Helen wasn’t looking for a new job. April of ’95 marked thirty-four years at Shady Glen Rest Home; she was a nurse supervisor and thinking about retirement. But when a man called and offered her twice her pay, she figured she should at least talk to him.
The new rest home was at the edge of town, all by its lonesome in the corn fields. The first thing she noticed was the wall around the place. The second thing she noticed was the soldiers.
The man she had spoken with on the phone turned out to wear a uniform, with stars on the shoulders.
“Mrs. Wisteria, this is a somewhat unusual establishment,” he said as he led her through the hallways. “This nursing home has been built for one patient, a very special patient. He suffers from advanced dementia. Until recently, he was being cared for at home. The facility will be under the supervision of the U.S. Army, but the staff will all be civilians. We don’t want our man to feel…threatened. That’s why we’re looking to hire you and other experienced nurses.”
He stopped by a door, a door that looked typical of every other nursing home door Helen had ever seen.
“Why don’t I introduce you?”
Inside an elderly man sat in a wheelchair, thin, wrinkled, wispy-haired. He was watching “Gilligan’s Island” on the television. He looked up with a scowl.
Helen gasped. The general shut the door again.
“Yes. That’s Henry Pearson. Captain Wonder.”
He let her catch her breath. To see the man who had defeated Altar Flame, who had captured Hitler, who had fought off space invasions and monsters from inside the earth, looking like that…
“It’s a shock, I know,” said the general.
He led her back down the corridor, giving her details. The Captain had grown feeble in his old age, in both mind and body. Up until recently, his wife had cared for him, but she had died suddenly of a heart attack that winter.
They entered the commissary. A woman in early middle age, dressed in a plain business suit and granny glasses, stood waiting for them.
“Mrs. Wisteria, this is Kathy Pearson, the Captain’s daughter. She’s the only surviving family.”
Helen had been going to say no. The whole set-up gave her a bad feeling. But when she saw Kathy Pearson standing there, with the look she’d seen so many times, the tight face of a child thrust into a position of a parent, and the woman said, in a voice two steps from tears
“Will you take good care of my daddy?”
All she could say was
“Oh, honey. Of course I will.”
“Glad to have on you on board, Mrs. Wisteria,” said the general.
Helen started the week after Easter. She’d had better patients—but then, she’d had worse. Mr. Pearson mainly watched TV. He didn’t talk much, just complained when he was forced to walk the grounds every day for exercise. Helen made sure he was wrapped well under his blankets, that he had a fresh diaper, that he was turned regularly so as not to get bedsores. She was never short with him. She treated him with utmost care and consideration. She had always done so, with all her patients; she considered it a mark of professional pride.
After the first week, she found it difficult to remember this tiny, incontinent, old man had once been Earth’s mightiest guardian.
Kathy Pearson came every Sunday. For three or four hours she would sit in her father’s room, talk with him, play her guitar, sing to him. He seemed to like that. Every Sunday she would bid him farewell with a hug, a big smile, and “Bye, Daddy! I love you.” Most weeks she made it to the commissary before breaking down in hysterical tears.
“He can’t remember my name. He has no idea.”
Many nurses hardened themselves before pain like hers, but Helen had never been able to do that. She listened, she gave Kathy what comfort she could. She’d seen it a thousand times before.
Despite the circumstances, things were pretty normal for a nursing home. Until the Fourth of July, when the entire place turned red, white and blue.
They assembled the staff. Out came Dr. Hartford Harrington—Mr. Magnificent, leader of the Hero Foundation, the smartest man on earth, smoking a pipe. He stood at a lectern at the front of the room. Kathy Pearson sat next to him.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to give some answers about the extraordinary events of this past Independence Day. Over the years, there has been a growing body of consensus on the nature of Captain Wonder’s powers. As you’ve probably read in the newspapers, the Captain incorporated into his body an alien energy aura he discovered while spelunking an Arkansas cave in his youth. At the beginning of his career in 1939, he was limited to jumping long distances and overturning automobiles, whereas by 1963 he was capable of lifting the alien-infested cruise liner Athena and flinging it into orbit. Along the way, he developed new paranormal abilities almost in response to specific needs of the moment, such as his “x-ray vision” and super breath. There seemed to be no unifying factor behind Captain Wonder’s astonishing array of powers.
“A team of scientists, headed by myself, eventually determined that the actual underlying element of the Captain’s abilities was his imagination. The energy aura allows him to bend reality to his will, as far as his self-concept and understanding allow. As his career continued, his scope increased—until, in recent years, the gradual onset of cerebral degeneration.
“With that in mind, the anomalous becomes transparent: somewhere in his subconscious, the Captain wished to decorate this rather sterile facility for the Fourth, to give it some patriotic flair. His power made real that wish. Perfectly explicable.”
Ray waved his hand, like a child in a classroom. Ray, the youngest of the nursing staff, young enough to be Helen’s son.
