Happy birthday to yoooooou!
The chorus of voices thunders in the multipurpose room, but its lively edge is blunted against beige walls with too many layers of paint.
Happy birthday to yoooooou!
Doris scans the room. She knows what she sees doesn’t match what’s there: a mob of strangers rather than two dozen of her closest relations. She squints with the effort of forcing her brain to remember where she is (Shady Pines Retirement Community) and why all these people are shouting at her.
Happy birthday, dear (garbled honorifics)!
She checks the silver balloons floating in the back of the room. Her glasses are so thick that her eyelashes brush the lenses, but it takes a second for them to come into focus.
That’s right: 100.
Happy birthday to yoooooou!
The applause that follows is even louder than the singing, and Doris acknowledges the crowd with a smile and wave. Neither is very good, but at this point, people reward her for the smallest things. It’s sort of like being a child again just with bigger diapers.
The knot of people untangles as cake is announced, leaving Doris alone beside a tall stack of gifts. She inspects them with an appraising eye. She has a bet with her roommate, Helen, over how many declare Doris to be the “world’s best” something. She can tell there are at least three coffee mugs (she hasn’t had coffee in decades), four t-shirts (what is she, sixty?), and one hand towel (useful). She sighs. What she really wanted was a new seat cushion for her wheelchair and a trip to the theater (that Dwayne Johnson kid is in another racing film). Looks like Helen’s got her beat again.
“What’s wrong, Gramma?”
She turns to see a bearded young man crouched next to her with a questioning look on his face. But her hearing is surprisingly good after a century, and she knows he isn’t the one who spoke. She turns further, feeling the twist of each tendon around her dry spine, and sees—
It’s the first word she’s said all day. The man (his nametag says “Stephen”—her youngest great-grandson, she thinks, or is he the oldest?) looks shocked.
“Happy birthday, Gramma!” the girl chirps, gripping the armrest of the wheelchair and bouncing on her toes. Doris laughs faintly and puts her arthritis-gnarled hands over Olivia’s. The girl stops bouncing and lays her head on them affectionately. “Do you know what day it is, Gramma?” she asks.
There’s expectation in Olivia’s brown eyes, but the bottom drops out of Doris’ memory, and suddenly she isn’t sure. “Wednesday?” she guesses.
Olivia straightens with a huff. “It’s my birthday, too, remember? (She does, but she doesn’t.) Same as every year.” Her father shoots her a warning look that she ignores. “I’m eight now!” she announces proudly. “See what Daddy got me?” She reaches into the purse slung over her shoulder, pulls something out, and lays it in Doris’ lap. “It’s the very first issue of my favorite comic book! Her name is Silver Bullet, and she’s a superhero from a long time ago. She’s got super hearing and x-ray vision, and she can run so fast it’s like she’s flying. And look how cool her costume is! I wish I could wear a cape like that to school. Isn’t she beautiful? Mommy says I look just like her.”
“Okay, that’s enough, Olivia,” her father breaks in. “Gramma isn’t interested in superheroes.” He flicks his gaze up to Doris. “She’s probably tired from all this excitement anyway, right, Gramma?”
Doris isn’t listening. The comic’s plastic crinkles as she brushes the cover with her fingertips. It reminds her of something. Someone? That helmet, those boots. Where is the memory?
“Do you want me to read it to you, Gramma?” Olivia asks. (She does, very much.)
“That’s enough,” Stephen insists, standing up. He holds out his hand to his daughter. “Let’s go get some cake and let Gramma rest. You (not “we”) can come back when it’s time to say goodbye.”
Doris’ expression matches her great-granddaughter’s as the girl sulks away toward the food tables where the rest of the family who are all visiting noisily and happily as far away from their guest of honor as possible.
It isn’t until the party is over (she didn’t get any cake) and everyone has gone (Olivia never came back) and she’s been wheeled to her room that Doris remembers where she hid the comic book. She waits until Helen shuffles out for dinner (Salisbury steak, instant potatoes, tapioca) to slip it out of a crevice in her wheelchair and start reading.
The Silver Bullet races from one end of Manhattan to the other in six seconds flat, arriving just in time to stop the biggest jewel heist in New York City history. As the would-be burglars are hauled off in handcuffs, the heroine gives a hearty laugh. “Now that was a gem of a job!” she crows.
Doris is crying.
The party upset her—that much she remembers. The weakness in her arm as she waved. The tower of milquetoast gifts. The insistence on her frailty. Being told what she feels and thinks. Ever since she moved into this godforsaken place twenty years ago (or is it thirty?), it’s been like that. No one thought she’d live this long (certainly not her), and it shows in the diminished visits and conversations about caskets they think she can’t hear.
Most of the time, she doesn’t mind. She’s made her peace with dying and is sort of looking forward to it. Getting out of this demolished body will be a huge relief. It’s the lack of respect that’s killing her in ways she can’t stand. Dammit, she used to be somebody.
Another tear hits the cover of Silver Bullet #1. Doris leans against the pillows, clutching the comic in one hand. She’s not sure what made her steal an eight-year-old’s birthday gift, but she’d better keep it safe for Olivia’s next visit. If there is one.
With a groan, she swings her skinny legs over the edge of the bed and slides on her threadbare slippers. She shoots a hateful look at the wheelchair and wobbles to her feet. There’s life in these old bones yet, she tells herself. She can make it three feet on her own.
