She sort of runs the place. If she did own it, she would own all the kids that live here like me. It doesn't matter though. I bet if she could own all of us, she would. Miss Wolff is the best thing I've had to a mom since Chicago. In the middle of the night when a kid gets really sick, she comes all the way from her big house to help. One time she let us all stay up late and told us ghost stories that were so scary that Jeannie Frank peed her pants. Then she let us have ice cream and sat with us while we fell asleep, just in case some of us had bad dreams. It was okay, no one did. With Miss Wolff there, we knew she wouldn't let anything happen. She never did.
For the most part, the orphanage is okay. The food is decent, the beds are clean, and there are always a lot of people around. It's sometimes hard when certain kids find a mom and dad and you realize you weren't picked. Other than that, there's not much to complain about. In some strange ways it's like a camp, with games and everything. But I guess most of that has to do with Miss Wolff, too. The thing she does best of all is making everyone behave. She knows just what to say and do.
Of all the things that Ms. Wolff does, Thursday nights is the best. That's when we all get together and play games. Everyone meets in the common room after dinner and at exactly seven o'clock we start. They aren't hard games, just fun ones. Sometimes it's charades and other times it's team hangman or Twister. My favorite is always Secrets. It isn't very hard, just interesting. Everyone sits around in a big circle and tells the group if they have a secret. It doesn't really matter what, but it has to be about yourself. Most of the time kids just talk about things they like and don't want to admit. Sometimes it's about things that happened and why they are at the Home. Usually, it's just a way for all the kids to talk about themselves, like admitting what you're afraid of. And thing is, when you admit it, you find that you aren't so afraid anymore. Secrets is a good game and I think that's why Miss Wolff has us play it.
In Gale City most people live in fear. If it isn't being afraid of the drug dealers and murderers, it's the crooked cops who worry more about a payoff than the citizens. But, if all of Gale is afraid, there's one man who isn't, and that was my secret. Watching him as a kid, he became my idol, my dream. Deep down I had always wanted to be something, someone special. Deep down I knew I wanted to become a superhero. I wanted to fight the bad guys...and win. I used to keep a book—I still do—with all the clippings from the newspapers. Pictures too. Anything I could find. It was a secret that was special. It was a secret I wanted for myself. A secret too good to share.
The Thursday night I clipped out the article about Overcast's rescue of a little girl from the "Masher," I sort of forgot where I had hidden my book. Or at least I thought I did.
When we turned down the lights and Ms. Wolff announced "Secrets," I was excited until I saw Freddie Jabins smile. Even before he raised his hand and started bouncing up and down, I had a cold feeling in the bottom of my stomach. Freddie was waving his arm like crazy to be picked, but Miss Wolff called Jenny Campbell first. She explained to everyone that patience was important. As I looked at Freddie, he wiggled his eyebrows and smiled such a wide smile that I thought he would swallow his face. I wanted to go up and bop him. I didn't, because fighting gave you a week detention. So, I waited, hoping that my feelings were wrong.
Three kids went ahead of Freddie. There was a tale about a cheated math test and one girl admitted she had a crush on Tony Toronto. Then Mary Reynolds told us about a dream she had about ballerinas and guppies. Even though I was nervous, the dream was so funny I couldn't help but laugh until my sides hurt.
Then the hurt moved to my stomach as Miss Wolff finally called Freddie.
When the freckled faced freak stood up, he held up a book and I felt my heart skip a beat.
"I have a secret, but it's not about me. Billy has the secret, and he even keeps a book about it. I found it today. When he grows up, he wants to be THE BLACK TORRENT!"
The kids all laughed and it sounded as if a million voices were going around me. "No," I screamed. "I don't want to be him."
Ms. Wolff stood up and grabbed the book from Freddie's hand. She glared at all the kids, ordering them to hush. "Freddie, that was terrible. It was Billy's secret to tell if he wanted to. I'm ashamed of you."
"But—" Freddie's lip jutted out, quivering.
"No buts." Her voice was stern, the tone she took when she was absolutely serious. Turning to me, she tried to smile. I admired her, and for some strange reason, I think she admired me. "Billy, do you really want to become a superhero?"
I nodded, so embarrassed I thought I would die. If Freddie had taken one step closer, I would have hit him in the mouth, detention or not. "I want to help people," I whispered.
"I think that's very special," she said, rubbing my head. Although she smiled, her eyes looked sad. "But a duty like that is difficult. It takes skill and training. There are many dangers involved. Police officers face life and death every day." Although it could have sounded like a lecture, it wasn't. Ms. Wolff was telling the truth and I knew it. I told you that I'm smart. I know that you have to work out and become strong. You have to be educated by going to school and studying. I knew it all, but no one seemed to care.
The idea suddenly became new and fun to the kids. Somebody jumped up and shouted, "I want to be like Super Daffodil."
Another, trying to look tough, screamed. "I'm the Glitch Kid."
"I want to join the League of Freedom Crusaders."
Everybody started jumping up, even Freddie. They were laughing, throwing on bedsheets and pretending to be crime-fighters. My secret had been as unreal as a comic book. It was just a game to them. A stupid game.
"No, stop," I yelled, my hands closed in tight fists. "You don't understand. Stop laughing, it's not a joke!"
Something went wild in me. Maybe it was just being angry and embarrassed, but it clicked. I ran up to Freddie and punched him right in the nose. He fell down, crying.
Then I ran.
I ran past the kids, past Miss Wolff, out of the room and out of the building. The security alarm started to blare, but I didn't care. I was crying, angry tears, not sad. It was night and I ran right into the road. It was then I saw the van. It was dark blue with rust spots all over. It was the same van I had seen parked a couple of times down by the park and near the school. When the driver saw me, he smiled and slowed down. That was when I heard the door far behind me open and Miss Wolff call my name.