“Does that mean he could do whatever he wants to us? Like paint us red, white, and blue? Or change us—into things?”
Dr. Harrington sucked on his pipe.
“Young man, I am cognizant that the recent events were of a unexpected and disturbing nature. But I must observe: the phenomenon was fundamentally harmless. Henry Pearson is the finest man I have ever known. I fought alongside him. I cannot possibly imagine he would bring harm to any of you.”
All the while Kathy Pearson nodded, a wan smile on her face. To Helen, it looked as if she was not sure she believed what the esteemed Dr. Harrington was saying.
He took no further questions.
On Labor Day, a beach appeared in the courtyard, with a barbecue and angry union signs stuck in the sand.
On Halloween, all the corridors turned pitch-dark. The staff worked with flashlights, followed by eerie ghosts and floating jack-o-lanterns that breathed down the back of your neck, then disappeared when you turned to look at them.
On Thanksgiving, a eight-foot pyramid consisting of interlocking, flesh-flecked wishbones filled the commissary, topped by a pilgrim doll kicking a Indian doll in the face.
Helen told herself that it wasn’t so bad if you were expecting it.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving Helen found Kathy Pearson, as always, in the commissary. She reflexively got them both some tea and sat down across the table from the young woman.
“Helen, I’m worried about Christmas.”
“Oh, it’ll be OK. He’ll probably just fill up the grounds with snowmen or something.”
“I don’t know what he’s going to do. We never celebrated Christmas.”
Kathy took a deep breath, like she was about to say something difficult. “Dad grew up in a family that was very poor and very strict. One year they actually gave him a lump of coal, and nothing else, because he had been naughty. He always hated Christmas because of that.”
“Oh, lord. What a thing to do to a child.”
Kathy sucked at her tea, swallowed loudly, kept talking. “Dad was angry. He was angry because of his childhood. He was angry because of the Depression. He was angry because of the war. That’s why he became a superhero. He was angry at the world for being so evil, at the way the innocent got hurt. All the good he did rested on that inner core of fury. Mom could comfort him, could mollify him. Now she’s gone. I thought maybe I could take her place, but he doesn’t even know who I am any more.”
Helen reached out the table, took the young woman’s hands in her own. She wanted to say something soothing, but what came out was
“Kathy, to tell the truth, I’m a little bit afraid of your father.”
Kathy Pearson looked her right in the eye and said
“You should be.”
When they made out the schedule for the week of Christmas, Helen volunteered for the evening shift on the 24th into the morning shift on the 25th. She had to, she felt. She was the oldest and most experienced; she had a responsibility.
Nothing’s gonna happen. He’ll just put a tree in the commissary, that’s all. She told herself. And kept telling herself.
When she arrived for work on Christmas Eve, a steady snow was falling. Five inches, the forecast said.
She took a ham dinner into Mr Pearson’s room. He was watching the Weather Channel. She checked his diaper, tucked in his blankets, then settled down in her chair in the corner with a crossword puzzle magazine.
At 10:00, she said
“Mr. Pearson, don’t you want get some sleep?”
He shook his head.
“I’m stayin’ up.”
She tried to lose herself in the crosswords.
At 11:00, she asked “Mr. Pearson, can I help you to the bed?”
“No.” He almost growled.
Helen was deep in trying to think of an eleven-letter word for “person of good will” when she heard a pinging noise. She didn’t look in the direction of the sound at first. Her eyes went to the clock.
Another ping. She saw it now: a button had shot across the room, ricocheted off the TV screen.
Because the flannel shirt around the skinny old man was now struggling to contain an etched-muscle barrel chest.
Mr. Pearson rose and tore off the remains of the shirt to reveal gleaming golden mail. A crested helm molded around his reblackened hair; a wine-red cape sprouted at his shoulders. Heat pulsed from his body as he changed, as he resumed his power.
Captain Wonder stood in the room.
The warrior swiveled his head to look down at Helen. The helm shadowed his face. She could not tell if he was angry.
He grabbed his wheelchair. Softening the metal with his heat vision, he shaped it into a molten aluminum ball, a hideous screeching filling the air. Hefting the firebrand in one hand, he held it over Helen.
Trembling, waggling one finger at him, she said “I always did right by you.”
He smiled. Turned from her, wound up the ball like a pitcher on the mound-and demolished the outside wall of the room.
Snow blew inside as the Captain strode out to the grounds. Lone trees—some pines, some oaks—dotted the grassy area between the building and the perimeter wall fifty yards away. Helen crept to the broken cinderblocks, to watch.
Captain Wonder raised his fists to the sky.
“Santa Claus! I call you out! On behalf of all the kids who never got any presents! All the parents who wept because they couldn’t afford a Christmas! All the letters you never read, all the entreaties you ignored, all the coal—I call you to come and face justice for your crimes!”