The wardrobe is remarkably full for how little fashion matters to her now. It’s mostly robes and nightgowns, but she can remember when those hangers would’ve held snappy trousers, daring blouses, and even a sequined dress or two. She runs her hand along the soft old lady clothes with the same sadness the comic book gives her.
Doris snatches her hand back. Whatever is hanging at the end of the closet is slick and sharp. She inspects her fingers (no cuts, but her skin is so fragile), then yanks on the thing until it’s facing her, putting a shoulder to the wardrobe door for leverage.
It’s a garment bag. Standard black with a blank notecard in the front pocket and the bottom bulging suggestively. She’s positive she hasn’t seen it before (though she could be wrong). Maybe it’s Helen’s? Wouldn’t be the first time an orderly made a mistake. Or maybe it’s a surprise birthday gift? She brightens—perhaps her family isn’t completely rotten after all.
With an excited grin, she tugs down the zipper to reveal colors she’s never seen in retirement living: sky blue, wine red, shining silver, inky black. It’s hard to make out individual items, but they’re clearly clothes. Stretchy and revealing ones, from what Doris can tell. She widens the opening and sees a pair of tall black boots and a crimson crash helmet in the bottom of the bag.
Her eyes go wide. She has seen this before.
She hastily rezips the bag and swipes at the hanger, lifting it from the bar in a move that would win her a gold medal in the Senior Olympics. The bag thuds heavily to the floor, and she freezes, waiting for someone to investigate the sound. But no one does. She’s both relieved and disgusted as she drags the bag to her bed, comic book tucked under one arm.
She takes her time laying out the clothing on her mattress. The helmet, the boots, a pair of silver leggings and gloves, a red leotard, black shorts, and a floor-length blue cape. Her heart beats faster as she lays Olivia’s comic next to the outfit. They match perfectly.
But what’s a Silver Bullet costume doing in her closet?
That’s when the smell hits her. Not musty stored clothes or commercial disinfectant. It’s something older, more familiar. Roses and leather and ozone and garbage. It floats up from the costume like a delicate spring breeze, filling her head with images.
Sprinting down a dark city alleyway. A gloved hand around a burly neck. Washing off a greasepaint mask. Kisses from an A-list super after an assist. Seeing through gift boxes at her party.
The memories come too fast to fully process each one, but together they form a clear picture, unfettered by time or disease. She looks at the comic book laying on the bed. This isn’t just a story for children. And she isn’t just a forgotten matriarch waiting to die.
The costume is in her closet because it’s hers. Because she’s the Silver Bullet.
Doris catches her breath, inhaling more of the intoxicating perfume (her perfume), and steadies herself against the force of remembering.
She did used to be somebody! Her life was adventure and danger and justice! She traveled the world and saved lives! She was strong and special—she was super! She had the respect and admiration of millions!
But that was before settling down with Frank. Before all those damn kids. Before this place.
She lifts the cape in trembling hands and hoists it over her shoulders. It’s heavy in a reassuring way. The weight seems to remind her decomposing muscles of the strength they once had. She straightens (her spine cracks) and takes a deep breath as she relishes the memories (and the sensation of remembering).
The moment passes too quickly.
Suddenly, she feels silly in the cape. It’s not like she can go back to it, no matter how super she was (is) or how much she longs for one last patrol. No one these days knows who she was (is), anyway. Who would believe that a great-grandmother with Alzheimer’s was ever a superhero with her own comic book? Her glory days are too far gone, her powers too long unused.
She grabs the helmet to shove it back in the garment bag, ready to pretend she never found it (she’ll forget in an hour anyway). But as she turns the helmet over, a small stick of black greasepaint falls onto the bed.
It rolls off and clatters onto the floor. With a huff, she leans over to retrieve it and notices it’s landed next to a birthday card that slipped off her nightstand. It shows a gray-haired woman in spangled tights flying into the words “You’re a super grandma!” and is decorated with hand-drawn hearts and a crayon signature: Love, Olivia.
A slow smile spreads over Doris’ face.
Helen shuffles home after a game of poker following dinner. She trounced Mr. Peterson and is eager to show Doris her winnings: six packs of tapioca pudding and a pint of gin.
“Looks like your bad luck’s contagious, Dory!” she cackles. “You’ll never believe—”
She stops in the doorway. At seventy-three, Helen is keener than most of the other residents, and she quickly picks up on the odd state of the room. The empty bed, the bathrobe and nightgown thrown over the wheelchair, the flapping curtains in front of the open window. She scoots her walker to the bed and inspects the copy of Silver Bullet #1.
She’s about to call an orderly when there’s a sharp psst from the window. Helen looks up to see a red helmet and a black face staring at her.
“…Doris? Why are you outside?”
“I’m a superhero!” she hisses back. “I’m going out fighting crime, not lying around covered in bedsores.”
Helen considers this. She looks around their room—beige walls, tasteless art, ugly furniture. She looks at Doris, dressed like a KISS groupie. She looks at her own disheveled reflection in the mirror. She shrugs, then tucks the comic book into the pocket of her robe.
“Can I come?” she asks. “You left your inhaler, and I’ve got snacks.”
Story content © Ellie Di Julio 2017
Art: from the Super Mamika series by Sacha Goldberger