The man got out of the truck and I screamed. Even in the shadows of night, I recognized the face from the pictures they had shown in the papers and on the news. The man grabbed me and I could hear Miss Wolff yelling and running toward me as the "Masher" threw me into the van.
We drove for a long time. I'm not sure how long, because I fell asleep. When we stopped, I could tell we were still near Gale City, because I could see the buildings from uptown in the distance. Even when the thug threw me in the wooden shack I didn't cry. On t.v. that dog in the trench coat always said to try to stay calm until help arrived. I used to think he was a dork, but right then it sounded better than anything else. It was scary, sitting there in the cold darkness, hearing the Masher singing outside. He was humming some old Motown song, messing up the words. The small window was the only light I had. And when I saw the red light start to flash on the top of the Gale Financial Building, I almost wasn't scared anymore.
The news never said what the Masher did to kids. But, they said that one little girl was never found. I wondered what it would be like if they never found me. Would my mother and father worry? Would they even know I was gone? Who would care? Then I realized that Ms. Wolff would. She always did. And then I thought of never seeing her, and never seeing the other kids, and never seeing that twerp Freddie. I cried then, loud. I tried to scream, but the Masher started yelling, telling me to shut up or he would have to come in there and make me stop. I didn't want that. I quieted and listened to the sounds of the trains that moved nearby.
I listened for a long time. It was getting hard to stay awake, but I did. I was waiting. He would come, or one of the other ones. They couldn't let me down.
Then I heard it. Soft, very soft in the background.
Through the window, a figure entered, holding a skinny finger to her lips. The costume was familiar at once. Dark Flame to the rescue. I had to stop myself from cheering.
She talked softly to me, her voice sounding like she came from England. "You must be very quiet. I am going to help you get out of here."
Even in the dim light I could see her eyes. They twinkled, ever so slightly.
Then the door crashed open. The Masher stood there, holding a lantern. It was the first time I really saw his face, all beaten and cut up. I couldn't help it. There wasn't anything I had ever seen that was scarier. I screamed and screamed and cried.
Dark Flame didn't stop to calm me. The Masher rushed her, pulling a knife from his pocket. I didn't see much else. She pushed me back into a corner right before he reached her. There was a lot of punching and kicking. It only took a few moments for her to get the knife away from him. But his size was a problem. She was faster, but his power was incredible. In a weird way, she was moving well, but not really like she practiced. Maybe it was instinct. I guess he moved toward me to scare her, because when she rushed him, he whipped around and gave her a powerful jab to the upper arm. That was the first and only time I heard her cry out. Seeing her hurt, the Masher ran for the door.
Dark Flame darted to follow him. I could hear him yelling, calling her dirty names that I only say when I'm sure no grown-up is around. Then I saw the shadow go across the sky. It was like in my dreams. I couldn't help it. Even though she had told me to stay still, I went to peek out the door. He was there.
The Black Torrent was the neatest thing Gale City had ever known, and in person he was even better. The Masher stopped dead in his tracks when he saw him. His eyes went all wide, and then he stepped back. Dark Flame used the chance, dealing him another blow to the stomach. The Masher winced, but returned with a fist to her head. She reeled back as The Black Torrent took over. It was over in a matter of minutes. There really was no contest.
The Masher hit the ground with such a thud that I felt my feet shake. Torrent looked at him, then turned to the Dark Flame. He was helping her up when I joined them.
"I could have taken him," she said, brushing off her costume.
"No doubt." It was a strange thing, though I couldn't see in the shadows—but I think he smiled at her.
Then they saw me.
"Black Torrent," I yelled, so excited I couldn't think of anything else to say.
His eyes were happy and sad at once. He brushed my head with his gloved hand.
It took a few minutes, but Torrent pulled some cable from his belt and tied the Masher to a pole. He then pressed a few buttons on something that looked like a walkie-talkie. "The police will be here soon to pick him up," he told her, his voice deep and gravely. He then glanced at me. "I think you should get our young friend home."
"Thank you," Dark Flame whispered.
Torrent turned and disappeared into the night. I watched him go. All of my dreams of meeting him were nothing compared to this. This was the best.
Dark Flame followed him with her eyes, and I could see that there was something there. Maybe admiration, maybe something else. She noticed me watching and gently took my hand. "C'mon, let's go."
The next day the police came and asked me a bunch of questions. When they left, the kids asked me a bunch more. Everyone wanted to know about Dark Flame and the Black Torrent. It was the neatest thing that ever happened to anyone, they said. But I told them it wasn't fun, and that I was wrong for running away. Ms. Wolff looked kind of happy at that.
It's funny, though. When Miss Wolff talked to me later that day, I noticed a twinkle in her eyes that I hadn't seen before. And when I touched her arm, she sucked in her breath and rubbed a large bruise underneath her sleeve. I bet Ms. Wolff has a lot of things about her that no one knows, except maybe her brother in the big fancy penthouse uptown. I bet he has a few secrets of his own, too.
I guess there are some things you can never be sure of. Then again, maybe you can. Ms. Wolff once said superheroes are just regular people until they put on a mask. I guess she'd know.
I still keep my scrapbook, but now my picture is in there with the rest. On Thursdays, we still play games, and sometimes it's Secrets. I don't participate much anymore. They say it's because of the Masher, that it's changed me. It's not. I just like to listen now. It's more fun listening...and knowing. You see, there are some secrets you can tell. But the best ones, you keep to yourself.