Oh dear Lord, Helen thought. He’s gone completely around the bend.
The wind gusted into the room. With it came, so softly that Helen thought she imagined it, a distant sound of bells.
Helen’s wondering eyes beheld a sleigh, driven by a bearded man in a demonically red suit and hat, pulled by a team of nine reindeer, descending through the cloud cover, coming for Captain Wonder.
“Ho ho ho, you bastard! Challenge accepted!”
The grounds became alive with movement. On the roof of the home appeared an army of elves, holding Buck Rogers rocket pistols and Star Wars laser guns, firing down at the Captain. A legion of snowmen charged around the corner, screaming icy battle cries. Large plastic candy canes and eerie, walking strings of colored lights crept toward the foe. The reindeer detached themselves from the sled and mustered into a dive-bomb formation, Rudolph’s red nose guiding them to the attack.
Helen crouched behind the remains of the wall, trying to make herself as small as possible, but unable to look away from the spectacle.
Santa landed his sleigh on the grounds and watched his minions work.
A burst of super-breath swept the elves from their perches. Two fists slammed into the earth brought the snowmen down. With precision beams of heat vision, Captain Wonder melted the lawn decorations into mere blobs of plastic, then launched himself into the sky, scattering the reindeer like a hawk among pigeons.
The hero twisted in mid-air, and dove, accelerating, toward Santa.
A shockwave rippled forth from the two colliding. Faster than the eye could see, they traded blows, locked close as lovers, now punching, now grappling, hovering in mid-air as though the earth could not support their power.
Santa got Captain Wonder off center, then zoomed out and flew back in at ramming speed, glowing with friction—but not fast enough. The Captain recovered, and met Santa’s oncoming face with a haymaker. St Nick arced back and slammed into the perimeter wall, shattering it.
With a cry of triumph, Captain Wonder jumped into the sleigh. In the rear sat a large sack. Helen thought it would be full of toys. But when the Captain grabbed it, several large black lumps fell out—coal. Santa had no gifts, only coal.
Captain Wonder spun the huge sack around like a child’s whirlgig and sent it soaring into the sky. Beams of heat from his eyes followed it, setting it ablaze as it lofted higher, until it was a new sun illuminating the grounds and all the cornfields around. Captain Wonder laughed, hands on his hips, relishing the sight.
Helen didn’t have time to shout a warning before Santa hit him full force in the side.
The jolly old elf pummeled his foe, multiple blows to the torso and head before Captain Wonder could make any defense. Santa knocked him ten feet, sprawling in the snow, giving the elves an opening. One hundred death rays played over the Captain’s body, he groaned, and then the snowmen were upon him, smashing him up and over, onto Rudolph’s antlers. The points pierced him in the side and chest, his blood staining the snow, another of the reindeer gored him from the other side, interlocking.
The two reindeer jumped back, releasing their prey. For a moment, Captain Wonder hung in the air—until Santa slammed into him with the force of a thunderbolt, ramming into the wall of the home. The whole building shook.
Helen watched in horror at the beating. Could they kill him? Weren’t they just creations of his mind?
Captain Wonder lolled at the base of the nursing home, his face a mass of hamburger. His enemies stood around him, ready to administer the coup de grace. Santa gave a low, sinister chuckle. Helen held her breath.
The Captain opened his battered eye. He betrayed no fear in the face of death. His face sneered and contorted. He looked to the blowing sky and screamed, a bellow of primal rage.
The first hit with a metallic bang, not five feet from Helen, and bounced. She needed a moment to register that it was a Red Ryder wagon.
Schwinn bicycles and Shirley Temple dolls snowed down. Paint kits, tin soldiers like icy rain, teddy bears, falling from the sky. The gifts advanced in age: books, stylish dresses and suits, radios and hi-fis and then televisions thudding down among Santa’s troops, scattering them, now larger gifts, gifts for adults, microwaves and refrigerators and dining room sets, hitting harder, shredding the trees, smashing into the nursing home roof. Finally, with a whistle, a bright blue 1995 Chrysler minivan, a large red bow tied around its middle, plummeted from the lower clouds.
“Nooooo!” Santa raised his arms in futile defense.
The ground shook as the minivan crushed him.
The elves and reindeer and gifts disappeared. Helen was alone again with the Captain. The sky cleared and the moon shone through.
A alcohol-blue flame licked around the hero’s form. For a moment it seemed like it was wrestling with him. Then the blue aura wrenched away, leaped into the sky, higher and higher until all that could be seen was a point of light in the distant east.
Mr Pearson crumpled to the ground. Captain Wonder was once again a tiny old man.
Helen ran quickly beside him, throwing a blanket over his nakedness, trying to find a pulse.
He looked up at her. He was smiling.
“Did you get what you wanted?” he said.
She nodded dumbly, unsure what to say.
“Me too. Merry Christmas.”
She felt Captain Wonder’s hand slacken in hers.